Dreaming heavily in a deep sleep, I was roused by nothing more than my sense of time, a biological prodding reminding me that I can sleep when I’m dead.
For a few moments, I laid with squinted eyes gazing in to the late summer sun. It was mid morning and the sun was well on its way to cresting in the sky, but the colorful songs of robins and wrens still filled the air. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the other senses for a moment, enjoying a feeling of tranquility that has become so rare for me. I could hear the soft lapping of the river water on the sides of the decrepit catamaran, complimented by the gentle rocking of the vessel, but drowned out by the small 2 stroke motor whirring as it powered us upstream. It smelled like summer still, though some of the trees were already shifting colors. I could hear Kevin and Lacey murmuring about something, but they were talking softly and facing the other direction.
I rubbed my eyes, ushering myself back to reality, and sat up.
“G’morning chaps.” I greeted in a good-humored attempt at a pathetic British accent.
“Well ‘ello ol’ sport!” Lacey said over her shoulder, in a significantly more accurate accent.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Not sure really.” Kevin said flatly.
“By the sun, we are headed west, maybe northwest.” Lacey added.
“Well, I’d like it to be more west than north. We don’t exactly have a GPS.” I said.
Phil spoke up from under the brim of his hat “We ’bout 6 hours out of Lynchburg.”
“We got enough fuel for that?” I asked, hanging on to my pragmatism.
“Dunno, current seems a bit heavy today, and but I reckon we’ll make it.” Phil seemed confident as he held on the the control rod of the small motor at the back of the raft.
Lacey stood up to stretch her legs and I exchanged spots with her next to Kevin at the bow. She detected we were going to have some private talk, and seemed perfectly content with lying down across the boat to bask in the sunlight. She removed her denim overcoat and rolled up her T-shirt to expose her midriff to the sun’s rays. I wasn’t sure if she noticed Kevin and I experiencing a brief moment of carnal distraction over her very well-maintained physique before pulling ourselves back to reality.
The cicadas were chirping loudly now off the river banks, and with the sound of the motor, we had enough acoustic cover to exchanged a short conversation in privacy without seeming conspiratorial.
“What are we doing when we get to… Lynchburg?” I asked Kevin softly.
“I don’t know what to expect.”
“I haven’t seen any signs of civilization around here in a while.” I said.
“That’s probably a good thing.” I couldn’t argue with that. “We are going to need to plan for a few different situations.”
Kevin nodded. “First, this could all be a trap, he could be taking us to a Hub prison. Second, he could be taking us to a place devoid of any witnesses before he rapes and murder us.” I was expecting a laugh from Kevin about that notion, but it never came.
I thought for a moment. “He could be actually be taking us upstream without complication, but it doesn’t mean we’ll have a way home. I fear this day will end up in Harrier territory.” I feared.
“Or we could just be lost in the woods.” Kevin said with finality.
“I guess it couldn’t hurt to ask Phil what was going to happen at the end of this boat ride.” I said suggest. Kevin didn’t protest, but I saw him slowly check the position of the pistol under his arm.
I turned around, engaging my diplomatic drive. I could turn it on and off as if it were a simple flashlight. At my will, I could suppress the idiosyncratic parts of my personality. I could fetch a new vocabulary that would make the conversation a comfortable one. I could adjust my posture and body language in a hundred different ways, from standoffish, to impatient, to consolatory, to friendly. Half of the skill required to be a good diplomat was being able to read situations dynamically and adjust yourself to accomplish your goals. I’ve taught myself to avoid danger, to appear respectful without appearing intimidated, and most of all, I’ve taught myself when to shut up. A diplomat leads a conversation towards a goal while making it appear as though he’s not in the drivers sea. It’s a facade, a front. It’s equal parts of deception and honesty, and it is volatile.
On this particular occasion, my subject was Phil. He was simple, not very well educated, confident and cocky about his independence form higher thinking. Just as his southern, country accent reeked of stupidity to mean, almost anything I would say to him would come off as snooty and condescending. He wouldn’t be receptive of it, especially since Kevin has raised his rifle at him.
