Only moments ago, I had arrived at the Santa Fe military outpost. I was familiar with the place, but the last time I was here, it was still new with barely enough men to consider it an actual posting. Santa Fe had always felt alien and unwelcoming to me, as it had been the last time I was here. Even so, I stifled the gnawing feeling down and bit my lip. The entire journey left me feeling drained and exhausted from head to toe, although as another over looked miracle, the plane touched down earlier than expected. I had thought I would have been sharing the trip with a more than a dozen soldiers, but when I glanced up from my seat, I only saw a few other men returning “home” alongside me. Some were young and lively, others evidently older than me, but each of them were anxious, their worry and nerves plain as day on their faces.
New Mexico was never home to me, you know, seeing as San Francisco was the closest thing to such a thing. But with the famous red bridge both a ruin and a landmark to what was lost, San Fran was more of a memory than an actual home. The desert, however, was familiar. The heat too. I could feel it around me, pulsing with the sun.
I meant to do this visit alone because...well, the thought of asking either Judd or Sully to come along and hold my hand made me want laugh and cringe. Even if the bombings turned the world into a misshaped maze, I knew where to go, who talk to, and what to look out for in such a...strange place. I had plenty of time to get lost in the ruins and new “sights” of the city. No one would've known where I was, and by no one I meant Jodi.
She caught sight of me watching the group of soldiers. They were smiling at their homecoming, all finally setting eyes on their families with choked expressions and laughter. It was the perfect picture of a reunion. I may have not been a part of it, but it was – for lack of a better word – welcoming. I stared at the fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters for a moment, watching their faces and mute lips say words not meant for me to hear, and I turned away politely. I had no right to stare at such a beautiful thing. It was then when a hand brushed against my shoulder, and a soft grip curled around it and turned me around to greet me with a smile.
Jodi was not...typical, by any means. You would think that the war or the bombings would have wrecked her life, but amazingly, she was still sane and smiling. With Jodi, it was especially easy to forget that I just crossed the Atlantic, from a war zone to a struggling home, looking for someone.
“Hey, pug face.” She squealed and wrapped her arms around me.
I looked around, a little clueless in her embrace. “Jodi?”
“The one and only.” She said and pulled back. Her brown hair was scrunched in a tight bun, a few curls loose from its hold as they always were. Wrinkles outlined the sides of her mouth and eyes, being far more evident when she smiled the way she did. Jodi was clearly older than me, with blue eyes and a stocky figure, but she seemed younger then I last remembered.
She kept grinning at my surprised expression. “What? Didn't expect to see me?”
No, I didn't. Jodi was supposed to be in San Francisco, where I last saw her. “Um...” I swallowed thickly, and licked my lips. “No. I wasn't expecting you...Or anyone else for that matter.” The last part was not exactly true, but I shoved that thought away. “How did you get here?” I asked. “I thought travel was difficult for a civilian.”
She gave me that half-unimpressed, half-insulted expression that I nearly missed. Nearly. “My husband's a general, Gwendolyn. I might be an army wife, but he knew I needed to see you and well...” Jodi shrugged. Her tone turned soft for a brief moment. “Besides...you've been away so long I doubt you would know what to look for.”
I frowned. “I'm a smart girl, Jodi. I can handle myself.”
“I know. I'm not your mother; I'm not going to undermine you or coddle you. But you're in Santa Fe, Gwendolyn. The last time you were here you were a kid and everything was normal. Now you're a soldier looking for your brother and niece in a country trying to get back on its feet.” I tensed a little at her words, my fingers toying with the heavy bag I was holding. “And I know you,” she continued to say. “That's a good enough reason for me to be here, isn't it?”
I opened my mouth to speak, and shut it again. Here I was, out of my uniform and no longer known as Churchmen or Gwen, with Jodi being...Jodi. I wasn't quite sure what to say.
