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PART II - Scavenger CHAPTER 15 – Scrounging

Days became weeks and survival precarious. Once alone, a person seeking connection with others was likely to be considered too much of a risk. After all, if she is trustworthy, why is she alone? Best to turn her away … avoid unnecessary chances … stay safe. And so, in a sea of survivors, she had become jetsam.

“One after another, beads of perspiration made runnels through layers of sooty, gray dust coating her skin that, underneath, was the color of coffee – no cream. The heat crushed down on her like a great weight, making each step forward and upward a punishment. Her eyes peered through the shimmering air at the haven of blessed shade ahead … how far? Two more steps? Ten?” A thousand? After hours and days of constant baking, the brain begins to lose some of its—

Matti had taken to talking to herself over the past couple of weeks, frequently as melodramatic prose, a passion of her past life. But exhaustion and scarcity of water fed on each other to enhance her daily torture of thirst, so mental ramblings often interspersed with verbal mumblings to give her throat a rest.

As she stepped into the shade at the edge of the porch five steps above walkway level, her attention went to a ramp on one side of the porch making a gentle slope to the ground, a way up that would have been whole lot easier than the steeper and more tiring steps she had just mastered, and her foot slid part-way off. With arms wind-milling, she grasped for the pealing, white painted railing and steadied herself.

“But, then, the primordial granite of the final, top step crumbled beneath her foot, and she reeled precariously on the edge of the precipitous slope. Grasping the ancient alabaster banister, only her quick, animal-like reflexes saved her from certain death at the end of a long and deadly tumble. A final, grateful heave of her lithe, young body, and she fell forward onto the shaded floor of the lofty terrace … the floor of the shaded, lofty … whatever – I’m tired.”

She sagged to the floor with her back against the narrow wall between the front door and a large, many-paned window. She let her eyes slide shut as she languished in the desiccating heat of late summer. After a bit, she hooked her thumb under the shoulder strap of her water bottle and worked it over her head. The minimal weight of the sloshing liquid reminded her of her mission.

Gotta find some more water. She twisted the cap off, tilted the container, and tried to resist draining the last ounce or so that remained. Oh, what the hell. This little bit won’t keep me going very long if I don’t find some to go with it.

She sipped it all, relishing the refreshing treat and refusing to dwell on the possibility that it might be the last she would ever taste.

A sharp thud sounded inside the house at her back, a seventy-or-so-year-old craftsman style, two-story.

Aware that she might still have to jump up and sprint away at any sign of trouble, she remained sitting in the shade. Rest was becoming almost as precious as water.

“A rat, probably … or a cat … or a dog. Could have been a person. We’re all after pretty much the same thing. These days, if a –” She snapped her mouth shut as she mentally berated herself. Yeah, and if it is a person, and he hears you out here yammering to yourself –

Another thud, similar to the first but followed by the sound of something, probably a can, rolling across an uncarpeted floor, and that followed by sounds of small claws scampering across the floor.

Well, it’s not a cat. Definitely a rat or a dog. Could be a person with it, though. Not if it’s a rat. A dog probably wouldn’t be chasing a can without its master grabbing the thing first. Or shouting at it to leave it alone. Or something. It’s a rat.

Three crows flocked into the air from the open wreckage of a house across the street. With harsh, strident caws, they swooped back down to whatever it was that had occupied them before something chased them away. Matti had a pretty good idea what it was that had so captured their attention that they would plunge back to it so quickly, even with the roaming dog or cat still close enough for them to scold.

She glanced about the sky, spotting several lone birds as well as pairs and small groups of the feathered scavengers as they moved from one feast to another.

“That’s all right, though. Don’t think I’ll ever get used to the smell, so if you guys want to take it upon yourselves to clean things up at bit, well …”

Sure will be nice when they finally get around to sending someone here to get things cleaned up. Wonder what’s keeping ’em. If I had any idea how far I’d have to go, or even where, to get out of this ….

She had tried to find better living conditions a couple of weeks back after accumulating a small stash of supplies to last her on a long walk out of town. The idea of finding a farm must have been a good one, because every farm she came to was occupied by folks who thought she should just keep going, all but one, anyway. She finally made it back into town with her skin and little else. “Maybe they’re never going to come. Maybe there’s no one to come. Maybe there is no more They.”

Naw … now, cut that out. You can’t go thinking that kind of stuff. Just go getting’ yourself depressed again. Won’t be long, now. It’s only been – what – three weeks? Four? Five?

“Come on, people, we need some assistance, here! You know, send in the National Guard with clean-up crews and the Red Cross with food packages. FEMA would be good. It’s okay, now. The bad guys are gone … really. It’s safe. You can come on in … any old time, now.”

Wouldn’t a food-kitchen be nice? Oh, yeah, real food that hasn’t been lying about for weeks.

