Two days of rest made a world of difference for me and Infinity. We barely had had the strength to make it up the hill where Evangelist was camped out, but in two days I felt like I was ready to hike across the United States, which it sounded like was Evangelist’s plan from the beginning. He kept shoving broth down our throats, followed on the second day by some yummy homemade bread that he baked right there by the fire. Whatever was in the bread and broth made me feel a lot better. Evangelist told us that a lot of it was just getting the drugs they had fed us out of our system.
But after two days, I could tell both Evangelist and Infinity were agitated. They had gone from being friendly, to being quiet, and now were snipping at each other. The morning of the second day, I watched the two of them go at it again. It was drizzling rain, and it was foggy, but Infinity stood at the camp edge, looking back at the “resort.” Evangelist was busy packing up everything.
“Are we leaving?” I asked him. Even though I said I was ready to hike across country, I knew that my endurance would be lucky to last an hour.
“I told you two that two days was about all we could afford to get you rested up,” he said, shoving clothing and pots and pans into a backpack. “That time is gone.” He paused and looked west. “We need to get at least 20 miles by dark.”
“What about the other two?” Infinity said, turning slowly, the opera glasses given to her by the guard still in her hands. “What about Marcie and Kimmy?”
“They made their minds up,” Evangelist said to her, not looking up. He pulled the backpack closed and reached for another. “They had just as much of a chance as you did.”
“They were drugged,” Finn said. “They still are. They aren’t responsible for their actions.”
Evangelist paused and looked up. “What do you suggest I do?”
“Go down and rescue them,” Infinity said, her voice strangely sounding like that of a little girl. Then she caught herself, shifted her stance and spoke more authoritatively. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Evangelist’s eyes narrowed. “I go down there and they will shoot me if I get within a hundred yards. Now you two, on the other hand, could get right in the camp. You belong there.”
My heart caught in my throat, but I was reassured when Infinity shook her head.
“We don’t belong there, just as much as Kimmy and Marcie don’t belong there. That’s the whole point. We have to get them out of there. But I have no desire to go back into that cesspool.”
Evangelist stood. “And you think I do? Look, I have spent the past two years—two years—looking for you. Now that I have you free, I have no intention of letting you get captured again. On the other hand, I don’t want to get shot or captured myself.”
Infinity looked at me, then at Evangelist, then back at the “resort.” Finally, she gritted her teeth and nodded.
“All right, since you’re too afraid to go down and rescue my friends, I guess I will have to do it myself.” She looked around for the rags she had worn when we had come into camp, and started to put them on.
“Finn, no. That’s stupid,” I said. “Evangelist is right. They had their chance.”
“I just can’t leave them there,” said Infinity. “We have to do something.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a big hand on Infinity’s shoulder. Evangelist looked at her seriously.
“I can’t let you do that,” Evangelist said. “I’ll do it. I will make one attempt to get them out. Maybe the rain will prevent them from seeing me.” He put down the backpacks and reached for his rifle.
“But know this,” he said, looking at both of us. “Chances are, they won’t come. If they say no this time, we leave them. Also, if I am not back in half an hour, you leave without me. Head west until you get to the river. Then follow it west until dark. I will meet you.”
“Leave?” I said aloud as he crept off into the fog. “We can’t leave. We’re just two teenaged girls.”
Infinity looked at me with that serious look she gets sometimes.
“I have a feeling being a teenager doesn’t mean much anymore,” she said.
We waited half an hour in the drizzling rain. Evangelist had brought olive green ponchos made from oilcloth, and they kept us somewhat dry from the waist up. But our legs and feet were soaking wet. Even standing under the pine trees didn’t seem to make a difference.
“It’s been half an hour,” I said, knowing that neither one of us really had a way of telling time.
“Let’s give him a few more minutes,” she said. In response, she heard the sharp crack of a rifle, followed by the deeper sound of a heavy machine gun. Then there were more rifle cracks. Then it seemed as if the whole woods around us erupted into gunfire.
We looked at each other, Infinity’s large eyes a reflection of my own. She then said what I was thinking.
“Let’s get out of here.”
There were three backpacks, each packed by Evangelist with different provisions. I hadn’t bothered to see what he had packed in each of them, but at this point, it didn’t seem to matter. I almost left without one, but Finn grabbed one and handed me the other.
“Which way is west?” I asked, realizing that the fog and rain made it impossible to know where the sun was.
Infinity looked at me, just as confused. Then I could see her make a decision.
“That way,” she said, pointing in the only direction that gunfire wasn’t coming from.
I threw the backpack onto my shoulders and followed her into the trees.
