Tell Gilgamesh I’m Sorry
by Lou Antonelli
“You might make it as far as Longview, but I doubt it.” The Pleasantville militia captain looked the skinny teenager up and down. A private kept his rifle trained on the stranger. Behind them loomed a large armored personnel vehicle with six-foot tall wheels.
“South of that, it’s worse than ever,” the captain continued. “You’ll never make it to Houston.”
“I can take care of myself.”
The captain spat tobacco juice on the ground. “I’m impressed you made it from Oklahoma City, but you’ve been through a lot of open country. You’ll never make it through these East Texas Piney Woods.”
The teenager scratched the thin stubble on his chin as he looked up and down the ruins of the old American interstate highway. “My father told me if I made it to Pleasantville, I could find a man who lives in the Sabine River bottoms who could tell me how to make it the rest of the way.”
“Really. And who would that be?”
“His name is Omar Peshtigo.”
The private gasped. The captain held up a hand.
“Nobody knows if old Omar is still alive,” said the captain. “Nobody has seen him since the Crash.”
“People still see smoke over the trees,” said the private.
“That don’t necessarily mean a thing,” said the captain.
“I only want directions, I don’t want to enter Pleasantville,” said the boy. “Can you point me towards where the old hermit lives?”
“First, what’s your name, son?” asked the captain.
“Skinner, Skinner Dunklee.”
The captain grunted. “Well, Skinner, I’ll let you pass and send you on your way if you have something to trade.”
Skinner hefted a duffel bag. “I have some stuff.”
“We got plenty of kif.”
Skinner reached inside and pulled out a clear plastic bag. The captain took it and looked it over. “Hey, kush, the good stuff. Things must be getting better in OK City.”
“We’re trying to raise some barter crops. This stuff is great in trade.”
“I bet,” said the captain. “This all you have left?”
“Yes, I had to trade the rest to pass through all the other checkpoints.”
The captain looked at the private. “It’s enough for us. I hope you find old Omar the hermit and he can help you, because otherwise you won’t be going much further.”
“I understand,” said Skinner. “Which way is it?”
The private pointed with his rifle. “You see that gap in the trees? There’s an old road. Follow it, keep going until it runs into a swamp. Then there’s nothing but swamp until you get to the river. But if you keep straight, you will reach it. The road will pick up on the other side, the far bank is higher and drier.”
“Great, thanks. Maybe I’ll see you on the way back.”
“Maybe, kid,” said the captain. “If you make it back.”
“You could stay and join the Pleasantville militia. We can always use new recruits,” said the private. “You’d be welcome to stay. Right, cap?”
The captain nodded. “We can always use healthy young white men.”
“I want to make it to Houston, I have some family there,” said Skinner. “But if I can’t...”
“You better get after it while there’s still daylight,” said the captain.
Skinner turned and left without another word.
* * *
The old asphalt road crumbled into the red clay as he moved deeper into the Piney Woods. Every so often he could see a chimney or rusting vehicle sitting in the green grass and brown leaves. He walked down a slope on what was now barely a path into the swamp bottoms. He kept a tree sighted in the distance so he could keep moving ahead in a straight line as the remains of the road disappeared completely and he entered the swamp.
The mud was thick, but he hopped quickly from tusset to tusset to keep from sinking deeply. He reached a sandy bank next to a stretch of open water and saw he was at the river. He could see on the far bank old pilings that indicated where a bridge abutment once rested.
It was only a hundred feet for him to swim to the far bank. The red clay was concave and very crumbly. It had been a dry autumn. Skinner looked up and saw a high water mark. “I guess the water is low,” he said to himself. “Lucky me.”
He clambered up the bank and crawled over the top. He stood up and took a few swipes with his hands at the mud that covered him. He looked at his reddish hands.
“Damn, that only made things worse.” He looked around. “I feel like I’m being watched,” he said to himself.
He looked ahead and saw an overgrown path with trees overhanging in deep arches. It reminded him of a photograph he had once seen in an old book of the nave of a medieval cathedral. He recognized it as an old road, with the roadbed itself overgrown since the Crash, and the trees that lined it now untrimmed and bowing into the old right-of-way.
He adjusted the strap of his duffel bag on his shoulder, and began to hike. After a mile he stopped. A crude hand-lettered wooden sign was nailed to a tree. “No Trespassing. Trespassers will be shot.”
“Fair enough,” said Skinner. He called out at the top of his lungs. “Hello! Hello! You have a visitor. Hey, hey, hey! Come out and be friendly.” He folded the duffel bag a few times, and sat down on it in the middle of the old roadway, and waited.
After a few minutes, he heard rustling in the underbrush. He looked over to see an old man with a dark complexion and a snow-white hair and beard step out, a very large shotgun tucked under his arm.
The old man leveled the gun down at Skinner. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I’m looking for Omar Peshtigo,” said Skinner
“And who are you?” The old man’s white beard framed a dark and scowling face.
“I’m Alex Beltran’s grandson.”
The old man squinted. “Really. Where is Alex these days?”
