A Tourist Again, Pt. 2

clouds

Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 1

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Beth woke to the clatter of metal shelves downstairs. Dad was up and already in search of his last bottle. A pang of guilt immediately coiled up in her chest, but as she sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, shafts of sunlight from the boarded windows cutting through the darkness of her bedroom, she reminded herself that this very mild betrayal was all for the greater good. The two of them would go crazy if they were cooped up in this house for much longer.

She threw the sweat-stained, formerly white comforter off of her and swung her body around, planting her feet on the floor. Reaching down, she rubbed at her legs, feeling like the denizen of some third world county where women didn’t shave. She didn’t even want to think about what her armpits looked like these days, though she was horrified with the occasional glimpse in the mirror during the weekly brushing of her teeth (Dad wouldn’t spare the water for more than that, plus they'd have run out of toothpaste by now if they brushed every day).

“Elizabeth?!” Dad’s voice, not angry but thoroughly panicked, carried muffled through the floorboards.

Heaving herself up and off her bed, Beth shuffled her way across her bedroom, glancing unconsciously at the leftover artifacts of her previous life. Posters of various pop artists, scantily dressed, notes from friends who were long gone and probably dead pinned to a pegboard, and most tragically: her long dead cell phone resting upon her bureau with her tablet and smart watch. Somewhere inside of these devices existed photographic evidence of a life that she would never reclaim. A life of purpose.

“Elizabeth!”

“I’m coming!” she yelled back, passing through her doorway (the door long removed for use in boarding up windows) and into the living room. The needling prick of a headache from the scotch she’d had the previous day whispered threats of a full-blown migraine, yet another reason to get up and out of the house since they’d been out of over-the-counter painkillers for weeks. Walking out into the living room and breathing deeply the musty smell of life trapped together in a two bedroom dwelling for an entire winter, she stalked her way toward the basement staircase as now the sounds of shattering glass reached her ears. She took the stairs two at a time, now concerned that her father was manic and unconsciously destroying what remained of their food stores. When she reached the bottom of the stairs she was both relieved and dismayed to find her father sitting on the floor with a scattering of empty bottles arrayed around him. The source of the crash was the shattered remains of a Johnny Walker bottle at his feet, which he’d apparently tossed away in frustration after tipping it to his lips in search of droplets at the bottom. With the other spent bottles he’d collected, he was now repeating this process.

“Dad,” Beth sighed, closing the gap between them. She snatched the bottle from his hands before he had a chance to throw it. “Don’t you think this is a little…”

His gaze followed the bottle as she placed it on the floor with the others. With a hard swallow, he reached up and rubbed at his face with dry, liver-spotted hands. “I thought I had another bottle left,” he spoke muffled through his hands. Sighing, he lowered his hands and looked up at her with the most pitiful look of lucid introspection she'd ever observed in him. “Your mother would be so disappointed in me.”

Beth shook her head, immediately regretting it as her budding headache made it feel like her brain was sloshing around in her skull. Lifting a bracing hand to her forehead she said, “No. Given the circumstances I’m sure she’d have been helping you put away that scotch.” She hesitated, then followed this with, “I know that I’ve snuck a few nips here and there.”

His gaze met hers, face creased in a quizzical expression. “You?”

Beth shrugged, “It’s the end of the world. Who knows how much longer I have to experience things like that.” She paused, thinking on this for a moment and tipping her head back and forth, evaluating her headache. “It’s not for me.”

Dad chuckled at this. “The world is very much still out there, my dear.” He braced his shoulders against the wall and arched his back as he grunted to his feet. Beth could only imagine what his headache was like. “Perhaps,” Dad said, stepping around the circle of empty bottles, “it’s time we get out and have a look at what’s left out there.”

“Oh, thank god,” she sighed. “This cabin fever thing has been getting old.”

Dad smiled, “No more Book Face to keep you appraised of what’s going on outside.”

Beth couldn’t stifle a spurt of laughter escaping her, inspired two-fold by his transposition of Face and Book and his use of the word appraised. She clapped a hand to her mouth, realizing immediately that he gesture made the situation worse as her father studied her, dumbfounded.

“What?” he asked.

She lowered her hand and walked right up to him, circling her arms around his waist and hugging him as tightly as she could. “Nothing,” she spoke, voice muffled and face buried in his t-shirt. She breathed deeply his natural scent, a combination of woodsmoke and pine. “I love you, Daddy.”

His arms fell around her, pulling her closer. “I love you, too, baby girl.” For some time they remained like this until he stepped back and they stood there taking in each other, simply appreciating the fact that they were still alive and together. “Let’s go shopping,” Dad said at last.

-     -     -

The Claremont Hannaford was one of just a few in New England that hadn’t yet undergone a grand re-imagining. It was an ugly, flat building, fringed with one of those baby puke green roofs, sharply sloping to avoid ice buildup in the winter. The formerly electrified letters spelling out Hannaford still clung to the tin, and probably would remain there for decades to come before nature would strip them away in its reclamation of the world it once dominated and would inevitably dominate again.

While the Hannafords in neighboring towns now sported cathedral style foyers and open concept floorplans, Claremont, according to Dad, had turned down the construction permit request for their local chain-grocer in favor of other liberal pussy agendas. As to exactly what those agendas were, Beth hadn’t a clue, and Dad failed to elaborate on the two separate occasions where she cared enough to press him. This, among other positions Dad took on the world as he perceived it, was one of many reasons why, as she grew older and wiser, Beth had begun to question the degree to which Dad was truly informed. At this point in her life she was disillusioned to the point where she was certain Dad referred to anything of which he didn’t approve as a liberal pussy agenda.

