Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 3...
Darkness fell over the deserted town of Claremont with the remaining sluices of amber light rendering the mountains and trees on the horizon a lonely silhouette. It punctuated the stillness of what felt like a wholly abandoned world. Beth stood in the window with her father, munching caramel popcorn and thinking of her mother. Was she looking upon them now from some distant… wherever? Did she perceive their attempts at survival with the same growing futility as her daughter? Was she so enlightened now in the great beyond that she watched their struggle in the same way a parent would watch a small child’s entire world crumble around the prospect of sharing a toy?
Was she even out there at all?
Without a word Dad disengaged the deadbolt on the shattered entry door and pulled it open in a series of grunts. The door had been designed to open and close automatically when movement was detected, and Dad now had to struggle against a system without power. But he was able to get the job done, wedging a nearby wooden block that had once been used at a doorstop beneath it. Stepping out into the evening air, he held his rifle at the ready as he scanned the parking lot.
At this point Beth was certain there was no one left in town. Though it stood to reason that there must have been other survivors, she continued to return in her mind to the conclusion that there was simply nothing here for anyone and that the citizens of Claremont had simply moved on in the aftermath of the Christmas bombings. It wasn’t like they were all dead. No bombs had fallen here. To her knowledge, and from what she’d observed from the safety of the woods on their way in, every building and structure in town remained untouched and pristine.
“Okay,” Dad said, urging her out with his left hand, now only glancing over the parking lot. He seemed to be letting his guard down more and more with every passing minute at this point. “Let’s go.”
Beth began to wheel her carriage forward, now topped with a layer of candy that she didn’t expect to last long. No longer concerned with maintaining the slim figure society expected, it was now open season on junk food and she intended to indulge frequently in the thrill of the hunt. Leaving her carriage beside her father in the fading twilight, she returned for the one he had filled and wheeled it out as well. After that it was the last carriage, packed with empty five gallon water jugs. They rattled and thudded hollowly as the carriage rolled over the slotted ice and snow mats on either side of the door.
Dad slung his rifle over his shoulder as Beth had seen him do countless times at this point and took control of his carriage with his right hand. With his left he threaded his fingers through the latticework of metal on the front of the jug carriage and began pushing and pulling them around the side of the store toward the spring pipe. Beth followed silently, disturbed in a way she hadn’t anticipated at the void of darkness that was Claremont. This was now a world without electricity. Another stone age had befallen the earth. The reset button had been pressed. She couldn’t help feeling resentful, just as she was in the final stages of her childhood, all prospects of a normal, independent life had burned up in a hail of falling bombs.
A light breeze played about in the leaves that hung over the spring pipe. The flapping was like that of batwings beating the air on a summer night in the yard back home. It was disturbed only by the trickling of water from the pipe as it pattered upon the soaked plank of particleboard atop a pallet beneath it. As they grew closer Beth’s nose began to process the odd aroma of rotting onions, the source of which she was unable to pinpoint in the receding twilight. Dad confirmed that it wasn’t just her nose that caught the scent.
“Smells like B-O,” he grumbled. “There was a guy at the machine shop a few years ago who I swear never showered. You’ve got to smell really bad for it to rise above the smell of all those chemicals.” Though Beth had only a vague understanding of what Dad’s former career entailed, she had been inside the CNC shops he’d worked in a few times over the course of her life, and knew just how pervasive and intense that mysterious chemical smell had been.
The reek grew stronger as they reached the pipe. Dad stepped away from the carriages, taking a jug by its mouth and crouching down atop the pallet. “Jesus, it’s the water. Doesn’t smell too pure to me.” He cupped his hands beneath the running flow and brought the pooled water to his nose, wrinkling it against the stench. With a shrug, he tasted it, swishing it around in his mouth before lurching forward. Water sprayed from his mouth as he braced himself against the particleboard with both hands in a fit of choked coughs. Beth stepped forward, laying a hand on his back.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Ye-yeah,” he choked out, gasping for breath. “Jus-just caught,” he coughed violently, “caught me… by sur—prise. Down… the… wrong… pipe.” He said nothing more until he was able to catch his breath. After a few minutes he recovered enough to sit back on his bottom, arms draped over his knees, rifle hanging at an odd angle off his shoulder. “My god,” he wheezed, “I’ve never tasted anything so rank in my life. I feel like I choked down a lungful. That water is bad, baby. Something must have seeped into it with the thaw.” He coughed a few more times, lurching forward, and for a moment Beth thought he was going to vomit, but Dad was one of those types who would avoid throwing up at all costs no matter how much it might make him feel better. After a few more minutes he was recovered to the point where he was able to grunt to his feet. With a gaze that alternated between the spring pipe and the carriage full of water jugs, he shook his head and gave the carriage a forceful push toward the tree line.
“So much for Gwendy Spring,” Beth shrugged.
“I can still taste it,” Dad said, disgusted. “I can smell it in my mustache.”
“Maybe it’s a sign you should shave,” Beth teased, reaching up and giving his beard a playful tug. “You look like a panhandler.”
“A panhandler with a house he’d like to get back to,” he sighed, leaning over and spitting a few times. “I guess it’s bottled water for us. For now anyway.” He seemed to lose himself in thought for a moment. “We may want to risk taking the truck over here tomorrow to get all the water we can out of that store. It’s lucky we found it like this. It won’t stay this way, especially now that the winter is over and the roads are open.”
“Okay,” Beth agreed. “Can I drive?” Parallel parking had foiled her first attempt at getting her driver’s license. She had yet to retake the test by last Christmas. The laws of society were now just words on paper though… lost in their meaning without officials to interpret them and police to enforce them. Perhaps the New World wasn’t all so bad.
