Considering the twisted trees and bleached skeletons left behind by winds that carried traces of the radioactive winds that had destroyed the cities, the valley was a surprise. Of course, Anna had survived much closer to ground zero in her own sheltered valley, but in her two years of wandering, she had never found another sanctuary until now.
"I'm hallucinating. I mean, it's a nice hallucination, but this is definitely a hallucination." Tony had climbed the ridge next to her and now he rested on his elbows and started down into heaven. The air was chilly, and he leaned closer, his shoulder resting against hers.
"Me, too," Anna agreed. For a moment, they enjoyed the silence, the hope, the illusion of normalcy. Looking down into a world of green grass and crops and little painted houses, Anna could pretend that the blasted cities and dust storms and the clans of desperate humans clawing out an existence didn't exist. Below them, trees turned up silvery leaves to the sun and tall grass crowded the edges of a black ribbon of road that curved around the low hills before straightening out and leading into a distant town. Crops waved yellow flowers as if the world hadn't ended two years ago.
"What is it?" Jessica pushed between them and Tony yielded, scooting aside as she scrambled up to join them. The moment she could see over the ridge, she stopped.
"There must be something wrong. Maybe the place is poisoned," Jessica said in a horrified whisper. Anna ignored her, but Tony gave her a sympathetic look.
Jessica had certainly had the worst of it before meeting up with them. Anna had walked away from a no man's land of death in her radiation suit, and Tony's father had taken them deep into the mountains before the first bombs, so he'd been driven down into populated areas only when his father's death and the increasingly cold winters had forced him out. He hadn't been around civilization when the first instinct to gather in prayer or to cling to family turned into crime waves and random fury. He hadn't watched the world slowly fade as people died of the radiation that seeped into the center of the country from the blasted cities.
Jessica had. She'd watched dozens of neighbors die of simple diseases because the medicines were gone. She'd seen the senseless violence of desperate people. She'd survived things that she had only hinted at in the night when they woke her from nightmares, and that was why neither of them would leave Jessica behind. Not even when she murdered their dreams by giving voice to the little fear they all carried.
"Maybe there are just enough of them to defend the valley," Tony said, but now his hope sounded strained. Maybe there was something wrong, but Anna wasn't giving up yet. Canned food was becoming too rare, and the stuff that grew was stunted and contaminated more often than not. Those crops down there were alive and healthy. Groups of men and women half-crazed by starvation and loyal only to each other hadn't yet stripped them. That meant something was keeping them away, and Anna wanted to find out what.
"Only one way to find out," she said cheerfully before pushing herself over the ridge and sliding down the loose rock for several yards before she could dig her heels in. So had very few remaining supplies to weigh her down as she scrambled over the steep slope and past trees that grew into curves like c's and s's just to reach the sun.
Rocks tumbled past her, and Anna wasn't surprised when Tony stepped to her side. "This could be a really bad idea."
"Or a good one," she countered.
She looked over and he was smiling and shaking his head in a sort of fond amusement. "You can take the girl out of the apocalypse, but you just can't take the optimism out of the girl."
"That doesn't even make sense."
"It did in my head." He bumped her shoulder, and Anna bumped him back.
"Oh yeah," Tony gave a sarcastic snort. "Like you're one to talk."
More rocks slid as Jessica followed them. "Both of you are going to get us killed." She scanned the peaceful farmland as if expecting monster to jump out from behind a stalk of corn.
"Everyone dies at some point," Tony offered with a shrug before he set off toward town with wide confident steps.
The valley reminded Anna of one of those paintings that her grandmother showed her in the book from the museum. Even in the last light of day, all the colors were too vivid, and the shapes too perfect. Or maybe it just felt that way because she had grown used to seeing twisted, stunted shapes and looking at brown and gray duststorms that filled the sky.
The first people appeared before they reached the red and white barn with white chickens pecking through the grass in search of insects. The sun was starting to sink in the sky, and the whole sky was on fire with pink and orange streaks that added to the dreamlike feeling of the whole place. Maybe that was why Anna wasn't terrified.
"Hi!" Anna called. A couple of kids turned around and ran for the houses.
"Hey there. We've been traveling, and we saw your valley." Tony's voice sounded higher than it should, and Jessica had disappeared altogether.
"Who are you?" A big woman with a pitchfork stepped forward. She certainly wasn't wasted by some lingering radiation.
