...Water, ammunition, food—sealed up as best as possible to keep the smell down—first aid supplies, tool box, extra gas, clothing. Craig ran through his checklist without thinking. It had become second nature. Any trip further than walking distance required it. Joel had almost exactly the same list, so working together it didn't take long, and then they were ready to go. They climbed into the cab of Craig's commandeered four wheel drive truck. He had learned early on that this was the most versatile vehicle for any non-specialized short trip. The best compromise between gas mileage, off road maneuverability, and reliability. It had two winches, front and back, a lift kit for ground clearance, over-sized all-terrain tires, and bush guards. Fortunately, there were dozens of these trucks around so it wasn't hard to find a good one that fit his needs. One of the benefits of a wasteful gas-guzzling culture.
Many, actually most, of the roads were still perfect. But there were problems. Eight months of no road maintenance meant a few real rough spots, and, worse, the spring floods caused by upstream dams not being adjusted properly had caused some of the lower bridges and bridge approaches to be washed out.
Driving anywhere meant yo-yoing between a few miles of fast speed followed by a half-hour or more of slow four-wheel driving and winching. Most people don't realize how many streams and rivers they cross when driving anywhere of any distance.
Craig had not yet traveled farther than about 150 miles from home. Just around a half tank of gas. Any more and they'd be siphoning possibly stale gas from another car or trying to figure out how to manually pump gas up from a station's underground tanks in order to get back. Or they'd have to figure out a way to get power to the pump temporarily. Craig had rigged up a portable generator at the gas station nearest home a long time ago, so filling up at home wasn't too difficult.
Jamesville was a smallish city almost exactly 150 miles away. Right on the self-imposed limit, so Craig had been there only twice since the Disappearance. Once to find a couple of portable generators from a big box store and the other time to find the big batteries needed for his rigged up electrical system at home.
What used to be a two and a half hour drive now took twice that, so they were leaving early, just after sunrise.
They arrived in Jamesville shortly after noon, a little weary and a lot wet and muddy. The last crossing had given them more trouble than they expected but they managed to pull themselves up and over the washed out bank after a few missed tries. Craig couldn't get over how much easier all of it was with two people working together. They pulled up to the Jamesville Mall. Your community one stop shopping source.
One nice thing about shopping now. There was always a parking spot next to the door.
Both boys decided to change out of their still damp and somewhat muddy clothes before going inside. Joel was slightly worse off as he had slipped and fallen mid-creek while wading across to check the depth at one spot. Craig found himself mid-changed standing still and staring at Joel's nicely rounded ass as he slipped off his damp boxers. Joel at that moment turned to grab his clean boxers off of the seat of the truck and saw Craig standing slack-jawed, watching him. He began giggling and swayed his butt back and forth.
"You are so busted, Craig. Like what you see? Tough, 'cause you can't have it."
Not to be outdone, Craig gave Joel a lopsided smile. "Are you kidding? You aren't that lucky. I wouldn't go after that ugly scrawny ass if you were the last boy on Earth! Oh wait..."
Both boys broke up laughing despite the gallows humor of the joke, and then finished changing and strapping on their firearms before hooking the winch up to a set of the mall's doors.
The doors gave way with a satisfying crash, and they were inside, armed with crowbars, sawzalls, and a few other tools needed to get through the roll-down, sliding, and other types of individual doors into the stores in the mall.
They had been wandering around the Radio Shack for five minutes or so, collecting a few items that looked like they might be handy when Joel walked up to Craig, who was checking out a shortwave radio receiver. Joel looked at him and glanced at some of the other ones on the shelf.
"Are you sure you want that one?" asked Joel.
"Yeah, I think so. It seems to have the most features and sensitivity, though it'll use a lot more batteries. But you can plug in an external antenna here." answered Craig, pointing to an input hole while inspecting some of the controls.
"Well, I suppose, but this one here looks to be almost as good, and see, it's a lot less expensive..." He realized the absurdity of what he was saying just as Craig was giving him a bemused and lopsided grin. Again, both boys broke up laughing.
"It's just...this is the first time I've been in a mall, with someone else, since the Disappearance. I don't know how, but for just a moment, I kinda forgot..." Joel trailed off, the amusement gone from his face.
Craig looked at him for a minute. "It's not just you. I think we're both having a real hard time adjusting all of the sudden. Since we met yesterday, my emotions are all over the place. I feel like giggling one minute and crying the next. It's almost too much to take." To his embarrassment, he suddenly realized his eyes were wet. Again.
Joel had the grace to not notice and spent a minute surveying the cell phone display case.
"You know, this is getting stupid. Seriously. To the point where all this emotional shit is getting in the way." Craig's voice showed his frustration.
