30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 9: The Post-World (Part I)
The shattered ruins of the Portland skyline came into view above the river through a break in the treeline. Ray pedaled his bike slowly along the ruined strip of blacktop that was once the Springwater Corridor, the rhythmic squeaking of the chain setting his pace like a metronome. He looked towards the remnants of the Ross Island Bridge — only the cement columns and a few green steel girders remained. He caught a glimpse of the fallen KOIN Tower spilling its red bricks towards the waterfront just before the trees swallowed up his view again.
He rode slowly along the path. His shoulders ached from the weight of his rucksack, but it had become so constant that he easily ignored the sensation. Reaching down towards the bottle mounted on the down tube of his bike, he remembered he would need more water soon, and began to scroll through places in his mind where he might be able to find fresh water among the ruined city ahead. Finding water in the wilds was easy if you knew how to look, but in the city damn near everything was tainted.
The end of the trail loomed ahead. Ray spilled out into the old industrial district. Husks of burnt-out warehouses stood as a reminder of the fires that had raged across the city. Ray pedaled his way through the tight space between two cement walls that used to belong to buildings and opened up onto Caruthers Street. He paused in the middle of the intersection to survey the scene. The bright cables of The Crossing spread from stone pillars that stood above the green poplars lining the river’s edge. Much newer than the Ross Island Bridge, The Crossing had been able to withstand the powerful earthquakes that had shaken the city. It remained as one of the only safe ways to cross the river — safer than the alternatives, at least.
Ray unslung his pack and began to rifle through its contents looking for a suitable offering. Scrubs were sometimes fickle, but mostly fair. If one offered too much, one merely got the bad end of an unbalanced deal and lost something precious to them. However, If one offered too little, one found themselves taking the shortcut back to Ross Island. Scrubs did not take disrespect lightly.
Luckily, Ray came prepared. He took a small object from his pack and slipped it into the front pocket of his black denim jacket. He had been hoping to hold onto it in case he needed to bargain with the Hipsters on The Hill, but this was more important. Eyes up, he scanned the horizon for movement as he hoisted his rucksack back on and remounted his bike. He knew that the onramp from the street had been blocked with cars ever since the light rail had been taken by the gangs from Gresham. He would have to go the long way.
Ray stood still as a stone astride his bike in the middle of the intersection. He stretched his mind forward into the half-collapsed structure now blocking The Crossing, feeling for any remnants of mutants within — a trail, a trace, or a lingering wisp of fury, anger, and hunger. Ray wasn’t entirely sure that he felt nothing there, but he needed to cross, and the only way to do that was to pass underneath the shattered dome of OMSI.
Ray began his slow, methodical pedal once again. He headed straight on Water Avenue to circle around to the side of the building. A slow left turn brought the old parking lot into view ahead. Cars in various states of decay and dilapidation lay strewn across the blacktop. He could see ahead what used to be the entrance to OMSI, its dark blue tinted glass pyramid now only a latticework of painted-black steel bars. On the ground before it stood a wall of 10-foot high corrugated metal sheets laced together with barbed wire and buttressed by police barricades, much like the wall that blocked the southern access point. The only entrance was through a huge hole blown into the side of the building that used to be the planetarium.
Ray peered into the dark. A black maw stared back. The bright light of midday made it near impossible to see inside the inky blackness of the opening. He reached forward with his mind again and found enough silence to satisfy him, so he checked his surroundings one last time, pulled up the hood of his gray sweater and pedaled into the darkness ahead. Slowly, so that his eyes could adjust, Ray moved forward into the ruined museum. The rhythmic squeaking of the chain was slower now, but it comforted Ray. The sound echoed into the dark as shapes and edges gained clarity before his widening pupils.
Rubble and ruin carved a valley underneath the dome of the planetarium, only wide enough for two people to walk abreast. “It’s the perfect killing floor,” Ray said quietly to himself, but he pedaled on.
