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FICTION / Whatshisname / Wesley O. Cohen

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We walked during the days while the sand got into our packs and our shoes and we slept in a circle at night. It was safer to travel together through the desert. It was safer to travel together everywhere, but we only agreed to walk together until Vegas. Then we’d split. We wouldn’t miss Whatshisname.  

At sunrise, as we loaded our packs, Whatshisname pointed to the burrow of a ground owl and told us about what ground owls ate, and how they lived.

“They’re an endangered species,” he said.

“We’re an endangered species,” Lisa said.

Whatshisname told Keisha that she’d stay cooler if she put her extra t-shirt over her hair.

Whatshisname wasn’t his name. It was some boring white guy name, like Joe or Tim. We forgot it immediately. Maybe it was Bob. Maybe Bob was the worst.

“It’s easier if you don’t take breaks,” Maybe Bob told Zeke, “you’ll get your second wind soon.” Zeke smiled and waved Bob on, then went back to retching into a ground owl hole. Bob had encouraged him to eat a can of tomatoes from the back of an Arby’s we’d looted last week, although the top of the can was puffy and distended. He’d even offered to open up the can with his trusty multi-tool, which hung from the belt of his cargo shorts. 

“Expiration dates are only there to make you throw away perfectly good food,” Bob had said. “It’s manufactured scarcity.”

It was botulism. We had to leave Zeke behind. 

Nights with Bob were worse, a constant stream of inane wisdom from the old days. We were too tired to fight him on it. We just complained behind his back while he scouted ahead to check for raiders and to pick the best path.  

Bob told us about a trip he’d taken to Washington D.C., where he’d gotten to go in the tunnels under the White House and the Senate building. We were jealous that he’d gotten such a good view of the center of the free world back when there was just one free world, instead of infinite, much freer worlds, so free that they barely touched, occasionally brushing up against each other to form affiliations like ours, to trade dried beans for canned meat, to murder each other behind the empty shell of a Wendy’s. Bob had gotten to travel a lot for business. He told us all about his many travels while we walked under the hot sun. 

But the days of frequent flyer clubs were over. The days of escalators, the days of plastic surgery, the days of microbreweries, they all ended on October 9th, 2020. When we talked about the apocalypse, which we almost never did, Bob liked to remind us that it came on Leif Erikson day. The implications of this fact remained unclear.

That afternoon we passed a pair of graves marked with cardboard pieces weighed down with cinderblocks. Two lumps in the sand, and two signs like the ones homeless people used to hold by freeway onramps, back when homeless was a meaningful barrier between types of people, and back when cars went up onramps and down offramps across the country with ease. The sign on the left grave said They Loved and the sign on the right grave said Each Other

Nobody on our expedition had lost fewer than twelve people, we’d counted, including close friends, lovers, parents, children, siblings, and coworkers with whom there was perhaps some unspoken spark, which was necessarily ignored for the sake of professionalism, or maybe cowardice. But still we paused at the graves who loved each other. Mariah pulled two sand dollars from her bag, miraculously intact although we were a thousand miles from the ocean. She placed one on each grave. The sand dollars faced up, two twin flowers, twin suns staring down the sun above, which made us all feel a lot better, and when Bob said that the two people were lucky they got to go together we all nodded even though we only sort of agreed, each of us being the jagged half of some partnership, and each of us being generally, selfishly glad we were alive instead of in a twin grave in the desert, cardboard tombstone and sand dollar notwithstanding.

As the sun set Carl found an old cordless phone, and he picked it up and asked us about it. He would have been in middle school if schools still existed, so old enough to remember a lot about the old world, but most kids had forgotten it, the trauma wiping their unmyelinated brains clean of everything except a few details—Happy Meals, maybe, or the taste of grape fluorine rinse at the dentist. We envied them. 

Still, we took turns explaining to Carl what it was like to have a phone in your house, to be able to call someone at any time, except calling at night was rude, and then how everyone switched to cell phones and the phone-shaped phones slowly became obsolete, like fax machines—another history lesson. We talked about rotary phones, and dialup, and phone cards, and Pay as You Go, and roaming fees, although by this point Carl had stopped listening to us and had found a shard of cactus that he was breaking apart in his hands and throwing at lizards.

