Ramble On by Led Zepplin echoes through my ears while I drive across the bumpy ground through an open meadow.
How did I get here? How did I end up being the one making such a stupid choice as to go it alone like this?
My body bounces along with the music. It wasn’t originally intentional, more a result of the uneven road, but I lean into it and decide to go for a full-on dance. A smile crosses my face. I know the Drifters back there don’t stand a chance against those horsemen. Yet, knowing they are willing to back me up without even a clue of what I’m doing, well…it makes the world feel right.
For the first time in my entire life, the world feels right.
Within a couple hours, we’re already driving through my hometown. Things seem so different here. There are definitely signs of rioting and looting, but more surprising is how people are out and about, playing in the streets and in the grass. It’s almost as if a weight has been lifted off of the hearts and minds of the people of the city. They don’t seem to even care about who might be coming to take over next, or the people flipping over cars and setting things on fire the night before.
Is this the peace of a completed revolution, or simply the calm before the storm?
We catch more than a few eyes as we ramble through town in our van. No one acts like they recognize us, though. Maybe they can’t see us through the dirty windows. Or maybe they just don’t care. Not only am I driving through town, something I’ve never done before, but we’re doing it in the plain sight of pretty much everyone, during non-sanctioned travel hours in an unmarked van. People are looking, but really only glancing at the movement before returning their attention to whatever they were doing before. There are a few concerned faces in the sea of people, sure, but ultimately, they simply seem to be enjoying their free time.
We arrive at our destination and I jump out of the van. Everyone follows my lead.
“What are we doing here?” Eve asks. “There are businesses everywhere. This is exactly the kind of place we’d want to be at if we were hoping to be caught.”
“Well, yeah, maybe, but if I’m right, your parents are hanging out just on the other side of these trees. I’d honestly be surprised if they weren’t.”
I run to the tree line and find one of the fences. It looks like it has been reinforced recently. I pause at that thought. Would that mean someone has taken over or could it be yet another sign that the Gardners are here? I decide to stick with my gut.
Even if someone else has taken over the spot, they couldn’t be any worse than Mackenzie-Lena, could they?
I climb the fence with some difficulty. Grant and Eve follow, so does The Geek, although with some additional effort. I climb back over the fence to give him a boost.
“Okay,” Eve says, “where now?”
“No clue, but if I had to guess, I’d say the castle is a good place to start.”
“The castle?” Grant asks.
A few years back, I was on a run and figured I’d take a shortcut through the woods, you know, out of the sight of the SPs, like usual. There were some really tall fences I had to climb, but I had extra time and the fences got me really curious. Next thing I know, I’m looking at this big ol’ castle right in the middle of what looked like some sort of old timey town.
It took me a while to realize what I had found. Once I did, I explored that place for hours, completely forgetting about the run and missing my deadline entirely. It was surreal. There were these big fiberglass elephants with hats–Actually, there were a ton of fiberglass animals all throughout the place. I found a train and a big mountain that looked like it was transported here directly from the desert and another big mountain all covered in snow.
I doubt I would have ever left, except I saw people milling about in there. I left as fast as I could. I’ve been back a couple times, but I’ve always felt on edge. You never really know what kind of folks you’re going to find in a place like that.
I run off in the direction I believe the castle was in. We fly past some big buildings and finally reach an expansive red cement clearing, which is where I’m forced to stop in my tracks. There are three folks in full SP gear standing guard in the middle of the open space. I turn on my heel without a word and hide behind the nearest tree.
The rest follow suit.
“Okay, I guess maybe this was a bad idea,” I say to the group. “I must have misunderstood the message.”
“I’m not so sure,” Eve replies. “Why are the SPs here? Shouldn’t they be unemployed since we blew up the government?”
“That’s a very good question,” The Geek agrees.
“But what else would they be doing here?” I ask.
“If they were out of jobs, it’s possible someone else hired them to act as protection, or at least to act as a deterrent,” Grant offers. “Considering how brief of a period of time it has been since you shut down the government, there really is only one group who would have been prepared enough to have contacted the SPs right away.”