With the apparent destabilization of everything either of them had ever known, the harsh and sometimes violent rivalry between political parties no longer mattered. Nothing really mattered now. Life’s purpose was now very simply whittled down to the need to keep living. Once more, Beth found herself wondering what, if anything, was the point in going on?

They approached the Hannaford from the trees bordering its rear loading docks, passing by the Gwendy Spring pipe which stuck out from a rock face at the edge of the parking lot. There locals would squat in the shade of Japanese Maples to fill repurposed milk jugs with fresh, naturally filtered mountain water. During the summer months the spring pipe would accumulate a wending line of people whose predilection for purity made the effort well worth the alternative of drinking the town water they already paid for. As Beth and her father passed by the pipe after a minimum five minutes of Dad scanning the terrain from the trees, he sighed dismissively.

No doubt, spring water was another bullshit liberal construct.

They rounded the building slowly with Dad constantly glancing behind him and urging her back into his shadow with his trigger hand. This was the only time he’d remove the hand from his AR. Though they hadn’t seen a single soul alive or otherwise since leaving the house, Dad was still very much on guard and on the lookout for roaming bands of looters. Beth, while admittedly untried in such things, didn’t really see the point in such precautions. Claremont was miles away from anyplace of importance and not exactly on the way to anywhere.

Still, Dad had kept them to the unseasonably green forest areas as they made their way to the grocery store. Where Beth had been undeniably oblivious to most things outside of the digital realms she explored in her previous life, she couldn’t help noticing how eerily quiet the world around them had grown. And that wasn’t just to say that a lack of rumbling vehicles had left a soundless void in an otherwise noisy downtown. All of nature also seemed to have abandoned Claremont. There was no birdsong, no animal noises of any kind, just the soft soughing of wind through trees that should still be bare.

The Hannaford parking lot was mostly empty. A few derelict cars had survived the winter, a couple of them now resting on their rims. The stillness of the place was crushing. Not even an errant bag drifted across the parking lot. Claremont was empty.

“I think we’re good, Dad,” Beth said, drawing shushing sounds from him. But she found her observations validated as he slowly reengaged the safety on his rifle with a click that disturbed the silence. He slung it over his shoulder and turned to her, his face grave.

“If anyone is left here, it would make sense that they’d hole up in the grocery store. That means they’ll be protecting it. We need to be careful.”

Beth nodded, locking eyes with Dad to make sure that he knew she understood. What she wouldn’t share with him was her position that she hardly cared if she lived or died. Whether it be here at Hannaford or at home due to starvation or dehydration or even boredom for Christ’s sake, it didn’t matter.

“Stay with me,” he said, gaze shifting to the dusty plexiglass windows that ran along the building’s façade. For a moment he studied the building, then all at once he started them moving toward the entry doors, once more taking his rifle in hand.

As far as Beth could tell, the building was abandoned just like the rest of the town. And why wouldn’t it be? There was no one left here. Still, she obeyed her father, just as she would until one of them left this world. She was unable to shake away a dark hope that it would be her to go first. She wouldn’t have understood such thoughts, naïve as she was, one year ago. It’s amazing how quickly the end of the world grew you up.

The entry doors showed no signs of forced entry. The glass was still intact and the locks engaged. Dad led her around to the other side of the entry foyer and conducted the same meticulous inspection of the exit doors, which were also untouched. Once more Dad slung his rifle over his shoulder. With a long sigh, he relaxed visibly, his shoulders drooping and uneasiness seeming to dissipate as he pivoted toward the windows that lined the building and walked cautiously toward them. Holding his hands up against the glare of the sun, he peeked inside. Beth joined him.

The store was dark and still, not a single soul wandering the aisles. The first word that came to Beth imparted more of a feeling than anything: haunted. It seemed wrong to see a place normally bustling with people so quiet and abandoned. Shelves remained stocked, checkout counters clear and ready to open for the day’s business, carriages lined up neatly against the windows.

It was as if the place was just sitting there waiting for them.

All at once Dad stepped back and began hammering on the window with his fists, startling Beth so violently that she nearly tripped over her own feet as she stumbled backward. The thundering sound echoed out across the parking lot, violently rippling through the formerly undisturbed silence and reverberating back off of the abandoned cars.

Beth recovered her footing and stood there studying her father, now peering through the window with one hand on the strap of his rifle, ready to shoulder it against anyone inside who might have been disturbed by his pounding. Though it took her a moment to determine exactly what had motivated him to pound on the window, she quickly put it together in her mind: he wanted to know if there was anyone inside defending the place before it was too late for them to flee into the woods.

For sixty maddening seconds she stood back from the window, studying her father, watching his body language, ready to bolt around the building and back into the woods. When at last his shoulders relaxed once more, she breathed a long sigh of relief and walked up to him. Drawing back her hand, she made a fist and punched him as hard as she could in the arm. He barely reacted, instead turning toward her and smiling mischievously in a rare showing of comedic amusement.

“What the shit, Dad?” Beth asked, her anxiety still unfurling in her chest.

Dad simply shrugged. “Seems abandoned to me. Let's go shopping."

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