James parked his rusty pickup truck at the top of the slope. Outside the windshield was a large crater of smooth rock faces, only the man-made road ahead of the truck was level enough to safely reach the bottom. The white marble plaza radiated with the bright sunlight. Sharp light bounced off of the emerald and gold rooftops of the mansion, two houses and garage as well. Even more beautiful was the sparkling water fountain in the center of it all, still running smoothly with no signs of life below.
Licking his chapped lips, James glanced to the rearview mirror. His slim face looked slightly gaunter with a soft pink hue. The mechanic looked at his skinny, sleeveless arms to see them completely burnt. He turned his head to the teenage Megan with her two children wrapped around her. They don’t look much better.
Megan picked her head off of the window and licked her lips as well. Wild brown hair dangled just over her eyes, but the dark rings underneath were still visible. Her hoarse voice was devoid of sarcasm for once, “What are you waiting for?”
It was a long way down, but James could make out the bloody stain of his fiancé at the front door of the closest house. Without a word, he put the truck in gear and coasted to the bottom. The only noise on the way down was the tires rolling on the sand coated rock.
James cocked his head as he realized Harris’ truck was missing. A corpse was sprawled out where the truck had been. Victor. Tried to save me. He looked left to the top of the crater, wondering where the sniper must’ve been shooting from. A brief glimpse of Tsara’s soft white, round face and full blue eyes crossed James’ memory. She was pissed at me… She died being pissed off at me, and wondering if Deb was better off dead.
Megan’s tired voice had a hint of concern, “We weren’t too happy the last time here either.”
James snapped out of his daze. He saw Megan staring out across the crater. “At least we know where we are.”
“I told you where we were.”
“Sorry I doubted you.”
Megan hadn’t spoken much after their encounter with raiders two days ago. James had had trouble hearing her one word directions through the canyon. He was happy to hear her string whole sentences together.
Four year old Tommy seemed drained from the experience as well. James couldn’t imagine killing anyone at that age. The boy had been the single source of entertainment since their group had split up with Deborah and Tate.
Getting this family to Anthill had been a daunting enough task for James. Starting the journey with everyone’s spirits in the gutter wasn’t helping his resolve. Hopefully Deb can catch up. I hope she saved our people. Should I have stayed?
James let the truck coast to a stop once it reached the marble plaza. Scanning the area once again, he asked, “See anything?”
Megan hoarsely whispered, “No.”
Tommy stood up on the seat and leaned against the dash. He stared more intently than his mother. “No.”
James slowly accelerated towards the fountain, “Okay.”
The truck batteries’ low pitched whirring was no louder than the whispering wind and floating strands of sand. Splashing water began to cancel out those noises. James could feel his dry throat pulsing to the sound. His dry tongue licked his chapped lips again.
Most of their water had gone to Tommy and Megan. James had offered some to Angelica, but Megan had claimed that her breast milk was enough. The teen mother unbuckled her seat belt as James put the truck in park and took out the key.
Everyone dragged themselves from the truck and pulled themselves over the edge of the water fountain. James plopped to his knees with an empty aluminum canteen in hand. He pulled it through the water, not even filling it halfway as he raised it to his mouth and took a swig.
The next gulp lingered in James’ mouth before he swallowed. He looked up at the fountain’s centerpiece. A large bowl seemed to sit just on the water’s surface. Smooth, beautifully clear water spilled out of the cracked bowl’s rim. Above it was a smaller bowl a little higher on a pedestal, in slightly worse shape than the large bowl.
Spilling into the middle bowl was a third, final bowl. Half of the top piece had been broken off completely. Some water shot out in brilliant arcs from a pedestal in the middle, while more water spill out of the cracked half of the bowl.
James didn’t know if he was just grateful for the water, or if the heat had hit his brain early, but there was an eerie comfort to the fountain. None of the bowls were in great shape, but the water rippling in and around them was perfect. He had seen the pumps and various machinery running to keep the fountain flowing, and the mechanic was surprised at how well the small tribe had done.
Gulping another swallow, James spun his back to the base of the fountain, and slid into the bowls’ shadow. Gently splashing water and the others’ careful drinking sounded like heaven to James. He spoke up, “How long was your tribe here?”
There was no answer, not that he had expected one.
James continued, “I’ve always liked fixing things. If something was broken, I just had to swap out a part for a better one. On a good day, my dad and I could make new parts. There was just something satisfying about ripping out a bad brake line and putting in a new one that appealed to me. When you didn’t have the equipment to fix something, that’s when I got upset. If a machine didn’t have the best parts, it could still run, but I wasn’t happy with it.
“People are like that I guess. Just, all the time, you know? Don’t get me wrong, I made a decent peg leg for a friend of mine a few years ago. Obviously that didn’t make him a perfect running machine, but I used to think I fixed his whole life.”
Tommy sat down beside James. He quietly asked, “He didn’t like it?”
“He liked walking again, but he couldn’t run or climb like he used to.”
“I wouldn’t like that.”
