A Tourist Again, Pt. 13

Blue rest area sign points to a highway exit where drivers can relax and rest during their travel.

Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 12...

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It was difficult to find sleep that day. If the corpses in the adjoining room weren’t enough to thoroughly freak her out, the far off rattle of automatic gunfire sure as hell was. She started on the bench, rolling from side to side several times before abandoning the prospect of finding comfort. Moving to the floor, she wasn't surprised to discover that clay tiles laid over concrete was not an acceptable alternative.

She was restless, at times manic. She paced the bench-lined room, hoping that it would exhaust her enough to put her out, but after hours of overworking her already devastated legs she realized that it wasn’t her body that was denying her rest, but her mind. Somewhere out in the world at that very moment, probably closer than she imagined, someone was in the desperate throes of their final moments. Elsewhere, someone was certainly taking life for sport, no longer restricted by laws and uniformed officials to enforce them.

The New World was desperation. The New World was opportunistic. The New World was murder.

The stutter of gunfire rang out once more like the excited clapping of a god far away and over the mountains. By her estimate it had been about an hour since the last time she’d heard it. Elizabeth had spent enough time around guns and rifles to know that she was more than safe, that the rapid report of the automatic rifle was miles off. That didn’t keep her from wanting to break down crying for the pour soul on the business end of that rifle. She didn’t need Dad to remind her that people weren’t shooting for sport anymore. That sound meant certain death.

With a deep breath Elizabeth turned away from a window overlooking the rest stop parking lot, catching the motionless forms of what had once been living people inside a few of the parked cars. A lone follow-up shot pierced the silence of the world; the coup de grace, no doubt, for some poor soul. The fleeting moments of peace she’d experienced in the spaces between her weeklong turmoil did very little to bolster her spirits. Ogunquit might as well be a million miles away.

She worked up the nerve to venture into the ladies room after finishing the rest of her sparkling water. Being constantly on the move over the last couple days, she struggled to recall if she’d stopped to heed the call of nature more than just once or twice. This wasn’t in the least bit alarming. After working two summers in the sweltering heat of Sullivan’s Slop Bucket, a local restaurant that excelled at battering and frying every imaginable food item, she understood how an overworked and overheated body could expel water without so much as a drop hitting your bladder. If there had been anyone left alive inside the rest area she was certain they would have crossed paths by now, but that didn’t stop her from heeding her father’s overly cautious directives. The AR accompanied her into the bathroom.

With an explosion of euphoric relief, she found the bathroom empty of bodies, though there were signs that people had used the facilities since December. Written upon a wall-spanning mirror opposite the entry door was a message in lipstick reading:

HAD IT ALL AND LEFT IT HOME

NOW I WANDER ALL ALONE

IT’S OVER NOW, WE SHOULD HAVE LEARNED

BEFORE THE FIRES OF BLACK CHRISTMAS BURNED

 

Beneath the message was a sink full of bills of every denomination. The tube of lipstick that had been used to write the message rested beside the basin, uncapped as if waiting for someone else to add to this dark poem.

Black Christmas. That was a very fitting name for it. Elizabeth eased open the door of the nearest stall and leaned Dad’s rifle against the toilet paper dispenser. She re-read the message on the mirror at least five more times before wiping and flushing. Though the plumbing seemed in working order in the absence of electricity, she was taken aback by the sudden blast of rancid onions as the toilet bowl purged and refilled itself. With all the corpses decorating the world these days it wasn’t even remotely surprising to her that this poison had also seeped into the public water supply. The mystery remained, however, as to exactly what had poisoned it and how it had proliferated so thoroughly in a single winter. With no news networks remaining on air and no journalists to crack the case, Elizabeth wondered if she’d find answers to these questions even if she lived to see life beyond Ogunquit.

She stepped over to the mirror again, instinctively reaching for the faucet knobs to wash her hands but stopping herself before that foul water could so much as offer a drip from the tap. Laying Dad’s rifle on the countertop, she took the tube of lipstick and lifted it to the mirror. She found no trouble excavating from her mind the perfect sentiment to pair with the stranger’s poem. Though it wasn’t an Elizabeth Original, she remembered a quote she’d read at the beginning of an old made-for-tv miniseries based on Stephen King’s The Stand. The original context in which the words had been recorded were beyond her, but she paired them with the name T.S. Eliot:

THIS IS HOW THE WORLD ENDS

NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER

She took her time, painstakingly measuring every line and curve, then set the all but depleted tube of lipstick back down on the countertop for the next visitor as she reviewed her work. At least, she thought, she’d now left something behind. If men like the ones back in Newport caught her along the way to Ogunquit and stripped her of the last of her will, she’d know that a piece of her remained in the bathroom of some obscure rest stop outside of Concord.

