Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 9...
About a mile or so past the bridge, Route 103 crested the sharp bulge of a hill and sloped steeply down into a small village. Though it was tiny when compared with downtown Claremont, the single strip of mixed-use buildings was a sight that Elizabeth had always found charming in its own, obliviously quaint way. It consisted of a mile long drag of 103 peppered on either side with old capes and colonials long ago converted into office space. Roadside outlets were spaced between them that emptied out into sprawling parking lots for the likes of Walmart and Hannaford set off of the village proper. It all sat within the basin of a shallow mountain valley overlooked by a couple bald, granite peaks which Elizabeth wouldn’t have named if there was a gun to her head.
She paused at the crest of the hill and took cover in the roadside brush. Dad’s paranoia seeped through her like dye, prompting her to unsling the AR and lay it across her lap as she scanned the terrain below. Thumbing at the safety, she tested the limits of her own patience as she counted to 1000 with Mississippis fully pronounced between each numeral. During this seemingly endless span of time her gaze was caught by an array of moving objects, none of them human. A single unsecured shutter clapping lazily against the side of a house. A white plastic bag fluttering and eddying across the double yellow of 103 as it curled into the village. The untamed branches of a shrub spaced along the front of an office building, desperately pleading for its spring trimming.
The Sugar River emerged from the gap between mountains and flowed toward the town to where it seemed to almost consciously change its course, carving sharply away from the group of buildings to where it hugged 103 running out of town and off into the green wilds. Even from where she sat Elizabeth caught that funk of spoiled onions every now and then. It reminded her that time was of the essence and that her things would not be safe for long back at the bridge. With mounting anxiety, she held her breath and gripped the charging handle that sat atop the AR. Just as Dad had taught her, she yanked it back, teeth clenched, and released it, chambering a round from the clip. She dared not disengage the safety just yet. Just having a loaded rifle in her hands was terrifying enough.
Stepping up and out of the brush, she began a careful descent toward the village, sticking as close to the wooded cover at the shoulder of the road as possible. With the rifle clutched in her hands she felt like a special ops commando on some mission for the government. She rolled her eyes at an image of her clad in camo fatigues, a flak jacket, and combat boots before returning her attention to the village taking form ahead of her. At a glance it seemed just as empty as Claremont, but unlike her home town, this place felt quietly occupied, as though unseen predators were watching and waiting.
The tang of the river was more pervasive the farther she got toward town. She stole a few passing glances toward the rock-littered borders of the rushing water as it curled away from the village, noting a variety of buckets and basins arranged at its banks. Some were bright and fun-colored, suited for making sand castles at the beach. Others were ovular and metallic, and large enough to accommodate a bathing adult. These sights did not bode well for the citizens of Newport, wherever they were. If they’d been drinking the water it stood to reason that many of them had already fled the New World for good.
Elizabeth took her mind off of the buckets and other vessels arranged at the edge of the river and paused as the gently sloping edge of a sidewalk marked the end of the dusty roadside. It swung around the edge of the building with the flapping shutter, now still in the absence of the breeze, and led into the village proper. She pressed her back against the building and edged her way down the sidewalk until she could peer around the corner and down the main drag of 103. What she saw was more of the same from the hilltop. Just an empty street. There were a few cars parked along the road, some now resting with their rims pressed upon the deflated rubber of their tires. Spread out here and there were a number of objects she first mistook for duffle bags. She nearly dropped the rifle, clapping her hand to her mouth in horror, as she realized that these were actually crumpled up corpses.
The returning memory of her dream hit her all at once, slamming its way to the forefront of her thoughts after being held for days at the back of her memory. The walking corpses that had exited those buildings had been ghastly enough, but this was next-level. It went well beyond her capacity for imagination. Though she’d only glanced at the nearest body as she made sense of what she was seeing, the image of it would remained seared into her memory for the rest of her life.
I can’t do this, Dad. I just can’t.
