Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 13...
A reluctant, mousy voice spoke muffled through the door. “I’ll leave. I’m sorry, I just… they didn’t tell us much where I was. Before yesterday I’d never seen a body in my life…”
“That’s pretty far-fetched. The world died four months ago.” Elizabeth adjusted her grip on the rifle. She was in no rush to come out from behind the cluster of stalls.
The boy was silent for a period of maybe thirty seconds. “I was in the youth center at Montcalm. Not exactly the ice-breaker I prefer to start with when talking to a girl with a gun, but that’s the honest truth. We were locked in… have been since Christmas.”
“You were in juvey?” She cursed herself for erring toward compassion. Once more the rigid framework of the New World pressed itself upon her; there was no good left here.
“I know it sounds bad, but I’m not a bad person. I’m a computer nerd for Christ sake. I watch Star Trek. They locked me up for hacking the national Blackboard servers that support the online component to most public schools and colleges. I took money in exchange for… artificially raising the grades of lesser students.”
Elizabeth remembered hearing about this on the news. A sophomore at Manchester High School West had been arrested for bumping up the GPAs of what turned out to be hundreds of kids throughout the state and beyond. Governor Republican Dick Bag had wanted to try him as an adult and even weighed in publicly on the matter despite the apparent urgings of his staff. Despite her memories of this, Elizabeth struggled to put a face to the story.
“Are you going to say something or…”
“I’m thinking,” she snapped. “That story was all over the news before Black Christmas. You could be making this up.”
“Have things really gotten so bad that people don’t trust each other anymore? By the sounds of it you and I could have been in a Civics class together. I just want to know what’s going on. They let us watch the news reports until the networks went down. I know it started with North Korea and Japan. I know something happened with the ground water. I didn’t expect the world to be so… empty.” He said this last part with a certain hollowness that told Elizabeth he’d seen more than emptiness, but the emotion in his voice mirrored the feeling she’d been struck by after losing Dad.
“I don’t have answers. I’ve been… removed as well. Are you saying they kept you locked up all these months?”
“Yes. Same reason I’d imagine they probably left the prisons locked. No sense in opening up a broken world to those clearly lacking the tools to rebuild it. Most of the staff never came in Christmas Day… just the ones who were obsessively dedicated to their brand of rehabilitation. They weren’t the best of people before it all… I wouldn’t even call them people now. Have you ever read The Talisman? It’s a book Stephen King wrote with Peter Struab.”
“It was on my list,” Elizabeth grumbled, wishing this obvious talker would get to the point.
“In it there’s a home for wayward boys run by a man named Gardiner. The place is more or less just a state-funded farce through which Gardiner unleashes all kinds of physical and mental abuse on children all in the name of rehabilitation. Well, that’s the main thrust of it anyway. Now that I think of it there’s a lot of metaphorical—”
“You’re veering way off track.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was locked inside until yesterday by two of the meanest, most depraved men I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing. Everything they did to us, they said, was in the name of justice and recompense. Before this Black Christmas I suspected they didn’t have much in the way of lives off-campus, and they proved me right. They were the only ones who came back. Some mistook it for altruism, but those bastards came to loot our sanity. They moved in, started running the place. Assigned us staggered duty shifts in the kitchen, never letting more than a dozen of us out at a time just in case someone got the idea to come at them. We took meals in our rooms. We were no longer prisoners of the State… we were their prisoners…” It seemed as though he had more to say, but the boy seemed uninterested in going any further. At least not on that topic.
“How did you get out?”
“Can we maybe talk face-to-face—”
“The fuck we can!” Elizabeth yelled, vaguely aware that her feet had carried her a few steps closer to the door. “So far you haven’t given me anything you can back up, and that story sounds a little too—”
“I faked my death.” The boy was silent for a moment, probably considering just how outlandish his story was regardless of its verity. He could be heard taking a deep breath outside the door then exhaling. “I mixed up some corn syrup with red food coloring in the kitchen just before my shift ended. I drank what felt like a gallon of it before they brought me back to my room for the night. As soon as I was inside and alone I gagged myself and puked it all up on the floor, then I laid down in it and waited. The tainted water… it took us all by surprise. By the time I’d hatched my little plan one of our caretakers and at least a couple dozen of the kids locked up with me had died… violently. It just came out of nowhere. The guy who remained in charge, his name was Dreven, he didn’t take any chances with the water. If he found someone dead in their room he’d gather up a bunch of us, march us to the corpse at gunpoint, and force us to carry it outside to the edge of the grounds at the woods. He never had them check me for vitals or anything, just as I knew would happen. He just had them drag me out and toss me into a pile of... my peers.”
