There is no rest in this darkness. I float in shadow somewhere between consciousness and restless sleep. I can feel every twist and bump on the ambulance’s path, but I cannot make sense of the journey. It could be hours or mere moments since we burned rubber from the streets of Einsam. I’ve never been out of the city, and I wish I were awake to see it. Somewhere away from the twisted, soaring monoliths freer and less suffocating. Open fields with air so clear you can see the horizon. Endless stretches of tall pines swaying to the rhythm of cool mountain breezes. Quaint houses standing proudly over fields of vibrant green crops in row upon row.
The darkness swirls abruptly. A sharp turn. We’re picking up speed. Nausea takes the place of stillness. The silence is interrupted by a high-pitched ringing steadily building in my ears. There are no picturesque farms, no stands of tall trees, no life. This is the Great Society, leaving Einsam doesn’t change that. Imagining it, even in this dream world, doesn’t make it any more real. The weight of that turns in the darkness like a vortex.
Everything is broken. The world is on fire. And she’s never coming back.
My stomach lurches as if I were being thrown from the thirty-first floor. In a rush from darkness into light, I snap out of my trance and return to the back of the ambulance.
Everything is a smear of red until my eyes compensate for the glowing white lights above. My body is in revolt. Every muscle is trembling, and I feel as if I need to expel everything I’ve ever consumed.
I try to fight it, but the waves of nausea are too intense.
“Quick Gette, get the bag!”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Georgette leans in from across the van and holds the bag open for me. Just in time.
I retch into the outstretched barf bag. My throat, nose, and eyes sting like a swarm of angry ants are burrowing their way out of my stomach. Dizzy and exhausted I collapse back onto the narrow, padded bench.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. My voice is thin, almost ethereal.
“Don’t fret. Just lay back and rest. I think you got exposed to some of the chemical agent. Thank God you were wearing your mask, but I think it got on your skin.” Cornelia’s words are matter of fact, but I can tell she’s fighting back panic. Probably not for my sake, but for Georgette’s.
“It must have soaked into the ash. I had to dive into it to avoid the bullets,” I say.
“You did nothing wrong, Evelyn. If you weren’t out there to see the ambulance, we’d probably be buried alive in the sewers.”
I turn my head and catch Cornelia’s gaze.
“She’s right Evelyn,” says Charles twisted around in the passenger seat. “What you did was very brave. You saved us. I’m glad you’re okay, and… I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to discuss that now Charles,” Cornelia says, her words scolding him into silence. He twists back around to stare into the sliver of tarmac illuminated by the headlights.
“You really are brave, Evelyn.” Georgette’s words are genuine and sweet.
I try to smile, but the effort is too great. I rest my head back against the thin foam on the bench and close my eyes.
The bouncing road and relentless speed are almost too much to bear. Every inch of my skin crawls and writhes from stinging invisible fire. I try to drift into sleep, but what I find there is more unbearable than the pain. Mother’s eyes stare, cold and unmoving, back at me from the darkness. I try to look away or blink and banish her ghostly gaze, but nothing dislodges her. With Mother branded into my mind’s eye, I focus on the creeping pain on my skin. The profound ache of bruises. The heaving of my chest, the unreachable itch of hairline cracks in my ribs. Tears well in my eyes and fall in big splashes against the cold bench. I can’t deny it any longer: I loved her. She loved me, and yet we never truly told each other. I never let her know I cared, that I’d miss her when she was gone. I took her for granted, and I threw her love away. I pitted her against Father—I even took his side—when all along she was the one that actually cared. A mistake I can never rectify. Her eyes burn a hole in my heart that no time and no new love will heal—a chasm invisible and unending.
And what now? I can’t just give up, I can’t stop and cry. I’m angry, but I can’t wallow here. I have to be strong. I have to keep going. She gave her life so that I could keep mine. I have to make her sacrifice matter, make it count for something, and I almost threw it away. I put my mask on by instinct, an instinct she gave me, and it was the only thing that kept the poison from getting into my lungs. I’d be dead, buried in the ash. Victor, Charles, Cornelia, Georgette, and Mr. Herrington would have been entombed. But how do I hold both of those truths at the same time? The masks are a weapon against the people, a tool of oppression—cell block me—but the silver trucks are real. The poison in their bellies blisters, chokes, and kills. Wear Your Mask. Always when I think I’m getting somewhere, when I think I’m free, the concrete walls close in again. Tearing down this dark highway, in the middle of the night, with no clear destination, what am I supposed to do?
