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Time and Tide Do Not Wait

by Karen Bouknight about a year ago in fiction
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Even When Running for Your Life

Time and Tide Do Not Wait
Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash

Jon Stevens hadn’t seen a living person in weeks, and he preferred it that way since just about every one of those so-called human beings had tried to kill him for either his meager belongings or for food. Not that he often carried food because it was hard to come by even when he was looking for it – but rather these two-footed beasts considered him to be a convenient source of nourishment. Small animals had become nearly non-existent, at least where people were trying to survive. Big game like deer and bear had moved deeper into wooded areas that were much harder for the hungry few to navigate. Human beings were now food for each other. No one in Jon’s neighborhood saw this coming – the power outage eleven months ago that everyone thought would last a few hours and turned out to be permanent. Now people were eating each other. “How the hell does this happen?” Jon mused to himself walking carefully among the trees along what used to be Interstate 79 North.

He stopped. There was an overpass ahead and although Jon had to negotiate several areas where he could be seen by potential attackers, this time he could smell them first. Somebody was cooking something. Or someone. He choked back the bile rising in his throat and quietly dug his binoculars out of his son’s school backpack. Even with one lens cracked he could make out a lone figure tending a small fire in the fading daylight. He didn’t like to steal, much less kill, for a chance to eat. He had gotten lucky when he came to exit 166 for Edinboro University. Although the Van Houten Dining Hall had been ransacked, Jon found two cans of Vienna sausages hidden under a toolbox tray in a janitor’s closet. He had eaten the contents of one can but saved the second one. Whatever was cooking under that overpass was more than canned mini hot dogs and it smelled surprisingly good. ____________________________________________________

Lynn realized that she had started the fire too early but hopefully no one was around to notice her tucked in beneath the overpass. She had escaped what could have been a deadly situation just by being patient and moving at night and now here she was taking a chance that someone would smell her food in the dwindling daylight. At least there was no moon, and the sun was setting quickly. “Glad it’s not raining so I can hear if --” her thought cut off suddenly. Was that someone stepping on a branch? With no cars, no airplanes, and little wind, every sound was now amplified in her senses. A shadow seemed to move. Lynn controlled her breathing and slowly stood up as if nothing were amiss. Turning her back briefly toward the sound, she reached for her knife and concealed it up her sleeve. Something was moving now. Facing the fire and slowly backing away, Lynn kept the fire between her and whatever it was – hoping that the brightness of the fire would make it harder for anyone to see her in the surrounding darkness. Crouching in the high brush, she waited to see what was hunting her. ____________________________________________________

Jon cursed at himself for making noise, but it was getting dark fast, and he was glad he didn’t knock himself out after tripping on something. He caught his balance but made a loud “crack” stepping on a dead tree root. He looked up at the figure near the fire. She – at least he thought it was a “she” – didn’t seem to hear him despite making such a ruckus. He had dropped his binoculars in the process. “Just great,” he said under his breath. Feeling around and finding them after about a minute, he looked up at the fire. The figure had vanished.

“She couldn’t have gone far,” Jon reasoned as he quietly maneuvered toward the overpass. He could hear the gentle crackling now as the fire seemed to beckon him closer. Peering around a tree he could see something like a small pot and a half empty bottle of water. More importantly, Jon didn’t see any blood or human skin laying around. It turned his stomach just thinking about what mankind was doing to itself. Mercifully, a lot of people had died early on after their medications ran out. It seemed like they were the fortunate ones. The dead were still being buried or burned back then. Now there’s roving bands of cannibals like something out of the film, “The Road.” ____________________________________________________

Lynn thought she saw someone just at the edge of the fire’s light, but she couldn’t be sure. She hated leaving that rabbit meat in the pot, especially after spying the cottontail in the Edinboro campus garden the other day. The garden was extremely overgrown to the point that it just looked like brush. But Lynn had spotted a garden marker with a picture of a carrot on it. Apparently, the rabbit had figured out the area was a garden as well. A day later, Lynn had rigged a simple trap with carrots that had overwintered. Now that rabbit plus a few surviving carrots and potatoes were in her pot. Suddenly the shadow showed itself. He was thin like we all were and wearing a backpack with dinosaurs on it. He wore a ballcap that said “Dad” on the front. Lynn watched him intently as he sat a few feet from the fire and took off his backpack. She thoroughly expected him to eat the food in the pot – but instead he was taking things out of his backpack. What was he pulling out? A weapon? She slipped off her shoes and worked her way a little further into the darkness. Then she silently stepped over the guardrail and padded gently over the pavement into the median. Crouching again in the high grass, she could see him just beyond the bridge supports. Creeping almost catlike now, Lynn moved behind one of the supports and slipped the knife into her hand. ____________________________________________________

