It was nearly mid-morning by the time that they were back on the road. The neighbouring house had been unlocked, as it turned out, and while the previous owners had removed most of the furnishings and essentials, they had left the bathroom intact. The only regret that they had was that they could not use the shower, as only enough water remained for a quick wash. Still, they felt better from their visit and buoyed by a combination of tea and cleanliness, they walked quickly toward the FOOD & FUEL sign.
The sign led them to a small rest-stop that had previously housed a gas station, a small store, and a Big Coffee outlet. As they approached cautiously, it became clear that at least some of this complex was still in use. A pickup truck was parked beside the coffee shop window and another truck was parked next to the gas pumps. The building appeared to still have electricity, and the man could make out faint outlines of people inside the store and coffee shop. Behind the building, he spotted what appeared to be a garage. In the distance, more commercial buildings and a church looked to have activity going on inside them. The rest-stop had police tape around it, as did each of the other buildings that the man could see. The woman was too frightened to play a flute – she crouched in the trees with the wagon while the man called out shakily to the people at the station.
“Hallo!” he shouted. “We don’t want any trouble! Please don’t attack! We’re just peaceful travellers! Is anyone there?”
A man with a gun steadily aimed toward him exited the pickup truck closest to them. His friendly tone did not match his gun.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Noah Mann,” the terrified young man with five firearms replied, trying to sound confident in himself. It was the first time that he had used his alias that he and the woman had almost jokingly come up with two nights previously.
Yes, staring down the Cyclops of a gun barrel, he thought to himself.
“No-AH, like the ark!”
“Oh, Noah! Are you alone?”
“There’s two of us.” He gestured for the woman to get up. She rose and stood beside him, one hand on the wagon and one poised to grab one of his guns if necessary.
“Oh, you’ve got a woman with you? What’s her name, then?”
“Eva,” she squeaked.
“Ava, like the actress or like the perfume and soap ladies? You two married?”
“Sure, now,” Noah replied casually, almost without thinking it. The woman tried not to look startled, and the man who pointed the gun at them lowered it, and Noah breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well then, Mister and Missus Mann, come in here and get yourselves a coffee. The chief of police will be by in an hour on his rounds. He can drive you across town and get you two on your way. I’m afraid you can’t stay here past tomorrow unless you apply with him. If you want to stay the night here, we can probably get you set up somewhere in town.”
“Thank-you very much,” Eva whispered, hauling the wagon into the coffee shop. It was just narrow enough to fit through the door.
“What is your name, sir?”
“Oh, of course! Name’s Joseph. I’m the deputy chief of police for the town. Every building and every citizen has yellow tape.” He indicated the police-tape armband around his shoulder, which was no longer obscured by a firearm. “Since you two don’t, you have to be accompanied at all times by people who do. Stick around here awhile, have a cup. You got money?”
“Fine if you do, fine if you don’t nowadays, I guess. Sit down and relax! I’ve got to go, but I’ll leave you here with Rachel and the crew here. They’ll take good care of you.”
Eva was grateful for another cup of tea as she browsed the rack of road maps in the store. There were several different kinds, but one that especially intrigued her was a road-atlas that had routes and maps for the entire continent. Most of the roads would be impassable, but any map was better than none.
“How much for the maps?” she asked the woman at the coffee shop counter, who she assumed was named Rachel.
“Just take whatever you like, dear,” Rachel answered kindly. “Townsfolk aren’t going travelling anywhere. You two’ll need one.”
“Rachel, please. Just where are you two headed?”
“We want to reach the West Coast,” Noah announced.
“It’s where our family is,” Eva added, hoping to alleviate the others’ shocked expressions.
“Oh, you poor dears!” Rachel shook her head. “Terrible thing nowadays, being so far from family. You two don’t have anyone close by?”
“Nope, no one.” Eva smiled to keep from bursting into tears. “It’s just the two of us.”
“Though we’d be partial to having a dog around, if one decided to follow us,” Noah joked. “Anyone got a dog they wouldn’t mind parting with?”
They all had a rueful laugh at the thought of anyone giving them a dog. Surely a dog that was worth having on the road was worth keeping in town. Eva was squeamish at the thought of having a dog to worry about. In the grand scheme of things, a dog would only be another hazard to contend with, and she was glad that no one took Noah up on his request. If he was going to pretend to be her husband, she thought to herself, he ought to start consulting with her before he made such jokes. For that matter, he ought to have consulted with her before deciding that they were married. Why had he not said that they were siblings or cousins?
The Chief of Police for the Town of Timothy Creek arrived in time to join everyone for lunch. Much more jolly than Deputy Joseph, he insisted on sitting with the newcomers and hearing all about their plans for their journey. As the Police Chief, he explained, he was the one appointed in charge of Timothy Creek and as such, he had limited connection to other Police Chiefs in neighbouring towns. Marking out each town that he was in contact with on Eva’s new road-atlas with a yellow highlighter, he also had more detailed knowledge of which roads in the area to be avoided.
“I’m afraid that you’re just going to have to go through the shield,” the Chief warned. “You’re not going to be able to get within ten klicks of a border crossing. What’s not contaminated is being fiercely protected – if you thought my deputy was at all frightening, it’s nothing compared to the border. One of my colleagues in a border town had to herd his people to the far end and watch as they set up an exclusion zone around a wall. Anyone who goes into the exclusion zone gets shot, even if they own property there.”
“What about the lakes?” Eva asked, although the question assumed that they could access a boat of some sort.
“Don’t know how much they’re patrolling them. You’d have to portage some spots, though, and I’m willing to bet a truckload of condensed milk that those places are tightly controlled.”
Condensed milk seemed to be a popular staple in Timothy Creek: Rachel served it with coffee and tea, as well as using it in a paste to put on bread. Jam and pickles were served generously, along with what appeared to be squirrel-meat. Eva had to keep from gagging as she ate her lunch and she could only feel pity for Noah, who turned green at the sight of the meat at all. She wondered how long he could keep being a vegetarian; at some point in their trek westward, they were going to have to survive on hunted meat. She was not an expert survivalist, but she did not think that there were many edible plants in winter.
“Do you have a compass?” the Chief asked, paying little attention to their eating habits.
“Of course,” Noah answered quickly. He sounded slightly insulted.
“That’ll be useful, then,” the Chief continued, ignoring Noah’s tone of voice. “You might want to stay in our territory as long as you can. I’ve marked out these yellow roads here, and each yellow town is a safe town so far. Once you get to Marksville, I have no idea where the next place is. I hear there’s a city up farther north that’s still running and that’s taking refugees, but I don’t know which one or how to get there. They might know up in Marksville.”
“A city?” Eva was intrigued.
“You might be able to contact your families if they have sufficient communication set up there, but I wouldn’t count on it. I wouldn’t even count on it being there – all I’ve got is rumours.”
Eva could tell from the expression on Noah’s face that he was determined to get to a place where he might have a chance at contacting his family. She supposed that their next mission would be to go to this mysterious city. Hopefully it was not too far out of their way.
“What exactly do you mean by safe towns?” Noah asked, brightened to the point of forgetting the meat on his plate.
“We’ve got an understanding between us all. We take care of our own people, and all townsfolk stay put or move together, and we all wear markings so that we know what town someone belongs to. That’s why everyone in Timothy Creek wears yellow tape. Next town’s got white tape, another’s got purple ribbons. Marksville has red. Anyone passing through gets yellow hard-hats so that other towns know that they’re safe people. We’ll take you back to my office after lunch and get you two some.”