As they got closer to Rounlin, there were more cars on the road. They had caught up with a convoy that was heading toward the larger town. Several cars joined the main road from side streets. At the same time, people were travelling the other direction. Leaving town. Each lane stared at the other, asking, “What the fuck are you going that way for?”
They had hardly seen any Wrecks since leaving the populated part of Varsity. Here, in the suburbs of Rounlin, Tam was cautiously cheerful that their numbers were not on the increase. Instead, there were occasional corpses and mysterious swatches of blood where only a forensic scientist might be able to catalogue the movements of the corpses that were now gone. Some burned patches like when kids torch trash. They saw one olive-green Humvee driving by on parallel street, but could only guess that there were military dudes inside. They passed a couple of groups on foot that looked like lynch mobs: small bands of men with guns walking along like they had come down from the hills especially for the annual Murder Fest. There were shots in the distance. It was anarchy by any normal standards but this felt like the aftermath of a battle that had already been won.
Up ahead, the cars were slowing. They were still a mile outside Rounlin proper. Tailbacks this long were not a good sign.
Tam stretched herself gingerly. “You wanna swap over?” said Caleb.
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Thanks.” Tam felt better driving, it kept part of her mind occupied.
“Do you remember all the stupid things you bought me when we started out?” she said suddenly. It was like she wanted to connect with real life. Though real life was this madness now, where any pedestrian might turn into Old Yeller. But Tam knew that she and Caleb, as a couple, were still this simple unit. It needed to be recognised, God damn it. Caleb’s brow furrowed as he thought about the question. His condition was apparently stable. Tabasco, she said to herself. Tabasco, chilli, pepper spray. Bring it on.
“What, the chocolate flowers?” he said.
“Nobody could eat that much chocolate,” she said. “Especially me.”
“Those fuckers cost me a hundred and fifty dollars.”
She laughed. “And that little airplane thing.”
He seemed to have issues about that. He claimed that she had shown an interest in remote control gadgets and she argued that no, she’d shown an interest because he was obsessed with them but that didn’t mean she wanted to join him. “It was a piece of shit anyhow,” he concluded.
After a pause he announced, “There was one you never knew about.”
“A gift. You know the song ‘Close To You’?”
“Who doesn’t? What about it?”
“I taught the kids at school to sing it to you.”
Tamara’s jaw dropped like someone had shoved a brick in there. Questions whirled round like a dog chasing its tail. She started several sentences before settling on the obvious one. “But they never did.”
“I timed it to coincide with the Governor’s visit. They had a free half day so the idea was to pretend it was a mini-concert for everyone. But I was doing it for you. They practised for weeks.”
“You had the flu and took the day off.”
“Oh, God!” The thought of a whole bunch of kids singing that cheesy song totally melted her heart. “So they never got to sing it?”
“Oh yeah, they just sang it for the other kids and teachers. But you didn’t hear them.” He chuckled a bit, clearly over it.
She couldn’t remember ever going to so much effort for him with a gift. But in the beginning, he had been ridiculous. She didn’t know it but he was in love with her since they had met. Everyone else had spotted the signs and one of the other teachers enlightened her. They wanted her to either let him down gently or do something about it. At that time, Tam knew Caleb pretty well as a friend and colleague and thought he was a great guy. Fantastic with the kids, sensitive, a good father figure. His teaching methods strayed away from the curriculum a little, but it was in favour of crazy life skills so that was okay. In all the time she had known him, though, she’d never thought of him as a boyfriend. When she started looking at him that way, he seemed cute. In a bearish way.
“I’ve got another one for you,” he said.
“Before we went on our first date, I’d been pumping iron in the gym for over a year to lose weight.”
“Shit! Hey, it worked, man. You’re buff.”
“Yeah, right. Like a low-fat Twinkie.”