The Old in the New.

Earth as we know it is no more. Pollution and war have wiped out most of humanity, now only one community remain.
Jenna lives in the Hotel. After a series of events she finds herself sucked into an adventure, full of things that she could never have imagined.

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8. Chapter 7.

   I wake up, disorientated and stiff. Once my eyes focus, I jump when I see the ground looming before me instead of the sky. The ropes holding me swing and the knots slip a little. Still reasonably groggy from the bad nights sleep I had, I manoeuvre my way around so I’m facing the branch, hug myself into it and slide like a very un-dainty person back on top of it where I sit with one leg draped over each side. I unravel the rest of the rope and reach blindingly for my bag so that I can replace them and get going. My fingertips meet thin air. Looking downwards, I see my rucksack tangled with a mess of shrubbery, leaves and broken branch pieces. Obviously I didn’t think of tying it to the branch too last night. Shimmying down and packing all my stuff again, I find myself laughing at what I would’ve looked like if there were watcher cameras here too - I’d probably provide at least a few days of entertainment for all the employees. I have a quick breakfast, and then continue to walk in the direction in which I hope that some sort of village is in.

    With no sightings of wild animals, the early morning walk down the dusty path is reasonably pleasant. I keep my thoughts on the aim of my travelling, and try not to get myself too distracted by the fact that I can’t contact anyone from the outside world now that my digibook is no longer working. After a general thickening of the living wooden cylinders, the path starts to widen and they become more sparsely growing. A weight lifted off my chest (in the form of possible animal attacks), I increase my pace a bit in the hope that I will find some other people soon and just happy that I haven’t encountered the big cat again.

    A few hundred metres later and I come across a huge set of iron gates which are connected to a fence - the two of them stretching higher than some of the trees into the sky. Dubious, I test the gate. It opens with a high pitched wail and I step inside, shutting it firmly behind me. Maybe it’s there to keep the strange animals away? My mouth dry and head pounding, I almost explode with joy when the tell tale sound of running water reaches my ears. I dash to the left and pull back a couple of branches by a collection of rocks to reveal the brook at the start of what must become a large river later on in the valley. I give thanks to whoever is out there in this world or my original one, and scoop great handfuls into my waiting mouth, savouring the clean taste and cooling effects it has on my body. After the initial desperation dissipates, I root around in my bag and bring out my dry water bottles, holding it under the miniature rapids until it overflows.

    Straightening once again, I take in the valley that surrounds me. The rolling green hills subside in the centre to form a ‘V’ shape, and nestled amongst those hills is a town which spans across them. If I go there, it’s likely that at least someone might know where the staff is - if not, I’ll probably have to keep looking forever. With an unexpected burst of energy, I start to run down the hill, taking pleasure from the wind pushing into my face and my feet feeling like they’re going so fast that I might fall and skid down the grassy banks. If only Cat were here to sprint down with me. Crying only makes the action of running down the hill feel more like a release, so I savour the emotions and only stop when I reach the dirt path that leads into the main village.

    A fast flowing river runs around the outside like the moat by the Queen’s castle, so I travel downstream for a couple of minutes until I find a precarious wooden bridge. It’s strange how everything is wooden here - surely they should use metal…it’s a much more long lasting material! I make a mental note to suggest it if I return with the staff. A rhythmic noise from behind me comes into earshot and I turn. A large creature of some type, with brown hair and large hard feet is coming cantering down the track behind me, behind it pulling a cart of some type with a group of people on. As they past they regard me with suspicion and slight disdain, before muttering amongst themselves and gesturing at me in a way which isn’t  particularly friendly. I hope everyone’s not like that. I look down at myself. I’m still dressed in the clothes that I stole from the female guard back at the Hotel. There they were the norm, but in whatever world this book is, they make me stand out more that I would have expected at first. When I find somewhere that sells other clothes, I guess I could try and trade something.

