By Jim LeMay
John Moore hesitated in the doorway. Not for his eyes to adjust to the darkness; the hallway behind him was scarcely less dim. And not to make the pre-entry visual investigation as he had been taught: search for signs of danger first, valuables second. He had already finished that. No, he paused because of the room’s lone occupant, slumped in the far corner, though a little embarrassed at his trepidation; said occupant had long ago lost the ability to harm anyone.
At last, he took a deep breath, stepped quietly into the room’s palpable silence and strode to its center. He turned about, examining it carefully, except for that corner.
To his left squatted a large desk with a few objects from before the Last Days on it and a chair behind it. Among the objects, the uses of many which often baffled him, he recognized one of the machines people of those days used for reading books, researching information, communicating long distances, making purchases and many other wonderful things which they called “commcomps.” Dust-shrouded shelves against the wall behind the desk bore cubes that had once held pictures that moved, vases that must have held plants and other objects for uses he couldn’t even guess. He asked himself, as he often did, why these people needed all this stuff. Among the shelves’ jumble though, he immediately recognized treasure of incredible value: pre-Last Days books.
Summer’s lethargic silence permeated the room. Ancient dust blanketed everything, disturbed only where his footprints crossed an intricate rug. The dust and gloom diluted whatever color the room might once have had into a dim despondent sepia. A single beam of light split the stygian darkness from a narrow gap in the only window’s draperies, pointing a brilliant finger across the room to the corner he did not yet want to see.
The dark did nothing to relieve the unrelenting heat, if anything more oppressive here than it had been outdoors. Sweat formed on his face and neck as soon as he wiped it away with his handkerchief. The room smelled of dust and desolation; the interiors of graves must smell like this. Dust motes danced in the bone-white shaft of light slicing through the draperies. He remembered imagining, as a little boy, that they were joyful, miniscule dancing fairies. These looked more like gleeful demons. His gaze, at last captured by their mad dance, followed the bright spear of light across the hardwood floor and the rug he stood on. It ended at the corner he had avoided seeing, at about the ankles of a grayish human-shaped pile.
He looked up quickly to take in the whole figure at once. Despite the crepuscular light and rotted clothing he could tell it had obviously once been a person. It huddled in one of those pre-Last Day chairs that adapted perfectly to the sitter’s form (according to the older folks of course; neither he nor any of the other kids had ever sat in one that still worked). Having sat there for nearly thirteen years, it had long ago relinquished the last of its flesh but seeing entire human skeletons unnerved him. The pallid ivory of rib, femur or some other bone poking through the shredded fabric didn’t bother him. Finally he looked at the largest exposed bone, the skull. It nestled in a tattered nest that might have been a sleeping robe’s collar, leaning slightly forward. The open jaw and large black eye sockets gave it a look of perpetual surprise.
John had seen enough human skeletons to know that the heap of small bones lying in the lap had once been hands, that there weren’t enough for two complete hands and that the missing bones suggested tiny critters, long ago, seeking food. At least the house had protected its resident from larger scavengers like dogs or coyotes.
Resting among the remaining hand bones was a device John recognized as a “reader” that could be detached from the commcomp for use in another location. A little sadly, he recreated the scene in the room as it must have been all those years ago. The man – the skeleton’s garment was almost certainly a man’s night robe – had been sick with that horrible infection that had killed nearly everyone on earth, including John’s father. Knowing he was dying, the man had decided to spend his last hours in the chair reading, or perhaps listening to music. At least until he grew too sick. The skull had stared sightlessly at the blank reader screen with the same quizzical expression for nearly thirteen years.
John turned suddenly away, stalked over to the covered windows, determined to ease tightness in his throat that had nothing to do with heat, dust or darkness. He grasped the draperies on each side of the slit that admitted the mad little demons. The room had lain in darkness long enough.
“John! I found one!”
John jumped and turned toward the sudden shout, still clutching the draperies. The corroded rod supporting them screeched in protest as it parted from the wall. The collapsing drapes rained ancient dust. Only a few deft back-steps saved John from envelopment by the filthy decomposing material and most of the dust. Sudden, blinding light banished the dark just as Rossi’s shout had shattered the quiet. But not the heat. John yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face. The handkerchief came away muddy. He sneezed.
