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Where It’s Green

by Cereal Oatmeal about a year ago in Adventure · updated about a year ago
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Chapter 2: A Wheelchair Without A Wheel

Desert landscape and gloomy sky showing much of nothing except the bottom half of a wheelchair, missing the rubber wheel on the right side. Art by Tazer Pones. You can find more of his work here: https://tazerpones.tumblr.com/

Hello, this story is a part of a series called Where It’s Green.

Click here to read the prelude!

Click here to read chapter one!

Thank you for reading, enjoy chapter two and as always, tips are appreciated more than you know!

Svalbard wiped at her face quickly, drying her eyes and nose and mouth of tears and snot and sweat. She could feel sores around her mouth and nose, as well as along the line of face and neck that connected the gasmask to her, but she had no time to really evaluate herself. She swallowed painfully around the urge to breathe in, her already taxed lungs screaming at her. She dried the inside of her gas mask too, squatting to hold it with her knees and dry with one hand, pinching her nose shut with the other.

Once it was dry she swallowed again, a lump in her throat and a clicking sound in the back of her head. She took the rag and twisted it and shoved it in one nostril and then the other, trying not to be bothered by the dark black spore like sludge she removed from her nose. She forced all the carbon she wanted to gasp out through both nostrils, blowing the disgusting body snatching mess of mucus to the ground and wiping her nose one final time on a clean part of the rag.

She slammed the gas mask back on, waited a few more painful seconds, and breathed deep. She took in whatever small amounts of filtered oxygen she could. She would be needing to change the mask filters soon, she knew. And eat. She had enough water for the time being but it wouldn’t last either. She sighed, songs and tears still coursing through her heart and head.

Abby’s face, smiling in adoration of her moms. Her afro bouncing as she did. Svalbard had teased her hair into the “fluffiest” style she could think of, at Abby’s behest, after they had read a children’s book about natural hair the night before. She switched all her pillows and sheets to silk, which Abby had called her “slippy” bed, determined to help her baby keep the moisture in her hair especially since they had been having such uncharacteristically dry summers for Georgia.

She had finally convinced her daughter, who used to pull at her hair in anguish even from a young age and who had wanted it to “go right down like all her pre-school friends” to love her hair, and herself, the way it was. She wasn’t about to have any breakage.

The image of it all falling out as her skin began to turn sallow also flit through her mind’s eye, and she gagged a bit. Shuddering. The garden shed was the next horrible memory. Shoving the two of them back with a garden rake. Locking the latch on the outside and pushing the compost bin over in front of the door.

She shook her head and tucked the rag back in place, and kept walking.

She had been walking on rote for a while when a strange, metallic clinking sound up ahead of her startled Svalbard from her musings. A broken wheelchair, missing a wheel, was wheeling its lopsided way through the desert. Svalbard could just make out the fuzzy blonde hair of the wheelchair owner, slouched down behind the back of it. It looked like it was taking a lot of effort to push forward with the missing wheel and bent frame.

“H...Hey!” Svalbard started, breaking into a short jog to reach the wheelchair user. “Hey do you need any help?” She asked, running her hand over the top of her head to keep the sweat from getting under her gas mask.

“I have a bow and arrow, you know.” The wheelchair owner said crossly. Svalbard paused and put her hands up in the air, backing away. She had dealt with people who had weapons before, but not in a long time. Most of them had killed each other in the earlier years of this Hell. She was distractedly proud of herself for not reaching to touch her pistol, she reserved it for Blanks and Blanks alone. Everything else she could solve with words. She hoped.

“I’m not going to hurt you! I wanted to know if I could help.” She said again, more gently.

With what seemed to take quite a lot of difficulty, the wheelchair user turned to face her. A rebreather with electric tape around it covered a hole in the clear oxygen mask that covered their face.

Svalbard was suddenly struck by the fact that this was the first human face she had seen in years. She was used to gas masks, with tinted eyes and coloured plastics. Black or brown or even bright pink like hers, but clear? Never.