    Dull and dirty houses form the streets of the village; no windows and only and plank of wood for the door. Intricate patterns are painted on every doorstep that I pass, lines darting in and out of one another and falling into a twirling illustration. People mill around in tattered, rough looking clothes - not saying anything to one another, nor looking particularly happy about whatever daily errand they’re carrying out. Never before have I seen such a range of browns and dark reds - those colours must be like grey for the Hotel - seen everywhere, disliked by everyone. Again I find my thoughts straying to Cat and wishing that she could be with me to experience all of this. I imagine her sitting alone in her room, probably having fun still, but I wish that I could sit next to her and cuddle up to her side on the sofa whilst we watch crappy cooking shows or documentaries. I realise again that, if nothing else, I need to find and return this staff as quickly as possible that I can rejoin Cat. We could get a room together and our lives would be back to normal and awesome.

    I pinch at the skin of my wrist to bring me back to the present. If I want to find what I’m looking for, I’m going to have to keep focused. By now, I think I’ve reached the centre of the large village. A central wooden platform is raised about a metre off the ground, and the various equipment laid out on it suggest that it’s used regularly for events. There’s a bowl, a large standing contraption and a sharp looking metal blade, which is stained slightly crimson, dangling precariously from a carefully position rope.

    To the far left of the main square of empty dust track are three women sitting around each other. One is feeding some sort of string through the other’s hands, whilst that one makes swift motions and pull it to and fro through a spinning wheel of some kind. The last appears to be stringing small objects onto a length of string. Curious, I draw nearer until the scent of rotting wafts up my nostrils and I really see what they are doing. Next to their small group, a pile of what initially looked like sacks of some kind of dark food are laying. When I observe these “sacks” in more detail however, I feel my stomach turn when I realise that they’re actually corpses. The first woman that I mentioned is somehow stripping the skin from their bodies and giving it to the other woman who is weaving it into misshapen jumpers. She then folds these jumpers up and sets them up artistically on a bright blanket ahead of them. Random villagers go over to look, and I’m pretty sure I just saw a man buy one with something. I take a few steps nearer so that I can see what the last lady’s doing. My mouth drops open. The small objects that she’s stringing are actually teeth! I will not be getting my clothes from here.

    Making a quick exit from the square, I speed-walk down a nearby side street up to a stall which has clothes over spilling from every available space. The stallholder grins at me with her crooked teeth.

“You would like to buy?” she asks, her voice gravely and eyes keen.

I try and keep my composure, although too much strange in one day has my mind tumbling over itself in order to figure out what’s going on.

“Yes please. Have you got a pair of trousers and a top of some kind?” I ask, smiling the sweetest smile that I can conjure. The old lady rummages around amongst the teetering piles of garments and fishes out two items.

“These will fit you.” she states. Her hand stretches out, palm up. “Money.”

“I have no money, but I can trade.” I say.

Her expression becoming wary, she shrugs as if to ask what I can possibly offer her of more value than coins. Lugging my backpack off my back, I dig around in it until I find a gold bracelet that I got for my day of birth a few years ago - I don’t know why it’s in here. Presenting it flamboyantly, I resist the urge to cheer when she snatches it out of my hand and practically throws the clothes in my direction.

“Young lady, thank you. Thank you, young lady.” she stammers over and over, looking at the bracelet like it’s her only salvation.

    I smile again, thank her, and go off in search of a place to change. My sense of awkwardness and safety considerably mutated by the whole situation, I find a seemingly deserted back street, strip my old Hotel clothes off, and redress myself. Having lost weight after a few days of not eating the specially prepared food from the Nutritionists, they hang off my frame slightly, but do the job nonetheless. Hitching the bag back onto my shoulders, I go back into one of the more main side alleys and search for someone who looks trustworthy. After a few judging looks from various passers by, I wave to catch the attention of a girl who only looks about three years younger than me. She stops and contorts her features into some of questioning.