Ray weaved his way gingerly through the valley, only hazarding a quick look up to the ruined dome, a perfect vault of blackness above. He thought for a moment about the people who used to sit in this room gazing up at lights and lasers projected on that dome, now forever dark. He soon broke out into the old lobby. The sun streamed through the latticework above and illuminated the reception desk and pillaged museum shops. The far side of the lobby had sloughed away into the Willamette during a quake, so that the only way forward was left towards the Crossing.
For just a moment, Ray swore he felt a spray of desperate hunger vault forth from the depths of the museum on his left. His nightvision ruined by the sun once again, Ray looked towards it and saw only the blackness. He imagined the hulking shapes of mutants undulating and writing within that darkness. Fear gripped him and his slow, steady pedal became a desperate rush for the sun-soaked asphalt outside. Teeth clenched, he could almost feel their hot breath on his face just as he blasted over the threshold and into the light. In his haste, he stumbled off the bike and looked back. Crouched on the ground, he gazed into the darkness. He saw nothing. He reached with his mind and found only silence again.
He took a deep, cleansing breath and laughed at himself. Ray picked up his bike from where it had fallen, dusted himself off, and biked towards the poorly-constructed ramp. Ray had to stand up and pedal to crest the top of the steep ramp and soon found himself up on The Crossing. Relieved, Ray dismounted from his bike, took down the hood of his sweater, and fanned himself by opening and closing his jacket several times. Sweat shined on his dark forehead. He wiped the sweat with the forearm of his jacket and smoothed his fair forward a few times.
Reaching down to check his front pocket for the item stored there, he turned his face towards the western end of the Crossing. He could see two of its guardians standing near the center waiting for him — their green and blue medical scrubs stood in stark contrast to the whites and grays of the bridge itself. Ray steeled himself and walked his bike in their direction. He raised his hand in a gesture of peace as he walked. In the back of his mind, he hoped the offering would be enough to save him a swim in the river today. As he approached, four more people in bright medical scrubs stepped out from behind the barrier in the center of the bridge.
“Hail,” Ray shouted from a safe distance, “I seek passage on The Crossing today.”
“Your intentions are noted. Are you travelling alone,” asked a man in green scrubs.
Ray hesitated, then responded, “I am.”
The Scrubs conferred quietly with each other. This worried Ray. Maybe they were bored today. Maybe they were running low on supplies and debating whether or not it would be worth the hassle to try and take his. Ray thought for a moment about whether or not he could get away, how he would do it. I could probably mount the bike and speed down the ramp quickly enough, he thought, it depends what kind of firepower they have. He didn’t see any firearms, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. His reverie was broken by a yell from the man on the bridge. “What is your offering, lone traveller?”
Ray reached into his pocket, pulled out a pair of stylish, square-framed, black reading glasses, and held them up to the sky. The six Scrubs in the center of the bridge gesticulated excitedly, and the man who had questioned Ray sent a young woman in light blue scrubs bounding towards Ray. Her auburn hair was pulled up into a ponytail that bounced as she ran. As she came closer, Ray saw that she was very short, about 5 feet tall, and she wore a full set of purple-colored braces. “Lemmesee,” she blurted as she got closer.
Ray held out one hand to halt her advance. She slowed, but seemed anxious to get closer. He held out the glasses for her to inspect. She leaned forward and squinted, mouth agape as she strained her eyes. “Lemme see,” she said again, this time more forcefully.
Exasperated, Ray held up one finger for her to wait a moment, then carefully lay his bike on the ground. He firmly held the frames in his left hand and motioned her forward with his right, keeping it free for whatever may happen next. The young woman walked closer and reached out her hands towards the glasses. “Ey,” exclaimed Ray, “you can see them just fine from there.”
She sucked her teeth in protest, but relented and examined the glasses from about half a meter in front of him. “No lenses,” she asked.
“No lenses,” Ray replied.
“Open them up.”
Ray unfolded the glasses and presented them to her. Her eyes widened and he smiled as she read the name printed in bright white letters on the inside of the left temple, her mouth forming the words silently:
She nodded her head at Ray, turned, and ran back to the other Scrubs. Soon, the leader waved him forward. Ray smiled, picked up his bike, and pushed it towards them — and one more step towards his destiny, he hoped.