She took her time to drink in the sight of a fellow human being. Their whole face was red from sunburn and blue around the lips, a sign of a lack of oxygen. Svalbard eyed the oxygen tank they had going hungrily.

“Uh...uhm I’m Svalbard!” She began, both used to and completely foreign to introducing herself. The next part was what always put lead in her stomach.

“She, Her pronou-”

“What sort of name is… oh.”

They had spoken at the same time, the shocked look on the wheelchair user’s face made Sval shake a bit. She’d come across a transphobe or a dozen in her lifetime. She knew she passed well enough but she had it ingrained to always introduce herself with her pronouns in case there was someone else who wanted to use other pronouns too. Besides, it had been a long time since she’d found any viable estrogen she could take.

The wheelchair user didn’t look angry though, they looked happy.

“She, They.” They said, holding a somewhat shaking hand out for a handshake. Svalbard stepped forward and took the proffered hand happily.

“Nice to meet you!” Sval said sincerely, trying to be gentle as she shook her arm. The wheelchair user still looked untrusting, eyes narrowing as they struggled to turn their wheelchair around more. The bow and a bunch of arrows clacked and clanged around in the seat beside them. Sval thought about putting her hands over Abby’s sensitive ears and then realised where she was. She blinked a few times, waiting, expecting.

“I still don’t trust you, so you don’t get my name just yet.” The wheelchair user said, almost petulantly, as though this was a game. She did look very, very young. Twenties maybe and if so early twenties at that. Or maybe that was their health condition, Sval thought back to one of Emma’s many disability based infodumping sessions. She smiled fondly, and tried not to make assumptions. It was nice she wouldn’t have to learn her name, she didn’t want to anyway.

“Trust me, I understand more than you’d think. I’ll call you “wheelchair user” from now on, since I doubt you want me calling you blondie, alright?” Sval said smiling hard enough to lift the cheeks of the gasmask around her eyes, purposefully showing her smile. ‘Wheelchair User’ made a face when she said ‘blondie’ and nodded, smiling back.

“I like it.” They shrugged and started to reach for their wheels when Svalbard made a worried sound.

“Alright! So how are we gonna fix that missing wheel for you then?” She asked, stretching her arms out, mentally looking the wheelchair over, to get a feel for what she could use or make to fix it. Wheelchair User snorted and shook their head.

“Psh, good luck, I haven't found anything useful yet… there's nothing around us for miles anyway!” Svalbard looked around at that, the stretch after unending stretch of desert did indeed look barren and hopeless. She scratched at her head, where the gasmask was connected. Thought about crying so much she had to take it off… because she had been thinking of Emma after looting that old ba-

“The wheelbarrow!” she said excitedly.

“A wheelbarrow?”

“A few hours back that way, there's an old barn with a rusty wheelbarrow in front of the door. It has a good wheel still, ‘nuff to make do with as it is and all.” She was relieved she could actually be of help. But another derisive snort tamped that relief down.

“A few hours, yeah? Hah! A few hours for you is probably going to take days for me.” She said and pushed fruitlessly on her wheelchair, the lopsided thing only moving a few feeble inches. The spokes sticking out wildly. Sval shuffled from one foot to the other, then began stretching her arms out in earnest.

“Listen I know you just met me but would you mind if I carried you? And your wheelchair?” Sval asked seriously. She knew it was a huge request and if it weren’t basically life or death it wouldn’t be something she’d ask.

“Carry me?!” They shrieked, surprised but not as indignant as Sval had been afraid the question would make them feel. Svalbard nodded.

“You’re very thin, and your wheelchair is small and missing a wheel,” She looked down at the chair, grimaced “and some spokes...I know I may not look it but I’m a born and raised farm girl. I’m strong enough. And anytime you tell me to set you back down I will. I know how important body autonomy is.” The wheelchair user looked ecstatic. Svalbard was reminded once again of how very young her new friend looked and could possibly be.

