(Warning: This story contains mentions of attempted suicide. If this is something you don’t wish to read about, please return to the archives here.)
Seven more freeways, he thought with a grimace. Seven more freeways until he could get out of the storm for a breath or two. Normally, this should have given him relief, even a spring in his step – a dry place in the middle of the heavy rains? May as well be heaven.
Paul shook his head to clear the water from his eyes. If the amount of Waterbacks and Watchers out were any indication, being indoors could be as risky as facing one of the Reclamation’s mutanta. The thought that being drenched outdoors with a few metres of clear view was more ideal than the safety of a roof and walls gave Paul pause; would the risks of theft or violence really outweigh the benefit of a dry spot?
The overgrown freeways he traversed had once been gardens, long after any traffic had passed through. The long stretches of road raised above the new rivers were prime spots for growing, since they remained structurally sound and allowed access to running water, as well as providing shelter underneath. Of course, once the rains turned acidic for a few years, that pipe dream was left to lie fallow. Paul stepped over the decaying wooden planters methodically, his patched rain jackets carving streams in the weed-filled soil. He knew there might still be tripwires or landmines in these narrow pathways.
Though his memories were faint, he still recalled a time the sun shone with regularity – a time when the world still had seasons beyond Less Rain and More Rain. Flowers overflowed the streets in springtime, followed by hot days with little cloud. Fat harvests would come shortly after, and then everyone would set their jaw against the coming cold – at least in his area. People could go outside without considering how far they had to walk in the driving storms just to see their neighbours, and cars were more than shelters from nature.
Nowadays, the only time the weather was worse than torrential downpour was when it decided to sleet or hail, and all he had to look forward to were occasional hours of sunlight. It felt like the earth should have flooded by now, but somehow the spongy ground kept absorbing more and more. His gaze fell upon another group of mutanta, their lumbering beasts of burden scarcely noticing the deluge.
The Waterbacks, a strange mix between a camel and a cow, were like something straight out of science fiction: creatures bred and designed to be able to use water as a fuel source in place of plants or meat. They still ate, of course, but their grooved backs resembled waterfall pools, the rain collecting in shallow dish-like shapes on their backs and sides, somehow keeping the beasts alive. He’d heard of some people capturing them for study, but the idea sounded even more difficult to accomplish than taking down one of the eerie Watchers that accompanied them. Their crude facsimiles of human faces gave them a distinct place in the uncanny valley, somewhere between an alien race and a walking doll. The Harvesters, barely distinguishable from the Watchers, were recognized as the ones carrying enough hardware to dissect or dismember a room full of people within an hour.
Paul crouched low against the freeway railing, eyes peeking over the moss-covered concrete as he strained to keep them in view. It never paid to let Reclamation patrols out of your sight – too many people went missing or were found rotting in a dugout from that kind of negligence. After many tense minutes, the group had passed by, moving under Paul’s freeway and further along the car-strewn road below, towards the greater city to the south. Its massive towering skyscrapers were nothing but toppled monuments to a world he barely remembered now, and the plants had overtaken any piece of real-estate they landed on. Urban Jungle.
His journey continued on, fraught with caution and tempered by years of traveling the same route. In a way, it was like a commute for him – he spent a few days in the destination of choice, then traveled back along the same freeways, weaving a similar path each time until he was startled by his own footprints one morning. He’d learned to cover more of his tracks since.
Four freeways later, and his mid-point stop was in sight: a decrepit but mostly-intact gas station, curtains of ivy and moss draped around the fuel bar as if to decorate the decay. It wasn’t his only safe place on this route, but it was the next in rotation, and he felt the hairs on his neck rise as he spotted movement inside the building. Paul knelt down in the muddy earth and began to creep along the median, hand clutching a rusted blade with an edge that would have shone in brighter light. “Better be a deer.” He murmured under his breath, silenced in the deafening pitch the rain rose to as it pinged off the exposed metal siding.
A figure stepped from the doorway, clad in a thick trench-coat and wearing an old-world gas mask with ski goggles. Shaved clean on his head, he looked like some strange monk, and Paul was convinced he was harmless until he saw the gun in the man’s hand. It looked like it was from his cache – Paul racked his brain to remember which ones were broken and weren’t as the man pulled back the slide and cocked the weapon.
Definitely a working one. “Shit.”
