Refuge

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CHAPTER 13 – At Last, It’s Over!

GOLDEN GATE NRA

THURSDAY

Jason woke to the smoky brown rays of the morning sun streaming through the east-facing window. He glanced at his watch and saw the face was shattered. He hadn’t even noticed earlier. With a shrug he slid it off and dropped it to the floor. He had spent the night, cold and stiff with Emmie tucked under his arm. The blanket had helped, but the night seemed to go on forever.

He lay there recalling the fantastic events of the day before, assuring himself that it had really happened. He wished he could let Emmie sleep in, rousing her half way to noon with a reminder that a wonderful day awaited her. He wished he could erase the nightmare of the day before. But, forcing himself to face the fact that he couldn’t protect her forever from all the evils of the world, he gave her shoulder a gentle shake to which she answered with a single moan.

Hesitant to disturb her, he remained there, enjoying the touch of his little girl nestled against him for a few moments longer, assessing. The nausea-laden dizziness still lingered, but only just noticeable. The throbbing pain he had anticipated upon waking hadn’t struck. He gingerly reached up to touch the gash over his ear and found it still tender, but not bleeding. In fact, it seemed to be well on its way to healing. It was apparently not as serious as he had thought. He recalled the soothing caresses of his daughter’s fingertips the day before and decided she was, indeed, an angel. After taking a few deep breaths and holding them for a moment before releasing them, he brought Emmie fully awake with another squeeze of her shoulder.

For breakfast, they ate part of Emmie’s find, including a can of soda apiece. He found a plastic shopping bag in the desk, dumped out the two reams of paper someone had bought and replaced them with the remainder of Emmie’s find for the trail. As they stepped outside, he took in the pall of smoke hovering just inland from the coastline, fed, still, by various long burning sources scattered about the Bay Area. Only the onshore winds prevented it from reaching the beaches, cliffs and clean waters of the Pacific.

Jason wanted to avoid the chaos of all the burned-out buildings to their west and south, and so, they headed east from the warehouse up the gentle rise of the Miwok Trail. They went slow and easy for half a mile or so, but then the trail turned north. From there it was a long, arduous grind up a shallow canyon to the south rim of the valley.

At the top, they had an option of following the Miwok northward and east where it leveled out a bit and continued along the ridge top, or of going west on a lesser track a small sign identified as Wolf Ridge Trail. Emmie laughed at the name and said it had to be the best way to go. Leery of getting back into the congestion of the bayside cities and towns, Jason agreed. With a last look at the smoke belching ruins of San Francisco, then to the southwest and the little valley with Fort Cronkhite, the lagoon and all the rest of the death behind them, they exchanged encouraging smiles and stepped out onto the trail down the north side of Wolf Ridge. He just hoped the winding trails, or a network of them, would continue far enough to get them to the coastal highway. There was even a chance it might veer back over the ridge and dump them right back down at Fort Cronkhite. It didn’t take more than a glance at the steep, rocky terrain and the ubiquitous, dense thickets of often head-high, tough and prickly brush to reach the decision to avoid, if possible, striking out cross-country even for the shortest short-cut.

He was grateful they had dressed for an anticipated day of hiking when they left home the day before. They had even brought jackets in case they encountered cool ocean breezes, but they had burned up with their car. Their clothes had suffered some damage—a few snags, tears and singed holes—but mostly they were just dirty, and their shoes had held up.

The wind gusting over the hills came off the ocean and was clean where they stopped at the side of the trail for another rest. With the peaks of Wolf Ridge and ridges around them blocking their view of the little valley with the lagoon, and even of the greater devastation of the rest of the bay area, it was tempting to dismiss it all as a bad dream. Except for the ever-present pain of various burns, the cut on his head with its occasional throb over and above the constant headache and still occasional, if brief, dizzy spell that prevented any kind of speed, and the covering of gray ash they each wore, Jason could have lulled himself into believing that none of the events of the previous day had happened. They were just on the pleasant hike through the hills they had planned. Without speaking, he gazed at the western horizon just visible through a gap between two ridge peaks, and Emmie plucked at a clump of small, blue wildflowers growing next to her.


