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CHAPTER 18 – Dog Pack

The beautiful, coffee-hued adventuress had just drained her glass and pondered whether to open another bottle of the fine wine. She glanced out the window, absently drawing a pure musical note, mournful and haunting, from the rim of the stemmed glass of fine, leaded crystal.

Matti tightened the cap on the plastic bottle containing her drinking water and set it on the counter beside the sink. Through the window, she watched Satan.

The great beast had moved little, if at all, since he had first lain besides Mistress Kathy’s eternal bed in the dappled sun beneath their tree. The mountainous shape of the giant, reclining dog stretched out on the ground, his boulder-like muscles rippling like bedrock in a catastrophic earthquake while the love in his sorrowful, amber eyes bathed the mounded dirt like warm sunshine. The grief-stricken creature appeared – seemed? – seemed, as a massive flow of lava morphs into basalt, to have become a geologically permanent part of the back yard grave site.

“Hey, can I make purple prose, or what!”

And, I suppose it’s his choice. If he can’t find a way to face life without her, who am I to tell him he has to?

She carefully stacked the freshly wiped plate, fork, and pans in the drain rack beside the sink; she still couldn’t bring herself to use precious water to wash or rinse dishes. With a final, prolonged gaze out the back window, she turned and said, “Meanwhile, Matti, my beautiful adventuress, you have got to get on with your life.”

“Huh! This is living?”

“Yeah, well, it’s better than the only other alternative. Anyway, these few cans of peas and stuff aren’t going to last very long, so you’d better get yourself to scrounging again. You haven’t touched the other houses in this area, so stop yammering to yourself and get moving.”

Except for three promising looking houses down at the east corner, all the other houses along her street were charred shells. It took her only a few minutes to determine the first two had already been ransacked.

She had just turned from the sidewalk and was heading up to the front door of the third one, but then she heard the working of a rifle bolt. She froze. She looked up and spotted a man looking down at her over the top of a rifle barrel from an upstairs window. He didn’t say anything, but his message was clear enough. With a knot tightening in her belly, she raised both hands into the air to show she wasn’t armed and began a fast, backing retreat. He still hadn’t fired by the time she passed the house next door, so she spun and ran. She made it back to her house where, with hammering heart, she recuperated by sucking down a full glass of water.

Undeterred, she went up to the upstairs landing bathroom. Even from the limited view out the window, she still spotted what looked like a couple of likely houses on the next street over. With the afternoon just beginning, she decided it was time to expand her search area.

She strode boldly down the porch steps and out to the sidewalk, turned left and went and straight to the west corner. There, she hesitated for a moment before moving over to blend into the shadows and shapes next to the houses. She hadn’t survived this long by foolishly marching out in the open in new territories.

She edged out just enough to be able to see up and down the streets. Nothing moved as far as she could see west to where the street ended against the hills. Of course, there could easily have been a couple of dozen furtive forms hidden among the shadowy ruins, but she wasn’t going to go looking for monsters. To the north, she saw several persons roaming about in the distance. But they were at least three blocks away, close to the beginning of the downtown area. Three or four blocks south, four figures were walking in the middle of the street. She couldn’t tell if they were going away or approaching.

Staying close to the houses, she watched them for signs of aggression until she reached the next corner, where she slipped into cover beside the steps to the front door of the burned, corner house. From there, her view of the scavengers to the south was blocked by other houses. Oh, well, they were at least three blocks away. To the west, a lone man appeared to wander aimlessly across the street a block away. It could have been a woman, she supposed, since, with today’s fashions, she couldn’t tell the difference, most times, until the person in question spoke.

To her left, east, was the backside of her block, and the houses on both sides of the street beckoned to her. About two-thirds were burned, and the others looked uninhabited, but that could be mostly just wishful thinking. The only way to be certain was to take her chances with each one.

She arose from hiding and, before moving on to the first one, glanced back one more time.

“Oh, shit!” She quickly ducked back down and peered over the top step.

As she had turned, a movement caught just the corner of her eye. It was in the direction of the lone man wandering towards the distant hills, but much closer. Someone had moved somewhere in the area of the space between the first house on the southwest corner and the one next to it to the west. In the hazy, smoky light, she couldn’t be certain. She saw no other movement, but someone was close enough to be a potential threat. People were more inclined to move about with care now than a few weeks ago, but, still, except for the paranoid, one did not creep about between houses unless ….

