Anyone else remember the movie Pochahontas? That song “Just Around the Riverbend” has stuck with me since childhood. I think it’s one of the main reasons why I’ve been living my life as a wandering nomad for so many years. For those who don’t know, that song – especially in the context of the movie – is all about making the scary choice to continue exploring and taking risks in life in hopes of a worthwhile reward.
But life ain’t a Disney movie. The risks you take have consequences. They don’t always work out in your favor. And when they don’t, you might have to make some tough choices, like the beyond-the-shore-chasing protag in this story.
A young, slender woman with dark hair and almond eyes was poking around abandoned vehicles on a deserted state road. It was at that moment when she found some of the best loot she’d seen in a good while: a large, camo-colored backpack with enough supplies and rations to last her a good two weeks – maybe more if she rationed them carefully.
Hauling it back to her home base was difficult. It must’ve weighed at least 30 pounds, and she was already lightheaded due to lack of food. But there was no way she could leave that good of a find behind. She had to be careful, though. Passing out in the open was basically a death sentence.
She decided to stop and poke around in the bag for a snack, just to be safe. It didn’t take long to find a package of crackers that looked salty enough to sustain her for the trek back. As she tore open the package and tried her best to chew quietly, she shook her head in disappointment at her own behavior. Six months ago, she would have felt bad. She would have felt like she was stealing something that didn’t belong to her.
But the world had changed dramatically since then.
“Well, whoever you are, you’re probably dead right now. You won’t miss them,” she muttered to herself as she jostled her hand around inside the bag to put the leftover crackers away.
To her surprise, a tinny human voice responded from somewhere inside the bag.
“Hello? Is someone there?” The voice asked her. It was male, and deep. It had a hint of an accent, but she couldn’t quite place it, although it sounded vaguely Hispanic.
“Hola?” The voice called again.
Well, that answered her question about that. She put the bag down and looked over her shoulder to make sure nothing was coming, then frantically searched the bag to find the source of the voice. It didn’t take long for her to find a two-way radio hidden in one of the bag’s small, tactical pockets.
“Hello? Is someone there?” She asked, over and over, frantically pressing different buttons to try and establish communication. She had seen people use walkie talkies in the movies and on TV, but she had no clue how to use one in real life. The voice on the other end was surprisingly patient with her, though – even after she pressed the emergency call button and startled herself with the loud, high pitched alarm that screeched from the radio.
“Hey, don’t touch that! It tickles,” he chuckled, cracking a joke at her expense.
“I’m glad you think this is so funny,” she hissed resentfully into the radio. “Pardon me if I forgot to laugh, but I’m a little bit busy trying not to get my face eaten off right now!”
“You’re out in the open? That’s not good. Hurry up and get to safety! Shit,” he muttered, pretending to be slightly exasperated by her apparent lack of competence. “Who the hell starts talking loudly on a two-way radio out in the open with hungry zombies wandering around? Honestly…”
“Your sarcasm is noted, and it is not appreciated!” She hissed back before turning off the radio. She removed the batteries just to be safe, then secured the pack before making the rest of the trek home as silently as she could.
It took her a few hours to haul the heavy pack all the way home – or, rather, the closest thing she’d had to a home in several months. But there was a surprisingly beautiful sunset happening that evening, and she returned back to her base of operations just in time to enjoy it over an MRE. A few bites into her meal, shortly after her stomach finally stopped growling, she suddenly remembered the radio. It didn’t take her long to dig it out of its pocket and put the batteries back in. She was in a secure building several stories off the ground, so she didn’t need to worry about noise anymore. It was finally safe to get back in touch with the stranger on the other side of the radio.
“I didn’t expect you to hang up on me like that. You kind of hurt my feelings,” he pouted facetiously. His light-hearted nature traveled easily through the crackling, tinny static.
“Well, I’m sorry. I was in a compromised situation and I couldn’t risk making any more noise,” the young woman replied matter-of-factly. “So who the hell am I talking to, anyway?”
“My name is Frank. What’s yours?”
“Amanda,” she replied, a little unsure why she was telling a complete stranger her real name considering the circumstances. He could be tracking her down right now with his radio somehow, planning to steal her supplies and slit her throat in her sleep. Maybe it was the fatigue, or the blissful feeling of having food in her stomach for the first time in days that was softening her resolve.
Either way, she didn’t hate listening to the sound of his voice.
“That’s a very pretty name. Nice to meet you, Amanda,” Frank greeted her politely from the other side of the radio.
She was a little taken aback by how calm and friendly his demeanor was, but didn’t think it was worth mentioning as she put the radio by her side and sat cross-legged in front of the pack. “Let’s see what sort of fun presents you left for me in your little goodie bag,” she teased him as she started taking an inventory of its contents.
“Um, that is my bug-out bag, and I would very much like it back, please,” she heard him reply. He didn’t exactly sound 100% committed to it, though.
