Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 16...
Voices poked through the darkness the closer they drew toward the shanty town. Though Elizabeth gave them a wide berth around the admittedly impressive fortifications, she kept close enough to keep the road in her sights. If they lost 202 in the darkness it would mean more time trying to find it again -- more time added to the clock ticking toward her eventual arrival in Ogunquit.
Not even the smallest part of her was curious about the sprawl of tents and hovels, even when the out-of-place voice of a woman wound through the obstructing trees and reached Elizabeth’s ears. This was not a pleading voice punctuated by grunts as its owner fought off would-be rapists, it was a woman engaging in casual conversation, though Elizabeth was unable to make out any specific words while she carefully and quietly navigated the underbrush.
Andersen showed a staggering amount of self-control in keeping his mouth closed as they pressed along. When they’d occasionally find themselves walking abreast, Elizabeth noted that his attention was almost exclusively trained on the rippling flames that pierced the shadows. Though she couldn’t see his face, she was certain it showcased the unique discomfort of a boy whose brilliance lay in strategy, in the theoretical, rather than practical application. People like him were born to sit in rooms thinking stuff up as opposed to being out on the streets living the recon life. If he were snatched up in the darkness he’d cry like a little bitch.
Not that she wouldn’t.
Geometry (really any ometry) wasn’t Elizabeth’s forte, but she estimated the shanty town to be at least a quarter mile in diameter. Perhaps larger in the places where it bulged around static pieces of terrain. A couple times they inadvertently drew so close that she could make out a gleaming, chrome fixture at its center. It wasn’t until they’d nearly rounded its hodgepodge fortifications that she realized it was not one thing, but several. Parked just where they road cut through the middle were half a dozen semi rigs, either stalled out in the road or parked there intentionally. The flames of the fire reflected brightly off their metallic paneling, leaving no mystery as to why the firelight was so visible from so far.
In her head Elizabeth saw how this place might have sprung up. Perhaps a convoy of truckers had simply parked themselves along the route they were traveling on Black Christmas as the world burned around them and built things up from there. Perhaps it was a single trucker who proposed via CB radio that others join him or her, knowing full well what was to come. Her mind swirled with possible scenarios, most of which suggested that they might not be bad people, but she sure as hell wasn’t willing to test the theory.
She started them back toward the road as the darkness regrew around them. The light of the torches was still plenty visible, but they were slowly moving beyond the makeshift settlement. Cutting back toward the road, she doubled-down on her attention to the terrain. There was no way in hell she was going to spoil everything as they were taking their victory lap, but spoil things she did. As they reached the edge of the woods with the eastern gateway of the settlement glowing five hundred feet away, her foot caught on what she at first believed to be a mess of vines even though she'd seen nothing. She quickly came to understand it was something much worse. The clanging of bells pierced through the surrounding quiet and was only made worse as she fumbled to retain her balance and gasped as she fell, arms flailing wildly, to the gravel shoulder. The rifle clacked heavily upon the ground, but fortunately didn't go off. The backpack on her shoulders, however, drove her to the ground with an extra twenty pounds worth of force, knocking the wind out of her as she struggled to throw herself over and untangle her feet from the rats nest of twine still wrapped around her ankles.
Andersen was at her side in an instant as alarmed voices rose up from the settlement. Elizabeth’s gaze fell upon the shadowed eastern gate as silhouettes passed through the torchlight. She watched men and women snatch up rifles and a what looked like honest-to-god spears as they reacted to the noise, all the while Andersen worked with the baffling grace of a seasoned surgeon in unspooling the twine from her ankles.
“C’mon,” Andersen whispered as he tossed the string aside. The unseen bells attached to it rang out one last time as Elizabeth rolled over, struggled to draw in a satisfying breath, and scrambled to her feet. “You have to leave the backpack,” Andersen said. She watched as his attention drifted to the figures now spilling out of the flame-lit gate, and for a moment she was going to argue with him, but in the end she was too panicked and too embarrassed to think. The pack was stripped from her shoulders and her travel partner hurled it like a kettle bell into the woods. He then snatched her by the wrist and began sprinting down the shoulder of the road as voices filled the night behind them.
She wouldn’t look back. She couldn’t. Though the fear that pressed upon her was weighty enough as it was, she couldn’t help carving out a moment to chastise herself for being so stupid. Here she was, the New World expert of their little duo, and she’d failed to consider that people capable enough to build a fortified shanty town in the middle of a highway might also take precautions against people sneaking up on them through the woods.
Andersen veered back toward the tree line as the voices grew louder behind them. Elizabeth chanced a look over her shoulder, now seeing a shadow play of movement against the torchlight as human figures swarmed the area outside the fortifications. Andersen slowed their pace and made a brief inspection of the roadside, presumably looking for more booby traps, before drawing her back into the forest.