“The rebels,” The Geek says happily.
“So, you’re saying that I might have done good after all?” I ask.
“I’m not going to make any promises on that,” Grant answers. “But you might not be as wrong as I had thought. I’d still suggest we play it safe. There’s no telling what we’ve found.”
“Okay, so, we sneak in?” The Geek asks.
“That would probably be the best plan,” Grant answers. “Do you know of any back entrances we could use?”
“I didn’t spend a ton of time here. Not to mention, it has been years since the last time I stopped by.” I look around at the view in front of us and try to come up with any ideas on how we might get past the guards.
“Are you sure the castle thing is that way?” Eve asks.
“Yeah, definitely. I remember walking underneath that building there and coming out on the other end into a little village. Just past that is where the castle stands.”
“Okay, what about that concrete beam up there?” The Geek asks. “Could we use that?”
“Maybe,” Grant answers. “But it would be mighty risky. We’d be right out in the open. And if they spotted us, we’d have no options for escape. I’ve got an idea. Follow me.”
He’s off before we can respond, sneaking through the area like some sort of commando. He’s hunched over but moving at top speed along the overgrown foliage. The three of us follow, but allow him to stay ahead of us several steps.
I can’t speak for The Geek and Eve, but my thought is that if he was going to get caught, we might have a few extra moments to escape without being noticed. I know it’s harsh, but the guy has tried to kill me on more than one occasion now. Besides, he’s working for all of the bad guys, right? If he gets caught, I’m sure he’d find a way out of it. The guy’s a regular Houdini.
We make it around the semi-circle without being noticed and climb up the incline into the trees. A few steps in and we come across another large fence.
“They really don’t want people getting into this place, huh?” Grant states.
“That means it’s either precisely where we want to be or the exact opposite,” Eve smiles.
We climb the fence. Grant offers to help The Geek over this time. I have to admit, I’m having a hard time getting over how into helping us he’s being. I mean, I get that we had that whole touching moment back at Flo’s or whatever, but Grant doesn’t seem anything like the guy who I know best as the man who likes to put knifes on people’s necks. I can almost see why Eve used to date him.
We make it over the fence and almost immediately hit a creek. It’s a lot wider than I remember. More like a river than a creek.
“How are we going to cross that?” The Geek asks. “I don’t know how to swim.”
“I can carry you across,” Grant offers.
“If I remember correctly,” I cut in, “it’s not very deep. Just a few feet. I think we can walk across.”
“Last one in is a rotten egg!” Eve shouts. Something is different about her. There has always been something hanging over her, but not now. Right now, we’re just out having fun and not on the run from some evil, all-powerful corporation.
Eve splashes into the water and although it comes up to her chest, she’s able to wade through easily enough. This causes The Geek to breathe a sigh of relief as he follows behind Grant into the water.
“Come on, Cyrus!” Eve yells. “The water’s kind of nice. Whoa—“ She disappears under the water. I run toward her but am too far behind and Grant gets to her location first, just as her head reappears. “There’s some type of bar or something under the water here. Be careful.”
We make it across and shake ourselves dry. We’re all laughing a bit at Eve’s falling under the water when I notice Grant go completely still.
“Shhh,” he says loudly. We all immediately comply.
He hunches over. We all do the same.
He walks almost silently to some nearby bushes; his knife magically appears in his hand. He spreads open the bushes and swings his knife in one deft movement as we see the upper bodies of five men holding spears and covered in rust and paint.
The Geek lets out a little yelp.
“Must be part of the theme park thing, right Cyrus?” Eve laughs.
“Jeez,” The Geek says though a large exhale. “This must have been some really scary ride. It’s a good thing my pants are wet from the river.”
The Geek’s statement causes all of us to break into laughter.
“Where to now?” Grant asks, looking around.
“I can’t say for sure. Everything’s all overgrown in here. Even more than the last time,” I answer. “But I think if we keep going this way, we should get out of the trees and then I should be able to get my bearings straight.”
“Lead the way,” Grant says, gesturing forward.
