Andersen was uncharacteristically quiet and reserved the remainder of their trek that morning. For a time Elizabeth wondered if she’d said something to offend him after they’d resumed their course, but she couldn’t remember exchanging so much as a couple words with him since they’d left the shanty town. More realistically he was lost in his head, retreading thoughts, refining his grasp of the New World. It wasn’t as if there was much hope to mine from this analysis.
Hope was one of many Old World words due for retirement.
Daylight broke ahead of them like a true beacon of hope. Behind them now was the shanty town and its confounding existence in the middle of Route 202. As a blinding sliver of sun peeked out over the leveling terrain Elizabeth counted what little blessings she had and thanked her father for delivering them from harm.
The silence remained between them as they pressed along, the hours carrying them further into the light of day with an unspoken understanding that they were far from the rest they’d earned. Instead they would put as much space as possible between them and the shanty town, even if it meant a slower, more deliberate progression. All Elizabeth could think of was the raiding party returning to the Walmart in Newport. She wanted to get them as far outside the shanty town's raiding zone as she could.
Behind them the mountains gradually began to fall beneath the horizon. Following Route 202 they passed through several strips of tightly-clustered commercial developments. An expansive RV dealership was among the highlights, its lot packed with hundreds of campers all parked in the shadow of the largest American flag Elizabeth had ever seen. The flagpole was probably as wide as a car at its base, tapering gradually up to the tattered flag still clinging to it despite the impassively destructive forces of the winter it had weathered. It struck Elizabeth as nakedly anachronistic now that the world had rebooted; a symbol of veiled idealism manipulated and weaponized by corporate culture. A few more days of hardy wind and it would tear free.
“I’d kill for a breakfast burrito right about now,” Andersen said as a traffic circle began to take shape ahead. They walked clinging to the edge of the road, ready to dart into the woods for cover at the first sign of people. Occupying the roadside at the multiple roundabout egresses were the forlorn, geometrically practical forms of multiple fast food restaurants.
“You’d be puking your guts up in minutes,” Elizabeth sighed, though she was as surprised to find humor layered in her words as she was at Andersen speaking up for the first time in hours. Her fingers tightened as they so often did around Dad’s rifle at the sight of the forest breaking around the road ahead, leaving them with few options for cover.
Andersen shrugged. “A man can dream. Even if the perishables in yonder McDonald’s weren’t forested in bacteria at this point, I doubt they haven’t been raided.” True to his status as a thinker, Andersen’s speculations were right on the money. As they drew closer to the first of the burger joints their mutual gazes fell upon shattered plate glass garnishing the cement of the road-facing façade. Every one of the four front windows was bashed-in, and the sliver of sun-bleached brick beneath was tagged crudely in black spray paint:
“Militias,” Andersen sighed. Elizabeth glanced away from the vandalized building and locked eyes with her travel companion as he swallowed hard. “Might be best to find a place to camp out for the day. We’re obviously in someone’s territory.”
Gone was his naïve whimsy regarding the New World. Elizabeth saw nothing of Andersen’s former humor in his face, not even a dying spark. In a way it was gratifying to know that he was now seeing the world through her learned eyes, but she gained nothing else from this. In her own queer way she found herself missing his inane prattling and colorful – albeit foolish – commentary. The conflicting thoughts and feelings swirling in her head were beyond frustrating and not helpful in the least, but she fortunately still had her father to ground her.
She said nothing in response to Andersen’s urgings, finding the silent expression of agreement she tossed his way sufficient. Minutes later they reached the traffic circle and stood gazing up at a flagpole sprouting from the grassy hillock at its center. It was of similarly staggering extravagance to the one they’d passed at the RV lot. Only this pole had lost the bulk of its American flag. What remained was a wisp of red, white, and blue so threadbare that it was nearly translucent. The stars and stripes were divided by a fraying tear that ran diagonally down the 15 or 20 percent of it that remained.
“Should we say the Pledge of Allegiance or…”
Elizabeth turned to Andersen, eyebrows lifted. He returned her gaze, though the absence of his former spirit went a long way to lessen the impact of the joke. It felt hollow, arbitrary, as if the attempt to find humor in their situation was akin to trying on old clothes that you just know aren’t going to fit but have to try anyway just in case.
“Sorry,” he sighed almost immediately. Glancing back up at the flag he drew in a deep breath and started forward without another word. Elizabeth was left feeling like she’d further demoralized him, and although she was urged by odd impulse to try and cheer him up she said nothing, instead following him up and over the hillock to where they pressed through a tangle of decorative shrubbery at the base of the pole. Here they paused wordlessly once again, gazing out from the enshrouding brush as Route 202 bore its way through the woods before wending off into another stretch of untouched wilderness that reached toward the brightening horizon.
