Join me in welcoming the lovely Elena Johansen. She’s here to share a bit about her debut novel, What We Need To Survive.
Music has always been a huge part of my life. Everyone in my family sings, and some of my earliest memories involve that—sitting between my parents in a church pew and hearing my dad’s booming baritone and my mother’s flawless sight-reading of the alto harmonies, listening to my brother singing along with the radio or spouting out random bits of song from school choir. I started to sing along almost as soon as I was talking.
My elementary-school years were dominated by fantasies that someday, I’d be like Madonna or Janet Jackson, a huge pop star. My teenage years were taken over by grunge and alternative, staying up late and listening to that new Smashing Pumpkins song just one more time before I really had to go to bed or I’d be a shambling zombie in class the next day.
I do my chores to music, I run to music, I turn off the sound in my video games sometimes because I’d rather listen to my favorite tunes. A day when I don’t have a chance to listen to music is usually a bad day.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that even my plague-ruined dystopian world still had to have music in it.
Paul, our romantic hero, used to be a musician, a singer-songwriter trying to make a name for himself with the power of his voice, his words, and his hands on the keys of a piano. Even after the plague, he still carries a notebook with him to scratch down lyrics whenever he can, because his dreams of success may have died with the old world, but that doesn’t mean his passion is gone.
But, of course, I’m not actually the songwriter I made him out to be. So, if you want some idea of the sort of songs I imagine him writing and performing, I give you the What We Need to Survive playlist.
Thinking Out Loud – I’d started the book before I ever heard this song, and when it was constantly on the radio (which I didn’t mind a bit!) I couldn’t stop thinking about how this was Paul in a nutshell.
I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues – Paul’s a tenor who plays piano. There was no way he wouldn’t know everything Elton John’s ever done.
Ever the Same – Another song that’s pretty on-the-nose for Paul’s tenderheartedness.
Annie’s Song – This is on the list because it’s hands-down one of the best love songs ever written. He’d know it, he’d sing it. In an early draft where I was actually including the songs he sang, he did.
An Innocent Man – What is true for Elton John is just as true for Billy Joel. In his piano-bar days, Paul was probably playing “Piano Man” every night, but this is a better fit for his early troubles working his way into Nina’s heart.
Something in the Way She Moves – Okay, James Taylor is a guitar man, but still, you can be sure Paul knows all his songs.
Let Me Serenade You – This one’s self-explanatory, right?
All That I’m Asking For – Because nothing ever goes perfectly the first time.
Nightswimming – One of the most beautiful piano pieces I know. The first time I heard this, I wished I knew how to play piano, just so I could learn it.
Better Than Love – Though I didn’t know it at the time, Griffin House is pretty close to how I imagined Paul’s voice. (I started out thinking he sounded more like Jason Wade of Lifehouse, but then I heard this song, and I knew better.)
Something To Say – Toad the Wet Sprocket is reaching a little past the singer-songwriter groove, but the lyrics are spot-on for Paul’s willingness to listen just as much as he talks.
New York to California – Mat Kearney was another early candidate for Paul’s voice, and even if he didn’t win, I couldn’t pass up a song about devotion.
After the plague, the world became a web of silent roads stretching between empty towns.
Paul discovered he had a knack for living on the move, finding supplies and trading them with other survivors, never staying long in one place, or with one person. But he wanted to. Life would be easier with someone to watch his back.
Nina found her own way to survive in the ruined world, but the choices she made left her guarded and mistrustful. Not a woman likely to care for a handsome stranger who falls in with her group of survivors.
Attraction can be ignored, and trust has to be earned. But the days spent searching for food and shelter, and the nights spent keeping watch, don’t satisfy their truest need…
When danger is never far away, is love a luxury they can’t afford? What We Need to Survive captures the tension, fear, and hope of two people struggling to build a new way of life from the leftovers of the old, deciding what to hold on to, and what to leave behind.
