Authors: Charles E. Yallowitz
Unsure if Penny will keep her word, the pair hurry to the trailer and press against it to stay out of their enemy’s sights. Ignoring the cab because it would require climbing up to the door, they inch toward the back. Cassidy moves Lloyd behind her and gets on all fours to peek around the corner, her head kept near the ground instead of where the sniper might be aiming. She is relieved to see that one of the looters managed to break the lock and open the doors before taking a bullet through the neck. Signaling for her companion to wait outside, she slips into the trailer and is disappointed to discover that the accident has scattered most of the food and water across the floor. Rummaging through the mess, she finds a few undamaged bottles of orange juice and three boxes of granola bars. Knocking on the wall, she places the supplies outside so Lloyd can take them without making himself a target.
Continuing her search through the debris, Cassidy cringes at the feel of ruined food beneath her bare feet. The only other salvageable items she can find are a small fire extinguisher, several packs of dried fruit she originally mistook for potpourri, and a box of grape-flavored chewing gum. Figuring they can be useful for trade if nothing else, Cassidy turns back to the door and freezes when she hears thundering footsteps. It takes her a second to identify the sound and notice that her previous finds are still sitting outside.
Rushing for the exit, she is knocked to the ground when one of the rhinos slams into the trailer and its horn punctures the wall. Lloyd’s voice cuts through the animal’s snorts and grunts, but Cassidy cannot understand what he is saying. Scrambling to her feet, she struggles to get out of the truck as the two beasts continue their attack. Crawling into the open, the blonde whistles for her partner who is nervously standing between the rhinos. Their horns are stuck in the trailer while Lloyd calmly pats them on the head. With a nervous laugh, the killer ducks under one of them and backs away from the aggravated beasts. Joining Cassidy, he helps her gather up the supplies and they sprint for the jeep, but the animals quickly free themselves and go back on the attack.
“What happened?” she asks as they run by their vehicle and into the trees. They hope the rhinos are unable to follow, but doubt their luck will change so suddenly. “Did you do something to them? They were ignoring us this whole time and now they’re trying to kill us. I know you did something, Tenay!”
“I may have dropped my boxers and slapped my butt at them,” Lloyd replies as he leads the way back around. He can hear a tree falling over as their snorting pursuers try to follow. “Who would have thought they’d understand that gesture? Any ideas on how to get out of this mess that I take full responsibility for? Odd that we haven’t been shot yet.”
A bullet shatters a branch above Cassidy’s head, causing her to glare at the man. “You had to say it. Run back to the trailer and maybe my new plan will work. Take these things because I’ll need both hands.”
The rhinos are on their heels as they try to get to the trailer, the tall obstacle preventing Penny from getting a clear shot. Cassidy pulls the pin on the fire extinguisher and prays it is full as she whirls around to face the two animals. With a loud hiss, the cold foam sprays from the nozzle and hits the rhinos in the face, driving them away. Slumping to the ground, the travelers watch the beasts retreat onto the distant road and disappear around the bend. The sound of a tireless wheel scraping against the ground and a car getting rolled over is the last they hear from the animals that will haunt their dreams for several nights.
“You look like a buffet had sex with a hand grenade,” Lloyd mentions with a laugh. Getting to his feet, the serial killer stares at the jeep and wonders if they can reach it. “If Penny is still out there then we’re stuck again. Though she can’t see her babies, which means she’ll have to move on soon. At least if I understand these Guardians now.”
“We left the doors open and the key is in the ignition,” Cassidy points out, wiping the smooshed pastries and mutilated gummy snacks off her skin. Unable to make any progress, the young woman resigns herself to a sticky driver’s seat and a quick stop at the first water source they can find. “Even with these things, we can dive in and take cover. At this point, I’ll drive blindly until I have to make the turn over there. Think I got the distance and timing in my head, but it’s better than dragging this on any longer.”
Penny’s loudspeaker crackles to life, but the Guardian’s voice does not follow. Instead, the sounds of a struggle and a strange gurgling hiss drifts through the air. Seeing this as their chance to escape, the pair rush toward the jeep and toss their loot into the backseat. Clambering inside and slamming the doors, a pain-filled shriek erupts from the loudspeaker before someone smashes the device. Glancing out their windows, the travelers barely see a flailing figure plummeting off the top of the distant hotel. Even though the travelers know that a sniper rifle would be useful, neither of them feel a temptation to loot Penny’s body and hideout.
