A low scud of clouds blew from the south, a torn canopy seeming to snag on the tops of the tallest buildings. Litter whipped in the gutters and danced down the deserted street. The sun was a pale blotch of light almost at zenith.
Steven drew the collar of his shirt up against the wind and crossed the street to the sporting goods store. His steps crunched in broken glass from the store's shattered front window. Among the shards of glass were the scattered contents of several cartridge boxes. He shook his head as he stepped through the window frame. Less than a month ago men had killed each other for a gun and bullets. He had even killed for them.
Instantly the sharp memory pierced his mind:
The smell of rotting garbage hangs heavy in the air about him as he crouches in the alley, behind a mound of trash. He hefts his ax handle and hears his own breathing loud in his ears. His heart pounds hard in his chest.
He is waiting for the large black man he saw entering the deserted grocery store only a few minutes before. The man had a pistol tucked into his belt.
Footsteps, coming toward him in the dark. The black man is coming. It has to be him.
Yes, it is him. Steven sees the black man's hulking form in the dim shifting light of a fire burning out of control three blocks away. He has a soiled pillow case bulging with canned goods thrown over his left shoulder, and his right hand rests on the pistol at his belt.
Shaking with fear, Steven waits an instant. He has never before killed another man. He knows that before all this is over, he will undoubtedly have to kill many.
He takes a deep breath, stands, and steps from the alley. Bringing the ax handle around in a vicious swing, he screams out his fear and rage.
Later, he carefully carves the first notch in the blood-stained ax handle. It is only then that he becomes aware of a strange musty odor. In his excitement, crouching in the alley and sweating with fear, he had wet himself.
Although there is no one around to see it, he feels shame.
* * *
Steven pushed the memory from his mind. A gun wasn't a functional weapon now. That special chemistry that had made gunpowder so very useful had somehow broken down. Like so many other things in this strange life at the end of the world, gunpowder simply no longer worked.
In a dark corner at the rear of the store he found what he wanted: a rack of down-filled ski jackets. He knew they would be there; he had seen them many times in the past few months, without actually being aware of them. Until now, he hadn't needed one. It was, after all, mid August, what used to be called the "dog days of summer." Yet each night the wind grew just a bit colder. Each day the sun shed a little less warmth.
A light pang of guilt touched him as he pulled on a dark-blue jacket and zipped it up. Then he strode past the burglarized cash register and out through the empty window frame. This was totally out of character for him, something he wouldn't have even thought of doing in the old world. Oh, he had stolen merchandise from neighborhood stores as a kid. What boy hadn't? But always small things, and never with as little effort or as much blatant disregard for the law.
The guilt passed quickly--it had to. There were far more important things to consider now, and the search for food was among them. His stockpile of canned goods, laboriously collected and hoarded over the past eighteen months, was now dangerously low. He had been ill for three weeks with pneumonia, unable to go out for the long periods necessary to gather food. Before his illness, it had become necessary to travel farther each time to obtain the food he needed. The local grocery stores were becoming looted out.
Often in the last eighteen months he had thought of moving his residence with his continual search for food. Why shouldn't I become a nomad, he's asked himself, instead of ranging farther and farther each time out? He didn't have many possession: his journal, Pamela's sweater, the key-chain bauble, the ax handle, a small bundle of clothing that could be replaced out of any clothing store. But in the end he had always decided against it. He simply could not bring himself to live like that. He needed some permanence in an otherwise chaotic existence.
* * *
He walked north, his destination a supermarket he remembered seeing before becoming ill. The store was far enough away from the center of town that it might not be empty yet.
"Where did they all go?" he asked aloud, his gaze roaming the deserted street. He remembered when Boston's streets had been glutted with cars, when its sidewalks had been alive with pedestrians. But now the crowds were gone. During the months since the End, the great mass of humanity--of life in general, for that matter--had somehow vanished. Now the city's only inhabitants were the savage dog packs, and a few solitary individuals like himself.
Something to his left caught his eye--not movement, but a presence. He stopped and turned to look into a small boutique across the street. Amazingly, its ornate, imitation stained-glass window was undamaged. It was difficult to see beyond the tinted glass, but everything within seemed in good condition. It was one of the few stores located near the center of town that had not been looted.
But then, there was no reason to loot it. It contained neither food nor anything that could be used as a weapon. It held nothing but the refuse of a society now totally obsolete.