This is your road forward, Dad’s voice spoke. Either turn tail and head back to Claremont or push past your fear. This won’t be the last terrible thing you’ll see. You’re going to be picking up these sights like hitchhikers.
He was right. He’d be right about everything he said to her for the rest of her life. The corpses that lay in the street around the corner were mere appetizers in the larger banquet of the New World. It was time she got a taste for them.
Elizabeth’s knuckles grew white as she gripped the rifle and forced herself to peek around the corner again. Not even ten feet away, half slumped onto the sidewalk, were the remains of what could have been an old woman. The face was all Elizabeth could see. The rest of the woman remained bundled in her cold weather gear, a long coat of black wool that extended down to her booted feet. Yellowed hair that had probably been white before its months of exposure to the winter framed the woman’s face. Two sunken eyes, wide open and fogged with death stared out from a leather-wrapped skull. A toothless mouth gawked at her. After a few moments of careful study, Elizabeth was struck by the revelation that the corpse actually looked more artificial than those she’d seen in television shows and movies. Though this came as an immense comfort, she also realized in that moment that she’d unconsciously walked around the corner and pointed the nose of the rifle at the dead woman.
Her gaze moved down the street, counting the other bodies, all of which were similarly dressed – as if they’d ventured out and died of exposure. Elizabeth knew better though. They’d drank the water.
Twenty-seven, she counted, some of them so small that she couldn’t bare to think of them for what they really were. Some of them had probably been her age. How many infants had died in this town alone because their parents knew no better than to mix their formula with the tainted water? Based on the abrupt arrival of spring, at least from a botanical standpoint, the plants seemed to have no issue with it – quite the opposite really. But her dad and the corpses that littered the village of Newport testified that human beings were in grave need of a purification system.
She started forward, moving around the old woman well out of reaching distance. A part of her expected the body to suddenly come to life. Her grip on reality tightened as she passed the corpse without incident, and she walked deeper into the village, now on the lookout for the more dangerous presence of the living. If there had been any kind of struggle here she could not see any signs of it. Those who lay crumpled up on the pavement appeared to have died on their own. If it had been a struggle over supplies and the necessities of survival, Elizabeth imagined the jackets would no longer be on the corpses, and with the exclusion of a few, every one of them seemed to have simply collapsed while on a winter’s walk.
The mixed-use capes and colonials on either side of the road were of no real interest to her, though she studied their windows and doorways warily as she passed, thumbing the safety on Dad’s rifle. Even more terrifying than the prospect of someone storming out of one of these buildings was that of having to actually fire the weapon. Elizabeth had shot it a few times under pressure from Dad, and she was terrified of the thing. Dad always mumbled things about respect for the rifle and control while firing, but these had always felt like sermons at Sunday School as opposed to lessons on practical application. Popping off a few interspersed shots was okay enough, but managing the rifle in full auto was near impossible.
But there wasn’t anyone waiting in the windows or at the doors, and if there were they didn’t seem interested in announcing themselves. She passed by a couple of lawyers offices, a CPA firm, and a two-unit shared space formerly occupied by businesses named R. Ryan Carter Investments and Josephine Isla Insurance Services; puzzle pieces of the Old World that Elizabeth was glad to have avoided. There were some things that could stay dead, thank you very much.
Twenty feet ahead the buildings broke up from their tight clustering at a sign on the right reading Walmart. It rose from the mouth of a divided side street that curled its way behind the old buildings, eventually dumping out into a massive parking lot with a view of the river. Now more than ever Elizabeth wished she had a pair of binoculars as she concealed herself in the shadow of a white colonial at the edge of the side street. No more than a few hundred feet away, the anachronistic ramparts of the warehouse-style building lay dwarfed by the enfolding mountains with the river wending around it. From her point of view it looked like the river struck right through the building.