"I'm Tony, and this is Anna." Tony gave pitchfork-gal his best winning smile. Anna chewed on her lip in fear as she finally admitted to herself just how much she wanted this world to be as good as it looked. She was tired. The people they'd found, they took care of their own, but strangers were the enemy, and Anna was tired of being everyone's enemy.
"If you're scouting, you should know that you will regret it if you take even one apple," a man in a flannel shirt threatened them. Anna's heart pounded painfully fast.
"We're not scouting," she promised. "I used to live in a valley that was protected like this, but..." She stopped, not sure how to explain the loneliness and the betrayal that had driven her out into the darker world. Tony explained how the radiation seeped into places too close to the cities, though, so it was probably good that she had left.
"But what?" the woman demanded. "You ran out of food? You got invaded? Do you think we haven't heard those stories? Are your people behind the ridge? It doesn't matter, we aren't leaving our homes."
"Gina," the man said sharply. The woman fell silent, but she still held the pitchfork so the tines were pointed toward them.
Tony raised his hands in surrender. "We don't have anyone out there. We've been out there, so I understand your suspicions, but we're just looking for a place to rest."
"Rest?" Gina made her disbelief clear with a snort.
"For how long?" the man asked. "Are you looking for a day or two to camp next to water or are you looking for provisions."
"You can't—" Gina started to argue with him.
"Oi!" a loud voice interrupted her. The sun was behind the peak of a mountain, giving it a halo and leaving the world in shadow, so it took a second for Anna to see the newcomer. He was dressed in a black t-shirt and heavy boots and his short, sandy hair was cut close to his head. "Play nice, pet," he said. His words were soft, but from the way Gina immediately shut up, Anna guessed this was the leader.
"We were trying to see if the land east was any better, and we just found this place," Anna quickly offered. She'd been the queen of her own lonely domain for a while, and she understood how protective must feel. The world had ended, and they'd found a way to keep their perfect lives. Their clothes were patched, but children were peeking out from windows and the windmills clicked along merrily.
"Just found it?" The leader sounded suspicious.
"We saw the birds," Tony explained. "We are not the kind to fight, so if you really don't want us here, just let us know, and we'll get as far as we can before it's too dark."
The leader seemed to think that over for several endless seconds, and Anna held her breath.
"Don't suppose you lot have any cigarettes?"
Tony frowned. "Cigarettes?"
"Yeah. I've pinched every pack from the towns in each reach of here, and I bloody miss the things." He sighed loudly for effect. "Name's Spike. You might say I'm the town sheriff, I keep the riffraff out."
"You?" Tony didn't even hide his disbelief. That seemed to amuse Spike because he gave a lazy smile that made the hairs on Anna's arm stand up. He looked too lean to be much of a fighter, but from the smile, Anna guessed that he had a major weapon... a machine gun maybe. Maybe he was even one of the soldiers. His accent was English, and the English had fought on their side.
"Bloody right, me," Spike said. He moved closer to Tony with a rolling gait that made Anna want to back away. She could see Tony's back stiffen and his fingers curl into tight fists, but he held his ground until Spike got right in his face, and then he backed up several steps. Spike didn't follow. "I've been doing this for a while, mate, so unless you want to see how good I am at my job, don't question me." Tony didn't answer, but Anna could see his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed several times.
"We really don't mean to challenge you." Anna took a step forward. "Tony was just surprised. I mean, it doesn't seem like anyone is playing sheriff anymore. It's more like everyone is out for himself or at least out for his own group."
Spike glanced over and then took a step back. "People have always been like that, pet."
"No they weren't. Not before."
"Bloody hell. Either you had your head up your arse most of your life or you were the most sheltered bint on the fucking planet."
Anna blushed. She knew she'd been sheltered, but she wasn't some kid, not even when the first bombs fell. Tony stepped closer to her. "There were rules and laws, and people could get in their cars and drive from one town to another without someone trying to kill them over a gallon of gas or a box of food."
Spike stared at them so long that Anna shifted nervously. Their audience grew, and the men and women of this perfect little town all watched with undisguised curiosity. Some looked hostile and others worried and lots of them had an almost hopeful expression, but they silently watched Spike who watched them.
"Can see you lot didn't get out of the States often. You go any place where food is scare, and you'll find people will do most anything to keep body and soul together. This is just human nature comin' to the front."
"It's not coming to the front here," Anna blurted out. She looked around, and all these people were healthy and well-fed. No one cringed in the back, the obvious low-man on the totem pole. The few children who she could barely see in the failing light weren't desperate and cruel. These were people like she had known before. These were normal people who hadn't been turned into monsters by a world too terrible to survive with any humanity intact.