To Paul’s surprise, however, the man did not fire it at him, nor did he call him out from his hiding spot behind the gas tanks. Instead, he looked the weapon over, nodding to himself, then slowly raised it to his temple, his gaze directed skyward. Most of Paul’s instincts told him to stay quiet; in this world, a good leather trench-coat was a blessing from above, and the goggles and gas mask would be in good shape to trade if the shot was clean.
But something in him broke through the jaded lenses he’d grown accustomed to viewing the world through, and he sheathed his knife, rising from a crouch with his hands out in front of him. “Sir?” He shouted, hoping he didn’t startle the man into firing prematurely. The man’s hand trembled, then lowered, aiming the pistol in the direction of his voice. He didn’t look away from the cloudy skies.
“Don’t.” His muffled reply came, half-drowned in the kaleidoscope of drips and drops around them. “Don’t try to stop me. You know as well as I do it’s better this way.”
Paul couldn’t argue with his logic, but he tried despite himself. “Listen, sir. Do you have a name? I’m Paul.”
A long silence fell between them. The man sounded as if he were sniffing beneath the mask, then spoke something too quiet to hear. Paul prompted him again, and he finally looked down at him, his ski goggles fogging. “Terrence.”
“Alright. Good to meet you, Terrence.” Paul hadn’t moved closer to him, not wanting to escalate the situation. He vaguely recalled that this was once his job, when those were still something people had. He’d put on the voice and calm demeanour as if trying on a worn old coat and finding it still fit the same way. “Listen. You and I both know this world isn’t what it once was. Hell, you look like you’re as old as I am, so even moreso for us.” He lowered his hands slowly. “But if i’ve learned one thing, it’s that i’d rather spit in the face of this water-drenched place and die of old age than try to cheat it early.”
The words had come tumbling out so quickly he hadn’t had time to check them, and he felt a twinge of regret for his choice of words. Shouldn’t have been so harsh, he thought. But to his surprise, Terrence dropped the gun and began to sob, his hands reflexively rising to his face only to bounce off his gas mask. He sank to the wet pavement, muffled cries sounding otherworldly in the din. Paul approached slowly, then knelt next to him.
“Come on. I’ve got a cellar here we can dry off in and figure things out. You hungry? I’ve got a roast waiting for me a few freeways over.”
Terrence’s fogged goggles barely showed his eyes, but Paul could tell he was interested, or hoped he was. He took Paul’s offered hand and stood wearily, following Paul into the gas station. A section of counter was slowly pushed out of the way to reveal a maintenance hatch, and inside, a collection of heaters and towels, a worn mattress and a water cooler. Paul’s own version of sanctuary from the rain.
His trench-coat rested on a hanger, already somewhat dry in the stale warmth from the space heaters. The moment they had entered, Paul had begun to shed his clothes, and Terrence looked away, uncomfortable with the notion of being nude in such a cramped space with a strange man. Thankfully, Paul had noticed his mistake early and put up a towel over some wiring to afford them both some privacy. Only then had Terrence realized how long he’d been wearing his clothes for without removing them.
Outside, the rain masked much of his sense of smell, let alone hearing and sight, and though his gas mask had used filters in it, there wasn’t much odour getting through. But in the cramped space, surprisingly free of the dank smell most tunnels retained, he realized just how badly he stank. Once he’d removed enough clothes to cover a small family, he was amazed by the feeling of grunge and dirt he had accumulated in his travels. Gnawing at the back of his mind were thoughts too dark and uncomfortable to broach in that moment, and Paul’s voice cut in just before he fell back into them.
“Do you fancy a bath?” His voice came again quickly from behind the towel. “Not together, I mean. Just to freshen up. I know I stink to high heaven, and I can only imagine you do as well.”
Surely Paul could smell him from a mile away down here, but he nodded his assent, then spoke it as he remembered the towel divided them. “Yes.” His voice was hoarse from the earlier crying. “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
His new companion led Terrence down the long maintenance tunnel, stairs swept clean as they descended to another level. After several doors, Paul stopped at a seemingly random one, unadorned on the right wall. Within sat a large tank, presumably once filled with liquid fuel, now somewhat ragged from what appeared to be an explosion. There was evidence of pieces being filed or even cut from it, however, and the edges where one could climb inside were smooth. Paul dug around inside a box in the corner, coming up with a few bath mats and more towels. He practically had a store’s worth in these tunnels.