Jon knew it was risky to not just grab that food and run into the darkness. But he figured that if she had a gun, and if she even had bullets, she would have shot at him in the bushes or at least made sure he saw she was armed. He was betting that she was watching him from just beyond his vision. He sat down near the fire and removed his son’s backpack. It was the only thing he had left from his family and now it carried all he owned, which wasn’t much. He pulled out the remaining can of Vienna sausages, two bottles of water, a dented can of Coke, and his last piece of Hubba Bubba bubble gum. He put them in a pile and stood up. Speaking to the hidden figure, Jon lifted his voice, “I could’ve taken what you left. But I’m willing to share what I have if you’re willing to share what you have. That food smells like it’s about to burn so I’m going to put more water in the pot as an act of good faith. There’s no need to lose that food to the fire when clearly we are both hungry.” ____________________________________________________

Lynn watched as Jon opened one of his water bottles and poured water into the small pot, nearly burning himself with the splattering steam. While his back was still toward her, Lynn stepped from behind the concrete support.

“Don’t turn around. Hands up. Now!” Lynn barked with her knife extended. “Empty your pockets slowly and lift up your shirt.”

“I don’t mean any harm,” replied Jon as he turned his pockets inside out and complied. “I’m headed toward Lake Erie and hopefully Canada. I’ve heard rumors that the Canadians are taking in American refugees. When I smelled your food and saw your fire, I was hopeful that you weren’t a people eater.”

Lynn moved into Jon’s line of sight with the knife still extended in his direction. She quickly peered into the pot. Then moving her eyes back on Jon, she placed the knife under the pot handle and lifted it from the fire.

“Pick up the backpack and dump it out,” said Lynn with the knife again pointed at Jon.

Jon slowly picked up the backpack and turned it over, shaking it gently. A balled up long sleeve shirt fell out along with a big, black garbage bag, a Sawyer water filter, a flint striker, and his compact binoculars. Turning toward Lynn, Jon showed his empty hands. “I’ll trade you my can of sausages and a full water bottle for half of what’s in your pot.”

“Half? You better throw in that Coke if you want half,” said Lynn. She really missed having soda. And this guy did save her food from burning. Not to mention she had heard the Canadian rumors and was headed north also. She lowered her knife and softened her stance a bit. “I’m Lynn by the way.”

“Call me Jon. And you have a deal with the Coke.” ____________________________________________________

Lynn and Jon walked and traded stories over the next couple days about what they had seen: the death, the gangs, orphans, widows, but mostly keeping away from the tribes of people that turned cannibal. As it turns out, they’d just missed crossing paths in Edinboro. They were now on the southern outskirts of Erie at the high point of the interstate looking northward to the thick blue stripe on the horizon: Lake Erie. But that wasn’t the only thing ahead on the road. Jon stopped and took out his binoculars. After looking for a moment he handed them to Lynn. “Have a look,” he said. “What do you see?”

“Trucks,” said Lynn. “And lots of guys in blue helmets.” It was clearly a checkpoint of some kind. “Do we take the risk of making contact?”

“We have no clue if they are really the UN or if they’d help. I have a better idea,” replied Jon as he signaled for her to follow.

Moving carefully off the road and scooting between brush and abandoned buildings, they stopped every 10-15 minutes to rest and observe. There were 3 main tents, at least 20 trucks of various types, and a couple dozen men that they could see. Jon and Lynn crept closer behind what smelled like the mess tent. Jon watched as a truck parked beside the tent was left idling. The driver was holding his belly and speed walking toward the porta-potty just to Lynn’s right. Lynn softly snickered as she heard the man emitting sounds of relief. With a silent count to three, the pair grabbed the portable toilet and began tipping it forward so that the door would face the ground. It was heavier than they thought, but Jon shifted his lift point to the bottom just as they heard a flurry of swearing that sounded like French mixed with English.

Wasting no time, they jumped into the truck and hit the gas. Jon expected another checkpoint, but as they weaved through town there were none. The blue hats didn’t even seem to have a security perimeter. The interstate terminated into Bayfront Parkway, but Jon didn’t slow down. They had to get to the old public dock where the Bicentennial Tower overlooked Presque Isle Bay. Screeching onto State Street, he rammed two abandoned vehicles and raced right up to the tower stairs. Ignoring the small group of people with sunken eyes and hopeless faces, Jon and Lynn flew up the steps two at a time. Was a ship coming? Breathing heavily, Jon glassed the horizon toward the channel. There was a ship! A ship with huge sails and a Canadian flag…but Jon’s joy quickly dissolved into despair. He handed the binoculars to Lynn and she saw what Jon saw: the ship on the horizon wasn’t coming to save them. It had just left for home.

fiction

About the author

Karen Bouknight

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