No longer was any special care directed toward their footing as the pushed noisily through the brush. She had no idea what Andersen's plan was, but at this point she was along for the ride, fingers curled around the strap of her rifle as various branches tried to filch it away.
A part of her wanted to glance backward again, to confirm that they were actually getting away, but as she went to turn her head she was suddenly yanked downward as Andersen broke though the foliage and teetered at the edge of a dark divot in the terrain. He wobbled in place for a moment before tipping forward, apparently lacking the presence of mind to release her wrist. Together they were swallowed up in the darkness, tumbling down a leaf-cluttered slope as the wilderness crashed and snapped around them. Elizabeth’s body crashed against the hard metal of the rifle several times as they rolled downhill, eventually sliding the rest of the way on a pad of leaves as the terrain leveled out again.
All at once the world was quiet, save for the voices building along the roadside. Elizabeth had no idea how far they’d made it into the woods, but after their little tumble it seemed she and Andersen were of the same mind that the time for clamorous flight was over. She rolled over, wincing as a current of pain shot up her right side. Pawing about in the leaves, she tried to make sense of her surroundings. In the low light she began to make out the edges of the small ravine they’d fallen into, noting the broken canopy above and the smattering of starlight that poked through.
Within moments she felt Andersen’s hand on her wrist once again. He wasted no time in dragging her along the leaf-strewn bed of the ravine toward a behemoth of a fallen tree that had made the divot in the landscape its grave along with the two smaller trees it had taken with it. The darkness thickened around them as they scooted toward it on all fours. They passed beneath a shawl of leaves persistent enough to grow from the branches of the downed tree and pressed into the thickening tangle until they could go no farther.
Voices sifted through the trees, men and women working together to find the source of the noise from their fringe alarms. As the voices clarified, Elizabeth and Andersen unconsciously huddled together, trembling and panting as they did their best to go invisible.
“It was probably just a deer,” came a man’s voice. It was hard, yet dismissive, soughing through the trees maybe 100 feet away. He spoke loudly and confidently, a testament to the male ego against the demise of the Old World. The man stood rigidly behind his assessment, unconcerned that other humans – possibly with guns – might be lurking in the woods around their shanty town.
“Will you shut up!” a woman’s voice fired back. The derision which flowed from this voice informed Elizabeth that not all women were subjugated in the aftermath of Black Christmas, but that said little. She had no doubt in her mind that there were women out there much worse than men... women suited to the New World.
“C’mon, Claire,” the man groaned, sounding like a child fighting back against bedtime. “Ain’t no one out here. Ain’t no one traveling in the night.”
“How the absolute shit did you survive childhood?” the woman barked back. The sounds of brush stirring underfoot and the flapping of leaves told Elizabeth they were close. Perhaps at the edge of the ravine now. She waited for the man to answer, but this insult seemed to have shut him up. Regrettably, Elizabeth had yet to find an adequately muzzling combination of words for her traveling companion who whispered in her ear, startling her as she realized how closely they were pressed together.
“Sounds like you’d fit in pretty well here—”
“Shut up,” she snapped, voice so low she wasn’t sure he’d heard her until he spoke again after a deep breath and a sigh that had her body rising and falling against his chest.
“Yeah, I love you, too,” he answered in his exhale. “And you’re welcome for me saving your ass back there.”
“You – what?! You didn’t—”
She was silenced as his hand clapped over her mouth. For a few seconds she struggled back against him, her chest tightening with anxiety as her mind shouted, Here he goes! He’s making his move! I knew he wasn’t who he said he was!
But this wasn’t Dad’s voice, and as she began to struggle against Andersen’s restraining hands and arms, she took note of another voice, that of the woman from before, still arguing with her male counterpart. They were closer now.
Elizabeth stopped struggling.
“I was up by $50 and about to make a fucking six bid, Claire,” the man lamented cryptically. Elizabeth listened as his feet sloshed through the dead leaves. They’d stopped at the precipice of the ravine. Dirt and other forest detritus precipitated down the embankment, shaking loose other debris. “Now I’m chasing ghosts with you in the forest and I’ll probably never—”
“Will you shut the fuck up?!” The woman cried, no longer concerned about keeping their voices down, it seemed, as her temper flared. “Jesus, just go back. You’re no help and you smell like you took a bath in Early Times. Last thing we need is for you to break a leg or something.”
In the space of some ten seconds everything around them went quiet. Then the man spoke grudgingly, “You know, you might find your reputation as a rug-munching, ball blaster lessened a bit if you ease up on the total fucking bitch attitude all the time.” Though he wasn’t mincing words, the man’s tone was timid and reluctant, as if he’d said all this with his hands held out against some physical repercussion.
