Please Read! I have updated the rating from T to M for language and possibly also for violence. I just felt like it needed a little more than a T rating. It's possible that I'm just being overly cautious, but better safe than sorry. Feedback is appreciated! Thanks!


FOUR

After another long night and a few more hours of travel, I finally reached the first landmark. It was a four lane highway that ran from east to west. There should have been a sign, not a literal one, but a painted marker. I looked for any trace of it among faded graffiti on the asphalt, and on the concrete remains of a median, but I couldn't find it.

Only days before I had to make my rushed escape my aunt had insisted on speaking to me about all the "what if" situations and what to do when things went wrong. The conversation made me uncomfortable at the time. I didn't want to think about continuing on my own, but here I was, on the way to a place I'd never seen, on a path that I hadn't necessarily planned for.

The problem with our destination was that it wasn't meant to be easy to find. It had been described to me as a safe house, the remains of an old farmhouse well off the beaten path. We were supposed to follow the highway west until we came to an old service station with a green awning and a very specific set of markers. From there our trek down the highway would end and the next leg of our travels would begin.

I was disappointed and frustrated, but not exactly surprised that my trail would intersect the road in the wrong place. With no road signs and no mark to confirm it, I couldn't really be sure this road was even the right one. I had started this journey off course, it looked like I hadn't corrected myself just yet.

I had arrived at the highway near an overpass. It would seem that these used to be a big deal back in the day. I could just imagine how neat the landscaping used to be all those years ago when it was operational and the overpass bove hadn't collapsed half way onto the highway.

Overgrown crepe myrtles filled the area with pink and white blossoms and even the few surviving ditch lilies still bloomed without humans to help them. The lilies showed up in bright and cheery yellows and oranges. Littered among the remains of pre-pandemic society, the flowers added a pretty touch to the otherwise eerie scene.

I took a moment to sit and rest while I considered my next move. It was risky to follow the road for too long, but if this were it and I had just missed the first marker, it could still lead me to the second. At this point what other option did I really have?

I drank some water and ate a small snack before getting up and giving the flowers one last look. If I didn't have anywhere to be I would have stopped to admire them a little longer, but I had to keep moving. I limped along, traveling westward. I kept the road within my sight, but didn't leave the cover of the trees. It was cooler under the trees anyway, and walking on the road would leave me too exposed. Large swaths of pavement prevented anything but sparse weeds from growing between the cracks.

Rusted out skeletons of what had once been vehicles were scattered along my path and I came across them periodically. Sometimes it was a single car, abandoned, but I also saw them in clumps and clusters. The latter were usually mangled and misshapen, frozen for the last seventeen years in a multiple car pile-up. I wondered where the owners were now. Nearly two decades later, could anyone know what story started or ended with one of these cars?

Had they run out of gas trying to escape a quarantine zone and then continued on foot? Maybe someone traveled all through the day into the night, and then failed to see a broken down vehicle in the dark. Did they make it out alive or did their struggles end here, on this lonesome stretch of highway?

As I traveled on, the minutes turned into hours, and the hours dragged in the motionless, stuffy air. Eventually the novelty of the ocassional flowers wore off. The short stories I made up in my head began to loop over the same tired ideas and I realized that the scenery had failed to really change for quite some time. No longer entertained, my mind wandered into the doubt trap.

So far, there had been no sign of the service station. I had been hobbling along for literal days since the river and it wasn't supposed to take this long. Did I go the wrong way? What if those at the safe house had already moved on without me? It would be just my luck that I managed to escape "home" only to get lost and wander until I died in the woods.

Although I tried to stay calm, frustration worked at my nerves which were already thoroughly frayed by the heat and the pain in my leg. I took a deep breath to quell the anxiety. Just stay the course. You'll find it. I told myself. It only sort of worked.

Near the road something glinted bright blue in the sun. It stood out among the sea of summer greens. A sign? Even if I wanted to ignore it, I couldn't. Maybe it was just the fatigue getting to me, but that intense blue light was calling my name. If this was indeed a road sign I needed to see it. I needed a clue, anything. The name of a road or the exit number would have been ideal.

Large leaves adorned the vines, which had wrapped around the metal sign like a hungry python. The years hadn't exactly been kind to the whole structure. It was bent and broken like something had hit it. One side of the sheet metal had fallen free from its post and the edge dug into the ground. At least this meant I could reach it.

I hesitated, studying the leaf patterns before reaching in to grab anything. Poison ivy was the last thing I needed to add to my bevy of problems right now. Luckily, it seemed that the vines consisted mostly of just kudzu with it's large heart shaped leaves. The thin tendrils and leafy stems didn't release easily. In the end it required a knife to cut away just enough to see what this sign was about.

