A Tourist Again, Pt. 16

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Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 15...

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They left that night, though Elizabeth wondered if Andersen was pushing himself a bit too much so soon after his stomach issues. She watched him pause outside the rest area, hand pressed to his chest as he silently bid his bike goodbye, and couldn’t help feeling mild annoyance at the way he seemed to find novelty everywhere in the New World. Even in objects and food they’d been exposed to their entire lives.

Andersen offered to carry her backpack as they started down the on-ramp and back onto I-89. She met his gaze, catching him glancing over her as a prince in a Disney movie might appraise his princess. Above them the moon peeked out from behind the clouds, casting the highway before them in pale light and glinting off the metal hoods of derelict cars, now little more than formerly mobile tombstones.

“I’m good,” Elizabeth said. “Thanks.”

“I feel like an ass walking along, carrying nothing.” He zipped up his leather jacket against the chill of the night. A breeze carried through the sea of gridlocked vehicles, and with it came a seasonable nip that had been very unseasonably absent the last few days. The scents of green rebirth concealed an undertone of smoke. Not woodsmoke, but more of a chemical fire smoke, and barely detectable.

“You were puking up your guts in the bathroom not even four hours ago,” Elizabeth grumbled. “It’s cool.”

“I could carry the rifle.”

Elizabeth halted mid-step and pivoted toward him. She cast an aggravated look his way, spiced with certain incredulity.

Andersen was already wearing a playful smile. Still working diligently to wear her down but succeeding only in pushing every one of her buttons. “I’m obviously kidding,” he sighed, tugging at the fringe of his jacket and fidgeting uncomfortably. It was obvious he still had yet to understand how much she hated sarcasm.

“We should be quiet,” Elizabeth said, and that was all. She turned back to the choked, two lane road and pressed forward through the mechanized remnants of the Old World. Andersen seemed to take the hint this time. He trailed her silently, tapping every now and then against the dusty roof of a car or kicking a piece of debris aside, presumably to let her know that he was still there. Silence was not his strong suit. She’d sized this up in him almost immediately.

Minutes turned to hours. Their only break came when they reached the I-89/I-93 merge outside of Concord. Here Elizabeth halted them beneath an overpass and they finished the last of the seltzer she’d taken from the lake house. She followed this with a meal of Pop Tarts pilfered from the vending machines (along with all the bottled water she could cram into her backpack) before they’d set out. As she chewed, rifle laid across her lap, she gazed out at the purple horizon, distinguishable from the hilly terrain only as a slightly darker, cloud swollen bruise. They were close enough now to have seen the lights of the city if it was still occupied. Elizabeth was simultaneously relieved and crestfallen to observe no signs of life in the space where they city should be.

“So much for Lieutenant Governor So-and-so.” Andersen snared the words right from Elizabeth’s mouth, drawing her gaze as he ruminated over a half-eaten bag of off-brand animal crackers and decided he’d had enough. He tucked the bag into the breast pocket of his jacket. “It’s just as well. Politicians suck ass.” Beyond the overpass marking the terminus of I-89, the roadway curved into an on-ramp feeding I-93 North. Their route to I-393 would carry them down a mere sliver of 93, but that sliver ran right through the heart of Concord. Though it seemed they were the only living souls on the outskirts of the state capital, Elizabeth didn’t trust it.

“No power doesn’t mean no people,” Elizabeth said thoughtfully. She let the breeze catch her Pop Tart wrapper, ferrying it off into the darkness. “We need to be careful… and quiet.” She tossed a sharp look his way. Andersen ran his thumb and forefinger along his lips in a zipping gesture.

“You’re the boss.” He turned and gazed down the dark roadway. Elizabeth’s attention stayed on him for a moment, expecting something unhelpfully sarcastic, but Andersen said nothing. Instead his brow furrowed and his nostrils flared a few times. In that same moment the scent reached Elizabeth as well.

More of that chemical burning smell. Stronger now, though only detectable for a moment.

“Smells like burning tires,” Andersen said. “Not exactly campfire stuff.”

Elizabeth scanned the horizon for even the tiniest pinprick of light. She could make out nothing. “You’d think we could see it if we can smell it.” Her fingers tightened nervously around the cold metal of Dad’s rifle.

“I don’t know.” Andersen swiveled toward her and chased on itch on the inside of his right thigh. “Anyone clever enough to stay alive through all of this is probably also clever enough to hide their camp after nightfall. There’s a whole new approach to life in this New World as you call it. The kind of rules that flirt around the edges of anarchy.”

“How darkly poetic,” Elizabeth grumbled, offended slightly by his implied naivete on her part. “All the more reason to shut your yap until we’re out of the city.”

“You’re really going to have to dial back the charm, Liz. I'm trying to get to Ogunquit, Maine, not seeking your hand in marriage.” A half smile crossed his face, but it was only enough to suggest he wasn’t entirely insulted.