The shout had shocked John especially because of Rossi’s almost preternaturally quiet nature; he seldom spoke above a murmur. Rossi stepped in from the hallway holding up a story book for beginning readers. For a moment John was nonplused.
Then he remembered and smiled a little in spite of his irritation. A few weeks before Rossi had asked John to teach him to read. At not quite thirteen years old, he had never taught anyone anything, let alone a kid older than himself how to read. He had no idea how to even begin! To gain time he had told Rossi they didn’t have the right books, like simple beginners’ books. They would have to wait until the gang’s return to Coleridge Gardens in the fall. There he could look for the books he had first learned to read. At John’s age, the stretch between the beginning of summer and next fall seemed a long time. He would think of something by then. Rossi might even forget about it.
That wouldn’t work now, though. There Rossi stood with a beginners’ book in his hand!
The usually dour Rossi said with an eager smile, “This book’ll do, won’t it, John?”
John couldn’t disappoint him. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll do.” He brushed futilely at the dust on his clothes. All that accomplished was to make them both sneeze.
“For now though,” said Rossi, “we’d best finish scroungin’ this place. It’s gittin’ late.” Resuming his role of older-kid-in-charge.
John looked back at the immobile figure in the corner. The light had chased the dread from the room. The figure now looked just like what it was: a misshapen bundle of bones.
To Rossi, of course, the skeleton was only another object to search for truck, as they called marketable items. He had lived close to death his whole life, first as an orphan in a town that hated orphans, now as a member of a scrounger gang ransacking deserted towns and farms full of corpses. Rossi had been a baby before the Last Days so he didn’t remember what a world full of people was like. He found nothing unusual about skeletons littering towns like this.
But John had not been raised in the casual violence that Rossi accepted as part of life. He had been born during the pandemic that preceded the Last Days in a small isolated town. The survivors had wept over and buried those lost in the pandemic in his infancy so he had no memory of it.
Rossi followed John’s glance to the figure in the corner and went immediately to it. John watched in grisly fascination as the rotten clothing disintegrated in Rossi’s hands. Some of the bones clattered to the floor. The skull toppled forward as Rossi pulled a strand of some kind over it, examined it closely and held it up triumphantly for John to see: a chain with a metal disk hanging from it. The figure of a man carrying a small burden had been etched on the disk.
“What is it?” asked John, unconsciously speaking softly.
“It’s a medal.” Rossi spoke quietly too, but he always did. “I think it’s St. Christopher, the guy Stony wears around his neck.”
“Who’s St. Christopher?”
“Some kinda god, I think. Stony says he pertecks travelers. I’m gonna ast Stony if I can keep him t’ perteck me.” The gang generally held truck in common and split profits after selling it. One could, however, request to keep a specific object and deduct its value from his share of the profit, or “take”. John would almost certainly keep one or more books as part of his take.
“Jackie has one, too,” said Rossi.
“Jack’s is a cross,” said John. “They call it a crucif – something.”
The figure in the chair looked far less human now, just rotting threads clinging to a disarranged collection of bones, many of which now lay scattered about the floor. The skull gazed vacantly at John from approximately where the lap had been. St. Christopher hadn’t done a very good job protecting this guy. But then, maybe he hadn’t been much of a traveler.
“Let’s git to it, John. Stony’d have our ass if he saw us fuckin’ around like this.”
Scroungers considered it bad luck to dawdle after entering a deserted house. They believed some essence of the former occupants still hovered about the place. These shades, knowing they no longer needed their things, didn’t mind newcomers taking whatever they wanted. Disturbing their final rest longer than necessary, though, was a breach of etiquette, like a person overstaying his welcome at a friend’s house.
Once started, under Rossi’s direction, they moved quickly and efficiently. Though John was a novice Rossi had three years’ experience under the older gang members’ supervision.