“So you just grabbed a motorcycle, learned to drive it, and took off with no direction.”
The boy hesitated, then said, “You’re jaded by this world. I can tell. My father taught me to ride. He and my mother died a year ago. Remember those bikers killed outside North Conway by that guy texting and driving?”
She didn’t remember it specifically, but then again she’d had other distractions in her life. Still, the imagery of local newscasters standing before the grassy hump of a hill dotted with white crosses found its way into her mind. “Your parents were…”
“Fortunate enough to have been at the head of the group. They were killed instantly. Others weren’t so lucky.”
The premise of a sharp-minded orphan with nothing to live for breaking into some digital vault on the internet had and almost Neo-Dickensian feel to it. To her surprise, Elizabeth actually found it plausible. She knew all too well the fuzz of emotions that clouded the mind in the aftermath of loss. They two of them had yet to properly meet face-to-face and she’d already learned that they held in common one of life’s cruelest turns.
He could just be fooling you. Pity can be weaponized.
He could also be telling the truth, she thought. Dad didn’t want the New World to destroy his baby girl. To abandon what remained of her kindness and empathy would be the first step in cropping what remained of Beth from her soul. Was she really prepared to send away what was left of her? Could she so quickly shed herself of her remaining humanity?
“I’m sorry,” she said after a minute or so of silence. “I… I know what it’s like to lose a parent… to lose both parents.”
“Thank you,” the boy returned. “I’m sorry for… well, I don’t know anything about…” he let loose a long sigh that suggested a recurring frustration with the way his mind presented words to his mouth. “I’m sorry for your loss as well.” There was another measured stretch of silence, then, “You’ve been through something serious, haven’t you?”
The finer points of her life’s derailment over the last week played like greatest hits in her mind. With them came undulating waves of emotion. She saw her and Dad laughing over candy at Hannaford. She saw him taste the water trickling out of the Gwendy Spring pipe. She saw him wretch forward as wave after crushing wave of gut-hurling nausea crashed upon him. She saw his lifeless body on the youth center floor, and she saw the exterior of Rooney’s where she’d procured the tools to bury him. Then came the memories of crossing the bridge and the men at the Walmart in Newport.
Christ, it hadn’t even been a week. Just five long, soul-decimating days.
“If I said something, I’m sorry—”
“No,” Elizabeth sighed, her grip on the rifle relaxing though she wasn’t yet ready to lower it. “It’s okay. I have been through… a lot of stuff.”
The boy was quiet again. Mostly, Elizabeth thought, out of reverence for the tribulations she’d faced. After a few moments she was struck with the idea that he was waiting for her to elaborate, but instead he spoke up once more behind the door. His voice was low and muffled, but she heard him well enough, and his words grounded her in a familiar feeling of humanity she hadn’t felt since… Dad.
“I’m Andersen. I know, it’s a weird name. I think my parents were going for that formality that comes only with using a last name as your child’s first name.”
Elizabeth was shocked to hear herself chuckle at this. “Doesn’t strike me as the name a couple of bikers would pick.”
“Well, they weren’t the best bikers. More like a couple of nerds in complete denial about being nerds.”
She chuckled harder at this and eventually removed her left hand from the rifle just long enough to confirm the presence of relieved, maybe even joyful tears beading in her eyes. So desperately she wanted this boy to be what he claimed. Like some remnant of the Old World preserved in Montcalm just for her. A representative of the intellectually awkward social caste from which she’d gone absurd lengths to remain isolated. Prior to Black Christmas Andersen could have been any of the kids she and her friends cruelly flagged as creep or loser in school. It was funny how something minor like the entire world ending could force her to see the charm in boys like this.
“I’m Elizabeth,” she croaked. It was all she could do to keep from breaking down at the ludicrous scenario playing out. How desperately she wanted it to be real.
“Andersen and Elizabeth…” the boy mused, voice bouncing with mischief. “We sound like a couple of cable TV news anchors. Jesus, would you believe I’ve never wondered until this moment if my parents actually named me after Andersen Cooper?”
