The sun beats down on me as I wander the unfamiliar terrain, surrounded on either side by enormous redwood trees; half of which are dead, the other half, mutated so that their needles glow softly in the night. Am I lost? No, I couldn’t be. The contents of the heavy backpack I wear can be heard shifting slightly as I pull it off my back and set it down on the cracked pavement beneath my feet. The goggles I wear to shield my eyes from the unforgiving rays of the sun begin to fog up as I kneel; digging through the side pockets of my bag until I finally find the item I’m searching for.
There you are! Unfolding the map, I track my recent movements. It’s been days since I’ve seen any caravans or traders. In fact, I haven’t seen much of anybody. No scavengers or raiders. This mountain pass is devoid of almost any life, aside from the occasional radioactive animal. According to my calculations, New Emerald should be…
Let’s see… I started in Redbluf Desert to just outside of the Redding Crater Ruins and followed the Rabid River at which point… I trace my finger across the map from where I began to where I am right now. I traveled along the Ruined Highway. Just like the Caravan’s Guild said! New Emerald should be here somewhere! As I shove my map into my pocket and shoulder my backpack, I try to recall the landmarks that the Caravan’s Guild had told me to look for.
“When the Rabid River meets the Ruined Highway, follow the highway.” That’s what he had said and yet I don’t see anything. Wait, what else was it that he had said? I wrack my brain for the missing information as I walk. Something about the end, but the end of what? It couldn’t be the end of the Ruined Highway because that supposedly went from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast. Suddenly, noises can be heard; what sounds like voices and the clip-clop of either Mute-Stang or a Cali-Cow.
My eyes scan the immediate area for a place to hide, after all, I couldn’t be sure if these Travelers were a friendly Caravan or ruthless group of Raiders. Better safe than sorry, so I must find a spot to hide and quickly. That’s when I see it; the rusted-down and broken remnant of a time long forgotten. Its wheels had long since deflated and the stuffing in the backseat had been torn out, probably to provide some cold Traveler with warmth in the cold nights of the Redwood Forrest.
There! It’s perfect! I leap into action; running from the middle of the Ruined Highway to the side of the road and crawling through the broken out back window of the rusted car. I duck down in between the front and the back seats, trying to make myself as small and unnoticeable as possible. The sound of hoofs on the cracked pavement draws closer and the voices grow louder until words can be made out.
“I’m telling you, Danny,” the first voice says in slightly amused tone. I can tell the speaker was a man because his voice was as deep as the Crater of Sacramento. “You aren’t going to be disappointed. Do you know how much Old Man Badeaux will pay for this crap?”
“I know,” the second voice, whom I assume is Danny, responds. “But why does he want all these musty old things, Anders? History books? Broken calculators? Isn’t this kind of useless? I mean, no-one has used a calculator since Doomsday and that was, what? Four hundred years ago?”
“Doomsday was two-thousand-eight hundred-fifty-six years ago,” corrected the first man, Anders. “The first bomb hit Washington D.C. on December Twenty-first in the year two-thousand-twelve. Which you would know if you had paid attention to anything we learned in the New Sunshine State School.”
Thank the Maker. It’s a frigging Caravan! Slowly, I climb out of my hiding place; I hold my hands above my head to show them I am unarmed, just like my father taught me to do when running into a caravan on the road. Startled by the sudden movement, the Mute-Stang’s three heads neigh in unison and stomps its front hoof on the concrete as if to alert its owners to my presence. The two men turn to look, drawing their guns and aiming them at me. Try as I might to remain calm, my hands begin to shake despite myself.
“Don’t shoot!” I shout as the wind picks up and carries my voice away from me. “Please, don’t shoot!” Noticing the look of panic in my eyes, the men lower their guns but they don’t holster them; they're smarter than that.
“What are you trying to do, kid?!” I recognize the speaker as Danny. Danny has broad shoulders and stands at about six feet tall with curly, brown hair that fell just past his ears and a short, scruffy beard that looks as if it hadn’t been shaved in about a week. “Are you trying to get shot? Because sneaking up on a caravan is a good way to get shot at.”
“Not only that,” the other man chimes in with amusement, “But, I think you scared me so bad, I may need a change of pants.” This man is slimmer than Danny, with hair the color of sand and even though I stand about fifteen feet away, I can still see how vibrant his blue eyes are. “My name is Anders,” the sandy haired man says as he motions to himself. “Don’t mind Danny, he’s been jumpy since that Sabre-Lion tried to get ol’ Stanger here.” Anders pats the Mute-Stangs rough fur and holsters his gun.
“I was really hoping I would run into a caravan on the road. It’s been days since I’ve seen anyone!” Unfolding the map as I approach them I ask, “Can you tell me how to get to New Emerald?” Anders smiles at me, a hint of annoyance in his eyes that’s quickly hidden away as I approach. I guess he’s heard this a million times.
