“Shut up,” Eda whispered. “Just shut up, will you?”
David’s voice came back at her – a faint vapor of familiarity drifting across the darkness. Somewhere in the close confinement of the tunnel, his whisper turned into a shout.
“What did you say?” he said. “Eda?”
Eda shook her head. She knew he couldn’t see her but she did it anyway.
“Nothing,” she said, staring into the pitch-black.
“Were you talking to me?” David said.
Eda shook her head again. “No.”
“Forget it David,” she snapped. “I thought I heard something that’s all. Let’s get moving, alright? This place is…never mind, let’s go.”
Eda kept walking. It wasn’t the first time she’d imagined footsteps or voices on her tail and it wouldn’t be the last either. Ever since they’d set foot in the Lincoln Tunnel things hadn’t felt right. A permanent unease had lingered amongst them like an uninvited companion. Where was the relief Eda had been hoping for? She was out for God’s sake. Where was the happiness, the joy at breaking free from New York? Damn it. Wherever the elation was, it wasn’t in the tunnel alongside the travelers. But there was something else in there, Eda was sure of it on a purely instinctive level. In the absolute silence, she could hear it breathing, just a few paces behind her. Walking when she walked. Stopping when she stopped. Sometimes she felt a gust of breath blowing on the back of her neck.
But whenever she investigated, there was nothing there. Nothing at all.
It was the darkness playing tricks with her mind. She had to keep telling herself that over and over again, repeating it like a mantra.
The alternative was to go crazy.
Thank God they were more than halfway through the one and a half mile long tunnel, which was located under the Hudson River. This creepy underwater bridge, shrouded in darkness, would transport them from Manhattan, New York, to a place that David apparently knew well, somewhere called Weehawken, in the old state of New Jersey.
“Frankie Boy?” Eda said. “Are you still there?”
“Frankie?” she said, a hint of panic creeping into her voice. “Don’t wander off for God’s sake. Not in here of all places.”
Then she heard it. The sound of the dog’s paws skipping over the roadway towards her. A light tap-tapping, accompanied by the repetitive sniffing noise Frankie made as he took in some new, unfamiliar scent in the air.
“Good boy,” she said. She reached down and found his back. It was a tiny oasis of warmth inside the icy tunnel.
“How long David?” she asked.
“We’re nearly there,” David said. His voice sounded further away, like he’d kept on walking while Eda had waited for Frankie Boy to catch up.
“I think this place is getting to me,” Eda said. “It’s like some giant haunted cave, don’t you think?”
“Try to relax,” David said. “Take slow, deep breaths. It’s just the tunnel playing tricks with your mind. I was the same the first time I came through here and I did it alone. Not being able to see two inches in front of me – it nearly drove me bonkers.”
“Bonkers?” Eda said.
“Yeah, you know. Mad. Crazy. Off my head.”
“Never heard that one before,” Eda said.
David laughed and it felt like the tunnel was shaking underneath them. “I grew up with an Englishman remember,” he said.
“Yeah,” Eda said. She wasn’t in the mood to talk about David’s hybrid accent or his upbringing. “Well I’m right on the edge of goddamn bonkers. How long?”
“You just asked me that,” David said.
“Not long to go,” David said. “Hopefully no more than fifteen minutes if we keep a steady pace. Trust me, it’s worth it if we keep pushing on and don’t think too much. We’re nearly out. And once we are, New York and the Complex will feel like a bad dream.”
Eda groaned. Fifteen minutes. It might as well have been fifteen days.
They kept walking.
About a minute later, Eda heard David curse up ahead as he walked into the back of yet another abandoned car. It wasn’t the first time either one of them had had a collision. There were a lot of cars sitting in the tunnel in silence, like a fleet of ghost ships from a distant era. Eda imagined that people back then, not knowing what else to do, had driven into the tunnel to hide from the madness of the city. Now their vehicles were still here, cloaked in darkness. Sometimes Eda caught a glimpse of an impending trunk at the last minute and barely avoided a collision. Mostly she knew nothing about it until she’d walked into the metal and taken the hit. Pain took a backseat to frustration. It was something else to slow her down. Afterwards, Eda would use her hands, feeling her way around the car, trying not to think about what might still be inside.