Rossi went first to the desk. Ignoring the commcomp, which had become immediately worthless when its power source disappeared during the Last Days, he ransacked the desktop and drawers for once-trivial items, from paper clips to letter openers, and for the more valuable metal objects that clever smiths could turn into tools. His most valuable discovery lay in a bottom drawer, a full ream of paper. Instead of just dumping it into the bag with the rest, he set it aside. It would be among the last objects packed into the cart, carefully wrapped and placed in the safest place. Paper was finite, irreplaceable and fragile. This ream was probably as valuable as everything else in the desk combined.
John concentrated on the shelves behind the desk. He dumped everything but the books into his bag, even the stuff he didn’t recognize – the older guys could throw away anything unsalable. As Rossi emptied the desk drawers, John filled them with books for safety, stacked atop each other or, if space did not permit, on their spines (never the other direction as that, according to his mentor Matt Pringle, caused their rotting spines to deteriorate further). Bound paper books had been rare even before the Last Days; most books had been recorded on various electronic devices like the commcomp, or small thin wafers reputedly containing thousands of books each, unreadable now that the commcomps were dead.
No experienced scrounger worked randomly so, after finishing the desk and shelves they searched the rest of the room in an orderly fashion: end tables, wall niches and around the skeleton, and found little else of value. The humid climate had mostly consumed the fabrics, including the drapes and the furniture was too ungainly to take. The lamps, made of the so-called “composite” materials, could not be shaped into anything useful by tinkers or smiths.
Thanks to Rossi’s expertise they stripped this last room of the house, in short order. They finished packing the cart out front and sat for a moment on the house’s front stoop in the shade, exhausted more from heat than their labor. Their cart was full. It was nearly mid-afternoon, the hottest part of the day.
After a time Rossi said, “Time t’ dump this shit an’ head for the crick.”
They stood, grabbed the bar on the front of the truck, as Stony called his carts, and pulled it down broken, overgrown streets to the stash hole, a partially collapsed house in the northeast corner of town. It only took a few minutes but in such a small town no place was more than a few minutes from any other. They rolled it through the back door, across a landing and down a set of rickety steps to the basement. They took longer unloading than they should have because of the basement’s coolth but finally returned up to the heat and light.
They went to the gang’s hole-up on the west side of town, the second floor of a house that had been old even before the Last Days. They had found other houses in better condition but their boss Mitch hadn’t liked them for either hole-ups or stash holes. Rival gangs would check them first as they themselves had done. Finding none of the guys there, they went out, crossed the back yard and the meadow where their mules grazed, and down sloping overgrown fields to the creek, a mile or so west of town.
The other two young guys were there already in the shallow brown water of the bend shaded by willows, naked. Big Miller sprawled against the bank, half asleep. His great size had earned him his nickname. He was strong and loyal if a bit slow in wit. Little Jack Kincaid, seldom still for long, splashed around, whistling tunelessly. The cheap red glass beads on the string holding the crucifix around his neck glittered in vagrant shafts of sunlight. Neither saw Rossi, approaching wraith-like through the willows, followed by John. As an orphan Rossi had learned that the least-noticed kids lived the longest and still found the practice efficacious.
When, to the always skittish Jack Kincaid, Rossi seemed to suddenly materialize before him, he yelped in terror. Then he laughed and splashed water at him and then at John when he broke through the willows. Miller woke up with a startled grunt.
“You assholes!” Jack laughed. You scairt the shit out a me.”
“Then I don’t wanta share the water with y’, Jackie,” said Rossi. But he stripped, as did John. They waded into the water and squatted in the mud where it was marginally cooler to spend the next two or so of the day’s hottest hours.
“Where’s Stony?” asked John.
“Checkin’ his snares,” said Big Miller. “Don’t know where that old fart gits his energy.”
