There used to be sticker vines here. Months of nuclear winter left only angry thorns, the rest withered from lack of sun. Ash made everything the same color. No greens, no blue sky, no butterflies or birds. Skinny dogs and cats dug in the trash before humans could squabble over it. The fast ones, anyway. The maimed, sick and old were dinner.
Beth squeezed through the bars and peeled the clinging vines off her clothes. Across the potholed asphalt she scuttled then plunged beneath the collapsed roof of a house. In the nick of time, she thought. Her pale face peered from the wreckage and watched as Scabs approached. That was the term for packs of roving marauders, but you didn’t say it to their faces. They carried not only guns but sharpened gardening tools, knives and clubs. If you refused to give up your scavenged items they killed you. Often they did anyway out of sheer meanness.
Beth scratched her sores absently then made herself stop. All of her itched because there was no clean water, even if you had a scrap of soap. No way was she going to use that black shit in the rain pools. She just put her head down among the heap of fallen sheetrock and boards. Occasionally she twitched or grunted with sympathy as some victim was beaten by the Scabs. When it stopped she waited before crawling out.
It wasn’t like the city had been picked over completely. She knew what she was looking for and where to find it. Most folks stayed in the fallout shelter but she wasn’t most folks. Her family--
No! She wasn’t going to think about that. Not today. There were other things to think about, namely avoiding Followers. They wanted you to find the good stuff then took it from you. Beth knew all the good hiding and finding places.
She sneaked down an alley to somewhere she hadn’t already foraged. Toppled garbage cans had long ago spilled their contents and held nothing of value now. For blocks and blocks she walked then went several blocks further. The rusted, bent street sign said Sunnyside one way and Happy Trails the other. It made her heart hurt. Just thinking about the sweet nonsense they meant now brought to mind better days and two little hands in either of hers.
Uh-uh. Mustn’t remember that.
A squeaking bark dissolved the memory. Beth duck walked to a chain link fence and peered through the diamonds at what had once been a dog, now reduced to a pitiful sack of bones covered by a patchy pelt. “Hey, old buddy!” she whispered. The dog whined and wagged its tail, dry tongue licking crusted, sore lips.
Hell, no, she couldn’t let this stand. Beth loved animals, even though hers were gone. It had been painful to leave them behind but--
Beth bit off the thought and surged over the fence, one bare toe at a time. The dog whimpered, its rear wriggling. “Poor baby,” she whispered, noting the lack of food and a bowl of anything wet near it. Whoever called himself “owner” of this dog deserved to be shot. It was on a chain less than four feet long, bolted to the wall next to the back door. Literally she crawled to the mixed breed mutt and looked back, spying an unlocked latch on the gate. Slipping the clip free of the eyebolt, she ran but the dog just laid down and whined.
“You!” she heard as the back door burst open. All manner of flying things came their way. One hit the dog, making him yelp as the man bawled, “Crazy bitch!”
Beth ran as far as she could before her wind gave out. She ducked behind a house covered in siding. When her lungs quit hitching she stood up and looked through the smeared windows. Yick! They were covered in flies and cockroaches. Why did only disgusting things thrive now? She pecked on the glass and the bugs swarmed away. Beth leaped back from the image of a bloated, encrusted body. And that wasn’t all. A shadow had moved inside. No, she wasn’t going to shop here.
A half block away she entered a back yard and clapped her hands quietly, grinning through blackened teeth. It was an open storage shed. She skulked inside and dug through useless piles of stuffing and pictures and broken furniture. A happy cackle wheezed from her split mouth as she moved this and that out into the yard between spread feet. Dishes and flatware spun to the ground. Nah. Who in their right mind would pocket lipstick? She had no use for small electronics, either.
“Oh!” she sighed, catching up a single ragged house shoe. Frantically she searched for the other and found instead a fairly intact pair of sandals. What a treasure! Then something caught her eye: a dull, silvery gleam inside plastic. Beth wept as she hoisted the bottle of water and uncapped it. Reverently, she tipped it up and swallowed, trying not to waste it. Most of it went in but some spilled, too. Something was wrong with her lips now.
