Raising Tom Chambers
Penny Crump spent the rest of the day reading on the deck and working in the garden, the notion of removing her new companion as distant from her thoughts as the storm clouds gathering out over the Pacific.
The two of them fell into a routine, and soon they came to understand each other. Penny did the talking, of course; Tom Chambers just couldn’t speak.
His name had come from a trading card she had found in the street after waking up from that initial bout with VX9.
The waking had been a surprise, of course. When the flu first hit, citizens reported to the government-operated passage tents for quarantine. Of course, that was back when hope still reigned across the land. Penny had contracted VX9 late—well after the rule of law had lost any real meaning and people were bunkering down with their friends and family to grow sick and die together.
But, having no one, Penny had dutifully walked to the nearest passage tent—a huge affair in downtown Boise filled with rotting corpses and moaning patients. She’d selected a clean bed in the far corner and fallen quickly into unconsciousness, assuming that the future that awaited her was just on the other side of that thin line of mortality.
When she’d awoken, she’d shed twenty-three pounds. There were no more dying patients—only the dead. She felt her face, felt the skin on her arms—amazed that she still was. Then she walked into the street. The dead were everywhere. She made her way down the center of West Idaho Street and, before too long, that trading card had come tumbling across the asphalt, pushed by the wind before lodging against her ankle.
She plucked it free and stared at it. There was a man on the front—a tall man in a basketball uniform with the word “Phoenix” emblazoned across the front. His cheeks were flushed red and he had feathery blond hair. He was running and he had a basketball in his hands.
It was an old card, yellow around the edges and better than thirty years old.
She studied it, wondering what had happened to the man in the photograph. He looked so alive—so vital and healthy. Could he still exist somewhere, untouched by this creeping death?
She’d tucked the card into her pocket and kept walking, beginning the half decade of nomadic travel that would ultimately lead her to the solar house on the bluffs high above the Columbia River in Western Oregon.
On the day she had decided to name the Astra, she didn’t have to think twice about what she would call him.
And so for many years Penny Crump and Tom Chambers carved a life for themselves out of what remained after the dieback. They had vegetables and fruits and DVDs and books and art supplies and fishing equipment and a bicycle and warm showers.
They had each other.
And then one day, while putting up vegetables for an autumn that would come barreling through the mouth of the gorge in a week or so, Penny Crump cut her hand. It wasn’t much—just a two-inch laceration on the back of her left hand. She’d raked her hand against the sharp edge of a rusted food tin she’d used as a planter for cayenne peppers.
The cut bled a little, but she’d cleaned it and dressed it and put it out of her mind. Tom Chambers had, in his way, expressed sadness for her momentary pain, but they’d both understood it to be a minor thing.
Only it wasn’t. It wasn’t a minor thing at all.