“Well, you could just come with us,” Danny interjects, possibly to spare Anders the breathless explanation of where to go or what to look out for. “We were actually just headed there. In fact, there’s only a few more miles to go before we reach the entrance gates. Do you have the coin for the entry fee?”
“Entry fee?” I question with what must have been a very confused look on face because Anders began to snicker behind Danny. “I was unaware that there was an entry fee…” Danny turns to Anders and shoots him a dirty look; narrowing his eyes and lowering his brows.
“It’s not too expensive. It’s only twenty coppers,” Danny explains as he looks down at me as if I am a lost child. “If you don’t have the money then you’re out of luck. No copper, no entry.” I begin to frantically search my pockets for my coin sack until my memory returns to me.
That’s right! I hid it in my backpack for safe keeping! I unshoulder my bag and set it down on the cracked pavement for the millionth time today and rifle through it until I find the object of my desire; a small, white music box with a ballerina that spins slowly when you wind up the knob on the side. For a moment, I run my fingers over the chipping paint and admire the pink roses that had been painted on the top of the box generations before me. It was a gift from mother who had gotten it from her mother and so on and so forth all the way down the line since before the dreaded Doomsday Bombs struck the earth and rendered the landscape almost unlivable. Every major city was destroyed and countless lives were lost. But this, this little box that played the soft music of my ancestors had survived the testament of time.
I take the key that hung by a strap of leather about my neck and placed it in the lock, turning it slightly until I hear the all too familiar click of the locks sliding out of place. I open the lids and take out my burlap bag of coins and jingle it slightly. The two men, Danny and Anders, are kind enough to wait patiently while I count out all the money I have to my name. It doesn’t take long. All in all, I count forty-two copper pieces. That’s more than enough for the entry fee! I might even be able to afford a room and a few meals!
“Word of the wise, kid,” Danny says as he helps me to my feet. “Never count your money in front of strangers. Especially if there isn’t anyone around for miles to save you.” I look up at him, frightened by his words. Are they going to attack me?! But no, Danny simply pats me on my back and points towards the west, down the road. “New Emerald is about ten miles down the road. Don’t worry, it should only take about two and a half hours to get there.”
“Yeah,” Anders tone is one of excitement as he glances at the Mute-Stang. “Too bad ol’ Stanger, here, doesn’t have a twin. Otherwise we’d be there in half the time.”
“Well, hopefully with all this supply,” Danny says as he makes quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “We might be able to afford one. That’s if Old Man Badeaux is happy with what we found in the ruins of the old school.”
“University of Southern California, Danny,” Anders sighs as though Danny is completely uneducated but I get the sense that Danny is just messing with him because he smirks mischievously before he begins to walk down the path of rubble that was once a beautiful expanse of pavement. I follow him as quickly as my short legs can carry me, but I just can’t seem to keep his pace. Surprisingly enough, Danny slows down just enough for Anders and I to catch up.
Over the tops of the trees, the sky begins to change colors; a brilliant aqua color to start out, then as the clouds begin to roll in from towards the ocean, it changes to an angry black color. Bright flashes of green light up the sky before a burst of green light brightens the area above our heads, followed by the clap of roaring thunder. A large drop falls from the sky and lands on my sleeve, smoking as it tries desperately to eat away at the leather of my coat. Oh, great. Acid Rain. We’ll never get to New Emerald before nightfall now.
Anders reaches into his saddle back and withdraws a huge, metallic tarp and the two men set to work on creating a makeshift shelter which consisted of the tarp, some string and two cars that just so happened to be sitting side-by-side and close enough to each other that by opening the doors they became a somewhat sturdy wall. Danny and Anders pull the tarp over the hoods of the cars and fastens it to the doors on the opposite side. Upon closer inspection, the cars seem to be hollowed out in an attempt to provide makeshift shelter from any bad weather that may pass overhead.
“Did you guys do this?” I ask as we climb underneath the tarp and open the interior doors. I’m right, this is a sturdy wall… I glance at Anders and Danny while motioning to the open car doors and hollowed out remains within the rusted metal. Danny nods his head as if to say, Yeah, that was me.
“Well, I didn’t do this,” Anders states as he reaches into his pocket and withdraws a plain looking back with a peppery smell wafting from it. “Danny and his Old Man did long before I came into the picture.” He opens the bag and the peppery smells gets even stronger. My mouth begins to water as I recognize what he withdraws. Rabbit jerky. He must see the look of hunger in my eyes as he hands me a piece with a dorky smile on his face. I eat it happily. While I still have some food left, it’s not exactly enough to constitute as an actual meal.
