Read Part 1: The Safehouse
Read Part 2: Temptation
The box was small and inconspicuous, tucked away in the back of the cave.
It shouldn't have been suspicious at all, just a box wrapped in brown paper. In the Before Times, thousands just like it would have been delivered every day. Here and now... was it a trap, like those we had already encountered? A warning or some kind of help, left by another who had made their way through the Wastes, or perhaps not made it, but wished better fortune on other travellers?
After all that we had been through in just the day we had spent crossing the Wastes, no one was taking chances.
Our little travelling company clustered near the entrance of our shelter, ready to bolt, as my father picked up a spar of rock, and prodded at the box from what we all hoped was a safe distance. No one wanted a repeat of the Chocolate Cake. Or the First Aid pack.
It took longer than anticipated, and no shortage of colourful language. Part of me worried at the loss of daylight, but it would be worse to leave the mysterious parcel behind us. We would forever wonder what was inside, and that would weigh on us more heavily than a lost day.
Trying to open something from a distance with the equivalent of a long stick is harder than it looks, and there was more than one instance my father jumping back at the sound of a sudden tear. No one mocked him for it, not here. Finally, the box was unwrapped, and we gathered close.
Father, my friend and I were nearest, as finders and opener. Everyone else jostled for position, both eager to know what the package contained, but fearful to get too close.
First, the message, scrawled in a messy hand across the brown paper: “For those who follow after...”
Underneath, a plain cardboard box, the flaps folded closed for absenc of a proper seal. There was a swift advance to the rear as I reached to open it, which I ignored. We couldn’t stop now!
Nothing exploded, for which I was grateful. Nor did I burst into flame, or get sprayed by some unfortunate substance. So far as I could tell, there wasn’t even any poisoned gas to ruin my day.
What there was, lying innocently folded at the bottom of the box, was a sheaf of papers.
Our travelling company inched closer again as I lifted them out, laying them on the bare rock floor. The light that made it this far into the cave was dim, and I squinted to make them out. “Oh. Oh, my goodness.”
I’m sure there were stronger words more suited to the occasion, but I’d found that the kind of language tolerated and even expected in adults tended to be frowned upon when voiced by a younger crowd. My friend, whose name I should have asked by now, peered over my shoulder. “What is it?”
I pointed to the first page. “A map, I think, though I’ll be buggered if I can read it.”
A map through the Wastes would be more valuable than gold or water, I knew. No-one felt the need to say so out loud. I picked up the next few sheets. “This looks like a letter, or at least information of some kind, and I want a word with whoever taught them to write.”
There was a soft ripple of laughter from behind me, mostly from the older crowd. It may also have been the first time they agreed on anything since we began our journey across the Wastes. My mother held out her hand. “I was a nurse. If I can read a doctors notes on a chart; then I can read anything.”
Another man stepped forward, “I was a teacher. If I can’t read it, no-one can.”
Another round of sniggering. I exchanged baffled looks with the other children, shrugging it off as something incomprehensible and adult. My friend waved a hand. “Want to get a start on food while they translate?”
It was something to do, and it didn’t look like we were leaving in a hurry. “Sure. I’m Leslie, if it matters at all.”
He hesitated, and with good reason. Sometimes a name was all that a person had, and entrusting it to another was no small thing. “I’m Adrien.”
Say tuned next week for part 4: Glitter...