“It’s alright. We’ll take the Highway.”
Alexa’s eyes widened like twin full moons, large and desolate. “We can go around.” Her voice was small against the wind.
Joel waved his arm at the wasteland before them, still smoldering and stinking sourly of burnt outgassing. “It goes on like this all the way to the coast.”
“I’ll learn to swim. You can teach me.” She clasped her hands together in a sincere prayer. “Please.”
“No.” They had no time for foolishness.
“We can wait. We’ll make a camp until it’s safe to–”
“Alexa, stop.” Joel’s voice was becoming permanently grave, he realized. He cleared his throat and removed the pistol from its holster, letting its weight ground him. It was already loaded and recently cleaned, as usual, and after a cursory examination he put it away.
Alexa was silent but her bottom lip quivered. Joel crouched down to meet her eye level and stroked her hair. “Don’t be afraid. This time next week you’ll already be used to hot baths and a full stomach.” He tried to sound upbeat but it left an aftertaste he didn’t care for. He turned his head and spit.
“I know why they call it the Hangman’s Highway,” said Alexa. “I’ve seen it. Before.”
So much for upbeat. “Tell me what you saw. When you put it into words, you control it. You take the fear out of it.”
“I don’t…” She squeezed her eyes shut like she was juicing two lime halves.
Joel gave her shoulder a gentle pinch. “Tell me.”
“It was nighttime, but there were tall metal poles with lights at the top, every hundred steps. And in the light, up in the air, you could see…” She began to break. “There were so many. And some were so small, even younger than me. I don’t want to take the Highway, Joel!”
She threw her arms around his neck and buried her sobs in his shoulder.
He didn’t know what to do. He placed a hand on her back and patted awkwardly like burping an infant–a spit rag would have been appropriate–but somehow it also felt right. “Alright,” he said. “It will be alright.”