James thought he’d be smiling as the outline of Anthill came into view. The sun beat down on the pointed trails of red boulders and orange dirt, but even higher than that sat a series of raised plateaus merged together. Wide bases of rock layered atop each other until a single layer populated with manmade towers and pre-war buildings decorated the uppermost ring. A few older and newer buildings were scattered from top to bottom as well, becoming sparser towards the lower layers.
Tommy rubbed his eyes with his tiny hands as he stood up on the pickup’s seat, “Wow!”
Megan was as silent as she had been for days, but James thought he noticed a sigh of relief. Did she think I was lying about how safe it could be? Maybe she didn’t believe we’d ever make it. With a slight smirk, James took a quick detour to the northeast path. “We got something else you might like to see.”
Tommy leaned forward on the dash, scanning the rocky path which sloped gently around the town. James pointed to the eastern side of Anthill and watched Tommy’s eyes light up. From the second lowest base of the town was a small waterfall. Clean water glistened with sunlight, and palm trees along the flowing river scattered into a small lagoon.
Megan’s eyes actually seemed to focus with a glimmer of optimism, but James wouldn’t hold his breath. Home. The young mechanic realized he still wasn’t all that happy to be back. Tommy’s curiosity lightened the mood for sure, but James still felt somewhat out of place. He thought about going home, taking a shower, and telling Tsara about his insane mission.
Forgetting Tsara was gone was an instant punch in the gut. James felt the wind leave his lungs and any sense of relief with it. What’s home without her? Something else nagged at James. Shit, no lookouts. James slowed the pickup to a stop.
Megan stared at James until he glanced over. She whispered, “Now what?”
James leaned forward into the light, searching the hills for movement. “Someone should’ve been out to say ‘hi’ by now.” The young man strained to see anyone else on the hill, they were far, but he should be able to see bodies walking in the streets.
Megan leaned behind Tommy and lowered her voice even more, “Are we safe?”
“Yeah,” James didn’t even convince himself, “we’ve never lost a siege to raiders or vamps. We have our own fresh water supply, good soil for steady crops…” He stared out again.
“Is there anywhere else to go?”
James almost laughed. No.
Megan read his expression, sighed, and sat upright, “Still going in?”
James echoed, “Do you have anywhere else to go?”
Megan closed her eyes and shook her head, “Nope. Sit down Tommy.”
James grabbed the shotgun from the dash, the synthetic stock was warm from the pre-noon sun. He halfcocked the pump to make sure a shell was loaded and ready. “Are you a good driver?”
“After driving that big rig for a day, I think I can handle this rust bucket.”
“First of all, with enough time, I can make this rust bucket shine. Secondly, I think we should switch seats. I don’t want you to shoot one of my neighbors if they surprise you.”
James opened his door, “I try.” He walked around the front of the truck, watching the town once more. Still no sign of life, just a few small twisters and a few barely audible wind chimes. The hell’s going on?
Megan waited for James to close the door to start moving forward. The main road in was easy enough to make out. Off to the right of the river was a manmade ramp leading to the lowest shelf. If needed, the ramp could collapse and fold upward to prevent any entry up the two story plateau. It hadn’t been tested in a while, but James and others examined it often enough.
Ramp’s down. Maybe we should get into the habit of raising it at night or something.
The pickup’s front wheels made contact with the ramp. Megan glanced over, “Home sweet home.”
“Yep.” James nodded to Tommy on the floor with Angelica cradled, “Stay strong bud.”
The four year old returned an equally stern nod. James was sorely missing the light that had once shown in Tommy’s expressions. Since killing the other boy to save his sister, Tommy had been nearly as silent as Megan. James also noticed that he tried to hold his baby sister more often.
A lump formed in James’ throat as the pickup rolled over the top of the ramp onto the first level. The flat base had a light coating of dark soil, wrapping kilometers around the rest of Anthill. Stucco guard shacks on either side of the ramp were empty. James pushed himself out his window and peeked into the open window of the shack. He sat back down, “There’s usually someone here to offer food and water when scouts come back.”
Megan glanced out her window the shack on her side, “And now?”
“Nothing,” James palmed his forehead and ran his fingers through his wild hair, “My place is on the next level. We’ll stop there for more supplies.”
Megan let the truck silently crawl ten meters or so to a ramp that had been carved straight through the next plateau. The truck fit through the gap without issue, but the walls on either side cut off all peripheral vision for almost another two story’s height.
James was half relieved when the next level was still empty. No ambush at least. The buildings here were mostly newer. Sturdy stucco walls with wooden doors and window shutters ranged from single room shelters to a few buildings large enough to fit a family of six. On the immediate right sat a garage made of cement blocks with faded gray paint and a closed in second story with old glass windows. The back of the building faced a sheer wall of stone that stretched up the next five plateaus to the very top of Anthill.
The young mechanic pointed to the closed bay doors, “Pull up to the windows and keep an eye out.”
Megan carefully swerved the truck around to put James’ side along the garage bay on the right. James opened his door and kept his shotgun trained at the garage door, just under the nearest rectangular window. The building faced west, so James had to strain against the sunlight to see through the glass.
Everything inside looked untouched from the last moment James had left it. He looked left and right, no signs of trespassing or looting. How long have I been gone anyway? Eight, ten maybe?
