Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 10...
The crack of a gunshot wrested Elizabeth out of sleep so violently that she was kicking herself backward and jangling the chain-link fence before she came to grips with what was happening and where she was. Her blood felt like it was throbbing in her veins and thudding in her head as she worked to collect herself. The burning ambers and reds of dusk lit the sky out over the Walmart, painting the clouds a picturesque shade of lilac.
She remembered the men. She remembered the women and the boy.
Her gaze focused in on the parking lot where the two vehicles that had rolled in were still parked outside the crashed-in entry doors. The bright muzzle flare of a discharging pistol preceded the second crack of gunfire and the piercing shriek of a female voice that carried down the winding access road and into town. Elizabeth could see three men standing around the carriage corral nearest the entry doors, one of them held the pistol, pointing it into the corral where a small figure clung to its blue plastic molding, arms draped over the side facing her. Two others held a woman struggling almost maniacally to liberate herself. She screamed and wailed as she twisted and writhed toward the person inside the corral, whom Elizabeth quickly identified as the small boy they had carried inside earlier. As his small face lifted up and above the plastic molding, mouth agape in soundless terror, the world grew blurry and translucent.
Elizabeth blinked the tears from her eyes and clutched Dad’s rifle unconsciously to her chest. She shuddered as the man with the gun fired another shot into the corral, and the boy collapsed to the pavement. The clap of the gunshot smacked at the surrounding mountains and echoed off into the dusk soaked spaces beyond. After it had petered out Elizabeth was able to make out the sounds of a deep, furious voice shouting and retrained her eyes on the scene outside the Walmart. The man with the gun was now yelling at the woman, who was too consumed with grief and terror to look away from the boy. Her mouth hung open soundlessly as she stared.
Again the man yelled something at her, this time moving so close that he was screaming right into her face, then he turned around aimed the pistol back into the corral and began popping off shot after successive shot until the pistol was empty and all Elizabeth could see was a motionless hand slithered out from beneath the blue plastic.
The tears streamed down her face as she watched the gunman turn back to the woman and shout a brief slur of words at her before pistol-whipping her across the face and silencing her screams. She went limp in the arms of those holding her. The men struggled visibly to hoist her back up, slinging her arms over their shoulders and walking her back into the building with her feet dragging upon the pavement. The man with the gun stood for a moment, gazing down at the child he’d just executed. For all Beth knew he was admiring his work, but there was a certain meditative calmness to his body language. All at once this man who had been screaming inaudibly had gone still and silent as a monk, as if a switch had been thrown somewhere inside him. Elizabeth knew in this instant with absolute certainty that this man was their leader, that this was the type of person who flourished in a destabilized world, someone who could switch their emotions on and off on a whim depending on what the situation required. Elizabeth would never know why they shot that boy or why they’d made the woman watch. She’d never know why the man had been shouting at her or why he’d belted her across the face with his pistol.
What she did understand swept over her like the chills from that first breeze of crisp autumn air. In the lawless climate of this New World there were two types of people: those who would take what they wanted, handing over their conscience and humanity in the bargain, and those who must hide from the takers if they had any hope of self-preservation.
She shrunk back against the fencing as the gunman turned to look in her direction. Her breath stuck in her lungs and every part of her body clenched up. For one terrifying moment she thought she might be the next one gunned down in the carriage corral, but that terrible voice in the back of her mind that whispered like the twitching of porcupine quills told her that she, like the other two women, would be used for… other things. A cooling relief spread over her and she exhaled slowly as the man’s head swiveled around, sizing up the rest of the area surrounding the parking lot. With one last look down at the boy he’d murdered, the man tucked his pistol into the back of his jeans and walked casually toward the Walmart, disappearing inside.
It’s okay, Dad whispered. He’s one of the lucky ones. Nobody can hurt him now.
