CHAPTER 4 – Street Punk
Matti climbed out of the creek tunnel and stood upon the roadway. Her strong, athlete’s body normally moved with an easy grace. Today her stiff moves were more that of an automaton.
She looked upon a scene from out of old war movies. Her town looked like it had been carpet-bombed. She could see no house that had been spared. In all directions, the still air was thick with smoke hanging above flames still flickering among ruined homes. She walked north.
She hadn’t made it even half a block before she encountered the first body. I was a woman lying on her back near the curb with a ghastly head wound. She may have been burned, too, but with the amount of dust and ash covering her, Matti couldn’t tell. After a dozen more steps, she spotted a body on the ground between two burned-out houses. She didn’t go close enough to see what may have killed him. Two doors farther and she saw three more bodies, one obviously burned, and the other two undetermined. From there on she diverted her gaze whenever it would land on more potential victims and kept walking. Several burned wrecks of cars littered the street, but she avoided looking inside any of them.
She had no sense of time. There was daylight, but the smoke so uniformly covered the sky that what little bit of light did filter through was omni directional and brown. If she didn’t know she was walking northward, she would not have been able to determine the direction by the sun. There was no sun. Could it have been destroyed, too?
She glanced at the watch on her wrist and remembered seeing it was destroyed the day before. She had kept it then, but she couldn’t think of a reason to do so now. She opened the catch on the gold band and let it drop to the ground.
She stopped in the middle of the first intersection and looked about. To the left, she saw less damage than what she had just walked through. Perhaps as much as a third of the houses had survived – at least, for a couple of blocks, which was as far as she could see clearly in the haze. Straight ahead, the devastation still appeared nearly total; pretty much the same as what she had left behind. To the right, some blocks away, there seemed to be a clear space where no ruins smoked or blackened hulks of destroyed cars mounded the road like boulders. When she realized it was the river she turned that way.
It wasn’t a real river, not like those rushing down from high mountains with white foam riding atop cold and crystal clean water. Except for during the rainy season, when it took the runoff from the hills, the local river wasn’t much more than a backwash from the north end of San Francisco Bay almost twenty miles downstream. It was cold and salty from the bay water washing back into it at high tide, and, constantly stirred by those tides, it was muddy.
Half a block past the last cross street, she walked around the permanent barricade across the stub-end of the street, and Golem-like, she stood on the riverbank. Ashes had found every square inch of her clothes and exposed skin. Her white sneakers, soaked from the puddle in the creek bed, were grayish-brown with a thick coating from the ashes that puffed up with each step. Suddenly, it seemed vitally important to her to see her skin again. She slid down the muddy bank to the slowly moving water.
Sitting in the slimy mud at the water’s edge, she pushed her feet beneath the surface and moved them about, turning the dark, brackish swirl to muddy brown. She barely noticed the numbing chill of the water until she used her hands to clear her shoes of the ash coating that seemed to adhere even in the water. When she was satisfied that they were as clean as they would get, she began working on her hands and arms up as far as her elbows. Then she worked feverishly to erase the coating from her face, going only by the feel of her fingers and the diminishing feeling of revulsion on her cheeks, forehead and neck. She caught herself as she started to wade in deeper to work on her hair. She still had enough of her wits about her, aided by the startling wake-up from the cold water, to recognize and repulse the obsession that was trying to imbed its teeth into her. It took some care not to slip on the smear of sloping mud as she made it back up to the street.
Deep in her mind, down where logic still ruled, she knew it would be only a matter of minutes, maybe as much as an hour, before the fog of ashes that still hung in the air, and the drifts of the stuff anyplace she would walk would recoat her back to golem status. The diversion had cleared her mind, though, just not enough. It was still as muddy as the sneakers that were now only a lighter shade of brown.
She turned about, tuning her hearing to catch any signs of activity.
Not even the soft sigh of a breeze through the trees. Then, she remembered the trees burning and it hit her that the sound of wind rustling leaves would not be heard again for a long time. She listened for sounds of traffic.