No signs of movement. No leavings from patrols. No fortifications or signs of society, militant or otherwise. Just the carcass of a world reforming after the brief but catastrophic tenure of homo-sapiens stewardship. More importantly, there was nothing in sight in the way of shelter that didn’t appear already picked over (some more thoroughly than others) by this Goldberg Posse.
Goldberg, Dad mused. What are they a bunch of armed Jews?
She was disinclined to investigate this and stopped just short of responding to him out loud. Like a crazy person. If there was anything that the Old World could keep it was the racially charged misconceptions of Dad and his type. That she continued to revisit it months after the end of the world said a lot about the longevity and depth of human hatred. The same could be said about love, but it was harder to love, which made it one of the most expendable emotions in the aftermath of Black Christmas.
“We should see about finding an outdoors-type store,” Andersen said, voice leaden with fatigue. “We’d probably be safer getting a tent and pitching it off the beaten path as we travel.”
He pretty much stole the thought out of her head, though she wasn’t sure how likely they were to come across untouched goods as they approached the coastline. She waited a moment for Andersen to follow this with a joke of some sort, but none came. “We’ll see,” she said. “For now I think it would be a good idea to hide out there.” She pointed toward a squalid building just off the eastern exit of the roundabout. It had once been a Taco Bell, now it was an unremarkable and contrived monolith, resting like a grave marker for the processed food industry.
“You aren’t worried about patrols?”
She didn’t look away to meet his gaze, though she knew it was on her. “Patrols are the reason I think we should get off the road. If they’ve already cleared out these buildings and marked them it’s reasonable to assume that they won’t be coming back.” She turned to him, watching as a formerly reproving look melted from his face. “Plus others might not be tempted to check them out. In a way these guys have given us sanctuary.”
Andersen drew in a deep breath which promptly emerged in a barely noticeable stutter. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” He sounded dejected and angry with himself. What a roller coaster of emotion they were riding. The harsh ups and downs seemed to have finally broken through for this formerly isolated internet ne’er do well. He was tired and crushed, and her bitchiness hadn’t exactly lubricated his transition to New World existence.
“We’re both tired,” she said, trying to sound as yielding as comforting as possible. “We’ve been up for over 24 hours, and we’ve covered a ton of road. Let’s hole up and get some sleep.” She said nothing of food or water even though both were at the forefront of her thoughts. With her backpack gone along with all of their supplies, they were going to have to find nourishment and hydration soon.
He didn’t argue with her, nor did he voice any form of agreement. Instead he simply nodded without a word and exited the brush.
He’s been lost in his head for hours. It’ll pass. It did for you, Dad assured her.
At this Elizabeth nodded before emerging behind her semi-broken traveling partner and following him to the dilapidated Taco Bell. This would be her first time ever stepping into the establishment. She tried her best to dredge up a diarrhea joke from the limited space she’d reserved for humor in her mind. She came up with nothing.
- - -
They were able to scrounge up a meal of condiments from the various packets of hot sauce scattered about. It wasn’t much, and Andersen had to stop after four or five because of his weak stomach, but it was better than nothing and it was nice to experience some form of flavor. Outside the sun was rising over a quiet stretch of highway as Elizabeth and Andersen explored the plundered Taco Bell, sucking on packets marked Fire and Diablo. Those who’d come through before them had left the place a shambles, apparently deciding that it wasn’t enough to ransack the place, but they should also trash it for good measure. Though this was typically the marked work of people her age, Elizabeth had no doubt in her mind that this was nothing more than grown men devolving into the children they’ve always been but held at bay in order to fit in with society.
Though Elizabeth had never eaten inside a Taco Bell, largely because Dad likened it to a caste of society he found ironically inferior, she could only imagine how much ground beef and refried beans they must have sold to leave the place doused in their lingering funk. It was not an appetizing smell.
They mulled about in the dining room for a few minutes, eyes lifting constantly to survey the daylit roadside. Tables and chairs previously arranged for maximum occupancy and bolted to the floors and walls had been bashed and pried from their anchorings and used to smash the framed prints of flavorless, unobjectionable art now shattered on the floor. Elizabeth pictured grown men laughing and urging each other along as they trashed the place. Various bottles of dark liquor edged their way into the vision.
From the dining room their exploration took them beyond the order counter where three cash registers rested with their drawers pried open and cash pilfered. What had probably been a meticulously cleaned kitchen ahead of Christmas Day (one of few reliable days off for those working sub-blue-collar) was now a mess of withered produce scattered across the floor and hardened stains forever preserved in the splat shapes they’d made on the wall. Some of them retained the embossed texture of mashed pinto beans. She’d never cared for refried beans.
A walk-in cooler sat beside a thoroughly looted dry goods closet at the back of the kitchen where utility sinks and stainless-steel prep surfaces monopolized the wall space. A few dents in the otherwise polished tabletops suggested a man with latent anger issues might have been beating on it with a blunt instrument. The walk-in door had fortunately been left closed, locking in the exotic aromas of spoiled “beef product” and the like. Elizabeth watched as Andersen stepped over to the door as what would be the last of his condiment pouches drifted to the floor. He hesitated with his hand held out toward the handle then stepped back and away.