A terse, burp of a laugh escaped her mouth, trailed closely by the giggles. On the other side of the door he giggled along. “We’d probably be an MSNBC duo. Our names don’t sound meat and potatoes enough for Fox News.”
“Ah, yes… I wonder what icons of American hyperbole like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are doing right now. Probably gasping for air in the void left behind by their own silenced voices.”
“My Dad swore by those two. Thought they were real heroes of journalism in an age where literally everyone else was out to deceive you.”
“If I offended you—”
“God no,” she laughed. “Dad’s social and political positions were ludicrous, but the conspiracies that nuts like Sean Hannity worked into him are the things that kept us alive. Intellectuals and scholars talk a good talk and are really great when it comes to analyzing and predicting things like Black Christmas, but the people rugged enough to actually survive were the ones like my dad. Constitutional crusaders incapable of reciting any of the Amendments but the 2nd.”
“Something tells me you wouldn’t be hiding in the bathroom right now if all the Christian elements associated with that type also survived that night.”
Her soul darkened at the image of the mute boy struggling to pull himself up in the carriage coral. The screaming woman, his mother… was she even still alive? Elizabeth was disturbed to find herself hoping not.
“I’ve been alone in this world for five days,” she said. "Just five days, and I feel... broken... by what I've seen. You couldn't possibly imagine..." She swallowed hard and blinked a trail of tears down each cheek.
The boy seemed to give her space through silence as she worked to gather herself. A few minutes passed. Elizabeth reread the words formed of red grease on the mirror and stepped away from the stalls. Leaning against the money-stuffed sink, she said, “Prop the door open slowly with something and back away toward the exit door.”
“If you mean to shoot me I’d rather just—”
“I’m not thinking of shooting you… unless you’re lying to me. The moment I catch whiff of deception you’ll be on the floor with holes in you, and don’t think for a second that the daughter of a Fox News enthusiast doesn’t know how to handle a rifle.” She tried toe the line between outright threatening and cautionary tones. In the end she wasn’t really sure if she’d succeeded in conveying the latter.
“Okay,” Andersen said.
Elizabeth shouldered the rifle and aimed it at the door. Within a few moments the door slowly opened inward, and the two of them got their first long look at each other. Through the iron sights of Dad’s rifle Elizabeth evaluated the pale, malnourished face of a high school sophomore. Andersen had taken the rubber band out of his hair. It hung in bunches in his face, reminding her of black curly fries. Shaking hands clutched a stack of brochures which he slowly jammed beneath the door, his gaze leaving hers only for a second to check his work. When the door remained propped open, he scooted slowly backward, lifting his hands up defensively as he rose to his feet and backtracked until he bumped against the windows overlooking the parking lot.
Feet possessed of their own intelligence carried her slowly out of the bathroom. Her gaze darted about the room, searching for anyone who might be waiting to get the jump on her. When all she found were the corpses she’d been sharing the space with, she trained her attention on the parking lot outside where Andersen’s motorcycle remained the only newly arrived vehicle in a sea of derelicts.
Without prompting, Andersen slowly shrugged his leather jacket off of his shoulders, revealing arms that were nothing more than bones wrapped in porcelain flesh and a torso that jutted like the lip of a cliff over his concave stomach. Elizabeth had only seen such undernourishment in history books chronicling the Holocaust and philanthropic journals of third world mud-dwellers.
“It’s been a long time since my last burger at McDonald’s” Andersen said, jaw quivering. His eyes glistened with tears. “I was, um…” he struggled visibly to keep it together. “I was hoping to find something to eat here.”
Elizabeth slowly lowered the rifle. She walked toward Andersen, ready to react to any signs of movement, but he simply stood there with his hands raised, looking like a freak on display at some side show. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through, Andersen,” she said. The pity she felt for this poor creature standing exposed before her was immeasurable.
He swallowed hard and forced a smile. “I’m still alive,” he said with a slow shrug.
Biting at her lower lip and drawing in a cleansing breath, Elizabeth lowered the rifle. “Do you like baked beans?”
- - -
Though her food was precious, Elizabeth offered Andersen an entire can of B&M Homestyle Baked Beans. Keeping the AR within arms reach, she sawed at the grooved top using the can opener on her Swiss Army Knife. After minutes of wrist-numbing effort, she was able to pry off the lid, and she passed it to Andersen who sat on an adjacent bench.
