“Ahhh, some fresh air.”
Tess lifted her chin and took in a deep breath.
They had reached the outskirts of the city. A large concrete barrier forty feet tall formed an impenetrable wall along the perimeter of the zone, filling in the gaps between buildings where necessary. The structure had been constructed years ago, and now was covered in vines and streaked with mold and scum.
There was the windowless shell of a city bus nearby. A horse trailer. A rusted old sedan. Joel looked up at the wall of concrete and sighed. Little good it did at keeping people in - and worse at keeping the infected out.
The edge of the concrete wall was covered in moss and ivy where it met the side of a four-story brick building, an abandoned warehouse, that had most of its windows broken. It was the through the warehouse that smugglers - and people like themselves - slipped in and out.
A pond of scum water pooled at the base of the warehouse and there were several metal drums lying around on wooden pallets.
“That’s the one thing I love about the outside,” Tess continued. “Fuckin’ hate the smell of the city.”
Ivy crept up the walls of the building, entered through the broken windows. The city bus was practically consumed by the lush overgrowth.
“Why don’t you ask Bill to get you some of them air fresheners?” Joel asked.
“Hey, if they weren’t expired, that’d be a good idea.”
The lowest windows of the warehouse were too high to reach, even with a tall ladder. Tess headed toward an innocuous wooden pallet propped up against the brick wall, mostly covered in vines. There was nothing special about this particular pallet; several were lying around, propped up here and there. As they approached, it became apparent that this one in particular concealed a large gaping hole in the brick wall at the base of the warehouse.
Tess grabbed one end of the pallet and pried it open. It seemed to be hinged on the other side with overgrowth and vegetation.
“Through here,” she said. “Cover the entrance.”
“I got it.”
Joel knew the routine. He entered the building, grabbed hold of the edge of the pallet and pulled the makeshift door shut.
They were inside the ruins of an abandoned warehouse now. A tree had taken root inside and was now covered in ivy, as was most of the surrounding structure. The building appeared worn-torn, rubble and timber covered most of the ground. A catwalk, once suspended above, had fallen to the ground. The place smelled musty and ancient. On the ground floor were shelves filled with soiled cardboard boxes. The interior walls were pale bricks the color of chalk.
Tess climbed her way up to the second level with Joel following close on her heels.
On the second landing, Tess stood at the edge of a gap in the wooden floor, a gap far too wide to jump. She lowered herself to one knee.
“Damn it,” she said. “Plank fell down.”
Joel joined her at the edge and looked down. Sure enough, the large wooden plank that served as a bridge now stretched across the rubble-ridden floor.
“Be a dear, would you?” Tess smiled.
The unfamiliar tone in Tess’s voice caused Joel to chuckle. “I’ll get it.”
Joel looked around, scratching his head. He had to find a way down. He saw some planks on his left leading down to a concrete ledge and he used them to jump down to the ground. He made his way to the heavy plank, picked it up and glanced around for the best spot for Tess to easily grab it.
“Here, pass it to me,” Tess ordered, beckoning to him from the brick landing above.
“It’s a bit heavy,” Joel warned.
Tess scoffed. “I think I can handle it,” she said, and hoisted it up without effort.
“Alright,” Joel conceded.
Now he had to find a way back up. Looking around, he saw a small hole in the wall above a ledge that was waist high. He pulled himself up, ducked to his right and scampered up a ramp of weathered wooden planks. In the next moment he was climbing up to the second landing just in time to watch Tess lower the plank over the wide, jagged gap in the floor above.
“Get your ass up here,” Tess ordered. “Let’s move.” There was a sense of urgency in her voice.
“Bossy today,” Joel replied. He was about to add something else but thought better of it. He held his tongue as he made his way back up to her, following her through a large broken window in the corner that was framed by a matte pattern of weeds and ivy.
Now they were outside again, on a metal corrugated stairwell heading down. The stairwell stopped a few feet short of the ground and the two had to drop several feet to descend.
They hit the ground, grunting.
The two were back out in the open, only now they were on the other side of the wall. Joel felt a sense of precaution permeate throughout his body.
“Let’s make sure there aren’t any soldiers around,” he said.
Tess peeked around the narrow alley where they were headed before fully committing.
“It’s clear,” she said as she vaulted a low concrete barricade. “C’mon.”