“He died in 2008, before the Crash,” said Skinner. “Cancer.”
The old man lowered the shotgun. “That’s a shame. At least he avoided it all.”
He looked around. “You’re alone?”
“Best way to travel, especially when you are looking for old hermits with big secrets.”
“What do you know about Omar Peshtigo?”
“My grandfather told me about the bunker he built for you,” said Skinner, “and why he built it to last a long, long time.”
The old man waved with his free hand. “Get up, you’ve found me.”
Skinner stood up and grabbed his duffel bag. “I thought the best thing was to just sit tight and wait for you to come to me. I supposed you protect your privacy.”
“You supposed right,” said Omar. “Let’s go.”
Once they rounded a very large oak tree the path to Omar’s house was easy to follow, and in a few minutes they came to it, a one-story farmhouse-style structure made of cinder blocks with a slate roof covered in solar panels.
The low flat-roofed building — despite its superficially simple appearance — seemed to weigh down the immediate area, giving the impression of great unseen depth.
“Your grandfather was a very trustworthy man,” said Omar. “I’ve never had any indication he ever broke our confidence.”
“He told me about you on his deathbed, about how he built this place for you in 1985,” said Skinner. “And he swore me to secrecy. He said if it wasn’t for how much you paid him, he wouldn’t have lived out his life so comfortably.”
“Your grandfather was a hard-working, honest man,” said Omar.
“He said if I ever had a serious problem that I couldn’t solve myself, you could, because of all your experience. He said they could tell me in how to find you in Pleasantville.”
“True enough,” said Omar. “You stopped by Pleasantville?”
“I stopped by the checkpoint on the old interstate,” said Skinner. “They still remember who you are and steered me in the right direction.”
“How’s the militia doing, then?”
“Cautious but not aggressive,” said Skinner. “Better behaved than a lot of the others I saw on the road. But then, with that giant truck right there...” He shook his head. “Jesus, that thing looks ferocious.”
“It’s called a Casspir, it was used by the government of South Africa in the 20th Century,” said Omar. “The head man in Pleasantville, Mr. Jack, found it at the abandoned Red River Army Depot and brought it back. It was developed for fighting the bush war in Southern Africa, but the apartheid government later used them in the black townships to control the natives.”
“What’s apart-hate mean?” asked Skinner.
Omar stopped on the doorstep, and looked down. “It doesn’t matter any more, I suppose.” He punched a keypad by the door. “Come on, son,” he said with a wave. “Take off all that mud in the foyer. I can get you a change of clothes.” He walked into another room.
Skinner stripped and threw his muddy clothes and boots into a pile. Omar came back with a small folded pile. “Here’s a change of clothes, and some slippers.”
“Thanks,” said Skinner. “I haven’t changed clothes in weeks.”
“I could tell,” said Omar. He looked at Skinner as he put on the clean clothes. “I suppose you understand why I have to avoid people.”
“Of course, my grandpa was quite clear, and I totally understand. People flip out when they find out you’re immortal.”
“You have common sense and a level head, like your grandfather,” said Omar. “So what’s the problem that makes you seek me out?”
“I heard through a ham radio operator in Oklahoma City that my sister and her family are still alive in the Woodlands, outside Houston, and I want to get there and join them. I don’t have any more family in Oklahoma. Like I said, grandpa died years ago, and Dad died six months ago.”
Omar pointed. “Was that our father’s belt?”
Skinner looked down. “Yes. How did you know?”
“He must have lost weight in the famine right after the Crash,” said Omar. “All I see are hand-made notch holes. What happened to your mother?”
“She died in the Famine, towards the end, four months after I was born.”
“That happened a lot,” said Omar. “Your father obviously cared about you, you look healthy enough.”
“Well, now my sister is the only family I have left, and I want to be with her. Her name is Beverly Wrightson.”
“You’ve done well so far, though, to get here from Oklahoma City, but getting through the East Texas Piney Woods will be a lot harder,” said Omar. “I assume you bartered your way through all the checkpoints? What have you used?”
“Home-grown, high-grade kush cannabis,” said Skinner. “It was just enough to get me here. But now I’m all out and stranded, without your help.”
“You’re pretty resourceful,” said Omar as he sat down.
“Then you will help me?”
Omar smiled. “I’m sure I can think of something. I won’t go with you but I’m sure I can find something you can trade with, and I’ll plot out a route of least danger.”
Skinner looked around. “I bet you’ve accumulated a lot of loot over the years.”
“Not as much as you would think,” said Omar. “I have more practical things, such as fuel and seeds and ammunition. Some precious metal, too, but honestly, when things get as bad as they are now, no one has anything to trade for what I want.”
“I don’t see any locks on your doors,” said Skinner.
“It’s not like I get many visitors, and besides, I have my hidden safeguards.” He spun a finger vertically in the air. “My strongest safeguards are on the perimeter. I disabled them when I saw you coming.”
“You have cameras?”
“Of course. I saw you when you climbed out of the river.” He gestured to the table. “Sit down, I’ll get some dinner.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Lou Antonelli