I head deeper into the forest. Just a few feet away, we come back to the river.
“Did you get us lost already?” The Geek asks.
“No,” I answer. “I’m pretty sure our way out is just on the other side of the water.”
I walk into the river and begin the trek. The rest of the group follows, with The Geek complaining the whole way. And within a few minutes, we are exiting onto the other shore, with a large rock structure to our left.
“There better not be any more water around here,” The Geek whines. “I’m starting to get really cold.”
“Shhh,” Grant growls. He looks up ahead.
“What?” Eve whispers.
“I can hear something. It’s faint, but there’s definitely something right through the trees ahead.”
“It better not be any more of those fiberglass natives we saw before,” The Geek frowns. “I don’t think I could handle another scare like that.”
“Shh!” Grant shushes louder.
He crouches and walks ahead. We all follow. Once we reach the edge of the trees, we come across a large building covered in rusted steel. Two people, wearing full-body camouflage, are standing outside of it, talking to each other.
“I don’t like them being here,” the man says, standing next to a door on the building.
The woman with him sighs, as though she has had this conversation with him multiple times already. “It doesn’t matter what you like. They’re here. And it’s a good thing, for all of us.”
“But they could be spying on us.”
“For who, the feds? There’s nothing the feds can do to us anymore.”
“Says who? Just because a few buildings were destroyed doesn’t mean the government is out of business. And if I were them, infiltrating a group like us would definitely be a first step I’d take in getting back my power.”
“But we don’t have any power,” she says.
“They don’t know that. We’ve got it nice here. Why can’t we just keep it like it has always been?”
“Because things have changed. There are new dangers, and—“
The woman stops midsentence. The two of them look around in concern.
“Come on!” the woman says and runs off down the path away from us. The man follows after her.
“Do you hear anything?” The Geek asks.
“Nope,” Eve and I answer in unison.
Grant has his head tilted and his eyes closed. Everything is silent for a brief moment before Grant finally agrees he can’t hear anything either.
“It wasn’t us, was it?” I ask. “I mean, I didn’t step on anything or anything.”
“If I had to guess, I’d say they were wearing earpieces. Must have been some kind of alert sent out around the compound,” Grant offers.
“You don’t think they were being alerted to our presence, do you?” The Geek asks.
“That’d be my guess,” Grant replies. “Unless there’s someone else showing up around here at the same time.”
“Which would be worse?” I ask. “That they know we’re here or that someone managed to follow us.”
“I’m going to go with the second option,” Eve answers.
“Okay, so what do we do now?” The Geek asks.
“Well, if it’s us they’re looking for, we definitely can’t stay here,” Eve replies. “So, we need to find a better place to hide. Any ideas, Cyrus?”
“It looks like the rest of the park is just past the building there,” I answer. “it’s pretty much all out in the open, but we don’t have many other options if we want to get out of this forest.”
“So?” Eve looks at me, hoping I’m going somewhere with my thought process. Unfortunately, I’m not.
“So nothing. I’ve literally got nothing. We could try staying here and—“
“Follow me,” Grant cuts me off urgently and strides to the right of where we’re currently standing.
Within a few feet, we come upon a group of buildings hiding among the trees, camouflaged by a green paint job. Grant scales the back end of the building like he’s some sort of monkey.
“Um,” The Geek whines. “You guys don’t expect me to go up like that, do you?”
I look around and try to determine if there is any other way to join Grant at the top of the building. Hiding in the corner, I see an old ladder propped up against the building. I run to it and climb to the top. Eve and The Geek are right behind me.
When we reach the top, we see Grant huddled at the far corner of the building, sneaking a peek at the street below. We join him, crouching as low as we can to avoid being seen.
I peer over the building to see a parade of people marching up toward a courtyard in front of the pink castle. In the center of the parade, I see my parents, held at gun point and wearing handcuffs.
“Guess they didn’t need our help getting here after all,” The Geek frowns.
“Well, they’re certainly going to need our help now,” Eve says.
Go to Chapter Eighteen