There didn’t seem to be anyone in the parking lot or mulling about near the building, but Elizabeth felt her heart squeezed at the sight of broken glass littering the concrete just outside the entry and exit doors on the grocery side. It was worse on the home and garden side where someone had driven a car straight into the foyer where those greeters who always made uncomfortable eye contact were usually positioned. Upon a closer survey of the parking lot, she noted a number of cars parked askew, with a few locked together head-on in an embrace of jagged metal from which they would never be pried.
Elizabeth felt like she was a million miles from Claremont. The Hannaford had been an easy warmup, and if she’d been sensible she would have stayed there until someone came around to challenge her claim. But she was too far along now. Plus, it didn’t really matter anyway – the longer she stayed in Claremont the further the remaining resources of the world would diminish. She would have had to emerge eventually, and most likely into a world much more dire and desperate than the one through which she was currently passing.
Be safe, baby. Don’t take chances.
There was no way in hell she was going to approach that Walmart, not when the road she was to travel was open and left her exposed. Just because she didn’t see anyone didn’t mean that they weren’t there. Paranoia was the key to survival. Don’t trust anything human.
She backtracked to an alleyway just wide enough to fit a car, but only if the driver was unconcerned with keeping his mirrors. It was dark enough for hiding purposes given how close the buildings were together and the sun’s slow but persistent arc into the sky. Garbage bins of various types, metal and plastic, were arranged on either side against the less fussed-over and dingy siding of the two colonials. As she started walking toward the end of the alleyway she realized that it opened upon a small one lane utility road shrouded by maple trees and pressed with unbroken shadow. Though paved, it cut to gravel and passed through a tunnel of overhanging branches before connecting up with the side-street running down to the Walmart parking lot.
This would do nicely as a spot to park herself, rest up, and watch the previously ransacked store for a few hours. Though a voice nagged in the back of her mind about the supplies she’d left behind on the bridge, it was not that of her father and was arbitrarily dismissed. Self-preservation came first.
She settled down in a pile of leaves that had collected against the chain-link fence running parallel to the utility road and guarding against an unintended tumble down the steep, tree-studded hill beyond. From there she had a clear view of the Walmart through a slot in the trees. She sat studying the parking lot and the areas to the sides of the building, relieved to have a break from all the walking. It only then occurred to her that she’d been on the move since the early hours of morning without a break, this including her precarious shuffle along the outer edge of the bridge. It would have been a smart idea to have paused and eaten, maybe put away a few bottles of water before continuing on from the bridge, but there was no taking back her error in judgement now. Working up a pool of saliva under her tongue, she gathered her spit and swallowed against the dryness of her throat. This did nothing to stave her thirst. If anything, she thought it made the whole thing worse.
Time passed slowly without a single sign of movement from the Walmart. The town was silent except for the ebb and flow of the breeze which whispered through the eaves and alleyways like the voices of ghosts. She reasoned it had been close to an hour when she started to nod off, snapping awake a few times in a panic that left her so frightened that she ejected the round she’d chambered in fear that she’d accidentally fire off a shot. When deeper, restful sleep finally did overcome her, she slumbered soundlessly in the sanctuary of the surrounding brush, and when she woke again she felt refreshed. A quick study of the Walmart parking lot left her as assured as she could be that nobody was coming or going from the place. It was safe enough now to bite the bullet and approach.
With a drawn out yawn, Elizabeth stretched out her arms and arched her back, bones popping all over in that feel-good way. Using the fence for leverage, she pushed herself to her feet, chambered a fresh round in Dad’s rifle, and started forward toward the end of the utility road. She was about to step onto the gravel and into the sunlight when the low rumble of a car engine reached her ears from far away.
She pressed into the brush at the edge of the chain-link fence and froze in place, thumb on the safety of the rifle and index finger on its trigger as the sound slowly clarified into the distinct revving of two separate vehicles. They were approaching from the direction of the bridge.