“Alright Lady Svalbard, you may carry me. But I get to say “wheee!” in childlike wonder and glee at least once and you can not mock me. Also if I say put me down, you will, absolutely. No funny business okay?” Svalbard had almost snorted at their request. Didn’t. Lady Svalbard, say wheee!, no funny business. Right, got it. She was incredibly glad her face was hidden by her gasmask.

“Okay. Hang onto your chair then.” Wheelchair User did so, using the myriad of ropes she had tied to the sides of the wheelchair to secure her bow and arrows and spare oxygen tanks. They nodded at Svalbard.

She gripped the chair on either side, it was a hospital model wheelchair, not designed for self propelled movement, and unfortunately a bit heavier than she would have wanted it to be. But to her deep surprise it and the person in the chair lifted off the ground and hoisted almost all the way onto her shoulders with one strong pull. She was even lighter than she looked, this person in the wheelchair. The wheelchair was accounting for most of the weight, and Svalbard suddenly felt very afraid for and protective of her new friend. She vowed to split whatever food she had with them as soon as they stopped next.

She began walking, backtracking towards the barn once more. She thought about singing but she wasn’t sure Wheelchair User would care for it all that much.

So she just kept walking.

“This is a lot of trust I’m putting in you. You know that right?”

An hour into the walk and that was the first actual words her companion had said. There had in fact been an occasional “wheee!” or two that had warmed Svalbard’s heart and had made her think of Abby and Emma.

Emma had always been unabashedly excited by things, and it had definitely rubbed off onto Abby. She recalled Emma always wanting to ride merry go rounds and carousels, waving at her energetically every single time she went by, that is if Svalbard hadn’t wanted to join. She was pretty sure Emma liked to wave as much as she liked to ride the rides with her, so Sval had always tried to give her a mix of both.

Abby had grown up loving carousels too, and while the whole family had loved their visits to The Riverview carousel at Six Flags Over Georgia, Svalbard would never forget the sheer joy on Abby’s face when she and Emma took her to the Mall of Georgia for the first time and surprised her with the in-mall carousel. A boring trip shopping, in Abby’s opinion, had turned into an exciting and fun day. There had been quite a few “Whee!”’s uttered that day as well.

She suddenly snapped out of her thoughts, remembering she was being spoken to. She really wasn’t sure how long it had been. She responded anyway.

“Oh? Is that because I’m literally carrying your life in my hands or is it because you squealed, held your hands out like a little kid pretending to be an airplane and said wheee over and over just thirty minutes ago?” She asked coolly, attempting to make her new friend laugh. She could only hope the teasing would land.

Her friend laughed as hard as she could muster, coughing violently as the laughter interfered with her oxygen intake. Svalbard could hear a click and assumed she probably turned up her oxygen. That well of envy reared up ugly in her lungs once again. She swallowed it down and wished she could tighten her back brace. Carrying a person, no matter how frail, and their wheelchair was really tiring and painful and she was sweating bullets through her red hoodie. She felt the sun bearing down on the back of her head as it began its descent to set behind them on their walk back eastwards.

“Okay I’ll give you that. But I’m calling foul on the teasing!” Wheelchair User chimed in, laughter under control. Svalbard smiled, glad to have cut the majority of the tension that came with carrying someone who would rather be able to take care of themselves.

“Hey you said no mocking, not no teasing.” She said all falsely prim and proper, as though the distinction was important. She knew in a way it really was.

“I know though. That this is a big deal I mean. Thank you for trusting me this far.” She said sincerely. Her friend made an “mmhm” noise, Svalbard thought she could see them nodding though the angle was a bit weird. She could feel her muscles straining and sighed.

“Hey, we’re about half an hour or less away from it now, do you want to stop and take a break? I have some water.” She said conversationally, trying to make it seem less like she was about to drop her friend from exertion.

Her friend seemed to cotton on anyway.