Andersen didn’t hesitate in tipping the jagged edge of the can to his lips and pouring its contents into his mouth. He paused only briefly after a couple mouthfuls, suddenly struck by Elizabeth’s obsessive gaze. Extending the can to her, he asked if she wanted any as he worked around a mouthful of bean mash. His voice was apologetic and embarrassed, as if he’d misplaced some rule of Old World etiquette concerning the proper sharing of canned food.
Elizabeth was left embarrassed herself and forced a smile that she hoped was comforting. “No, thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry for staring.”
“I’m making a pig out of myself,” Andersen said, swallowing and looking the can over with an almost feral desire. “I can’t remember the last time I had this much to eat. Thank you so much.”
She nodded. “Don’t let me stop you. Eat away.” Though she hated that her guard was falling more and more with each passing second, it was a more than acceptable trade off from the misery of solitude she’d endured since Claremont. She tried not to watch Andersen as he wasted no time putting away the last of the beans, even as he began to tap the straggling remains of clotted juice into his mouth. When he was done their eyes met and he ran a reedy arm across his face.
After a long look down at the empty can, Andersen turned back to her with a beaming smile and asked, “Where’s the recycling bin around these parts?”
They chuckled together as Andersen’s stomach began to conduct a roiling symphony of chemical decomposition. He leaned back and rested his head against the wall, closing his eyes as he savored the feeling. Unprompted, Elizabeth dug around in her backpack, shuffling around the cans of AquaNet she’d impulsively added to her survival gear and seizing upon one of the last three bottles of seltzer water. As she handed it to Andersen his eyes were already open again and upon her.
“Here lies the next great conundrum,” he sighed, taking the bottle and looking it over broodingly. After a long exhale he thanked her and elaborated on the thoughts swirling in his mind. “Once we get past whatever remains out there, assuming there’s any kind of fulfilling life to be had anymore, we’ve already got an expiration date. Once we run out of preserved water like this, we’re done for.”
“You think it’s tainted everywhere?” Elizabeth asked.
Andersen nodded slowly. “I want to hope that it isn’t, but after four months locked up without anyone trying to come for us… the world would have just started up again already. Four months is an eternity for a society so deeply entrenched in capitalism to remain in a coma. The wheels should be turning again, but they’re not.” He unscrewed the cap and drank, seeming to savor every drop of the bitter seltzer.
Elizabeth thought on his words for a few moments, realizing that in her own way she’d already assumed the rest of the world was in the same state of affairs she’d witnessed so far. Had she the spirits left to crush she would have coiled into some deep depression. “Where were you headed before you stopped off here?”
Fingers tapping on the bottle, Andersen shrugged. “Concord, I guess. It’s the state capital. Should be as good a place as any to take a reading on what the rest of the country looks like. I seriously doubt there’s much left in the way of government, but my cynicism has been misplaced before. How about you?”
She gazed out the window over his shoulder. Outside the light was already beginning to diminish. Another in a long line of meaningless rotations on the face of a squandered world. “I guess I was heading for a vacation.” She was surprised to hear herself laugh at the way she phrased this. Andersen reacted with a quizzical are you serious look. “Have you ever been to Maine?”
“A couple times,” he said. “Mom and Dad mostly stuck to the mountain roads here in New Hampshire for their riding adventures. Most of the time I went with them, though I rode bitch behind Mom. We went to a place in Maine called Rangeley for a week when I was maybe 12 or 13, and we took a trip into Quebec that brought us through a few of the smaller Maine towns. I’m assuming you’re heading to Maine then.”
“Ogunquit,” she said, conjuring images in her mind of waves breaking on the rocks off the Marginal Way. “I went there with my folks before my mom died. It was the last place I remember being truly happy.”
“And you’re hoping enough of that feeling… enough of you is left there to reclaim the pieces Black Christmas stole?” He took another sip and set the bottle down at his feet. Elizabeth paused in thought just long enough to admire the restraint he’d pressed upon himself for what it was: food like the beans was in much larger supply than bottled water.
“I guess that’s it, yes,” she said, feeling distant as her mind trailed off into other veins of thought.
