A Tourist Again, Pt. 15


Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 14...


Elizabeth was more than reluctant to follow Andersen out of the building, to the point where she flat out refused. He seemed a little put off by her persisting lack of trust, looking a lot like a scolded child as he stood on the asphalt walkway outside with his gaze lowered to the ground. A part of her felt bad, mostly because he looked so pathetic standing there with his leather jacket hanging off his bony body. In a way she felt embarrassed for him. He’d been so excited about whatever it was he had up his sleeve and then just stopped, obviously insulted, as she remained in the doorway with Dad’s rifle in-hand.

“There are vending machines over there,” Andersen said. He gestured toward a building in the direction of the Rest Stop exit ramp. She’d missed it on her way in that morning. It reminded her of those old bus stop shelters they sold toward the end of summer at Rooney’s, long and narrow with a sharply sloping shingled roof on top. From where Elizabeth stood it looked like the mouth of a cave. That she could see nothing inside went a long way to reinforce the scenarios her paranoid mind cooked up.

“You could have people waiting in there to jump me,” she said.

“I’m not… It’s just me…” he was at a loss for words, truly flabbergasted by her continued lack of trust. She didn’t care. He gestured toward the motorcycle as a visual reinforcement of his status as a loner, but that wasn’t enough to convince someone who’d seen children murdered in cold blood.

Andersen turned back toward her and sighed. “Okay,” he said, nodding to himself. “Okay, you just stay there then. I’m going to go check this out.” He started toward the building, pausing every now and then to glance back at her. Elizabeth didn’t take so much as a single step out the door, though she watched him with an obsessive wariness that was likely to remain with her for the rest of her days. As he vanished into the shadows she turned and surveyed the on and off ramps to make sure that nobody else was approaching.

The sudden sound of shattering glass snapped her attention back to the vending area just as a metal garbage bin rolled out onto the sidewalk, spitting waxed food wrappers and a couple of plastic bottles that clattered off of the curb. Moments later Andersen emerged from the building with a brightly-colored mountain of candy and salty snacks balanced in his arms. On his face he wore a smile so cartoonish Elizabeth forgot for a moment that they were living on the scabbed face of a post-apocalyptic world. His smile was broken only by a compulsive licking of his lips as he alternated his gaze between the junk food he’d liberated and the girl standing in the doorway with an assault rifle.

“I’m not sure what you like,” he said, walking up to her a little too quickly and backtracking a bit as she lifted the muzzle of the rifle. Frowning, he halted ten feet away from her and shifted his load around. “I brought one of everything.” He seemed to forget about the candy as he read something in her face that soured his mood. “Are you… can I come back inside?”

Elizabeth thought on this. She could very well send him on his way if she wanted to. It wasn’t exactly her plan to oust him in this manner, but she told herself she could do it with a clean conscience now that she’d fed him. But there was something about the way he’d shrugged off his jacket to show her he wasn’t carrying any weapons and how sad and pathetic and alone he’d seemed. How desperate he was to force some kind of connection between the two of them. This boy had survived certain hell in a repurposed juvenile detention center, yet his need for human interaction remained intact along with his spirits.

It was time to make a decision. If she was going to send him off this was the moment. To allow him back inside meant that she was inviting him to tag along.

He could watch your back. Two heads are always better than one.

She was surprised to find Dad speaking up in the boy’s defense. Dad was the last person she’d expect to trust a boy. Boys had urges. Boys had trouble not acting on their urges. This insufferable topic was one they’d discussed at maddening length at least once a month in the days leading up to Black Christmas.

You’re better off traveling with him. You’ve made it this far on your own, and I’m so proud of you, but you won’t make it the rest of the way without support. The New World calls for the rethinking of our previous positions. Well, some of them.

Drawing in a deep breath, Elizabeth sighed and withdrew into the building. For a moment Andersen simply stood in place outside, unsure if he should follow. She caught sight of him idling in the walkway and returned to the door, her heavy footfalls punctuating her irritation. Heaving the door open, she stuck her face out. “Come on before someone sees you out there.”

