An eerie silence hung in the thick air of the fog-blanketed forest. Charlie shifted his weight from one foot to the other, keeping an eye on his surroundings. A breeze softly rustled nearby pine needles. No sign of movement anywhere. He adjusted the strap of his backpack and rubbed the fresh bruise on his shoulder.
A twig snapped close by on his left. Charlie leveled his rifle and aimed in the direction of the sound. Come on Uncle, where are you? A shrill caw sounded from his right, sending a shiver down his spine. A large black raven dove from a high branch and flew by inches above his head. Charlie ducked just in time for the bird, then felt cold metal against the back of his head.
“Pang, you’re dead, boy,” a voice behind him declared. “Always use all of your instincts, not just your ears.”
“Sooths, Uncle John!” Charlie replied indignantly, ” That gave me a heart attack!”
“The Outlands are an unforgiving place, nobody gets a second chance. Especially not a Seeker.” John holstered this pistol. “There’s a trail down that way, it should lead us to an interesting site. And look what I found back there.” He held up a bunch of roots.
“Are those turmeric roots?” Charlie excitedly took a look at the bundle.
Uncle nodded, “Here, keep them safe for your grandmother. She’s running short on those.”
They set off on the trail, carefully making their way through the dense forest and down treacherous slopes. By now, Charlie was familiar with the hazards of the forests, and the heavy rainfall of the last week had created traps of mudslides and slippery stones everywhere. A few fallen trees blocked their way for a spell, but nothing he and John couldn’t climb over.
There was a kind of liberating peace about the Outlands. Far away from the worries of the home camp, having adventures with Uncle John. Charlie always felt a sense of freedom out here. The fields and plains had something serene about them, the forests promised a feeling of security. That is if they were not shrouded in thick fog. Mist and fog always made a place creepy, Charlie found as he rubbed his shoulder again. He should get Reggie out of the camp one day and show her the beauty of this place.
After an hour of firmly hiking through thick bramble bushes and verdant tall grasses, the fog started to clear up. In the distance, the trail led downhill to a less dense part of the forest. Charlie felt the bramble thorns gripping at his clothes as he crossed a bush full of blackberries. Luckily, the new patchwork on his trousers held up. He could already hear Uncle Matt’s lectures in the back of his mind: We’ve got to be more careful with what little we’ve got, Charles.
As the two of them neared the foot of the hill, a clearing appeared. The trees made way for large slabs of what looked like flat rocks. They were unnaturally smooth despite being full of cracks where weeds came through. The rocks formed a broad line in the clearing, stretching left and right all the way to the horizon.
Charlie approached the rock formation hesitantly. Something was off about these rocks. This clearing would make a great ambushing spot, now he thought about it. He cautiously walked onto the rock formation, keeping his eyes on the tree lines. He crouched down and ran his fingers over the surface. There were faint white lines running intermittently along the length of the formation.
“Looks like we found a highway,” John replied. “I’m betting this is the old A301. Maybe there is still a road sign somewhere.”
The construction reached as far as the eye could see in either direction. Far off in the distance, Charlie could see a herd of deers crossing the open clearing to the other side of the forest. He betted the road was broad enough to fit four of Helena’s scraper cars side by side.
“It’s massive,” Charlie said in awe, “why would anyone need that much space for a road?”
Uncle John raised an eyebrow at the question but didn’t say anything.
Charlie grabbed the tablet strapped to the side of his backpack and turned it on. A partial map appeared on the screen. Camp Grove was detailed in color, as were common sites around their home, but the rest was black. He recorded their current GPS location – using one of the few pre-Winter satellite systems still accessible he learned – and updated the map with the start of a road. Grandmother Sarah said they used to have the entire world mapped in detail. Charlie couldn’t imagine how much time that must have taken the Seekers of her era. He tucked the tablet away again.
“See the water trickling downhill in the direction of that herd of deer?” Uncle John pointed to a small trickle on the side of the road, “A true Seeker learns to read the Elements. No amount of maps or old tech can compare to that.”
With a smile, Uncle started hiking down the road. Charlie followed as they stuck to the side of the road and near the trickle and treeline. The highway didn’t meander, it cut a straight line through the forest, only rising and falling with the hills. This road must definitely be from before the Great Winter, Charlie figured. Who else in their right mind would put in the effort to construct something like this?
A low rumble sounded in the distance, Charlie could see the dark clouds gathering far ahead. They were now about an hour away from Camp Grove. Charlie rubbed his shoulder, then paused in the middle of the road. From this clearing, you could just see the tip of the Grove observatory above the treetops in the distance, now the fog cleared up.
“Want to talk about it?” Uncle John startled him.
“Talk about what?” Charlie asked, confused.
“Your father,” John said softly.
Charlie remained silent, looking away in shame. How could he explain? Ever since… Father was just a different man nowadays. The man still provided for the camp, Reggie and himself. It was just… He couldn’t think about it, not now. A bead of sweat trickled down his neck.
John gently moved the backpack strap aside and looked at his shoulder.
“It’s nothing, Uncle.” Charlie turned away and readjusted his backpack.
“Know that I’m here for you when you’re ready.”
With that, Uncle John dropped the matter and continued down the road. Charlie was grateful for the silence, it gave him time to clear his head again. This was his burden, there was nothing Uncle John could do for him. Just thinking about it all made him tense up again.
Finally, the treelines gave way to open plains. Tall grasses a man high rose left and right of the road. An earthly smell permeated the still-humid air. Out in the open, Charlie could feel the warmth of the morning sun coming through. The grass right of him rustled softly as the small head of a ferret poked through, probably looking for food.
