the dull roar of the diesel engine banged and echoed with futility against the soft fog-enclosed silence on the ascent. we both glanced nervously at the gas gauge as it neared empty. we had one reserve can of fuel left. after that, nothing.
we’ll make it. we’ll never make it. we had to try. thoughts chugged around like a compression engine in our own heads. the light on the bus guage came on. about a half-hour left of fuel in the tank.
We both felt very tense. Did we make the right choice? Our decision came from days of intense discussions about our next steps. We had each-other.
“How close do you think we are?” I asked.
“I don’t know…” she said, eyes steady on the rocky, rutted road, to prevent any further mishap. The condition of the road didn’t help our emotional state. It looked more like a widened dirt path. We spent most of our time chugging along at less than 20 miles per hour in second gear while carefully navigating hazards such a large rocks and downed trees. Some of the rocks seemed like inherent features of the landscape.
On occasion, we stopped the bus, pulled out the pry bar and chainsaw and set about moving and then replacing downed trees covering the entire width of the road. Each fallen tree took about a half-hour of hard damned work to pass, even with the help of the chainsaw. We assumed nothing, and left everything as we found it. We had no way to tell the story and intentions behind their fall, so approached each soldier with the same blanket respect. Thank you on the approach. Apologies for the disturbance. Thank you for letting us pass.
“Do you think we’re headed in the right direction?” I asked for both of us.
“I don’t know…” she said, replying for both of us. The dense treeline appeared and disappeared out of the fog like a ghostly line of thousands of silent sentinels, watching our approach. Watching us while we walked the thin line, waiting to see which way we would fall: with, or against them. They were getting larger. Heavier. More difficult to move.
I felt hunger swell and burn in my gut. “How much food do we have?”
“Why don’t you go check?” she said. I carefully made my way back to the food storage area, looking through and updating our inventory. Two gallons of water left. Dried beans and rice. About a gallon of fermented vegetables. Three pounds of cheese. About the same in salami. A few heads of garlic and onions. The root cellar contained a few carrots and beets. A couple of bags of dehydrated veggies left.
I made my report. Without saying anything, we both thought the same thing: Plenty. Not enough.
The engine sputtered and died. We got out to refuel, and took the opportunity to eat a little snack. We had no clock, no way to tell time apart from the vague cycles of light and dark that made their way to us through the dense fog. We took turns sleeping and driving or watching. We measured time and distance in snacks and cans, watching our provisions dwindle, hoping we had made it far enough into the void between civilization and wilderness to avoid our pursuers. Hoping we had kept enough distance and respect for wilderness to avoid attack from our hosts.
We looked at each-other in knowing silence, and made our way back onto the bus. Our last push. She got back into the drivesr seat, and turned the engine. It sputtered at first, then chugged back to life. I breathed, and for some reason, the Wallflower’s One Headlight started playing in my head as we made our way forward again.
It happened all so long ago, I don’t remember when
That’s when they say I lost my only friend
They say she died easy of a broken heart disease
As I looked up through the cemetary trees…
Come on, try a little
Nothing is forever
There’s got to be something better than
In the middle
Me and Cinderella
Will put it all together
We can drive it home
With one headlight…
Daylight waned into dusk as we passed the last barrier of fallen trees. We didn’t know it was the last barrier until pulled up in front of the next: a tangle of fallen old growth. It would take days, maybe even weeks, to clear something like this. The end of the road. She turned the engine off. Headlights off, dimming the road in front of us only slightly in the early dusk.
We looked at each-other with the same question. What now? Get out, take a look around.
We climbed the barrier. It stood about twenty feet tall. It looked like there might be ways to go through it somehow, but we didn’t want to risk it, danger enough that climbed on top of it. Reverence grounded us. Thank you. Sorry. Thank you. Right or wrong, we also believed it offered us some protection. From the top I could just barely make out the road as it continued again on the other side, about fifty feet back and another twenty feet down from the approach. We suspected as much with the past barriers. We started to see more design, more intention. More warning. This pile of debris made its message quite clear to anyone who cared to listen: keep out.
We descended from our pensive perch in the dwindling light, as two dark figures with rifles materialized out of the fog. We stood there, watching each-other for a couple of minutes. With faces covered in shrouds, hiding all features but their hardened eyes. Stupidly, I had left our weapons on the bus. Our host/pursuers might have already confiscated them. Sudden moves will get us killed. On the other hand, if we didn’t make it far enough, we might die anyway.
Three more figures materialized, flanking us. All clearly armed. I grabbed her hand and squeezed. This is it.
I remembered weapons training. “Never point your gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.” They didn’t intend to shoot us, yet. But the muzzles did point menacingly in our general direction.
One of the two original figures stepped forward. Movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone in our bus. Shit. I raised my free hand, palm open, facing outward. No point in trying to make enemies yet. The figure approached us.
“You came alone,” she said. A female voice. Strong.
We both nodded.
“We typically disable vehicles before they make it this far. Sometimes we shoot the people inside,” she told us in a steady, dry tone. “We did exactly that to a couple of vehicles following you.”
I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Tears welled in my eyes. I squeezed my partner’s hand and we both relaxed our grip. She knew. I knew. We all knew. Our actions had kept us safe. For now. I took a deep breath. The air underneath the dissipating diesel fumes felt cool, clean, thick, moist. It reminded me of how bad things have gotten. Breathing didn’t come so easy elsewhere…
“Why did you come?” she asked us. My partner spoke this time. She told them in brief terms, bullet points. Just like we had talked about doing should we ever make it this far. Life. Asylum. Aid. Death. She did better than I did with unfamiliar faces, alien voices. We don’t know whether the Others understood how we tell each-other apart, or whether they ever would. We hoped they had grown fat and complacent, but did not expect or assume it. They sent two vehicles. How many did they usually send after liabilities?
The woman nodded, and pulled down the shroud covering her face. Her eyes softened. “We can use the extra help,” she said, nodding toward the bus. “You can stay, too,” she smirked.
i broke from my partner and hugged her, buried my head in her shoulders and cried. i said, “thank you.” To her, to the trees, to my partner. The bus. She hugged me back, then pulled away. Her eyes and voice hardened again. “We need to get moving, lots of work to do. Time to disappear.”
We spent the next several hours working together, covering and erasing tracks, constructing new barriers, putting everything back the way we found it. Making every sign of our presence disappear. Finally, we followed them, together melting and dissolving back into the treeline and all-encompassing fog, turning from solid to shadow.