"Maybe we'll both even out a bit after more time. I know for me, I did after the Disappearance. It was, like, a couple of weeks before I could really start thinking about what I needed to do to survive," answered Joel.
Craig set the radio down on the counter-top and turned to face Joel directly. "I know. Me too. That would be fine if we had a couple of weeks to sit around, but I don't see anybody around to bring us breakfast in bed. We gotta get stuff done somehow. Even if our feelings are telling us to just lie down and hide for a few years."
Joel crossed his arms, leaning against a counter-top "I think that's all part of the process. I used to talk to my cousin a lot. We were pretty tight, even though he's eight years older than me. He was in the army, and got sent away, you know, where they were fighting. When he came back, he was different. We still talked a lot, he said it helped, but he was never the same. He said he learned a lot though, talking with veterans counselors and stuff. He said after something really traumatic happened it changed a person. Changed their brain. Sometimes it made a person real sensitive to some things, things they'd used to be able to brush off, and then a guy could become almost indifferent to other stuff. Stuff that should really be a big deal. I remember him telling me about how the hardest part was dealing with his emotions. How they were like a yo-yo. All over the place. About how it was actually worse when he came back, when he was around people he knew, familiar stuff. When things were back to normal. I bet that's kinda what's happening to us. Not that things are normal, but, being with someone else again, well, you know."
"Yeah, I know," answered Craig, "it's like we were talking about yesterday. We keep getting reminded of things, kinda tricked into feeling things are like they used to be, just for a few seconds. Then we suddenly realize they're not. It's like it hits us all over again. The shock, I dunno, it's like I'm going through it again, how I felt that first morning, when I started to realize what happened. Every time it happens, the few seconds of normality and then the sudden reality of things, I feel like I did that morning. I remember." He shivered slightly.
"That's it exactly. Like I'm going through it again." replied Joel.
Both boys were silent for a few minutes, lost in thought.
"You know," Craig started, hesitant, "this is going to sound really weird. Really stupidly weird. I'm not even sure I want to say it, but, in some weird way, I almost don't want things to go back. To like they used to be."
Joel looked at him quizzically.
Craig continued, "I mean, I do. But I don't. God, I have no idea what I'm saying here."
Joel just waited, looking at his friend.
Craig started pacing, thinking. "Ok, it's like this," he said, "I want things to be like they were, but I don't really want me to be like I was. I'm different. I've learned a lot. A lot. I don't feel so weak all the time. So useless. And I'm not sure if I could deal with people telling me what to do all the time again. Does that make sense?"
"A lot of sense. A really hell of a lot of sense." answered Joel, obviously lost in his own thoughts.
A half hour later they had the radio receiver out of its packaging, sitting on the open tailgate of the truck, and Craig was snapping shut the battery door.
"Ok, let's give it a try." Craig clicked the power button, chose a band, and began scrolling through the dial slowly. Both boys listening intently.
It was another half hour later when Joel said, "Well, we couldn't really expect anything on the first try."
Craig was looking frustrated and disappointed, still systematically scrolling through the tuner, before clicking off the power button in disgust. "Yeah. I suppose. We've got a shitload of batteries, so we'll give it a try later. I've got a couple of ideas, but I'll need to figure out a better antenna and hook it up to the computer. I'm thinking have a program scan through the frequencies systematically, with software listening for a signal, or even a carrier wave, and set up to notify us if it finds something. This thing has a digital tuner and an interface, so it should be possible. We could leave it running all day."
"Umm, sounds great. But don't expect much help from me with that, maybe aside from putting up an antenna. Now, if you wanna know how to butcher and clean a chicken, or a cow..."
Craig's head snapped up. "You know how to butcher animals?! I thought I'd never eat meat again after the frozen stuff ran out."
"Well, yeah. I mean, my dad ran the meat shop in Elm Grove. I'm not an expert or anything, but I learned a lot. They wouldn't exactly be perfect cuts, but I'm sure I could hack off some edible meat without killing us."
"Well hot damn. Maybe I'll keep you around after all," said Craig with a smile.
"Get that shortwave setup working and maybe I'll do the same," Joel answered with his own smile.
"It's strange all the stuff I never thought out, before. To me, meat came from the supermarket, end of thinking. Oh sure, I knew where it really came from, but I never really thought about it, you know? Especially what I'd do if I ever had to find it myself. I can't even clean fish for cripes sake."
"You don't fish!? Geez, I have a lot to teach you. That's practically been half my diet the last while," said Joel.
Craig finished putting the shortwave receiver and the other supplies away inside the truck, and they both climbed inside. "You know, one of the best things about finding each other, aside from the obvious I mean, I think we've both just doubled our knowledge and ability to do stuff."
Joel buckled his seatbelt, nodding in agreement. "We'd better get moving if we want to be home before dark."