A warm hand rests on my shoulder. I roll over and look up at Cornelia.
“It’s been a rough road darling, and I think you deserve to rest. I’m going to hook you up to an IV and then give you something to help you sleep. Don’t worry about us, Victor and Charles will keep us safe until you’re feeling better.”
“Yeah don’t worry Evelyn, we’ve got your back!” Georgette’s words are so sincere that it’s hard to fight against them.
I want to stay awake, alert for the dangers surely lurking just beyond the narrow swath cut by the headlights. But I can hardly keep my eyes open—my mind aches from pains physical and phantom. Maybe she’s right, I can’t fix anything now. I should rest.
Contracting my abs, I sit up. The effort feels like bending an iron girder. Cornelia smiles, then turns away. Rooting through the metal cabinets, she pulls out orange pill bottles and studies their labels. After discarding a half-dozen bottles, she finds one that fits the bill.
“This is strong, but it should let you rest.” She plops two white pills into my hand and offers me a bottle of water. The tablets are chalky and the water warm, but placebo or not, real relief rushes over me like a cleansing rain. I feel her tug my arm toward her.
“This will sting, don’t look.”
The IV needle punches through the crook of my elbow. Pain flashes and then recedes into the mellow waves of relief washing over me. Painkillers cover me in a blanket shielding me from the eyes in the darkness.
“Now lay back. It’s going to be a long journey, and we need you healthy.”
I let the tension in my muscles go, and gravity quickly pulls me back to the bench. The aching is gone. I’m weightless—my body has melted away. With my eyes fighting to stay open, I catch a glimpse of Victor in the driver’s seat. His face stern and alert—eyes fixed on the road ahead. He can handle this.
I blink my eyes open. An odor, pungent like six-month-old asparagus rotting in the back of the fridge, sears through my nostrils pulling me out of sleep.
I sit up to search for the source of the smell—the world wobbles nearly as much as my stomach. I get my first real look at the ambulance—austere, metal, and glass. Dawn is pouring through the two small windows in its rear doors. Golden light refracts through the glass in a thousand brilliant beams. Beautiful.
Georgette is curled up asleep on the opposite bench. The spot Cornelia was in last night is empty. A quick scan reveals that she and Charles are both missing. Victor is passed out. The exhaustion from driving all night is enacting its revenge—his eyes twitch, and he’s practically panting.
I turn back to the shafts of light. The sky behind them is a hazy brown, but it’s clear enough to reveal a bright and angular ball of light. For the first time in my life, I have to avert my eyes from the sun—only now realizing the real power it radiates.
I follow the beams through the glass and find the source of the smell. The largest beam illuminates Mr. Herrington. When the sewer water dried, it left the sheet stiffened around the contours of his face. Golden light pools in his gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes—a mockery of the brightness he radiated in life.
With the ambulance turned off, the air scrubbers are dormant, and the smell won’t go away until they are on again. Although it won’t really go away, it’ll just be—like everything else in this world—masked.
I can’t bring up tears—sorrow pours into the chasm and the pit grows deeper to swallow it. Soon I fear only a truly great torrent of loss will coax tears to fall. What has this world made of me?
I look up at my IV bag. It’s empty, and for the first time in a long time, I feel like myself in my own skin. I pull the needle out and wince. I wasn’t expecting to have sensation back so quickly—I guess the pills have worn off. A small trickle of blood races to the edge of my elbow. A single droplet falls before I can clamp the puncture shut.
I don’t want to wake Georgette, and with Mr. Herrington covering the floor, exit through the double doors will be difficult. The gap between the front seats is narrow, but I make it through with little effort and plop into the passenger’s seat. Through the front window, I can see a sparse forest of brown-gray trees. Most are barren, but here and there small patches of dry brown needles cling to spindly branches.