“Sorry” I say walking over and trying to look the least threatening that I can, “but do you happen to know anywhere that I could stay for a couple of nights?”

She looks like she’s thinking for a bit.

“My mam would probably let you stay at our place for a bit.” she looks me up and down, apparently convinced that I’m not going to try and murder anyone. Reassuring. “You’d have to bring your own food though.”

Joyful, I say “Thank you, thank you! That’s so kind and of course I can bring my own food.”

She nods and motions for me to follow her through the sparse amount of the population who walk through the streets.

    “Ever since the Queen put up how much we have to give her per month for protection, we haven’t been able to feed ourselves as well. It’s my mam and my brother and me; dad left a long while back in search of a better place and never came back.”

“I’m sorry” I murmur. I don’t know what else to say. 

“Don’t be, it’s fine. The Queen says that one day she’ll be able to push our land back into prosperity. We can only hope though.” she pauses in mind stride and stick out her hand to me. “I’m Katie by the way.”

“That’s a nice name. I’m Jenna.” we shake and I can feel in the firmness of her grasp and the unwavering intensity of her look that she has begun to trust me.

    We turn down an even smaller side street. “We’re here” she says, and jerks one of the smaller wooden doors open. It takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the light, but when they do I see a long, yet thin room with two mattresses in the far right corner, a table in the centre and a small fire pit to the left with about four stuffed sacks sitting around it. A middle aged woman stands over a metal bowl balanced precariously on the fire sticks, stirring what appears to be some kind of soup. She looks up and the wrinkles in her face crease into a cheerful smile.

“Katie my darling, you’re back!” her body turns to me, “and who’s this?”

“Mam, this is my new friend Jenna. She needs somewhere to stay for three days or so. Can she stay with us?” 

I can tell that Katie’s mother is not as welcoming as Katie is of strangers, but is polite and courteous nonetheless.

“Hello!” I say, making an attempt to sound as nice and trustworthy as I can and beaming at her. 

“Hello there.” she replies, flashing me a genuine but quick smile and getting back to her cooking.

    “You can sleep over there” says Katie, pointing towards the nearest corner on my left, “I can get you some stuff to sleep on in a bit.”

I thank her and drop my backpack down onto the mud floor. Sitting next to Katie after she finds her brother, we chat for a while about nothing in particular (her doing most of the talking, because I obviously don’t know much about the local events she tells of) until her mum calls them both over for some food. Katie looks back questioningly at me as she walks away to collect her steaming bowl and I nod, waving the packet of food I have around to show her. I shake it up and gulp the contents down, trying not to feel too jealous of the wonderful smelling, real food that the three of them are eating. 

    They finish the meal quickly and then start to get ready for bed. I join Katie over a basin filled with slightly murky water and splash my face to get some of the dust that still remains there off. After her mum and brother settle down onto their low beds, Katie comes over to me with a bundle of material in her hands.

“Here, Jenna. These are the only things I could find and they’re only cloths, but they should be comfy enough.”

I am overwhelmed with gratitude towards her. Here she is, letting a person she has only just met stay in her house, and worried that they won’t be comfortable enough with the bedding that she could provide at such short notice. 

I give her a friendly hug, “That’s more than enough, thank you.”

She shrugs, embarrassed and walks over to the mattress that she appears to share with her younger brother and the room descends into silence.

    I spread the cloths and various large rags around until I’ve managed to fashion a kind of thin cushion for the ground and a thick blanket to go over the top. Snuggling down amongst them, I think of Cat again and how her being here next to me as I sleep would make everything more than bearable. Katie letting me stay in her house was way more generosity than I expected, or even desired, but the thoughts of Cat kept butting in and making the situation seem like it’s bad. Closing my eyes, I imagine her here close to me, the warmth of her body joining with mine, and those flyaway strands of hair tickling my nose and making me sneeze. I drift off to sleep with those images still in my mind and a slight upturn of my mouth.

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