Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 8...
Elizabeth woke to the pounding of bongos in her head, or at least that’s what it felt like. Lifting her face up off the grass, she could feel the markings that had been pressed into her cheek even before her hand moved up to trace the lines each blade had left. As she glanced around the youth center lawn through slotted eyelids, guarding against the bright sunlight, shafts of pain fissured down her neck and shoulders in a not so subtle reminder of her previous day’s work.
“Ick,” she groaned. Her mouth held onto the rancid tang of scotch, only it was now so dry that the taste was far fouler than it had been the night before. She tried to gather her spit and swallow it away, but this succeeded only in making her throat cry out for water. The carriages were maybe twenty feet away, but that might as well have been twenty miles as she rolled over and her entire body seized up against the combination of gut-heaving nausea and head-splitting pain. It felt as if someone was trying to crack her skull like an egg and her guts were a churning pot of acid and carrion. She immediately curled up into a fetal position as her stomach roiled. With not even a second to spare she channeled every bit of energy she could and rolled over and away from her father’s burial mound, clenching her eyes shut as vomit sprayed from her mouth. For what felt like minutes she remained there, hands clutching her midriff as her body purged itself of wave after wave of acidic bile. When at last it seemed to have passed, she opened her eyes once more and found herself staring at the bottle of Macallan, now coated in her sick with nothing more than a swallow of scotch left inside.
“How do people get hooked on this stuff?” she asked, rolling away from the reek of her vomit and onto her back. For some time she just rested there, gazing up and meditating on the soft prattle of leaves. The subtle, often overlooked voice of nature spoke all around her, no longer diminished by the noisy business of humanity. Elizabeth listened and was lulled to sleep.
- - -
She awoke a short time later with just enough energy to make her way down to the carriages. With no interest in food, she quickly put away four bottles of water and paused, looking down at her fifth as the urge to purge revisited her like a toxic friend who had been gone just long enough to go unnoticed. Dad’s voice spoke in her head, telling her to fight back against her stomach, that it would be worth the pain once the water had spread out into her body. Sitting there, hunched over in the ditch that ran alongside the road, she considered herself lucky to still have the power to commune with her father. The wisdom that had been hidden beneath his calloused exterior and narrow points of view was more precious, she thought, than the bottled water in her hand.
A familiar noise, one that she hadn’t heard in months and wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the soundless void that was the New World, suddenly drew her attention upward. Shielding her eyes against the sun with her free hand, she followed the dispersing contrail of a jet as it crossed a sea of cloudless blue. No, she thought, it can’t be. She dropped her fifth bottle of water and forgot all about her stomach for a moment as she rubbed at her eyes. Turning her gaze skyward once more, she was filled with a cooling mixture of emotions. The dull, far away roar of engines corroborated what her eyes were seeing, an operational, piloted passenger jet.
It should have made her hopeful, but it didn’t. Instead she was struck by an image of herself bound in a straightjacket and bouncing around a white, padded room. The world has ended, she cried out in a voice rendered artificial by the lack of reverberation. Don’t drink the water or you’ll end up like Dad! Don’t drink the water or you’ll die!
Was she really there? Had she and Dad really been the last two people in Claremont? Or was she really in a rubber room somewhere, swallowed up in a reality of her own crazed design.
Her stomach clenched and her bowels groaned. These sensations were irrefutably real. As the hum of the jet engines diminished overhead, she crossed her arms over her belly and reeled forward. Once more Dad’s voice encouraged her to fight back against the nausea, and once more she succeeded. The feeling of dead things breaking down within her came and went for the next few minutes, and when they’d passed for good – or at least for what she hoped was for good – the jet had vanished behind the trees.
“It was heading north.” She wasn’t entirely sure why that mattered or why she might commit it to memory, but she did just the same. There was nothing north except a sliver of Vermont and the vast wilds of French Canada. A few years back she and Dad had taken a late summer camping trip outside Montreal. As the memories filtered back to her she realized that he’d been drinking a lot during that trip. In fact, he’d been drinking more and more over the years leading up to last Christmas and the more sharply sloping descent into self-medication that followed. Despite the imagery of beer and liquor playing out in her head like pictures in a View-Master, her nausea didn’t return in that moment, but that sour taste of whiskey on her tongue made a brief appearance. Snatching up the bottle of water she’d dropped, she twisted off the cap and took a palette-cleansing sip.
“North,” she repeated.
- - -
At some point in the late afternoon her appetite suddenly returned. It came without warning or explanation, and though she wasn’t able to feed the odd cravings for burgers and fries that filled her like a siren's call, pork n’ beans did her just fine. When she finished her second can she tossed it into the ditch before her where it clattered against its depleted twin and the six bottles of water she’d consumed. She wiped bean juice from her face with the sleeve of her t-shirt and settled back in the groove of the ditch, legs stretching up toward the carriages and crumbled pavement.