“Be kinda nice, too, to be able to bury a couple of folks that didn’t get burned up.” If I can find their bodies. She started counting on her fingers. “There’s Jamal, and Woody, and Uncle Joe and Jerry; gotta find ’em all. And … oh, god, I guess poor Marisa’s still lying back there on her front lawn.” If the birds and rats and dogs have left enough to bury. “I could use a little help, there, too, guys. And, then, maybe you could re-establish some law and order, so a girl can walk down the street without worrying about some guy jumping her and … aw, hell. Ain’t gonna happen. Ain’t never gonna happen.”

She stood slowly, her meager pack hanging from one hand and dragging on the porch. At the front door, she laid an ear against the wood and listened. She stood there for almost a minute before she was satisfied nothing moved inside.

Taking care not to slice through her belt or her hip, she drew her weapon, a wood-handled chef’s knife with a ten-inch blade that was only slightly bent.

She gripped the doorknob and turned it as far as it would go. The door swung away from her with a slight push, sweeping to her right into the dim interior.

She stood silhouetted in the frame of the door for only a moment before slipping into the shadowy hallway. The door crept closed behind her but didn’t latch. She left it unlatched – just in case. Straight ahead a flight of stairs led to the second floor. On its left side, the shadowy hallway continued towards the back of the house. To the right was an open archway to possibly an office or den. She ducked through another archway to the left and into the living room and crouched beside the end of a sofa beneath the front window, breathing shallow. The stench of death was even stronger inside.

She stood, unmoving, alert, her blade poised. She had given up trying to keep count of the close calls and near misses she had survived in the past weeks.

She began moving about the living room, her head swiveling to take in details, but the dim light behind closed, heavy drapes veiled much in mystery. Carpeting covered the floor, probably brown textured and wall to wall. It stopped at the doorway to the next room back. Several magazines lay scattered on the floor between the couch and a coffee table. A quarter-full mug of dark liquid sat near one end of the table. It was probably coffee in the world that ceased to exist over a month ago. A silver-plated teaspoon lay beside it on a carefully folded, cloth napkin.

A thousand years from now, some archeologist prowling through the crumbled and half-buried ruins will uncover the metal and china and declare he has found an altar to some weird god.

She stopped and peered around the frame of the door into the next room, a dining room with a large, piano-legged table surrounded by six ornately carved chairs centered on a plush, Persian rug. An empty can of beans lay on its side on the surrounding hardwood floor near the edge of the rug. A large lump of something beneath the table caught her attention. She bent closer, saw it was covered with hair, and crouched lower.

“A dog.” Shush! No talking, fool.

She nudged it pensively with the toe of her shoe.

A dead dog.

A red smear on her shoe caught her attention, and she looked closer at the rough and shaggy coat of the animal. Much of it was coated with the red substance.

A bloody, dead dog. “Hmmm … blood’s still fresh enough to be smeared, but thick”, the beautiful, homicide detective muttered to herself. “Victim’s been dead about umm … seventeen hours and twenty-seven minutes … roughly … give or take a day or two.”

Matti scooted the closest chair over and used its leg to hook behind the body and drag it out to where she could see it better.

A jagged tear extending from beneath the right jaw and ending in the middle of the back of its neck. Jugular vein probably ripped open. Good chance the spinal cord is severed. Poor thing was killed twice. But not eaten. Wonder who he pissed off.

As she stood upright, she noticed a rat watching her from a door to the kitchen in the next room. Another glance down at the wood floor revealed dozens of tiny bloody footprints going in all directions from the dog’s carcass. Even the bean can had smudges. Okay, so they’ve been nibbling on it, but they didn’t kill it.

In the den across the hall, most was in order, except two more dead dogs lay on the floor. One was crumpled into the corner; a mid-sized mix with its neck broken along with coarse punctures and tears on both side of its neck. The other one, a big Doberman, had its throat ripped out. Neither had been fed on except by rats.

A bedroom and a bathroom with just a shower connected off the backside of the den. No dogs were in those rooms, but the door from the den had been closed, as well as the access to the kitchen via the pantry on the other side.

She explored the kitchen at the end of the hallway and connecting with the dining room. She found more dogs, a skinny looking Boxer and some kind of hound that had almost made it out the open back door before being caught. Each had been brutally killed by something with powerful jaws and big teeth. Only the rats had fed.

Do I really want to keep looking through this place? What do I do if I run across the Hound of the Baskervilles? Guess I could always offer to share my canteen. Oh, yeah, I’ve got to find water, or it won’t matter what I run across.

She stepped over to the kitchen sink and picked up a glass from the counter. She held it under the tap and turned the handle. A trickle of water splashed into the bottom and began to fill the tumbler while Matti watched with a big grin on her face. But when she had only four or five ounces, it slowed to a fast drip … a slow drip … stopped. She carefully turned the handle to full open, but only three additional drops rewarded her. Had someone already drained the pipes? She had dared to savor the sweet nectar of hope, as she had done in other houses she explored in her wanderings. But, as in most of those cases, bitter disappointment was all she tasted. She closed her eyes and slowly shook her head.