MUIR BEACH

With exhausted sleep still gripping her, it took a few moments of confused thrashing of memories for Erin to identify her present surroundings. By the time the lock was fumbled with and dropped twice against the metal door, the key inserted and turned, and then the doors slid open on rusty runners, she was awake and alert. She huddled in a corner with her legs drawn up and the rags draped over her shoulders and back against the remnants of chill from the night. Rachel lay curled up under her arm. At least Rachel hadn’t been stripped.

Rachel sat up with a start when she finally became awake. Her red, puffy eyes peered up at Vic’s large silhouette, and she cowered against Erin’s side.

Two black eyes and a swollen nose added an ogre-like aspect to his malicious glare. For a very long minute his eyes bored into her. He didn’t even glance at Rachel. His full attention was on Erin. He said nothing, moved nothing until, finally, he slowly nodded his head as a humorless grin spread across his face and he stepped back out. She and Rachel remained unmoving until the door slid closed and they heard the lock snap shut.

With no cup or dipper, they had to scoop handfuls of water from the bucket to slurp. They selected a front corner farthest from where they huddled to relieve their bursting bladders. Neither mentioned food or its lack.


GOLDEN GATE NRA

As the day wore on, Jason wondered at the absence of the invaders. He had expected to at least see some flying overhead or above the bayside cities beyond the eastern hills. But there was no sign of them—nothing but the giant craft hanging in the sky. Occasional sparrows and their seed-eating kind darted here and there, but the high-flying birds such as crows and hawks and buzzards were not to be seen. Even the gulls had deserted the gullies, knolls and clefts carved into the serrated coastline, gone to the feast of abundance beyond the hills.

Without a map or some idea of what the area held or even how large it was, Jason worried that they would still be up there wandering about at the end of the day. The Wolf Ridge Trail took them generally westward, although it also twisted and turned to every point of the compass. In one area no more than five hundred feet across, they went from westbound to northbound to eastbound to southbound before finally making a sharp turn back to northbound and over a crest where they went west again.

After a bit, they veered northward and came across another trail. It ran east and west across the Wolf Ridge Trail. A sign declared Tennessee Valley Beach was just over a mile away. Not being familiar with the rugged and rocky nature of the northern California coast, and thinking they should be able to just walk up the beach until they found the coastal highway, they abandoned what seemed an endless overland trek through a hilly, chaparral wilderness and turned west. At least it was downhill all the way. But Tennessee Valley Beach was only five hundred feet long and ended on the north end of vertical rock wall nearly a hundred feet high that jutted more than two hundred feet into the ocean.

Exhaustion and another bout of nausea brought on by dizziness prompted another break, but they took this one sitting on the sand and watching the breakers flatten out onto the beach. Afterwards, they found a trail to take them to the top of the wall on the north side where it started at three hundred feet above the even smaller beach on that side and got higher from there. But it didn’t look too steep over the coastal hills, and it was going north, so they kept going. But what looked from their approach as just a rounded hill suddenly ended. It was like a giant with huge, jagged teeth had taken a bite out of the coastal hills, removing a vast scallop of earth a thousand feet wide. The bared face was a rocky, ridged cliff close to six hundred feet high. At the bottom, the surf crashed against huge boulders. It wasn’t a vertical drop, but, looking down from the narrow pathway along its lip, it might as well have been.

For the first time they had a view of any distance up the coast, clear up to the Point Reyes headlands twelve miles away. And there, just a couple of miles away, a tree and house-covered promontory beckoned. It wasn’t a city, or even a proper town, from what they could see. But it was a community of some kind. Even from that distance, though, plumes of smoke from the mostly black hillside indicated it had not escaped destruction. But that just meant their quest for refuge was only delayed, not ended. At least the coastal highway, or a way to it, had come within reach.

The trail, a narrow footpath that was probably unauthorized since it skirted so close to the edges of the cliffs, took them on northward, just not at beach level.


MUIR BEACH

Midmorning sunlight was not yet filtered through overhanging branches, and it warmed the shed to a level of near comfort. Constantly rustling pine needles whispered soft commiserations to the fearful prisoners. The eternal rumble of the surf was the only other sound.

