by Paige Watkins
Something feels different, but Justus can’t figure out what it is. They walk around, trying to get their bearings, wondering how far they may have wandered while stuck in their memories.
They finally realize the difference. The trees. They’re taller. Not fully grown like Justus saw in historical pictures, but tall trunks. The tree stumps Justus is used to are not there.
Trees feel strange. As Justus rubs the bark, they remember what their elders taught them about trees when they were young. There was a time when trees grew green, and towered over people and homes. Elders talk about The Collapse, how it shifted the way the world worked and forced a different relationship between people and the Earth. Then, trees died and were cut down to stumps by the Regime.
They take a piece of the bark off the tree, and continue wandering.
About a mile away, Justus comes up on what looks like a campsite. Weird-looking tents in a sort of a circle, and a handful of people talking with each other in the middle of the area, some sitting on piles of rocks and trash made into stools, others standing around casually. They are wearing baggy, patchwork shirts with two front pockets, and what look like cargo shorts. Justus notices their skin – they all have darker skin then Justus has seen before. It seems to have a glow, even under the layer of dirt that covers their faces, legs, and hands. Their hair – matted and locked, seemingly defying gravity – reminded Justus of the way their Elders had often styled wigs for celebrations and historical commemorations. They often talked about the significance of the hairstyles of the ancestors, how they symbolized culture and stature. So many people that Justus knows are bald. There are generations of people who were unable to grow hair after the Dome disintegrated.
So Justus is fascinated by these strange people. They have so much hair! Justus watches them for a while, trying to get a sense of who they are and what they are doing.
Someone must have noticed Justus standing there because in the next moment, the group of people were all staring back at Justus. One of them, tall and slim, starts motioning for Justus to come over, and Justus goes. They figure, at the very least, one of these strange people can tell them where they are and maybe even help them figure out their way back to the North End of the city.
“What you doing out here?” The tall, slim person looks Justus up and down. “You a new one?”
“I’m lost,” Justus says – noticing that words feel weird coming off their tongue. They don’t speak often, sometimes going months without saying words to anyone.
“Oh, well that figures,” someone says as they settle back into their seat. “I didn’t think a new one would be out here by themselves looking like that.”
They also look Justus up and down, noticeably pausing at their sandals, and again when their eyes reach Justus’s bald head.
“A new what?” Justus is confused by these people, forgetting for a moment that they were trying to get home, that space in their mind having been taken up by curiosity about these people.
“A new courier. Usually, they get sent to us in a group. They’re not prone to walking by themselves this far out when they just get started.” The tall, slim one walks away, then comes back from a tent with a rolled up piece of cloth. “How’d you get lost all the way out here? Where you headed?”
“I was walking home from the river, trying a new route. I guess I went farther than I meant to.”
All the faces in the group wrinkled in unison, as if they are all sharing the same thought.
One of them, shorter and cleaner than the others, finally broke the silent confusion: “How’d you wander from the river all the way out here? You got all the way to the Northwest zone and didn’t even notice? Damn, you musta been really distracted.”
Justus realized at that moment that they must be much farther from home than they thought. They start to piece together some of what they had learned about the dwellers outside the walls, beginning to feel nervous.
To be continued.