Sleep remained elusive. As she walked out of the bathroom and hugged the wall to avoid coming near the dead, she found that her brain had shifted into higher gear. The stimulation of poetry and the relief at having left something behind, regardless of how obscure, left her buzzing. Returning to the floor or even the bench and attempting to force sleep would be futile, so she resumed pacing the room, plucking brochures from their molded sconces along the wall.

Get Glacial at the Polar Caves, Rumney, New Hampshire.

The 3rd Annual New Hampshire Film Festival with Special Guests Sally Struthers and Joe Hill.

Stock up and Save at the Newly Remodeled New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet, Concord, NH.

This last one made her think of Dad, a sentiment she worked quickly to banish. Regardless of what road he may have been traveling in the months they’d spent holed up, that journey did not define her father, and she refused to associate him with the A-word. Tossing the single sheet advert to the floor, she resumed her collecting and paused after extracting a fairly unremarkable but very thick packet. It’s cover flashed a shabbily printed and over-exposed picture of the New Hampshire State House taken from the sidewalk. Two tiers of white stone columns stood side by side beneath a gold-capped dome sensationalizing the mis-perceived success of the American democratic experiment. Block letters that looked to have been generated in some early 2000’s version of Microsoft Word read: Come Visit The Capital of Tax-Free New Hampshire. Then beneath it in slightly smaller font was the inescapable and menacing state slogan: Live Free or Die. Based on Elizabeth’s experiences so far in the New World, the only freedom that remained was in death.

Dad had been more than ecstatic after the national election a month prior to Black Christmas. Not only did his man in the White House win a second term, twice defying the polling of almost every major news source, but the Governorship of New Hampshire went to a Republican for the first time in Elizabeth’s limited memory. In fact, much of the country saw similar returns in the election, leaving most states and both houses of Congress in Republican control, which Dad very ardently informed her (repeatedly) was very odd for the party of an incumbent President. In the days that seemed to drag on forever after the bombs fell she had been tempted to probe her father for any change in his ironclad inclinations that the Democratic Party was the single most destructive force in the history of the United States. But she didn’t. Even then as the world continued to burn far off and away from their boarded up home, she knew there was no reasoning with a man set in his political ideologies.

Plus it didn’t really matter. According to both Fox News and CNN, Washington D.C. had been erased from the earth.

She wasn’t sure just why, but Elizabeth dumped the rest of the leaflets on the nearest bench and read every single word in the ten page brochure while circling the room. Upon reading through the list of notable State House officials, she moved almost absentmindedly past the governor’s name but paused as she came upon the lieutenant governor, Bridget Strauss. Her mind went back to the barricades outside of Claremont and the explicit mentioning of this Strauss person in lieu of the man Dad had helped elevate to the highest office in the state. It seemed Dad’s man might not have survived Black Christmas. But could this mean that some part of the government survived? She had no way of knowing how long the barricade had been up. She had even less knowledge of exactly why the town had been quarantined in the first place. The gunshots she’d heard throughout the day seemed to speak to an expansive state of lawlessness outside of Concord. Unless the army had dispatched troops to the capital to defend it, it was plausible to believe that any semblance of government that might have survived had been overthrown. Not by a small rag-tag group like the gunmen she’d observed in Newport, but perhaps by a more organized band of individuals sharing a common vision…

Militias, Dad whispered, his voice just as grave as she’d remembered when the topic had come up during their shut-in months. The idea that scores of lawless men might band together under their own flavor of anarchy was more horrifying than her newfound knowledge that rapists and murderers had formed tiny pocket communities across the scabbed remains of the Old World. Men tearing through the world on little more than misguided impulse was nothing compared to the danger of brainwashed regiments of wannabe soldiers operating beneath some misconceived doctrine.

If there are people left in Concord they’re either Old World government or New World militia. The city is too big a prize to have gone unclaimed.

Elizabeth struggled to picture a bunch of gun-toting good ‘ole boys organized enough to run regular patrols in their lifted trucks with blue plastic nut sacks swaying behind, but she immediately identified this train of thought for the danger it concealed. Dad had kept them alive because he refused to underestimate the horrors of human impulse. Good ‘ole boys patrolling the capital, they may be, but they wouldn’t be the ones calling the shots. They’d be the boots on the ground, the grunts oiling the machine as their more cunning and manipulative masters worked behind closed doors to consolidate their power. Such was the greatest sin of humanity.

No. Not humanity. This was a sin indulged almost exclusively by men. The New World wasn’t going to erase this stain, it was a meticulously crafted Hell on Earth.

Steer clear of Concord. Take your time and go around it. Ogunquit isn’t going anywhere.

