Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 11...
Elizabeth woke to the lapping of wind-stirred water on the rocks outside. A breeze played about in the gossamer curtains hanging over the smashed-in doorway, rhythmically rippling and undulating as they cut through the shafts of sunlight shining in.
She wasn’t sure how much sleep she’d gotten, but she did remember trace parts of her dreams. In them she’d tried to rescue the women and boy from the Walmart in Newport, only as she stood in the foyer before a line of foul, filthy men and pulled the trigger on dad’s rifle (bracing herself against the stuttering of kicks that were to come when firing in full auto) it only produced a series of clicks. The men rushed her, snatched the rifle out of her hands, and dragged her into the depths of the store by the hair. This was usually the part in a nightmare where she woke up, but for Elizabeth the dream instead evolved. One minute she was being dragged through the various ransacked aisles, and the next she was back on that otherworldly version of Main Street in Claremont. The building squeak of a doorknob being turned drew her attention behind her, but as the door opened up enough to show the silhouette of the man inside, she woke up.
Her stomach growled, reminding her that one of her base needs still awaited satisfaction. Every muscle in her legs and lower back screamed as she leveraged her back against the wood paneling that made up the bottom half of the basement walls and pushed herself to her feet. She gazed around at the racks of VHS tapes, estimating that there had to be at least 600 of them. Just beyond the pool table, tucked into a little nook that represented the only break in shelves upon shelves of dead technology, was a washer and dryer. Above them were a set of cupboards. Walking over and opening the cupboards, she found stacks of beach towels, hand towels, and a couple red handkerchiefs, one of which she tied around her nose and mouth like a gas mask.
But it made no difference really. As she stepped into the now sunlit sitting room and tested the air, she found herself immediately retching forward and dry heaving. Instead of retreating though, she walked to the left of the massive picture window that looked out over the pond to where a door gave to a sprawling deck that ran the length of the pond-facing side of the house. She disengaged the dead bolt, unlocked the door, and heaved it open. The reek of rancid onions off the pond was only a mild nuisance compared with the reek of rotting meat, and soon the two odors comingled inside the cabin, making it only slightly bearable. Elizabeth wasted no time rushing into the kitchen and going to work beneath the sink looking for dish gloves, which she found, brand new and sealed in plastic. Tearing into the packaging, she pulled the gloves onto her hands and forced herself to take a deep breath before yanking open the fridge.
In the daylight that filtered through the service slot in the kitchenette, she was able to make out three packages of meat swelling with cottonlike jungles of blue decay. She snatched them up and stacked them in her left hand, balancing them like a waitress with a tray of drinks. The largest one, which she imagined to contain a dozen or so legs of chicken beneath a teeming canopy of bacterial growth, oozed at the edges with a clear, viscous liquid. Running out of the kitchen and toward the open door, Elizabeth’s stomach turned in a series of somersaults. She bolted out onto the deck and to the railing where she simply allowed the packages to fall from her hands.
Gagging, Elizabeth drew in a deep breath and took hold of the splintered, sun-bleached railing. There she remained for a moment, the sunlight warm on her face and the arresting silence of the world pressing down upon her. She took as much time as she needed, knowing full well that she wasn’t going to be back on the road until sundown. Plenty of time for her to let the house air out. But then came that grumble in her stomach again, the declaration of a hunger that not even the noxious odor of rotting meat could quell. Before long she was back inside, then out again, hauling packages from the freezer in similar states of verdant decay. When it was all said and done, there was a small mountain of Styrofoam meat packages rising in the grass beneath the deck, a feast for any scavenging creatures that might be left in the world.