“Guess it can’t get any worse after this,” Lloyd declares as the jeep starts and heads down the road.
“If you think you’re a character in a story then you know that’s a terrible thing to say.”
“I do, but I really want something else to happen.”
“Can we please get to Interstate 80 without another disaster?”
“Sure, but you’re forgetting something.”
“Shut the fuck up, Lloyd.”
Cassidy and Lloyd sit on the hood of the jeep while the two groups of armed locals carefully check the vehicle. Disarmed and guarded by a pair of machinegun carrying soldiers, the pair can only wait for an opportunity to escape. There is tension in the air as the men and women try to do their job while watching each other. One group is dressed in gold and black fatigues, which make them stand out in the forest instead of blending into the scenery. The green and dull silver uniforms of their enemies are only slightly more effective, both squads having their faces and guns painted to match their army colors. Every soldier has their last name stitched onto their jackets, the patch sealing a pocket that holds the rest of their vital information. It is obvious that most of them were regular citizens before the collapse, which gives Cassidy and Lloyd a glimmer of hope that they can get away soon.
The real danger are the squad leaders who are hanging back from their hard-working soldiers. Standing in matching poses, they keep their arms crossed and watch the prisoners for signs of trouble. The huge man with blonde hair and a sleeveless uniform of silver and green routinely adjusts his stance to copy his rival. White steroid patches are on his veiny muscles, which flex whenever he adjusts his assault rifle. Something about the giant makes him seem less of a threat than one would expect from a person of his size, but only those who have seen real battle can sense the façade. In contrast, the slightly out of shape man with a black, military-style haircut shows signs that he is a veteran. He favors his right leg, the knees trembling if he stays in the same position for too long. Not wanting to come off as dangerous, he keeps his rifle on his back and his handgun remains in its holster. A black and gold painted hand grenade is clipped to his belt and he lets his hand routinely falls to rub the explosive.
“We’re only passing through,” Cassidy finally says for what must be the tenth time in the last hour. Seeing the towering leader snort and spit at a tree, she assumes she will get the same response as her previous attempts to negotiate safe passage. “We aren’t citizens of Pennsylvania, so your war doesn’t involve us. Just let us be on our way. I can even take us north to New York, which shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
“I’m still confused on what’s going on here. Probably because the explanation happened during the break,” Lloyd admits, earning strange looks from the surrounding soldiers. Gazing at a soldier’s watch, he licks his lips at the thought of night being only four hours away. “Never mind. Can somebody just tell me again about this whole civil war? It doesn’t make any sense, especially since you guys aren’t shooting each other.”
“As a Petty Officer, I have the highest rank. So I’ll do it,” the towering man states, cracking his knuckles and taking a step closer. The squad leader backs up when he notices Cassidy is eyeing his large handgun. “Sergeant Noah can add anything that he wants, but we all know those from Pittsburgh are liars. That’s why this war is going on. Philadelphia should be the true capital of Pennsylvania. We have the best trade system, which your precious factories would be useless without. This superiority is also why my squad should get the vehicle, weapons, and new recruits.”
“For the last time, we are evenly ranked, Firestone,” Noah replies, rubbing his eyes in frustration. Having had multiple encounters with the other man, he has to remind himself that starting a shootout could damage the much needed supplies. “Philadelphia still has riots and burned down their own ports. That’s why all of the trade is over land through Long Island and New Jersey. You people are self-destructive, which is why my city should be the capital. Just look at how you’re claiming everything in an attempt to start a fight. We should be fair and split things evenly. My men and I have seen enough bloodshed today.”
“And mine are still hungry for battle,” Firestone replies like a fictional warlord. Unknown to him, all of his soldiers nervously cough and stop themselves from correcting their aggressive leader. “I will leave you the food and other items. Seeing as we got here first, the bulk of the spoils should go to us.”