Victor is slumped over the steering wheel. He must have collapsed onto the dash not even a moment after he put the ambulance in park and turned off the engine. I don’t remember what time we left, but we must have driven for several hours, and there is no telling when the last time he slept was. When he wakes up, I’ll have to thank him for getting us out of the city in one piece.
I turn to the door and clasp the cold metal handle and begin to twist when the small yellow warning plastered above it forces me to pause. Wear Your Mask. Ensure your mask is properly sealed before exiting the vehicle. Months ago, I would have obeyed without question. Days ago, I would have scoffed. And now? Now I’m not sure. I begin to chart the many possible truths of the mask: it isolates us, it keeps us safe, it controls us, it keeps us safe. My thoughts spiral. Always, the Caretaker’s words shout themselves in defiance of my protests. Wear Your Mask. I want to fight it, deny their power over me, over everyone, but then the sores on my skin start to itch. I look down at the back of my hand. The skin is red and raw. Small blisters are beginning to push their way out. The poison is real. The danger is real.
I reach back and grab my mask. It’s been scrubbed clean. That’s one more thing to thank Cornelia for. I flip it around and stare through the eye ports. I close my eyes and give in to the routine. Press. Exhale. Empty. Tighten. Breathe.
Open again, I see the world filtered through rubber and glass. The door clicks open, and I step out onto the pine-needle-littered dirt. My feet crunch on the unfamiliar terrain nearly drowning out the faint rustling of the needles still clinging to the trees. The cool breeze cuts through my soiled jumpsuit. I rub my shivering arms and press on.
A few dozen meters ahead, there is a small clearing. Cornelia and Charles are there. Charles has his head down to his chest. His face is hidden behind a mask, but his body is limp—his arms lay motionless at his side. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other like a boat listing at anchor. Cornelia stands rigid. Her hands gesticulate at her waist in the body language equivalent of an enraged whisper. As I approach, my footfalls alert them. Their conversation dies, and they both turn toward me. Splitting the distance, we meet at the edge of the clearing.
“You look like you’re feeling much better,” says Cornelia. The hints of frustration and argument have yet to drop entirely from her lips.
“I am. Thank you. Thank you for taking care of me—and getting us out of there.”
“No thanks are necessary. We owe you and Victor a great deal,” says Charles.
The conversation fizzles. They plainly wanted, or needed, to continue what they were doing, and there is no way they are going to with me around. But there isn’t time or space for personal squabbles anymore—no matter how justified. I step past them and into the clearing. From my new vantage point, I can see the ground slope down to a large flat plane below. The road cuts the expanse in half like a black scar. On the near side of the road stands a squat fueling station with another building that looks like a diner. I take the scene in. Quivering blades of yellow grass cling to life in ash soaked soil. Swirling ash-devils twirl peacefully. A dozen chrome cars are parked in a row along the side of the diner. Their engines idling, belching smoke, to keep the wipers running in an endless battle against the ever-falling soot. Apart from the people eating in the diner, there doesn’t appear to be anyone around. The road in both directions is empty as far as the haze will let me see. We didn’t stop for the view, so why did we? Thick black rubber hoses swaying in the breeze at the pump grab my attention.
I turn back to Charles and Cornelia. They are looking anywhere but at each other, yet they’re standing shoulder to shoulder in a failed effort to make it look like nothing’s wrong. I shake it away. This used to bother me, consume me. But the world is full of so many bigger problems. These petty grievances mean little in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe I have it wrong; perhaps they mean everything, and that’s why nothing changes? I speak to break that train of thought.
“How do we get the gas?”
Charles’s glazed eyes snap to life. He steps toward me. Cornelia shadows him. Focused on the gas pumps coming into his view, he doesn’t seem to notice her.
“I have a can. I pulled it from the ambulance. I should be able to pump a few gallons before anyone notices.”
“But what happens when they do?” I say. I don’t want to think about what will happen if a Peace Officer happens to be sitting there on the other side of the glass sipping on a coffee. But without gas, we’re sitting ducks in this wasteland.
