Andersen’s limp was much worse than Elizabeth originally observed. He said nothing as she assisted him around the display case and into the back corridor of the store, but she could feel the current of pain ripple through his body with every other step. Though her original intent was to get them out of the store and into the night before deciding what their next move was, it was clear that Andersen needed immediate medical attention.
Elizabeth paused a few steps from the meat cases before backtracking them toward the emptied coolers. She took hold of Andersen by the shoulders, guiding him off their assumed trajectory and drawing a confused look as he tilted his head back to get a read on her.
“What are you doing?” Andersen asked, understandably intent on getting out of the store despite the challenges his body was presenting. Elizabeth wasn’t sure if it was because he was weak from fatigue or the effects of the wound, but in any event Andersen didn’t resist as she eased him to the floor against the empty meat cases.
“We aren’t going far without looking at you,” Elizabeth said, meeting his gaze and reading a hopelessness in his eyes that she did not want to see. Lowering the lamp, she kept herself from frowning at the dark stain dominating his outer pant leg beneath the knee. Their eyes met again. Andersen’s bottom lip quivered slightly.
Drawing in a deep and bracing breath, Elizabeth set the lamp on the floor and crouched over the leg. Andersen said nothing, instead reluctantly reaching toward his thigh and gathering up his pant leg in clumps until the leg was uncovered and the wound exposed. His chest heaved tersely as he seemed to give in to the demoralization Elizabeth had seen in his eyes. She understood why in short order.
The bite wounds, and there were three of them, were like black craters in the fleshy bulge of his calf. Even in the low light she could distinguish blood from shadow. Each wound seemed to have been made while Andersen was either pinned or asleep because each was over an inch deep and with no traces of the flesh that had been eaten away. They already looked infected with a hazy red corona hugging the fringes of each wound, and despite the considerable amount of blood inked into Andersen’s jeans, they seemed to have coagulated.
“The guys who took us weren’t the worst ones here,” Andersen said in a watery voice. He took a moment to peer through the darkness, presumably wondering what had become of the one’s who’d taken residence in the store though he didn’t ask any questions. “I remember the psycho kids from school. The ones whose parents had left them to raise themselves. The kids we all knew would shoot up the school if it ever was to happen. The ones they locked me up with, the kids from the rotary, that’s a part of the New World we didn’t consider. Other kids like us… well, not like us, but our age.” His gaze followed her as Elizabeth rose to her feet before returning to the leg. “Those monsters are the worst I’ve seen yet.”
“I’m going to go get you some first aid,” Elizabeth said, blocking out much of what he’d said as she stormed off toward the far end of the store and was swallowed up in darkness. Her eyes adjusted to the black quickly, and she caught a break in glancing down one of the aisles where her gaze fell upon racks of blister-packed batteries. A couple rows over were a half dozen of those cheap plastic flashlights that never seemed to fade from practical use. When she emerged from the aisle she lit her path with an eye-shaped circle of light, and she pressed on.
She returned to Andersen with arms loaded up with gauze, tape, antibacterial gel, and bottles of painkillers that rattled noisily down the back corridor. He remained just as she’d left him, seeming trapped within the borders of light cast by the lamp, legs splayed. As she went to work sorting and unpackaging her haul, she couldn’t help her gaze returning to the wounds on Andersen’s leg, dreading the moment when she’d have to stick fingers gobbed with antibacterial ointment inside. To this end, she took her time assembling everything, if only to delay the actual dressing of the wound.
“I can do it,” Andersen said, drawing her attention away from the products arrayed before her and the holes pocking his calf. He leaned forward and grabbed a tube of Neosporin. Elizabeth reached after it with minimum effort to snatch it away and watched as he lubed his index and middle fingers up with ointment, leaned forward, and hesitated with his fingers hovering over the topmost crater. Drawing a deep breath, he gingerly inserted the fingers and winced, teeth grinding together as he coated the tender flesh. When he finished and lifted his hand for more, he was breathing heavily with tears spilling down into his patchy facial hair.
“Just like in the movies,” Andersen said, forcing a smile that was broken by a hard wince. Elizabeth gobbed more ointment onto his fingers and watched as he repeated the process twice more, the tears now coming in earnest though he didn’t cry out. Once he was finished he leaned back and allowed Elizabeth to dress the wounds, covering them with gauze and taping them up tightly.