Unless they’re afraid of being seen, just like I’m doing. And for good reason. That’s not paranoia. Not anymore. That’s survival.

Just going out into your own yard, or at least the yard of the house you are now living in could invite disaster if that human dog pack from downtown was about. A gang that seemed to just accrete from among the ruins like hungry rats coming out to feast was what had driven Matti out of the downtown area. Led by a red-headed creep with a couple of knives, they were vicious and brutal, and they claimed everything they came across. She had witnessed more than one lone survivor they caught fail to make it to cover alive and whole. Although, a couple of times – occasionally, those carrion eaters would be feeling particularly generous – the luckless victim was granted one or the other: life or a whole body – but never both. With luck, the roughly dozen members would turn on each other when no one else was handy and self-destruct. But, she supposed, that, too, was just wishful thinking. At least she hadn’t seen such a gang in her new neighborhood … yet.

She surveyed the area across the street for a few moments. Then, satisfied that whoever had been over there was now gone, or, at least, not coming her way, she arose and got on with her quest.

Broken and burned limbs from seventy and hundred-year old trees cluttered the street. A few of the trees still had enough scorched leaves hanging motionless in the dead air to shade the sidewalks, casting thin shade across the neighborhood. Others, with blackened, lifeless limbs, had the bare, skeletal look of a haunted graveyard. A few cars sat along the curb or at angles in the street. Their tires were burned to melted globs, and the car bodies were blackened boxes. Some, no doubt, contained the remains of other, more gruesome bodies.

From ground level, this side of the block didn’t appear all that different from where she had started. But, most other areas she had found herself in over the past weeks didn’t, either. And she still had to find more food.

Part way down the block, probably about as far from the corner as her own house, just past a burned house whose front yard remained enclosed by a waist-high hedge that hadn’t burned, she found a good prospect, also facing north, that appeared untouched by fire, vandals, or scavengers. It was a thirty or forty-year-old, single story ranch style with the attached garage on the right side. From a horizontal limb in a huge sycamore in the front yard, a board swing hung slack on two long ropes above a bare spot worn in the lawn. She gazed at it as wistful memories of one similar from her childhood flitted before her eyes. Uncle Adam and her dad had spent half a day putting it up, and Uncle Adam had given her the first push on it.

To avoid a possible confrontation indoors if there was an occupant, she wanted to look inside first if she could get to enough windows. The view through the large window left of the front door was blocked inside by heavy drapes she couldn’t see through. She assumed from the large window that it was the living room. On the other side, between the door and the garage, she could see through the lace curtains and partially closed blinds of the twin windows there, but only by cupping her hands against the glass to cut the glare. She had done it before but always with her guts tied in knots while expecting either a hand or maybe a hatchet to come smashing through at her. It had never happened, but, of course, it would only take once. It was the dining room with what looked like an open kitchen behind it. No one, either living or not, was in either one that she could see. The garage door was down and locked, and the west gate next to the garage was either locked or blocked on the inside. However, the yard had two gates, and the east one opened easily. Through the rest of the windows, all bedrooms, she saw no signs of life or recent occupancy. Just as good, she saw no signs of ransacking. A glass sliding door into the master bedroom, and one into the dining located behind the kitchen, both off the wooden deck running along that side of the house, and the side door of the garage were all locked. Back around to the front, the front door wasn’t locked.

It groaned open on hinges that probably needed lubrication even in the old world and would really be squeaking after another month or so of non-use as rust ate the pins. She eased it on back against the wall where she blocked it open with a small picture she took down from the wall. It was something she often did just in case she had to make a fast exit.

The first thing she noticed was the smell. It wasn’t an unusual smell, just one she had hoped she wouldn’t encounter there. She hadn’t seen it through the windows, but somewhere in the enclosed house was at least one decaying body.

The hallway ahead of her had two openings on each side. The nearest two were open archways into the dining room and the living room. It appeared the hallway turned to the left beyond the living room, and opposite that on the right was an open doorway. She waited and listened. She even tried to sense anything like she had done from the only two friendly dogs encountered since the world changed … but, nothing. It appeared she was the only living soul there.

Just to be certain, though, she fell back on what used to work. “Hello! Anybody home?” Still, only silence greeted her. She drew the knife from her belt and set about exploring.

