A Tourist Again, Pt. 22

girl walking alone on mountain highway in winter foggy day

The road reaching toward UNH was broken only by a small rotary. To its left a road branched off toward the narrow livestock buildings used in agricultural programs, to the right more forest. Directly ahead the UNH campus grew with its hulking arena featured most prominently. An anthropomorphic cartoon wildcat peered intensely down at her from its street-facing façade.

She might have gone to school here. Andersen would have gone to school here, though she thought she remembered him talking about other prospects. Typical Elizabeth, only awarding attention to the things that meant something to her. As the silent campus of UNH took shape around her and the tall grass surrendered to the steel and concrete leavings of Man, she was struck with an odd pity for the place. Dad would have referred to it as a scam for money with secondary interests in keeping the ranks of the Democratic Party filled with easily manipulated minds.

Was that his opinion or hers...?

A wind blew through the main artery running through the campus, sweeping along a cyclone of brown leaves and light trash. Clutching Dad’s rifle in what had become her default stance, she crossed a bridge running over a commuter rail with its station resting down a sharp ridge to her left. Aside from what the wind carried there was no evidence of life, no signs of movement, but that wasn’t enough to grant her any added confidence as Dad’s voice popped up in its occasional less-than-helpful capacity.

It’s the weird ones who stay back on Christmas Break. The ones who hate their families. The ones who carry guns into classrooms because it’s not enough for them to just off themselves—

“Dad!” she yelled, starling herself and recoiling from her own voice as it echoed back upon her. It might as well have been reverberating: “Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy.”

Did those who eventually broke under the pressure of the world have a moment of clarity before they surrendered to the demons they'd been feeding for so long? Was there a final moment of lucidity where they thought: yep, this is where I snap.

She shivered, unaware that she was clicking the rifle safety on and off rapidly. Her thumb- and fingertip were numb. Another current of wind buffeted her face, tousling her hair, and for a moment she left her fate to the world and closed her eyes. It was with every force of her being that she worked to push away this mania… Dad’s sudden shift in tone. Drawing in a deep breath, she offered herself to the New World.

But it seemed the New World wanted to keep her, and after what could have been a couple minutes she opened her eyes again, feeling surprisingly renewed. Turning her sights ahead, she glanced over the myriad houses of pizza and taprooms, suddenly reminded that she had no time to dawdle, restorative as it may be.

Elizabeth moved off the road to the right and did her best to hug the UNH administrative buildings she passed. At the very least it would offer cover on one side. Beyond the bars and restaurants she found a cluster of street-facing mom-and-pop stores, the likes of which always do well in college towns. One was a small game/comic shop where the kids she would have called nerd or geek or the always reliable loser would have gathered to play their card and board games. She shook her head at the spandex-clad superheros posed before shattered landscapes on various window posters and blew a raspberry before moving past.

Two doors down, just beyond a small tattoo shop called Winter’s Bite Studios, was a general store and apothecary. Elizabeth's gaze lifted to a wordless sign swaying on a length of chain over the sidewalk and carved with the pestle & mortar insignia she associated with pharmacies. It was mounted just above a shattered-in glass doorway, and as her attention fell upon the cubic shards of safety glass littering the sidewalk her heart sank. She stopped in place, drawing a deep breath as she struggled to keep her mind from going back to where it had been during her outburst in the street minutes earlier. It took everything she had to keep from turning to the window beside her and punching it until her knuckles were bloody.

There would be more pharmacies, she assured herself, though it hardly left her feeling better. Blowing a long exhale, she stepped up to the apothecary doorway, feeling the glass crunch under her feet. Inside the majority of the general goods remained where they’d been left as the shopkeeper closed up Christmas Eve. This gave her certain hope. Maybe something had fallen or blown into the door and shattered it.

With a shrug, she tossed caution to the wind and walked inside, through the shadow-strewn corridors until she came to the back half of the store where the pharmacy was always located in places like this. Before her was a shattered pharmacy window large enough for a full grown man to fit through. By the looks of it, one man already had, someone who'd come to this place not for supplies, but drugs and drugs alone.

Uppers and downers, maybe, Dad spoke derisively. It’s possible they left the antibiotics and just took the pain killers and stimulants.

Elizabeth sucked her teeth for a moment before shrugging and starting forward again.

Remember, anything that ends with cillin, Dad said as she stepped up to the window. Pausing to peer inside, she took note of numerous racks stocked with white pill bottles, still untouched while a section off toward the back had been aggressively tossed. Empty shelves clung to the wall over a pair of metal chests no larger than file cabinets. Their double doors had been pried crudely open just enough, it seemed, to allow for a hand to reach inside and paw around. Elizabeth took a last look back through the store before shaking off her rucksack and fishing out the flashlight. Her thoughts shifting briefly back to Andersen waiting for her at the bridge, she stepped up to the pharmacy window, brushed aside some of the glass that remained on the countertop, and scooted her way in.