I turned over my shoulder so I could only make eye contact with one eye, and said friendly: “Hey Phil.” Hey is a word to be used carefully, and in diplomatic settings, it’s almost always used incorrectly. Hey is a cocky, ineloquent and unrefined word. But it just so happened that Phil was all three.
He tipped the brim of his hat up. “Howdy.”
“Dave didn’t fill us in very well, where we going?” My style of diplomacy all rests on using the word we alot. We makes the conversation seem mutual, that outcomes are shared by all parties, and for a single syllable, carries a trove of subconscious trust.
“Depends. Dave said you need out of the Hub, and the only way I could gitcha out safely is up the river. What you do after that is up to you.”
“D’you know where the Roadhouse is?” I asked cautiously, hoping not to insult his knowledge of post-apocalyptic American geography.
“Yea, sure. North a few hundred miles.”
“What’s the best way to get up there from here?”
He thought for a moment, grasping for an answer. It was almost as if the man hadn’t thought that far ahead. Kevin and I exchanged a glance to each other, speaking volumes silently to each other. “Well…. I reckin’ y’all follow the ol’ interstate up. Them harriers been a lil’ rowdy lately, but it shouldn’t be nuthin’ ya can’t handle.”
Lacey cocked her head sideways. “Harriers?”
I shrugged sardonically. We’ve seen Harriers before. She still looked concerned, so I naturally went and took a seat next to her. Meanwhile, Kevin continued to probe Phil for solutions on how to get home: “Phil, how long you think the hike North will be.”
He shrugged. “Guess about two weeks walking pretty quick.”
Lacey didn’t seem thrilled about the figure, but she kept it to herself.
* * *
Several hours had passed, and the late afternoon sun was pounding on our shoulders. I had already taken the clothing off of my upper body, leaving myself on in jeans and my boots. Even after I stripped down, I could feel the constant flow of sweat down my back. I would need water soon, but not bad enough to drink the river water. Kevin had followed suit, only leaving his two button leather vest on, drooping over his shoulders. Lacey had rolled her shirt up above her navel and tied it in a knot modestly, though I still caught myself staring at her when I thought she wasn’t looking.
Phil, on the other hand, left most of his clothes on, and surprisingly, he was very dry. The man had gotten used to this dank summer heat, and casually meandered the boat up the channel.
At around 8pm, as dusk began to grab hold of day, we saw a small dock ahead. Phil gracefully slipped the boat in to the dock and tossed a rope over to the dock poles.
Cautiously, never taking eyes off of Phil, we took our turns dismounting the boar, standing on the dock to help each other out. Phil was the last to step out of the boat. And there we stood, the three of us facing him, unsure of how to end our small excursion with the mysterious Phil.
Phil was the first to speak as he lit a cigarette. Kevin’s mouth watered at the site of the tobacco, having run out of cigarettes hours ago.
“Boys… ma’am, I had half a mind to kill you when I laid eyes on ya.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kevin check for the presence of his pistol, expecting Moore’s law always.
I replied cautiously, “Why is that, Phil?”
“Well, you just don’t know who to trust anymore.”
“You’ve lost some faith in humanity?”
Phil thought for a second. “No, I half expected you to be Hub informants.”
“Trust us, Phil, we are no friend of the Hub. Not anymore.”
He smiled. “Then it’s true what they say?”
I raised an eyebrow. “What do they day?”
“That a war is coming. That the Roadhouse is choosing sides.”
“Phil, I can’t tell you whats going on because I honestly don’t know. That’s why we are heading back now.”
He was silent for a second, than fished a box of cigarettes out of his pocket, tossing them to Kevin. “Take ‘em.”
Kevin nodded and smiled genuinely. “Thanks! So we are heading up that road?” Kevin indicated the direction of the interstate, speckled with car carcasses of world’s past.
Phil nodded. “Strait until you get to Maryland, than you should know your way from them.”
Lacey reached out to shake Phil’s hand. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure” said Phil. And with that, we headed North.