“That’s why Gette and I will go inside and get some food,” Cornelia clenches her fists. “We’ll draw their attention away from the gas pumps.”
“Absolutely not! How many times do I have to tell you no? I can’t risk that. No, no way.”
“This isn’t all about you, Charles. Gette and I are in this just as much as you are. Victor is passed out, Evelyn is still dehydrated and suffering from a concussion—and God knows what’s in that poison gas. Yes, it is the only way. If we can get the gas, everything will work out. Then we can get to Glen Fois without any more stops.”
“What if they detain you? What if they start asking questions? What if there are Peace Officers in there? No. I mean it, no! It’s too dangerous. We can make it farther on the gas we’ve got. If we use the back roads, we can make it to Bergholz—it’ll be easier to get gas there.” Charles is beginning to heave. The extra effort of arguing in his mask is taking its toll on him.
“That will push things back a day or two. A day or two we don’t have. He’s dead Charles, it’s all lost. The network is gone, the safe houses are compromised. Einsam is dead to us. It’s just us, and Glen Fois is the only place we know we can find a little peace in this storm. We have to take risks, Charles. Bernard took risks, his whole life was a risk. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Don’t bring him into this! You think I don’t know what’s going on? He was like a father to me, I loved him, and it’s all gone now. It’s all gone because of some damned kid with a badge and a gun.”
As the words leave his mouth, Charles crumbles. Falling to his knees, he begins to sob. Cornelia’s stiffness melts away. She rushes to his side, holding him in her embrace—nestling her head on his neck—she starts to whisper.
“You can’t lose us, Charles. We’re yours for now and always. We’ll always be with you. Bernard is still alive in you.”
“I can’t lose you. I can’t.”
As though the skies opened and a great torrent of rain burst from the heavens, I feel the chasm fill to bursting. Mothers eyes, tired, bloodshot, and full of tears, stare back at me. Run!
Tears blur my vision. Rage fuels my muscles. I don’t remember grabbing the gas can. One moment my hand was empty, and the next it was clenched around the metal handle threatening to break it. One muffled shout told me to stop. But I can’t stop, I can never stop. She told me to run.
Barreling down the hill, the perspective of the world closes in, and the once open plains now feel like the jaws of a hungry beast inching toward my neck.
Belches of black smoke plume from the cars idling in the parking lot obscuring the windows of the diner beyond. How many eyes are staring back on the other side of the darkness? I look away from the building and lock my focus on the pump.
I skid to a stop; I’d gained more speed than I thought. My lungs heave—the taste of copper floods my mouth. But a pulsing, boiling energy courses through my veins, keeping fatigue in check. My hands fumble with the metal cap—they jitter and fidget in rhythm with my pulsing heartbeat and the surging adrenaline carried in my veins. In my haste, the cap flings off into the soot. I drop the can and dive after it. Snatching it up, I get back up and try to decipher the instructions on the pump. Pull handle, insert nozzle, raise lever. How hard can that be?
I pull the handle on the lever. It’s heavier than I thought it would be, and the rubber hose fights me. It twists and bends as I try to position it in the can. Getting the nozzle into the opening, I flip up the lever. Gas shoots from the nozzle in a torrent. A small glass façade hides white plastic wheels spinning wildly to count the cost. I have no way of telling how full the container is. I think it must be ten liters, so I fix my eyes on the numbers. 2.3. 2.6. 3. It’s filling up quick, but I can feel eyes piercing into my back. I chance a glance over at the diner. The only movement is the stirring clouds of black smoke. I turn back to the wheels. 8.9. 9.3. 9.8.
“Hey! You’ve got to pay for that!” A voice—static and distorted—roars out over loudspeakers.
Fear darts through my spine. I rip the nozzle from the can. Gas sprays everywhere soaking instantly into the thirsty soil. I twist the metal cap on. It seats with a satisfying click.
The weight of the full tank slows my launch. Heaving it up into my arms, I secure a better grip and begin my dash back up the hill. I can’t look back. The adrenaline is still pumping, but its power to fight the building rebellion in my heart and lungs is fading. I wish I could rip this mask off and let more air in, but even now the fear of the gas keeps it firmly on my face.