* * * *
Chapter One – Cigarette Lighters
August 23rd, 4:23 pm – Somewhere along US-36, Central Ohio
Paul kicked a rock out of his path, watching it bounce and skitter down the highway.
He saw no point in wasting breath on cursing the weather. One squall of rain caught him earlier in the day, forcing him into the cramped shelter of one of the abandoned cars dotting the road. But the boom of thunder in the distance worried him. He’d spent plenty of nights out in the open. Sleeping in the rain was miserable enough, but he imagined sleeping through a storm would be next to impossible.
He looked up, but thick forest on both sides of the highway hid all but the narrowest strip of sky. Blank, unbroken gray hovered above him. There was no way to judge how close the storm was, except for the unreliable system of counting Mississippis.
The closest building he remembered passing was at least half an hour behind him, maybe an hour. The closest town he’d left behind yesterday afternoon. Turning back might get him to shelter before the storm struck, if he hurried.
Or it might not. The road ahead curved away from him, and the trees could hide anything.
Paul kept moving forward, faster under the threat of rain.
Ten minutes later, he spied a gas station and picked up his pace even more.
As he got closer, the station didn’t seem promising. Most of the windows gaped empty, broken down to their frames, and the front door hung askew on a broken hinge. The first fallen leaves of the season littered the parking lot. Shards of glass from the broken windows and random bits of trash lay scattered among them.
The rain started as Paul reached the edge of the parking lot. He sprinted for the cover of the roof protecting the pumps.
Hard-won caution kept him from dashing the rest of the way inside. Instead he approached the building with slow, deliberate steps, holding up his empty hands. “Hello in there!” he called. “Anybody home?”
There was no answer, but Paul remained wary. When he was a few yards from the open door, he stopped and called again. “Is anyone there? I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, just a place to get out of the rain.”
A shuffling sound came from his right, and a movement that flickered in the corner of his eye. He turned toward it and saw a gun pointed in his direction. The gunman himself hid in the shadow of the empty window frame.
“Stay where you are!” the man shouted. His voice was deep and authoritative, the kind of voice that focused the attention of anyone who heard it. Paul didn’t doubt it belonged to a man willing to shoot him, if necessary.
“No trouble,” Paul repeated. “I was hopin’ this place was empty, ’cause I’d rather be inside than out with a storm overhead. But if I ain’t welcome, I’ll move on.”
“Stay right there, and give me a minute!”
Paul did as the man ordered, watching the gun in the window, which didn’t move. He guessed the man was talking to someone inside, but he couldn’t hear anything. While he waited, the rain grew heavier, pinging on the corrugated metal of the roofing like the highest notes played on a huge steel drum.
“You got any weapons?” the deep-voiced man called out.
“Just the knife on my belt,” Paul answered. “No guns.”
“You can wait out the storm with us in here, then be on your way. Sound reasonable?”
Paul lowered his hands. “Yeah, that’s good.” The gun disappeared from the window, and the knot of tension in Paul’s chest loosened. He hadn’t believed he was going to get shot, but he was relieved to be right.
Unless they were going to rob him the minute he walked in the door. But it was too late to run now. If they meant to take his supplies, then the man with the gun could shoot him in the back when he fled.
Best to play along.
A man with dark brown skin and chin-length dreadlocks appeared in the doorway. He was shorter than Paul, but that didn’t mean he could be dismissed as a threat, since he was much more heavily muscled. His straight-backed posture and firm gaze shouted military to Paul. Or maybe cop. And he sported a holster on his belt. The man with the gun.
Unless there’s more than one of ‘em.
When Paul didn’t move, he flashed a grin, wide and startlingly white. “Come on in,” he said, beckoning with one hand. He stood aside to let Paul through.
The inside of the station wasn’t in any better shape than the outside. The metal shelving units were empty, all the chocolate bars and potato chips gone. Glass-fronted refrigerators lined the back wall, but those were empty, too. At the counter, the cash register lay on its side, the drawer popped loose. Paul guessed that had happened in the first few days, when looters thought money still meant something. It hadn’t taken long before that wasn’t true anymore. Dark patches stained the white linoleum floor. Paul hoped they weren’t blood. Though they probably were.