That was easier said than done.
Judging by the stale rot that permeated throughout the tunnel, they were walking through a giant, underground graveyard.
There were patches of occasional debris under their feet. As Eda and David stepped over these, a sickening crunching sound filled the air. It was a blasphemous noise. Eda had by now climbed over a small mountain of bones and if the ghosts of all those car owners were still in the tunnel then surely she’d pissed them off big time.
It was enough to make her walk faster.
When the light of the exit finally appeared up ahead, Eda groaned with relief. Throwing caution aside, she hurried outside and reveled in the gray, overcast sky that greeted them. They both stood there for a while, basking in the dull light of either late morning or early afternoon.
It had been a long day so far.
“Thank God,” Eda said. She ran a hand through her long dark hair. Despite the cold she’d felt inside the tunnel, her forehead was hot and damp with sweat.
There was also a dull pain throbbing around Eda’s temple. That was the spot where Lex had punched her. Her jaw ached too. That brutal struggle in Manhattan was still fresh in body and mind and despite what David had said earlier, it would be a long time before Eda could simply pass it off as a bad dream.
At the very least they were out of New York. That was official.
“Alright,” Eda said, adjusting her eyes back to daylight. She looked over at David, who was no longer just a voice in the tunnel alongside her. His wounds from New York added up to no more than a few minor facial cuts. He was smiling, clearly in good spirits.
Frankie Boy strolled ahead, his black tail wagging gently back and forth.
“I think you’re in the best shape out of all of us,” Eda said, looking at the dog. “Talk about not giving a shit.”
She turned back to the gaping jaws of the Lincoln Tunnel – three black holes, toothless and bleak, that dared to invite them back to New York. Above each tunnel, a huge advertising billboard looked down at the travelers. The images on each billboard had long since faded into insignificance.
“Let’s go,” Eda said.
The road led uphill into Weehawken. There were more cars sitting on the road as it curved steeply away from the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. At first glance, it looked as if this pack of vehicles had just emerged from the New York side and had paused for a moment before continuing on into New Jersey. But in reality, these rust-covered carcasses had been lying there for years. Going nowhere.
Eda didn’t get too close.
“So this is home for you?” she asked David as they walked up the hill.
“Yeah it is,” David said. “Not Weehawken specifically but New Jersey. I’ve moved about over the years but somehow I always end up coming back home. It’s like a magnet. It pulls me in and I guess…”
“Frankie!” Eda said, cutting David off.
The big German Shepherd had strayed too close to the abandoned cars. Although it was unlikely there was anything to fear – at least anything that was alive – Eda didn’t want to take the chance that someone else, someone who wasn’t just a pile of dust and bones, was waiting inside one of the vehicles to ambush the newcomers. Dead bodies were harmless in comparison to the living.
Even though they’d left the Lincoln Tunnel behind, Eda still had the strange feeling that she was being watched. As she climbed the hill into Weehawken, her claustrophobia had morphed into a sudden attack of agoraphobia.
She walked faster.
“Are you alright?” David asked, catching up with her. “You look a little bit pale if you don’t mind me saying.”
“I’m just getting used to things,” Eda said. “I thought a change of scenery would be easier than this.”
“You’ll be alright,” David said.
Eda looked at him as she walked at speed. “So where do we go from here?”
“I know a place where we can lay low for a few days,” he said. “Once we get there we can put our heads together and come up with a long-term plan.”
“What is it?” Eda asked.
David smiled. “It’s my quiet place,” he said. “Somewhere green, without a ruined car or a smashed window in sight.”
“Sounds good to me,” Eda said. “Is it far?”
“There’s a bit of walking involved. But it’ll be worth it, I promise.”
“Alright then,” Eda said. The thought of a long walk didn’t bother her, not as long as it was taking them further away from New York. A quiet place sounded just right.
The rotten scent that Eda had encountered in the tunnel lingered in the air. It was like the breeze was coated in decay; now it followed them like a shadow.