She found another water and a bottle of something that sloshed but its label was too faded to read. A rusty can of something caught her eye. Beth scrounged for a purse and found one. With all these goodies she’d have to wait until dark to go home. The Scabs would kill to get this! She put the sandals on and changed her rags for a pair of pajama bottoms, a tube top and a sweater. Was she ever rich!
Her roving eye caught sight of someone else and she froze, staring at her. A woman with patchy, gray hair and scars on her face. The woman didn’t move nor try to come after her so they left one another alone to dig through the leavings.
Oh, Lord! She couldn’t find a can opener or even a knife or she’d have eaten the contents of the can. Beth hid in the back yard and waited for the other person in the shed to leave first. When thoughts she shouldn’t have tried to come out she shook her head and grunted them away. As shadows lengthened in the naked limbs above her, her chin drifted to her chest.
And she dreamed…
Her and the girls running to the car but it wouldn’t start. Hiding until Cliff came home. His wild eyes as he ran to the closet, grabbing a pack and throwing it at her, then grabbing two more. Cliff and her filling water bottles, stuffing them into their coats. “Get the girl’s boots on! Hurry up, Beth! We got to get out of here.”
They lived not far from Barksdale Air Force Base and it had been hit. She’d never loved that man more than she did the night he guided them out. “Don’t you ever look back, woman. Not ever. It’s all gone.”
Those stalled cars, something about EMP. He cursed and cajoled and urged them into the woods and fields, always heading west, away from that awful burning in the distance. The itching started soon after. They hid from everyone they saw, running to no one and nothing, just away from that. “We can’t trust anybody now,” he’d whispered. Beth had tried to keep the girls quiet, arguing that they had to ration the food their daddy had been smart enough to squirrel away.
A long time ago there had been Walmart. Aisles of pickles, soup, turkey, bread, pastries and coffee. Oh, coffee! And water. Cases and cases after cases and gallons upon gallons of clean, clear sweet water. The last time she’d shopped there she’d had no idea. None. Stacy and Tracy had giggled every time she’d shelved something they tried to hide in the buggy. If she’d only known she’d have bought everything they wanted.
“I’m hungry, Mama!”
Beth’s head jerked but she didn’t wake up. And did she ever want to wake up. The scenes kept on flying by. Those people finding them and Cliff fighting. The little bit they had, stolen. Her being caught by hard, calloused hands. The slow agony of the twins’ starvation.
“No!” she screamed, sitting up, muscles aching. Her legs jerked as though still running. Beth cried, snot and tears streaking down her dirty face.
This did no good. Raising a bony hand, she slapped herself viciously. Too late for tears. Too late for a lot of things. It was all gone now. Just this dry, featureless, colorless world. And her.
On hands and knees she worked her way to the edge of the storage building. No one was out there except a few muttering souls wandering about. Maybe she could avoid them. Beth worked her way toward the fallout shelter, the place she’d lived since...when? It was getting harder to remember because she wanted to forget.
Back to Sunnyside and Happy Trails. She stood at a sagging privacy fence and looked all four ways. “Hey! Lady!” a young voice called out. Beth took off at a run, fearing both Scab and Follower. Something was slapping on the broken road, keeping time with her fast feet, wanting her treasure. She put on more speed, relying on hard-earned wisdom to outdistance whoever wanted to rob her. She could do this. Her life depended on it.
There! A warehouse with a few broken boards over a dilapidated door. Huffing and puffing, she squeezed between the torn wood and frame. It was dark but she’d gotten used to the night. Still, best not to crawl across the floor. Holding her precious finds to her flattened breasts, she felt her way around, one questing hand meeting a solid object. Some kind of industrial housing for a machine or something. And it had a hiding place underneath.
While she waited she felt for something to open the can. There were odd bits of metal and she played a game with herself trying to identify them. It was no use, she couldn’t see. A shard of glass cut her but she took it with aplomb. What was a cut finger, after all? If she lost the whole thing it would be no big deal, after what they’d done to Cliff--
“Stop it,” she told herself, squaring her shoulders. It was time to get back. They had an opener at the fallout shelter. Her groping turned up something far more valuable in the moment before she rose up to leave. Paper! It felt like typing paper or a memo sheet but she knew it could be crumpled over and over until soft enough to wipe your ass with. As far as she knew no one had any paper in the shelter. Beth cackled and put it in her pocket.
