He was on the Oregon Trail. He was on Zane’s Trace. He was on the Victory Highway, the National Road. It was once the Mingo Path, cut by Indians. It was the soldier’s road blazed by George Washington, General Braddock, Colonel Zane, and signed into life by Thomas Jefferson. US Route 40. Once going from Atlantic City to San Francisco. The true Mother Road.
Jacob had read all about it. He’d grown up with the books in Parker’s library, but it was the history of his private little world that most fascinated him. Western Maryland, and US 40. Until The Fall, his tenth birthday, he was a city boy. Now there was nothing but the farming settlement outside Finzel, the ghost town of Finzel itself, the cold and humid woods creeping through the low mountains, and the National Road. Still a road – still stretching into the hills, leading east and west. The Interstate was a graveyard. Good for foot traffic once upon a time, and now good for nothing. But old 40 could still take cars. Ten years since technology died, so it wasn’t a nice trip. Not like when he was a kid. Between the pock-marked apocalyptic road and the cantankerous Land Rover, he was starting to wonder if he’d lose his teeth before they made the train tracks.
He liked to think about all the people who had used the natural path through the mountains – how many generations had passed through the Cumberland Gap on a journey west? The old roadbed itself was steeped in history. It had seen the slap of tires since the 1920’s. It had grown, divided, shifted slightly, cut back on itself in some places and straightened out in others, and been bypassed. The river of America, meandering in old age through the worn valleys. The river of commerce… Go West, Young Man! Or sit still in Finzel and fade away.
Parker put a great weight on him. Eyes and ears. But even he saw what the train meant. Parker came all the way up here because she wanted to fade away. Remove herself from the world that rose from the ashes of the end times. That’s not why her people followed her, though. They were running from something, Parker was running to something. That was clear even to a child, ten years ago. Parker had found her goal, but everyone else wanted their world back. Jacob, himself, wanted to see cars on US 40 again. He wanted to follow 40 all the way to the west coast. Gates said it was impossible. He said 40 was consumed by interstates along the way, bopping and twisting around them like some long parasite.
Gates talked about how 40 came to a crumbling end just outside St. Clairesville, Ohio. You had to get on I-70 if you wanted to follow it, picking up the old roadbed miles later. He said it did this throughout. The old road wasn’t, truly, coast to coast anymore. It was a shell, a ghost, a memory.
But Jacob could feel the draw. Even now, driving east on a road that would destroy a normal car, he felt the nagging, gnawing pull… Go west. Or east, even. Sea to shining sea… a world out there. Probably full of survivors… People who could come together and use the old roads. Or the old rails… He’d been under Parker’s wing, and under the shadow of an old mountain, for the parts of his life that counted… Yet he knew that the future must be about rebuilding, not hiding.
McGavin drove. Gates sat in the passenger seat with his lunatic rifle stuck out the window, cold air roiling in and clutching at all of them. Gates liked his guns… But there was no real use for the big bad artillery anymore. Still, Gates and McGavin hoarded ammo, and made their own. Parker let them slide because they always shared their hoard. That seemed to be the Great Compromise from ten years ago. Parker let them live by their own rules as long as they shared the wealth. Though there must have been something else. They were sitting on a fortress back in DC, and now they had thrown in with a commune that was, collectively, afraid of them. What hold did Parker have over them? Or maybe it just made sense to leave the city. That’s why people followed Parker. The dream of the woods. No bodies, no raiders, no disease. No need to have a fortress and live in fear. Though that’s exactly what Parker had created. Her fortress without walls. Why had they remained hidden when it had been years since human contact? What kind of leader didn’t try to gather other survivors, to strengthen her position? Had Parker simply condemned them to some sad rural death? Broken bones…fevers.
Jacob’s mind drifted to his gran. Diabetes. Of course, they all died out fast. They were gone in a matter of months. That whole ritual fading into legend… The insulin, the shots. How many diabetics survived the Fall? What was that like? To live through hell with a death sentence hanging over your head? All the people who needed doctors to live… How many people choked to death in their apartments after the Fall? Maybe that’s why Gates and McGavin gave up their fortress… When Jacob thought of DC, he shivered. How many corpses hiding behind all those windows? How much suffering in the final days of the dead city? How many people stuck underground in the subway? All those Metro tunnels were probably filled with water now… An average of 100 commuters per car, dead and underwater. Like a lost submarine. How many people died at their desks?
“Do you think people still live in DC?”
“Yes,” Gates answered immediately. “I think people are everywhere, and they’re all like us. Hiding in the trees like scared monkeys.”
“How do we know if they’re good or if they’re bad?” Jacob asked, thinking now about their destination.
