She flicked the freezing, fetid mud from her heavy-duty gloves. No luck today, but this area was mostly tapped out, and soon she'd have to make a decision as to whether to move on permanently. E shifted slightly in the makeshift carrier on her back; she removed a glove and reached back, tucking the blanket more snugly around him. He was resting still, which was good. There wasn’t much else for him to do.
Used to be, you could find valuables by the cartload, courtesy of the destruction wrought on the wealthier hillside neighborhoods where the lahars first hit. Once people had gotten over their fear of aftershocks and more mudslides, the braver among them immediately saw the value to be had and set to work. They were followed not long after by scavengers like herself, happy to let others take the initial risk as long as they could do "clean-up" and get at least a little something to trade for necessities: gnarled bits of copper pipe too small for the big haulers, the occasional piece of silver jewelry or cutlery, maybe a small, overlooked bit of gold if you were lucky... your luck would have to hold if you were to avoid getting robbed before you could get it to a trader, though.
Survival of the fittest ensured there weren't many traders left, either. Beyond the initial cataclysm and its accompanying corpses – the majority of which still polluted the mud in various stages of decay – most of the population had not survived the weeks that followed.
Those weeks had stretched into months, she realized, and without much feeling about it one way or another.
That pervasive numbness, and not just from the cold (which you could never seem to shake), was one of the first things that took hold. She remembered hearing that the word "decimate" originated when soldiers long ago lost more than 10% of their comrades. What was the word for it when there were only about that many remaining, she wondered, and had it gotten to that point yet?
You mostly tried to avoid people anyway, though, unless you were lucky enough to have survived with some close loved ones intact. She hadn't.
Neither had E: she had come upon him suddenly several weeks back while scavenging, both of them wide-eyed in surprise at the other’s appearance. He appeared to be non-verbal, but she couldn’t be sure if he had ever talked, or if the disaster and intervening time had left him mute. She only called him “E” due to the letter embroidered on his jacket; she had no idea of his actual name.
She also wasn’t sure how he had survived at all. He was very small, but seemed to be in good shape; she guessed he was probably around 5 years old. She had managed to coax him up from where he scrunched against a wall in the mud, huddled in the corner of what may have once been his own home. Upon consideration, she realized that must be the case: the only way she had survived, herself, was by consuming whatever packaged-but-well-preserved foods she was able to pull from the mud near homes. A child his age would know where his own kitchen had been, and where to locate the food therein. Smart.
Her ears picked up the distant sounds of squelching and of debris being rifled through, and she decided to move on for the day. She had found an intact food bar during her scavenging earlier that morning, the corner of its foil wrapper bright against the brownscape. It would have made a good trade, with food growing more scarce than metals, but carrying it on your person ensured that you would not have it long if you encountered a stronger force. Best to eat it as soon as you were able, if you wanted to eat at all.
With someone else nearby, she couldn't linger. She tucked her filthy gloves into her waistband, tore into the foil, and sniffed: stale but not spoiled. Edible.
As she hiked parallel to the western river, she broke off a piece for E. She reached back to stroke his cheek and rouse him, but already she could tell that his head was turned the other way in refusal and was going to remain so. She had never had a child, but was it normal for them to refuse food even when it was so scarce? Maybe he was ill. If so, there wasn’t much she could do about that. She tucked half the bar away for him and vowed to try again later, then ate the remainder in a single bite.
They were heading back to her campsite, which she thought of as Christmas Paradise. The cataclysm had indeed happened at Christmastime, but that wasn’t why she called it that: it was due to the lush red-and-green ivy which covered the trees and landscape there, and because she had found the spot back when she still had the spirit to name things.
It was only a narrow swath of land, but it bordered the river on its downward slope, and despite its verdant appeal in a world of muted grays and browns, she had never once had to contend with any unwanted visitors.
A cache of high-quality camping supplies from the garage of an abandoned Tudor-style house helped make Christmas Paradise a home, the tent tightly nestled among and secured to several sturdy trees. The land even featured a flat, rocky outcrop upon which she could have had a fire, but she didn’t want to draw unwanted attention, and so she kept only a small, vented pit fire near her tent, as suggested by one of the camping guidebooks. It worked for some warmth but did not advertise flames for miles around.
Cooking, of course, wasn’t needed, since their fare consisted of pre-packaged goods. If bags of rice or pasta were found, she would just soak them for a day in settled water from the river until they seemed soft enough to consume. Silt would accumulate at the bottom of the pan and get mixed in with a little of the food, but that would leave more than enough to eat that was still untainted.