“We should probably just hit the hay, guys,” Danny says as he unrolls one of the two sleeping bags that had been tied to his backpack; he tosses the other one at Anders who gets up and moves to the car that Danny’s in. “Emerald weather is notorious for being unpredictable and this one looks like it’s going to be a real doozy. Anders, did you make sure the rope was securely tied? I really don’t want a repeat of last time.”
Anders nods before climbing into his sleeping bag and curling up with a loud yawn, “Duh. I’m not making that mistake a second time, Danny.” His eyes dart over to me and he props himself up on his elbow. “You do have a sleeping bag, right?” I nod as I dig through my backpack; as small as it is, it can hold up to eighty pounds and my sleeping bag was thin enough to put it away in the bag with ease. I unroll it and climb inside, making sure to face toward these suspiciously helpful men. I try to stay awake for as long as I can, but with the soothing sound of the rain hitting the hood of the car it really doesn’t take long for me to embrace the comforting darkness of sleep.
Running. Running. Through the darkness. Something is chasing me. Oh, Maker, what is it?! My feet feel like lead and I can no longer run. I fall to my knees and embrace the ground beneath me. But, wait. There is no ground! I’m falling now, forever falling, unable to grasp anything but air. No safety net to catch me. I scream out for my mother and much to my surprise, she appears; her arms spread wide to catch her falling daughter and a soft smile spreads across her face as she wraps her arms around me. “I will always be here for you, Valencia,” her voice echo’s through the darkness, slaying the beast the lay in wait. The monsters tortured screams cascade over my ears like a flowing river. And then she’s gone. Just like that, as if she had never been there at all. But the monster from before, its wailing is not of pain but of laughter. I haven’t escaped him. He’s here. Right beside me! I turn to face him. Oh, Maker, it’s really him…
My eyes flutter open at the sound of birds chirping in the tree tops overhead, the morning sunlight caresses my skin and the smell of eggs being cooked over an open flame comes wafting through the cracks between the doors. I sit up, slightly confused before I remember the events of the day before. Danny and Anders must already be awake. I glance at the car opposite from me. It was devoid of sleeping bags and of people. I yawn and stretch before rolling up my bag and shoving it into my backpack. I combed through my short, blonde hair with my fingers before putting my knitted hat back on my head and crawling out of the car.
Danny was seated beside a small fire, stirring the eggs and Anders was busily securing the saddle bags to the Mute-Stangs saddle. Stanger neighs before the head on the right-side nibbles at Anders pocket; he swats her nose away and finishes up his work before noticing me. He waves at me, happily. Ugh, a morning person. Gross. I always hated mornings, ever since I was a little girl. I don’t know why, I just do.
“You hungry, um…” Anders begins, but apparently, he’s forgotten something. “Hey, what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” I respond as I walk past him with my bag in my hand. I sit down across from Danny; he reminds me of someone I used to know. A boy by the same name, my older brother. Taken before his time, just like the rest of Redbluf: a band of raiders, calling themselves the Sons of Atom, had swept through the town in the dead of night and killed anyone who got in their way. The entire town was dead by morning; men, women and children. All slaughtered like cattle.
Danny looks up from the frying pan and smiles as he takes it off the flame, “I hope you’re hungry. I just finished the eggs I stole from a very angry bird.” He motions to a set of tin plates before he picks up one for himself. “There were plenty of eggs in the nest, so, don’t hesitate to fill up.”
“Thanks, Danny,” I say, picking up one of the plates and a fork before scooping some eggs onto it. “I am starving.” I try to act casual but I can’t seem to shake the dream from the night before. The terror had been so real…
“Thank the Northern Star, I’m frigging starving my ass off, Danny!” Anders says as he grabs some utensils and begins to eat a more-than-healthy portion of the eggs. “I didn’t know it took an eternity to cook six frigging eggs!” Danny’s response is a simple, if not somewhat violent one as he punches Anders playfully in the arm but doesn’t say anything at all about the insult.
“Well, on the bright side, from this point there’s only about a mile and a quarter left to go,” Danny states through a mouthful of eggs. “If we eat quickly, we’ll be there in no time at all.” Those words lift my spirits and snap back to reality.
“What’s New Emerald like anyway?” I inquire. I want to know the truth because I had only ever heard rumors of it. “I heard the entire city is surrounded by huge metal walls and that it has a giant glass dome on top!” My excitement is evident and the laugh at me for it, but not in a mocking tone.
“The bit about the walls, yes. There are huge walls surrounding the city,” Anders says as he lifts his face from his plate; bits of egg clung to his cheek and Danny is quick to revert to a child-like demeanor as he points and laughs. Anders wipes his face with the back of his hand before he continues. “There isn’t any glass dome, though. We don’t live in a fishbowl, dude.”