She buried her face in her hands and sobbed as the harsh spectrum of emotions that had seeped through her over the last few days now washed over her like a crashing wave. And she rode it without any attempt to stifle or repress anything she felt. Thoughts bombarded her of Dad’s jarring collapse into sickness, of her striking out on her own to find tools to bury him, of finding solace in memories of her family when they were at their best on that trip to Ogunquit. Lastly she considered the road before her and the hundred or so miles that she would have to travel to reach her journey’s end. Barely a mile out of Claremont and she had already been presented with sights she could not handle, sights that shook her very core and called into question everything she thought she knew about the world and its people.
Just wait until it’s dark. Get out of town. Take it one step at a time.
Could she? Was it possible to whittle everything down to so simple a task as putting one foot in front of the other? Dad had never led her astray before. He’d always pointed her in the right direction, both literally and figuratively.
Rubbing at her swollen eyes and tear-soaked cheeks, she set her gaze on the receding glow of the sun, now slipping down behind the mountains somewhere behind her. Her existential dilemmas aside, getting out of Newport was clearly her only course of action. Not once did the brazen folly of attempting to rescue the women inside the Walmart cross her mind. That was something that Dad probably wouldn’t even have considered, and he was many times over the braver and more capable person than she.
Night would fall soon, a security blanket under which she would escape to whatever horror awaited next.
- - -
She struck out as the last shred of light vanished and the first stars of night began to poke through the bruise-colored tapestry of sky. Though she tried not to think about the boy, she kept coming back to the one part of the entire series of events that mystified and terrified her the most: his stunning silence through it all. Had the boy been a mute? Had he simply been too overwhelmed with fear to cry out for his own life? The answers to these questions rested with the woman Elizabeth now assumed was his mother, and they were answers she would never know.
Sticking mostly to the side of the road farthest from the Walmart, Elizabeth made her way slowly and carefully out of the village. Her throat ached with thirst and her stomach felt like it was digesting bits of itself. Her head was swimmy, and she had to pause several times and brace herself against a nearby tree or guardrail in order to keep from collapsing. These dizzy spells passed, mostly because they had to, and she drove herself onward out of Newport. When finally the road and the river resumed their parallel course eastward, she breathed a long sigh of relief and turned back to face the village with her hand unconsciously caressing the smooth black surface of Dad’s rifle. The moon had now poked up above the edges of the valley, bathing the Walmart in milky light, now far off in the distance. From where she stood at the basin where the river and 103 ran out of the valley, it looked innocuous and dead, one of many lifeless husks left behind in the New World. But she knew that inside that place unspeakable things were happening, things she was grateful that her young mind couldn’t fathom.
Famished and thirsty, she turned her back on Newport and continued east through the night. It occurred to her as civilization gave way to stretches of wilderness that it would be best for her to limit her travels to the cover of darkness. Though it made her feel all the more lonely and resigned from any semblance of normal life, it made more sense for her to occupy the open spaces of the world when those who would harm her slept. As she plodded along the roadside, kicking up gravel as she presided over her own death march, she brought order to the tumult of her thoughts by taking herself away to Old World Ogunquit. At this point she’d already sifted through every memory she had of her time there with her parents, so now she began to make up new memories as though she and Mom and Dad were actors in a play for an audience of one. This carried her along until she came upon a gravel camp road with a tree to its right marked with various wooden signs that were indecipherable in the moonlight. She’d noticed this place several times over the years while driving back and forth to Concord with Dad, back when this particular stretch of road was but a brief blip in an otherwise quick car ride.
Elizabeth walked up to the tree and glanced over the signs, each of them reading the last name of a family who owned one of the camps or cottages on a pond that would be visible from the road in a half mile or so. In all there were just short of two dozen names.
She struggled to gauge how long she’d been walking since Newport. Maybe a couple hours? A part of her urged her to press on and put more miles between her and the marauders, but her stomach and throat made a more insistent and dire case. It was almost a certainty that the men from the Walmart had already raided the camps on this road, which would make this a pointless diversion, but she really had no other choice. If she didn’t find food and water soon she’d collapse on the side of the road and either die if she was lucky, or be found by the wrong people.
