A figure was shuffling past her on the road, movements jerky and uneven. A limp, she guessed. They wore a hood and balaclava so that their face was concealed. Not a bad idea, Michelle thought ruefully. Perhaps she could get a balaclava somewhere soon.
Even with the limp, the traveller gradually drew ahead of her and vanished from sight. Michelle was doing very poorly and she knew it.
She had been awake for close to three nights with barely any rest. She was afraid of standing or sitting for longer than half-an-hour at a time. Longer than that and the cold made her lethargic, sleepy...and then she would lie down and freeze to death. Michelle ignored the part of her that whispered how that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go, would it?
This road could well be where her journey ended.
She refused to believe that.
The limping traveller was the only other person Michelle had seen so far and that didn’t bode well for her already slim hopes of coming across a settlement soon. She refused to entertain the idea that she could actually die out here. She flirted with it briefly at intervals, and then pushed it away angrily. She was aware that death was the most likely outcome of her adventures. But then that was the outcome of all human lives eventually.
She staggered over to a bare tree by the roadside, collapsing against the trunk. She felt strange, as though she were no longer in full control of her body. She breathed, savouring the reassuring in and out. It dimly occurred to her that she should un-shoulder her rucksack and fetch some of the water out of it. The mist of her breath meant lost moisture, and water was even more vital to survival than food, if only by a small degree.
Continuing to pant, Michelle desperately tried to summon the energy to slip the rucksack from her shoulders, but her body refused her commands.
In, out. In, out.
She recalled a rhyme her mother used to recite to her whenever she had got tired and food was running short on their travels. It had numerous verses, but the only one she could recall now was this:
The boss asked, “Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “No.”
“Push the button with your right hand, then.”
The rhyme went on like this until all of Joe’s hands and feet were occupied pressing various buttons and he had to refuse to do anything more for his boss. Then she and her mother would start all over again from the beginning.
Michelle lay underneath Victor, pressed against his chest. He ran a hand up the curve of one of her breasts, squeezing lightly. She arched into his playful touch, only vaguely aware of the words he was whispering in her ear.
“Please reconsider, ‘Chelle. Please.”
His hand moved to her stomach and caressed her belly lovingly. She wondered if he was trying to imagine a bump there, a life growing inside her...
“’Ow long d’ya suppose she’s bin ‘ere?”
Michelle did not recognise the voice and swiftly realised that being discovered by a strange man was something to be very concerned about. She had always avoided contact with other people unless it was absolutely necessary. There was no way to tell who was trustworthy and who wasn’t merely by looking at them. Even knowing a person for years wasn’t sufficient. She had learned that the hard way, as if there was any other way to learn that you have been deceived.
She tried opening her eyes, but it was impossible. Her eyelids felt like bricks.
“Proba’ly not that long. She’d be robbed or de-ad ‘tutherwise,” said a female voice. Michelle did not feel reassured by the presence of another woman.
“Think she’s coming to,” the woman continued casually, as though she found people unconscious by the roadside all the time. That spurred Michelle into forcing her eyes open in a sudden panic, only to shut them again almost immediately with a snarl. The light hurt. Pain thrummed in her head like a ceaseless drumbeat, receding slightly when she clamped them shut. Her relief was immense.
“We better get ‘er out of ‘ere,” the man said.
Michelle heard and saw nothing else for a long time.
Victor had been a new arrival to the compound, and it was the custom of the people to greet new arrivals individually. To maintain a sense of community, the Elders claimed.
Michelle had gone with her parents to see him, but not willingly. She and Ben, her beau at that time, had yet another fight earlier that day and she wasn’t in the mood to see anyone, let alone pretend at joyfulness for someone else’s benefit. At least, that was the surface reason for her reluctance . It went much deeper than such petulance.
Even after four years Michelle still couldn’t see the point to any of it. She understood that such things were done to preserve slivers of the old society, which was what the compounds were supposed to be about: honouring the old while constructing a new society of their own making. This, though Michelle didn’t know it at the time, was a lie.
And still she had not understood any of it.
A wildness had forged itself within her when she and her parents had been wandering in the wilderness, and it had remained a part of her ever since. That part of her felt that there were far more important things to be concerned about than social niceties.
She didn’t dare say any of this out loud.
Her parents had mistaken her pouting that evening for “teenage angst.” Michelle had seen no reason to correct their mistake. The less they knew about the true nature of her thoughts, the better. In order to preserve the peace she had agreed to tag along, but her heart had not been in it.
Victor greeted them at the door warmly, and not with the wariness most new arrivals did. Trusting others was something those who had been living ‘outside’ had fallen out of the habit of, if they had ever been in the habit of it, and it was something that took awhile to re-familiarise with. She found Victor’s apparent fearlessness fascinating.
“So nice of you to come by like this. My name’s Victor,” he said, stepping forward to shake her father’s hand. He hesitated before taking Victor’s hand,” I’m Peter,” he said at last, smiling awkwardly. He wasn’t used to people displaying old world manners anymore.
She watched as Victor moved to her mother and did the same. Hand-shaking was another custom Michelle could not make sense of but she held out her hand obligingly when Victor stepped in front of her.
Before she could say anything, her father said, “This is our daughter, Michelle.” Michelle briefly considered telling Dad that she could speak for herself but immediately dismissed it. Now was not the time to be making a scene.
“Michelle,” Victor murmured huskily, as though he were sampling her name and finding it very pleasing. Nobody could have failed to be charmed by him.
The first thing she saw was bright red. Michelle managed to open her eyes with little difficulty this time. Her head still hurt, but the pain had retreated to a dull throb.
