Chapter 17

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I am infinitely thankful that the League didn't steal the snowshoes. The hike to Odell Lake would be brutal without them. I take soft, slow, deliberate steps, lifting my knees as I trudge. I find myself missing the coastal rain. Wet cold? Sure. As long as there are no snowdrifts waiting to soak my socks every time I accidentally drag a heel.

Kinda miss a lot about the coast right now.

There is a crisp, serene, soul-settling beauty to a mountain winter, but I don't know if I'd want to live through them every year. Desert life spoiled me.

The walk is mostly uneventful. I spot a placid elk begging to be shot, but I'm hunting for more furtive game. Hauling a big-ass tire back to Charlotte is going to be pain in the butt enough, even if I find a toboggan. Given my lengthy stretch of alone time, I go over a mental blueprint in case I need to build a makeshift sled.

Sure enough, dusk hits before I reach the lake. I blame my detours down the side roads; plenty of rustic summer houses and cabins to explore. If only I didn't have a mission-critical item to find. I discovered several trucks and RVs going to rust, even some tires in the right size, but they were too deteriorated to be of any use. This after all the effort of digging through three feet of snow, of course.

Night falls and I decide to plough on. It gets cold enough to shatter the nipples off my boobs, so I opt to make shelter in the least dilapidated cabin I can find.

It's downright cozy, if you like decapitated moose watching over you while you sleep. I consider bringing some warmth to the place.

It can be dangerous to start fires, depending on where you are, but given my remote location I figure I'm safe. Nobody in their right mind willingly lives in the cold all throughout the winter, considering how much free space there is in regions once considered 'a tropical paradise'. I recall asking Father once why everyone didn't just pack up and head south, and he gave me this mumbly answer about 'sedentary mentality' and 'fear of the unknown'.

Sure, but what about us? I asked him.

I don't know if his excuses about his lab were legitimate. Deep down I think he craves certainty. Sure, we're on the road a lot, but it's usually to remote places. Father has always understood nature better than people, despite his convictions about 'pack mentality'.

I bring my scavenged kindling to the fireplace and nurse an infant flame. Trying to push Father from my mind, I fail. I'd rather think about kicking Mason in the junk one last time. It's an easier, simpler kind of self-righteousness.

It never used to be complicated. I was an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the how and the why of the world. Father was more than willing to pour from his ever-flowing pitcher of knowledge.

But it's not endless. I stare at the tongues of flame as they lick up from the kindling to the larger logs, and contemplate the end of hero-worship. Was I naïve? Did it come too late? In coming-of-age stories, there's often that moment where the heroine or hero discovers that their parents are fallible, flawed, finite. Human.

I dine on a heart-warming Kawitzen preparation of bread with beans, heated by the fire.

Was it childish of me to ever think that Father was perfect, or does his mind consider consequences in some complex and far-flung way that my sense of fellowship doesn't allow? I would never take back my choice to neutralize Father and save the victims of the League's abuse.

As I retire to a mattress blessedly free from both Doom victims and bedbugs, covering myself in a warm woollen blanket, I turn over thoughts about genetics and upbringing, nature and nurture, and arrive at no real conclusions except for one:

I will get no answers from Father. There is only one other person who may be able to provide closure on my origins. I fall asleep thinking about how much I miss her.

***

When I wake up, my cheeks and nose are cold but I can feel the sweat beneath my clothes. I have a vague recollection of a dream about Connor.

Years of scavenging have acclimatized me to waking up in strange places, and there is no disorientation. I pack up my things, eat a late harvest apple courtesy the Kawitzen orchards and wonder what it would have been like if I'd asked Connor to come with me.

Regrets are only useful if you have a time machine, Father used to say. I like to think they're useful for looking back and analyzing our past choices.

It feels warmer than yesterday, thanks to the direct sunlight, but according to my analog multi-function compass it's colder by four degrees. I set out for the lake, feeling pessimistic about tires but optimistic that we will revert to alternate solutions if necessary. Supplies are just supplies, after all. Still, it would have been nice if we could have broken down next to a motorhome lot.

Waxing expansive, I even forgive Mason for my music being stolen.

Half an hour into my hike I'm sweating. I open up my jacket. When I look up from my zipper, I notice smoke above the treeline.

It burns clean and grey. Woodsmoke. Somewhere in the direction of the lake. I pull out the walkie-talkie, knowing that Father will have the CB radio running back at Charlotte. I hope I'm still within range.

"Trogdor to Charlotte. Come in, Charlotte, over."

I wait. He might be working outside. I doubt he'd leave Charlotte unattended.

"Trogdor to Charlotte, do you..."

It's far away, but I hear the unmistakeable, reverberating echo of a gunshot.

"Fuuuuck," I mutter. I'm closer to the progenitor of that sound, and the woodsmoke, than I am to Charlotte. Hours closer. And out of range of the CB radio, due in large part to the slope and the trees blocking the signal.

At least it's a single shot and not something semi-automatic, I think. Caution dictates that I should turn the hell around, but two things keep me rooted in place: a much-needed tire and a hell of a lot of curiosity.

Then I hear this swooshing, scraping sound from around the bend in the highway and my mind flashes back to an impromptu trip from my youth, when we had Aspen all to ourselves.

Skis. Someone around these parts is very prepared.

I dive into the snowdrift, burying myself and un-strapping my snowshoes before hauling them into the powder beside me.

I poke my head out to get a look around me, imagining a comically inconspicuous set of eyes in the snow. I'm guessing in reality I look more like a clumsy idiot who dove into a snowdrift.

A patrol of men in matching 'winter camo' parkas come to a stop from their downward journey along the highway route, scanning the area to get their bearings. They are well-armed, and I'm guessing they scavenged their cute matching outfits from the same department store. No insignia though, so definitely not from Novamerica, the Republic or the Burning Men.

I remain as still as possible. Several questions roil in the back of my mind concerning ownership of gunshots and woodsmoke. Foremost amongst my thoughts is this, though:

Who the fuck are these clowns? Anyone with a week's worth of real training would've spotted me by now.


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