They made their way onto a large road, which the signs called the 495. After that they walked west for about an hour. Eda’s legs became tired quickly but the thought of David’s quiet place encouraged her to push past the fatigue, to say nothing of exhaustion. The quiet place had turned into a fabled paradise in Eda’s imagination. It was glorious. Nothing she saw along the way of a shattered world could discourage her from the ideal of perfection that awaited them.
They walked slowly, veering off the 495 and traveling through a town called Secaucus. It felt small compared to the enormous skyscrapers of Manhattan but despite superficial appearances, the emptiness inside was identical. Broken-down vehicles lined either side of the street, some of which had the driver and passenger side doors lying open, as if inviting further investigation. Eda declined the invitation.
Shattered glass peppered the sidewalk. Eda stepped over the gleaming, crystal-like shards and was immediately reminded of the crunching noises she’d heard inside the Lincoln Tunnel when she’d walked over the bones of the dead.
Eda noticed that David’s initially brisk pace was slowing down too. His feet looked like they were sinking into the road with each step.
“You getting tired?” Eda said. She hoped he’d say yes.
David nodded but he kept his eyes on the road ahead. “I forgot how far it was to the quiet place from the tunnel.”
“The adrenaline is wearing off,” Eda said. “I know the feeling. Hey, how about this? Maybe we should rest somewhere in between here and your quiet place. There’s no rush to get there, right? It doesn’t have to be this afternoon. It doesn’t even have to be today when you think about it. Not unless this quiet place of yours is moving.”
“Yeah okay,” David said. “We’ll keep moving for now and stop in a little while. Okay with you?”
“Sure,” Eda said.
They walked through Secaucus and at the edge of town, came to a long bridge that crossed over a broad, dark blue river. Once they were standing on the bridge, Eda knew that they’d found a good place to stop. She felt safe up there. It was the elevation – standing atop the bridge, Eda and David were high above all the houses and cars and everything else of the old civilization that stretched out for miles on either side of the river. Nothing could touch them on the bridge. It was like standing on the roof of a skyscraper in New York, safely out of reach of danger.
Looking down, the water was calm and tempting. But Eda would never go in to cool off, not even on the hottest of days. She knew that large rivers such as this one had been used as mass graves during the war years. Below the surface, the riverbed was fat with human remains. The surface, so blue and appealing from afar, would smell old and rancid.
The water level was high at the moment and Eda wondered how many times this particular river had spilled over its banks and rampaged through the empty town with no spectators to witness it wreak havoc upon the neighborhood. Even if it flooded today, Eda, David and Frankie Boy would be safe up on the bridge.
“What about here?” Eda said, calling out to David. “This is the best hotel I’ve seen so far in all of New Jersey.”
“Here?” David said. He looked around, seemingly unconvinced. “You don’t want to cover a little more ground before we stop?”
Eda shook her head. “We’ve got food, water and blankets,” she said. “It’s safe up here. I say we sleep and recover a little and then start up again early in the morning. Your quiet place – it isn’t going anywhere is it?”
“You really want to stop here?” David said.
“Yeah,” Eda said. Her eyes roamed over the bridge and nearby surroundings, and she was yet again assured of its strategic advantages. They wouldn’t find anything better than this. Anything safer. “If we stop in the middle it offers us a great vantage point. We can see for miles on all sides and if anyone or anything shows up to say hi, we’ll see them before they can get close.”
“Still think we’re being watched?” David said, smiling.
Eda shrugged. “I need to sit down,” she said. “Fully digest everything that’s happened today. You know?”
David nodded. He slid Eda’s backpack off his shoulder and held onto it by a single strap. They’d taken it in turns to carry the bag so far; it contained all their supplies, a modest bundle of food and water and amongst other things, two rolled up blankets, which had been fastened to the front.
They walked to the middle of the bridge and sat down on the road. Eda put her back up against the sturdy, stone barrier and sighed with relief.
David ran a hand back and forth over his tired calf muscles. “I’ll never get up now,” he said.
“No need to get up,” Eda said. “We rest. Start again in the morning.”
They ate the leftovers that Eda had taken from the Waldorf Astoria. Before the hastily assembled farewell ceremony, Eda had helped herself to as much food as she could carry – enough for a few days split between the two humans and Frankie Boy.