She walked quickly through the untouched shelves, sweeping the light over the vowel-packed names of drugs she’d never heard of before. When she failed to find what she was looking for she moved on toward the back of the pharmacy, directing the flashlight’s beam into the pried-open spaces in the formerly locked cabinets. Unsurprisingly, everything inside had been taken.

Elizabeth straightened and drew a shallow breath, feeling her spirit wither a bit. Rotating toward the only corner of the pharmacy she’d yet to check, her gaze fell with guarded hope on a trio of minifridges beneath a tabletop stacked with plastic counting trays. Just above the tabletop was another locked cabinet, this one with a large glass door revealing all its contents still inside.

She raced to it, having to stop mid-way as the strap of the rifle slipped down her arm in her hurry. When she reached the case she breathed a long sigh as bottles took shape behind the glass, almost all of them printed with names ending in cillin.

The druggies shall not inherit the earth, she thought as a burst of energy rippled through her. Nearly grinning, she lifted the butt of the rifle and slammed it into the glass, shattering it upon the formerly clear and immaculate workspace of some Old World pharmacist. There was no time to waste as she began to snatch bottles indiscriminately from the cabinet, gathering them in the crook of her arm until they were spilling over and clattering to the floor, and still she continued to pile them on, her grin only broadening. By the time she had the rucksack stuffed with all the lifesaving antibiotics Durham had to offer, her fingers were bleeding from all the glass she'd inadvertently plucked from the cabinet in her haste.

*     *     *

Andersen was waiting for her under the bridge when she returned. He sat on the slanted concrete running up to the iron framework, veiled in shadow just as Elizabeth had pictured he would be. His knees were bent before him, arms laid across them like a shelf upon which he could rest his head. Were it a year ago she would have dismissed him as any other moody shit having his little moment alone and she would have avoided him entirely. As she neared the bridge she made as much noise as possible, shuffling her feet through the gravel on the shoulder to alert him to her presence without startling him. His weary face, streaked with lines of stress that children were never meant to endure, lifted.

“You’re going to be just fine,” Elizabeth said, and for once the beaming smile she tossed his way was genuine. “I was so worried, someone broke into the pharmacy in town but they were only after the druggie stuff.” She shrugged the backpack off her shoulders and held it out before him, shaking it like a giant maraca as hundreds of pills rattled about inside. “We’ll have you on the mend in no time.”

Her joy, the first she'd felt since Christmas, thawed in an instant as Andersen turned wordlessly away. He shook his head slowly and drew in a deep breath, struggling, as far as she could tell, to gather himself. It seemed as though every fiber of his being was invested in holding himself together, every muscle engaged, until all at once he lurched forward. The smack of both his hands hitting the concrete and the way it clapped back at them was something she'd remember for the rest of her days. She gawped in disbelief as Andersen coughed, saliva misting into the air, then burped an arching torrent of bile onto the concrete.

The smell hit her immediately, as did the revelation that the liquid oozing toward the road wasn't viscous with stomach bile, it was blood… and it reeked of spoiled onions.

The pack fell from her hands. Plastic bottles clattered down the concrete and onto the gravel shoulder, unnoticed.

Their eyes met. His gaze was the hard stare of a boy quite literally broken by the world around him, yet behind the unspoken message it sent, behind that bullheaded stubbornness so characteristic of their kind, she saw something else she struggled to decode. It almost seemed like contentment, but that made zero sense.

“What did you do?” she asked in a sudden struggle to find her voice.

“Saved you,” Andersen answered, wincing as he resettled on his backside and watching as the slop he’d purged oozed toward the gravel below. His tone was cold, dismissive, like that of a high school boyfriend about to end his two week relationship in the most chickenshit way possible: put a wall up and hope she eventually just goes away.

“That’s ri—that’s ridiculous,” she stammered, closing the last few steps between them as if she were navigating the haze of a dream. “I just went and… I just got all this medicine—”

“Which you’ll need,” he interrupted, gesturing toward the bottles scattered before them. “You got them, you keep them." He was silent a moment, then, "You’re going on."

Elizabeth barely heard what Andersen was saying through the fog of confusion that hung over her mind. A fog that was quickly burning away under mounting contempt.

“But I went and brought you antibiotics,” she said, swiveling back toward the Durham skyline. New clouds were building ominously behind the UNH campus, way out over the various arteries of the Piscataqua River and the Atlantic beyond. It was as though her mood alone had willed those swollen tufts of black cotton into existence, and the coming storm would not be pretty.

“I’m sorry, Elizabeth.”

“Why did you let me go?” She was working hard now to keep her kettle from boiling over, but her tone was slick with resentment. Bitter resentment. As she spoke, back arched so she towered over him, she was vaguely aware of the tight fists now shaking at her sides.