“We’ll have to wash it out once we stop,” Elizabeth said, hoping the men who’d squatted here hadn’t drank all the bottled water.
Andersen seemed to read her mind as he leaned back against the meat cooler and closed his eyes. “Won’t find any bottled water here. They were boiling the tap stuff and giving it to us. The… kids they locked me up with talked a little about it, too.”
“Boiling the water makes it safe?”
Andersen nodded lethargically. “So… they… say…”
And then he was out, leaving Elizabeth sitting there in the lamplight halo wondering if he’d even wake back up. She’d already considered grabbing prescription antibiotics but there was no pharmacy in this store. There would be along the road to Ogunquit.
The store seemed to quiet around them with the conversation over, enough so that Elizabeth could hear the dull, hollow thumping of fists on a sealed walk-in door. The faces of the vermin locked inside flashed through her mind at warp-speed as she considered their situation. How long would it be before these practicing cannibals turned on each other? Or would they take the other option and drink from their bucket of tainted water.
Andersen started briefly, both hands rising from where they’d been folded atop his chest before settling again. Elizabeth’s gaze fell back upon him, this poor boy whom she’d done nothing but push back against… this joke of companionship, the punchline of which she’d yet to get. Her mind flashed with the faces of those who’d wounded him. Though she tried with all she had, Elizabeth failed to find even a modicum of sympathy for the boys.
In fact, she hoped their deaths were punctuated by the most exotic pain.
* * *
Elizabeth let Andersen sleep the rest of the night out, checking back on him periodically as she wandered the store gathering supplies. He didn’t so much as shift in position, though his hands were resting in a different place during most of her passes.
They left at first light, against Elizabeth’s better judgement, but both she and Andersen were more than willing to take the risk if it meant putting more miles between them and the store. Plus, and though neither of them would say it just yet, they were working against a very cryptic clock, one counting down to the point where Andersen’s infection would spread throughout the rest of his body.
PTSD was the New World norm.
A leaden sky, strewn with tufts of dark cloud sprawled indifferently above them as they made slow progress beyond the traffic circle toward Durham. The road before them was marked with the corpses of businesses dead long before Black Christmas. A plant nursery that was now just a vacant lot, a forlorn gas station crowded by birch trees and garnished with rusted pumps from the days before digital was a mainstream word. These things remained unchanged by the New World, and though they were easily dismissed in the days when she and Dad would cruise by on the way to country concerts and Wildcat Football at UNH, they demanded a certain reverence now as unspoiled relics of the Old World.
“I can take a turn with the pack,” Andersen insisted as they passed beyond the gas station and its neighboring driving range. He couldn’t even hide the winces that ran through him with every other footfall. The kid needed a wheelchair, not a commendation for sharing the load.
Elizabeth shrugged against the gold rucksack she’d liberated from the store. It hung heavy on her shoulders, stuffed with her burden of over-the-counter painkillers and ointments. There was no way she was going to let him take it on. For the first time she could remember, Elizabeth worked to sugarcoat her words to the boy struggling to keep pace beside her.
“How about we find a pharmacy, get you some real pain killers and antibiotics, then we’ll talk about sharing the load.” She shrugged and tossed him a playful grin that felt like finding a lost toy in the dark depths of a closet. “If it was me I’d be letting you do all the work!”
The corners of Andersen’s lips lifted in the makings of a smile, but quickly lowered again. He seemed to retreat for a moment into his mind, his pace slowing to the point where Elizabeth had to slow as well. “I’d rather help you while I can…”
The despondence in his voice was palpable. Elizabeth wouldn’t have it.
“Don’t think like that,” she said, feeling her features darken. She put everything she had into diffusing the scowl that was working itself onto her face. “You’re going to be fine.”
Andersen didn’t respond. His gaze lifted to the road ahead as he seemed to grow cognizant of his slowing pace and worked to push along faster. Nowhere else was the pain he carried more decodable than at the edges of his eyes where he seemed to squint against each current running up from his leg.
There will be a pharmacy in Durham, Dad assured her, but even his usual confident-to-a-fault delivery lacked its usual flavor.
“There will be a pharmacy in Durham,” Elizabeth said.
Andersen nodded, still gazing wistfully out at the road ahead. “I don’t doubt it.” There was no optimism to be mined from his words. He was acknowledging what Elizabeth was already flirting around but unwilling to commit to just yet, that a pharmacy would indeed be there, but that it had probably already been looted.