After bitching to each other about the heat they lay quietly in the shallows, except for high-strung little Jack Kincaid. He described every item of that day’s take and speculated on its original use. A favorite topic among the young guys was the inexplicable pre-Last Days habit of people cluttering their homes with so much stuff. Then he talked about the hunting trip he planned when they next took a day off to hunt for food. Boss Mitchell wouldn’t let them use precious ammunition for hunting but Jack, starting the previous summer about the time John joined the gang, practiced with a clumsy homemade bow and arrows. Last winter he had used part of his take to buy a real bow and arrows. He had practiced all winter and continued now as time allowed. Despite the others’ good-natured ragging and though he had failed to bag even a rabbit – which John occasionally did with his powerful slingshot – he vowed to bring down a deer before the summer ended.
Then they heard the slightest of movements in the willows and Stony appeared, a small wiry man with white hair and beard and a patch over one eye.
“Hey, boys,” he said, “got room for a old man?”
They greeted him. Miller moved over to make room, then said, “Hottest day yet, ain’t it, Stony?”
“Yeah, only the middle a May an’ it’s already hotter ’n the hubs a hell.”
Jack laughed. “The hubs a hell! It don’t git no hotter ’n that, Stony.”
“Any luck with the snares?” asked Miller.
“Not this time. Got a vole an’ a field mouse. Don’t reckon we’re hungry ’nough t’ eat critters like that yet. We’ll finish off the smoked fish tonight. I’ll fix some corn bread. I got some nice mushrooms t’ go with ’m. Oyster mushrooms.”
The boys made appreciative noises; they liked the way Stony prepared oyster mushrooms, battered lightly in cornmeal and fried.
“Found us another stash hole too,” Stony said. “I’ll show y’ when we git back t’ work.”
“Why so many stash holes, Stony?”griped Miller. “The one we got ain’t nigh full.”
“I tol’ja. If another gang finds one a your stash holes they ain’t likely to look for no more. The more stash holes y’ got the safer your truck is.”
That didn’t satisfy Jack Kincaid. “But Mitch hisself said they ain’t been nobody here since the Last Days.”
“That don’t mean somebody won’t’ find the town. We found it just a couple weeks ago.”
“That ain’t like you, Stony,” persisted Jack. “You always tell us t’ ‘look on the bright side’ a things.”
Stony grinned his nearly toothless grin. “You got it half right, Jackie. Look on the bright side, sure, but expec’ the worst.” He looked like he would have winked if he’d had another eye.
Stony was unaccountably cheerful for one so well known for his bad luck. He had been forty when the pandemic struck. His hair had turned white nearly overnight and in subsequent years he had lost most of his teeth. One cheek was caved in where they were all missing. An infection of some kind had cost him an eye and he had lost an ear lobe in a bar fight. He was unusually susceptible to colds and other types of sickness and no one, himself included, expected a long life for him. He reminded others, however, that he and everyone alive were the luckiest people who had ever drawn breath. The devastating pandemic of 2072, Chou’s Disease, had killed 80 to 90 percent of the earth’s population. Civilization had crumbled so quickly no one knew the number for sure. Most of the few who recovered from Chou’s succumbed to starvation, pestilence or violence. To Stony, being among those few survivors was the best case of luck there had ever been.
“Wonder how the other guys is doin’,” mused Rossi. John had been wondering the same thing.
Jack laughed. “They’s partyin’ in Nellie’s Fair while we bust our balls. “They made a bunch a money off ’n the church truck an’ ain’t even thinkin’ a us.”
“They only been gone a week,” said Stony. “They ain’t even got t’ Nellie’s Fair yet.”
They talked in a desultory fashion, speculating about the other guys, discussing the heat and the upcoming evening’s work. The shadows finally grew longer. Stony stood up and stretched.
“It’s a mite cooler boys,” he said. “Let’s go git some more truck. Big, I b’lieve it’s your turn t’ see t’ the mules.”
They would work until dark and return to the hole-up where Stony would prepare supper.
* * *
The gang had left its winter hole-up in Coleridge Gardens the first week of April to “go trucking,” so-called because their word for the useable, saleable goods they sought was “truck.” It consisted of two five-member factions, one of men in their forties and fifties and the other of youths in their teens. The older men, the original gang members, clearly controlled the gang, which often rankled the youths’ impetuous leader, Red Leighton. The oldest of the leading faction and gang leader was Boss Hank Mitchell, who most called Mitch, in his late fifties; the youngest was Matt Pringle, a little over forty, ex-college professor, one-time intellectual and John Moore’s friend and mentor.
