Under Howard’s front left hoof crunched a bag of tasty Cheetos. Without the glint of the sun pushing her eyelids down June wouldn’t have even bothered to look at what they had squashed. The bay horse seemed completely indifferent to the bag, and to the lack of people on the highway that stretched into the setting sun. SUVs and economy vehicles alike lined the sides of the road that was still fenced in by guardrails. When she had set out several weeks ago for something new, despite the dangers she knew she would face being alone and female on Welch’s Road, she had wisely chosen a horse. There was no other way to travel these days, besides helicopter. Even a motorcycle couldn’t navigate through some of these blockades, and a motorcycle would have broken down more easily than Howard would tire. Too bad she hadn’t picked up motor vehicle repair skills at Missoula High School. And now there was no one left to teach her who wouldn’t take advantage of her instead.
If only she’d had the forethought to bring a bag of ice, she mused to herself. Howard was melting in the southern heat and she wasn’t doing much better under this leather jacket; although she was always thankful for it when the sun finally set.
She heard a crackling to her left and saw an explosion of fireworks in her peripheral vision. Judging by the distance it was fairly far off, several miles at least and beyond a deep canyon. Howard had stopped jumping at those kinds of noises. Despite his young age, noise bothered him less and less as they progressed on their journey to nowhere.
From Missoula the two of them had begun traveling south. She’d been admiring Howard for a few years, he was penned in the pasture across from the high school and hadn’t been there long. She had noticed that any landmark occasion in her young life she had experienced had been in full view of Howard. Her first kiss with Josh Bentley in his restored Mustang, her first beer under the water tower that was adjacent to the pasture, the first time she went to second base with Josh Bentley in his restored black 1957 Mustang… essentially the important moments in her life. Sad, she thought, that none of those moments had occurred on or near her parent’s property. But dad wouldn’t have allowed for that. And besides, teenage development was about going out and doing things outside of adult supervision. Testing the waters before college. Not that she would ever see college now. Maybe a college.
Now, she cried less than before. Maybe it was because there were so few people now than before. She felt guilty crying for her loved ones now, considering how lucky she was to have survived. It was estimated by a sociologist that she spoke with in Denver that only one person in every eight households did survive. At first it had been overwhelming, her loss. Her mother and father, all three living grandparents, best friends at school, Josh and his friends, the teachers, doctors, police, the list went on. Here and there people survived. But either they weren’t people she liked or they weren’t people she cared to know. Her parents’ house was nice enough, but staying there those first few months had only reminded her of them. She’d spent too many lonely nights that summer curled under the tree where she’d buried them. As the weather grew cooler and the electricity gave out along with most of the gasoline in town, she decided to go. There was nothing for her there anyway, most of the survivors had left immediately. Even the danger of the open road seemed comforting compared to wallowing in a forgotten town.
When she left the leaves were dropping from the trees, but as she passed into eastern Utah snow began to fall. She and Howard had spent many days sprinting southward to avoid the freeze. There was electricity in some of the houses they passed, and if she was especially tired she would knock on doors. But for the most part she’d left strangers alone. When she reached Salt Lake City she was glad that she had.