She also kept a number of pilfered bags of dried beans stashed nearby, but those were for an emergency when the other, more convenient food was truly no longer available. Maybe those days weren’t far off, but they hadn't arrived yet. Beans would produce a cooking smell and took more work to prepare; she did not relish the attention that might draw.
It was only midday, but they kept to a schedule of wakefulness at night, so she settled into the plush goose down bag, grateful for the spare-no-expense lifestyle of those who had purchased it, and tucked E beside her. They rested.
There is little of note to tell of the intervening time: the days went on with an umber sameness, the nights, eigengrau.
Because the river was too wide and turbulent to cross, she was eventually forced northward into new territory, unfamiliar and hostile. She never strayed far from Christmas Paradise, though sometimes they had to take the sleeping bag in case they couldn't make it back within the day. It wasn’t that they could sleep at night while away, but they could at least stay warm and huddle together until daylight found them safe again to make their way back home.
They no longer sought precious metals, only food. They avoided concentrated sources like grocery stores, where food was (or had been, at one time) plentiful, but where gangs were sure to have arrived first and might still be lurking. She stuck to remote communities: remote enough that they hadn’t yet been picked clean by a hungry and overgrown populace, but not so remote that the countrymen of the old ways were still steadfastly on guard.
Then, time finally wound down. Survival isn’t always a grandiose triumph in one fell swoop: it is more often a tedium of days where you wake up again and again, remarkable only in that, one day, you don’t. She was fast coming to that one day.
She had gotten greedy: it was raining hard, and they’d again failed to find food while out. The deluge kept refilling her efforts to seek buried packaging, so she had finally given up and turned to go home, contemplating that it might be time to consider digging into her bean stash.
Her mud-soaked gloves were freezing her fingers, and she had just removed them to wring them out when something metal caught her eye, sticking out near the chimney of the destroyed home she had been looting. Possibly just a fireplace tool, but she might find a use for it if she was going to need to tend a cooking fire soon. She wasn’t having to juggle both E and a sleeping bag on this particular trip, so she could certainly carry home a spoil.
She grabbed the object to pull, and immediately yelped, a crimson gash covering her palm. No! Though she couldn’t see him in his harness on her back, she knew E’s eyes would be wide and scared, and so she attempted to control her own mounting fear and panic. She pulled off the bandana that held her hair back and tied it tightly around her palm, then put the gloves back on in an attempt to help suppress the bleeding.
Already she was feeling a bit light-headed as she trudged back home, grateful that E weighed so little, since letting him down to try to keep up on his own would slow her down entirely.
They made it back to Christmas Paradise by early evening. Among the camping supplies from the Tudor was a well-equipped first aid kit, but it had very little of what she would actually have liked to have, namely antibiotic pills, prescription painkillers, and suture. Still, it would have to do. She wiped the wound with antiseptic pads and wrapped it with antibiotic gel and gauze. E continued to stare, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with what she presumed was some level of shock, as she completed the bandaging and washed down some aspirin. Despite her pain, she chatted softly and nonchalantly at him as she worked, hoping to exude an aura of calm.
She felt nauseous, and so she took what she could find in the kit for that, as well. They were both worn out; she laid down and snuggled him a while, intending only to nap briefly before keeping watch that night, but the dawn was breaking and her hand was badly throbbing when she finally awoke. She examined the limb with trepidation and found it inflamed even beyond the well-bandaged area. Not good.
Her time was growing short, she knew, but with what resources she could stockpile for him in this last big push, E might be okay long enough without her until someone else might come along… hopefully someone kind who could and would look after him.
She spent the next several days showing him the steps in cooking, and only those, repeatedly: gathering the deadwood, building the fire and keeping it going, maintaining a freshwater supply, the soaking, draining, and long process involved in getting edibles out of the packaged beans. He watched intently, never taking his eyes off of what she was doing.
At last she could tell the delirium was taking over, and that the infection had won. Even as her fever grew, she hoped against hope that there was a future for E, somehow: a legacy of hers. She laid down one last time, and cuddled him closely to her chest, stroking his hair as she fell asleep.
A bright spot of red among the ivy caught the little girl’s eye; she tugged on her father’s sleeve and pointed excitedly to it in the distance. Raising his binoculars, the girl’s father could clearly see a woman’s body lying prone, her hand bandaged and blood-soaked, a sallowness to her complexion. She looked dead, and after a couple of hailing shouts across the verge, the family traveled on: poison ivy was the last complication they needed, and they could not check on the woman without crossing it to get to her.
As for the red plush doll that the woman was tightly clutching to her chest which had first caught the girl’s eye, well – her father made a mental note to keep an eye out in the hopes of finding his daughter an Elmo doll of her own, very soon.