“So much for tacos,” he said, tone still devoid of its former geniality. His gaze drifted off over Elizabeth’s shoulder toward the front of the kitchen, though it didn’t seem he was looking at anything in particular. Just zoning out while the harsh reality of the world washed over him like the ghostly scent of mystery meat and canned beans.
Elizabeth walked over to the nearest stainless-steel table and unslung Dad’s rifle. Laying it down, she traced the outline of a divot bashed into the surface and tried to keep her mind from picturing the sledgehammer that had done it being used to collapse the skull of an innocent. The soreness in her shoulders from carrying the rifle all night along with the backpack that would eventually be found on the roadside beyond the shanty town was something she’d found a way to ignore up until that moment.
The backpack. In it was the map they’d taken from the rest stop. They’d have to find another or somehow find a way to restore cellular networks and GPS. And electricity. And the Internet. Welcome back to the dark ages.
“What makes you think Ogunquit is going to be any different than… this?” Andersen asked, suddenly vocalizing the fear that up until now she’d only flirted around.
Elizabeth spun about to find Andersen standing with what looked like a caulk gun in his hand. It was bent in the middle. Destroyed for the sake of destroying, like a metaphor for the world. She shook her head, briefly entertaining the idea that if she were to pretend she hadn’t heard the question he might move on to something else, but his gaze penetrated her. It wasn’t difficult to deduce, even in the seconds it took her to answer, that his dismal train of thought had led him to the same existential dilemma that threatened in that moment to break her spirits.
What was the point?
“Because it has to be,” she answered simply. Now she felt the weight of discovering Concord dark and abandoned pressing upon her. She’d held out a sliver of hope that they’d come across the civilized remnants of the Old World in the State Capitol, but deep down she knew from the outset that this world has passed out of the hands of good men and women. “I’m not sure where else to go,” she said, surprised to find her voice watery and sounding as though she was on the verge of sobbing.
He reacted quickly to the sudden shift in her emotions, raising his hands as if the pump-the-brakes gesture he tossed her way ever actually worked. But he was misreading her. Elizabeth was far too hardened to break down, especially when things were going as well as they could expect.
“I’m sorry,” he said tersely. “I didn’t mean to suggest that—”
“It’s okay,” she said, waving his gesture away with one of her own. “You haven’t upset me.” She drew in a deep breath, holding it for a moment while she sorted her thoughts. “We have to hold onto hope,” she said after an awkward moment of silence. In her travel partner she observed a flicker of energy that reminded her of his former personality. “If we can’t find meaning in life – something to cling to – we’ve taken the last step toward the… the final solution.”
He cocked his head at her, eyes alit with newly minted mischief. His eyebrows lifted. “Are you… trying to cheer me up?” His gaze washed appraisingly over her as she considered shedding her protective shell, if only for the morning.
“You’ve been different since the shanty town.” She considered saying more but opted to shrug instead.
Andersen set the caulk gun or whatever it was down on a nearby counter and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. His head began to nod. “I guess after seeing what’s become of humanity while I was shut away I’ve been left considering the things I lived for in the Old World… things like computers and video games… really anything electronic. Are we suited for life like this? What do I have to offer the world now besides a mouth that doesn’t stop flapping and a sense of humor that’s had you thumbing that safety like you’ve got a bullet for me?”
She thought about this for a moment before returning with the last answer he probably wanted, but one that was irrefutably accurate: “I have nothing left but Ogunquit. It’s all that’s keeping me from finding a bridge high enough to jump from. You need to find your Ogunquit, your reason to live, otherwise you’re already a ghost following me around.”
“Straightforward as always,” Andersen sighed. “You’d make a lousy therapist.”
With a shake of her head, she blandly returned, “I’m not responsible for your happiness.”
It was the truth. There was no other way to slice or spin it, but it left her feeling like more of a bitch than ever. She studied him as he thought this over, slowly beginning to nod before lifting his gaze to where it locked once more with hers. “You’re right,” he sighed. Turning back toward the dining room he seemed to consider walking out of the kitchen. It wasn’t until he spoke again that she realized he was looking for the most comfortable place to bunk down. “We should get some sleep. That always makes me feel better.”
Elizabeth watched as he walked over to a span of tabletop against the adjacent wall and shrugged his jacket off. Balling it up, he grunted up onto the table and rested back with the soft leather supporting his head. His eyes closed for a minute or so, leaving Elizabeth standing there wondering if that was it and he’d fallen asleep that fast. When his eyes did open they focused in on her with what she told herself was misread annoyance. Moments later he rolled over and away from her without another word.