We took turns holding the phone, pressing in the rubbery buttons and remembering how these used to beep and light up, how at one point it was a game to press the buttons in order so the beeps played out a little song. Each of us had a story: Louis remembered holding his baby’s chubby foot to his ear as if picking up a phone; Keisha remembered illicit calls to her high school girlfriend. It was funny to remember a time when one computer was light years ahead of another, when flip phones were behind the times but iPhones were great. Now all of them were useless. The times were behind us. Bob took the phone from Keisha—it had become like a talking stick, each of us telling stories while we turned it over in our hands and walked—and told us about how he had gotten a terrific deal on his phone line by pretending to be a local business, even fabricating a license for an at-home VCR repair store, and how he kept it even after he had an iPhone—two iPhones!—because having it made his internet and cable cheaper, including all the ESPN options, and he never missed a game, couldn’t just check it out at some local sports pub like a rube, no, he needed surround sound and a cold beer in hand, keeping track of player stats in a special leather-bound notebook he kept by his couch for this express purpose. We sped up so it would be harder to hear him, but we heard him, trailing behind us and talking, as darkness approached. By the time we went to sleep, we were cursing the phone. 

We were attacked by raiders that night. They snuck up on us, grabbed Carl from his sleeping bag, then turned on their bright crank flashlights leaving us stunned and blinking, and one of them held a gun to Carl’s head and threatened to kill him if we didn’t give them all our water and supplies. 

The gun was a wild card. Most guns didn’t work anymore, they got gummed up by the sand or otherwise ruined, and who wanted to carry bullets across a desert anyway? But the man was wearing what might have been a human scalp hanging from his belt and generally looked like bad news, and he had the gun jammed up under Carl’s jaw and Carl was squeezing his eyes shut in a static flinch and so we started opening up our packs and digging out our food and water even though without them we would all die, including Carl, and slowly. 

Bob crouched, moving quietly and deliberately away from his pack towards the edge of our group. We could all tell from the way he was walking, like a sneaky cowboy in an old movie, that he was about to try some seriously dumb shit and probably get us all killed and maybe eaten. We caught his eyes, trying to shake our heads no to him without the raiders noticing, but he only looked back at us with that look of quiet confidence that we all hated about him. He looked to Carl, who was shaking all over and had peed himself and still had his eyes clamped shut and his whole face squeezed up and away from the gun by his ear, and gave Carl a tiny, brave nod, which of course Carl didn’t see.

Bob crouched at the edge of our camp and readied himself. He closed his eyes and took a slow breath.

Then Bob exploded up from the ground like a jungle cat. He didn’t explode up or out quite as far as he needed to reach the nearest raider, a lean, muscular woman with a row of piercings like a zipper across her eyebrow, but he got close. The leader guy was still wedging his gun under Carl’s ear but he turned his head for a second to watch Bob and must have loosened his grip, and Carl dropped hard to the sand, his legs softened by something like terror paralysis, and then he crawled out towards us, away from the raiders. Meanwhile Bob had plunged his multi-tool into the woman raider’s neck and twisted it so that a spurt of blood rocketed out onto the sand, and then he ducked, ripping the tool out of her neck, and lunged to the nearest raider. Bob went straight for the guy’s gut, which was covered with a body armor vest except for the bulges of fat along the top of his pants, and Bob got the multi-tool into this zone, above the raider’s waistband, and struck hard at the kidney area before whipping the multi-tool back out into the air. The guy dropped. 

We couldn’t believe it. 

Bob stayed low, multi-tool dripping blood, and looked for his next target. He eyed a short woman with a neck tattoo and a machete. She looked back and forth between the main raider guy with the gun and the large body armor guy who was rolling on the ground with his hands reaching to the hole in his side but coming up dark and empty. Bob took a decisive step towards the smallish woman, multi-tool extended like a knight’s sword of legend. His eyes were fierce and bright. 

Then the main raider guy shot him.

So he had bullets after all. 

The sound shocked everyone into stillness. After airplanes and lawn mowers and motorcycles, it was like the top end of the world’s volume dial had been turned down to a pre-apocalypse six or seven. Sometimes a building crumbled and fell in, groaning loudly. Sometimes, in a forest, an ancient tree would crack down at the roots and fall, sending creaks and grumbles through the undergrowth. We still had thunder, and the occasional firework, or a lone scream. But most days were quieter.

So a gunshot was crazy loud. Even the guy holding the gun looked stunned by the sound, and by the sudden rupture of blood from Bob’s thigh, by the slow crumple of his legs and thump of his body to the ground. Bob was certainly surprised. 

The main raider guy turned to his party. He went first to the strong woman with the zipper eyebrow, who was kneeling and clutching her neck, and then to the fat vest-wearing man, who lay very still, blood gushing from his side. 

“Shit,” he said, “he got Steve.”

All the raiders went to Steve. Steve seemed unlikely to recover. We stayed still, listening and watching from the corners of our eyes like we’d done when passing a police officer who was questioning a person on a street corner, or an ambulance pulled up next to a crashed car, when those were things that happened. We all wondered whether the gun guy would use the gun again, shooting Steve like a lame horse, or shooting us. Poor Steve seemed to know it was his time, he was down in the dirt blinking, was saying “Oh, wow,” over and over. Someone gave Steve some sort of powder, a red dust, and they gave him some water to take it down, and Steve went dull like a TV screen when it’s off, which is the only way TV screens would ever be again. Then the rest of the raiders helped the woman bind up her neck, and they moved on with their flashlights, cussing under their breath and looking back at us and at Steve. We didn’t know why they’d given up on robbing us—the whole setup seemed to be a bluff that Bob had called. We wondered if that made us the bad guys in this scenario. We wondered if it made Bob our leader. 