With a deep breath, she committed herself to her decision and started down the gravel camp road into a tunnel of trees. The moonlight above was choked out by the overlapping foliage to the point where she was met by the underbrush at the side of the road several times. After a while she found her bearings in much the same way she reasoned a blind person adapted to life without sight. Though her course was righted and she didn’t hit the sometimes thorny edges of the road again, she was unable to banish away a feeling of childish helplessness as the darkness pressed down upon her. She felt as though some bogeyman might burst out at any moment and snatch her up, carrying her off into the woods and to his den to wait for mealtime. Yet she was comforted in a queer way by the idea that this scenario would still be preferable to what the men at the Walmart would have done to her had they found her. A part of her soul was stolen away at the realization that those images would remain with her for the rest of her life.
Maybe a quarter mile down the camp road – she had no way of being sure – Elizabeth came across the first cottage at the edge of the pond. The trees thinned out, surrendering to a shimmering throb of moonlight reflecting off of the water. It silhouetted the dark cottage, which looked at a glance like a haunted house from those old movies she sometimes caught on cable. She couldn’t remember their names, not that it mattered now.
She approached the cottage cautiously as a breeze off the pond assaulted her face with more of that rancid onion smell. The threadlike branches of a couple willow trees that stood at the edge of the water, just beyond the cottage, trembled silently. Though she was now dying of thirst and hunger, Elizabeth restrained herself from rushing right up to the front door, instead taking her time and scanning the area for signs of movement. When she reached the door she was both discouraged and relieved to find it still locked and with no signs of forced entry. It would seem that the marauders had yet to pillage these shores.
The odd thought to knock on the door pulsed through her mind like an electrical current, one she quickly cut. Shrugging Dad’s rifle off her shoulder, she took it in-hand and considered using the stock to attempt bashing the door in, but reason spoke up in Dad’s voice and told her that she lacked the strength for that kind of thing. After a moment’s thought, she backed away from the door and walked around to the pond-facing side of the cottage where she set her gaze on the glowing face of a waning moon reflected in the glass of a sliding door. It opened onto a small platform deck not even six inches off the ground, where lounge chairs and outdoor dining surfaces were no doubt arranged in the milder months of spring, summer, and fall, but this place hadn’t been visited since the onset of winter, and the deck was completely bare.
Making sure that the rifle wasn’t loaded and that the safety was on, Elizabeth took the extra precaution of extracting the curled magazine from beneath before walking over to the glass door. There she held her breath, turned the rifle over in her hands, and drove the stock right into the center of the glass with all the might she could muster. It shattered in a hail of glass that glinted in the moonlight as it fell. The sound echoed across the pond, and for a moment she froze there, breath held and every part of her body clenched as she waited for someone or something to react. After a few moments her emotions cooled a bit and she popped the magazine back into the rifle.
Gossamer curtains billowed behind a fringe of jagged, fanglike glass that ran around the edges of the doorway. Somehow this flimsy barrier felt more impenetrable than the glass she’d broken as she stepped closer and breathed the stale air of the neglected cottage. It was vastly superior to the reek of the pond, which was inescapable this close to the water, and it reassured her that this place probably hadn’t been disturbed since well before Christmas. With that observation, she stepped out of the night air and into what looked like a finished basement in the scant ribbons of moonlight that filtered in. The unmistakable silhouette of a billiards table took up much of the space with racks upon racks of what she first thought to be books covering most of the wall space. As she baby-stepped carefully toward a well of darkness that she assumed gave way to a staircase, she realized that the shelves actually contained hundreds of hand-numbered VHS movies. She looked them over, unable to make out more than a few of the titles, with a certain detached novelty that went just as quickly as it came. Moving past the racks and into the void of darkness at the far corner of the room, her feet were able to feel out the first step of a staircase which she immediately ascended.