Danny’s laughter intensifies for a moment before he finishes his plate and douses the fire with a jug of water he’d no doubt collected from the river nearby. He packs up his plate, fork and frying pan before walking over to Stanger and securing his bag to her back. Stretching, he says “I suggest you two finish up fast so we can get a move on. I want to get there before the Old Man opens up shop, otherwise I’ll be stuck in damn back all day cataloging crap.”
It doesn’t take long for us to finish, however; we were both mostly done by the time he’d finished his sentence. Was I really that hungry? How long has it been since I’ve had a proper meal? I hand my plate to Anders who packs it into the bag with the rest of the eating utensils. As I stand, I brush the bits of eggs off my coat before I shoulder my backpack and walk up to the other two.
“How long do you think it’ll take to walk there from here?” I ask quietly as I look up at them.
“In about twenty minutes, you’ll be able to see the wall…” Anders voice trails off. “Seriously, what’s your name?”
“Bence. Valencia Bence,” I say as I stare straight forward. My name is all the information that I’m willing to give them. Why should I give them anything other than that when everything else had been taken from me? They must be able to sense my unwillingness to talk about myself, because after that we walked in silence for quite a while. After a few more minutes of walking, the great walls of Emerald city could be seen through the trees.
The city walls tower over the rest of the landscape as if to say, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my gates for ye.” The sight is so beautiful as the sun caressed the gentle curve of the cities emerald green walls that my breath catches in my throat and my heart begins to soar as the winds of freedom whisk it away from me. The sun even seems to shine brighter for me as I walk closer, inching my way to the safety of the walls.
Although, Fate has different plans for me today as a gunshot breaks the still peace in the air and the rush that was my freedom is taken from me once more. There is a burning pain in the center of my back and before a tingling numbness overwhelms my senses, I thought I could feel a warm wetness in my back. Then, as I fall to my knees, another gunshot rings out and Danny falls beside me, face down in dirt and a single bullet wound to the head.
Evil laughter fills my ears as the numbness takes hold and Anders makes his way into my line of sight, smiling wickedly down at me. His eyes narrow as he crouches down beside my broken body and pries the backpack from off my back before standing back up and kicking me hard in the side; the blow was hard enough to send me rolling onto my back. He’s crouching over me and the only thing I can think of to say comes out in a wet, rattling cough as he rips the leather strip from around my neck.
“Why?” I choke out as blood drips from the corner of my lips; I know it's blood, I can taste it. Anders holds up the music box and places the key inside, turning it until he hears that oh-so familiar click of the lock sliding out of place and then he opens it, dumping out the contents inside. Underneath it all, there is a string that I thought no one else knew was there. He pulls it until the secret compartment opens to reveal another survivor of time.
The Bible had been passed along with the music box through generations. My mother had received it from her mother who had received it from her mother and so on and so forth, all the way down the line. It was a closely guarded treasure as the Word of God had been lost so long ago; few had heard its words of wisdom and it was my job to spread its teachings, as the duty had fallen on my mother before me. Now, to whom should this Holy Book fall but the very evil I had sought to protect it from. I try to wrack my brain for a clue as to why Anders would do this to me when flashes from my nightmare invade my mind.
Running. Running. Through the darkness. Something is chasing me. Oh, Maker, what is it?! My feet feel like lead and I can no longer run. I fall to my knees and embrace the ground beneath me. But, wait. There is no ground! I’m falling now, forever falling, unable to grasp anything but air. No safety net to catch me. I scream out for my mother and much to my surprise, she appears; her arms spread wide to catch her falling daughter and a soft smile spreads across her face as she wraps her arms around me. “I will always be here for you, Valencia,” her voice echo’s through the darkness, slaying the beast that lay in wait. The monsters tortured screams cascade over my ears like a flowing river. And then she’s gone, my mother is gone. Just like that, as if she had never been there at all. But the monster from before, its wailing is not of pain but of laughter. I haven’t escaped him. He’s here. Right beside me! I turn to face him. Oh, Maker, it’s really him. This man is slimmer than my brother, but his aura is gargantuan; with hair the color of sand and even though the darkness surrounds us, I can still see how vibrant his blue eyes are.
“It was you,” I whisper against the wind as my eyelids grow heavy and my lungs begin to fill with blood. “You are the Son of Atom. The Devil himself.” With that, Anders smiles eerily down at me before standing back upright. I watch him close the distance between us and the Emerald gates within minutes; walking with the air of a man too large for his own skin. I can feel the blood begin to choke me as the last of my air leaves my lungs and the darkness that is death circles above me. My vision fades and all that’s left is the stillness of memory that no one will ever be called to bare. Every moment has led up to this.