Down another alley, and then ducking their heads under a collapsed fire escape covered in vines, they found themselves in a small concrete back-alley lot surrounded by tall brick buildings where the weeds and vines fought each other for dominance. Along the far wall of one of the buildings sat a decaying sofa with stained cushions.
Tess took up a position near the building to Joel’s right, next to a metal door with a mesh window. She sighed impatiently waiting for Joel to catch up.
Once Joel was with her, she pushed the door open and entered. The room was dark as Joel followed her in.
“Shut it,” Tess ordered over her shoulder. She nodded to a few cartridges resting on the counter. “Pick up that ammo. I’m sure we’ll need it.”
Joel complied, then flicked on his flashlight and took a look around the room.
They were in what was once the break room of some small office concern. There was a sink at one end of the kitchen countertop, and next to that, a coffee maker with a blackened urn still intact. A plain white refrigerator stood opposite. Nearby was a table with napkins and condiments, and next to that, an empty vending machine full of glass shards. In the corner next to an open door sat several bundles of cardboard boxes rotting with mildew.
Joel followed Tess through the door and into the next room. They were standing in the lobby of what was once a local business. A computer terminal sat at the far end of a counter for serving customers. There were a few wooden chairs sitting idly nearby... a waiting room. Joel vaguely wondered what service was once offered here. It was a fleeting thought that didn’t last long.
Tess climbed a small set of concrete steps to another door leading to the outside. Short rectangular windows revealed occupants milling about on the other side. She knocked gently, so as not to attract unwanted attention.
After a moment, the door opened. On the other side, a boy of about twelve stood wearing a baseball cap and sleeveless t-shirt: the local lookout.
“Hey, little man,” Tess said in a pleasant but quiet voice.
The boy recognized Tess, but didn’t speak.
“Make sure the coast is clear?” Tess asked, reaching into her back pocket for a small cache of ration cards.
The boy reached out his hand to take the cards, but Tess lifted them above his reach. “No soldiers,” Tess warned. “None of Robert’s men. Yeah?”
The kid hesitated a second before nodding to convey his understanding. He took the cards and closed the door.
Tess folded her arms and leaned against the wall, sighing heavily.
“You know he’s expecting us,” Joel quipped.
“Well,” Tess said. “That’ll make it more interesting.”
Joel found himself nodding in agreement. In the next instant, a gentle rap sounded on the other side of the window. It was the kid serving as look-out.
Tess straightened. “Good to go. C’mon.”
She opened the heavy metal door and Joel followed her into what was a ragtag neighborhood of strays rejecting military rule. A makeshift fence served to cordon off the area and weeds sprang up through the cracked cement. As they turned the corner, one of the vagrants with his back against the wall saw Tess and his face filled with recognition.
“Hey Tess, hey Tess,” he spoke, the words coming out fast, trying to grab her attention. “Hey, pretty lady,” he said, reaching out for her. “How you doin’ today? I heard you got some merchandise...”
Tess cut him off in mid-sentence. “Not right now, Terrance.”
The man was persistent. “No, no,” he said, reaching into his back pocket. “It’s good. I got the card…”
Tess spoke to him like she was scolding a child. “Not. Now. You hear me?” Even Joel felt a tinge of fear from her tone.
The man showed his palms.
“Okay. I can do that,” he said.
As Tess fell out of range of earshot, the man grumbled, “Don’t get all huffy-puffy about it,” causing Joel to chuckle to himself. He shook his head; Tess knew everyone it seemed. Out of the two of them, she was the social butterfly.
They were in the closest thing to a market square one could imagine. Here and there people manned tables and booths, lit by kerosene lanterns, hawking their wares. Onlookers kept to themselves, leaning against the walls, sticking to the shadows and watching Joel pass with suspicious eyes.
The afternoon sun was fading and in this section of the city, the tall buildings blocked what remained of direct sunlight. Grime and litter covered the ground. A permanent, melancholy haze seemed to have settled over the inhabitants here.
Joel approached a young woman behind a table piled high with old clothes and shoes.
“If you ain’t got ration cards,” she said in an exhausted voice, “don’t even waste my time. I’m not interested in bartering for bullets.”
He left the table and followed his nose over to where something appetizing sizzled on a kerosene grill. But as he approached, his stomach turned. He saw the “meat” hanging from a makeshift awning overhead.