Elizabeth’s first impulse was to correct his use of her abbreviated name, but she decided against it in a rare moment of self-awareness that reminded her she was verbally denigrating her only companion. With a deep breath she heaved herself to her feet, feeling a spike of pain at the small of her back under the burden of the backpack. All that extra water was a bit much. She considered asking Andersen if he wanted to take it for a few miles but quickly trashed the idea in the interest of consolidating her pride.

Minutes later they were meandering through the derelicts of another highway as buildings and other structures began to take form on either side of them. There had been no nuclear detonations in Concord, that was for sure. But judging by the voids of space between building rows, marked ominously by the jagged remains of stacked brick and the twisted fingers of exposed steel, bombs had indeed fallen. The burning smell grew stronger, but there was still no sign of light or any other activity. The silence of the world, especially so close to a former urban sprawl, was crushing.

So much for Concord. A part of Elizabeth had wanted to find something here. Something of substance. But wants and hopes were fixtures of the Old World; they were mere contrivances here, if anything at all.

As they neared the exit that would deliver them to I-393, Andersen moved up so they were walking abreast and gestured toward an empty space in the dark. “That was the State House,” he whispered. His hesitation at speaking was palpable.

Elizabeth gazed out toward the space where she’d casually caught glances of the State House’s gold-tipped dome dozens of times while riding with Dad. Were it daylight she was certain she’d find herself looking over a crater in the ground, but it was too dark to make out much more than the finer geometric edges of shattered buildings. Suddenly traveling under the cover of darkness served a purpose beyond personal security: it shrouded the nastier leavings of an ill-defined war she would always struggle to understand.

They moved off of I-93 without incident and stepped onto a half-mile long bridge that spanned the Merrimack River, one of the larger arteries of moving water in the state. Dozens of mills had been built along its shore in the twin cities of Concord and Manchester. Most had been retrofitted as lofts and business spaces as of Black Christmas.

The reek of the river had been building steadily as I-93 sidled up and ran parallel to it. Also growing in strength was the burning smell. As they turned their backs on the New Hampshire State Capital and crossed the river, flashes of light began to flare in the wooded hills beyond. Elizabeth chambered a round without thinking about it and thumbed off the safety, walking with her rifle at the ready instead of slung awkwardly alongside the backpack. Beside her Andersen also showed signs of wariness as the silhouettes of buildings both whole and broken surrendered to hilly woodland and the highway cut through a small valley on its eastern trajectory. A half hour later the reek of rancid onions was entirely eclipsed by the stinging odor of chemical combustion, and the impossibly bright aura of what could have been a full blown forest fire cast the tree-threaded mountainside ahead in hues of auburn.

“That’s one big fire,” Andersen said, voice lacking its usual good-humored cadence. Elizabeth looked him over in the low light coming from the moon, noting how rigid he’d grown, as if up until this moment he’d only considered the horrors she’d described as a possibility. They could see nothing more than the chaotic shadows thrown upon the hillside by the massive fire, yet that alone seemed enough to shake her companion out of his former shell. Ahead were clear signs of humanity, a word only loosely applied to most denizens of the New World.

“So much for hiding in the night,” she returned, unintentionally throwing a jab at his previous observation. “You forget it’s not the thinkers like us who’ve inherited this rock. The New World belongs to the brazen.” She nodded toward the blazing firelight, face drained of emotion. “The meek shall inherit nothing.”

A stuttering burst of nervous laughter escaped Andersen, who cartoonishly clapped his hand to his mouth to muffle it. He shrugged, not saying a word as their gazes met and his eyes conveyed a silent apology. It was forgivable, at least in that moment.

-     -     -

The glare cast by the massive bonfire rendered the nighttime world around them more and more sinister as they approached the convergence of I-393 and Route 202. Now the former shadows in the darkness took on different forms as they held the light sluicing through the valley. Elizabeth and Andersen passed by a small mini-golf and zipline park called Tim Sully’s Silly Swat & Swing. She’d been there once with both parents. It was nothing special, though the food was phenomenal and always came in heaping portions. The small park was etched into a gently sloping mountainside spattered with white pines and fringed with maple and oak. In the light of the fire pressing over the next rise in the terrain, the various statues and hazards along the mini golf course looked like otherworldly creatures, feral and poised to strike.

The thought to search Tim Sully’s for anything useful was edged out of her mind almost as quickly as it arrived there. With the ever-brightening signs of certain death ahead, Elizabeth was able to think of little more than keeping her index finger from tightening too much around the AR’s trigger. A quick glance over at Andersen confirmed that his game face was on. His gaze would not leave the brightening aura that filled the space between trees where the highway crested the hill.

They’d been walking hours at this point, and though Elizabeth’s legs and back ached she wasn’t about to entertain the idea of stopping for the day so close to signs of life. A part of her wondered if she’d spend the rest of her life making decisions based on her proximity to humanity. As they neared the top of the hill with the fires of certain doom burning brightly behind it, she circled around this last thought in her mind. Her proximity to humanity. It worked on both a mental and physical level. The world would never be the same again.

Elizabeth didn’t realize the two of them were edging their way toward the wooded shoulder of the road until gravel began to grind beneath her feet. Like the planchette moving across a Ouija board, she wasn’t certain which of them had originally started toward the edge of the road, but the idea (subconscious or otherwise) was a good one. As they crested the hill and gazed down at a formerly bare stretch of four lane highway, they immediately halted.