Andersen apparently didn’t have to be told twice. The corner of his lips lifted in a half smile as he shuffled back toward the doorway, pausing to awkwardly snatch up a few candy bars and a bag of chips that fell as he hurried along. He eyed her with a feeble look of submission as he passed into the main foyer and walked with her tailing him back into the room with the benches. There he deposited his haul on the floor and began to sift through on his knees.

“What are you in the mood for?” Andersen asked, much of his prior enthusiasm inking back into his voice. “We really should enjoy this stuff as much as we can. There’s no telling how many places we’ll find that haven’t been looted yet.”

“We?” she asked.

Andersen shrugged and gazed down at the Kit Kat in his hand before holding it out to her. “Based on what you’ve told me, finding like-minded people – people like us – in this world is something of a lost cause. It would be stupid to go alone.” He shook the candy bar. “We’ll die on our own.”

Elizabeth didn’t need to think on his words for long. His logic was sound because it was Dad’s logic. Moreover, it was her logic.

“You look like a Kit Kat person,” Andersen said through a smile, still waving the candy bar. Behind those smiling eyes was an undeniable desperation, thick as clam chowder from The Oarweed Restaurant in Ogunquit.

She sighed and rolled her eyes. Lowering the rifle she quickly closed the gap between them and snatched the candy bar out of his hands. Despite her rudeness, for which she was incontrovertibly unapologetic, Andersen’s smile broadened before he plucked a Three Musketeers out of the pile and unwrapped it.

The rustling of food wrappers was followed by a period of quiet contemplation as they ate. With each bite Andersen’s eyes closed as though his candy bar were the most delicious thing he’d ever experienced, then they would open again and stare off as the flames of racing thought burned behind them. For Elizabeth’s part, she struggled against the stubborn urge to repress just how much she was enjoying her Kit Kat. It was asinine for her to keep reinforcing the wall she’d built between them when all he’d shown her so far was kindness and the need for companionship. She likened her current emotional climate to the times when she and Dad fought over trivial things and even after he’d won she still couldn’t bring herself to yield. Though she was able to step back and take stock of her feelings with inscrutable clarity, that didn’t dissuade her from remaining obstinately bottled up and distant.

“Tell me about Ogunquit,” Andersen said as he swallowed his last bite of chocolate and immediately began searching the pile for its follow-up. His gaze lifted and met with her for a micro-second before she turned to look out the window. “Or should I just wait and be surprised?” He paused with another chocolate bar in his hands, and though Elizabeth wasn’t looking at him she knew he was wearing an idiotic smile on his face.

“I don’t recall inviting you to tag along,” she growled as a voice decidedly her own spoke up in her mind. See, not every part of you is lost – you’re still fully capable of being a bitch for no reason... and this whole you're-not-coming-with-me act is getting tired.

Andersen was unfazed. He tore open his second chocolate bar and tore off a bite. “You didn’t, but I feel like I could use a vacation after the winter I’ve had. Lobster sounds pretty good right about now,” he said around a mouthful of candy.

Her eyes narrowed at him. “You can’t just… copy what I’m doing.” She snapped a chocolate covered wafer in half as she spoke.

Andersen only smiled back at her and shrugged. “It’s a free country – well, it was. I’d argue it’s even more free now.”

She felt her mouth crack open and quickly closed it. Her fingers curled around the broken piece of Kit Kat, grinding it to chocolate paste in her hand. “You’re just trying to get a rise out of me. You’re being an... an ass on purpose!"

With a playful half smile, Andersen lifted his hands in mock-defense. “I wouldn’t dream of testing the temper of a woman with a gun,” he said, eyes alight with mischief. Snapping another bite off his candy bar, he chewed thoughtfully before changing gears on their conversation. “I’m willing to bet you were right on the line of popularity in school. Not quite running with the popular kids, but just close enough to acknowledge a lower echelon in the social structure. I’m not judging—” his gaze found its way to the rifle beside her “—I’m just saying that I can see how conflicted you are and I saw it all the time from the kids in the middle who picked on people like me. They never did it with the same ruthlessness as the ones on top. No, the ones like you did it with a certain shrouded conflict in them.”