“Neither did he. Didn’t stop him though. He was a fighter, one of our town’s most respected scouts. People told him to stop going on patrols, ‘You can’t do it. You’ll lose more than a leg next time.’ Shit like that.
“That fucker kept going out in the sand and coming back for years. He wasn’t his best, but he kept doing what he had to do.”
“He sounds brave.”
“He was. Like I said, I used to think I was the one that fixed him, but people aren’t machines. They can lose something and get something new in its place, but I couldn’t fix my friend. My dad couldn’t fix my friend. We could help, but can you guess who really fixed him?”
Tommy narrowed his eyes, “Did he fix himself?”
James smiled, “You got it.”
Tommy smirked and drank from his canteen.
James caught a glance from Megan. She wasn’t smiling, but she wasn’t staring blankly either. James took another gulp and checked out the nearby garage. The last bay was big enough for a big rig, but most of the front of the bay towards the driveway had been demolished. Tate’s fucking tank most likely.
Tommy must’ve been thinking about him too, “Is Aunt Debbie and Uncle Tate coming soon?”
James glanced to Megan who just shook her head. James shrugged, “Not sure buddy. I told Tate I’d get you to Anthill, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
“When are they gonna catch up?”
“I don’t want to lie to you Tommy. I really don’t know.”
“A promise is a drop of water.”
Megan spoke up, “Don’t say that.”
James noticed Tommy slouch. Better not touch that one. He tried to keep Tommy’s energy up, “Hey, when my people were here earlier, we found some jeeps in the garage, but no keys. Did your tribe ever use them?”
Tommy nodded, “Yeah, but Uncle Tate always had the keys.”
“Do you think he has them now?”
The little boy shrugged.
Megan caught James’ glance, but just looked away.
James cleared his throat, “Megan, my people will be interested in cleaning this place out. It’d go a long way for you,” he nodded to Tommy, “if you helped, let us salvage it.”
Megan sighed and nodded towards the mansion.
James took another gulp of water before pulling himself up. “Alright, I’m gonna get the keys then.”
Tommy’s eyes lit up with a smile, “Do we all get to drive a jeep?!”
Megan barely smirked as she shook her head.
James grinned back down at the boy, “Sorry bud, I don’t think you’re quite old enough yet. I just want to take out the batteries in case someone else comes through for them. Plus I’m really tired of driving, so stretching my legs would be nice.”
Tommy jumped up, “Where are the keys mom?”
Megan switched Angelica to her off arm, “I’ll show you,” and she started walking towards the white, green and gold palace.
“Hold up,” James went to the pickup, pulled the key, and grabbed the shotgun off the seat. A quick glance in the mirror reminded James of the dried blood on his face and shirt. He closed the door and checked the shells and safety on his way to the family. He shrugged, “Just in case.”
Tommy tried to lead the group across the plaza, but James held him back by the shoulder. The boy let out an annoyed sigh, but he stayed behind with his mother. James carefully approached the wide double doors, one of which was hanging crooked, its top and middle hinges nearly busted off.
James entered first, scanning the massive lobby with its immaculate tile patterns and naturally polished emerald pillars along the walls. With the sun near its peak, enough sunlight punched through the partially fortified windows to light up the white marble between pillars.
Flicking the shotgun’s flashlight on helped James’ eyes adjust to the dark hallway on the other side of some blood soaked furniture. A few severed heads were scattered around. Not like they haven’t seen worse. The air had a soured smell of bad meat, but the group didn’t back down.
Megan’s quiet voice sliced through the silence, “Left, last door on the right.”
James stepped one boot into the dark hall, checked both ends with the flashlight, and stepped through some dried blood puddles. Stepping around them wasn’t an option. James wasn’t even sure what color the floor was supposed to be.
The bright beam of blue from the flashlight glided by the red and green blood splatters on the wall to an open door at the far end of the hall. An open skylight illuminated a small indoor pool with cracked tile steps. One severed head with long black hair floated in the middle of the water.
Tommy grabbed James’ pant leg. James put his free hand along Tommy’s face to hide the room. The skinny man struggled to steadily hold the shotgun in one arm, but he managed to push open the door Megan had directed him to.
James let the shotgun dangle to his side. A large chandelier with golden rims hung from the center of the ceiling. Shards of glass spiraled down from the largest rim to a smaller set from a lower rim, down and down until they reached a fine point. A soft yellow glow from a single orb illuminated the glass shards like prisms. Tiny rainbows bounced throughout the chandelier, into each other, and along the white walls.
Dirty sheets were rumpled on the bed, couch and other pieces of furniture long enough to sleep on. The scene below was a pig sty, but James still appreciated the lighting.
Megan walked to a nearby nightstand with an elongated mirror and white wooden shelves lined on either side. She pulled out three drawers with a key in each.
James couldn’t help himself, “Who got to sleep here?”
Megan grumbled, “The chief, who else?”
“I’m, just surprised Tate didn’t smash the chandelier for fun. Know what I mean?”
Megan stared past James to the centerpiece of light, “He’s the kind of asshole that thrives in our world, but he could still appreciate beauty.”
James glanced up one last time and followed Megan out.