She glanced about the large living room enough to know no one was there. She crossed the hallway and into the dining room, and there it was. Shielded from view from the window by the dining table and chairs, a large woman lay sprawled and wedged in the walkthrough into the kitchen, pretty-well blocking it to passage. She saw no obvious wounds or injuries, but Matti noticed the woman had died while clutching both hand in the front of her shirt over her chest. There was no way she would even try to move her. Even if she could handle the dead weight, just the thought of an arm or leg of putrefying flesh pulling off in her hands gave her shivers. Matti couldn’t even bring herself to step over her, so she turned back to the hallway.

At the end, where the hallway jogged left before continuing to the back of the house, a door on the right took her into the family room on the other side of the open kitchen. On that side, a breakfast bar divided the two rooms just as an island with a pass-through and containing the countertop range divided the kitchen and the dining room. At last into the kitchen, full shelves verified the place had not been scavenged. Next to the kitchen window, a door accessed the garage. Enough light came through a couple of side windows to quickly determine the car was gone and that no one lurked in the shadows. Back through the family room, the hallway continued to the rear where it serviced four bedrooms. They didn’t appear to have been used in weeks.

Satisfied that the maze-like house was empty and un-scavenged, she grabbed a bedsheet and returned to the kitchen where she gathered enough cans and boxes to make the trip worthwhile. Grinning, she checked the garage again, and sure enough, several shelves out there served as an overflow pantry. Thoroughly pleased with herself, she hefted her bed sheet-bound bundle to her shoulder, stood for a moment to be sure of her balance, and then headed back to the front of the house.

She tossed around the idea of getting the heavy load all the way to her house in one trip. She felt absolutely wealthy when she had to spend time mulling over in her mind whether she should go ahead and break it up into smaller packages here in the house, or if she should try to make it all in one trip and maybe have to split it up en route. To do that, she would have to leave part of it unprotected somewhere until she could get back to it. But, then, how protected would it be to leave it here? Such a problem to have!

With these thoughts occupying her attention, she staggered down the hallway toward the door. It wasn’t until she started shifting her hold on the load to one hand to turn the knob with the other that she realized it should already be open. Maybe while she was in the garage … but she hadn’t closed that door behind her, and she hadn’t heard a thing. Any wind strong enough to move it on those hinges would have howled under the eaves like a banshee. Warning flags and bells and whistles began to go off in her mind like fireworks. As she drew even with the living room archway, the harsh odor of long unwashed bodies strong enough to overcome the reek of the previous occupant assailed her senses.

“Why, hello, there, you purtty thing.” The voice came out of the shadows in the living room.

Matti’s bundle hit the floor, and she spun into a crouch to face the voice emanating from the darkness.

Then, a different voice, “I don’t know. Ya sure it’s female?”

One hand hooked into a claw as she whipped out her knife with the other. Holding it out point forward as a shield against whoever was in the dark, she tried to figure out how best to make it through the door without exposing her back.

“Yeah, it could be a boy. Sure can’t tell with all the rags it’s wearing.”

“Shit, I hope it ain’t a boy. I’m tired of boys. I can’t hardly remember what a girl feels like.”

“Hell, Matt, they feel just like boys … only better!” This earned a round of raucous laughter.

She could just make out dim figures sprawled about on the couches and chairs that had been empty when she had entered.

Then, from behind Matti, “Looks like a girl from back here.”

She spun about, but before she could focus on the face looming over her from the dining room archway, her head rocked to the side from a numbing slap across her cheek. Her knife flew from her hand and clattered down the hallway. The blow spun her about to fall across her bundle of found treasure at her feet. Rough hands hoisted her back to her feet, and, clamped tight just above her elbows, they walked her into the shadowy living room and plopped her on the floor near a large recliner in the far corner.

The heavy drapes drew apart to reveal a large room with a fireplace and a window that must have been at least ten-feet wide. Two sofas, one in front of the window and the other against the opposite wall, and three, large chairs spaced around provided sufficient seating for the gang that must number a full dozen, at least. Matti thought she recognized a couple of faces from the downtown gang … but maybe not.

Someone said, “You gonna share this one, Mickey?”

“Hell, yeah!” came from the recliner at her back, and she jerked around to face it.

It was the red-headed creep.

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