“You have some nerve—”

“I’m not trying to offend you. I mean it as a compliment. You’ve got a soul. Even after all the stuff you saw out there – that poor kid you saw murdered – you’ve still got most of yourself in there. I can see you wanting to trust me… wanting to have someone you can relate to in a world gone to shit, but that part of you that’s hardened itself against the world won’t let you give in. It’s no different than the way people like us interacted in school.”

At first she was ready to fire back with denial, but instead she found herself thinking on his words. Gazing down toward her lap she unfurled her fingers and studied the Rorschach blot of melted chocolate running across her life and love lines. In his own batshit way Andersen was right. She’d been aware of it even before his ridiculous social pyramid analogy. She drew in a long breath and let it out slowly as Andersen watched her with curious eyes, silent as he chewed over the rest of his chocolate.

“I’m willing to bet you were medicated before all of this,” she sighed. A mischievous half smile of her own crept across her face as their eyes met. “Thinkers like you are always on Ritalin or Adderall.”

Andersen shrugged, “ADHD and racing thoughts tend not to be mutually exclusive.” He reached back toward the pile of junk food and paused, his smile evaporating at once. A grimace swept across his face, and he retched forward as what seemed to be both a hiccup and a burp gurgled up from his stomach. He swallowed hard and settled back from the pile for a second before all at once jumping to his feet and dashing out of the room.

Elizabeth’s chocolate smeared hand was already on the rifle at his sudden movement, but relaxed as she watched him crash through the men’s room door. The sound of metal slamming reached her ears, followed immediately by the heaving sounds of loud projectile vomiting.

The water, she thought, but quickly banished the thought. He knew all about the water. He wouldn’t have drank it.

Minutes passed as she sat there, helpless, indecisive as to exactly what to do. She pivoted toward the bathroom door and sat listening as Andersen went through his purging throes. When a few minutes passed with no sound from him, she moved slowly to her feet and walked toward the door with Dad’s rifle in her grubby hands.

“Andersen…?” she asked through the door.

“It’s okay,” came a gasping voice from the other side. “I’m okay. Should have known better.”

“You didn’t drink the water did—”

“No, god no. I ate too much too—” an audible dry heave echoed in the bathroom “—quickly. I’m malnourished. When they liberated the concentration camps after World War II they had to keep the starved Jews from eating too much right away because their bodies rejected it. Some actually died from eating too much.” Another retching heave preceded sounds of Andersen spitting into the toilet. “Gah. I’m gonna be in here a while. I’m an idiot.”

She hesitated. “Do you need anything?”

“Water,” he immediately answered with more than an undercurrent of urgency in his tone. “Please.”

Elizabeth backtracked to the room with the benches and took the seltzer water he’d been drinking from the floor. Returning to the men’s room door, she paused with the rifle leveraged between her forearm and her arm pit. Once more her mind tried to caution her against doing anything foolish, only this time she banished her paranoia away. She’d made her decision to trust this boy the moment she stepped out of the ladies room. He was obviously in agony in there. It was time to stop being a bitch.

She eased the door open and found Andersen curled around the toilet in the first stall. Rushing over to him with an urgency that drew a look of surprise between the various stages of anguish penciled on his face, she knelt down and handed him the water.

“Thank you,” he said though an exhale. His body was rigid, bracing against the pain in his gut. He fumbled with the cap for a moment before Elizabeth reached out and twisted it off for him. Again he thanked her before taking a measured sip and waiting to see how his body reacted. As he waited he stared into the toilet bowl as fibrous strands of his own sick swirled about like trails of stars in a distantly-observed galaxy. Elizabeth couldn’t help acknowledging his wasting of her food, but she kept her mouth clamped shut. There was no need for her characteristic pessimism in this moment.