With her belly now full and churning as it was supposed to, she folded her arms behind her head and relaxed against the grass. Her upper lip smelled so strongly of molasses and onion that it was all she could smell. Not even the breeze was able to cut through the power of lunch’s lasting presence. It reminded her of the months cooped up inside with Dad while the snow howled outside, their long and curling driveway indistinguishable beneath the ever-accumulating cloak of white that smothered the world. She’d never been as miserable as she was during those days of cabin fever. Now she thought back through them with a disheartened longing for their return.
These thoughts carried her back to sleep.
- - -
Darkness had long enfolded the land when she woke again. The mocking face of the moon hung over the trees at the other side of the road, gazing down upon her in neutral apathy.
She was feeling closer to normal now. Her nausea, she told herself, had finally passed for good. The taste of scotch had been banished away by the flavor and smell of pork n’ beans still clinging to her in its stubborn disinclination to go its own separate way. The air was seasonably cooler now in stark contrast to the conditions of the last, what… two nights? Three? A shiver spread over her as she struggled to make sense of how much time had passed. The hours had all run together. It felt like she’d been away from her home for a long weekend, while at the same time it felt like it had been a whole month.
Elizabeth grunted to her feet and stepped out of the ditch. She made a dinner of five handfuls of Waffle Crisp and followed it with a blueberry Pop Tart for dessert. After this she went about consolidating the two carriages in the moonlight, partly because she was no longer sleepy and needed to keep her mind occupied, but also because it steeled her resolve to carry through with her plan. Come hell or high water, she was going to Ogunquit. There wasn’t a clue in her head as to exactly what she’d do when she got there, whether she’d stay for a visit and then move on elsewhere or if she’d live out the rest of her days watching the waves of the Atlantic beat upon the shore. It didn’t matter. More important than her decision to go to Ogunquit was her need to get herself out of Claremont, and after she’d finished assembling her things (with one last, spooky reconnaissance trip inside the youth center), she did just that.
With the moon lighting her path, Elizabeth slung her father’s rifle over her shoulder and began pushing her carriage toward the town’s eastern border. She stole a final glance back at the grave before it disappeared into the scenery. What remained beneath that mound of dirt was nothing more than an empty vessel. The spirit of her father now traveled with her.
She was on the road for what she estimated to be three hours before the muted aura of first-light began to chase the darkness from the sky. The most direct path out of town was along Route 103, which wended along parallel to The Sugar River. Elizabeth had wondered about the reek of rancid onions on the breeze for the first few miles on 103. Were it not for the still present but rapidly diminishing cloud of alcohol still siphoning away much of her usual sharpness, she would have realized much sooner that the smell was coming off of the river. Instead she made the connection as 103 and Sugar River finally intersected at the border of Claremont and its neighbor, Newport. She didn’t linger at the edge of the bridge that ran over the steadily rushing waters below, mostly because of the smell, but largely because her attention was caught by a blockade of concrete barriers, traffic cones, and plywood signs at the opposite end.
Her pace quickened, and she felt as though she was chasing the brightening daylight as she rushed across the bridge. Now just forty feet away, she could see coiled strings of razor wire drawn across the concrete blockade and dangling over the railings on either side of the bridge. There wasn’t even a slot wide enough for her to sidestep through to the other side. Whoever had put this up, they had definitely wanted to make sure nobody was getting across the bridge. It also meant that her carriage was destined to remain on the Claremont side of the barrier, and as this realization clicked in her head she gritted her teeth and shoved the loaded cart the remaining six feet to where it slammed against the concrete and was caught in the tangle of wire.
I guess this might be one of the reasons Claremont is so quiet, she thought, glaring hatefully at what was certain to be the first of many obstructions in her pilgrimage to the coast. She walked right up to the coils of wire and studied every inch of the blockade in search of the best place to cross over. For something as meticulously constructed as the obstacle before her (it would have required heavy machinery to move the concrete slabs into position), there were a few areas that suggested it was done largely in haste. The railings, for example, were each adorned with a single thread of wire that dangled off the edge, contrasting with the rat’s nest set like a bad toupee upon the concrete and tangled up in the polished metal gridwork of her grocery carriage. It was evident that much of what she had in the carriage was not going to be coming with her, but if she could heave it all over the blockade and carefully slip across on the outer edge of the railing, she could worry about her next move from the other side.
“What do you think, Dad?” She glanced over the edge of the bridge. Butterflies fluttered about in her stomach as she experienced vertigo. In Dad’s truck they’d crossed this span countless times, and not once had the height of it – not more than sixty feet – bothered her. But standing there, peering down into the rushing water as that putrid onion smell wafted up was much different than rolling across in the sensory deprivation of an enclosed vehicle.