Inside, the odor began to diminish, surrendering fully to the stench of the pondwater by the time the sun had poked its face above the pine-spotted peaks on the eastern shore. By then Elizabeth had already gone through the pantry in the kitchenette. To her extreme fortune she found an unopened box of smores Pop Tarts, which she took out onto the deck and ate in the sun as the prattling of wind-ruffled leaves and the babbling of pondwater sang a duet. She finished the entire box before sitting back and enjoying the feeling of food breaking down inside her. A half hour later she was poking through the rest of the house, where she found a number of things that would be useful to her in her journey forward. A red backpack with a dozen pockets, a swiss army knife bulging with every tool imaginable, and two Maglite flashlights – one a penlight and the other a footlong club of molded head-bashing metal. Of the three bedrooms, one was sparsely decorated and seemed to be a guest room, one contained a meticulously made king-size bed, and the last… well, the last one brought certain pause to Elizabeth’s exploration.
The room was covered in posters for various musical artists that Elizabeth failed to recognize. Nearly all of the men in the pictures were bare-chested, sporting impossibly held hairstyles, with their bottom halves wrapped in garishly colored spandex. A waist-high dresser stood covered in a multi-teared arrangement of nail paint and polish. Against the adjacent wall was a white wicker vanity with an arching mirror overlooking vials of hand creme, makeup, and the requisite pink diary of a teenage girl, complete with a heart-shaped lock. Tucked into the edges of the mirror were dozens of polaroid pictures.
Elizabeth approached the vanity reluctantly, understanding almost immediately that this room was not so much a living quarters as it was a memorial… a shrine. Looking over the pictures, she gazed through overdeveloped windows into a decade long ago where a girl her age had lounged pondside with friends, hair teased up into massive, painstakingly-shaped curls that wouldn’t so much as quiver against hurricane winds. Other ‘80s artifacts presented themselves in the pictures. The girl whose room Elizabeth stood in could be seen seated around a wall of wrapped gifts holding up a box with Panasonic written in bold letters above an image of an old cordless landline phone. Her smiling face, framed by those meticulous brown curls, poked up above the box. Written under the picture: Georgianna’s 15th Birthday – her own phone line!
Elizabeth turned away from the vanity, her heart sinking. Though there was no evidence to support it, she knew that this girl had died young. Perhaps shortly after this picture was taken. The various brands of hairspray and other beauty products occupying the vanity were mostly foreign to her. Like the VHS tapes in the basement, they belonged to another time. Suddenly she felt as though she were trespassing in some hallowed place. Turning about, she gazed at the canopied bed on the far wall, pink lace curtains hanging down over a matching pink bedspread. The room was the perfectly preserved living space of an ‘80s teenage girl.
She spun and walked thoughtfully out of the room. Where Elizabeth had lost her mother, these people had lost their child. She settled back against the wall just outside the door and tried to imagine what it must have been like for these parents; the permeating grief that had to possess a person in order to drive them to such lengths as forever sealing in time an entire room (and much of the pondside cottage, it seemed). This, to her, represented exactly what it was to be truly broken… to have a piece of your soul carved out forever.
Don’t let the New World destroy my baby girl.
She didn’t realize in that moment why Dad chose to repeat those words, but on an almost unconscious level she reasoned that there was more than one way to experience loss. Had she suffered the same fate as this Georgianna girl, would her parents have done the same thing with her bedroom? Would Mom and Dad have made it together or broken apart? Would anything have turned out differently for the two of them?
Gathering herself, she swallowed hard and stepped back into the room. “I’m sorry, Georgianna,” she said, finding her voice raspy and withered from lack of use. She walked back to the vanity and took the three bottles of Aqua Net that had been left there, remembering several YouTube videos she’d seen that depicted idiots in their back yards making homemade flamethrowers from it. Tucking the bottles beneath her arm, she then moved over to the dresser and began to sift through Georgianna’s clothing, finding a few pairs of jeans that were a size too big, but would do her just fine. She then selected a couple of t-shirts, both black, one sporting a picture of two overly-blond men posing over block letters reading “Nelson,” and the other a screen-printed image of Prince straddling a motorcycle in Purple Rain. With this she left the room and changed out of her dingy, dirt caked clothing and into the peak of eighties teenage fashion. She opted to go with the Nelson shirt, tucking the other into the backpack she’d found along with a spare pair of high-waisted jeans that had oddly enough come back into style as the Old World offered up its death rattle.