“Baby, you’re my new chauffeur for the rest of your life,” Dad smiled before losing himself to another coughing fit. Beth watched him with mounting concern, but the spell settled after a few seconds.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked.
“Remind me to take some antibiotics when we get home,” he answered. “Ain’t nothing in there Big Pharma can’t cure.”
- - -
The trek home was a death march. Beth had at many times in her life navigated a carriage through grids of grocery aisles and over perfectly level tiled floors, but pushing a fully loaded cart over uneven pavement and up and down hills was an entirely different experience. The uphill climbs were bad enough on their own, but she quickly discovered that going back downhill was just as exhausting as the weight of the carriage urged her downward forcefully and insistently. With nothing but the light of the moon above to illuminate the roads they traveled she found herself constantly stuck in potholes and cracks left over from the winter and the unmitigated frost heaves that had left the road warped in places. For all Beth knew it was just the beginning of nature reclaiming the constructions of man. Everything the human race had built, every house, every machine never again to power up… mere contrivances now.
Dad’s coughing only got worse the farther along they went. Though he’d never stop for a break on his own, such showings of weakness were not in his character, Beth insisted as they passed the old library – now repurposed as a youth center after a move to a more modern building years earlier – that Dad stop and catch his breath. He grudgingly agreed, sidling up to the crumbling stone wall that marked the periphery of the old library grounds and almost collapsing in a fit of terse coughs. Beth extracted a bottle of water from one of the packages beneath her carriage and ran it over to him. At first he waved it away, seeming to choke on his own shallow breaths, but eventually the fit subsided and he took the water.
“Thanks, honey,” he said, his words choked. Without another word he twisted off the plastic cap and dropped it to the ground. As he did so, an almost foreign urge to scold him for littering entered and exited Beth’s mind in rapid succession. What did it matter? Everything around them, every artificial structure in the world could now be considered litter. This world was no longer theirs, and it was now up to nature to deconstruct their leavings.
Beth settled down beside her father, grunting forward and taking a bottle for herself. It was in this moment that she noticed the box of liquor bottles beneath Dad’s cart, packed beyond capacity with extra bottles laid horizontally across the top. Shaking her head, she straightened out and chugged her entire bottle of water, reasoning that she’d talk to Dad about his budding drinking problem later. The fact that he was hiding it from her was a sure sign of acknowledged addiction. For the life of her she couldn’t remember a single moment when they had been out of each other’s sight in the store where he could have stolen away to pack the box. Perhaps it had been during one of her trips to the bathroom.
“I can still taste it,” Dad grumbled, lifting the mouth of the bottle to his lips and swishing fresh water around in his mouth. He spat it out at his feet, the water splashing upon the crumbling macadam of Sullivan Avenue. “Spoiled onions. I can smell it when I breathe.”
Beth frowned, gazing up into the face of the full moon, which stared down upon them in its cruel indifference. She tried to gauge how much longer they’d have to travel before reaching their home. It was acceptable to reason that they’d reached a half way point, which meant that they would probably be traveling for another couple hours at most. For a moment she wondered what time it was. Every clock she’d ever known had been powered by some form of electricity. Now, without power, time itself almost seemed artificial.
“Okay, no more wasted time,” Dad sighed, finishing the rest of his water and tossing the bottle over his shoulder onto the library lawn. Heaving himself to his feet, he immediately lurched forward, consumed by another coughing fit. His hands came quickly to his mouth as he vomited up all of the water he’d just put down. It gushed through the spaces between his fingers for a second or two before he had to lower his hands to his knees to brace his upper body against collapse.
“Dad!” Beth cried, launching to her feet and steadying him by the shoulders.
“It’s—okay—” he tried to speak before heaving once more and spraying chunks of partially digested food all over his boots. The smell reminded Beth of spoiled milk and Cheez-Its with the faintest tinge of chocolate. She had to turn away as the urge to vomit alongside him seized her stomach in its iron grip.
“You need a…” she stopped herself, realizing how asinine her thoughts were given the state of the world around her.
“A—doc—tor,” Dad choked, trying to force a laugh as he wobbled there. “I—think my… my insurance is—lapsed.” The fit was subsiding a bit, but there was no doubt in Beth’s mind now that something was horribly wrong with her father. So much that she was now unwilling to let him make the remainder of the trek home until he was better.
Beth turned to gaze at the dark facade of the old library building, its bricks showing various monochromatic hues in the moonlight. “We’re staying here tonight,” she spoke sternly, tightening her grip on Dad’s shoulders as if that might somehow impart to him the strength of her resolve. She would accept none of his stubborn refusals or tough-guy monologues. Her father was sick, and she was in charge until he recovered. End of story, thanks for coming.
At first it looked like he was going to resist, his bearded face turning upward and his eyes studying her in the milky light. His lips cracked open for a moment as if he were going to voice his protest, but as his chest began to heave once more and he swallowed back against another fit of coughing and vomiting, Dad slowly began to nod his head. “Okay, but we…” breathing heavily, struggling to keep himself together, “…we have to move the carts into the building.” He frowned, “And it’s probably… locked.”
“No problem,” Beth said, steadying him and stepping back toward the stone wall, though not before making sure that he could stand on his own. She picked up a rock the size of her fist and held it out to him so that he could see. “I’ve got a key right here.” Dad nodded, and with that Beth stepped over the stone wall, straddling it for a moment before swinging her other leg over and walking up the lawn toward the building.