Before long Andersen took another sip, this one longer than the first. Again he waited. Then he took another sip and eventually grunted up into a sitting position. He tossed a last glance at the toilet as if to silently inform it that their time together was over before hunching forward and flushing it. The reek of rancid onions exploded in the stall, and Andersen grimaced to himself before offering an apologetic shrug to Elizabeth.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to that smell,” he said, drawing his shirt collar up over his nose like a gas mask.

“Well,” Elizabeth tried to breathe through her mouth but found she could taste the smell just as strongly. “At least we know you’re over your stomach issues. If that isn’t enough to make you puke up your guts I don’t know what is.”

Andersen nodded before thanking her again. And again. And yet again throughout the discourse that followed. Within a half hour his stomach was somewhat back to normal. An hour after that they were back in the room with the benches talking about their lives before Black Christmas and reminiscing over things they’d never experience again.

“Disney World,” Andersen said after a period of silence. He plucked a brochure from one of the sconces on the wall and held it up.

“That says Storyland,” Elizabeth grumbled, shifting a mouthful of bean mash into the space between her teeth and her cheek as she spoke.

“Yeah, yeah,” Andersen said, largely dismissive as he unfolded the leaflet. “It just reminds me that I’ll never get to ride the Tower of Terror again. Won’t be riding much of anything in these parks…”

“I was never much for fast rides. My idea of a family vacation was… well, you know.” Elizabeth tapped at the bottom of her bean can and swallowed the rest of the sweet, maple-tasting slime. She gazed out at the dwindling light, thankful that they hadn’t heard any gunshots recently.

“On the beach with a book, right?” Andersen’s eyebrows lifted and his gaze fell briefly upon the can of beans as she set it aside. His mischievous expression flickered only momentarily with a grimace hearkening back to his time in the bathroom. He hadn’t shown any interest in food since.

“Or visiting a museum, or going to a silent film, or walking along the ocean…”

Andersen’s eyebrows hit their zenith, wrinkling his teenage forehead cartoonishly. “So basically just Ogunquit, Maine.”

Elizabeth sighed and gazed wistfully out the window. For the first time in a week she was feeling almost normal. “Yeah, and I won’t apologize about that. It’s amazing.”

“I can’t wait to see it,” Andersen said, making sure to sound overly presumptuous. Elizabeth had no trouble decoding that. She tossed him some playful side-eye as he grunted to his feet, hands clutching his stomach momentarily, and began perusing the brochures. Within seconds he plucked one of the heavy roadmaps from the wall and returned to his place on the floor. Unfolding the map, he began to trace his finger along the interstate routes, lips puckering every now and then as his brain was seized by thought.

Bad thought by Elizabeth’s estimation.

“Highway probably won’t be a good idea,” Andersen said. He cleared his throat loudly and finished the last of his seltzer water before chucking the bottle over his shoulder. It clattered noisily against the bench legs at the corner of the room from which the shadows of night where beginning to spread. “Manchester, Epping, Exeter… Portsmouth… too many densely populated urban areas to take the risk.”

“I already reached that conclusion,” Elizabeth said proudly. She moved to the floor across from him, examining the map as she unwrapped a Milky Way from Andersen’s pile. “202 to Route 4 is the only practical way.” She omitted the general conclusion that her route would also take her through Portsmouth. Andersen seemed already on top of this anyway.

“That still leaves us hitting I-95 at Newington. I don’t think we should go through Portsmouth. Maybe hit Route 108 in Durham and go up through Dover and the Berwicks. Looks like a pretty quiet, wooded trip to Ogunquit from there. I didn’t realize it was so close to York. I helped a few kids from that school.”

Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to shoot him the raised eyebrows look. “Helped?”

Andersen chuckled. “I suppose I could choose my words better. How about: I had a few clients from that school?”

“Better.” She was shocked to feel herself smile. Andersen seemed just as moved by it, though he played it off with that charismatic charm seldom seen in a member of his social caste. His eyes simply narrowed and he favored her with a half grin before returning to the map.