“Can the spoils in question have a say in this?” Lloyd asks, raising his hand and wiggling his fingers. The serial killer hops off the hood and straightens his shirt, the green-skinned monster on the front appearing to challenge anyone who looks directly at it. “The truth of the matter is that neither of us give a fuck about your problems. Who wants a soldier that couldn’t care less about the war they’re fighting in? Better to save yourselves some grief and pain by letting us go instead of making us mad. Besides, after escaping two rhinos and a sniper while in our underwear, this part of the journey feels rather tame.”
With a visible limp, Noah walks to the jeep and sits next to Cassidy. He smiles at the young woman and signals for his men to stop rifling through the vehicle. Offering a granola bar to the prisoners, he shrugs when both refuse the food. Not wanting to seem like the bad guy, Firestone barks orders for his soldiers to take a break. Taking a handful of food off the top of the gathered pile, the muscular petty officer snaps his fingers for his men to follow his example. Watching the two squads, the travelers can see the gulf of difference in their mannerisms and skill levels. It is a bizarre contrast because the men working under the boorish Firestone appear hardened and experienced, but cowed by the presence of their leader. Those who follow Noah are meeker and most of the Pittsburgh citizens hold their guns in awkward positions unlike the more militaristic form of the Philadelphians.
“Almost be a shame to kill them,” Lloyd whispers before returning to the jeep. The sound of several guns taking aim causes the man to put his hands behind his back. “I was only looking for something to help restrain us. Not a fan of guns, so you don’t have to worry about me grabbing any of your new toys. Ah, here’s the utterly harmless objects I was looking for. Consider these two sets of handcuffs a peace offering. My companion’s mother gave them to her, so they’re family heirlooms. She prefers the more battered one if you get my meaning. Not that meaning, but that she would appreciate you using this one on her.”
“Why would we restrain either of you?” Noah asks as he takes the manacles. The smell of oil and perfume makes his sinuses ache, the pain subsiding when he takes a drink from an old canteen. “You are to join our armies. I do apologize for this being a harsh welcome to our ranks, but you have to understand our situation. Very little trade comes into Pennsylvania due to the war and rumors about our beautiful state. Thanks to travelers causing trouble and exaggerating the situation, we have a reputation for being a state full of bandits and thieves. So your supplies are desperately needed.”
“Not to mention your bodies since our cities are starting to run out of willing and able soldiers,” Firestone interjects, the man refusing to sugarcoat the truth. When he sees the threatening scowl on his rival’s face, he spits at the older man’s polished boots. “Don’t pussyfoot around the facts, Sergeant. These two should know that they’ll be fighting for one of us. If you’re so determined to split things evenly, I claim the woman and you can get the wimp who hates violence.”
“He definitely wouldn’t make a good soldier,” Cassidy claims, ignoring the belly-aching laughter from Lloyd. Holding out her hands to get cuffed, she stares into Noah’s green eyes and does her best to smile sweetly. “Except splitting us up is a mistake. My friend and I have been traveling for a while, so we’re better as a team. That means only one of you can claim us. Since you don’t want to fight, I would suggest handing us over to Firestone. Think of your men, Sergeant, and help them live to fight another day.”
“Or hand everyone knives and fight to the death over us,” Lloyd says with a grin. Snapping his teeth at a nearby soldier, he puts up a small struggle when Firestone takes the remaining handcuffs and restrains him. “The point is that splitting up our duet would make us rather useless and you want your side to get real soldiers. As far as I can tell, both side aren’t that impressive and I’d hate to decide between you. It’d be like choosing either diarrhea or the stomach flu. Two different holes, but the same level of grossness.”
Noah stares at the black-haired traveler, a look of disgust plastered on his face. Something about the traveler is familiar, but the soldier’s exhausted mind cannot put all of the pieces together. The shuffling of booted feet and shifting of guns draws his attention to the Philadelphians. Following their leader’s example, they are preparing to fight while the Pittsburghers wait for Noah to make a similar order. Being so close to the jeep and the restrained prisoners, the veteran knows a battle would be too costly. The fact that Firestone is determined to cause bloodshed makes the older man’s temper roil, but his training helps him remain clear-headed. Sliding off the hood, he calmly takes the grenade off his belt and removes the pin without releasing the safety lever. Lloyd is the only one excited to see the unexpected threat, the serial killer enjoying the smell of fear and several people wetting their pants.
