I’d never heard of anyone coming through the iron gates. Only going out. If anyone had shown up I would have expected them to be turned away. I wasn’t sure what lay beyond the gates, but whatever it was I imagined would be less than good.
Our community had sent out Emissaries, outcasts, and those for whom the valley had became too small to hold them. They never came back, and no-one ever tried to come in until now.
It must have been my brother Daniel who showed them how to get here. If it wasn’t for the fact that they were carrying his body they wouldn’t have gained entrance. Perhaps he had died from exposure to the air outside, had run out of the life-saving oil and succumbed to the effects of the poisonous atmosphere. If it wasn’t for the strangers who were with him he wouldn’t have made it this far, just far enough to take his place in the burial plot next to our mother.
Maybe it was curiosity about how the strangers were so unaffected by the plague, or it was because their arrival seemed to be the culmination of Daniel’s special Assignment, or just desperation to see and learn about anything new, especially from the outside, but whatever the reason was, (and it was different for each of us), we let them in.
They stayed at the guard house, on the floor by the fire. It wasn’t a cold the time of year to be so cold, but their fatigue and the rags they called clothes left them shivering and the guard on duty took pity on them. They huddled together until we found them in the morning. It was just by chance the guard H.Q. had been playing with the C.B. radio system, otherwise we wouldn’t have had any warning.
When we approached the narrow area leading to the guardhouse and gate, they were getting ready for whatever the day might bring, organizing their oversized backpacks in case they had to go back to wherever they came from. While the night guard, whose replacement had not yet turned up to relieve him that morning, was looking on, wondering if he should be helping them.
Of the two strangers: the man was about six feet tall, his face weather-worn and rough, his hair with tufts of gray in-between dirty black, as if parts of his head were still rebelling against growing old. He had the leanness of a man who hadn’t had much to eat, but his sinews showed that the tough life he’d led the last few years had built muscles that may have not been there before.
She was about sixteen from what I could tell. A couple years younger than me. Her hair was brown but as dirty as his, and she kept it from being too unwieldy in a ponytail, which hung over her shoulder and came down to her chest. She was better clothed, and I wondered if that was something that father had made sure of. Wearing misfitting rags himself while ensuring there were no holes in her clothes.
When I realized how much I was staring at her I was a little embarrassed. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that despite the dirt her face was pretty, if very sunburnt. But was ashamed to look at her as anything but a refugee who I should have compassion for, with an equal measure of caution.
Despite being more slight than her father, she didn’t seem to struggle with the large sack she just put on over her shoulders. I imagine it had been a regular burden she accustomed herself to as if it was part of her back. Whatever dangers that may be out there, beyond the valley, I imagined that survival depended on holding tightly to the few essentials of life, and she clung to them as if her life depended on it.
Although a couple of the men with me had rifles, from our first look at them we weren’t expecting trouble. The guard there wasn’t carrying his side arm at all. I’d guess he’d left it in the gate house as they usually do, and the fact that he didn’t consider them a threat indicated to us that we needn’t worry much about any danger.
Still it pays to be cautious and we whispered amongst ourselves before we reached them that we shouldn’t give too much away, not until we had a chance to speak to my father. He’d know what was best to do with them. Our only plan so far was to put them in the old McKellar place which stood at the junction of “The Marshes” and “The Pines”, the only house that bridged the gap between the two halves of the town. It had suffered from a fire some years earlier and although floor boards and windows had been put back in, no-one had yet considered it safe enough to move in there. But as these two approaching us were probably not used to safety or to shelter at all we thought it would be good enough for them to use for a day or two.
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Cotton Covered WorldScience Fiction
A father and daughter somehow survive a massive chemical attack on America. Years later they stumble upon a seemingly untouched valley, where people seem unusually happy and well organized. But what is the cost of maintaining that image and what lie...