Eyes fixed on the tree line at the top of the hill, I concentrate on nothing but the chase. Left, right, breath in breath out, left, right. Like fresh mountain air, the trees appear unmoving, a mirage, ever out of reach.
The weight of her final word coalesces with the strain, and together they sink their teeth into me. My right leg buckles and my knee slams to the ground. A deep resonating pain shoots out from the point of impact and rattles through my bones. I recover fast, but the pain lingers and slows every step. I grit my teeth. My mind is running wild trying to put down the myriad rebellions and conflicting messages erupting all over my body and keep me focused on the goal.
I force my momentum forward, fighting the pain, doubt, and fear that reverberates with every step. I summit the hill and break through the tree line. Charles, standing in the clearing, breaks free from Cornelia’s arms and races toward me. His massive frame moves with a feline grace and hurricane speed.
“Get Victor to start it up!” Charles says, spinning his hand in a circle over his head.
“On it!” replies Cornelia already sprinting back to the ambulance.
Charles reaches me. He takes up the canister gasping under its weight. At least it's heavy for him too.
“Just hop in. We’ll fill up somewhere safer.”
I turn my focus toward the ambulance. With the canister gone, my body is rejuvenated. My knee still aches, and my lungs still scream, but with respite so close at hand, the rest of me muffles their cries and doubles their efforts to get me there.
Cornelia pulls open the passenger door and jumps in with one liquid motion. Through the windshield, I see her grab Victor’s shoulders and shake. He jerks awake and instinctively throttles the car to life. Georgette, mask-less, pleads to know what’s going on. Though her words are too distant to make out clearly, I don’t need to hear any of them. I’m asking the same things.
I rush around to the back and throw open the double doors. Pulling myself in, I’m face-to-face with Mr. Herrington. This isn’t a dream. You’re here. Run! I shake my head to rid it of the shouting.
Charles emerges from around the corner, not a heartbeat later. I retake my place on the bench and turn to help him pull in the gas can. It takes every ounce of strength I have left to keep it from falling. I pull it next to me on the bench and secure it with a thick canvas strap hanging from the wall.
Charles jumps onto the opposite bench and slams the double doors shut. Ripping off his mask, he turns to Victor.
The ambulance lurches to life. Victor weaves us deftly through the trees, down the hill, and away from the pumps and the café.
Leaning back, I pull my mask off. The overhead filtration system is working overtime to recycle the air in the cabin and is blowing a gale of cold air from the vents in the ceiling. The fresh air feels good against my hot, sweat-drenched skin. The smell is mostly gone, but now that I know that it’s there, I can’t shake it from my nose.
Charles leans back against the wall and closes his eyes. His chest rises and falls in rapid succession. Then without warning, it stops, his eyes open, and he focuses on me.
“That was reckless! You can’t just run off and do whatever you want—you can’t play hero all the time! You have to think of all of us.”
His words pierce and sting like needles. Was I acting? Playing a role? Am I selfish? All good questions answerable some other time.
“Not now,” I say. My tone is far more humble than my words.
“Why I—” before he can finish, Georgette places her hand on his leg. She looks into his eyes and the fire in them dwindles. Crossing his arms, he leans back against the wall and pretends to sleep.
The cabin grows quiet. Only the sound of dirt crunching beneath our tires and the squeal of struts bounding over rocks in the field dares challenge the silence.
I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping to get some reprieve. Mother stares back at me in the darkness. I can’t lose you, Evelyn.
I can’t throw my eyes open fast enough. With nowhere to look that won’t make me deal with the past or confront the tension of the present, I turn up to the ceiling and the air vents desperately fighting their never-ending battle against the stench of death and the noxious smog.
Victor breaks the tension.
“Where are we headed?” his voice both confused and distressed.
“Glen Fois. And then we can all rest,” says Cornelia through a laden breath.
I keep my eyes focused on the vents and let my body sway with the bumps and curves in the road. It’s going to be a long ride to Glen Fois.