It’s amazing to think that they were the first humans to walk here in years. Sure, nature reclaimed what it could, given the time, but the scars of humanity were still visible. Charlie tried to imagine what life could have been like back then. He knew the stories from Grandmother Sarah of big cities full of people, cars, and such. He tried to imagine this road pre-Winter, busy with people trying to get… somewhere? It seemed like such a waste to him.
Up ahead, Uncle John found what looked like a piece of metal, lying on the ground. Nice, perhaps Uncle Matt could use that back home. Charlie hurried over. The metal was painted blue and depicted a vaguely familiar shape in white lines. Didn’t Helena have something that looked like this in her garage back at Camp Grove?
“There must be a gas station over there,” Uncle John explained. He pointed to a sideroad hidden beneath the tall grass, “That must be the exit. Could be a good place for scraping, let’s mark it for Helena and check it out.”
Charlie marked another location recording on his tablet, then hurried along the clearing Uncle John was creating through the grasses. A lone fox carrying an unfortunate ferret scurried away, annoyed at the sudden intrusion of its habitat. The sideroad was more treacherous, full of holes filled with murky, stale-smelling water.
Charlie froze as he heard a dry, cracking noise from under his boot. He looked down and found the half-rotten fur of what looked like a bison. Only, something was off… weren’t bisons supposed to be bigger? He crouched down and used a twig to lift the fur. With a loud gasp, Charlie dropped the twig and stood up in horror. He stared in disbelief at the distinctly human skeleton, a child’s by the look of it.
Uncle John hurried over, “Are you hurt, Charlie? Oh… oh dear.” He halted with a hand raised to his mouth. ”Who was this unfortunate child?” John crouched down and carefully lifted fur, inspecting the bones without disturbing them.
“Another soul claimed by the Winter,” he shook his head. “Look at the way its skeleton is oriented, they were going away from the gas station. As if they were looking for something out here, or fleeing away from something.”
John scratched away with a twig at the gravel around the bones. Underneath the finger bones was a small locket, the silver largely tarnished and turned black. To the side was a rusted keyring. John pocked the keys, then respectfully placed the fur back over the skeleton. He took Charlie’s left hand and motioned him to squat next to him.
“Dear child,” Uncle John spoke in a solemn voice, “we do not know your name or your tragedy. But we hope your soul found its way to the Summerland to rest and heal again. May you find comfort in the Goddess’ arms. And may she guide you on your way to rejoin us on this restoring, verdant earth.”
Uncle paused, letting a moment of silence carry on. The Elements echoed in reply as the wind rustled through the tall grasses. Charlie tried to imagine being desperate enough to go out in a dead-cold blizzard like this child must have done. He’d heard of the hardships of the Great Winter, the stories told by others back at the camp, but failed to find anything that could compare. The low rumble of the dark clouds sounded a lot closer now.
“Come,” Uncle said, “I can already see the gas station up ahead.”
The dense grass made way for a large open area as the road widened here. Stale pools of water and patches of weeds rose through the cracks in the road. A deer was eating the leaves of a young tree growing through the roof of an abandoned, rusty car. Up ahead, the large gas station came into view, its outdoor canopy sheltering numerous corroded gas pumps and chargers. The station’s many windows and large doors were barricaded with wooden planks. A tattered, faded flag dangled under the canopy.
In silence, Charlie approached the canopy, holding his breath. This place was from another era. Something tangible from before the Winter, something he only heard about in stories thus far. Seeing this with his own eyes, taking in the unfamiliar scale, made him pause with awe. Camp Grove, despite its observatory, didn’t compare.
“That’s a pity,” John said as he broke away the cover of one of the chargers, “most of the electronics are gone. Whoever was holding up here knew what to scrape. Perhaps we’ll find something in the main building.”
Rain started to drum on the canopy as the rumbling sounded right above them. Using the crowbar from his backpack, Charlie broke away the planks of the door barricades. The door beyond was little more than a pair of unhinged steel frames, the glass shattered long ago.
Looking inside Charlie found a large, dusty area shrouded in shadows. Left and right were empty shelving cabinets arranged in circles, turned into tents with makeshift tattered cloth coverings. At the back, partly salvaged wooden counters were barely visible in the darkness. Some of the broken lighting still hung from the steel ceiling frame by a few screws that stubbornly continue to endure the elements.
Following his uncle indoors, Charlie carefully stepped over the debris scattered over the damp floors. The sound of dripping rainwater echoed through the large place. His hands felt clammy as he reached out for his rifle. The shadows were playing tricks on him here, this place didn’t feel right. As if he was trespassing in someone’s home, and the owners were still watching him from the shadows.
Using the tip of his rifle, Charlie peeked behind the cloth of one of the cabinet circles. The scene revealed made him pause. There, towards the far back of the cabinets, were two human skeletons, holding each other in a final embrace in front of a dead-cold improvised fireplace. These unfortunate souls found their end in a forsaken gas station on an abandoned highway. Their final resting place was nothing more than a makeshift home between shelving cabinets. Holding each other tight in the face of the end of the world.
Suddenly, Uncle John tensed up. Alerted, Charlie pushed away the numbing sadness that overcame him. What did he miss? Then his heart skipped a beat as he registered the cold metal against the back of his head.
“It appears,” Uncle John whispered as he raised his hands, “that we’re not the only survivors seeking out this place.”
Behind the Story
Word count: 2336
One night I was driving home on an empty highway, and it struck me how much space we use for our roads and intersections. Then it occurred to me: what would this place look like if we suddenly just stopped using these large roads? That was how the seed for this setting and story was born.