People used to ask me how I ended up in Wickliff. Years ago, it used to be a little Podunk town just downstream from Cairo, Illinois. Not much came through there. Most of the rail and freeway traffic was on the northside of the Ohio or the west side of the Mississippi. And the only people who ended up in Wickliff, Kentucky were people trying to escape the scrutiny of everyone else.
Then they stopped asking. These days, no one pays attention to state lines. You’re either in the Federal Zone or over with the Eastern Alliance. That is, if you’re not in demon territory, or stuck in a hot zone, in which case, you’re plain out of luck.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since the Event. Actually, it’s funny that they refer to it that way. The EMP was the first event, sure, but we could have survived that on our own. It was the anthrax, the mini-nukes and then the actual invasion that did us all in. Nowadays, you had a hard time knowing where the lines were, and an even harder time knowing who you could trust.
I had been a trucker when it all happened, but that was only the last career in a series. My old lady back in Joliet used to tell me I was bound for nowhere. She was probably right, but it’s a lot prettier sight looking at the Ohio from Wycliffe than looking up from the bottom of a nuclear grave, which is where most everyone in north Illinois was these days, including her. I still dreamed about her though. The dreams took turns; one night she would scream at me, the next she would be tender and loving. But they’re just dreams. Everyone has dreams.
My dream today was to set myself up with a small general store, somewhere off the beaten track. Nothing special, maybe just a store with a walkup apartment above to live in. I actually had a place in mind here in town. Wickliff was growing now that more people were trying to escape the fighting up north. I could make a decent life for myself.
The only problem, of course, was money. Old Man Hatfield was willing to sell his store and attached apartment and let me take over. But there was the buyout price, and then startup costs. I had put aside about 500 caps, but I figured I needed another 200 to be sure. That’s why I did the occasional odd job, including the one that no one else would do, and yet was more lucrative than any other.
The moment I saw the kid talking to Hatfield, I knew what he wanted. I also knew that the kid was wasting my time. The boy looked about 14, and was skinny as a rail. He wore an overcoat two sizes too big for him, beat up boots and a brown wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his head. I was sitting in the back of Hatfield’s store, nursing a bottle of Grape Nehi when Hatfield pointed to me. The boy looked at me, then back at Hatfield and nodded. Then he headed my way.
Thanks, old man, I thought. You’re about to get a kid killed, and maybe me in the process.
“You Mack Hawley?” the kid asked, sidling up to the table, his hands in his pants.
I nodded. I was about to deny it, but Hatfield had already pointed me out, and I suspected that the kid was the sort that didn’t give up too easily. Better to talk him out of it up front.
“I’m Johnny…John Pilgrim.” He fidgeted nervously and stuck a slender hand out for me to shake. I ignored it.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Pilgrim?” I didn’t look up from my Nehi.
“I need a guide. I need someone to get me across the river.”
“Fighting’s north of the river. You’d be better off staying in Kentucky. We have our fill of refugees from Illinois.”
“I don’t plan on crossing the Ohio,” he said quietly. “I need to cross the Muddy.”
I stopped what I was doing and looked at the kid. I could tell he was serious. He shot me a look that told me he wasn’t used to taking no for an answer.
I shook my head. “Too dangerous. That’s demon territory.”
He nodded. “I know what’s over there. I just need you to get me to the other side.”
I sighed and took another sip of my Nehi.
“I can pay,” he said. “I’ve got caps.”
I shifted my glance from the Nehi to him. “It’ll take a lot of caps.”
“I have ‘em,” he said. He started to shift a backpack around to open it, and I could hear the metallic clink of hundreds of caps in the pack. I reached out and stopped him.
“Best not be opening that here in public,” I said. “That’s a good way to get your throat cut.”
“I can hold my own,” he said, a grimness coming into his face.
“How old are you, kid?” I asked. “Fourteen? Fifteen?”
And I’m Abe Lincoln, I thought.
I eyed him again.
“So what’s west of the Muddy?” I asked, more curious than anything else.
“Why doesn’t he come and get you?”
“More likely he has more common sense than his son does.” I sat up and put my empty Nehi bottle down on the table. “Look, kid. There are ways to get across. Legal ways. Easier ways. Go north to St. Louis or south to Memphis….”
“I already did,” he said. “Been to Memphis, Baton Rouge, St. Louis, all of the big cities,” he said. “The guides who took me got shot.”
“And you survived?”
“I was lucky,” he said. “Dad always said I was lucky.”
“Sounds like your luck didn’t carry over to your guides,” I said. The thought didn’t make me comfortable.
“They all left me halfway across and ran,” he said. “I shot them.”
I stared at the kid. He was telling the truth, I could tell. And I had a new respect for him.
“Look,” I said to him, finally talking to him as an adult. “I won’t run, and I won’t strand you. I will get you across. Whatever you do when you get to the other side is up to you.”