“Tough shit. Finders, keepers,” she taunted before pulling out a package of condoms and cocking her head to the side, confused. “Wait, what the hell are you doing with a big box of condoms in the apocalypse? Hoping to score yourself some sweet zombie pussy or something?”
“Condoms are actually very useful for many different survival situations. But now that you mention it, it has been getting pretty lonely around here. And there was this one dead lady in a tattered sundress the other day that I’m pretty sure was checking out my junk-“
“Oh, I’m sure she wanted to do something to your junk, but most likely something painful and involving a lot of teeth. I wouldn’t risk it if I were you,” Amanda bantered back.
“That’s a good point,” he mused. “Good thing there’s still at least one live woman hanging around here, or I’d have to use those condoms for something silly like carrying water.”
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you, Casanova. Even if I were interested – and even if I knew where you were, which I don’t – I probably couldn’t get there in one piece on my own. Not in this city, with so many dead wandering around.”
“Well, you can’t be that far. These radios only have a range of about 5 miles on a good day under clear skies. Can you see the river from where you’re at?”
“Yes,” she replied, glancing out the window over the now golden waters as the sun sat behind her.
“East, or west bank?” He asked, his tone relatively serious now.
West,” she replied.
“Damn it.” His tone was calm, but bitter. She didn’t have to ask, but he answered the question in her head almost as quickly as if he had read her mind. “I’m on the east,” he reported solemnly.
“Well that’s a problem,” Amanda stated matter-of-factly.
“It’s a big problem, because I’d really like my stuff back,” he chuckled. And just like that, his mood flipped back to cheerful once again. “Or at least the bag. You sound skinny, flaca. You can have the rations. Just try not to use up all my duct tape before you return it to me.”
“No me llames ‘flaca’, gordito,” She shot back in perfect Spanish.
“Impressive. I didn’t know you spoke Spanish. Considering how you don’t even know how to use a walkie-talkie, I kind of figured you were some spoiled little rich girl.”
“A spoiled little rich girl who knows multiple languages, jiu-jitsu, and can wipe the floor with you at a billiard table,” she shot back mischievously. She was used to people underestimating her, though, so his accusation didn’t exactly get under her thick skin.
“I’d like to see you try. I started competing in billiard tournaments when I was a kid. I was a state champion at nine ball. you don’t stand a chance.”
“Oh, is that so?” She asked, sarcastically. “And how do I know you aren’t making all of that up just to aggravate me?”
“Cross that river and I’ll show you,” he insisted. The reception was terrible, but his bravado was coming through loud and clear from the other side.
The conversation continued on like that for a couple of hours. It was nice to talk with another living, breathing, thinking, non-flesh-eating human being. At one point in the conversation, Amanda haphazardly reached her hand up to massage her face because her cheeks were starting to hurt – and she noticed that she was smiling.
She couldn’t help but wonder to herself: was this the first time in the last 6 months since the world went to shit that she had actually, legitimately, sincerely smiled?
It felt too good to be true.
A few weeks went by. Amanda and Frank usually talked once a day, typically at sunset after she had finished foraging for the day and he had finished doing ‘Frank things’. He assured her it was very serious work. She chuckled at his cheesy pun in spite of herself.
Before she knew it, her life before and after finding the radio in the pack felt like a whole different reality. Just the sound of the crackling static gave her a visceral, happy feeling every time the radio clicked to life. The silence she had grown so accustomed to in previous months was louder and more pronounced when she was out foraging during the day. A naive, giddy part of her couldn’t wait to get home every evening to check in and swap stories with her new friend. She laughed at his cheesy jokes. They swapped stories about zombie kills, close calls, and survival strategies. They even talked a little about their past – and how most of the bullshit from before society fell mattered fuck all in the world they were struggling through now.
Things originally went to shit in the early spring half a year ago, and the weather was starting to turn cooler with the approaching fall. That night was the coldest night Amanda had endured so far. The small fire in front of her and the thin blanket she had been using weren’t enough to keep out the cold. If it weren’t for some helpful tips that Frank had given her on where to forage, she might not have found the extra blanket she needed to protect herself from the chill.
“I’m pretty sure this is the part where you’re supposed to rub it in my face how you’re out there, somewhere, toasty and warm and safe from the cold?” She tried teasing him through chattering teeth.
“Normally, yes. But I can literally hear your teeth chattering through the radio,” he answered matter-of-factly.
“Aw, are you actually worried about little ol’ me?” She asked, trying to sound more cheerful than she actually was. An odd feeling came over her in that moment. She suddenly found herself more concerned with soothing his fears than fending off the biting cold.
“I’m a big girl. I’ve taken care of myself pretty well so far. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Too late,” was his solemn reply. His somber tone triggered a heavy silence that hung in the air for what felt like a solid minute.
Finally, Frank’s voice clicked through on the walkie and broke that silence. “Just pretend I’m there with you. I could big spoon you – just to share body heat, though. Don’t go getting any funny ideas, you naughty little vixen.”
Amanda couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “You’re accusing me of trying to seduce you? Methinks he dost project too much,” she teased.