As always, she knew Dad’s voice to be that of reason, but Elizabeth couldn’t keep a dim flicker of hope from sparking inside her. What if the government hadn’t fallen? What if there was some kind of sanctuary in Concord guarded by armed servicemen? What if they were trying to rebuild?

She remembered one of Dad’s many fulminations from a month prior when she’d started pressing him to venture out of the house with her. He’d been certain that all forms of government had been erased, that the model of teamwork necessary in maintaining stability had almost certainly been tossed aside by any surviving elected officials in the interest of self-preservation. The armed services, he explained, was like a human body. The soldiers and personnel who made up the arms and legs of this body were unparalleled in their ability to infiltrate, capture, and defend United States interests at home and abroad, but they could easily be whittled down to their most basic function: naked force. Without the head of this body, the men and women of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the myriad personnel working out of the Pentagon, the arms and legs cease to function. Though Dad had a great respect for the United States Military, his paranoia and apparently spot-on understanding of human nature left him with one unwavering position: with Washington D.C. now a crater in the earth, and with no central command, those still alive in uniform and isolated following the bombings would have been the first to band together and form self-sustaining militias.

“I still have to check it out. I’ll go the rest of my life wondering.” She let the brochure fall out of her hand and walked toward the window, anxiety tightening her chest once more as a different, yet familiar sound began to poke through the silence of the world. At first she wasn’t sure it was what her ears were telling her, but as it grew louder into a chopping thunder that all but filled the void occupied by nature’s hush she darted back toward the bench where she’d set Dad’s rifle and chambered a round.

It was a motorcycle.

Elizabeth returned to the window with the AR in her hands, her thumb disengaging the safety without a second thought. Descending to her knees, she pulled the stock in tight to her shoulder and assessed the southbound exit ramp through iron sights. Through the trees and the sea of derelict cars she first caught the glint of the sun off of an approaching windshield. As the motorcycle navigated through the nested cars its engine roared in either intentional or naïve ignorance of the very real danger its rider might be attracting. Elizabeth’s first impression of the lone rider was that he was an idiot. There was no doubt in her mind that it was a man. Only a dude would be so imprudently bold.

The motorcycle grew closer, weaving through the parked traffic with reckless abandon and nearly toppling over a few times from what she thought she saw. Its rider came into clarity wearing a black helmet and tinted visor that hid his face. A black leather jacket was paired with jeans and black boots that often descended from the metal stirrups of the bike in order to stabilize it as the rider carved his way along.

“Please just drive by,” Elizabeth whispered. “Just keep going, you idiot.”

But did anything ever go the way Elizabeth wanted anymore? No. Her heart sank as the motorcycle swayed at the mouth of the off ramp and cut between a camper and a sedan before roaring up the breakdown lane and into the parking lot. She lowered the rifle and sunk down on her elbows upon the bench. Peering out the window with as little of her face exposed as possible, she watched the man cut the engine. He toed at the kickstand until the sole of his boot caught and extended it to the pavement. His helmeted head turned toward the window and Elizabeth quickly shrank out of sight, glancing about wildly as she fought through panic for an out. Eyes spinning wildly in their sockets, she searched the rooms for a place to hide, her gaze eventually settling upon the ladies’ room door.

She reluctantly poked her head up again with just enough time to see the man pull the helmet off his head. The face beneath was somewhat striking. This wasn’t so much a man as it was a boy of maybe 15 or 16. His black hair was a thick mop drawn behind his head with a rubber band, his face was patched with unmitigated fuzz that thinned out to nothing along his jawline. For all Elizabeth knew, they could have been in the same grade on the night of Black Christmas.

Similar age or not, she was not going to mess around with strangers. Not after what she’d seen in Newport. Clutching the rifle in her hands, she scooted away from the window and dashed through the visitor center, leaping over the legs of the old woman before throwing open the bathroom door and closing herself inside the farthest stall. Settling down upon the toilet, she laid Dad’s rifle across her lap and held her breath as she listened for the boy. After the span of about a minute, she picked up on the sound of glass being pulverized underfoot.

“Anyone here?” The naïve spice of confidence in the voice left Elizabeth more annoyed then fearful as it suddenly filled the quiet hollows of the visitor center. The voice carried an Old World nonchalance that painted a crystal clear picture for Elizabeth of a kid who just happened to have avoided the horrors lurking about in the New World. Either that or he operated with the air of invulnerability that she’d observed in the men outside the Walmart. Nearly every fiber of her being leaned toward the former explanation. Teenage boys were idiots.