A faint smile broke out on the kid’s face, and I continued before he could say anything.
“But we do it my way, or not it all. We do it at night. Tonight. And it will cost you 200 caps. All up front.”
Johnny shook his head. “Half up front, half when we get to the other side.”
I nodded. “Smart kid.”
We waited until three a.m. I would have gone earlier but the moon was too bright. I got out my old orange Coleman canoe that I had spray painted a dull green. With the moon down, we pushed off from the eastern shore. I put Johnny in the front and told him how to paddle and steer. He knew more about it than I suspected, and we were moving out quickly before more than a few minutes.
I started to tell Johnny about the dangers we faced; floating mines that drifted down from upstream that didn’t care who they killed, unmanned gatling guns that were activated by motion detectors, and alligators. Funny how the gators profited from the insanity of the past two months and how they were this far north. Half the time you saw a floating log it had teeth attached.
But Johnny seemed to know about all of this stuff, and so after rambling on for a while, I shut my mouth. It was better we were quiet on the river anyway. The usual runoff of May and June was over with, and the river had dropped significantly. The good news was that it wasn’t running so swift and strong; the bad was that more sandbars were there to slow us down, which could be a problem if someone started shooting at you.
We were just about halfway across, and I was counting my blessings, when the world ended. The first warning we got was a faint pop, and then a shooting star rose from the mortar that was hidden on the other side. I watched the faint light go up in the sky and knew what was coming. Without a word, I leaned over and rolled the canoe upside down.
I didn’t look back to see if Johnny was ok; in this day and age, you either had survival skills or you were dead. The water was deep enough that I couldn’t touch bottom, and I grasped the edge of the rolling canoe, trying to use it as a flotation device. I looked upstream and saw what had caused the ruckus to begin with.
In the darkness, I had believed that we were alone. Instead, I saw that the Muddy was filled with other boats. A dozen square-nosed wooden skiffs were filled with soldiers, headed west just as we were. Around them, other heads bobbed in the water, soldiers unlucky—or lucky—enough to not find a ride. As I watched, the gatlings opened up on the far side, and the slaughter began.
I didn’t stay and watch. I’d seen it too many times before. Instead I ducked down and put my head under the overturned canoe. To my surprise, Johnny was inside already. I pulled out my one luxury—a waterproof flashlight—and flicked it on.
“I lost my backpack,” Johnny gasped. “It had all the caps in it.”
I had no thought about the money. What I saw in the light of the flashlight took that thought out of my mind.
“You’re a girl!” I spat out.
Johnny had lost his—her—hat and overcoat, and it became a lot more obvious that my passenger was not a scrawny boy but an adequately equipped female. She continued to splutter in the water, but shot words back at me.
“You say that as if you never seen a girl before.”
“You lied to me,” I said.
“I didn’t lie,” she said. “Johnny Pilgrim is my traveling name. My real name is Infinity Rich.”
“That’s harder to believe than Johnny Pilgrim,” I said. “What were you trying to pull?”
“Trying to stay alive,” she shouted back. “It’s not easy living out here as a girl on your own.”
I nodded, still paddling and holding the canoe edge as the river took us further south.
“I’ll have to reconsider our arrangement,” I said, my words chosen carefully. “Meanwhile I suggest we stay put and get some distance between us and those gatlings.”
We held onto the bottom of the canoe for another half hour, and then I felt sand and mud beneath my feet. I took the risk of dipping my head beneath the edge of the canoe and popping it out on the other side.
It was still dark, but a hint of light was showing in the east, and I knew it would be morning soon. We had come up against a sandbar not too far from the Missouri shore, and so I figured now was as good a time as any to get out. We turned the canoe over and left it on the sandbar, then Johnny—Infinity, ack, what a name—followed me for a short swim over into the trees that lined the shoreline.
We lay there at the edge of the shoreline, upper bodies on the beach, legs still in the water, and I pondered what to do. I looked at the young girl, and knew I was looking at a disaster in the making. Finally, I made a decision.
“OK, here’s the deal. I will take you wherever it is your going, and you can pay me when we get there. I will do my best to keep you alive and in one piece, but if you die before we get there, don’t blame me. Deal?”
Infinity stared at me for a long moment. “But you don’t know where I’m going.”
“I do know that if I leave you out here by yourself, you’re not going to last the day.” I held out my hand, and the young girl shook it. Her heavy clothes had covered up features that I knew would get her in trouble soon enough, so I took off my own coat and put around her. Then I took off my Peterbilt cap and put it on her as well. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than what she’d been wearing.
I pulled her to her feet as the morning light broke through from the opposite shore. “Come on,” I said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and will be able to find some breakfast.”
She followed me into the bushes that lined the river and headed west.