* * *
Elizabeth had held onto some naïve hope that Andersen’s condition would improve the farther along they got, as if drawing him away from the store might siphon away the pain and spread of infection. Her hope, uncharacteristic and brief as it was, was edged out bit-by-bit with each step as the boy who’d happened upon her by accident at that rest stop a million years ago instead slowed steadily. She could tell by the lines drawn across his face with each step that he was giving it all he had.
She said nothing about their slow progress. She didn’t toss sarcasm his way, veiled or otherwise. Elizabeth felt as though she’d aged ten years as all of her self-reflection over the last couple days culminated in the realization that she was, put simply, a mean person. There had been some justification in her early distrust of Andersen, but she’d made all the space she could between them, and for what reason? What excuse did she have above the reliable teenage hormones running rampant? The short answer was she had none, and as the road curled through the forest and eventually opened to sprawling grassland with the Durham skyline sawing at the dull sky, she couldn’t shake the harsh truth that she was the worst kind of bitch: a bitch who knows what she is and doesn’t care.
“I was going to go there,” Andersen said as the trees broke and the University of New Hampshire campus came into view. “Full scholarship – well,” he drew a long breath, “I had a full scholarship. Juvey tends to void that stuff.” He went to chuckle, but even that seemed too much as he began to cough and teetered in a moment of misplaced balance.
“At least you won’t have any student loans,” Elizabeth returned, wanting to roll her eyes hard for producing such shitty banter. Forcing joviality was failing hard. Fortunately Andersen seemed disinterested in continuing the conversation, and they continued forward at their sloth-like pace. The terrain at the road shoulder cut downward at a harsh decline toward a number of farm buildings butted with unmitigated grass growth. Cut through the grass was a single lane road that looked more like the approach to Oz than anything. Elizabeth pictured a sea of red poppies in place of the grass before banishing the trivial fantasy away.
Elizabeth suspected it was close to midday, though the sun was fully obscured. Had they even made it a mile? Ahead an offramp meandered down to the main drag running into Durham. Every part of her wanted to rush him along, to explain that he was fighting against a ticking clock, but Andersen was incapable of moving more quickly. As they made the long journey down the ramp and stood looking at the buildings in the distance, she floated the idea that had been kicking around in her head for the last hour.
“Why don’t you go sit over there in the shade,” Elizabeth said, gesturing with the rifle toward the bridge they would have crossed had they not gotten off the highway. The road that would lead into Durham ran right beneath it and there were pockets in the shadows that would provide cover for him to rest while she searched intown.
Andersen swiveled toward her as whiffs of rancid onions came to them on the breeze rolling through the vast field. His nose curled, but that was the only expression he had to offer. “You should just go on without me, Elizabeth.” He shook his head, gaze falling to his feet. “We both know I’m screwed.”
“No,” Elizabeth fired back, immediately castigating herself internally for letting that little piece of her personality bypass the firewall she was trying to build between them. The one that would spare Andersen future encounters with her less accommodating side. She forced a thaw in her tone, almost casually insisting, “We do this together. Do or die.”
He chuckled, coughing again. When his fit subsided he said in a mischievous, almost vexing tone: “Die is the only option.”
How much had she contributed to the degradation of his spirits? The answer was one she didn’t care to hear.
“Please,” she said, feeling all of her forced emotions and attempts to keep herself in good spirits evaporate into the air. Tears didn’t come, but they were close. “Please,” she repeated.
Andersen drew a deep breath and winced as he turned back toward the corpse of Durham, NH. Like Elizabeth, he knew this corpse was still a source of great sustenance for those still crawling over it. Turning back to her, he said simply, “Be careful. Don’t take chances.”
Elizabeth followed his gaze across the road where the unseasonable presence of cat tails marked a wetland. Obviously the source of the tainted water smell. His mouth cracked open just enough to let her know that he’d considered saying something but dismissed it in the same instant, then he started shuffling toward the bridge.
He was already twenty feet down the road when she snapped out of her thoughts and focused in on the task ahead. With Dad’s rifle in hand and a pack of supplies that would hopefully grow heavier strapped to her shoulders, Elizabeth started toward Durham, walking the double-yellow as the flanking tall grass rolled like ocean waves around her.