In heavily damaged, reflective white letters the sign read "Exit Food." There should have been a number there, but I could barely make out the two words as they were. The number was completely illegible. Below that, the sign was embellished with colorful logos, a few I kind of recognized, but they didn't really mean anything to me now.

"Well thanks, that helps me a lot." I grumbled to no one in particular.

A constant whir echoed through the forest, It didn't exactly sound natural and it was quiet to begin with. The noise seemed to get louder by the second. I looked back over my shoulder, squinting through the heat waves that rolled up from the road and caused the scenery to dance and sway. A bright spot of reflected sunlight fluttered in the distance, distorted.

"Shit!" I cursed under my breath. I abandoned the road sign and scrambled back to the tree line, making it out of sight just as a vehicle came into focus. I hoped and prayed that they hadn't seen me, whoever they were.

An SUV rolled along the highway, its original coat of paint completely gone and replaced with a matte finish. This, too, peeled by now. I took cover in the forest, waiting for the vehicle to pass. Much to my dismay, it didn't. Instead, it slowed down and then stopped.

What are you doing? Why are you stopping?

I had a visual on them as a man swung open the driver's side door and exited. He was geared to the teeth with various pieces of worn body armor. A two way radio hung at his belt on one side, on the opposite was a holstered gun. An emblem embellished his vest, one I recognized all too well. It was from "The Gardens," as they called it. My former home.

"Hey, Duke, What the hell are you looking at?" another man asked, getting out of the car as well. He was a little smaller than the first, geared up the same way.

The one named Duke approached the road sign and that's when I finally understood my mistake. I could feel the color drain from my face and my stomach drop. How could I have been so sloppy? I hadn't cleared a large portion of the sign, but it was enough to notice.

"Do you remember seeing this road sign before?" Duke asked as he approached the mess of vines. He took hold of one, examining the cut ends. He knew it was fresh. It was obvious, after all. I may as well have just left him a note.

"No." the other man answered. "Why?"

Duke continued to survey the immediate area. "Someone was just here. Maybe part of that caravan." He crouched, studying the ground where I had been standing.

I inwardly cursed and panic gripped me. The static in my head made it hard to come up with any semblance of a plan. I couldn't really fight and I'd never outrun anyone like this. I needed to make distance before being spotted and before Duke could track me down like some kind of hound.

The ground was littered with leaves, little landmines of noise. They made it hard to stay quiet as I moved from my hiding place, further into the trees. The terrain wasn't completely even and there was a small ravine ahead. It looked like the perfect place to literally lie low and avoid being seen. I just needed to make it there.

I slipped out of sight, finding a dry creek bed at the bottom of the ravine. I couldn't believe my luck! The large rocks meant no tracks. One direction led back to the road where I could see a bridge. I scrambled down the length of the creek in the opposite direction, only stopping to hide when I was sure that I had made enough distance to throw them off. The banks of the creek were steep and trees grew with their roots winding out of the ground towards the rocks. It wasn't hard to find a crevice large enough to hide in.

Minutes seemed to creep by as I hid wedged between brush and the weathered sides of the dry creek. Voices echoed through the forest, sometimes closer, sometimes further away. Finally, when I felt like my heart couldn't take the suspense anymore, I heard vehicle doors slamming in the distance.

I peered out from my hiding place just enough to see the bridge and the SUV as it lumbered loudly across. They had given up, thank God! Relief washed over me and I sank back, flopping down on my butt to relax. Let's not do this again. I thought to myself.

I waited to let the soldiers gain distance before I slowly emerged from hiding. What now? I followed the creek back to the road and began up the embankment.

It couldn't have been a coincidence that I ran into them. I had doubted myself before, but I had to be on the right track and, unfortunately, it looked like they were too. The mention of a caravan, the location, it all made sense, but how? What information led them all the way out here? So far as I knew, Aunt Amber and I were the only ones in the Gardens that knew where to go.

The thought hit me like a punch in the gut. They didn't get it out of her, did they? I shook my head against the intrusive idea. No, she wouldn't have spoken a word, no matter what. Someone had to have sold her out. I didn't know how or who, but it didn't matter right now. Right now I had to figure out what to do next.

I took the last few steps to level ground, my thoughts still swimming in dizzying circles. Should I still hold to the course? If those men were still looking for the caravan, that meant they hadn't found them. Maybe our original rendezvous had been compromised, but if other refugees were still out there then I could still find them. There was still hope.

