Authors: Miriam Bell
The Deepest Red
By Miriam Bell
2015 Miriam Bell
All Rights Reserved
The building looks abandoned, but I can’t be sure. I’ve been sitting in this position alert for what seems like forever, hoping I won’t run into any company. The structure, with its busted windows and creeping vines, only adds to the heavy knot in my stomach. What little of the building’s wall you can see is faded, with the words “Cochran’s” scrolled in large red font across the side.
Nice. Not creepy at all
. I reposition myself stretching my arms and back. The bones along my spine pop in protest as I wince. My muscles are sore and tight from overuse. Sweat trickles down my forehead into my eyes. I quickly sweep the moisture away and feel blisters forming on my left foot from hiking hours through the heavily wooded terrain.
I absentmindedly kick my other sleeping foot against a rotten tree trunk, feeling the sensation of tiny prickles running up and down the numbness. Leaning my weight on the leg, I try to wiggle my toes and I cringe as the points of pain flare.
Why is this my life? Why can’t my first mission be easy?
A sense of foreboding bears down heavy on me as I prepare to sneak into an abandoned gas station.
As a child my dad had told me a lot about the red zone, the areas outside the safety of our fences, including places much like this one. People flocked to the nearest gas stations when they realized their lives were only going to get worse. Families of nearby towns bought all the gas they could for generators, cars and whatever else they had requiring the special liquid to function. I imagine a shortage crisis was created within a matter of hours. Then again, everything is speculation now or comes from stories told one generation to another. There is no way for us to ever know the whole truth.
My dad would spend hours showing me pictures, from old books in our library, of a world I couldn’t even imagine otherwise. He would point to a worn page, reciting stories about what the world used to be like even though he never experienced the wonder for himself. He read and studied every book he could get his hands on, still does. It’s his job. Actually, I guess a more correct statement would be to say he lives in a library, the prison’s library.
I even saw a car work once as a little girl. The strange object made the most horrible sound. My dad stood in silence with one of the town’s leaders, Mr. Herdon, as they stared at the car’s rusty frame. A long stretch of time passed before they turned the switch and the car went silent.
My dad turned to me and said, “Millie, I wish you could’ve seen your Grandmother’s 1957 Corvette. She sure was a pistol and so was the car.” He chuckled underneath his breath at his own joke before becoming still. His dazed expression always frightened me as a child, however, the moment never lasted long.
At the time, I didn’t understand the term Corvette, but I recognized the look on his drained face. I’d observed this plenty of times before when he had started to reminisce about our lost family. Of course, he’d never even seen his mother’s Corvette. She had owned one as a teenager, a graduation gift. The only remnant of the car now is an old picture in my grandmother’s aged photo album- a smiling teenager with curly blond hair propped up against a shiny red paint job. No, dad’s birth happened right inside the prison fences, just like me. He had only known about cars from a few text books in the prison’s library. The only knowledge we had of the old world lay waiting on the library’s well used shelves and the dilapidated buildings scattered throughout the red zone.
Normally, when dad got still I thought he was thinking about the establishment of our prison town, though he was only a small child when procedures began to be enforced. It was not an easy situation for our family or others who stood within the bordering fences. Over the years I have unwillingly heard a few stories but most of the time when people of the community were talking and glimpsed me, they stopped. Only rarely do I get cornered and have to listen to someone talking about their troubles. Sadly, many of those who grew up before the world went to hell, are now resting in their graves or longing for them.
Dad’s face reflected that longing at that moment, stopping my childish giggle in my throat. His expression seemed to be a reserved pain waltzing across his eyes and causing his whole face to age before me. His skin would go pale for a moment and as fast as it would appear, the desperation would vanish, leaving only a forced smile beaming down toward me. He never cried or talked about what had happened to him but I believed if I ever asked him hard questions, he would answer. The difference between me and everyone else, I learned, is I simply didn’t want to know.
A cool breeze sweeps across my body, shaking me out of my day dream. I focus back on the creepy building standing dauntingly among the unruly vines.
. You don’t reminisce when you are staking out a deserted structure. I take a deep breath.
Must stay focused.
The words bounce around in my head forcing me to snap back to attention.
The small town I’d wandered into wasn’t much to gawk at but danger could be lurking anywhere, even here. This town, if I can remember right, is referred to as Meansville.
Love the name.
If my group leader is correct, it had been full of the elderly. This community wouldn’t have survived long when the world’s society deteriorated. There wasn’t much to the city of Meansville, one tiny city hall, a fire station, a post office, a brick church, a few homes speckling the streets and the gas station. These few structures are all that occupy the compacted city limits. I understand why it may have been forgotten or left behind.
My dad had told me more people killed themselves in the first month of the world changing than you could imagine. The fear of the unknown was too much for a country who had been pampered for too long. They all thought: The world is coming to an end, so let me just fly off the roof or shoot myself.
. I would not be visiting any of Meansville’s houses. I’m not fond of the appearance of human bones.
Adjusting my supply bag’s strap, I realize I shouldn’t even be this far out from the prison I call home, but we need supplies. My group was given an assignment to go scouting in the red zone. I’m old enough now, at eighteen, to scavenge with a partner. I can utilize a knife, well anything with a blade really, and I’m a decent shot with the bow. However, my foraging partner is an idiot.