“Sit me down before you drop me, okay?” They said pleadingly and Svalbard obliged. She crouched, low enough to the ground to use it as leverage and gently tipped Wheelchair User off her shoulders, using all her upper body strength to hang on to her passenger and finally gently placed the wheels of the chair on the ground. The chair immediately tilted to the right, the missing wheel making it lopsided once again.

Wheelchair User clapped, beaming at her.

“Well done Lady Svalbard, well done!” She said in a faux regal voice. Svalbard laughed tiredly, out of breath and sweating, panting hard. She wished she could take her hoodie off but she wasn’t about to. Red was the best colour to block UV light and she didn’t need skin cancer to worry about. It was almost a guarantee with the ozone layer as thin as it had become.

“Water.” She panted and took off her backpack, grabbing her canteen. It was half full and she’d have to hope for more rain or start digging for a water table soon. She took out the extension she had for her gas mask as well, and a straw.

Wheelchair User looked perplexed but didn’t say much, reaching into her own, much smaller bag and pulling out a bottled water and her own straw. Svalbard’s eyes widened.

“Don’t worry, I have my own so you won’t have to share.” They said, pleased to be resourceful.

“Where did you get that?!” She asked, shocked. Wheelchair user shrugged. Looked guilty. Hiding something surely, Svalbard thought.

“I uh… vending machines in hospitals. Most people don’t loot the hospitals. I… do.” She looked uncomfortable admitting it.

“I… used to wheel down highway roads, easier on the chair and all… going from hospital to hospital for oxygen tanks, snacks, water...” She held up a handful of protein drinks when she said snacks, and Svalbard guessed that they didn’t eat solid food.

“Some… stuff happened… I had to leave the highways and lost the wheel in the process. It was one of those spike traps, you know? The kind apocalypse preppers put down?” They said it nonchalantly, but Svalbard was suddenly transported to the first day she had met her first friend in the apocalypse.

“So you see, pretty lady, this is the difference between caltrops, bear traps, and spike traps. Spike traps are good for-”

“H-hey, listen, it’s nice that you think I’m pretty and all, but you can’t keep calling me Pretty Lady, Joey!” She laughingly pleaded with him.

She really did think it was sweet, but it was bordering on frustrating now. Plus she had the feeling that he was the type of guy who might change his tune if he knew she was trans. She had to swallow that fear down a lot. She already thought he might be calling her pretty just so she’d stay after she’d found a bunch of old racist memorabilia in the large garage they were calling home. He’d begun doing it just after that.

“Well I’m sorry miss, I am, but I don’t know your name seeing as you won’t give it to me and all and you gotta know how pretty you are miss, I, I want you to know.” He said it in that faux-timid way he’d been doing since she had met him. It was like he was confused. Sometimes he’d be this shy nerd going on about the differences between spike traps and sometimes he’d demand attention, sounding like a militant army Sergeant, barking orders at her in double time. Those times were usually when a horde of Blanks were at the door.

“Well… hey I know Joey! Why don’t you give me a nickname! You come up with the best names for things!” She was referencing The Blanks, it was his idea to call them that, since their faces were blank, lacking eyes and teeth and complexion. She’d thought it was clever when he first explained it to her.

“Svalbard.” He replied immediately. “Means… salvation.” He smiled brightly, a rare moment for him. She smiled back.

“Really? Tell me about it?” She said back.

She could still remember that smile.

“Yo, you okay?” Wheelchair User asked, waving a hand over at her. “You sort of zoned out there?”

Svalbard blinks a bit.

“Oh yeah I was uh…. thinking about a uh….” A flash of klan memorabilia, the betrayal and fear she had felt all those years ago… the betrayal she felt still, like it was yesterday. The smile he gave her, rare and shy, when they joked, an outstretched hand, apologetic looks.

A man who would have at one time killed her for the color of her skin, a man who saved her life time and time again. He obviously had changed his views somewhere down the line, but he wasn’t man enough to actually apologise to her for having had them. She had really hated him sometimes.