She was right though; Jodi Tanner was always right, even if what flies out of her mouth was usually insensitive and hardly thought out. I did come to Santa Fe, looking for Jon and Rachel. When I first enlisted, Jon was ballistic. Every phone call or letter afterward was not exactly heartwarming, but it was better than silence. But the silence did come. As I was away in Korea, he kept moving from one place to another, a shelter being home for merely a month and then he would leave. Jon was careful. He didn't trust people, but between all of the confusion and his cynicism, he disappeared.
Into thin air, perhaps, but Jon wouldn't be that flamboyant.
It's been three months since I last heard from him, and for every week after, I searched for scraps of news. But there wasn't much I could do. I was in North Korea, in the middle of a war that stretched for a year and a half, and looking for my stupid, hot-headed brother was only something I could think about when I didn't have a rifle in my hand or bullets flying over my head. Free-time didn't exactly come with the job (if you want to call it that), but I talked to who I could. Then Jodi stumbles along and sends me a letter. About a week before I left on leave.
Jodi is not a miracle woman. But she's relentless and has more connections than I'd like to admit. Even after the bombings she knew how to get into people's minds – afraid and cautious as they were – and find what she wanted. That's why I wanted her in San Francisco. She'd be safer and useful to the re-growing populace in the broken city. And the problem was that there was never a way to stop her from helping you, even if you didn't want her assistance.
I sighed. “Alright. Fine. I know where to start, but we need transport.”
Jodi grinned. “I'm married to a general, Gwendolyn. I think ahead.”
“What does that even mean?”
Jodi laughed, winking at me as though it was some inside joke between her and the egoistical, radical little devil that lived inside her mind. She walked away, and being the take-charge kind of woman she was, she wanted me to follow her. I'm not entirely sure how I put up with her, but she's a Jodi; they're hard to wrap your head around.
“Well, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.”
She snorted. “Nope. Hell, even Kansas doesn't look like Kansas anymore.”
Jodi managed – or really, paid – for a friend of hers to get her an actual working car that wasn't military grade. I doubt we would be able to drive through Santa Fe without catching a few glances from strangers, but I had this odd, creeping feeling crawling up my spine that anything that screamed “military” wasn't exactly what I wanted to be seen in, much less while I was looking for my brother. Then again, I was out of uniform – in nothing but a black shirt and cargo pants I've owned since I was seventeen – and the only gun within a few inches from my hand was a sidearm that wasn't particularly helpful to ease my nerves. I kept thinking this was a bad idea.
With Jodi on the wheel, we drove by buildings and streets that all once had names. But not anymore; everything was rubble, dust, and sand. It was horrible, really, coming back to a second home while not being able to recognize it. It was almost like picturing the first house you ever lived in, or the first friend you ever made – the images in your head are obscure and full of holes, and all you want to do is find the missing pieces and fix the broken memory.
There were shelters, holes in grounds, and houses made of metal and wreckage by scavengers. Everyone we saw on the once gorgeous streets looked up, mystified and skeptical. Almost as though we were ghosts – a mirage thanks to the heat. At least one thing hadn't changed: the sun. It beat down on us, a sweet change to the weather I had to deal with back in North Korea.
The jeep was old and beat up and probably lived through a decade before the bombs feel, but it got us where we needed to go. Our stops were brief, and Jodi or I would always stay with the car in case some kid decided that a pretty woman like Jodi or a stout seeming girl like myself wouldn't bash their faces in if they tried to get lucky.
It wasn't like Santa Fe had a map of each shelter dotted across the ruins of the city. Some were erected before the Fall, others were established as course of much needed action by one civie, or another. Most didn't have names. The ones that did, however, were located in old hospitals or in a hotel near landmarks that stood out in the dusty streets of Santa Fe.
When you're in the military, you learn that people like to tell stories. Especially those who you spent months with. I didn't mean Judd or Nick, but the other men and women with their spouses and kids “back home”, and the little, charming pictures they painted of what they hope to return to once they got leave. Some never did go home, but that wasn't the point. The point was, if you ask enough question and are keen on listening to people's life stories, you learn a few things about the world you left, even though it's a scavenger's picking ground.