Turning about, she tried to peer through the mess of foliage in the direction of the sound, but the leaves were too thick. It didn’t matter though, the vehicles soon entered the main drag, their engines roaring like the voice of God through the formerly quiet street. The squeal of tires taking a turn just a little too tightly was followed by a male voice yelling watch it, and seconds later a lifted truck roared past the utility road with half a dozen heads bobbing in the bed. It was followed by a large, black SUV towing an open trailer loaded up to capacity and draped with blue tarpaulin. They were headed right for the Walmart, and based on the way they’d sped right through town, Elizabeth had no reason to believe this was their first time there.
The vehicles maneuvered through the parking lot and pulled up alongside the entrance that had previously been vaporized by the car. The men in the back of the truck – and they were all men – wasted no time getting out and walking toward the SUV. Though she was a good distance away, Elizabeth could see that they were all carrying guns. They spoke with loud, arrogant voices, as if they fancied themselves the gods of the New World. This alone informed her that they were dangerous. It was confirmed as they yanked open the backseat doors of the SUV and pried two screaming women and what looked like a small boy from the car.
Elizabeth’s breathing stopped. Her knuckles grew white on the rifle. She watched, horrified, as the men carried the women flailing and crying out in abject terror around the vehicle and into the store. The boy didn’t fight back, but she could see his shoulders heaving as he wept. One of the men threw him over his shoulder and carried him like a gutted dear into the building behind his cohorts. Moments later the sounds of struggle ceased carrying across the parking lot and a number of additional men filed out of the store to unload the trailer.
It wasn’t until her body cried out for air that Elizabeth drew in a gasping breath. She’d pressed herself against the chain-link fence to the point where it bulged outward like a bubble, as if on some unconscious level she’d already started her retreat from this place.
Wait until nightfall, Dad said. Then get as far as you can from this place. Backtrack to the bridge and travel the side roads until—
Dad’s voice cut out like a radio turning off suddenly as she caught one of the men turning away from the trailer, arms loaded up with prescription drug bottles. At first she didn’t believe her eyes and told herself that she was too far away to be sure, but when a number of them fell free and rolled across the parking lot, she no longer felt any doubt. One of the men came up behind his buddy and knelt to pick up the bottles he’d dropped. As he collected them he set down a couple boxes of cereal. Another of them came away from the trailer carrying packages of bottled water, and then another walked away fumbling an armload of prescription meds.
They’d found her stuff. Of course they had. They’d probably set out early that morning, raiding homes for supplies while she walked into their domain like a mouse into the open maw of a cat. Those women and the boy… had they been like her and Dad, holed up in their homes and hoping they’d go unnoticed? Elizabeth shuddered at the thought of what awaited those poor souls inside that Walmart. It was a fate that awaited her as well if she wasn’t careful. Mere hours outside of Claremont and she’d already lost everything but the rifle in her hands. Was this what human beings truly were at their core? Without the necessary repression of authority was this the nature of humanity?
Don’t let the New World destroy my baby girl.
It wouldn’t. She’d kill herself before she became like those men or let them take her. Or at least that’s what she told herself. At the young age of 16 she was already wise beyond her years, but there were certain aspects of this new reality which had yet to fully sink in. She had yet to understand the true depths of desperation that drove people to committing atrocious acts.
Wait until nightfall. Don’t go back to the bridge. Just get out of town and stay on your guard.
She would, but there were still many hours separating her from the cover of darkness she would need to escape. She was thirsty and hungry. Behind her the rushing water of the Sugar River mocked her body’s needs as its nasty funk wafted up like the pheromones of some unseen predator enticing its prey. How far did this tainted water reach? Had it done to other towns what it had done to Newport? Were there other bands of roving, opportunistic men waiting between her and Ogunquit?
She didn’t need Dad to tell her that the answer to this last question was an emphatic yes. Clutching his rifle to her chest like a child self-soothing with a beloved stuffed animal, she tried to send her mind elsewhere, to Ogunquit. She fell asleep walking the beach.