I think you should have taken the muli-tool from my pocket and used it to cut the razor wire, Dad answered. Elizabeth threw up her hands and grudgingly nodded agreement. She’d be sure to stop at the next hardware store on her route and grab herself a Leatherman, but that wasn’t going to help her now. Since Dad didn’t seem to have any other suggestions, she began to enact her plan. Backing away from the edge with one last look down, she turned and walked over to the carriage. It took a couple tries, during which she cursed herself for letting her temper get the better of her, but she was eventually able to shake the thing free of the razor wire and backed it away from the barrier. She started with the plastic-wrapped packages of water, heaving them across to the other side in a grunting manner that reminded her a lot of the shot put from Track & Field. The rest of it was much easier to toss after that, mostly loose boxes of cereal and the assortment of canned goods Dad favored. The only wrinkle in her plan, and it was minor, came as she tossed the paper bags of pharmaceuticals over the barrier. She tried her best to float the bags over as she would take a foul shot in basketball, hoping that their landing would be softened by the pile of cereal and Pop Tart boxes, but instead each of the bags blew open as they crashed down. By the time Elizabeth was ready to sidle her way along the outside of the bridge railing, the Newport border was scattered with loose bottles of pills.
“Whatever,” she whispered, glancing up at the tufts of cloud streaking across the sky above her route east. They looked like cotton candy in the early light. The sun was no doubt burning its way upward against a foreground of crumbled buildings in Concord. Elizabeth wondered briefly what the city looked like now. She would find out at some point, assuming she didn’t fall to her death from this bridge.
Using the nose of the rifle, she drew the single thread of razor wire up three or four coils at a time until after a minute or so she was able to let it drop against the barrier. With her path forward now clear, she adjusted the rifle strap so that it ran diagonally across her chest, and practiced leaning back on the road-facing side of the railing a few times. The weight of the rifle was more than considerable for a girl who weighed less than 120 pounds, but after a few practice runs she felt prepared to compensate for it. Stepping back to the railing, she drew in a deep breath and went about carefully swinging herself one leg at a time up and over the edge. From there it was a simple matter of keeping her attention focused exclusively on her gripping and footing as she inched her way slowly across to the other side of the blockade.
It might have taken a minute, certainly no longer than 90 seconds, but it felt like forever as every shifting step was met with the self-destructive urge to glance downward. Yet she made it to the other side of the blockade without issue and swung herself back over the railing to where her scattered goods awaited her. Her curiosity left little time to celebrate her bravery and ingenuity. She turned immediately to face the Newport side of the barrier, now able to read the signs propped against it, both of which were identical and painstakingly hand-painted.
Lt. Gov. Bridget Strauss
Violators Will Be Shot On Sight
If she were a cartoon character Elizabeth’s jaw would have hit the pavement before recoiling like those old-fashioned draw down window blinds. A quarantine? For what? There had been no bodies visible to suggest any kind of sickness. The town had just… emptied.
“What did you know, Dad?” She reread the sign – both of them – a few times as she waited for him to answer. Memories of the two of them stripping their home in order to board it up against the outside world played out in her mind’s eye. Not once had she questioned it. She’d just gone along with what Dad directed. Had it all been a precaution taken against something more than looters who might have accidentally stumbled upon their semi-secluded home or had it been for a more informed, measured contingency? The truth of the matter was that she’d probably never know, and the silence that settled in her mind made it abundantly clear that Dad wasn’t going to offer up any insight on the matter.
It was entirely likely that Dad’s paranoia and doomsday prepping had inadvertently led to them being overlooked during a mass evacuation. Anything was possible. Their house was pretty far off the main roads of Claremont. But there was still that mystery of the quarantine. Did it have something to do with the water? Was there more to all of this than what the news networks reported before they went dark?
Her mind swirled with conspiracy, and it wasn’t until her stomach rumbled that she was liberated from her own mind. A mixed bag of feelings swept over her as she considered how similar this train of thought was to the rants of her father. At this point it was becoming clear that the so-called nuts who distrusted everything about the government were more on-the-money than the social and political scholars and activists who pushed vehemently for a more socialistic platform.
Elizabeth bent and pried a bottle of water from the nearest of the two remaining packages at her feet. Twisting off the cap, she flicked it over the edge of the bridge and watched thoughtfully as it drifted toward the river. She drank slowly, but finished the entire bottle before looking it over absentmindedly and tossing it after the cap. Gazing back to the tree-shrouded road ahead of her and the ever-brightening sky above it, she lifted her hand to the rifle strap that ran across her chest and ran her fingers along its timeworn leather.
Claremont had been an outlier. An anomaly. She couldn’t assume that what lay ahead of her was an identically abandoned and untouched world.
Don’t let the New World destroy my baby girl.
She wasn’t certain if this was her father speaking to her in the moment or if it was a subconscious replay of some memory. Something told her it was the latter, but she didn’t have the time to explore its origins. Right now Elizabeth needed to find some way of collecting and transporting her goods before someone came across her. She pictured a colossal military truck painted in camo rolling up to the blockade with helmet- and fatigue-clad men leaning over the sides of its bed, ready to gun down anything that moved. Though Dad didn’t seem to have anything to add to this thought, she knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to speak up if she was in error.
Elizabeth started forward, slinging the rifle around so that she could shoulder it with ease at the first sign of trouble. Somewhere ahead was the gear she needed to set herself moving forward again, eastbound into the sun and toward Ogunquit, Maine.