They avoided the few farmsteads of one to a few families they saw. Farmers disliked scroungers because they took articles they might need themselves and, in any case, no one trusted armed wanderers of any kind. They followed the Sheridan River north and east for nearly three weeks to the Green Hills, a beautiful country of tree-clad ridges separated by flat creek bottoms, quite different from the gently rolling prairies around Coleridge Gardens. Matt told John that even before the Last Days fewer people had lived here than the Coleridge Gardens area. Poor soils and new means of non-agricultural food production had gradually driven the farmers and businesses depending on agriculture away, except for a few stubborn hold-out farmers that cultivated the creek bottoms.
“A paradox of the late twenty-first century,” Matt Pringle had said, “was that, even though the world population had doubled in less than a hundred years, population actually dwindled in lots of rural places like this. Most people lived in the cities. It’s just the opposite now. The cities are empty. Survival was easier in the country.”
“The Green Hills are good scroungin’ grounds though,” had boomed Lou Travis’ deep voice. The big gentle man was Matt’s best friend in the gang. “Got a lot a truck last time we were here. Hardly anyone’s left here to use it and the Green Hills are off the beaten track for most scroungers.”
The first town they checked, though, a large one near the river, had been thoroughly scrounged. From there they followed an unpaved road, so thickly covered by tall grass, brush and saplings it was sometimes difficult to follow, to the east. The few isolated houses and farm buildings they saw had either burned or were near collapse. On the second morning they crested a ridge and started down a wooded slope toward one of the flat creek bottoms. Red Leighton, the young faction’s leader, suddenly raced back from where he had been walking point, to where Mitch led the column.
“There’s a town over there, Mitch!” He grabbed the leader’s sleeve. He was a tall skinny kid with orange hair, a thin, straggly, red-gold beard and an Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down in his scrawny throat when he was excited, which was most of the time.
Somewhat annoyed, Mitch yanked his sleeve out of his grasp, but looked where Leighton pointed.
“See?” insisted Leighton. “On the hill on t’ other side a the crick.”
Mitch’s thick black brows met over his nose in concentration while he stroked a beard the color and texture of steel wool. He finally grudgingly admitted, “I do b’lieve y’re right. I swear you got the eyes of a hawk.”
The town was much smaller than the one by the river but relatively intact. They found the grisly remains of the former inhabitants in nearly every house. Stony said finding so many undisturbed bodies was a good sign that no one had visited the town since the Last Days.
John didn’t like to think of all those skeletons swaddled in rotting garments as a good sign of anything, particularly the small ones of children.
That afternoon, after a quick exploration of the town they set up camp in an old house at the northwest edge of town, behind which a convenient meadow provided grazing for the mules. The ground floor of the house next door would protect the mules from wild dogs at night. The next day they started scrounging. The town’s only two businesses had been a tavern and an automated convenience store, both undisturbed and full of truck. Deteriorating motor vehicles and the remarkably intact houses yielded hard-to-find tools and other valuable truck.
“Hey, Perfessor,” Leighton asked Matt during a break, “Whatcha reckon was the name a this town?”
Matt was “Perfessor” because he had been a college professor. Leighton had started the nickname as a term of derision. Even though the man and boy didn’t get along, Matt showed no offense – perhaps to neutralize the intended insult – and the sobriquet had stuck among the kids.
“Well, from the names of businesses on the store windows I’d guess it was called Dumfrey.” Heavy with sarcasm. Left unsaid was, “as anyone who could read would see.”
“Dumbfuck, hunh?” Leighton cackled. “What a great name for this dump.” Unashamedly as illiterate as the other orphans, he took pleasure in baiting Matt.