Steve just lay there, looking at nothing.

We went to Carl first. He was a kid, after all. But we saw that he was okay, just crying in a normal scared-kid way, hiccupping and grimacing and shivering on the ground. 

Then we went to Bob. 

Bob was on his back in the sand, holding a balled-up neckerchief and applying pressure to the gunshot wound below his left hip. We kneeled around him. Keisha pulled out a flashlight, and Mariah rolled her sleeves up to the elbow. Louis got a needle and thread out of his pack. 

“The multi-tool—” Bob said. He groaned. He looked pale. 

We reached for it where it had fallen bloody in the sand. Keisha wiped it on her pants and poured some water from her canteen over the needle-nose pliers. Louis lay over Bob’s body to hold him down.

The extraction went about as well as we could have expected. To his credit, Bob kept pretty quiet. We didn’t remember to put something between his teeth to bite down on until Mariah had the pliers deep in his leg, digging around for the bullet. She was really going for it, and we thought we heard one of Bob’s teeth crack under the pressure. Keisha fished another neckerchief from Bob’s pocket and rolled it into a rope, then pushed it back into Bob’s mouth. He grimaced gratefully and nodded. Once Mariah had the bullet out, Louis used the needle and thread to close the hole up somewhat, although it was hard to pinch together the sides of a hole that was round, and the edges of the wound were a little burned, hardened by the hot bullet, so things were less flexible than they could have been, and of course there was a lot of blood. But we cleaned off the stitched-up hole as best we could, and then since Bob was all out of neckerchiefs Mariah took an old t-shirt from her pack, a kid’s shirt we hadn’t seen before, gray with Mickey Mouse on the front, and she folded it up into a neat little square and pressed it down onto the hole and tied it there with some cord. 

Then, with nothing else to do, we went to bed. 

In the morning Bob was leaking advice all over the place. It seeped from him whenever he moved without him scarcely noticing. 

When he rolled over onto his side at sunrise, he told us we should pour boiling water or whiskey over the wound. 

“Sure,” we said, looking out at miles of desert, “let’s just walk to the kitchen and get some.”

We got him up and walking, gingerly, and we set a slow pace for him and for Carl, who was still a bit weepy. Bob kept falling behind so we took turns falling behind with him, making sure he didn’t get picked off by a wild dog.

“A young man like you should be drinking more water,” he said to Louis as they walked together. 

He told Lisa, “You’d be really pretty if you washed your face and put on some clean pants.” She just nodded. 

After a few hours we found a gravel track through the sand, half-buried. We followed this for some time and got to a real paved road, which we walked along at our new reduced Bob pace for another two hours until we found a hollowed-out gas station. From the No Hitchhiking signs we figured we were near a prison.

Once we’d scouted the gas station for raiders, we leaned Bob against the wall behind the counter. Louis pulled a packet of tuna fish from his bag and put little soft handfuls of the fish into Bob’s palm to eat. Bob put the first handful into his mouth and chewed, smiling. 

“Salty,” he said. 

“Yes,” we said. 

The next handful he squeezed, letting brine drip to the sand-covered floor, and then tossed it aside. “What is this, cat food?” he said. 

He ate the third handful and fell asleep. 

We gathered several feet away and discussed what to do. He’d never make it to Las Vegas, and while we might not make it either, the slow pace made us anxious. He’d likely die after another day of walking anyway. He was right about the boiled water or whiskey—the bullet hole was probably infected, surely sand-filled, but there was nothing to do about it.

We decided to spend the night in the gas station and hope that Bob died before morning. We sat in a circle around him, eating Slim Jims, drinking the fluorescent syrup from melted popsicles we’d found in the back of the gas station, inside what used to be a walk-in freezer. Some of the popsicles had been joke popsicles, where the exposed wood of the stick said a question and the punch line was revealed after the popsicle was gone, but now they were just plastic sacs filled with sweet goop and a stick dyed pink floating inside, question and answer revealed together.

“What did Mr. and Mrs. Hamburger name their daughter?” Carl asked.

Bob groaned from the corner.

“What?” we asked.

“Patty,” Carl said. 

Bob woke, and listened to us from his spot slumped against the wall. We all leaned toward him whenever he spoke, ready to absorb some final wisdom, some deep truth from this man in God’s antechamber.

“You don’t really need toothpaste,” he said. “The mechanics of brushing your teeth gets rid of most of the bad stuff.” 