She recalled crossing Main on her way to the river, and it had been as empty of movement and life as any of the lesser streets.
Her searching gaze landed on one of the burned, blackened hulks dotting the otherwise open space of the street she had taken to the riverbank. Could there be an unburned car left anywhere in town? And, what about beyond the town? How far did the destruction go? Would there be an end to it? And people. Where were all the people? Could they all be dead? Could she be the only one left? Maybe downtown. That was still a few blocks away. Maybe that’s where she’d find others.
Heading north on Main Street just two blocks back west of the river, and especially as she approached downtown, she did find a scattering of other people wandering about, looking as lost and confused as she felt.
In the canyon between jagged peaks of destroyed buildings, the downtown stretch of Main Street was filled even more with wrecked cars and trucks, all with their best-ignored cargo of meat charred black.
She began to cry. She couldn’t help it. Few of the others about her even seemed to notice. With the denial of her forced optimism now so blatant, she realized she had nourished a great hope that when she got downtown, she would find…something, some semblance of order, of control, of reason for optimism. But what she found from the time she climbed out of the creek-cum-storm drain was a repeat of the death and destruction she had tried hard to pretend wasn’t there, or that it was only limited to the small area within her view.
She sat down in the middle of the street and buried her face in her hands and sobbed, grieving for her lost family and friends and the destroyed town around her, perhaps the destroyed world. It was a loss so overwhelming, she couldn’t even begin to grasp it.
Tears streamed down both cheeks, and sobs wracked her frame. She let her hands drop and rest in her lap, having given up as futile even the simple act of reaching out to others, beseeching some – any – reaction. She sat there for a long time, maybe half an hour, maybe two or three hours; she didn’t pay attention. It just seemed like a long time. It seemed like she cried and cried, and no one cared. People came and went. She saw some and heard some, and some she just knew were nearby, watching her, listening to her, and always, ultimately ignoring her.
After a while, she began to notice how some of those that passed her were in worse shape than she was – walking zombies – and sympathy for them began to replace sorrow for her own losses. She considered going to one or two of them to see what she could do. But what could she do? What could anyone do?
She climbed to her feet and joined the trickling of straggling, wandering survivors.
Halfway to the next corner she stopped at a small gathering near the front of one of the less damaged storefronts. Out of the seven or eight persons present, only two were talking. She soon realized it was an argument, although a friendly one.
“Did you see any flying saucers? Huh? Did you? Hell, no, you didn’t. ’Cause there ain’t no such thing, and you know it. They were Russians. I don’t know how you can even question it.”
“Come on, Bill. You ever see anything like ’em before? They weren’t airplanes. And besides, the U.S.S.R. went bust, remember?”
“Like hell! You really believe that crap? I didn’t for a minute. Those commies are as sneaky and dirty as land mines. Russia is still Russia. And, those things were flying in the air, weren’t they? So, they were planes – just different.”
“But, the communists aren’t in power over there, not real communists like there used to be.”
“And what the hell makes you think that? Just because some bleedin’ heart on teevee says so? The commies are still in power, and they sent their secret, special planes over here to knock ours out before they begin their invasion.”
“Oh, give me a break. This ain’t 1960. The U.S.S.R. is over and gone. Hell, turns out they never were as powerful as we used to think. Now, China –”
“Well, you just better be practicin’ up on speakin’ your Russian – okay, maybe Chinese. ’Cause they’re gonna be right back here in Petaluma pretty damned quick. They’re gonna hafta get their troops over here and take over before ours get a chance to catch their breath and blow ’em back to hell as soon as they hit the beach.”
“What, no paratroopers?”
“Well, of course, paratroopers! And assault-landing airplanes. They got ’em, just like we do. When I said they would be landing on the beach, it was just a figure of speech. I didn’t really mean they was gonna –”
“Okay, Bill, I get the picture. And I still say you’re full of it. This wasn’t done by the Russians, or Chinese, or anyone else from this world. They were extraterrestrials. If we get ground troops hittin’ the beach, they won’t be speaking Russian.”