“I didn’t decide until… until you were already gone,” Andersen returned meekly. He chanced a look up at her, seeming just then to pick up on her shift in tone. When their gazes met, Andersen immediately diverted his attention to the far side of the bridge. For a time the only sound was the wind whistling through the guard rails above. Andersen coughed a couple times and sighed. “The New World isn’t for people like me," he said with a wet rattle in his voice. "The thinkers were the first to die – probably caused it all to begin with.” He drew in a deep breath, seeming like he was about to say more, but Elizabeth denied him the chance.

“So this is suicide then,” Elizabeth snapped as a little girl's voice cried out from the depths of her mind to reign it in, that she was certain to regret her current emotional trajectory. But she couldn’t help it. This slap in the face, this affront against her and the selfless deed she’d just carried out was something she would not let go. “You aren’t saving me… you’re abandoning me.”

There was a pause, then Andersen muttered something that was lost in the wind. Both were assaulted by a blast of rotten onion from the wetland he'd presumably drawn from. In this moment Elizabeth found the clarity of mind to acknowledge that neither of them had come out and mentioned just what Andersen had done. Neither of them needed to say it. Such was the new #1 cause of death in the world, followed very closely by the always fashionable murder.

“What did you say?” Elizabeth snapped at him as the wind diminished.

“I said that’s a fucking hoot!” He screamed, all at once gathering more power in his voice than Elizabeth had observed in their short time together. She watched, still arched over him, as Andersen continued. All at once this boy was channeling the voice and presence of a man, something Elizabeth realized only after she'd retreated a few steps. “I did the selfless thing and put your life before mine and you're thanking me by disputing it?! Look at my leg!" He hauled up his pant leg, wincing violently as the cuff dragged across the wounds the cannibals had left.

What Elizabeth saw drove her back another few steps. Yellow pus seeped from each of the craters in his calf, but that wasn't nearly the worst of it. The bite wounds had blackened around the edges and the red coronas that had circled them now sprawled down the rest of the leg toward his foot.

Andersen thrust the pant leg back down, yelping against the pain, but quickly seizing her attention once more. "You’re going to make sure I exit this world as repressed and broken as I was in school. The great prophecy has been fulfilled, Liz! I’m going to have you, an honest to god member of the same social caste that left me afraid to go to fucking gym class watching over to me make sure that I DIE A LOSER!”

The thunder of his voice reverberating back upon them lingered for only a moment before the world around them was quiet, save for the winds sighing as it cut swaths through the tall grass. Elizabeth struggled in a panic to find some moral high ground, sifting through the events as they'd played out, and for once she couldn't even fabricate a winning argument. She drew a long breath before exhaling in a stutter, trying to banish the irrational need to be right all the time and for once offer some semblance of vulnerability to another person.

Her fingers tightened on Dad's rifle, drawing her gaze downward as she couldn't remember taking it off her back. Her attention drifted down the concrete to the spilled medicine she'd brought back for Andersen. Before she was even aware of it she'd spun toward the road, gazing down the iron sights of Dad's rifle as the shadows beneath the bridge were banished by the blinding flare of bullet fire. Pill bottles bounced around and were disintegrated on the spot as she swept the rifle along the gravel shoulder, eventually homing in on the rucksack and focusing all of her fire until it was shredded. All the while bullets pinged off of the concrete and up in the spaces between the support beams. It wasn’t until one whizzed by her neck that Elizabeth's mind cleared and she released the trigger, lowering the smoking muzzle toward her feet.

She swallowed hard against a dry throat, feeling oddly like she'd split apart then reformed. It was the closest to an out of body experience she'd ever had, but her thoughts didn't linger on it for long before turning to the ringing in her ears. It was louder than she’d ever experienced, and for a moment she wondered if she’d gone deaf. It was with a finger digging around in her right ear and Dad's rifle balanced across her left arm that she turned to Andersen.

Tipped sideways so that his face was pressed to the sloping concrete, Andersen looked as though he’d passed out drunk at a party, not that she suspected he’d ever been to one. Even after all that she’d been through, the lives she’d taken, it didn’t occur to her that something was wrong until a black puddle of syrupy blood began to ooze out from beneath him. It seeped into the pathways of bloody vomit left behind in the porous macadam, inching toward the shredded plastic and nylon that remained of her supplies from the apothecary.

The rifle fell from her hands, but she didn't hear it hit the ground.

For some time she stood gazing down upon Andersen, hoping to Dad, or Mom, or God that he’d wake up. There was no way to judge just how much time she stood there, but when she eventually found the nerve to squat down and roll the boy over, a Lake Superior-shaped pool of blood had formed at the roadside, fed from two entrance wounds in his chest.

Perhaps it was the shock of it all, perhaps it was her accepting the chaos of the New World for what it was, but in any event, Elizabeth emerged some time later into the sporadic patter of light rain with only Dad’s rifle slung over her shoulder.

The rest she left.