“I’m John,” the man said. His voice sounded almost friendly, and Paul lifted his hand in automatic reaction to meet John’s for a shake. He dropped it when he saw there was no hand offered.
“Paul.” He settled for giving John a nod instead.
John turned and headed for an open space beyond the counter. Paul meant to follow, but he stopped short at the sight of a girl crouched under the window. She was small, her thin limbs folded in on themselves to take up as little space as possible. Her black hair was oddly uneven in length, not quite reaching her shoulders. Paul guessed it was growing out from whatever shorter style she’d had, before. Her wide eyes watched him with silent tension, like a fawn ready to bolt to safety.
Paul hadn’t met many kids on the road, but most of them looked a lot like her. Frail and frightened, not ready to face what the world had become since the plague had ruined everything.
Before Paul could decide what to say to her—or even if he should say anything at all—she shot to her feet and followed John across the room. Her ill-fitting clothes didn’t completely hide the curves of her body, and the swing of her hips was shocking and compelling at the same time. She wasn’t a young girl at all. Her head wouldn’t even reach Paul’s shoulder, but she was a grown woman, right down to the angry toss of her hair.
But still frightened.
Paul let her have her distance from him. With any luck, the storm would pass before nightfall, leaving him time to move on and make camp somewhere else for the night. He’d shared makeshift shelter with strangers before, talked, and traded, but he never slept well. And it was no great leap to guess the woman didn’t want him there.
Though she had let him in, at least. That was why she’d been at the window, Paul guessed—John had checked with her before giving Paul permission.
Lightning flashed outside. Paul counted four-Mississippi before the thunder rolled over the building. After the next strike, he counted three.
If the light were better, he could pass the time scribbling in his notebook. A half-formed song had haunted his thoughts for days, and he’d welcome a chance to jot down the lyrics. But it would be a waste of ink and paper trying to write by lightning flashes.
If the company were better, he could talk and see about some trading. He was running lower than he liked on food, though he had enough to see him through the next day or two. The towns on this stretch of the highway all seemed to be one or two days apart, so he expected to hit another one tomorrow. He could spend a day searching houses for supplies.
Glancing around the interior of the station, he wondered if there was a rack of local road maps. So far, he’d been navigating by the ones posted on the walls at rest stations. But it was too dark to see much of anything, except a weak glow from the far corner. Someone had lit a candle. He heard low voices talking. John’s, he recognized. Another one, lighter and higher-pitched, he assumed was the woman’s. But there was a third, too, higher still and squeaky.
Another flash of lightning drew Paul’s attention back to the window. No need to introduce himself to the others if they were only company while the storm lasted. With nothing else to do, he cleared a space on the counter, sat on it, and watched the storm.
There was a light patter of footsteps. Paul turned just as someone reached out to touch his arm. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Paul replied.
The boy looked about nine or ten. His skin was almost the same deep brown shade as John’s. The glow of the candlelight behind him traced the edges of his short corkscrew curls, giving them a faint golden sheen.
“Do you want to trade with us before we eat dinner?” he asked, half-polite and half-shy. “Maybe we have something different, if you’re tired of what you got.”
“Sure.” Paul slid off the counter top and followed the boy over to the others.
John sat cross-legged with his back to one wall. “Aaron, I told you not to bother him.”
Aaron shrugged as he settled beside John. “I just wanted to see if he had any different food we could trade for. I’m tired of peanut butter crackers.”
In the corner, the woman sat with her knees drawn up before her. She flicked a glance at Paul but said nothing as he pulled off his pack and sat down several feet away.
“You might be in luck, then, Aaron,” Paul said. “I’ve got some granola bars. The s’mores kind, I think.”
Aaron gave him a big smile that was nearly identical to John’s. Paul didn’t want to leap to any conclusions based on the fact that they were both black, but they looked enough alike to be father and son. So far, they were acting like it.