"Don't move." A voice commanded.

I whirled, my vision greeted with the daunting barrel of a gun. I stared, wide eyed, unsure of what to do. It was Duke, that soldier from earlier. Now that he was closer he looked even bigger and more intimidating than I thought.

"Drop the pack, and put your hands where I can see them." He ordered, motioning with the handgun for extra emphasis. "Make a wrong move and I will shoot."

I didn't doubt it. My knees felt weak and my hands shook but I removed the pack as he ordered. It dropped to the ground next to me with a thud. My thoughts reeled and my mind struggled to sort them through the sudden shock and terror.

This couldn't be happening! I wished for it to be a dream, a bad dream, like when I had seen the Vulture. I willed myself to wake up, to feel the rough earth against my back from my hiding place back in the creek bed. Surely I had just fallen asleep waiting, like I had before with my sketchbook.

Duke reached for the radio with his free hand and it chirped. I watched his expression as he took in my appearance and a smile crept its way across his face. "Levi! It worked, get your ass back here."

"You found the caravan? Fugitives?"

"Not exactly."

My jaw tightened. Duke had never left with the SUV. It was all a trick so that I'd let my guard down and mess up, and mess up, I had. I walked right into this trap and it wasn't even a good one! In that moment I felt so small and so stupid. It was all my fault.

My mind cycled it and before I knew it I was angry. The fear, the frustration, it all turned to anger and it boiled to the surface. I could feel it raise the hair on the back of my neck and tense every muscle in my body as Duke approached me.

He had clipped his radio back to his belt and he pulled a zip tie from his pocket, never lowering his gun. I kept my hands where he could see them but I hadn't raised them over my head. I held them up with my elbows down by my sides.

Duke reached for me, "Alright, turn ar-"

I didn't hesitate anymore. I let the anger drive me past fear and probably even past reason as I grabbed the gun, pushing it away from me before Duke had a chance to fire. The blast from firearm echoed through the trees and immediately sent my ears to ringing but I ignored it and threw a punch aimed at Duke's throat.

Everything happened in a split second, and he clearly hadn't expected me to fight. It might have even looked like I knew what I was doing, if only for a moment. My fist made contact, but it wasn't enough.

Duke didn't let go of the gun. Even with the unexpected assault I'd thrown at him and the fact that he was gagging, his grip didn't waver. I knew then, that I had just started a losing fight.

Despite my desperate attempt to hang on he wrenched his arm away from me, immediately swinging back with it and hitting me hard. The blow had been aimed at my face. It didn't matter that I held my arms up in a sad attempt to brace myself, the impact caused me to stumble and fall backwards.

I scrambled to create distance, only stopping when my back came into contact with a tree. Before I could get my feet under me the loud percussive sound of a gunshot rang out again. Instinctively I threw my arms up in front of me, crying out in shock and surprise as a bullet bit into the tree behind me. The bark splintered, pelting me with bits of wood.

Duke cursed at me, having finally caught his breath. He roughly grabbed me by the front of my shirt, hauling me to my feet. Before I could really make another move to fight him, he pressed the barrel of the gun firmly into my temple. "Look at me."

I didn't. I clenched my eyes shut and turned my head to the side. Truthfully I was too scared to look, he was at least twice my size and the only thing my escape attempt had done was piss him off. Duke's grip on my shirt shifted and his forearm pressed harshly into my neck, making it impossible to breathe. I pulled at his arm, trying hard to lessen the pressure on my airway, but he didn't budge.

Duke wanted to make sure I heard him, looking or not. I could feel his breath on the side of my face. "You're lucky Levi is so close. If he weren't I'd snap your fucking neck and call it an unfortunate accident. I don't care if Sarge wants you alive." He growled at me.

The ragged sound of the old vehicle approached quickly. The suspension issued squeaks and creaks with every dip and hole in the pavement. Duke let up on my neck as he heard Levi drawing closer. He pulled me roughly from the tree and I gasped for air, finally able to breathe again.

Duke ordered my hands behind my back. Even through the fear I hesitated. "Now. And turn around." He spat, holding the gun level with my chest as a reminder.

I didn't have much choice but to comply. My stomach churned and flipped with every click of the zip tie as he tightened it, maybe a little too tight. The plastic dug painfully into my wrists and my vision blurred with tears. What now?

I stumbled forward, pushed towards the road. Duke held an iron grip on my bicep, squeezing so hard that I was sure that I would have bruises from it. He had finally put away the gun and he held my pack in the other hand. He dragged me to the now parked vehicle, pinning me to the side of it.