“If we maintain a three mile-per-hour pace we could be there in less than three days,” Andersen said. His pupils shot toward the edges of their sockets as he silently mimed his way through some mathematical equation, his index finger twirling about for good measure. He looked like some overly animated mad scientist in a movie working out complex equations in his mind. For all Elizabeth knew, he really was that much of a genius. “So we could take it somewhat leisurely and get there in four days. If we took my bike we could be there in hours, but something tells me this is the end of the road for the Harley.”

“Something tells you right,” Elizabeth returned. “I’m surprised you made it as far as you did without someone taking a shot at you.”

“For all I know they might have.” He shrugged. Turning back to the map, he tapped a few times on the line marking the Concord city limits. “This will be the hardest part, assuming there are still people left in the city. I saw signs on my way down here talking about orders from the Lieutenant Governor. Something tells me this woman was alive for at least a little while after all of this went down.”

“Bridget Strauss,” Elizabeth said. “I saw one, too. What did yours say?”

Andersen shrugged, “Something about a quarantine in Springfield.”

“The one I saw said the same thing about Claremont.”

“So maybe they knew about the water then and were trying to contain it.” His face grew dark with that same expression Dad always got when biting into a fresh conspiracy theory.

“I’ve half a mind to think they did it themselves... probably by accident,” Elizabeth was surprised to hear herself say. Her gaze moved up from the map and met with the smiling eyes of her new friend Andersen who nodded with more of that home-baked mischief gleaming in his eyes.

“Now that doesn’t sound very American, does it? Not exactly fit to the model of late-stage capitalism we’ve seen choking the nation for some time. Maybe this is some kind of reboot?” He pulled a pen from his jacket – of course this poindexter had a pen – and began to trace what she assumed to be their route out of Concord.

“An inside job?” She all but laughed.

“There are all kinds of clandestine inside jobs that took place without the consent of the larger body public. We are no more evolved now than we were in the middle ages or even the ancient times when violence was more or a lifestyle and less of an entertainment tool used by filmmakers and authors whose characters aren't enough to prop up a story. We pretend to be enlightened, but we’re still just as opportunistic and immoral as ever.” He looked up from the map, face creased with an expression of mixed sorrow and straight-edged acceptance. “Is it more ridiculous to believe that this was somehow perpetrated by the North Koreans or the Japanese, or that our own government poisoned the well in order to, say, thin the herd?”

“Why would they want to do that?”

“I guess your dad was one of those hard-nosed Republicans who favored the rich instead of questioning them, huh?”

Elizabeth thought about this for a moment before shaking her head. “No, he had his issues with them, but it didn’t come up as often as talk about liberals.”

Liberal,” Andersen mused, his pen tracing the road from North Berwick to Moody, Maine, then to Ogunquit where he circled the town a few times. “The word for boogeyman on the lips of conservatives. Therein lies the deception of the two party system. Both had their demonizing language, but it was always their intention to sow discord in their bases in order to detract from the real enemy. Forgive my use of this term – it’s tired as fuck – but the real enemy is the one percent. The rich have been pulling all the strings since the beginning of time. Reagan gave them more power than they’d ever had in the ‘80s, all while the conservative middle class applauded its own demise. The secret lives of the wealthy are things we will never understand. I’m certain they could take an idea like killing off the majority of the world and make it work to their benefit. For all we know they’re sipping martinis on the factory floor of the last remaining clean water bottling plant.”

Elizabeth drew in a shallow breath as she considered all the disaster movies she’d seen where the rich almost always had a contingency plan to ensure the continuation of their lavish lives. In most of these scenarios they were also the ones behind said disaster. “You think the rich one percent poisoned the water for some financial edge we’ve yet to see…?”

With a shrug, Andersen returned: “Murder is big business.” He tucked his map into the inside pocket of his jacket. “So are we leaving tonight or tomorrow morning?”