“Of course, they will, you idiot! They sure as hell ain’t gonna be little green men.”
Matti’s interest had peaked and was fast waning. How can those men argue about something so unimportant? What difference does it make who did it? It was done, and everyone is dead, and the town is dead, and … and everything is dead.
She turned and walked away, gazing about for someone she might know, or even just someone she could talk to that seemed to appreciate the severity of the situation.
I’ll bet those two are so used to arguing with each other they’d be doing it even if it was Judgment Day. Hell, maybe it is. Okay, you old fools, get ready to argue about whether the Pearly Gates are real gold or real pearl. Fools.
Two doors down, she stopped in front of the remains of a restaurant. The ornate building front was unburned because it was one of the old, art-deco facades of cast iron, but even the interior wasn’t too badly gutted. Picking her way through the collapsed shambles, she salvaged a mostly ash-free raisin Danish from beneath a sagging plastic cover. She had eaten only half of it when she noticed a body half buried among the rubble on the floor almost at her feet. Sheer will power prevented her from losing what little nourishment she had already gotten down as she quickly scrambled back out to the sidewalk.
After running almost to the next corner, she leaned against another storefront and took several deep breaths. She had seen so many bodies since leaving the culvert, why had one more upset her so much? But it just seemed so callous of her to stand there scarfing down the Danish with the poor woman’s corpse so near.
She angled across to the other side of Main Street through a space in the line of burned hulks that were once cars. She still couldn’t bear to pass close enough to those open tombs to possibly glimpse their charred occupants even by accident. The ever-present smoky-sweet but rank stench was enough to keep her from forgetting their presence.
On the other side, she started to walk past a woman who was just standing there, gazing down at the sidewalk. Matti suddenly realized she knew her and stopped. Not by name, but the woman lived about a block from Matti’s home.
She looked at Matti, or, at least in her direction.
“We’re neighbors,” Matti said. “Our house was the blue and white one across the street from yours and toward downtown.”
The woman appeared to look into Matti’s eyes, but her own were blank.
“My name is Matti – Matti Raven. My momma’s dead. So’s my dad. Have you seen Jamal? He’s my brother. He’s fourteen. He wasn’t home when everything ….”
The woman’s gaze swept over Matti’s face and seemed to be searching for something she knew or recognized. Matti realized, then, that the poor woman was out of it. She’s in shock really bad. I wonder if any of her family is around.
Matti took the woman’s arm and started to guide her over to the brick planter across the nearest storefront. It was the only place close by where they could sit without just plopping down on the ground. But when Matti began guiding her in that direction, the woman suddenly came to life and began screaming.
“What – no, it’s okay, Ma’am. We’re just gonna –”
“Hey! You! What are you doing to that woman? Why don’t you street punks leave decent folks alone in their misery? Why can’t you just –”
“Yeah! You leave her be!”
“What’d she –”
Matti spun toward additional voices shouting from across the street. “No, I just –” she began.
“You get the hell away –”
“Robbing a poor –”
“No, really. I was trying to –” Why couldn’t they understand she was just trying to help? Replacing her frustration, a primal fear, vague at first, but quickly growing, began to gnaw at her.
The woman continued to scream; no words or accusations, just screams.
One of the men across the street started toward her, and he looked like he meant to do something when he was close enough. His tightly balled fists swung at his sides in time with his heavy, purposeful steps, and his clenched jaw looked like he didn’t plan to do any talking. Two men a couple of stores away on her side were moving toward her, too. They had said nothing, but they, too, looked like they were looking forward to taking some kind of action. They had all been powerless against the faceless enemy that had destroyed their town, but here was a foe against which they could do something. She had read horror stories of mob violence in which people could be moved to mindless, open violence with no more reason than these men had. And she realized that further claims, assertions and protests on her part were almost certain to be ignored.