Beset by a mixture of emotion ranging from reverence to relief to despair and back around again, she poked about the remaining corners and hollows of the house until she’d collected everything that might be of use to her on her journey. With that, and with the air now completely overtaken by the smell of rotting onions off the pond, she moved back into the kitchenette and filled the remaining space in her pack with as much unperishable food as she could cram. Inside the fridge, which she’d left open, were half a dozen more bottles of seltzer water. She fit these into mesh pockets outside the backpack in addition to sliding them into the spaces between bags and cans of food inside the pack.
It was barely noon, and she’d already been as productive as she imagined she could be that day, so she slipped into the basement and sipped off a bottle of lime seltzer as she perused the 600+ VHS titles and racked up a game of pool. She’d never played before and didn’t understand the rules of any formal games, but that didn’t stop her from taking her mind off of the outside world by knocking a bunch of balls indiscriminately into the table’s pockets.
Elizabeth made herself a lunch of stale Triscuits and sundried raisins before locking herself in the master bedroom and napping off the rest of the afternoon. When she awoke the sunlight was already in flight from the sky and clouds were building in the east. She checked the pantry one last time, eating the rest of the raisins and Triscuits before pulling the backpack onto her and slinging the rifle over her shoulder. With a peek outside to make sure nobody was waiting (in her mind she pictured herself emerging into a driveway full of gun-toting madmen), she left the cottage behind and silently thanked Georgianna, wherever she was, for the assistance.
A half hour later she was back out on 103, walking the dusty shoulder and watching out for approaching vehicles. When the sunlight vanished entirely she was left beneath pockets of stars glimmering through the spaces in the clouds above like little tidepools. That night she marched through two towns before reaching the onramp for Interstate 89, which would take her southeast to Concord. She found the closer she got to the highway, the more tightly packed the abandoned vehicles grew. As she passed by the first few, she stole glances inside and recoiled against the motionless silhouettes of dead people inside. Some were hunched forward as if they’d died while spewing vomit, others lay with their backs pressed against their seats, chins turned upward. Elizabeth considered using her pen Maglite to get a better look, but decided against it. She didn’t want to waste the batteries, and – most importantly – she already knew what various forms of death looked like.
The onramp to I-89 was jammed with cars. Some occupied the breakdown lane while others had stalled off in the grass, either idled to a stop as their owners gave up the ghost or abandoned there with the doors left open. The highway was similarly clogged, with not so much as a twenty foot strip of pavement on either side of the white and yellow lines taken up by an abandoned vehicle. Whatever had happened up north, it had inspired a mass exodus that proved more than the architects of the Interstate Highway system had anticipated. Now the tree-framed double lanes of the highway were forever choked, like coagulated blood in the arteries of a corpse.
Elizabeth traveled along the sloping shoulder of the highway, navigating by the limited starlight above. Fortunately there was no rain that night. She made it through the town of Warner and past a couple more exits before coming across a rest stop. The offramp overflowed with cars. Though she’d been devastatingly tired now for miles, she’d pressed on for hours longer, knowing that when the time came to stop she’d know it. It was difficult to see the words Rest and Stop without seeing the place as something of a sign and complying, especially as her legs and lower back howled at the burden of additional weight from the backpack.
It came as no surprise that the glass entryway to the rest stop and information center had been smashed in. After wandering amongst the dead for hours and hours, she’d forgotten that there were still living people in the world. Setting her backpack down with a long sigh of relief, she unslung the rifle from her shoulder and approached the information center. Pellets of glass cracked and ground into the pavement beneath her sneakers as she stepped up to the door and peered inside, trying to make out what she could in the scant starlight coming from above. A number of racks housing brochures and other advertisement materials had been overturned, their contents spilled across the tiled floor. It looked like the place had been trashed for no other reason than to vent frustration. There was no other practical reason why everything from framed pictures of New Hampshire mountains to ceramic molds of the state’s famous Old Man rockface were smashed on the floor.