“You’re seriously something else, Riker,” the woman responded after a few seconds. “If you think life is a fucking party now that there are no cops and shit, you’ve got another thing coming. I’ve seen what it’s like out there. Not everyone is as… good-natured as us.”
“It’s all for show,” Andersen whispered, his lips all but pressed to her ear. “They’re talking loudly like that on purpose, trying to make us think they’re trustworthy.”
“They sound like white trash,” Elizabeth fired back, barely loud enough to hear her own voice. She wanted to add that Andersen was being paranoid, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it was. There wasn't much space for trust in the New World, and altruism was essentially dead and buried before the bombs started falling last Christmas.
They waited as silence once more settled around them. The flutter of leaves in the light wind was like the sigh of the world as it waited for the situation to progress. Riker and Claire, as they were, said nothing more for at least a minute, though Elizabeth knew they were still up there waiting and listening. If they were characters in a movie either she or Andersen would have sneezed or coughed by now, but nothing like that happened, and after a few minutes the contentious couple above signaled their falling back with a terse, to-the-point challenge from Claire.
“Let’s go. Come by my tent and I’ll show you a fucking rug muncher,” the woman growled, though her undertones were unmistakably sultry. “That is, if your card game can wait.”
“What card game?” the man asked playfully.
A smacking sound in the darkness startled Elizabeth before she realized it was probably the man slapping the woman on the ass. Andersen’s arms tightened immediately around her, and for the briefest of moments she found comfort in the contact. They listened together as the people above sloughed through the underbrush on their way back to Route 202 and their shanty town. With them went the answers to Elizabeth’s questions of whether or not safe spaces still existed in the New World. Not that Elizabeth saw it as any kind of loss or anything she’d lose sleep thinking about. The answers to those questions were not exclusive to a tent village in the middle of a former highway.
Andersen’s arms loosened after a few minutes, but truth be told, Elizabeth wasn’t entirely ready to separate herself from him. The contact was something she’d obviously missed, no matter how desperately she’d try to convince herself otherwise. Andersen also seemed to feel this way as his arms remained around her.
Elizabeth allowed herself the comfort of her traveling companion for a few more minutes as the voices diminished and the sleep-stalked denizens of the shanty town collectively decided that some wilderness animal just out of hibernation had crossed their barriers. Leave it to the sixteen-year-old who’d been no farther away than twenty or thirty feet to judge them for not being thorough enough.
Be they good or bad, other more organized groups would eventually overpower them, probably in a sneak attack. When it occurred, be it a month or a year from then, Elizabeth doubted Riker would care much about $50 and a six bid, whatever that meant. It would seem hers and Andersen’s assessment of the survivors hadn’t been entirely accurate. Some people, it seemed, had simply survived by accident.
“We should go,” Elizabeth whispered as the voices diminished and all that was left was the endless sigh of the scarred world. She reached for Andersen's arm, draped across her collar bone, and inadvertently grazed the soft baby flesh of his hand. It took her a second to realize what she was touching, and she quickly withdrew from the contact, shimmying out of his embrace in the process. As she carefully maneuvered out from their hiding spot her thoughts went to the backpack and the water inside. To a lesser degree she considered the other items she’d amassed.
She’d never have the chance to wield a DIY Aquanet flame thrower. This thought hit as she stepped free of the twisted brush and into the cold moonlight, and as sudden and random as the thought was, she found herself chuckling quietly to herself. Behind her, Andersen stepped out and asked what was so funny.
“Nothing,” Elizabeth said as she worked to stifle her emotions. “I seem to have issues holding onto supplies though.”
“You’ve still got the rifle,” Andersen said with an apologetic voice. “It was the bag or your life.”
“No, I get it,” she sighed. “It’s okay.” For a moment she hesitated, fully aware of the ramifications of her next statement but uttering it just the same. “Thank you… for reacting so quickly.”
For a moment he said nothing, though his gaze remained upon her in the low light. He cocked his head. “We’re going to need to find a Staples or Officemax or something.”
She lifted a lone eyebrow at him, “What the hell for?” Her first thought was that few people would have considered raiding those stores for the small coolers of water and soda they sold. His response returned him to square one as far as their relationship was concerned, erasing all of the progress they’d made in working together to evade the shanty town people.
Andersen shrugged, “I don’t have a diary, and I need to write this down so I never forget… you thanked me.”
With a hard roll of her eyes Elizabeth drew in a deep breath and started back toward Route 202 along the basin of the ravine. After a few seconds, the rustling of leaves behind her signified that her companion had opted to stay with her over remaining in the shanty town. Though she struggled to accept it, she was glad.