Old Tom, who is around sixty-two years old but gives the impression of being much older, is supposed to be showing me the ropes of “helping the lazy ass scared folk at home,” his words, not mine. Tom ended up slipping on who knows what and fell a long distance down into the rocky creek we had been following for days. He is alive but has broken his leg and has injuries all over his body.
I can’t get him back home without help or medical supplies. So I left him about a mile back at the side of a creek in a small hole I dug at the top of the bank. He should be warm enough and well hidden from another person passing by, if only he would keep quiet. A fire was not a choice since the smoke could be seen at this time of day and staying listening to him say over and over it’s his turn to die just makes me annoyed.
Okay, I’m ready
. I gingerly step from the trees which have been hiding me for the last thirty or forty minutes. The escaping sun sinks further into the horizon, casting an eerie light around this already intimidating place. In this last remaining moments of day, I want to make sure I can grab what supplies I need and vanish inside the woods before anyone can notice. I remember my way back to the creek, using tricks they taught me growing up in the prison. I don’t want to die out here by myself so at the base of every other tree I positioned a pine cone standing alert and at attention. They mark my path back from where I came without being too obvious-
I scan the small open field and take in the ruins of the quaint houses that seem to haunt the earth-ruptured pavement of the old decrepit path between them. I tread carefully, vigilant of strangers. As I reach the exposed painted brick wall of the building, I push myself up against the rough surface, searching the surrounding area.
Breathe. Don’t panic. You are just going to get supplies and out you go
. I try to calm myself but my heart is louder than the ancient car all those years ago. I reach the strong vines wrapped around the front of the building and step around as close as I can without making a lot of noises. The entry to the gas station’s store is unlocked and hanging open. I glance around, checking for strangers who may be in sight as the unnatural breeze causes the dirty glass door to sway back and forth. My heart skips a beat at the sound of the aged hinges groaning. I slip inside and shut it, turning around with my knife in hand and my supply bag open.
The inside is dusty with a familiar odor- kind of like the smell of the furnace room that one lucky member is required to clean once a month for our prison community. Dry leaves gather in colorful piles as dim light shines from the cloudy covered windows. The sun’s comfort fades slowly, it's warm beams highlighting the particles swimming in the stale air. Soon I’ll need to use my scouting assigned lighter to illuminate the enclosed space but only if I don’t finish in time. I don’t want someone to see the light and come to investigate. Strangers are dangerous.
Every person that ventures out on a scout mission receives a small “care package” of sorts to use while out in the red zone. Unfortunately, they don’t give you much for first aid due to our limited supply kept in the infirmary. Since I was twelve, I’ve spent three months of the year training with our head nurse, Rebecca, learning first aid and human health so I can recognize what I’m looking for. Even with what I’ve learned throughout the years, I’m still nervous Tom won’t be able to travel back home.
My eyes sweep over the old shelves surrounding me. Others have been here, taking the majority of useful supplies but not everything. A few boxes and small cans still litter the wall shelving units as remaining trash flutters among the fallen leaves. In the faint light, I can make out a ripped and faded poster hanging beside a broken clock. Studying the design, I wonder what the symbol of a red circle with its wavy white line means. I attempt to read the letters above but I don’t recognize their meaning. So many things are lost within the red zone, even our distant culture.
In the back of the store the windows are cracked with tiny bugs lying dead on the ground below them. I have always hated the site of bugs. I kick a large dried out roach across the concrete floor and watch the insect hit the base of a metal shelf.
I continue to glance around the store, filling my bag with anything I deem might be useful, a tube of toothpaste here, jar of honey there. I guess people before me didn’t care anything for black eyed peas. I take my time searching the shelves making sure I don’t pass over anything important. Noticing a few warped blue and white boxes, I bend down to read the almost invisible print.
Inside are small rolls of textured cloth and in others different sizes of bandages. I stuff as many of them as I can into the side pockets of my supply bag.
I also notice the large counter at the entry of the store. A layer of thick dust coats the wooden top. The paint is faded with pieces chipping off its front and sides. Behind the counter, I find the rest of the needed supplies, an old first aid kit, hidden within the drawer of the clerk’s desk. I’m bent down stuffing the box in my bag when the entrance door opens.
I freeze at the creaking sound. A panic I’ve never felt before commences to invade my body. The sensation beginning as tingles at my aching feet, works its way through my weary muscles. Warmth closely follows the quiet panic. Both sensations race over my heart and thrum in my ears as the fear suffocates me. I remain frozen on the floor readying myself mentally to run for the door. I grip the knife firmly in my hand; prepared to use the sharp blade. I don’t want violence but I will lash out in order to survive. I swallow hard and think of retreating into the now dark forest.
. I listen to the echo of boots walking on the concrete floor, the crunching of dry leaves. The sound is not as menacing as it could be. The heavy taps more cautious than assaulting, pausing for a moment as if waiting for something. With a quivering jaw, I realize the stranger is concentrating on the quiet space, waiting for me to make the slightest sound. Wind whips around the exterior of the building creating a whistling noise. His steps halt.
Is he experienced with drawing others out?