Her Eyes, In Hazy Dreams
By E.S. Wynn
“Sean?” she asks, and my fingers get loose around the stock of my trusty hunting rifle. Lynn. I know the voice. It's her. Jesus Christ, fifteen years, sixteen maybe. My raspy lips whisper the words.
“Lynn? Is it you, Lynn?”
We're standing a dozen paces apart at the top of a low rise where Highway Four ripples west to east over rolling country. She's older, but somehow, she still looks the same. Sad eyes, piercing and blue. Thick, brown-black hair dry and wild from a decade and a half in the wasteland winds. There's a scar on her left cheek that wasn't there before. A burn mark with inkvine lines snaking out from a mottled strip of scorched flesh at her neck. Gone are the sheer sarongs and colorful sun dresses I remember. Leather vests and the belts of tire-tread pauldrons wrap her steady chest instead. Pants, layers of denim patched and stitched together. Stout leather belts tight around the knees, around elbows. Fingers dark and dappled with grease, dirt and the bruising of breaks still healing. At her hip, she carries an old six-shooter. At her back, a light-weight, composite twelve-gauge as black as a beetle's shell.
“I'm not dreaming?” She asks. It's all I can do to shake my head. It's been so long since I've seen anyone. It's been even longer since I've seen anyone I knew from before everything ended.
We talk until dusk comes. Nothing else seems to matter. We are each a piece of the world as it once was for the other. We are each of us the closest thing the other has to a sense of the way things were, a sense of home. Hunger sets in. We decide not to let night catch us on the road. Lynn knows a place nearby. An old barn where she's been sleeping for the past week, living off of roasted crickets and carpenter bees. I can practically see her mouth watering when I offer to share my meager supply of pork jerky with her. “Real food,” she slobbers.
We build a fire with sticks and twigs and a heap of rotten clothing from a farmhouse closet. It isn't much, but it's enough to keep the cold away until we're comfortable enough to touch, to sit together, breathe together. It's strange, at first, being so close to another human, trusting another human. It's been so long for both of us. So long.
“I still haven't forgiven you for choosing Theresa over me,” she says at one point. Theresa. Another memory from fifteen years ago. The woman I was living with when the bombs fell. Lynn and I had been dating, growing closer and closer, until one day she suddenly announced that she wasn't ready for love, needed to weigh her options, play the field a little more. I was devastated, heartbroken. Then Theresa came along, and she'd been ready. She'd been ready for so much, so much more than Lynn had ever been.
I don't say anything. I still remember the argument. We had phones, then. We didn't even have to meet in person to scream at each other. Two months with no word from Lynn and I was ready to marry Theresa. Social Media. Facebook. That's how Lynn found out about the plans. That's where the first burst of nastiness came in. Remembering it is enough, even now, to make me shift, uncomfortable.
“We were both so young,” I offer. In the flickering light of the dying fire, I see Lynn nod, feel her breathe a tired sigh. It helps. We've both spent so many years being chased by the hungry hordes from the cities, so many years growling and scrapping with strangers over powdered milk and cans of refried beans. Forgiveness, human kindness, accep-tance, surrender – they're almost alien concepts, warming all the same.
“Meet anyone else?” She asks. She doesn't look at me, doesn't need to ask if Theresa survived the war. Fifteen years, and Theresa only made it through the first few months. I hadn't been able to protect her from the chaos that had exploded in the wake of the first strikes. I'd spent every day since trying to scrub the memory of how she died out of my mind.
“No,” I shake my head. “You?”
“No,” she says. She's quiet for a moment, seems to hesitate, seems momentarily terrified, swal-lows it back into a belly full of butterflies. “I couldn't move on. Not after you. Not after the bombs.”
I know what she means. I know, because I've lived it. So much time spent just surviving, just getting by, living day to day. Seeing everyone as a potential enemy, trusting nothing, no one. I haven't been this close to a woman I wasn't trying to kill or keep from being killed by in over a decade. Buds of tears pull at the weathered edges of my dry eyes. I reach up to touch her hair. She flinches at first, looks at me with those big, watery eyes as if assessing my motives. My hands are as dirty and bruised as hers are, but somehow, somehow, I manage to make my touch gentle, manage a caress so soft she shivers, settles back into the palm of my hand.
“I missed you,” she admits. “I dreamed about you, when I dreamed. Everything fell apart, but somehow I knew you were still alive. Somehow, I knew I'd see you again. I kept expecting it. I kept expecting to come around a corner and find you standing there, still dressed in jeans and that blue cotton shirt I bought you for your birthday all those years ago. I kept looking for you in the eyes of every man I met on the road, every brute who tried to take me, carve me up or rape me, but you were never a brute. You were too good to let the bad world change you. I'd almost given up. Must be a few years now since I stopped looking for you, but there were always the dreams.”
I don't speak. I lean in, bury my face in her dirty hair, pull in the scent of her, familiar even after all these years. The shiver that rolls through her body is desperate, delicious, brings with it something close to a moan.
“I'm here,” I whisper against her neck, kiss her just behind the ear, just gently. “I'm here.”
Her arms wrap around me, and in the near darkness, we pull each other close, hold each other. So grateful, so grateful. She sucks in a shaking, sobbing breath, her fingers tight with need.
“The only thing good about the end of the world,” she whispers. “The only thing good, is this. A chance to start over. A chance to get it right, one last time.”
“We'll get it right,” I whisper back, and in the pause, I can feel how desperately she wants this, how desperately she wants to believe that we can make it, how ready she is to love again, to trust someone, at long last. I feel it all. The same feelings are surging as keenly through me.
“We'll get it right,” I breathe the words again. “We'll make it. As long as we hold on to each other, there's a chance for a better future.”
“I'll never let you go again, Sean,” she says. “Not like last time. I promise.”
“I know,” I whisper back, rock her as she sniffs against the tears. “I know.”
- - -
This story appears as part of E.S. Wynn's 62nd book, Gold Hills, Rust Valley: 20 Tales From Apocalyptic California.