Matti stepped back away from the screaming woman who may or may not have recognized the young black girl who claimed to be her neighbor. She doubted if the woman even had a clue of what was going on. Most likely her outburst was a delayed reaction to the entire situation, perhaps including an intolerable pain of loss. But it was plain that a disheveled looking street punk who obviously had nothing better to do than harass decent folks on this most distressing of all mornings probably within human memory, would not be allowed to try to help her.
Glancing over her shoulder to be sure she wasn’t running into the arms of more angry men, she began back-pedaling. She held her hands palm outward to the men to show she had no weapons, and she matched their pace.
She had assumed they would stop when they reached the screaming woman, but they didn’t. In fact, as three of them came past the woman, one of them even bumped her out of the way. They weren’t interested in helping the woman; only in punishing the street punk they could believe had assaulted her.
When one of the men started moving out into the street, possibly to begin an encircling maneuver, Matti spun and sprinted for the corner.
With the three hot on her tail, Matti turned east and sped toward the Washington Street Bridge. She had no doubt that, with her youthful stamina, she could easily outdistance the middle-agers chasing her. They wouldn’t be able to stay with her for even a block. She’d leave them wandering around and bumping into each other in a cloud of dust. All she needed was an open road ahead. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one.
Two men and one woman coming across the short bridge toward her must have assumed the men chasing her had good reason, because they quickly spread out with arms wide to intercept her.
Just before the river, she turned right again and onto Water Street, an alley-like affair with metered parking along the river fence to her left and back door delivery access to the stores that fronted onto Main Street to her right. Normally, she would have been able to get back out to Main Street at the end of the block, but this day was not normal.
Part way down the block, a small semi had gotten hopelessly jammed in the process of trying to make an impossible U-turn in the tight space before the lasers turned it into a blackened piece of modern art blocking passage from buildings to fence. Matti’s sprint for life ended close enough to touch the black mound of slag, and to know she couldn’t climb either over it or through it in a hurry. Behind her the rapid staccato of the men’s footsteps slacked off, as well. She spun back to face the five men and one woman spreading out to better hem her in as they continued to close in.
With the fence firmly against her back, she tried to reason with them. “Please. Listen. I didn’t do anything to that woman. I was trying to help her. She lives in my neighborhood, and I thought I could help her.”
“Bullshit,” said one, fifty-plus years and with what little hair he had left cut to within half an inch of his scalp.
“Yeah, what a load or crap.” This was from the woman, forty-ish and on the heavy side of stocky. She wore a tank-top with no bra and skin-tight yoga pants. Matti told herself the woman had simply grabbed the first thing she touched before fleeing from her house. What didn’t help her image as a caring human being was the scowl that seemed to be permanently etched on her face.
“If she knows you and still screamed, maybe she knows you better than you think.” This was from another one of the men, also forty-ish, trim but not muscular, and his hair was full, curly and well groomed from a recent haircut. He wore a dress shirt open at the collar and dress slacks, as though he had worn a suit and tie to work that morning. He looked like he could be an insurance agent or maybe a lawyer. Out of the five, he was the most clean-cut, upstanding citizen type.
She addressed her plea to that one, assuming he might be the most reasonable. “No, really, I was trying to help her. She’s in shock. She needs help.”
“I’ll bet she was shocked to see a neighbor trying to mug her,” the woman said. “And in the middle of all this, too.”
“I didn’t try to mug her. I didn’t! Please, believe me.”
The men had closed in to within just a few feet, easily within grabbing distance with just a short lunge. The other three had remained silent, but they all appeared ready to act.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” she sobbed. “I didn’t do anything. Please.”
Matti had known terror the day before in the midst of holocaust, and, somehow, she had survived it. Now, here it was, again, gripping her with piercing talons – not the mindless terror of the day before, but, still, fear of senseless violence she had been spared in her sheltered life in suburban America. She feared once they began, the blows would never end.