I tried not to scream as he used a foot to kick my legs and spread them shoulder width apart. He cared nothing that he'd kicked my injury, he'd probably meant to. He quickly found and confiscated my knife. The one in my belt and the one in my boot. I was really hoping he'd miss that one.

The second soldier, Levi, got out from the driver's side. His face lit up with recognition upon seeing me. "Oh wow! Is that..."

"Yeah it's the girl from the river, she's alive." Duke answered curtly, cutting him off.

"No shit..." Levi mused. If I didn't know any better I'd think that he sounded impressed. It's not like he should have been. I had gotten caught after all.

Levi seemed to get the hint that Duke was in a bad mood. He took my pack opening the passenger side door and tossing it in. Meanwhile, Duke flung open the back door. Once I was inside he slammed it with such force that the whole car shook and I thought for a second that the window would break.

Levi started to walk back to the driver's side but Duke had already headed for it. I watched Levi open his mouth to say something, but he seemed to rethink that action. He promptly shut his mouth, brushed off whatever thought he'd had, and climbed into the passenger seat.

"Tell them we found the escapee." Duke ordered.

The back seat of the SUV looked like a cage. It felt like a cage. The inside of the cab smelled musty, maybe even moldy and threadbare seats were stained with who knew what. My wrists throbbed and my fingers felt like they would go numb, but I would get no sympathy if I complained.

A shudder from the transmission rattled the rusty old ride as Duke put the car in drive and Levi hastily followed orders. Levi picked up his radio, adjusting the frequency. Static popped up on it for only a moment.

"Levi to base camp, we're on our way back, do you copy?"

Nothing. There was no reply.

Levi frowned, toying with it some more. He put it back to his mouth and hit the button again to talk. "Levi to base camp, we're returning now, do you copy?"

Still nothing.

Levi checked the radio again but he seemed to come to the same conclusion. "I don't get it, it's on the right frequency."

"Probably still out of range." Duke grumbled in reply. He rubbed his neck, clearing his throat. "We'll try again once we're closer."

Duke guided the vehicle over bumpy unkept roads towards a small town. I didn't know how long the drive was. I just knew that this was it. I shouldn't be here, I thought, I won't come back from this.

I felt like crying, but what good would that do? Frustrated, I wiped my tears on my shoulder. I didn't need to cry, I needed to find my resolve and I needed to think! What now? What do I do now? I couldn't just accept defeat, there would be a way out of this and I would find it.

"Wow, this is really good." Levi suddenly said, sounding a little surprised.

I had been staring out the window, so zoned out that I hadn't noticed the invasion of my personal effects. In his hand, Levi held my aunt's sketchbook, my sketchbook. My blood pressure skyrocketed. I could feel the heat creep up the back of my neck and spread into my face. "Hey!" I shouted. My voice cracked, having been mostly unused for days. "Put that back!"

Duke hit the grate separating the front of the SUV hard with a closed fist. The resulting noise caused me to jump. "Shut up back there." He growled.

"Did you do these?" Levi asked incredulously, as if Duke hadn't just had an outburst. Maybe he was just used to it.

I didn't answer, only scowled and averted my gaze back to the outside. I had been told to shut up, right? I didn't want to give the cranky one a reason to lash out. He hadn't killed me yet.

Outside the scenery changed to include more buildings, or at least the remains of them. Duke held his radio to his stupid square head, pressing the button with a meaty finger. It let out a chirp and he spoke into it. "Duke to base camp, do you copy?"

When he released the button there was no reply. Complete silence. After a moment he tried again and when he recieved the same result he slammed the radio down into the center console of the SUV, clearly frustrated.

Levi had closed the sketchbook. Maybe this one had a little common decency, he seemed reluctant to flip through it much more after I had yelled at him. The book remained in his lap, but at least there he wasn't smudging his dirty fingers all over the pages. "Still no answers? There's no way we could be out of range now, we should be right on top of them."

"These radios are complete garbage, they never fuckin' work." Duke grumbled.

Movement in the sky drew my attention away from the conversation. A large black bird. There it was again, floating lazily in the air, only this time he wasn't alone. There were more.


Author's Note: Hey! Sorry for the hiatus! I struggled a little bit with this, admittedly. I updated the rating from T to M as I mentioned before the chapter. (He seemed like the type of guy to drop the F-bomb) Anyway, I'm open to feedback and I hope to hear something if you're still reading! This is the longest chapter yet and I will hopefully be drawing this to a conclusion pretty soon. Stay tuned! As always I really appreciate the reads and the feedback!