After a few, draining moments, she opened her stinging eyes that seldom produced tears anymore and downed the clear liquid. “It’s water, therefore I live.”

Lonely … sad … rage. Not thoughts, but a mixture of feelings swept through Matti’s mind like a soft breeze, and then they were gone.

“Whoa! Where did that come from?” Shh! It was sorta like when that dog let me know what it was like in the storm drain on that first day. Maybe one of these dogs ain’t dead. Maybe he’s just lying there waiting to finish bleeding to death, all alone, sad that he’s dying and mad at whatever did it to him.

Hefting her meager weapon in her hand did little to calm her jumping nerves. She listened for furtive footsteps or the squeak of a door opening, but she heard nothing.

Before she gave up on the house, though, she decided to go ahead and search for anything she might be able to use, even if it wasn’t water. She had scrounged through a couple of dozen in the past week or so, and it was becoming increasingly clear that pickings were being depleted too fast.

She had no idea how many survivors remained in Petaluma. The few groups and individuals she had dared to encounter had not exactly extended the welcome mat. Each one, it seemed, was coming to the same realization that food that was safe to eat and water safe to drink were becoming too scarce to allow the luxury of inviting a guest to dinner. Most times, they simply turned their backs on her if she made any attempt to approach or greet them or to hint at her needs. Occasionally, they had met her with threats and a display of weapons as questionable as what she carried, a scavenged knife or a large stick wielded as a club. She was not yet so desperate that she was ready to meet their challenges in a contest for the possession of what meager treasures they had managed to obtain. She knew it would probably come to that eventually, but not yet. Oh, God, don’t let it be yet.

In a small pantry off the kitchen she found cans of peas, peaches, cherry pie filling, three different kinds of soup and, glory-be, one of corned beef. On other shelves were several boxes of scalloped potatoes, au gratin potatoes, various kinds of dried pasta, a couple of cake mixes, and a pound bag of pistachios.

She felt positively rich – much more so than when she had discovered the pendant she now wore about her neck, a trinket she had come across in her wanderings. After all, the stone on it was nothing more than a diamond half the size of her thumbnail and surrounded by a dozen emeralds. Like the heavy, gold bracelet on her right wrist, she had picked them up and wore them simply because they were pretty.

She had lost so much. Her family, her home, everything she owned or shared, except for what she wore at the time … all gone. Surviving that first week after the invaders had left gave her an appreciation for things. Values were somewhat reversed in the nightmare she now inhabited. She would have gladly traded her trinkets several times over for even a part of the trove of food that was now suddenly hers. Or even for a jug of good, clean water.

She rolled the treasure into a pack, using the tablecloth from the dining table with the four corners tied together. She stood up to gaze down at her handiwork and to relish the feeling of new wealth when a concern – a fear – entered her mind.

Am I stealing this stuff? I don’t really know for sure if someone else is here. Maybe all this belongs to someone. I did hear that noise from outside.

But that was a rat … wasn’t it?

Yeah, and if someone was living here, they wouldn’t leave all the dead dogs lying around.

Or, would they? Maybe they’re using them as another food source and leaving this stuff for when they run out of fresh meat … yuck! Maybe they just come downstairs when they get hungry, pick one that looks tasty, shake the rats off, and haul it back upstairs to feast on for the next few days.

Oh, Jesus! You are going to scare the pee right out of you. There ain’t no dog-eating ... whatever, upstairs, and you know it. You’re just letting your stupid, frustrated writer’s imagination take you where you really don’t want to go. So just forget it. Use your head for something besides holding your ears apart and think about it for a minute. First, I can’t imagine anyone making one of these dogs their first choice if they had these cans. Unless – omigod! Maybe there’s no can opener!

The second drawer she opened had a can opener along with a couple of paring knives, spatulas, stirring spoons, and other utensils. Large pots and pans hung nearby on hooks; cupboards held smaller ones along with various dishes.

It wouldn’t be all that hard to get a fire going right here in the sink. If water was available, they could even fix some potatoes.

Okay. So, there are lots of reasons to believe there is no one here but me. So how come I still feel like I’m not alone?

Besides rats. Rats don’t count. Rats are all over.

Even if it was a rat chasin’ a can across the floor, I still don’t know what – who, is upstairs. If anyone is, that is. And, I don’t, for a minute, believe anyone is up there.

Right. Sure, I don’t. So why don’t I just trot up those stairs and see? Make sure? Establish beyond all doubt and with all certainty that this food is mine?

Yeah, why don’t I?

“Okay! I will. Don’t push.”

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