The rain went from a drizzle into a downpour as we ran through the trees. I could barely see Infinity in front of me. The trees, which were spaced out fairly evenly where we had camped, grew smaller and thicker as we ran cross country. I kept looking for a trail, and I knew—or at least hoped—that Infinity was looking for one too. We followed the shoulder of the hillside as it grew steeper. The rain ran in little rivers off the side of the boulders. Finally we came to a cliff, and Infinity had to turn to the left, which I hoped was south. We followed the cliff for a while down the slope of the hillside until we were able to climb down over some large rocks.
Below us, the hillside opened up again into some larger trees. Infinity held up her hand and we both listened. Neither of us could hear rifle fire, which was a relief to me. We looked at each other.
“Do we stop and wait for Evangelist?” I asked.
Infinity shook her head. “He said to follow the river until dark, and then he would find us.” She looked down the incline. “Let’s pray the river is down there.”
The incline was pretty steep for a while, and we took turns preventing each other from going too fast down the embankment. The mud took turns either holding our boots so we couldn’t go forward, or being so slippery that we risked sliding down the whole hill. The backpacks were heavy, and we were desperately out of shape, but we were also desperate. Twice I suggested leaving the backpacks behind, stating that we could move faster without them, but Infinity said no. We were traveling cross country, and would need all the resources we could get.
After about half an hour of going downhill, we stopped again. The rain had finally stopped.
“Finn,” I whined. “I have got to stop. I’m exhausted.”
She nodded, then perked up. “Listen.”
I listened and heard the wind through the pines. Then I heard another noise. It was the sound of running water. A lot of it.
“Water running off the hill?” I asked.
Infinity shrugged. “Won’t know unless we look. Do you think you can carry that backpack just a little farther?”
I gritted my teeth and nodded. It’s amazing what a little hope will do for a person.
It was the river. It was a very big river.
“Finn?” I asked, as we sat on a log with our feet in the cold water of the river, looking across the water at the foggy far side.
“You know I didn’t pay too much attention in Geography class,” I said. “But Evangelist had said we were in Tennessee. Does that make this the Tennessee River?”
“Dunno. I guess. Not sure what other rivers are in Tennessee. Cumberland River?”
“Didn’t Evangelist say that we were to follow the river west?”
“Well, if the sun came up over there, and it goes down over there, then that means the river is going south. Not west.”
Infinity didn’t answer for a while, then she brightened.
“Maybe it goes south for a little while, then turns west again.”
I paused before answering.
“Well, couldn’t it just as easily go north and then turn west?”
Infinity frowned, then shook her head.
“All the rivers here dump out into the Mississippi. That’s west of us. We follow it downstream, even if it goes east for a while.”
I smiled. “I’m glad I have a smart friend.”
We rested our weary feet, weary shoulders and other weary parts for about fifteen minutes—once again guessing at time, since neither of us had a watch—before saddling ourselves again with our backpacks. I realized that it was harder to put the backpack on than it might have been if I had just rested with it on my shoulders.
But the sun had come out, our clothes were drying, and we had taken the time to rid ourselves of our ponchos. And we were finally blessed by a walking path. We could see what looked like an interstate highway off to our right, but after our experience with the soldiers in the camp, we both agreed to avoid people for the time being.
Another time we saw smoke from a campfire across the river, but again we decided to avoid contact with them.
After following the river to the south for several miles, it again turned west, just as Infinity had predicted and I had hoped. We had been passing through abandoned farmland for quite a while, with gaps exposed in the dirt and clay wall that rose above the water. The rains had caused the water to rise, but I imagined that one rainstorm couldn’t compare to melting snows coming off the Smokey Mountains in the early summer. We followed the path along the dirt dike, clambering down and climbing back up when a break called for it.
At one point in our trek, we though we heard trucks coming from the interstate to our north. But we never saw any vehicles.
“Finn?” I said finally, as we were walking along.
“Are your memories coming back?”
“Yeah. Sorta. Slowly.”
“Yeah, me too. I am remembering stuff, like going shopping. And boys I dated. And Christmas with my family. Where do you think they are?”
“I don’t know, Ellie.”
“The United States had more than 300 million people when all this happened. Where are they, Finn? They couldn’t have just disappeared, could they?”
“Don’t know. What about those soldiers?”
“Eww. Don’t tell me that’s all that’s left.”
“Could be. Look, Ellie, I don’t know a lot of stuff. I’m trying to figure this out just like you are.”
“OK,” I said. There was a long pause.
“Finn,” I said.
“I’m hungry. Can we find a McDonald’s?”
Infinity didn’t answer.