The red, Michelle realised as she got her bearings again, was hair. Bright red hair partially concealed by a strange straw hat, the sort of thing Michelle could recall having seen in pictures of women at the beach in summers long gone. Who would wear such a thing in the depths of winter?
The woman finally turned fully towards her. Her face was craggy and gnarled, but not unfriendly. She frowned when she saw that Michelle’s eyes were open, and Michelle realised too late that she should’ve feigned sleep until she had a better understanding of where she was and, more importantly, who this woman and her companion were. You didn’t just pluck people off the roadside out of the goodness of your heart: these two wanted something. Michelle doubted it was anything she would want to give to them, either.
An icy terror wormed its way into her chest. She was completely vulnerable and this woman surely knew it.
“Back wi’h us, then?” The woman inquired, mouth twisting into a smile.
Michelle tried to answer, but her throat was parched and she couldn’t seem to command it to form words correctly. Her mouth opened and closed uselessly. The woman’s frown returned.
Finally, she seemed to hit upon what the problem was. “I’ll get ya sum water. Stay ‘ere.” Michelle snorted softly at that. She was in no condition to be going anywhere.
The woman bustled out and came back with a jug of water, badly chipped at the rim but otherwise serviceable, and a dented tin cup for Michelle to drink out of.
She set them onto a rickety wooden table beside the bed. Leaning down, the woman poured the water into the cup, but she did not hand it over to Michelle straight away. Michelle glared up at her, mistaking her actions for some kind of cruel teasing.
“Oh,” the woman said, exasperated, but at herself rather than Michelle. She hooked her hands under Michelle’s armpits and hauled her into a sitting position. Then she picked the cup up once more and handed it to her. Michelle drank the cold, sweet water greedily, gratefully. Whatever her reservations – and she had many – about this woman, she was hardly in any position to turn down the offer of water. At a certain point pride cannot come first, or even second.
“Th-thank you,” she rasped out at last.
“Yer welcome,” the woman replied, smiling once again, and Michelle realised that she was not afraid of this stranger, at least not as much as she had been at first, and should be. That was unusual. And dangerous.
The woman poured her another cupful of water and gave it to Michelle, and she drank that too.
Michelle’s belly was beginning to curve visibly. ‘Showing,’ was what her mother called it. Michelle did not like it. Her stomach looked grossly misshapen and wrong. The idea that this was all caused by a baby growing inside her, siphoning away her energy like it was entitled to it, was disconcerting.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Michelle and Victor had both agreed to have a child because wasn’t that what all couples were supposed to do? Wasn’t this the ultimate expression of love, to create a new life together and raise it and teach it and nurture it? Now that it was a reality it terrified her.
After thinking it over, she came to the conclusion that she was not frightened by the prospect of the baby itself. She was concerned, as any first-time mother would be, about whether she would be ‘cut out for it,’ as her father would say, but that wasn’t her primary worry.
No. It was the idea of bringing a baby into this world only to have the comfortable existence they were currently enjoying snatched away from them that gnawed at Michelle all day and kept her awake at night.
Eventually she could no longer keep these fears to herself. She desperately confided in Victor, the one person she trusted above all others, including her parents.
After all, how could she tell them she was scared of the very same fate that had befallen them? It seemed perverse, somehow, to burden them with such a thing.
She had sat him down and told him eveything.
He had listened to her talk as he had always done, and when she was finished Michelle immediately felt relieved. There. She had said it. Now they could discuss everything amongst themselves and Victor would make her feel better.
But Victor did not do that. He offered no words of comfort or reassurance. He did not say anything at all. He simply got up and left the room, leaving Michelle there alone, blinking in stunned surprise.
“D’ya r’member wh’t happened?” The woman, who said her name was Rita, asked.
Michelle carefully considered how she should answer that question. She didn’t remember collapsing in the road. There was, however, one thing she did remember.
“I thought I heard dogs,” she said. Wild dog packs were a constant threat, so being concerned about them would raise no eyebrows. Michelle was pretty certain Rita was fishing for something, and though she and her companion - Michelle hadn’t seen him since hearing his voice on the road - had apparently rescued and cared for her, she wasn’t about to hand them her trust just yet. She planned to get out of here as soon as she was physically able.
Rita grunted, leaning back in her old rocking chair. The straw hat she had been wearing when Michelle first came round was now resting in her lap and she turned it over in her hands thoughtfully.
“From what direction?” she asked at last, taking Michelle entirely by surprise.
Could it be that this woman was also a fugitive from another compound? She wondered. It stood to reason there were others like her out there, possibly quite a lot of them. How else could the knowledge of the Elders’ favoured form of punishment have become so widespread? It wouldn’t have been worth the effort to share such information if there were only a small handful of them.
Still, she wasn’t about to let her guard down. The old saying about there being no honour among thieves came to mind. On the other hand, Michelle saw no reason not to answer the question honestly. So she cast her mind back, shutting her eyes so she could recreate the scene in her head...
A bitter wind stung her face, half-blinding her, and she had no idea if she was even still walking on the road anymore. At first all she could hear was the howling of the wind swelling in her ears seemingly without cease. Then, for the briefest moment, it dropped long enough for her to hear something else, another kind of howling. An angry hacking from the west that could only be...
“The west,” Michelle said, eyes snapping open. “It was coming from the west.”
Rita grunted again in acknowledgment but said nothing more. Apparently she didn’t trust Michelle anymore than Michelle trusted her.
Created: Jan 31, 2012Emma-Conner Document Media