Paul stole another glance at the woman as she stared into the candle flame, ignoring everything else. Her skin was a lighter golden brown, under the smudges of dirt. And despite the realization that she wasn’t a child, she didn’t look anywhere near old enough to be Aaron’s mother. So who was she, and how did she end up with them?
The sound of a zipper snapped his thoughts back into focus—Aaron had a battered red backpack on the floor in front of him. He reached in and pulled out two packets of crackers.
Paul rifled through his own supplies and turned up two granola bars in exchange. He was about to ask what else they might want, open-ended, to see if he could draw the woman out at all. Before he could, he heard wet, squelching footsteps from the front of the building. He leaped to his feet, whirling to face the newcomers. Three of them, two women and a man, all middle-aged, all splattered with rain.
“Easy, Paul.” John’s voice was firm. “They’re with us.”
“If we’d known the rain would start so soon,” the man said, “we could’ve just set these outside and let the storm fill them up.” He had a large metal water bottle in each hand. One he passed to John, the other he set on the floor beside him as he sat down. “So you made a new friend while we were gone?”
A soft snort came from the corner, but John answered them without acknowledging it. “Just sharing the roof until the storm passes.”
The man pulled off his baseball cap, ran a tanned hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, and smiled. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to get rained on.” He stuck out his other hand, which Paul shook briefly. “Mark.”
“And this is my wife, Sarah,” he went on as one of the women sat down on his other side. The rain plastered her short blond hair to her forehead, but she smiled too and passed the extra bottle she carried to Aaron.
“Nice to meet you, Paul,” she said.
The final newcomer was still standing, looking down at Paul with a curious intensity. “Hello there.” Handsome, Paul mentally tacked on, because that was the exact tone she used. Since she was staring, he did too.
She was tall, or maybe she only seemed tall because she was lean and angular. Her hair was a riot of messy red curls in dire need of a wash, but she was pretty, in a faded, tired sort of way. Before the plague hit, she must have been beautiful. Before her eyes grew ringed with dark circles and her cheeks hollowed out from lack of food. “I’m Alison.”
Paul nodded. Alison tilted her head to the side for a moment, clearly waiting for more. When she didn’t get it, she strode past him. Behind him, which made his shoulder blades itch before he realized she was going to the small woman’s side.
Who still hadn’t given her name. Someone would, though. Paul could be patient.
Alison leaned against the wall and tapped it twice with the extra bottle in her hand. The sound reminded Paul of a food dish being set on the floor for a pet. Without looking, the woman reached her hand up, palm flat, and Alison set the bottle on it. Neither of them said a word.
When Alison sat down between her and Paul, closer to him than he would have liked, he had to resist the urge to pull away. No sense in being rude if he was only here until the storm let up.
“So, Paul,” Mark said with forced cheerfulness, “which way you headed?”
Mark’s lips twisted behind his dark scruff of a beard, which hadn’t gone as white as his hair yet. “Damn, us too. I was hoping you were coming from there, so we could get an idea what the road ahead was like.”
Shaking his head, Paul said, “Sorry I can’t be more help.”
“Maybe you can,” Sarah said. “Do you have anything to trade?”
With an easy smile, Paul asked, “What d’you need?”
Sarah pursed her lips as she thought, and the cuteness of the expression took years off her face. “Extra socks?” she asked, hopeful enough that Paul knew she needed them, but resigned enough that she didn’t expect to get them.
Paul shook his head and turned to Mark.
“Smokes.” Which earned him a light slap on the shoulder from his wife. “What, it’s been weeks now!” But Paul’s answer was another shake of his head.
John had Aaron seated in his lap and was finger-combing the boy’s hair. “I’m not holding my breath that you’ve got any natural-hair care products. I’m more likely to get struck by lightning. Inside.”
The dry, deadpan tone startled a laugh out of Paul. “I ain’t even got anything for myself right now,” he said, scratching at his dark blond hair. “I’m way overdue for a wash, and dunkin’ my head in a river ain’t the same. I’d shave it all off if electric razors were still a thing.”