“Water’s in the jugs along the wall, there. It won’t be too warm, but there’s a pack of space heaters under the tank here.” Paul draped one of the more worn mats over the edge of the tank, miming how to get in. “Careful you don’t leave them on too high or too long, though. Power’s one thing, but I’ve caught a nasty burn or two when I decided I wanted a hot tub experience.” He gestured to a small led panel on the wall. “That will tell you how long you’ve got, power-wise. I ration it, so don’t worry – I’ll have enough heat for mine.”
With that, he patted Terrence on the shoulder, clearly noticing his odour, then left the room with the door slightly ajar.
Terrence stood idly for a moment, attempting to keep all that he’d been told in mind and maintain a level of sanity, mind still reeling from the last few days. Half-starved, hunted and ragged, he had finally found a part of the outer city that wasn’t densely inhabited, and he had holed up in the gas station above for what felt like days. Once he was too hungry to ignore it any longer, he’d scrounged in the building until coming across a small cache of food, clothes – and a handful of guns. Terrence had never held a gun, let alone fired one, but the weapon looked for all the world to be a ticket out of this hell.
It was at that moment Terrence had a thought that startled him as much as Paul had above in the rain. If a man such as this had been careful enough, Clever enough, to maintain one safehouse like this, would he have more? Would he have traps to keep them secure? There were more than half a dozen guns in that cache – how many others might he have? If Terrence hadn’t been so exhausted, he might have felt trapped or in danger. As it was, if Paul had wanted to kill him, he’d had more chances than even Terrence’s earlier pursuers.
Methodically, he stripped the rest of his underclothing, hanging them over a set of wires that looked to be for such a purpose, then began hauling the open water jugs from the wall to the tank. His smell was even worse by the time he had filled it to his satisfaction, and he didn’t wait for the heaters to do their work before immersing himself in the cold water. Several thoughts filled his head at once as he let himself sink in but he drove them off, angry that he was beset by such pain even in such a haven as a bath.
The water was warm and filthy by the time he was finished, a bar of soap providing him a sense of cleanliness that he had thought a luxury of a bygone age. He wrapped the towel around himself and trotted back up the stairs, barely remembering his wet clothes in the room. Paul gave him a knowing grin and nodded, putting down his worn book and spectacles and headed back the way Terrence had come, whistling a tune to himself. By the time he returned, Terrence was already asleep on the mattress.
They had washed and dried their clothes as well as they could, and headed back into the world above, the rain thinning out during their stay. Paul was careful to conceal any trace of their presence, even muddying up footprints and throwing dirt on some clean spots. The cache secure, they set out away from the city, skirting most of the taller buildings and keeping to the industrial side of town. It felt odd having someone with him again.
Of course he’d had companions and groups with him before this – travelers, refugees, even a few of the newer religions had tasked him to escort their acolytes to a new sanctum. But after nearly a decade and a half, Terrence was the first person Paul had follow him through the dense industrial parks, and the thought that he might be noticed simply because of his new friend was terrifying. He tried to shake it off by engaging in light conversation, sporadic and whispered as they traversed rooftops and catwalks.
By the time they had reached his final stop, Paul knew enough about Terrence to write a short autobiography. The man had practically poured his whole life out for him – a feat most people would find difficult, if not impossible to do with a stranger in the city. He might have been a skin-seller, or something worse altogether; for that matter, Paul could well have been the same. They had decided to leave the thought alone for now, and let their trust do the talking.
The aged manufacturing plant had once made products for most construction businesses in the city, but Paul barely remembered their name, let alone what they produced here. For the last twenty years, it had simply been a home away from home. He led Terrence through a gap in the chainlink fence and around a few spots he said were trapped. The last thing he needed was to get blown up or have to pry open a bear trap because nobody else knew his defensive layout.
Once inside the cavernous building, Paul guided them through a maze of wires and traps with laser-like precision, even grabbing Terrence’s leg to keep it from pulling a length of fishing wire connected to a nasty homemade rifle. The man’s face looked like he were being shown his new prison cell, but Paul reassured him that once he got inside, his tune would change.
And so it did. The rest of the evening was spent within a small storage area, hidden from above, supping on roasted pork and a variety of garden vegetables that Paul had taken for granted in the last few years; watching Terrence eat nearly his own weight in food gave him a new perspective on his food-laden safehouse. He put on a record, mostly intact from the pervasive water above, and the soft classical notes resounded in the soundproofed chamber.
Though the man looked for all the world to be struggling with his own demons, Paul knew he could count on Terrence for the time being, and Terrence seemed to share his feelings on that. It had been too long since either had known someone they could call friend.