The fires must have burned themselves out during the night without ever reaching the house occupied by Vic and his companions or the prison-shed in the back yard. More than once during the night Erin had considered that possibility on the wings of sudden change in wind direction. More than once, before Crissy’s deliverance, when her screams seemed to go on and on, Erin had even prayed that the flames would somehow find their way back and consume everything and everyone and all the evil that had befallen them. But the fates, or the gods, or the demons, or whoever made those decisions had seen fit to keep them alive for another day. So, Erin and Rachel sat in silence and uncertainty inside their dismal jail and waited for whatever came next.

Minutes dragged by like hours. Erin could have sworn they had sat through the whole day and dusk was almost upon them. But pencil-thin lines of sunshine through the east wall made it clear that noon was still yet to come.

“Oh, Erin,” sobbed Rachel. “I’m so scared.”

“I know. I know.” Erin’s arm tightened about Rachel’s shoulder and she patted the frightened girl. But she didn’t feel reassured, herself. More than fear, she was filled with bitter hatred for Vic. But when she thought of Crissy, then of Vince, she shivered with terror. Although, in reality only lasting an hour or so, what had seemed like an entire night of screams had had a searing effect on her, like a cruel branding iron that marks the hide forever. But forcing her thoughts from them merely brought her back to face the prospect of Vic.

“Do you think he’ll rape me before he kills me?”

The question caught Erin off guard with its matter-of-fact tone. The mere idea that this lovely child should have such a concern struck Erin like a blow. She wanted to hug her and deny that such a thing was even remotely possible, but she knew better. And it would be no kindness to give the girl any false hopes or sense of optimism. They both knew the hopelessness of their situation.

She thought about Mandy and considered the wisdom of following her example. The future didn’t look all that great for her, either, but, under Carl’s protection, at least she wasn’t raped and beaten and held prisoner in a cold, metal shed. The prospects of such a life as she imagined for Mandy, though, reaffirmed in her mind the rightness of rejecting it. Mandy was not regularly raped, but was she truly a consenting partner? Mandy didn’t have any bruises from beatings, but what bruises discolored her psyche? Was Mandy present during Crissy’s execution? Crissy had said they were friends before. Had she participated in administering the punishment? Was not Mandy as much a prisoner as she and Rachel? Of the two different prisons, that of sheet metal or that of the mind, which was cruelest? Which offered the best chance of escape?

I may be beaten, raped, and killed. But—jaw muscles knotted—not before I kill him. I swear it.

“I don’t know.” Erin decided to be as honest as she could with Rachel. “Maybe. It might be better if you didn’t fight. It wouldn’t do any good, and you see what it got me. They aren’t going to be concerned about attracting attention, or of you telling anyone, or any of the other things a woman could weigh in that kind of a situation before...before. I don’t think Vic will hurt you if you don’t oppose him.”

“I meant Vince. Vic hardly even looks at me—not like that.”

Erin breathed in and out a couple of times while she tried to decide on her response. Then, “I don’t know. But I don’t think he is going to kill you. Why would he if he hasn’t already? The longer you live, the better chance you have of living even longer.” It struck her how ludicrous such a statement was to make; how insane the world had become that such words would be said in all seriousness. But she went on. “Carl has Mandy, and Vic seems to be focusing on me, so he probably won’t come after you.”

“But if he does, I—I don’t know if I could... I’ve never...”

Erin’s heart ached for the girl. “It won’t be easy. I know that. You’ll feel disgust and shame and dirty. You’ll feel hate like you’ve never known. Grab onto it. Hold the hate. Feed it. Let it grow. You’ll find shelter in it. Your body is just so much skin and muscle and bone, and it will heal. Remember that. Keep that foremost in your mind. Don’t let the nightmare beat you. That’s what it is, a nightmare. It won’t last forever. Afterwards, you will still be alive. And, sooner or later, your chance—our chance—will come. And vengeance will be oh, so sweet.” Erin spoke low and slowly, and she spoke as much to herself as to Rachel.

After a thoughtful moment, Rachel said, “I don’t know. I don’t think I could. I think I will die. I think I would rather die.”

“No! No, you mustn’t! Don’t give up. We can win! We can!”

Minutes passed in silence until Rachel spoke. “I don’t think it will matter for me, anyway.”

“What do you mean? Of course, it matters for you!”