“That’s as good a reason to go somewhere as any,” Andersen said, equally thoughtful. “What will you do after you get there?” He looked her over with a knowing glean in his eyes. This was a boy who clearly explored every thought to its ultimate depth, even when he already had everything figured out. What a wonderful psychiatrist he might have made.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do after that,” she sighed. “I don’t even now if I’ll make it there.”
There was a pause in conversation for a few seconds. Outside the world remained still and undisturbed by the ever-declining presence of man. Leaves that had no business being in bloom this early in the year flapped and waved in the breeze, catching the light from the receding sun. Then, all at once, Andersen asked the question she’d been dreading.
“What have you seen out there?” He leaned toward her, locks of black hair falling across his face and partially obscuring an expression of reluctance that was par for the course with a question like that. It was obvious he hadn’t decided to ask it lightly.
For Elizabeth, the myriad answers to his question were easily and surprisingly boiled down to one word. “Cruelty,” she sighed. Then, finding it easier to express the longer she spoke, she continued. “I saw what all of us really are... I saw the nature of humanity. I never realized how flimsy the rules of society were until I got out of Claremont. What do you think humans were like when we took those first few steps… back when we ceased being animals and started to be people? All those tired stories about cavemen clubbing women over the head and dragging them off must have come from something. Back when there were no laws saying that you couldn’t simply take something or someone if you wanted to. That’s what I saw out there. That’s what this world is now.” She considered leaving it at that, remaining cryptic and vague, and she knew that he wouldn’t push her any further if that was her decision. Then all at once the need to purge from her mind all that she’d seen since leaving Claremont pressed upon her, and she went right for the meat of everything that had been feeding on her humanity. “I saw a boy… a little boy gunned down in a carriage corral outside a Walmart while his mother was forced to watch. A group of just… evil men had set up inside the store. I never got close enough to see much aside from that, but… but…”
“You don’t have to continue,” Andersen said softly. He started to reach toward her but seemed to reconsider and retracted his arm. Truth be told, Elizabeth would have welcomed the touch but respected him more for his consideration. “I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like. Even when things were starting to get bad… like really desperate in Montcalm…” he sighed. “They were never as bad as that. I’m so sorry.”
She shook her head and waved her hands in a gesture of mock dismissal. “It’s over now. I think often about what might be going on inside that Walmart, but I’m comforted a little bit with the knowledge that there’s nothing I could have done about it. At the very least it taught me to watch out for myself.” It was in this moment that she realized she’d grown comfortable enough with Andersen to have forgotten about the rifle. Glancing beside her, she noted that it hadn’t gotten up and walked off on its own. She turned toward the larger room where the corpses also remained in their places. “I think the thing that baffles me the most now is that.” Pointing at the legs of the old woman, she turned her attention back to Andersen who glanced briefly at the body before looking back to Elizabeth. “The dead don’t stink as much as I expected.”
She shrugged as if it were a joke, and in a dark way it was pretty funny. Andersen chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m wondering if the long cold of the winter kept them preserved. As the weather warms it will get pretty ripe, I imagine.”
“I guess anything is better than the smell of the water,” she said, gazing thoughtfully out the window at the sun reflecting off the motorcycle's chrome.
Andersen seemed to have nothing to say to this. Of all the mysteries that weighed upon them that was the gold medal winner. Exactly how something that expansive had seeped into not one but every major water supply Elizabeth had encountered was baffling. It must have had something to do with the bombs. Perhaps some kind of radiation exposure from the nukes that had fallen in the major cities? Though this was the most plausible explanation, it was also the most far-fetched. Claremont was hundreds of miles from the nearest cratered city.
She was drawn out of her thoughts by the sudden clap of Andersen’s hands. Startled, she reached instinctively for the rifle. Her fingers were already curled around the barrel before she realized he meant nothing other than a show of excitement.
“Sorry,” Andersen choked out through a lungful of held breath. He exhaled gradually as his gaze followed her hand away from the rifle and to her lap. Their eyes met, and Elizabeth flashed a warding look his way, silently informing him that she was in self-preservation mode and such erratic behavior was not advised.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, looking buffoonish. This spoke to his character and the lack of self-awareness she’d observed in people like him. “I just got excited all of the sudden at an idea I had.”
Her eyes narrowed at him. “What idea?”
He smiled nervously and shrugged. “Dessert.”