Though she spent the trip home with an eye on the horizon, the day was uneventful. She stopped to rest, out of exhaustion, in a shady clearing hidden behind a collapsed auto garage. She knew the place well, and dozed in a familiar hiding spot where a fallen wall had created a natural lean-to. After a few hours, she awoke fully, but stayed seated for a long while, watching the sunlight cast a flickering shadow of a limp vine onto the concrete. Finally she rose, reflexively felt for the shape of the case in her pack, and set off.
As she had countless times, she catalogued places where she saw the tell-tale rainbow of oil in the standing puddles and seasonal bogs that dotted the landscape everywhere. She noted them out of habit, knowing there was no chance she would ever be able to return and attempt to retract it. Gas was everything, since the world went wet and things had slowly come undone, but to travel this far for an uncertain yield of combustible material was just bad math. But she felt the tug nonetheless.
A similar feeling compelled her to climb a familiar tree, a big pine with conveniently regular and horizontal branches. Her mother would not have exactly approved, more as a matter of risk-reward than out of a traditional mother’s sense of worry. (“Parenting is not an actuarial science” had been a favorite argument of her father’s.) But she wanted to have a look around, in part motivated by her low-level worry that Mac had been right, and that the surviving bandit was stalking her.
She picked her way up steadily, testing each branch first before she vaulted herself up. She stopped some two thirds of the way up the tree, when the branches had become thin enough to give her pause. Even her minor rebellions were waged with appropriate caution.
It was a beautiful view. She could not see her village, but could spot a tell-tale rise that marked the last leg of her journey. Behind her, she could see a distant river and the smoke of distant fires. Far to the west, she saw a play of motion that she had often convinced herself was the sweep of a windmill’s arms, though this was more imagination that perception. The landscape before her was both foreign and familiar. She remembered the first time she had climbed that tree and taken in that view, and she could only nod when she found that the expanse laid out before her looked entirely new. The only thing she was entirely sure of, about the land she saw stretching in front of her, was that her father was not there.
As was typical, she developed a growing anxiety as her journey neared its end. For no real reason, the trees just outside of her village always seemed the most likely to hide monsters. She was relieved when she spotted the rusting truck that served as the signpost for her village. Though she knew the surrounding miles as well as anyone, the endlessly shifting vegetation meant there was no such thing as true familiarity, and she had overshot her target many times. The seasons had eventually returned after the atmospheric events, though given her age, she had nothing to compare them to. But the plant life had not yet stabilized in the face of the wild climate swings that had characterized the past decades, nor had any semblance of balance emerged since the mass die-off of animal life. Natural cyclicality itself had seemed to fade from the earth. Haojing had spent a lifetime getting to know a landscape that was unknowable.
The truck was positioned artfully. Villages and encampments, of which hers was large but generally unremarkable, had a complex relationship to visitors. Commerce, such as it was, could make or break a settlement, but the all-pervasive fear of organized bandit groups often compelled secrecy. That no one had proof such groups existed did little to alter that communal psychology. Markers like the truck would perhaps attract the scavengers and peddlers who were always looking for scrap, without making the presence of a settlement too public.
Haojing moved quickly towards the settlement itself, perhaps a kilometer further from the truck. She found a strange anxiety rising inside of herself as she neared her home. She pushed this unfocused fear down inside and pressed on. She waved to a few older men who sat hunched on repurposed car seats press up against concrete highway dividers. There was no formal watch or town guard, and generally no need for one, just bored people who sat and watched and occasionally sounded an alarm. They waved back, squinting, as she pressed towards the village itself.
Like many settlements, her village looked like a rapidly-developing major city of the past, just shrunk down into miniature. Everywhere, tasteful architecture of brushed metal and glass sat side-by-side with slumping huts cobbled together from scrap metal, as if favelas sprung naturally from the sides of opulence. Closer observation would reveal that this was an opulence of the past. Fixtures had long since been stripped from the imposing structures; the towering glass facades were marked with tape and rubber cement; tents sat in the vast atriums, light pouring in from collapsed ceilings revealing their necessity. She could dimly remember when these buildings retained their original functions, holdouts against the encroaching chaos, until one day, suddenly, they all seemed to be ruins. That was the way things happened – collapse came piecemeal, and holdouts against the breaking of things persisted and persisted, and people invested them with symbolic power, and then they vanished without ceremony into the simple reality of decay.
There was not a remaining building in the village that Haojing did not recognize on sight, but she knew precious few of the inhabitants of these grand buildings; those who had commandeered such structures were, with few exceptions, those violent and paranoid enough to keep them. As she crossed the way in front of one of them, she gazed in through a missing pane, casting her eyes on a shrouded figure, wrapped in a blanket, its grotesquely enlarged foot sticking out, swaddled in filthy bandages. Cold eyes stared and met hers for an instant. She quickly looked down at her feet and hurried past.
She made her way towards the heart of the village, waving occasionally at people she knew. As she reached the village center, the housing grew more dense and less presentable. Ramshackle huts of reclaimed metal, though, could serve as comfortable homes, and often did. The water tower was somewhat ceremonial in function, other than for those who utilized its long snaking hoses and spigots for showering and washing clothes; it was best not to drink stagnant water, and anyway one could find a stream in almost any direction. But the tower – built, her father had insisted, on top of home plate of an old baseball field, though her mother rolled her eyes at the story – was a symbol of community, and a kind of order.
More functional, and itself a true social hub, was a structure made from a couple prefab sheds that had been joined together. The sound of gas generators puttering along was the soundtrack of village life, and nowhere was the noise louder than here. The sheds housed the communal computing resources of the village, a few old spotty desktops and notebooks on dusty furniture. They were free to use, but you had to supply your own gas. An elderly woman who was once a politician would stick her finger in your container to check its viscosity, sometimes even raising it to her lips, before allowing you to pour what you had brought into a generator. Growing up her friends adored the computer shed, but her father forbade it; he was, she realized later in life, something of a snob, particularly about computers. But he had been gone for many years now.
As she walked the village thinned out again, the spaces between structures growing longer, and filled always with vegetation. As she came within a half mile of her home, she again felt an implacable anxiety, though she kept telling herself that her mission had been, all in all, a great success. Haojing stared at some plump tomatoes hanging in a garden and conspicuously avoided looking at the scowling woman who watched over them. That scowl to her was as familiar to her as the sight of her own house, and almost as comforting, and it meant she was almost home.
The shanties and tents closer to the center were where most of her friends lived, the places where she had played as a child. Her family, though, was lucky enough to enjoy a more permanent dwelling. They lived in one of several surviving buildings that had once been some sort of campus – a business, a college, she didn’t know – on the far edge of her village. They were done in a particularly unimaginative type of brutalism, all solid concrete blocks, but this aesthetically drab style also gave them the durability that now meant so much. Passing one of the few of these buildings that lay empty, thanks to a particularly nasty mold problem, she turned the corner and spotted home.
She steeled herself inside in anticipation of what was always her happiest and hardest of moments, facing her mother, drawing close again to her wisdom and her judgment.