“No. I mean...even if I do everything they want, I don’t think it would help. Vic doesn’t seem to want me so much. I mean...he looks at me like he wants to, but he doesn’t… It’s Vince. He’s the one that scares me more than anything else. He’s...he’s crazy. I mean, truly crazy. And Crissy said she and he were close, too, before. It’s like...I don’t know... Like the closer you are to him, the more he wants to hurt you. I guess it’s like Crissy said, he just likes to hurt people. And what is this thing about him looking at me so weird-like and saying ‘Mother’ all the time? If I remind him of his mother, and if he wants to hurt everyone that is close, I think he will come for me soon. Like Crissy.”

“Oh, Rachel, no.” The tears burned Erin’s eyes. “Don’t give up hope.”

“It’s not a matter of giving up hope. It’s just the way he looks at me at times. There’s so much hate—so much evil—in his eyes. No sane person could look at me like that. Sometimes I think I’d be better off if Vic would just go ahead and take me out and rape me, too. I mean...like you said, I probably wouldn’t really be injured. I would just lie there an…and let him... I wouldn’t fight. I would still b…be alive, and ma…maybe, after a time, even g…get away.” She was sobbing so hard her entire body trembled.

Erin tried to comfort her, but she knew Rachel could easily be right. What do you say to someone who has every reason to believe she will soon die horribly, in agony, for no reason within logic, screaming for the long-denied release of death?


GOLDEN GATE NRA

Jason led Emmie on a single-file trail that ran along the crest of a sharp ridge. To the right, the often bare and rocky ground sloped away to a creek bed at the bottom of a shallow canyon. To the left, he couldn’t avoid looking at the surf crashing on rocks five and six hundred feet below and close enough to straight down to make his fingers and toes ache. The first few hundred feet of the ridge crest trail weren’t so bad because they could keep their distance from the drop-off, but when the bare ground on the sloped side gave way to a solid carpet of waist-high brush, thick, prickly and unyielding, they were forced to walk on the knife-edge crest or double all the way back, maybe even as far as the Wolf Ridge trail, and no telling where to from there.

At one point, the path went across an overhang, and he half turned in mid-stride to tell her to walk along the far-right edge of the path. He set his foot down on a stone that rolled, and he staggered to recover. He stumbled forward a couple of steps where his left foot landed hard on the lip. With his foot sliding on a bed of sand and gravel showering out into the void and the ground crumbling beneath his weight, he felt his balance tilt to the left, out beyond the edge, out to where nothing was under him but air and occasional rock outcroppings for hundreds of feet. The sudden exertion brought on another bout of dizziness just as he reacted by throwing his weight against the fall. But dizziness spoiled his aim, and he flung himself forward but not left. He watched in dread as the precipice seemed to draw him, and he felt himself beginning to drop. Suddenly, it was like a large, rubber band jerked him back the other way enough for him to fall to the right, and he landed on the sloped side of the trail sprawled across a large bush.

As he scrambled with his hands to hold onto the stiff branches in case things tilted again, he jerked his head back around to see if Emmie was okay. She was standing on the trail ten feet back with her eyes as wide as they could go and both hands over her mouth.

He motioned for her to move away from the edge and to come to him. After she scooted over to his reaching arm, and he had her trembling body in the safety of his grasp, he gasped out, “Are you okay? Did you feel that? It must have been an earthquake.”

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she shook her head and hugged him back, clutching him with grasping hands and burying her face in his chest. “I didn’t feel anything. I just saw you knock the dirt loose and start to fall.

Disentangling himself from the bush, he half reclined back on the slope next to the trail with Emmie safely in his arms. He gazed out into the emptiness just beyond the other side of the tiny trail. Oh, Beth! What a stupid place to put a trail! It’s gotta be unauthorized. And if it is, why is it still here? Why isn’t it blocked off, or erased, or…something? That was just too close. Was that an earthquake? Emmie said she didn’t feel it, but it had to have been strong. Strong enough to knock me back the other way.

Thinking about it, he shook his head in answer to his own assertion. But…no matter how strong it was—if it was—I was practically airborne, hardly touching the ground at all. So how could the ground moving have knocked me in any direction? And if it wasn’t an earthquake—what the hell was it? What did I do, because I must have done something? I know I felt something push me—or pull me—back away from going over the edge…sorta like when that last sonic boom knocked us both over, like a wall of air hitting us. It almost felt like that. But there was no boom, not even all that much wind, so it wasn’t that. It sure wasn’t gravity. Gravity was trying to pull me over the edge, but something pulled me back the other way. So, what the hell was it?