They were grilling rats.
“Hurry up,” one of the women in the short line exhaled. “We’re starving.”
The bearded man behind the grill turned the meat, sweat beading up on his forehead over the flames. “Keep your shirt on,” he said, equally exhausted. “Next batch comin’ right up.”
Joel looked at the others in line and sighed. No one else seemed to have a picky stomach as they waited with the green ration card currency in hand.
The woman nearest him shot Joel an angry glance. “Hey, don’t even think about cutting in line,” a sentiment shared by the large man in a black tank top beside her: “Fuckin’ A. Been waiting on this rat forever.”
Joel didn’t. Instead, he shook his head, turned and left.
Loud barking to his right grabbed his attention. A gaunt man in a blue hoodie and gloves stood by a fenced gate. Behind him, in large letters on a cardboard sign were the words, “15 tickets each.”
As Joel approached, dogs behind the fence jumped excitedly. The man waved the newcomer away. “Sorry man. These dogs are all accounted for. Sold out in less than an hour. Try me next week.”
Joel’s stomach turned again. Thank God he and Tess had found other resources - smugglers for one - and hadn’t needed to rely on dogs and rats for food.
Tess was waiting for Joel and grinned at his outward display of revulsion. The two seemed capable of reading each other’s minds.
Joel proceeded down seller’s lane, passing store owners protecting their wares with baseball bats and giving him the evil eye. As he rounded a corner, a large black man rose to his feet, blocking his path.
“You touch it, you buy it,” he warned and with that, he let the two pass.
A man with a young woman on his lap saw Tess and his hard features softened. “Tess, it’s been a while. You don’t visit us any more.”
Behind him, Joel didn’t hear his partner reply, but he did catch the reproachful remark from the woman sitting on his lap.
“Who the hell is that?” she asked.
“None of your damn business,” the man replied with agitation.
If there were other walking avenues along the way, the men blocking them with iron pipes resting on their shoulders made it clear they weren’t open to the newcomers.
Eventually Joel made his way to the opened backend of a school bus, the only way to proceed. He climbed up and began to make his way through. Outside the slatted windows to his right he witnessed a bare-fisted match taking place in a makeshift arena, cheered on by a handful of spectators. He ignored the fight and continued on. The remaining glass windows were riddled with bullet holes.
A young turk seated near the front of the bus suddenly rose and blocked his path. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, sizing Joel up with nervous eyes. His talk was tough, but Joel knew the man lacked the muscle to back it up.
“Malick,” Tess said with exasperation in her voice. “Sit back down.”
Joel’s eyes conveyed the same message. If this hotshot wanted to hold onto his teeth, he better do as he was told.
The man wilted like a flower. “Oh, sorry Tess. Didn’t realize you two were together. Go ahead,” he said, stepping aside. Joel didn’t need the hotshot’s permission and was about to say so, but he tended to err with caution when it came to friends of Tess.
“Who’s that?” he asked, bristling and stepping down from the bus.
“An old headache. Don’t ask.”
Now they were out of the market and facing the end of the street. A barricade of stacked freight containers and a fence topped with spiraling barbed wire cut the inhabitants off from the rest of the city. Or was it the barricade keeping the soldiers out?
Joel walked up to a pair of city dwellers who seemed too interested in the activity just beyond the fence to notice his approach.
“That guy’s been hoarding all sorts a shit in that factory,” the man said. Joel glanced up to see military vehicles being loaded. It was then the two spectators became aware of Joel’s presence.
“Whoa, whoa, hold up man,” the woman whispered urgently. She turned slightly and gave Joel the customary evil eye that told him to shove off.
He’d seen paranoia before, but in this section of the city it was rampant. He shook his head and backed off. He hustled back to where he saw Tess approaching a dark man in a hooded sweatshirt. The man was casually leaning against one of the fenced-in exits examining his fingernails.
Tess leaned her head toward the young man. “I’m lookin’ for Robert,” she said quietly. She reached into her back pocket and retrieved a packet of cards bound by a rubber band. “He come through here?” she asked, offering him the bundle.
“Half hour ago,” the hooded man replied. “He went back to the wharf. He’s there now.” He reached up and casually took the cards from Tess, giving her the slightest of nods.
Without a word Tess moved past him and the man lowered his head, returning his attention to his nails with great interest. Joel walked past him, saying nothing.