Elizabeth pulled her Maglite from her pocket. Twisting the head, she focused the beam on the floor before swiping it systematically across the floor. She winced away as the light touched upon the unlaced red sneakers of a man. Tattered jean cuffs gave way to legs, but the rest of the body was obscured behind one of the fallen racks. Gathering herself, she continued to scan the room, finding that the man’s body was not the only one that had made this rest stop its final place of rest. An old woman lay slumped against the outward facing window, hands folded in an oddly peaceful way upon her lap. Her skin was dark and tanned-looking. It seemed wrapped around nothing more than bone. A trail of dried blood ran down her baby blue t-shirt. Her face was obscured by a frizz of kinky white hair.
Swallowing hard, Elizabeth turned off the light and took hold of the door, pulling it open in a grinding of glass as it swung outward. “Hello?” Her voice was low and timid, her thumb rested upon the safety of Dad’s rifle. “Anyone here?” she asked with a bit more power behind her voice. It rang hollowly inside the deserted building, almost feeling like that of a ghost.
After a few minutes she slung the rifle back over her shoulder and ventured back outside to where she took her pack by one of the shoulder straps and carried it inside. Off to the left side of the room was a recessed sitting area with padded benches built into the wall. Above them were racks of plastic brochure and leaflet holders. This area was largely untouched in the mayhem that had played out here once upon a time, and was free of corpses. Though Elizabeth didn’t particularly relish the idea of sleeping the day away in a place that had been haunted by the untimely death of at least three people since the winter, she didn’t have the energy to carry on any further. She'd also unconsciously decided not to check the restrooms. She didn't need Dad to tell her that there were certain to be others who'd perished while crouching over a toilet bowl.
As she went about making a bed of the nearest bench, she took a bottle of seltzer from her pack as well as a bag of Cheez-Its before laying the backpack flat for her pillow. She ate her dinner, savoring every bite as she first sucked the salt off the top of each cracker before chewing. She allowed herself to drink half of the seltzer before setting it down for when she was likely to wake in the mid-morning or early afternoon. As she leaned back up, stretching her arms over her head and yawning, her gaze fell upon the maps shoved into a plastic holder just above the bench. Reaching for one, she plucked it from the rest and wrestled the Maglite from her pocket.
It’s good to see that sensible people still printed road maps up until the end, Dad whispered, his voice rife with his characteristic the-old-ways-will-always-be-superior sentimentality. GPS doesn’t exactly work without power. Or satellites.
Elizabeth nodded as she unfolded the map and twisted the head of the Maglite so that she could get a good look at it. She traced I-89 with her finger to where it merged with I-93 just south of Concord. From there it connected with Route 101 in Manchester, and then off to the coast where I-95 would take her up to Ogunquit. Using the mileage legend and the limited mathematical prowess she possessed, she estimated that she had just under 100 miles to go.
Too much highway, Dad cautioned as Elizabeth’s eyes traced the route several times. You’ll be too exposed. Plus it’s indirect. I-393 out of Concord, then Highway 202 to Route 4. Go through Northwood to Durham.
Elizabeth knew Durham. The University of New Hampshire had been on her list of colleges she was considering. She and Dad had been to a few concerts there as well, typical country stuff and the bluegrass twang that Dad loved so much. Durham would have been mostly emptied out with the Christmas break. It would be a safer route.
She turned off the flashlight, folded up the map, and lay back on the bench with her head rested upon her backpack. Outside the first ribbons of sunlight signified that she'd put in almost an entire night on the road. Her throat cried out for more seltzer, but she ignored it as she thought things over, finally deciding that the straight-shot across New Hampshire and into Maine would make the most sense. Big cities and towns lay ahead, built up around the major highways. The larger the sprawl, the more likely she was to come across other people.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and breathed deeply, listening to the breeze as it skated through the parking lot and whistled along the eaves and broken windows of the information center. This plan made the most sense, but there was one very big hurdle she’d have to overcome on her way to this safer of routes.
She’d have to pass through the City of Concord.