The child was wearing a collar, like a dog. The attached leash was fashioned from some sort of braided rope. It dragged on the broken and potholed asphalt between her and one of the nine men who walked several feet ahead. Her hands were tied in front of her. She moved with her head down, keeping perfect pace with the men. The distance between them never changed, the slack in the rope never tightened. Her no-color hair hung to her waist in filthy wet clumps. She was dressed in what appeared to be a tattered bathrobe. It might have been pink, once. Her feet were bare.
She wasn’t his daughter, of course. He knew that.
He lowered the binoculars and watched as the group faded into the distance. The landscape around the road was flat and featureless; long abandoned fields littered with the decomposing detritus of a corrupted city. The quickly westering sun was nothing more than a lighter spot in a sky the color of river mud.
They would camp soon. He would move closer then.
Ian had been following the group for six days. Seeing the girl awakened some long buried memory; something hideous and bloated, secretly festering within the deepest reaches of his mind. He was compelled to follow her. He watched their progress through his binoculars, never getting closer than half a mile. He knew if they spotted him, they’d kill him. A part of him wished for it.
At first there had been another child, a boy. He was younger than the girl, maybe eight-years-old. The boy followed along beside the girl without a leash to restrain him. Sometimes he reached out and held her bound hands. Often he fell behind, and the girl would stop and look after him until her leash was pulled tight, and she was forced to continue forward. Once, she resisted. The man on the other end of the leash turned and gave the leash an abrupt pull. The girl’s head snapped back and she was yanked forward, where she fell and landed face first on the road. The man strode back and unceremoniously lifted her to her feet. The boy he ignored.
On Ian’s third day following , the group awoke early and struck out without the boy. Ian watched as they emerged from the overturned tractor trailer they’d slept in, some pausing to take a piss or squat for a shit, while others readied their firearms and what gear they carried. Ian waited until they were out of sight before walking up the road to the trailer. There was no sign of the boy.
After some searching, Ian found him in a ditch off the road’s shoulder. He was lying half-submerged in the shallow water, naked, his glazed eyes staring sightlessly skyward. Up close, Ian could see how emaciated he was; his thin and nearly translucent skin stretched so tightly over his jaw and cheekbones that he appeared mummy-like. He’s well out of it, Ian thought, as he turned and walked back to the road. He wondered vaguely why they hadn’t eaten him.
There was the remains of a city in the distance. Sacramento. Likely where the group was heading, he surmised. Ian made a point to steer clear of the larger cities, for the most part. There was nothing in them but suffering and death. He looked down at a watery yellow pile of shit left behind by the men. There were thin runnels of blood in it. Ian hoped it was terminal.
He set the Mossburg twelve-gauge on the trailer’s bumper and cinched the oft repaired straps of his backpack a little tighter. He gazed at the shotgun for a long moment. It’s mute muzzle ready to bellow blue fire at the slightest whim of it’s wielder. He recalled the first weeks after; weapons seemed to be the only things not in short supply. Now, twenty-five years later, (or possibly twenty-six), they were still plentiful. Shouldering the twelve-gauge, he scanned the road for the path of least resistance through the maze of hulking automobile carcasses and washed-out road. Still unsure why he was shadowing the men and their captive, he walked slowly, almost leisurely, toward his destiny.
Ian splashed through the supermarket parking lot to his Prius, fishing his keys out of his pocket on the way. He thumbed the key-fob, threw open the door and ducked inside. Angry and out of breath, he reached down into the door compartment and grabbed the handful of fast food napkins he kept there. He dried his face and soaked up as much water from his hair as he could. He coughed harshly and hocked up a clump of sticky phlegm, which he spit out onto the wet tarmac after cracking open the door. It was the ash, they said. There was no ash now, though. At least not the floating-in-the air kind. Now it was just in the rain. He lowered the visor and looked in the mirror. A sooty streak ran from his forehead to his chin. He wiped at it with the clump of soaked and disintegrating napkins. Little bits of the off-white paper stuck in his weeks-long growth of beard. He gazed out through the quickly fogging window. In less than two weeks, every single store within a twenty mile radius had been completely picked clean. There were several people standing expectantly in front of the supermarket’s doors, as if someone inside was suddenly going to turn on the lights, throw open the doors, and welcome them in. Idiots, he thought. But at least they were smart enough to stand under the store’s awning. Another man, dressed only in a tee shirt and running shorts, was standing in the middle of the parking lot, about twenty feet away from Ian’s Toyota. Stock still, he was staring up at the big blue King’s Market sign. He looked vaguely familiar. Ian wiped at the window with the sleeve of his jacket. The man slowly turned his head and stared at him questioningly. Water ran from the tip of his nose in a torrent. Ian stared back in disbelief. The dishwater brown, too-long hair; the scrubby unshaven face; the wide, boxer’s nose. He reached a trembling hand to the glove compartment without looking away from the window. He found the prescription bottle by feel, opened it, and shook two of the oxycodone tablets into his hand and popped them in his mouth. He chewed slowly, savoring their bitterness. The man in the rain cracked a familiar smile. Ian’s face bloomed with an identical one.
He was parked in front of Doctor Hill’s office. The doors were locked and the office was dark. He felt foolish, remembering what he’d thought about the people waiting at the supermarket. Doctor Hill wasn’t going to open, probably ever again. Ian considered trying to break in. He knew they kept a small supply of drugs at the office. As if on cue, two large National Guard trucks rumbled by, their oversized all-terrain tires propelling a thick fog of road-spray into the air. Most of them had left the week before to deploy to the big cities where the looting and rioting was the worst: Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles. He’d heard that half of San Francisco was on fire. It seemed impossible with the nonstop rain, but he knew it wasn’t. His father had been a fireman.