Mark gestured at him. “You’ve got a knife.”
“I’d cut myself to ribbons. I think I’ll keep bein’ shaggy for now.”
Aaron, sensing his turn, piped up. “Any books? I’ve read the one I have about a dozen times by now.”
“Not much of a reader,” Paul answered. “What book you got?”
“Treasure Island,” Aaron said. “I like adventure stories.”
Alison snorted. “You’re living in one.”
John gave her a narrow-eyed look over Aaron’s head, but he didn’t say anything.
The sharp and sudden request focused Paul’s attention on its source, the unnamed woman. Gone was the frightened doe of a girl—now her eyes were hard and flat. “Half a bottle of aspirin,” he offered. “What’ll you give me for it?”
“All I’ve got to spare is food. Cheese crackers, chocolate bars, take your pick. Or a can of Red Bull, if you’re afraid to sleep in here with us tonight and want to stay awake instead.”
“Nina . . .” John said with more than a hint of warning in his voice.
So she’s got a name after all.
“It’s thunderstorm season,” she said. “We’ve been lucky so far they haven’t been worse, but this one’s not going to pass over in an hour like you hope. We’re going to be here overnight.”
Alison hunched forward, elbows on her knees. “How do you know?”
“The weather here isn’t much different from where I grew up,” she answered with a slight shrug. “I lived with this every summer as a kid.” She turned back to Paul. “Anyway, does that work for you?”
Medicine of any kind was valuable, even the common stuff like aspirin. Food was never a bad trade, but he doubted she had enough to spare. “You hurt?” he asked, stalling.
“Cramps,” she answered shortly, and Paul suppressed a grin.
Any urge he’d felt to smile, though, disappeared when Alison spoke. “I’d think you’d be glad you’re having them.”
Paul found the bottle in his pack and rolled it across the floor toward Nina. It stopped at the toe of her boot, and she stared at it without speaking.
“Don’t need any food,” Paul said, though it wasn’t strictly true. “I’ve got enough for myself for now. But since y’all were here first, I figure anything left in this place is yours, and I saw some lighters in the display on the counter. I’d be happy with a few of those. Seems like a good thing to have, and they might come in handy for trades down the line.”
Off to his other side, John and Mark traded a stunned look—Paul guessed they hadn’t noticed the lighters. Mark got up to retrieve them. “Let’s see . . .” he said, counting. “If we each keep one for ourselves, that leaves six for you. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Paul said. Mark brought them over to him, and out of the corner of his eye Paul watched Nina. She didn’t reach out to take the aspirin until the lighters were in his hands. Mark distributed the rest of them while Nina swallowed a few pills with a swig from her water bottle. She noticed Paul watching and nodded at him.
He figured that was the closest she would come to thanking him, so he gave her a smile. Not the huge, dazzling grin that his mother had once told him would break hearts someday. Instead it was the small curve at the corners that his girlfriends, over the years, had all told him was sweet. He used the first one on women he wanted to impress—the second was usually reserved for the ones he was already close to. But the last thing he wanted to do was make Nina think he was attracted to her.
Even though he was. Illuminated by the candlelight, Paul could see she had beautiful eyes, big, vividly blue, and fringed with thick lashes. He had a pronounced weakness for women with gorgeous eyes.
But Paul could see Nina wasn’t like some of the other women he’d met on the road in the aftermath of the plague. The ones just as lonely as he was, who were willing to trust him for the length of one night before they parted ways in the morning. He never looked back, and neither did they. There hadn’t been many, and it had been weeks since the last time, so it was only natural he’d find himself falling in lust with someone.
Even if prying words out of that someone was a challenge.
Before the silence between them stretched on too long, Paul forced himself to look away. “Alison, you want anything?”
What We Need To Survive
Elena Johansen pursued a lot of interests in her life before she decided she really should have been a writer all along.
Now she is one. That whole rock-star thing probably wouldn’t have worked out, anyway.
She lives in Michigan with her husband.