“We’ll be able to tell from the blood spatter patterns after they blow our heads off from 500 yards.”
Time to stop talking to Gates. Hint taken. Jacob looked back out the window down at the shattered pavement of US 40. McGavin swerved wildly around a pothole, cursed under his breath, then got back to running down the center of the road. They dipped and swayed, the forest eating away at the road, creating tunnels of branches. Jacob focused ahead, and noticed something not quite right.
“Has the road been cleared?”
“That’s us.” Gates said.
“Kind of points people right to us, doesn’t it?”
“What if raiders came up 40?”
“They’d find us and kill us and rape our corpses and eat our brains.”
Jacob muttered an apology, suddenly self-conscious.
Walter Murray put a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t let them fuck with you kid.”
Murray grinned, then closed his eyes and pressed uncomfortably back into his seat.
There was no way to go over 25 on the decaying road. Frostburg seemed far away, and Jacob wasn’t looking forward to cruising through the dead town anyway.
“Do you think there are people still alive in Frostburg?” he asked the car.
“If there are, they’re very, very quiet.” Gates put on his Elmer Fudd voice.
“We’re bypassing.” McGavin said tersely, his eyes wide and focused on the road. “Jockeying onto 68. Main street Frostburg looks like a bomb went off.”
They had bypassed when they all first journeyed to Finzel, too. Camping out in the Days Inn lot but never going down towards the town of Frostburg itself. Jacob lived a few miles from a town – dead or not – and had never been there. Of course, that meant little these days. Why go to the towns? Anything useful that had been in Frostburg had been consumed by Parker’s people, or passing raiders. Or time.
The exit onto 68 was a water-logged meadow, but McGavin followed ruts and joined the once mighty interstate. Traffic was thin through this section, and, again, Jacob saw how clumsy Gates and McGavin had been about clearing the road. Cars were pushed aside to clear a path to the meadow, and the cleared section of 40. Though they were now pretty much overgrown and reclaimed by the forest, Jacob wondered how it was possible for anyone to miss this wide avenue leading right to Finzel. Were they truly the only survivors left?
Then he realized that the threat was long over. Gates and McGavin had spent a decade ranging over the land. They knew more about the outside world than any of Parker’s people. How it must be for them to not see signs of other survivors all these years. What must be going through their confident minds now that they were confronted by new signs of life? Jacob craned his neck to see their faces, but they were both intently watching the road. They were all routine. McGavin looking for potholes and obstructions, Gates looking for trouble.
The interstate rose, spreading broad, and then turning towards the main Frostburg exit. Braddock Road, nearly blocked by two trucks. The same two trucks were there ten years ago, and Parker’s people drove around them and mounted the long rise up a bald hill towards the island of convenience just outside of town. Burger King, BP, and the Days Inn parking lot where Parker’s people had rested after the horrific journey through Cumberland. McGavin now pulled into that same parking lot, shifted the Land Rover into neutral, and sat with his head cocked towards the dashboard.
“Should we be getting out and running?” Murray asked, opening one eye.
McGavin turned off the engine. “Hot,” he muttered.
Gates turned and looked at Murray, “She gets hot. We let her cool down. Sit tight, cowboy.”
“Fuck,” Murray whistled. “Haven’t thought about this place in a decade. This fucking parking lot.”
“Stayed here in 2004,” Gates said. “ground floor room. I had a fight with the wife, so I drove all the fucking way up here, bought a trunk full of cheap beer, checked in. It was snowing like a bitch and they didn’t have fridges in the rooms or any of that shit, so I just dumped the beer outside the window, settled down with HBO, and had myself a booze up. It was great. Open the window to winter, grab a freezing beer from the snow drift, drink it down. I think I fell in love with that room. Those stupid hotel easy chairs that are harder than wood slats, the ubiquitous table with the light hanging over it. Drifting silently to one of the two beds each night, full of snow-cold beer.” He turned to stare out the window towards the hotel, sitting ominously against the grey dawn sky. “That lonely bathroom with the harsh lights. Telling the maid to fuck off. Slinking out at night for a burger. I always liked being alone. I liked the anonymity of the hotel room. Since I was a kid, I mean. Always. That whole life’s nameless passenger thing. Is that a poem? Something. Passing through these places where nobody knew you, nobody remembered you, nobody cared about you. Lose yourself in your little cell. Overpriced can of coke over ice in a plastic cup, flipping through the channels, lying on a comforter on a bed that’s seen a thousand stories.”
“Please, God,” Murray said, “tell me we can start the car now.
McGavin smirked, then turned the engine over smoothly. Jacob turned to watch the black smoke cough out of the exhaust. God knows what Gates and McGavin were using as fuel.