He held the prescription bottle next to his ear and shook it. The thin rattle it made mocked him. Only four tablets left; he’d counted them several times. Four days ago he’d cut back to three per day—a third of what he’d been taking for the last year or so—and was sick from it. The monkey’s bony and clawing fingers dug deeper into his back, searching. He thought about trying to break into the CVS as well. They’d been closed for days. The last time he drove by there had been a police cruiser parked in front, one of the large plate glass windows was shattered. The big cities weren’t the only places where looting was going on. A newscaster on KMST, the local radio station, had said that less than half of the local police officers and sheriff’s deputies were even still showing up for work.
It was getting dark. How long had he been sitting in the empty parking lot? He checked his cell phone: five fifteen. Still no bars. He hadn’t had any cell service for days. In a way, he was glad. Lori, his ex-wife, had been calling non-stop, demanding that he drive their daughter to her place in San Jose. No way was he attempting to make that drive. He didn’t even know if he could get through. It was Lori’s turn to pick Karen up anyway.
He sighed and started the car. He’d left Karen at home alone all day again. Maybe he should have driven her to her mother’s right after the shit hit the fan. It certainly would’ve been easier for him. Now they were almost out of food and he was almost out of dope.
The rain intensified, and he turned the wipers on as high as they would go before pulling out of the lot. The heavy thrumming on the roof of the tiny Prius set his already frayed nerves on edge. The street was nearly deserted, so he mostly ignored the traffic lights. He wondered where everyone was. Hiding in their houses, he guessed. Window shades pulled, comforting each other while rationing the last of the rice and cans of baked beans. Waiting for the cavalry to arrive, for their government to tell them everything was going to be fine. There were a couple of businesses open; die-hard proprietorships: a gas station, a vape shop. A hand-painted plywood sign was propped up at the curb in front of the gas station. It read: NO FOOD. He slowed a little as he approached a woman standing beside a black Mercedes, one of the expensive ones. It was partially in the roadway, as if it had died and she was unable to coast it all the way to the curb. The hood was up and her flashers were on. She was drenched. She stepped farther out into the road, frantically trying to wave him down, but he ignored her. He had his own problems. She could walk back to the gas station.
Less than two blocks from his house, he started shaking violently. He slammed on the brakes and the Prius came to a cockeyed stop in the middle of the street. He pushed himself back in the seat and gripped the wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. After a few moments the fit began to pass. He reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed the pill bottle. As he fumbled feverishly with the safety cap, he let out a pathetic sounding mewl of frustration. Finally the cap turned. He let it drop to the floor and tipped the last four tablets into his mouth.
Home. He was in his bed. His sheets were soaking wet. He could smell himself. It was the same fetid and sickly yellow smell that had hung around his father as he lay dying, the Alzheimer’s disease eating what little was left of his brain. Karen was sitting on a stool next to him, a twelve-year-old vision of her mother, with her silky caramel colored hair and big round eyes. She gave him a sip of water. He threw it up. She wiped up the mess with a damp towel without a word. He slept.
“We’re out of food,” she said, lifting his head and giving him a drink of water. She looked at him warily, waiting to see if the water would stay down. It did. She set the glass on his nightstand. “Maybe you could try to sit up.”
He stared up at her, feeling dizzy. The water gurgled restlessly in his stomach. He let his eyes close.
She put her hand on his forehead and stroked his clumped and sticky hair away from his face. “Daddy, I need you. I’m scared.” She was crying.
Ian jerked awake, startled, his face wet with tears. Rotting headliner hung in tatters from the rusty roof above him. A long abandoned car, not his bed. He sat up. Fibers from the decomposing seat cushions puffed into the air, the yellowish cloud dancing lazily in the scant light. He coughed once, waving them away. He sat there for a moment, looking out at the shadowy dawn. His chest hitched once, then again; the interior of the car was suddenly filled with a wail of shame and despair so loud and replete with loneliness that he jerked his head around to locate its source. Only as the cry fell did he realize the voice was his own.
Standing at the edge of the heaved and buckled highway Ian stared down at the outline of a squat cinderblock building. He wondered what purpose it had served before. A weigh station maybe. He could see the glow of a small fire coming through the row of glassless windows set high in the wall facing him. The fire was the only reason he could see the building at all. The dark of night had been different since there were no longer electric lights, no longer stars. It was more complete. Over the last few years, though, he could sometimes see the faint glow of the moon if it was full. It didn’t give him hope. He looked past the building. The blackness of the immediate horizon was a shade darker than the blackness of the sky just above it. It was almost indiscernible, but he knew what was there: The once great Sierra Nevada mountains. They loomed bleakly over the barren and wasted valley below them. A hundred million dead trees lie atop one another like the corpses of soldiers left to rot at the ancient site of a great battle. Only the occasional deep-rooted fir still stood, weathered grey and needleless, like lone sentinels awaiting a reckoning.
He’d never seen his daughter again. He’d awoke, and she was gone. The half-full glass of water still on his nightstand. The girl down there wasn’t Karen. He knew that.
With a final look across the liquid black expanse of a dead valley, Ian flicked off the shotgun’s safety and started slowly down the hill.
Michael A. McLellan