Spike sniffed. "Oh, I don't know. What do you think, luv?" Spike turned to Gina, but she was still busy glaring at Anna and Tony. Spike walked over and slung an arm over her shoulders. Gina leaned toward him, her neck arching as she let the pitchfork droop for the first time. When Spike reached out to take it, she allowed him. He dropped it to the ground.
"We aren't monsters," Gina said firmly. "But they may be scouts. They might be radioactive or they might have some disease they would bring in here."
Anna wanted to argue that they weren't sick, that they had some sort of right to be here because, like these survivors, they hadn't become monsters. However, she understood their fears, and she couldn't even promise the town that they didn't have some terrible disease. She looked around at this small piece of the old world that had survived, and she knew that she would hate herself if these people suddenly started getting sick from some disease she had brought them.
"They're healthy enough," Spike proclaimed. It was a stupid thing to say because he couldn't know any more than Anna herself knew, but the town accepted his proclamation.
"Do we let these two stay?" the man in the flannel asked.
"Three," Spike corrected him. Anna held her breath and prayed as hard as she could that Jessica hadn't just pissed Spike off by hiding, and doing it badly.
"She's afraid," Anna hurried to explain. "We've had trouble before, and she...." Anna wasn't sure how to summarize what Jessica had gone through.
"Not like you then?" Spike asked. He moved away from Gina, but with the last of the light vanishing and the moon obscured by the ever-present dust, Anna couldn't see his expression.
"Not like me how?" she asked.
"If she's afraid, she's not like you. You're just the brave little toaster, aren't you pet? Back before the world went to hell, I would have bloody loved you."
Someone brought a light out of one of the houses. The hurricane lamp had mirrors on two sides, so the candle was tripled. Others must have brought their own candles because several hands reached out to the fire to light their own. Spike was a fuzzy shadow now, a lighter darkness in the ink of the night.
"I'm afraid," Anna said, and somehow she was defensive of her fear. She lived with terror, and she had the strength to not cringe away from it like Jessica.
"Not like those other two," Spike said. He looked over at Tony. Even in the dim light, Anna could see Tony's head drop. Anna glared as Spike closed the distance between them. The yellow candlelight made his eyes seem to glow an inhuman amber. "People are like that, luv. War didn't change that, although it did muck up the food chain a bit. See, survivors survive because they're too bloody afraid to get themselves killed. You there," he shouted into the darkness, "either come out now, or I'll bloody hunt you down and make ya sorry."
Plants rustled, and Anna guessed that Jessica was wiggling her way out of some hole.
"If you don't want us here, we'll leave, but you don't threaten her." Anna was angry now. Jessica lived with enough nightmares already.
Spike chuckled. "Pet, that's what you don't get. I'm not threatening her because she's already being a good little poppet and coming out." Spike held out his hand, palm up. Anna gasped as Jessica put her own hand in his, and he pulled her into the small island of candlelight. Even through the darkness, Anna could see her tremble.
Reaching out, Anna caught Jessica's shoulder to pull her back, but Spike's hold was too strong, and he pulled Jessica forward and then shoved her toward Tony who caught her in his arms.
"Maybe we should—"
"Shut up," Spike ordered Tony, and he fell silent. Anna set her jaw against the fear and the anger that threatened to crawl out her mouth. She wanted to scream and curse, but this was Spike's town and he had the power here. Maybe the others were willing to trade their dignity for some food, but she wasn't that hungry yet.
She started to back away from all of them, even Jessica—even Tony. Before she could leave the light, Spike darted forward and caught her by the shoulder, his fingers digging deep into the muscle and making her cry out. Tony cried out with her, but he didn't move to help her.
"See, luv," Spike said as he leaned close, his face impossibly angled and deformed by the candlelight, "you're just too bloody brave to survive. If it hadn't been the war, you would have found some other way to throw your life away on some cause. The good ones always do. That's why the rest of us survive."
Anna opened her mouth to scream when Spike yanked her close and drove his teeth deep into her neck. The heat burned away the nascent love she'd harbored for Tony and the sympathy for Jessica. She lost track of time and place and even fear as a great quiet settled into her body. In a far distance, she thought she heard Gina ask if they still had to make sacrifice that week, but the answer no longer mattered.
Before ya'll lynch me, do keep in mind that the book came out in 1975. So, even if Anna wandered for two years, we are talking WAY pre-soul. Spike may like human comforts and love the idea of keeping his food source alive and unirradiated, but you cannot expect him to be a fluffy bunny.