James motioned Megan to move with him. He led the pickup around the corner and leaned into the open passenger window, “Go ahead and back in here. I’m gonna check out my apartment and let you know if it’s safe. If not, I’m gonna run down my stairs and jump in the bed.”
As James walked away, he heard Tommy ask, “How will we know if he jumps in bed?”
Megan nodded and began to turn the truck around and answered, “He means the bed of the pickup sweetie.”
James tried to quietly ascend the grated stairway running along the rear of the garage. His boots weren’t heavy, and the metal was sturdy so he didn’t have to try too hard. Shit. It’s a little too easy for someone to get the drop on me here.
The young man reached into his front pocket for his house key, but stopped. He grabbed the blemished doorknob and slowly turned it the whole way open. Feeling his heart beat faster, James tried to control his breathing as he opened it outward with his left hand, keeping his shotgun aimed inward at hip level.
Gentle breezes with a little sand in them, and the faint whirring of the pickup’s batteries were the only noises James could hear. The inside of his apartment was pitch black except for slivers of light coming through window shutters on the other side of the building. He slid his left foot forward to keep the door open as he grabbed the shotgun in both hands, tight to his right armpit.
With his first step inside, James leaned against the right side of the door and carefully swept his gun through the black room. Then he used the end of the barrel to flick on a light switch. A bright light in the center of the apartment illuminated most of the living room ahead. Two clean couches, one red and black flannel and a dull blue, as well as the duct taped leather recliner, looked as inviting as ever. The cement block walls with Tsara’s choice of egg shell white paint weren’t as clean as James was used to.
Some of the light also lit up most of the grease stained kitchen counter to James’ right. The dining room next to the light switch looked untouched. A few placemats that loosely matched based on color were spread around with four chairs that didn’t match in the slightest. Behind that set was a metal bookshelf full of spare mechanical parts that James often tinkered with for fun.
A familiar scent wreaked from past the kitchen. James felt his fingers tighten their grip as he took his second step in. He stayed close to the right wall as he stepped around the kitchen counter. Nothing. He stayed behind the counter as he scanned the hallway between the dining and living rooms. Three doors, all closed. Hanging right further still in the kitchen, James stepped into a shorter hallway.
The first door slowly opened to a clean, empty bathroom. James thought all that was different was Tsara’s towel, laying crumpled on the white tile floor. He felt his breathing grow heavier. The toilet seat was up, the shower’s glass door was open, with dirty footprints on the pale green floor towel.
Spinning on his heel, James felt his jaw set tightly together. He forced himself to recheck the apartment with a quick poke out the door. Slower, he went back out to see it the same. He twisted himself back towards the master bedroom door and fought the urge to kick the door in. The knob slowly turned open with minimal noise.
The door swung open to gently hang open on its own. A large body heaved and snored under the bedsheets. Refusing to carefully scan the rest of the room, James quickly glanced to either side as he all but stomped to the foot of the bed and around to the sleeping figure’s back.
James raised the shotgun and slammed the butt of the stock into the figure’s ribs. A quick shout of pain erupted with a mixture of a man’s last snore. The large man shot up, stumbling off the other side of the bed. James clicked on the lamp on the nearby nightstand and aimed for the other side of the bed.
As tall and wide as most doors, the broad man stood clutching his ribs. Strands of black and white hair covered the man’s ears with a full beard almost as long. He had dark blue eyes surrounded by deep wrinkles from a painful life.
James realized the stench was from the old man’s alcohol problem. He lowered the shotgun, “Nicolai, what the fuck’s going on?”
Tsara’s father was dressed in shittier rags than ever as he swiped a bottle of moonshine. It smelled like one of the stronger batches from Lee’s Spirits up on the next plateau. Nicolai took a swig and knelt back down to the bed. “Fuckin’ vamps! Right ‘ere on the hill!”
James almost dropped the gun as he shook his head in disbelief. “What? How? Who did we lose? No, why is everyone hiding when we have the fucking sun shining?”
Nicolai looked like he was going to cry. “There ain’t no fighters left boy. Most of us been waiting for you and the gang to return. Thank the Gods you’re back! Where’s my baby girl?”
James felt another blow to his gut. He knelt down across from the man. Nicolai had never been an impressive man, other than his size, James had never felt much obligation to impress the man, even for Tsara’s sake. The man had lost so much, but James had never empathized, until a week or so ago.
Staring at the clear bottle with alcohol inside just as clear, James realized why Tsara had been so disappointed in his own addiction. James had never made the connection. Tears immediately streamed down James’ cheeks. “Nicolai. Tsara’s gone.” He wanted to say so much more. He wanted to tell the old man Tsara had died painlessly, that she wouldn’t have wanted her father or fiancé to drink their depression away. Nothing else came out.
The two men stared at each other with quivering chins and wet eyes. Nicolai broke eye contact first as he slumped to the floor and leaned against the nightstand. He raised the bottle to his lips and immediately spat it out in a torrent before whipping the bottle into the wall.
James couldn’t understand the man’s muttering. He couldn’t hear anything else but his own sobbing and gasps of air. Reaching onto the bed, he grabbed the nearest pillow and tried to smell it. The fabric stunk of booze. James flipped it around and found what he had wanted.
Coconut shampoo with a scent of a purple cactus lily. Images of Tsara waking up beside him flooded James’ mind. He took another whiff, just trying to remember Tsara at her best. She always tried to be her best.