“You started it! You’re the one who stole my pack – which I still haven’t gotten back, by the way,” he reminded her for the hundredth time.
“Which I can’t return because there’s a giant river and at least 10,000 zombies between us,” she reminded him for the hundredth-and-first time.
“About that…I think I have a plan. But I don’t want to keep you up too late. We’re both going to need our beauty sleep if we want to pull it off.”
They finished saying goodnight to one another and Amanda reluctantly turned off her walkie-talkie. Despite the fact that the temperature hadn’t changed since their conversation started, though, she was no longer shivering. She felt warm and content for the first time in a good, long while.
Less than a day later, Amanda found herself trapped on the roof of an abandoned pharmacy – and the day had started out so well, too. Frank woke her up with a beautiful “good morning” song in Spanish. He said his mother used to sing it to him when he was little to get him out of bed. Then he told her his plan for getting her across the river. There were more than a few holes in it, but he sounded so confident and swore up and down he was familiar with the terrain. She wanted so badly for it to work out that she conveniently ignored the lump of dread forming in the pit of her stomach.
It was early afternoon now. She’d been walking all day, and all she had to show for her trouble was a bloody, 6-inch gash on the outside of her left calf that refused to stop bleeding. She was relieved when she found the abandoned pharmacy, hopeful that she could forage for some first aid supplies to take care of her leg. But her relief turned into horror when she accidentally unleashed a small horde of undead that were trapped in the back room with the antibiotics and painkillers. They must have barricaded themselves in while they were still alive, thinking they’d be safe.
Amanda had seen a lot of people die making stupid mistakes like that over the last several months.
The horde of corpses that had chased her up onto that roof were still meandering around below, although she thought they might be starting to lose her scent – if they could even still smell, that is. Frank was yelling at her through the walkie. He sounded erratic, and worried. To be fair, the last communication he’s gotten from her was ten minutes ago, and her last words to him were “Fucking shit, ow!” followed by radio silence. He was demanding a status update, and he clearly wasn’t going to give up until he got one.
“I’m okay now,” she replied with deceptive calmness. “I’ve got a big cut on my leg, though. It’s bad. I’m going to need some antibiotics and some clean bandages, or else I won’t make it very far once I get off this roof.” her reply was followed by a long, heavy silence.
“Well it’s a good thing you’re trapped on top of a pharmacy, huh?” He tried to sound cheerful, but she could tell he was nervous.
“A pharmacy that’s been nearly picked clean,” she lamented. She turned her leg to stare at the cut again. Fresh, crimson stains were starting to soak through her makeshift bandage. She took another layer of gauze and put it on top of the first, trying her best to wrap some medical tape tightly around the wound to (hopefully) keep it from bleeding too much more.
Amanda brought the walkie to her mouth, hesitated for a beat, and finally pressed the talk button.
“Frank…am I going to die up here?”
“No!” Came his immediate, insistent reply. “You’re on top of a pharmacy! There’s got to be something in there you can use. All you’ve got to do is wait for those bitey bastards to wander away, or create a distraction, then loot the supplies you need and go home to heal up. We can try again as soon as you’re better, and next time…” Frank’s voice faded into the background as Amanda watched red blooms slowly start to stain her second layer of bandages.
As he went on, speculating about future plans, the lump of dread in the pit of Amanda’s stomach returned, heavier than before. She couldn’t ignore it this time. She waited for him to finish, then finally asked:
“…this is never going to work. Is it?”
There was another long, tense silence before Frank finally answered her. “I can’t come get you. I wish I could, but I can’t. It’s too far. It would be a suicide mission.” A renegade tear rolled down Amanda’s cheek. “You are going to sneak back to home base after that horde wanders away and rest and heal up.
“That’s an order. And I won’t take no for an answer,” He tried teasing her, the worry in his voice betraying his intent.
“We’re not in the military. You can’t order me around,” she replied back matter-of-factly. Amanda gazed off into the distance, across the river and beyond the shore. Six months ago, back when the world was still in one whole, imperfect piece, crossing that river would have been a non-issue. She could have walked there, ran, rode a bike, or drove a car with ease.
But now it was a death sentence.
“I want to thank you for your kindness, Frank. I know we haven’t known each other for very long, but our talks have really meant a lot to me.”
“Amanda, what are you talking about?”
“I’m still bleeding, Frank. I have to get out of here, now. I can’t wait for the horde to wander off. You said it yourself: I need a distraction.”
“Amanda, what are you saying?!”
“Goddamn it Amanda, don’t do anything stu-”
By the time he had finished his sentence, though, she had already hit the emergency call button and chucked the screeching walkie across the road as far as her arm could throw it. Luckily, the distraction worked. The dead below started walking towards the noise and forgot she even existed.
If she were lucky, she’d be able to quietly sneak back downstairs, grab some supplies, limp home, and heal up. She’d be even luckier still if she survived the winter alone. She took one last look back at the river she would never cross, wiped the tears from her face, and turned back towards home – once again strong in her resolve to survive.