“Can we go, Dad? I don’t like it this close to the edge.”

Jason made sure he was leaning away from the drop as he worked his way to his feet and then assisted Emmie to do the same. He debated with himself whether to turn back, but they were already most of the way past the worst section.

“Okay, but until we get up there where the trail isn’t so close to the edge, we go extra slow and careful. We’ll hang onto the bushes—with both hands. Always make sure you have hold with one hand before you let go with the other one, like this. Okay?”

He led off one slow step at a time and walking his hands through the bushes that were thorny enough to make grasping them without looking first often painful. After fifty feet or so, the cliffs veered away seaward and the ridge that the trail topped was sloped on both sides. They just had to thread through a thick carpet of brambly brush on both sides of the foot-wide trail for the next quarter of a mile up a steep ridge crest.

The ground came close to leveling off at a shoulder where three more trails intersected the one they had just come up…real trails, authorized trails. What appeared to be a main trail came across the face of the hillsides from the southeast and made a sharp turn there at the intersection. From there it went uphill and along the rim of a canyon going away from the coast in a northeasterly direction.

“Break,” he said and eased himself to the ground.

They had gone through most of their food and all but two of their sodas, but he still insisted they each slake their thirst and eat an energy bar apiece. The sun was overhead and, although not overly hot there along the coast, it felt like it was baking his brain after the rattling it had taken the day before.

“Sure do wish I had my Indy hat,” he said with a smile and a squint. “And my sunglasses.”

“It looked good on you. Why don’t you put your shirt over your head?”

He thought for a bit, grinned, and said, “That’s a great idea! Why didn’t you think of it?”

She grinned back at him as he removed his shirt and draped it over his head, tying it in place with the arms.

“There. How’s it look?”

She pondered for a bit, shook her head with a brief giggle and said, “Dumb. I liked your Indy hat better.”

With a weary smile he said, “Me too. Remind me to take this off before we go into a restaurant or something.”

“Is it cold with just your tee shirt?”

“No, not too bad. It probably will be later when the sun gets low. But I won’t need this on my head then. Right now, the breeze feels kinda good.”

To avoid getting lost in the inland hills, they opted for a lesser trail, but one still much better than the one they had just come up. It meandered north across the next hillside that sloped most of the way to the ocean’s edge. After it dipped out of sight into and out of a small canyon just over the hillcrest before them, they could see its lighter colored line traversing a series of hillsides sloping to the sea and finally disappearing over top of the last one. And just beyond it, no more than a mile away, lay the hill with the destroyed community.

“Do you think someone there can help us?”

Jason’s heart ached from the weariness of her words. “There’s probably a good chance. Let’s go find out.”

Although they were only about a mile in a straight line from their last rest stop, all the back and forth, ups and down, ins and outs of a canyon and three mini-canyons, and simply following the irregularities of the rugged coastline, had stretched their path out to close to two miles. Their lesser trail had just merged with a major trail wide enough to be a fire road. A small beach maybe twice the size of Tennessee Valley Beach stretching out beneath their goal had just come into view. But where rocky cliffs enclosed Tennessee, the far end of this one met a hill with houses and trees, maybe half a mile away. Upon the blackened and smoking hill many of the trees were reduced to black spikes standing amid a blanket of devastation. Shells and foundations were all that was left of dozens of buildings, probably houses. Here and there across the hill, as well as the western edge that overlooked the sea cliffs and along the bottom near the beach, several unburned houses remained. He could see no movement, but he didn’t really expect to from that distance.

Jason picked a spot clear of brush and, with a groan, sat down beside the trail. Without his watch he could only guess by the sun that it was early afternoon. Now that their destination, a refuge however dubious, was in sight and reachable, and there was no longer a threat of them having to spend another night shivering beneath a bush, he was content to gaze upon it from afar long enough for some of the ache to drain from his legs. Emmie eased herself to the ground beside him.

“Okay,” Jason said as he gazed out over the ocean to the horizon. “Last break.”

“Oh, I can’t believe it,” Emmie sighed. “At last, it’s over!”

PART II – DENIAL OF REFUGE

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