Deep in the shadows at the back of the store, bathed in the week glow of rose and aquamarine light slanting through the window, stood a lone figure. The figure's back was to him, but he could tell it was definitely a woman. There was something strangely familiar about her, about her long honey-blonde hair and the way she was dressed, about the way she stood with her hips cocked at a slight angle.
He crossed the street at a run. Of course there was something familiar about her. It was Pamela! She had returned!
The store's door was locked, so he used his ax handle on the glass. It proved harder to break than he'd thought it would. When it finally shattered, a shard cut a jagged gash across his right wrist.
Once inside, he stopped for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. Again he located Pamela's form in the shadows, then advanced. He called her name as he drew near, but she did not respond. His hand went out, hovered above her shoulder for a seemingly infinite instant, descended.
The shoulder beneath the silk blouse was hard and cold. Its flesh did not give under the pressure of his fingers. He spun the figure around, and it clattered to the floor. The pasty white face of a manikin stared up at him, its garishly painted smile mocking and jeering.
Sudden rage filled his thoughts, and his vision blurred with tears. How can this be happening to me? he wondered. It all seemed so unfair. First, Pamela was taken from him, then her form came back to torment him.
His foot went out in a savage kick and the manikin's head rolled noisily across the floor. He kicked again, and the toe of his shoe crushed the tough shell of the manikin's body. He raised his ax handle high above his head and brought it down hard, raised it again....
A low growl froze the ax handle at the apex of its vicious arch. He spun around, snapping his club down diagonally across his torso. The growl came again.
Then he saw them. Five dogs stood between him and the door. They were of mixed breeds, but they looked like highly capable fighters. Three had unusual scars on their heads, as if they'd had operations of some kind, the skin neatly stitched back in place. The two remaining dogs had metal boxes implanted in the top of their skulls, complete with electronic terminals to connect the boxes to something else.
A huge German shepherd--one of those with a metal box implant--advanced cautiously. He was obviously the pack's leader.
Almost calmly, Steven's mind assessed the situation, coolly determining and rejecting alternatives. If he took a step backward, it would show fear, and the dogs would attack. But the reverse could also be dangerous. They were accustomed to responding to either instant attack or swift retreat. If he was patient, waiting for the right moment, he might get out of this alive. But he must wait for his chance, then kill the shepherd. Only then would the remainder of the pack lose heart and fight with less spirit, or maybe even give up entirely.
He stood still and faced the snarling pack in a deadly scene out of dim prehistory.
The German shepherd began stalking slowly to its left, sniffing the air as it circled. It smelled the blood from Steven's wound. A dark rivulet seeped from the gash across his wrist, ran down his palm to trickle off his fingers onto the floor at his feet.
Nearly too late, he realized what was happening. The dog was trying to maneuver him between itself and its companions. If it succeeded, it would cut off his only route of escape. He had to act now, if he hoped to act at all.
Spinning to his right to face the German shepherd, Steven's stance shifted from defensive to offensive. The shepherd took a quick step back, and instantly Steven seized the opportunity. As he charged the animal, his ax handle flashed around in a vicious baseball swing, its tip hitting the dog's left side and ripping away a large patch of fur and flesh. The animal cried out and lunged, its powerful jaws snapping shut on Steven's left arm just above the elbow. Its fangs pierced flesh and muscle, grating against bone.
Steven screamed and jerked his arm from the dog's grasp. Its fangs tore a deep gash in his arm beneath the jacket. Instinctively, he raised his ax handle above his head, and brought it down with all his strength. The animal's skull gave beneath the blow.
The German shepherd crumpled like a toy with its stuffing knocked out. It lay on its side, breathing in shuddering gasps and twitching for several seconds, blood flowing from its nostrils and slack jaws. Then it was still.
One of the other dogs--something that looked like a cross between a Doberman pinscher and an American pit bull--strode slowly up to the dead German shepherd and sniffed the carcass. Then, paying no attention to the man, it turned and stalked from the store, the new and as yet undisputed leader. The others followed, also ignoring Steven. By killing the German shepherd, he had earned the right to live.
He stood unmoving for several seconds, gazing down at the German shepherd's limp body. Only a moment before the animal had been a threat, and now it was dead. Everything in this strange life at the end of the world seemed to change so incredibly fast. Nothing remained what it seemed for long.
He turned and stumbled from the boutique, the numbness of shock not yet beginning to deaden the pain in his wounds. And for a time, buried beneath that pain, the memories were gone.