The thud of the neighboring bathroom door was followed after a couple minutes by the flushing of a toilet, then it opened and closed again. Elizabeth’s grip tightened on the rifle as the boy’s voice spoke up again, this time lower in volume but still reaching her ears with perfect clarity. “What happened to you?” the boy asked, presumably of one of the corpses. “Shot in the chest over something you had on you?” He was obviously talking to the old woman. His tone suggested he was genuinely perplexed by his findings, though it also carried a sense of familiarity with the dead.

There was a shuffling sound accompanied by a series of grunts and the thud of a toppled metal rack being righted. “You drank the water,” the voice mused. The boy took a good five minutes or so visiting each of the bodies in the visitors center, voicing his observations about how they died as if narrating some documentary. This was followed by several more minutes of silence as Elizabeth waited for the roar of the motorcycle to signal his departure. When at last she heard the sounds of glass grinding into the floor again, she let out a long exhale and relaxed a bit. She closed her eyes and leaned backward, drawing in a deep breath that felt shallow against the tightness in her chest.

The sudden whoosh of the toilet flushing drove her to her feet in a panic. She nearly dropped the rifle from her hands as she spun about, immediately struck with the crushing realization that she’d inadvertently leaned back against the pipe-mounted flush handle at the back of the toilet. Within seconds the sound of the bathroom door opening was joined with a voice.

“Hello? Anyone here?” The voice was now coated in caution and certain reluctance. There came no sound of the door closing. The boy waited in the entryway.

She froze in place. Though her mind told her to get back to the toilet and step up onto the seat, she reasoned that it was already too late. The act of hiding had ended in failure, it was now time to defend herself. Backing into the corner, she lifted the rifle to her shoulder and pointed it at the stall door.

“I don’t want any trouble,” the boy said.

Elizabeth listened for the click of a gun being loaded or a safety disengaging. All that came was a series of grunts. She crouched slowly down on the balls of her feet, leaning downward for a look under that stalls at the entryway, and nearly gasped as their gazes met beneath the rows of metal dividers and unoccupied toilets. At the sight of each other they both shot back up to their feet, Elizabeth shoving herself back against the wall and the boy thudding back on the open door.

“I’m armed!” Elizabeth chirped, panic racing through her like cracks spreading through glass. “I’ll shoot you. I swear I will.”

“Please! I—” the door thudded once more. “I don’t want any trouble, I just heard the toilet and—”

“Just get on your bike and leave then. Go.” She inched up on her tip toes and watched as the top corner of the door curled toward the threshold. It closed, then cracked open. The boy was obviously now hiding outside, peering in.

“I just want to know what’s going on. You’re the first person I’ve seen since Montcalm—”

“Go away!” Her voice echoed thunderously, surprising even her. She gripped the rifle so tightly that the tips of her fingers began to tingle with little needle pricks. For a moment she thought about firing a warning shot, but quickly reconsidered. Dad’s voice popped up ever so briefly, reminding her that firing a rifle in enclosed spaces was certain to cause hearing damage.

“Did you come from Concord? Is anyone left there? We sent three groups south and none of them came back.”

She said nothing, processing little of what he was saying as she wracked her brain for some kind of out on this. The boy wasn’t going anywhere. The only option she had it would seem was to show him she meant business.

For a moment there was only silence, then came heavy breathing from the boy. He sounded not so much out of breath, but flustered.

Get out there and send him packing. Show your strength. There’s a time to run and hide, Beth, and then there’s a time to stand.

Laying the handguard of the rifle over her left forearm, Elizabeth inched her way quietly toward the stall door and unlocked it. It swung inward on its own weight, allowing her to shoulder the rifle once more as she stepped out into the bathroom. Through the lipstick decorated mirror she saw the bathroom door close all the way. Perhaps the boy would make the sensible call and return to his motorcycle.

She caught her reflection in the mirror just long enough to realize how alien she looked to herself. Even as she’d read the poem written there and taken her time writing out her response, she hadn’t paused long enough to so much as meet her own gaze. Now she saw the gaunt, frightened wraith she’d become, and once more Dad’s voice returned in her mind.

Don’t let the New World destroy my baby girl.

Destroy... not yet, but the New World had certainly pressed upon her with enough force to diminish most of her spirit. She didn’t recognize the girl in the mirror, but the murderous glean in her eyes was the look of the man who’d shot that boy in Newport. It was an expression that spoke loudly without words, telling all who would dare look upon her that she was ready to kill and that in the New World she was justified in doing so.

What had happened to her? In less than the span of a week she’d become someone she no longer knew. It wasn’t even Dad she saw there in the seconds she allowed herself to glance over her mirror image. No, this was a terrified feral, determined to hide from what she could and pull a trigger on the rest.

Elizabeth swallowed hard, her dry, itchy throat howling in discomfort. With a deep breath she braced herself against the line of stalls and turned toward the bathroom door. Her voice quivering and unsure, she asked, “Are you still there?”

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