“We can solve this without bloodshed, Firestone, and you know it,” Noah claims, drawing his handgun with his other hand. Showing that the safety is still on, he keeps his thumb on the switch in case his words fall on deaf ears. “The jeep, weapons, and travelers are too valuable to put in harm’s way. Now the young lady could be lying about their usefulness as a team, but it could very well be the truth. Last thing either of us wants is to come away from this with broken spoils and fewer soldiers. Split a coin in half and both sides are worthless is something my dad used to say. Not sure why, but it makes sense here.”
“If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting then that’s a long walk,” Firestone argues, waving for his people to lower their weapons. A shudder runs through his body until he tears off an old steroid patch and angrily slaps on a fresh source. “I guess we can keep them in the jeep, but one of my men will drive. It would make carrying all of the spoils easier.”
“What are you talking about?” Cassidy interrupts, her patience hanging by a thread. Getting off the hood, she frowns when she sees several fresh scratches on the blue paint. “We’re practically in the middle of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Last I heard all of the surviving towns were turned into military bases. There’s nowhere to fucking go to solve this, so stop wasting our time and let us go. As my friend said earlier, we don’t give a shit about your war and only want to continue on our way.”
Firestone lunges forward to shove the young woman against the car, stopping when he hears the click of Noah’s gun safety. “You can present your arguments to the Judge. He or she is an impartial elder who listens to all sides. They help us handle these small issues, but only if the two sides agree to visit. You realize that the closest one is in Punxsutawney, right? That Judge tends to take a bigger payment for his services than the others. I’d rather travel further south and reach the one in Hershey.”
“I vote for the first one!” Lloyd announces, stopping Noah from openly accusing his rival of choosing an easily bribed Judge. The serial killer grins while twisting over the cuffs, putting his hands in front to scratch his nose. “Better to get this over with, right? I mean, the longer you keep us hostage and not lay down the law, the more chances we’ll get to escape. Punxsutawney is the best choice.”
Cassidy chuckles while Firestone scowls and Noah nods in agreement. “You’re thinking of the fucking groundhog, aren’t you?”
“Do you honestly think I would travel to a place with the sole purpose being to kill a lying rodent who has probably been eaten by now?”
Lloyd nudges the nearest soldier with his elbow as he says, “she knows me far too well.”
Noah and Firestone stay in the jeep with the prisoners while their soldiers march alongside the slow moving transport. The ten men and women keep their weapons ready, neither trusting the other squad. The floodlights atop the vehicle are on to help them traverse the forest, the cloudy sky making the wilderness even darker. Various animals and random Wilders retreat from the bright beams, only two of the bulbs working due to the third being previously damaged by Penny. Sprawled on the hood of the jeep, a dead deer has been strapped down and marked with the black and gold of Pittsburgh. The soldier who nabbed the large buck is proudly carrying the antlers, which are awkwardly sticking out of his backpack. Those in the Philadelphia squad try to ignore the man’s arrogant grin and cocky strut, but their rumbling stomachs make the possibility of cooked venison hard to be ungrateful for.
Cassidy mutters under the gag that has been placed over her mouth to stop her complaints about the wasting of gas and battery power. She is handcuffed to the headrest of the seat in front of her, which is where Noah calmly rests with his eyes closed. Unwilling to be quiet, the young woman continues her tirade even though nobody can understand what she is saying. Several times she merely wants to let off some steam and is really angrily singing the lyrics of the last song that came out of the deceased CD player. Her muffled voice becomes one of panic when Lloyd doubles over and groans in pain, his knees pressing against his stomach. Nobody else pays attention until the serial killer releases a foul stench that fills the jeep, forcing Firestone to stop for an evacuation.
“What in the world did you do?” the towering man asks, his eyes tearing from the smell. He refuses to let Lloyd out of the jeep, keeping him inside at gunpoint. “I don’t know what kind of trick this is, but it isn’t funny. Some of us will have to keep this vehicle and we don’t want it smelling like an outhouse.”
“Sorry, but I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. Though I prefer to call it spastic colon because that sounds cooler,” Lloyd replies, moving to unleash another fart out the door. With a groan, he curls into the fetal position and collapses to the ground. “It gets really bad when I’m stressed or haven’t had much water. Hydration is always important when your innards have a habit of getting tangled. I should be fine if I can relieve the pressure. Just let me go into the woods and do my business.”