After slinging Dad’s rifle over her shoulder and feeling about in the darkness for a door handle, she let herself into a wide open living room with floor to ceiling views of the pond. The light from the moon filtered unobstructed through massive picture windows. Clustered around what looked like a knotted pine coffee table were a hodgepodge arrangement of couches that reminded her of the Claremont Youth Center. The reek of spoiled onions from the pond was overpowered now by the fecund aroma of active rot. Just off of the sitting room was a small kitchenette, as Elizabeth shuffled hastily toward it (nearly tripping over the lip of a braided rug), the smell grew stronger until she stepped into the kitchenette and all at once felt saturated in the stench of decay. She knew without having to see it that there was some package of meat in the refrigerator teeming with a prune-colored forest of bacteria. Though she didn’t want to assault her senses any further, she was too dehydrated not to take a look inside, and as she gripped the archaic latch that held the door closed (it paired well with the myriad VHS tapes below), she held her breath and prepared for the worst.
Just enough moonlight shined into the kitchenette through a small service slot overlooking the sitting room for Elizabeth to make sense of what occupied the shelves of the fridge. Though she managed to keep from breathing, the rotting occupants of the sealed space seemed to exhale a plume of warm air that wafted over her. Never in her life had she felt so suddenly sick. Her first impulse was to flee the kitchenette and retreat to the milder air of the basement, but as she went to turn away her eye was caught by the glint of the moon in clear plastic. The entire middle shelf was stocked with bottles. Whether or not they contained water was insignificant in that moment as Elizabeth snatched one in each hand and dashed toward the basement door. Her lungs burned for fresh oxygen, but she wasn’t about to exhale until she was certain she’d escaped the smell of the refrigerator. This meant channeling every ounce of self-control she had as she forced herself to take care descending the darkened stairs.
Elizabeth reached the bottom and stepped into a pocket of filtered moonlight shining in through the billowing curtains. She collapsed on all fours, dropping the bottles she’d carried and losing sight of them as she released her breath and choked in a lungful of stale air. She took several gasping breaths before her respiration began to normalize. Despite feeling saturated in the refrigerator’s warm exhale, she was relieved to note she’d escaped the pervasive odor of the upstairs. Even the smell of rotting onion that stole in through the shattered doorway smelled like a field of wildflowers by comparison.
After a couple minutes she shifted around and sat cross-legged, searching the darkness for the bottles she’d dropped. One of them caught the moonlight beneath the billiards table, and she wasted no time scooting her way toward it. The thought to sniff at the bottle to see if it was covered in an unseen film of bacteria briefly entered her mind, but she managed to banish it away with every remaining ounce of willpower she had left. Taking the bottle in hand, she tilted it into the moonlight and read its label: Poland Spring. The image of a lime next to the bold brand letters informed her that it was seltzer water, but it would do. Twisting the cap, the hiss of pent up carbonation was like music to her ears. She didn’t think, just tipped the mouth of the bottle to her lips and chugged until it was empty. She tossed it over the billiards table, scanning the darkness and homing in on the second bottle, which had rolled up to the molding at the opposite wall. Elizabeth crawled toward it like a predator stalking its prey, snatched it up, and drained its contents down her throat. When it was emptied she lowered it to the carpeted floor and leaned back against the wall, feeling the liquid settle in her stomach with a feeling that went well beyond contentment. As her belly churned and groaned it felt like the pistons of some stalled engine were pumping once more, feeding her body from a replenished well of vitality.
She’d live to see another day, it seemed. Though she was hopeful that some form of edible food remained upstairs, she was in no rush to get back up there just yet. Instead, she sat where she was, enjoying the momentary thaw of her anxiety and the feeling of life spreading through her body. For now she was content to relax in the company of the video tapes... remnants of a forgotten age never to return again.
Just like her.