She offered some cold vegetable stew to Frankie Boy who devoured it in seconds. Then she poured out a small bowl of water, which she set it down on the road.
Conversation was sparse. Exhaustion settled into their bodies and minds and when the small talk began to dry up, no one went out of their way to prolong it. Both David and Eda lay down on their blankets. It wasn’t much of a bed but as far as Eda was concerned it was a slice of heaven on Earth. She would sleep well here.
“Wait till you see it,” David said. His voice was sluggish as he drifted off. He was looking up at the gray sky that shielded the stars from view. “I should never have left the quiet place. Everything’s so much better there. You’ll see…”
“Then why did you leave?” Eda said. Her eyelids were closing over fast.
“Itchy feet,” he said. “Curiosity. Adventure. The usual. Same things that always get me into trouble.”
A minute later, David was snoring lightly. Eda rolled over onto her left side and saw Frankie Boy curled up beside her on the blanket. The last thing she did before falling asleep was slide her dagger out of the crumpled backpack. After that, she closed her eyes, wrapping her fingers around the handle and laying the weapon flat against her chest.
In the morning they had a quick breakfast, gathered their belongings and set off towards the quiet place.
Eda felt refreshed after the long rest. As they traveled in a westerly direction, she set a swift pace that David matched stride for stride. There was a renewed sense of purpose in the traveling party now that the horrors of New York had faded ever so slightly further into the background.
Frankie Boy walked a short distance ahead, probing the surroundings like a well-trained scout.
After about six hours on the road they reached the city of Paterson. Paterson looked like it had been hit by a bomb and of course it had many times over. But walking through the city, Eda thought the destruction looked fresh – like it could have happened yesterday. Nobody had tried to rebuild over this since it happened. Debris of all kinds – bricks, stone and glass – were scattered all over the streets and sidewalks. The burned out shells of cars were everywhere, some of them skeletal and barely upright.
David stopped in the middle of the street. There was a strained expression on his face as he spun around, taking it all in.
“I remember this,” he said. “When it happened. All the noise and confusion – the shouting and screams. The worst screams you could ever imagine Eda. It all happened right here.”
“You lived in this city?” Eda asked.
He looked at her with an embarrassed smile.
“Think so,” he said. “I can’t remember to tell you the truth. All I remember is running with a gang of street kids in a place that looked just like this. A big city in New Jersey – how could I forget the name?”
“I grew up in a city,” Eda said. “I don’t remember what it was called either.”
David sighed. “They were right when they called it the wild years,” he said. “The things I saw Eda. I’ve never been so scared in all my life and yet I had to act tough if I didn’t want to be one of the victims. There was no way I could have kept that up for long. It would have worn me down sooner or later.”
“You got out?” Eda said.
“Yeah,” David said. “Thank God, one day someone found me. He took me and some of the other kids and got us the hell out of here. He saved our lives. Took us somewhere better.”
He looked at Eda.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Eda said.
“Are you really going to do what Shay asked you to do?” he said. “Are you going to become an ambassador for the Complex, find men and lure them to their death in New York? I mean, it’s none of my business but why should you? You’re free of those women now – you can do whatever you want without having to satisfy Shay’s bloodlust.”
Eda shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. That was the truth. She hadn’t really stopped to give it much thought since leaving Manhattan. “I’m not going to go out of my way to look for anyone. But at the same time, if I ever meet some gaping asshole who deserves it then why not? It’s an ugly way to die, that’s for sure.”
David nodded. He pointed to the backpack on Eda’s shoulder.
“Want me to carry that for a while?”
“Nah,” Eda said. “I’m good.”
“How are our supplies?”
“We’re not going to starve or die of thirst just yet,” Eda said. “But we’d better think about topping up soon or we just might.”
David’s eyes fell on the road that led west. “We’re close to our destination.”
“So tell me,” Eda said. “What exactly is this quiet place of yours? You’re not giving much away you know.”
David laughed, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
“There’s a massive stretch of wetland that way,” he said. “It’s like a big wooded swamp, that kind of thing.”