And sometimes, like now when she was carrying a full grown person and their wheelchair for miles, she really fucking missed him.

“A friend.” She bit her lip and apparently Wheelchair User could tell the nature of the pain behind her eyes.

She nodded in understanding, and that’s when Svalbard saw what it was they were doing. Her eyes widened and fear gripped her heart.

“Stop! What are you doing!? You can’t do that, you… you’ll… turn.” She had almost yanked the water bottle and straw out of her friend’s hands when she got a glimpse of them.

They had their rebreather out of their mouth, the electric tape keeping it tight against their clear oxygen mask. They had the oxygen mask lifted up enough to get the straw under it, drinking directly from the bottle, no filter or anything. Svalbard couldn’t believe it. She had seen with her own two eyes people turn to blanks from way more protection than that. Was it the water? She couldn’t tell, couldn’t believe it.

“What!? What is it? Sval?” Wheelchair User looked around wildly, the water sloshing a little. She was fine. Totally and perfectly fine. Svalbard stayed quiet. She wasn’t sure how to explain to someone that they should be dead right now. She felt like she should just be quiet about it so that’s what she did. Made as much sense as stuffing seeds into a heart shaped necklace.

“N-nothing… it’s… I don’t know, I saw something else I guess. Sorry.” She suddenly didn’t feel very thirsty, wasn’t sure how she’d explain the extension hose and filters she’d need to use. Just because something was safe for someone else didn’t mean she was going to chance it.

Wheelchair User shrugged and nodded.

“Yeah I see things too sometimes.” She sipped her water. “I think it’s probably the heat.” She still looked concerned but not as freaked out. Svalbard wished she could say the same for herself.

She began setting up her filtration system, a life straw she had gotten years ago, and an extension on her gas mask that dropped down, filtered the air out using both gravity and a filter canister with a whole punched into it just big enough for the straw. She held her breath as she attached it, she then fed the straw through, reaching down and out until she could grab it in her teeth, drinking long pulls of water. It has a weird taste, it was mostly filtered rain water, and ground water always tasted better. Wheelchair User watched but didn’t comment. She was grateful.

She finished with her water, wishing desperately she could wipe her mouth, and she moved the straw from her canteen, holding it in her teeth and blowing through it with all her might to remove the unfiltered water. She worked it back through the filter canister, pushing it down with her tongue till it fell out of the house into her waiting hands.

She put everything back up, holding her breath once more as she unscrewed the extension to her mask and replaced the filter. She knew she’d have to get another filter soon. She hoped she could find one.

She placed everything back in her bag and pulled her hood over her head.

“Aren’t you hot with that hoodie on?” Her friend asked, somehow ignoring the fact that they themself were in a striped long sleeved shirt and fluffy pyjama pants. Sval shrugged.

“It’s too hot to get cool by not havin’ anything on, so really it’s just about protecting your skin from the sun. The ozone is thinner now than it was before all this, and the back of my head is gonna get sunburnt if I don’t shield it. I’m usually walking west in midday sun so I didn’t consider it.”

Wheelchair User beamed at her. “You’re really smart, Lady Svalbard. Do you think I could use this bag to shield my head and face?” She asked fiddling with her bag. It still had water bottles and other things in it. Svalbard laughed and grabbed a spare shirt from her bag, wrapping her friend’s head up, careful not to jostle the oxygen mask.

“Well then, once more unto the breach?” Wheelchair User asked and Svalbard smiled.

“Hey, another Shakespeare fan?!” She asked, happy to have something to talk about. She needed to stay out of her own head. Wheelchair User looked equally as enthused.

“So what’s your favourite tragedy and what’s your favourite comedy?” They asked conversationally, as Svalbard hoisted them once again onto her shoulder.

And they walked towards the barn, discussing plays and poetry.

Adventure

About the author

Cereal Oatmeal

Autistic, Pan, Trans

I use all pronouns including neopronouns!

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