Back outside and shuffling the way she’d come, she discovered why there was a flapping noise. The sole had almost come clean off her sandal. About right. All you could find anymore was junk. This was better than bare feet. As she approached the bars of the fence and the sticker vines, she made sure she had the purse on her shoulder and patted the pocket of her new sweater where the precious piece of paper was tucked. Through the bars she went.
Buddy Driscoll, head nurse of the swing shift, swung his flashlight in a wide arc, growling under his breath. When he found that old bat he was going to wring her damned neck. The government had other things, like these patients, to fix. The country was still dotted with deserted towns like the one nearby needing to be bulldozed into some big hole in the ground. He’d be lucky to keep his job after they found out Beth Butler had sneaked out again to root around. “How does she keep getting out?” he barked at the LVN several feet away, his own light working the grounds.
“I don’t know,” Eric answered.
A silent snarl curled Buddy’s lip. At dinner they’d noticed her missing and, in trying to find her, a lot of duties had gone undone. The next shift wasn’t going to be happy but what was he supposed to do about it? They had to find her, or else. “Here she is,” a voice near the fence called.
Buddy whipped his flashlight around and saw a small, ghostly figure coming out of the dark. Swearing, he stomped toward her and took note of her disheveled state. And where had she come by those ratty clothes and sandals? “Well, there goes another state-issued pair of house shoes,” he yelled to the converging nurses. “Where the hell you been, Beth? We been looking all over for you! Inside and out!”
“Take it easy, Buddy,” Eric said.
“Easy? Huh! I’m the one got to write up the reports. I’m the one gonna get his ass chewed.” He took the little woman by the arm. He glared at the aide hurrying across the grounds to her patient. “Where were you when she went missing?”
“I’m sorry,” Tooty offered, her head shrinking into her shoulders. “She was right there in the reading room and then she was gone when I came out of Mr. Murphy’s. Maybe she watched someone punch in the door code.”
“Back off, man!” Eric was soft-spoken but the whole institution knew better than to mess with one of his “babies.” He nodded at the aide and put an arm around Beth. With a stern glare he conveyed an unspoken order to unhand his charge. “Tooty was feeding on the hall and I was in the dining room. Seems it was your big butt sitting at the desk that should’ve seen her go out the door.”
“She’s a wily one. Don’t let it happen again,” Buddy groused, pointing a finger at Tooty. Buddy waved a hand in dismissal as the charge nurse stomped away, flashlight beam bobbing.
Tooty commented on a bruise and two blood-trickling scratches but that seemed to be all the harm that had come to Beth except for her being filthy. “What’s in the sack, honey?” she asked, reaching for the shopping bag. Beth handed it over. “Oh, my God. Just a bunch of junk.”
“She always comes back with the damndest stuff,” Eric agreed. “She don’t understand this isn’t necessary anymore. Stuck in a loop. This gal’s a legend. I reckon she been here longer than anyone else. Red Cross brought her in for treatment almost twenty years ago, her wallet down her panties. Do you know she lived less than thirty miles from the blast site in Louisiana?”
“So that’s what happened to her hair and skin,” Tooty muttered.
Eric nodded. “Before she quit speaking she used to tell me stories about walking clear across Texas. Horrible stories.”
Beth pulled the piece of paper, better than gold, from her pocket and handed it to the big, kind man. He grinned widely and patted her shoulder then unfolded the piece of paper. It was stained and the words on it were barely legible. Still, it was good enough to wipe with. She nodded to him and smiled.
“Oh, good Lord,” Eric said.
Tooty looked at the paper in his hand and was confused by his expression. It looked like he was about to cry. “What?”
“This is really old. A flyer for some peace rally back before the bombs fell.”
“Too bad it didn’t work.”
Eric sniffed and led Beth inside. Good thing he saved some supper for her. She was always hungry. One day, when she got her fill, she might come out of the wasteland.