“Thank you,” we said, “we didn’t know that.”

“Never leave home without your business cards,” he said, “you never know when you’ll meet someone.”

“Tell your mechanic that you’re a lawyer,” he said, “and that your brother’s a mechanic. Then he’ll never cheat you.” We all nodded. 

Finally, we could see he was ready to go. We were glad, it getting late, and all of us nervous that he’d somehow pull through to morning and we’d have to leave him prattling and losing steam by himself in the sand. He seemed to enjoy our listening, having at last a captive audience, an attentive group to receive his lessons, and we wanted to give that to him. We wanted to thank him for saving Carl. 

We scooted him out from the wall and laid him flat on his back on the ground. We asked him whether he wanted water, or a final Slim Jim, but he waved us off.

He started to whisper to us, eyes focused on the Beyond. We leaned in. 

“People are more likely to click on posts that have links or pictures in them,” he said gravely. “You’ve got to bait the hook.” And then he died.

We slept in the gas station, curled up together away from Bob’s corpse. In the morning we did our best to bury him in the sand. We covered his body with empty bottles to deter the coyotes and wild dogs. We covered the bottles with sand in a little mound. It wasn’t as deep as we had hoped. We’d done our best.

We all stood back and looked at the pile of sand. The mouth of a beer bottle peeked out a little from the edge of the mound. 

Joshua gave a little speech about loss and sacrifice and friendship, and we all appreciated that, and Keisha read a poem, but something was still missing. Finally Carl went into the gas station and brought out a cardboard box and a marker from behind the counter, and flattened the box and wrote He Loved Us in tall, fat letters on one side. Then he used Bob’s multi-tool to cut holes in each of the flattened box’s corners and pushed beer bottles down through the holes, mouth-down, to anchor the box against the wind and sandstorms. The kid was pretty handy after all.

It looked right. We all looked at each other and nodded and tried to cry a little bit but couldn’t manage it for the dehydration. We gathered up our packs and some Slim Jims for the road and moved on. 

We walked the day in near-silence, stopping only to ask each other which way we thought Las Vegas was. Usually Bob had demanded to set each day’s route by the angle of the sun, so when we first got started we had a moment of looking at each other and waiting for someone to step up. But then it turned out that Mariah had been carrying a compass the whole time, and Lisa had a pretty good sense of how far north we were, so we started at a faster pace than the day before. 

The silence of our walk stretched out longer as the cactus shadows got short and fat. We started to tell our own stories. Joshua had been a PhD candidate in anthropology, back in school after years of working as a paralegal. Mariah had been a flight attendant. We made observations about the land, the plants, the creatures we saw. Keisha had spent a summer in the Southwest studying lizards, so she knew a lot about the desert, but we kept seeing these little pink snakes that nobody could identify, so we spent a few miles making up names for them. Carl wanted to call them “Bob’s snakes,” but that sounded too informal; we settled on Louis’s name, which was “coral sandgliders.” We decided to name some other thing for Bob, but only when we found something that seemed right. Secretly, we hoped that Carl would forget about it before then. 

As the sun drooped down we began to pass truck stops and a Denny’s and motels with empty pools and slot machines, and at dusk before we made camp Keisha noted the edges of skyscrapers poking at the horizon. We’d made it. 

We made camp in a strip mall parking lot, and we talked about what we hoped to find in Las Vegas—for some it was family, or that cute coworker who had hinted that he would flee there before the CDC evacuated Seattle, but others only wanted to be high up in a building one last time, or to push a copy machine out of a window, or to eat a maraschino cherry, or to search for hidden bunkers under the hotels that might be filled with clean water and medicine and even, Mariah confessed in a whisper, ice cream. We allowed ourselves a small fire and a little water to heat dehydrated food packets, and everyone felt quietly hopeful, which made for a nice change. 

In the silence, we found ourselves talking about our lives before, the people we’d lost, what we missed most. When one of us stopped talking, the quiet stretched out until the next person felt the proper moment to tell her own secret, to tell his own joy. As the fire burned down, these moments expanded, silence eclipsing sound, and the quiet of the desert, with the animal sounds, and the hum of wind over sand, felt as if it held in it everything we might want to say, all our stories suspended in the air.

And later, our fire extinguished, we lay on our backs in a circle, and when we pointed up at stars, we took turns asking and answering, like a prayer, or like a song. And it made us feel better again, the not-knowing, the question and the answer making us all the same, making us one circle instead of many, there under the sky.

What’s that one?

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I don’t know.


Wesley O. Cohen is a writer and editor from Northern California who now lives in London. Her work has been featured by Joyland Magazine, Entropy, and some other places. She was a 2017 Writing By Writers Newberry fellow. She currently serves as prose editor of Foglifter Journal, and runs the Queer Syllabus in coordination with The Rumpus.