I had an entire list of names, streets, and people I should look for. I was never specific with why I wanted to know what I knew, but I never wanted to talk about Jon or Rachel with any of them. It wasn't a bitter tale; it was just a story I kept to myself.
Sully and Judd had no idea about what I did with my free time and I was quite content with that. I would never ask for a favor from either of them, even though tracking down a thirty-four year old British man with a medical degree, a twisted sense of humor, and a daughter was harder than you would think. Curiously, though, I found myself wondering what exactly they were up to while we drove away from another scavenged shelter of survivors. I guessed Nick was with girlfriend and Judd...who knew where he was. He wasn't particularly sharing with me, but I assumed he was with his wife. Funny. I expected to be in San Fran, visiting my loved one too instead of searching for my ill-tempered brother... but then, I suppose it was better than visiting the dead.
Sundown was approaching as we steadily traveled from one side of the city to the other side. For almost every stop we made, I checked off a name on my mental list – already having memorized the names of streets, shelters, and hospitals people may have taken safety in instead of going to the military camps. There was one left: St. Christopher's.
It was a hospital – a new addition to the city just before the bombs fell and everything in the world was suddenly damned. The well constructed building did better in the rampage than most, despite it's evident collapsed sections and disfigured walls of white and concrete. I jumped out of the jeep, huffing slightly at the harsh contact of the ground.
“You're not coming in?” I said, glancing back at Jodi who's narrowed eyes kept skimming the deserted the buildings.
“Leaving a working vehicle isn't exactly the best idea. People are...needy.”
“I thought you said this place was relatively safe.”
“It is, darling, it is. Even so, military patrols are a must. People are desperate, but there's always someone who's worse off than the next, and not everyone is big on the army and I wouldn't put it pass them if they think we're military. You know...because of reasons.”
I laugh, grim and unnerving. Everything about this place was unnerving.
Jodi gives me a look, but drops her gaze and says, “Gwendolyn...I can go with you if you want. It's the last possible place we know of, so it's here or...somewhere else. Or no where. Listen, the military outpost has a collection of names and information about people who didn't survive the bombings. It's not always accurate, but if this place turns up dry....”
I frown at her which does nothing to ease the knots in my stomach, or to quell the pessimistic voice in my head, or the heavy ache in my heart that's telling my feet to stop and walk back to where I came from. What I needed to know was only behind those very walls, meters away from where I stood by the jeep, but I won't lie. I didn't want to know. I was best at feigning what I felt and ignoring everything else that could break me from my quiet obliviousness. War and the gray mortality of the world I could handle – or perhaps that's another lie? I saw Gabriel die right before my eyes, heard the news of my parents' passing over a radio as their names were read out to me and a dozens others, hoping for the opposite bit of news, or really relief, that I dared pray for. But could I really walk into what was once a hospital and leave completely intact?
What a silly question. I was never intact to begin with. If Jon was dead...That's it. The thought stopped there. If Jon was dead, then what would I do? Simply spend the rest of my leave in San Fran, then go back to the war? The thought of it made my skin prickle with fear. Normalcy has never existed in my life to begin with, but spending as much time as I had behind a rifle and around people that didn't quite know what they were doing with their lives either was closest to 'normal' as I dared believed to grasp. Perhaps it was routine, but killing and fighting can never be one to me. The thought of the war being a part of me made me want to throw something. Scream, maybe – until my lungs fell short and the air was too thin to ease my pain, but I was used to war. Or really, it was familiar. And the idea of breaking the familiar was just as cruel cutting my wrist and bleeding me dry. I'd just stand there, watching as the world continues on and I die with whatever was left behind. If Jon was dead then...the war wouldn't be worth it. Not to me.
I smiled, though, and my eyes met hers as I said, “I can do this, Jodi. Hand holding is against the regs and I have no intention of breaking the rules.”
She doesn't get it, and neither do I. Sometimes things just slip from my mouth when my head feels cloudy and my eyes murky. Keeps me sane, I'd like to think.
Jodi only nods, perhaps catching onto my meaning. I needed her right now, but not while I was in there. It would be too much.
I give one last glance before I turn around and walk through the hospital doors.