Eda shrugged, which made David laugh again.
“It’s about as far from New York City as you can imagine,” he said. “There’s a beautiful river that runs through it, trees, flowers, and things growing like that. Great Piece Meadows – that’s what it was called before the war. I call it my quiet place. It’s not like anything we’re walking through right now. Not like Paterson or New York. In the quiet place, everything looks just like it did before everything happened. You’d never even know there’d been a war. Nature takes care of you in there. There’s deer. Rainwater. It’s got everything you’d ever need to survive.”
They traveled west out of Paterson and onto a long stretch of blacktop highway with surprisingly few vehicles on it. It wasn’t long before Eda saw a vast ocean of trees looming in the distance. This blurry, mirage-like vision was every bit as inviting as the bright blue river of Secaucus. This time however, Eda was going to take up the invitation.
After walking for another twenty minutes straight, they came to a small, winding road that ran parallel to the highway. David led them along this road until gradually they began to enter the wetlands of Great Piece Meadows.
But before the swamp took over completely, the travelers passed by the remains of a few shack-like houses. These tiny abodes were lined up neatly on both sides of the road, the last hint of old civilization to be found in the region. From there, the path into the swamp narrowed further and the trees got larger and closer. For Eda, it was like walking into a different world and so far at least, it felt welcoming in a way she’d never encountered before. New York, Paterson and all the concrete skylines in her mind began to recede slowly, figments of a dream fizzling out in the morning sunshine.
Muddy puddles leaked out of the lush greenery and spilled onto the road. It was as if the swamp was trying to escape from itself, one tiny piece at a time.
“Great Piece Meadows,” Eda said, stepping over one large trail of mud. “So this is it? This is your quiet place?”
There was a smile on David’s face. His eyes drank in the environment, filling him up.
“You can see the appeal right?” he said. He stopped and held up a hand. “Listen. What do you hear?”
“Nothing,” Eda said.
“Exactly. Best sound you’ll ever hear.”
“Uhh, sure,” Eda said. “It’s different, I’ll give you that much. And right now, anything different is good.”
David kept walking. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll like it here.”
It was a while before either one of them spoke again.
Eda peered into the swamp from the road. She couldn’t see anything in between all the trees and the long, overgrown grass. It looked like the Meadows didn’t want to be found.
“You really lived in there?” she asked.
“I sure did,” David said. “It’s not quite as empty as it looks from out here on the road. There are a lot of animals living in the Meadows. There’s life everywhere you look, even if you can’t see it at first. I have weapons stored away – bows, knives. I’ve got plenty of traps too. We can…”
Eda jumped when Frankie Boy started barking. She knew that bark, fierce and frightened all mixed into one head-splitting noise. It was a warning. The dog’s body was as stiff as a board, the tail erect. He was facing the swamp head-on, barking at a blanket of trees and jungle grass.
Eda crouched down beside him. Her heart sped up as she stared into the swamp.
“What is it Frankie Boy?” she said. “There’s nothing there.”
David stepped over beside them and Eda straightened back up. They stood side by side, frozen on the narrow path, staring into the swamp because they knew that Frankie Boy wasn’t barking at nothing. But they couldn’t see anything, just a dense blanket of foliage swaying back and forth to a gentle breeze.
“C’mon boy,” Eda said. She patted Frankie on the back several times, hoping he’d snap out of it. “Let’s keep walking. We’ll go…”
Eda was interrupted by a rustling noise in the distance. Like something big pushing through the trees.
They heard the distinct sound of twigs snapping under feet.
“David?” Eda said. “Is that a deer?”
David shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Eda looked harder, not allowing herself to blink.
There was something there, directly up ahead. A man’s face had appeared in a small gap in between a couple of bloated tree trunks. He was looking at them through the gap, staring at the travelers with a calm, unblinking expression. The man was so perfectly still that Eda thought she might have been looking at a statue. And then he moved. It was like watching something step out of a dream and set foot in the material world – a two-dimensional image slowly coming to life in the three-dimensional realm.
More twigs snapped.
The man came through the Meadows, gliding towards them like a phantom.
And he was smiling.