We made it out of the burning neighborhood, and figured we wouldn’t get too far tonight, that we’d have to stop in downtown Portland. And we are stopped, but not exactly in the manner we had hoped.
I’m still in the back of the pickup, sitting with the others. Paul, my dad, and JJ are out of the car, talking to a man who appears to be the de facto leader of a group we’ve accidentally encountered. Talking isn’t really the right word, the guy is mostly just yelling at us.
I figured he would put his gun away when he realized we were just passing by in peace; that we weren’t looters and that we meant no one any harm. But he hasn’t.
“What are you doing here?” He has a deep, raspy voice.
My dad, the diplomat, is doing most of the talking. “Our hideout was burned, we had to flee. Look, we’re-”
“You’re from this area?” he demands.
“Yes.” My dad keeps his hands up in the air.
“How come I’ve never seen you before?”
“We kept pretty much to ourselves, mostly just-”
“You looters? You here to take our stuff?”
“No, we aren’t. I can assure you we’re just passing through, just looking for somewhere safe to camp out, that’s all.”
The man still has his gun pointed at my dad, and I’m starting to feel uneasy. I wasn’t too nervous at first; it didn’t mean he was going to shoot, just making a statement – maybe I’m just desensitized. But he seems unhinged, a loose cannon, and I’m not sure he can be reasoned with.
We just want to leave; I don’t know why he won’t let us do that, why letting us move on and live is such a big deal to him. We were just driving by this place – we weren’t even planning on stopping here. We drove slowly, surveying the buildings, looking for possible places to camp for the night, figuring tomorrow we could find somewhere more permanent.
Paul takes a step forward, and then another, his hands in the air. “Look, sir, you don’t need to have that out. Can we just put the gun down?” But he takes a step too close and the man jumps on him and quickly has him in headlock. It was an impressive maneuver I would not have thought him capable of, as he reminds me more of doughy desk job kind of guy than the sort to have any athletic prowess or even much coordination.
He points the gun at Paul’s head, “Stop moving, sonny.” Paul obeys.
Without thinking I jump out of the bed of truck and rush over, and the man notices me. “Stay where you are, girl. I’m warning you.”
I stop. “Please.”
My dad turns to look at me, and then back at the man. “If you just let us go, we’ll be on our way. We don’t mean any trouble.”
“Bullshit!” he yells, shaking Paul.
Several people emerge from the building behind him, a couple about Dylan and Kara’s age, maybe older, and an old guy. They stay back, just watching.
“It’s getting late, we can’t travel in the dark – if you let us go, we’ll move on and settle somewhere for the night, then leave first thing in the morning,” my dad offers.
“There’s not room for more than our group here – your very presence will threaten our safety. It’s not safe to have too many people, too many camps, so close together. They’ll find us. You’ll give us away.”
This town ain’t big enough for the both of us. Classic.
“Where else are we supposed to go? We can’t travel much farther until tomorrow.”
“I don’t give a shit, but you can’t stay here! You’ll just have to keep moving, through the night.”
“That’s suicide,” JJ says, and I know he’s right. Being out at night is the dumbest thing you can do these days – there are two kinds of night raids, and you want to be sure to avoid both, which you do by hiding. Plus, you seem more threatening at night, more like you’re sneaking around – if you see someone out in the dark, you shoot. You don’t wait to see if it’s actually an enemy, or just a wandering civilian. It sounds barbaric, but it’s what you have to do – you can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt, because they won’t give it to you.
Which is why I initially understood this man’s caution. But we are travelling in a group – of men, women, and children. Maybe if it had just been a few of the guys, it would have given off a red flag. The sun is just now disappearing – if had any sort of mischievous or malicious intentions, we would have waited until much later at night. And we gave no indication of wanting to stop at this apartment building. We would never have even known he was there if he hadn’t jumped out at us. We are clearly not looking to hurt his group or take anything from them.
“Suicide for you, maybe, but it saves my people. I want you to get moving and not stop,” he barks.
Two more people come out of the building. One of them is a rather short girl with an athletic build. She has curly red hair, or at least it looks like it in this light.
And the other…I don’t believe it, but I recognize him – the guy from my backyard. It is unmistakably him, it has to be. He has the same expression on now that he did last time I saw him – he has these intensely furrowed eyebrows, and I can’t decide if they make him look villainous or just extremely concerned and focused. Even from a distance, he’s unmistakable. I go rigid when I see him.
The leader seems dissatisfied with our pause, and reminds us again that he wants us gone. “You need to leave, understand?”
Maybe I really ought to have told the others as soon as I saw him, we could have been more cautious while travelling if they had known to be on the lookout for another group in the area. And although I didn’t feel threatened by him then, seeing him behind this angry man sticking a gun at Paul’s head, I certainly feel now like he might be more of a danger than I initially thought.
“I hear you, I really do, but there’s no where we can go tonight. We’ll be gone first thing in the morning, and we’ll camp tonight far from you,” my dad says.
The guy does not appear to like this promise. “Don’t make me give you a warning!” he yells, jabbing the gun at Paul’s head for emphasis.
Paul wheezes and grabs at the man’s arm around his neck.
“Stop!” I scream, “please!”
The guy from the backyard looks at me, and then at Paul. He steps forward. “Come on, Aiden. Let’s be reasonable about this.”
“I am being reasonable!” he shouts. “If they stay in the area for the night there will be too many people – they risk giving us away!”
“Then let them stay here,” the blonde stranger says calmly.
“So they can steal our shit and murder us while we sleep?”
“Come on, now – we have plenty of space. We’re the only people in this whole building. They’re just other survivors, look at them – they’re not going to hurt anybody.”
Aiden softens. He drops Paul, who gasps for air, but keeps his gun pointed at him. I take a few cautious steps at first, but then rush to Paul and help him up and walk him back over to our group.
“You can stay here then, but it’s not permanent, alright? You even so much as think about starting trouble and I won’t think twice about pulling the trigger next time.”
By now, though, I’m not so sure I even want our group to stay here. Neither option is exactly appealing: we either continue travelling through the night to get a sufficient distance away from this lunatic, or stay with him. And as disinteresting as the latter option is, the former is not really an option. So our hand is forced.
As I mull this over, I realize that despite whatever risk we take by accepting his invitation, I would be disappointed if we didn’t – I am too intrigued that this other guy, the peeping tom from my backyard, and I are crossing paths again.
My dad and JJ walk back over to the truck. “Let’s go guys,” my dad says. “Guess we’re staying here.”
“Allen do you really think it’s safe?” my mom whispers.
“Kim we don’t have another choice.” He reaches into the bed and picks up one of the packs. “Let’s go, everyone out – take something with you.”