“Good god,” Andersen sighed, his voice rife with equal parts apprehension and sarcasm. “It’s like one of those haunts they turn apple orchards into around Halloween.”

Situated in their path, and occupying the entire roadway was a hodge-podge barrier wall built of scavenged aluminum siding, vehicles pressed bumper-to-bumper, and loose chain-link fencing. The only void in the wall was an open slot maybe six feet wide. Torches burned on either side of it with gunman standing sentinel beneath. From where they stood atop the hill, Elizabeth and Andersen had a clear view into the circular encampment where various hovels and tents stood illuminated in the glare of dozens of barrel fires and makeshift torches, some moving through the shantytown, carried by figures they couldn’t distinguish clearly from the hillside.

“They just built it in the middle of the road,” Andersen mused. “That hardly seems—”

He went silent as Elizabeth snatched him by the wrist and drew him urgently into the woods just off the road. Once under cover, she released him, wanting in her own odd way to shake the coodies from her hand. Andersen didn’t finish his thought, but Elizabeth already knew where he’d been going with it. Why build a fortified structure like the wall before them (something that couldn’t have been easy to piece together) in the middle of the road instead of reinforcing an existing building like the Walmart in Newport?

“So you’re the one with the gun, what do we do?” Andersen whispered. His attention stayed on the firelit settlement ahead, watching through the waving branches.

Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t know. Why in the middle of the road? Of all places…”

“Maybe they were hoping to snag travelers,” Andersen said. His voice shuddered as he spoke his thoughts our loud. As if doing so somehow cemented them in truth.

This made as much sense as anything else. She kept trying to decode the things she saw in the New World using an Old World form of translation. The New World was opportunistic. Why not build a shantytown in the middle of Route 202?

“The thinkers are all dead,” Elizabeth whispered, so low that Andersen turned to her and asked her to repeat her words. She shook her head dismissively, less interested in maintaining the barrier she’d placed between herself and her new traveling companion, and more interested in plotting a course of action. “Nothing,” she said. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Sorry, my cell phone is dead,” Andersen said with a smirk. His usual whimsy was creeping back but with a baseline undertone of terror.

She shot him a withering look.

“If I were to guess it’s probably close to two or three in the morning. Why?” He held out both hands as if expecting an offering. In a way she thought he was. This was his subtle plea for comfort, for comradery.

Elizabeth however had no comfort to give. She didn’t even have any for herself. “Just wondering if they’d be going to bed soon or… I dunno.”

“This is some serious Mad Max shit.” Andersen’s gaze moved out and down the sloping highway. “I doubt they leave it unguarded. Like… ever.”

She felt her fingers tighten on the rifle. Her teeth gnashed together as she bolstered herself against a lava flow of frustration. “Well maybe you should go down there and try to talk your way through.”

Seeming not to take insult, Andersen shook his head, still watching the scene before them. “You never know. They could be friendly.” His tone suggested that he was a long way from believing this. Yet, he continued, “There have to be other good people left. They can’t all be bad guys.”

Oh yes they can, Dad muttered.

“We’ll have to backtrack. Find a road that runs around it. Or we could skirt around through the woods.”

“I like the second idea,” Andersen said. “If they took the time to dam up a four lane highway so they could stop people as they came through…” he paused, and Elizabeth understood that he was, like her, trying to keep his mind from wandering across all the reasons these people would want to stop others. “…If they took the time to do that they probably also cordoned off the surrounding roads. God, I never thought something like this could spring up so quickly. They must have worked on it all winter.”

And if these people have done it, others sure as hell have, too. The end of the world is just the beginning for these militias. They will be everywhere.

Elizabeth’s lips pressed together. Her fingers loosened and began to tap thoughtfully against the cold steel of the AR. Both Dad and Andersen made good points, though she wasn’t about to give the latter his credit. She would, however, give him the final word in their course of action.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, her voice an octave about a whisper. “We’ll stick to the woods. Do we wait it out another day or go now?”

“Well, based on the way my pants want me to shit them, I’d say wait, but I don’t think we’ll get a better opportunity. There are at least forty tents and shacks down there, and maybe a half dozen roaming torches. That means most of those people are sleeping. I don’t know that there’s a safer time.” He offered a frown in the broken light that provided her a deeper reading on his internal climate than his ceaseless jabbering ever could. This was the moment that established her as the more seasoned denizen of the New World. The settlement before them was all the confirmation Andersen needed in verifying what she’d related to him about Newport and the larger condition of the world.

“Then let’s get it over with.” She started forward in the darkness, already disheartened by the amount of noise she generated just walking along the brush-strewn forest floor. But she did her best to exude confidence as she took better care in watching her footing. One of them had to act brave, and it was already well-established the Elizabeth’s was not a Disney princess tale. She was leading this… expedition now.

The old gender roles were dead and gone. With them went all the thinkers who’d delivered humanity to this reality. Fair trade

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