The second day they found two churches, one Pentecostal, one Catholic, well-preserved with even intact windows that had kept out the elements. The Catholic church contained the most valuable artifacts. The youths couldn’t know their significance or value or even their names, the crucifixes, chalices, candlesticks and other things. The most valuable were made of gold and silver, especially a jewel-encrusted gold crucifix. They pulled aside its pews and heaped the truck from both churches, even the hymnals, prayer books, vestments and such, in the middle of the floor. Then Mitch said they should have a confab, the term for the gang’s more or less casual meetings.
Stony stood next to the gang’s curmudgeon and self-appointed medic, Doc Garson.
“Now that we got it,” said Stony, “where we gonna sell it? Coleridge Gardens’ market’s too small an’ they only got one church.”
Doc Garson shrugged. “Melt down the gold an’ silver. Then we can sell it anywheres.” A rather tall, dark, slightly stooped man with a long lugubrious face, he seemed Stony’s opposite, a pessimist suspicious even of good fortune, though he and the optimistic Stony, despite their continual bickering, were the closest of comrades.
Stony turned on him. “Like hell we’ll melt it down!” He grabbed up the jewel-encrusted cross and shook it in Doc’s face. “You’d take the jewels out a this an’ melt it down!?” He alone among the older guys had retained a modicum of his former faith. When in Nellie’s Fair he made his confession and attended mass though he seldom spoke of his religious views.
John also thought it a shame to destroy such beautiful objects but his opinion counted for little so he kept quiet. The other young guys, led by the vociferous Red Leighton, agreed with Doc. As usual Mitch didn’t say anything. He would let everyone else speak first.
Somewhat to John’s surprise, since he looked upon religion rather contemptuously, Matt said, “Stony’s right. These beautiful artifacts should be saved for future generations. Let’s make a deal. Spare these few pieces, this crucifix” (its arms were encrusted with jewels with a large ruby where they crossed) “and the chalice and candlesticks to sell to a church or some other religious collector, and melt down the rest.” Later he told John privately that the other gold and silver objects had been cast along with countless others that possessed no great artistic merit. Most were merely plated with precious metals.
“We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout sellin’ t’ churches,” insisted Leighton. “But we sure know guys that pay good for metals t’ melt down, don’t we, boys?” He grinned and winked at the younger guys. Except for John, the others had belonged to Leighton’s gang of orphans in Nellie’s Fair before recruitment by the gang.
“Mitch could sell to the churches easy,” said Stony. “He could sell ice cubes t’ Eskimos.”
“What’s a Eskynoe?” asked Big Miller.
“What good’s all these books?” asked Jack Kincaid.
“Lots a churches are in the market for hymnals and such,” said Stony. “Ain’t many a these books left.”
All agreed to sell the objects of lesser value to churches but a heated debate followed over disposition of those made of precious metals. Mitch occasionally added a comment, such as, “Keep in mind all the churches in Nellie’s Fair. Lots of ‘m prob’ly short of crosses and cups an’ shit.” “Yeah,” grumbled Doc. “More churches than taverns.” Gradually the discussion turned to Stony’s point of view. Somehow, under Mitch’s subtle guidance, the final decision appeared to be a consensus reached by the whole gang: the gold and silver artifacts that brought a good price would be sold intact with the rest going to smiths who worked with precious metals.
“Maybe we can start a biddin’ war between the richest churches!” said Leighton, forgetting his previous argument for melting the precious metals down.
They unanimously chose Nellie’s Fair because it was so much larger than their usual market, Coleridge Gardens. Their usual truck sold well enough at the Coleridge Gardens harvest market because it drew large crowds with disposable wealth from the harvest. Religious artifacts and precious metals, though, were valuable any time and even more so at the larger town with its many churches. Half the gang would take the goods to Nellie’s Fair now while the others finished scrounging Dumfrey. Mitch and Matt would go because they were the best negotiators and Travis because of his stamina and intimidating size. Garson and Leighton would also go, leaving Stony to supervise the other boys, John, Miller, Rossi and Kincaid.
They spent that night in the church with the treasure – even though, as Garson grumbled, it had remained undisturbed for nearly thirteen years – and the Nellie’s Fair contingent left early the next morning.