Jackson Miller never really liked the rain. It was a cool summer morning somewhere in the Appalachian mountains three or four hundred miles from anywhere that used to be and twice that from anyone who was still around. Jackie, for so he called himself, liked that. He liked his solitary life, not tied to other people or any place except where he felt like being at the moment. He even liked squirrel five nights a week, which was a lot to ask of a man, but it was either like the squirrel or put more effort into hunting something bigger. Jackie'd rather eat the squirrel, it left him more time to explore. It also left more out there just in case something else wanted a big meal. Much better they find a deer or hog than him.
The rain had begun some time last night. Jackie had woken up when it began, swore at the heavy clouds, and pulled his coat up over him against the drizzle. The rain hadn't stopped all morning and didn't look like it was going to stop all afternoon either. The trees kept some of the rain off. Big oaks held up centuries over his head in every branch, blocking out competition. Maples elbowed their way through the canopy wherever they found space. Ash, elm, and wild fruit trees formed huddled in stands wherever they held sway. They would all be bright splotches of color come the fall but for high summer's heat they were all a brilliant, shade-giving green. Now, when the rain came, it was dark beneath the canopy, dark and cold and wet. Jackie's joints gave him trouble when it got like this. He knew he wasn't going to make good time today. Jackie pushed a rhododendron aside with the barrel of Ol' Rusty, the shotgun he'd traded the first pre-war battery that he'd ever salvaged to get. The going was pretty easy underneath the canopy but briars and ferns sometimes hid uneven rocks, especially dangerous when slick and mossy. The ever-present rhododendron competed with dark-leaved croton and sprawling gooseberry bushes for space beneath the canopy. They clustered around natural springs. Wild boxwoods were green walls, too tough to chop down after a century or more of neglect and impossible to push through. The only real option was around.
It was two days since Jackie'd stood at the top of the last mountain and looked down into the valley beyond. He saw the grey towers of another abandoned city standing like rocks rising out of a green sea. At this rate it would be another two days before he'd reach the city. Jackie did not know how long he would spend there, combing through the offices, the apartments, the stores, looking for anything he could use and anything small and valuable, worth trading and not too hard to carry.
Jackie was following a stream down through the hills. It ran a little muddy as the rainfall carried silt and clay washed from the banks down into the valley but he could still see the rocky bottom. The swirls and eddies as it made its way around rocks spoke of good fishing and Jackie decided to stop. He ducked his head to get underneath a low-hanging rhododendron branch and stopped to catch his breath. The double layer of tree and bush canopy kept the rain completely off so Jackie propped Ol' Rusty up against a tree trunk, took off his hat and wrung out the floppy canvas. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, still black in some places but a pale grey in others, and scratched at his scalp. He'd gotten sunburned a week ago and was still peeling. Jackie unbuckled the chest strap and waist belt on his rucksack and shrugged it off of his shoulders. The rucksack had been a great find this past winter as he was snowed in wherever that place was – the rucksack had been boxed up in the back of an old outdoors supply store in a beat-up cardboard box underneath some damaged hunting stands. It had some stains on it but the metal frame was in good shape. The mesh sacking and the waterproof neoprene lining were both intact, the broken zipper was easy enough to overlook, and it let Jackie carry more salvage and keep things sort of organized.
Jackie looked around until he found a sapling about twice as large around as his thumb growing on the river bank and cut it down with the hatchet he kept at his belt. He sat beneath the rhododendron and took the small branches off of the sapling's trunk with his folding knife to make a stout, straight pole about five feet long. He talked to himself, as he generally did when he was hungry or particularly bored. “Not a good day for much, but fishing will be good. Hungry fish like the rain, hungry crawfish too. You like the rain too, don't you Jackie? Rain on the river, anyway.” Jackie dug around in the right side pouch on the top until he could get to his pouch of fish hooks. He took three large hooks from the flat sided case that had originally held drill bits, set the case down by the edge of the river, and measured the hooks he'd chosen against the fat bottom of the sapling. Those would do. He used his knife to cut three notches equidistant around the bottom edge, saying as he did “One, two, three! Just like that, we'll have a fish.” He strung the fish hooks on a short length of fishing line and then laid one fish hook in each notch. He cinched the line down against the sapling to hold all three hooks in their notches and tied it taut with a square knot. Jackie pulled a roll of duct tape from his pack, pulled up a length with a loud ripping noise, then cut off a narrow strip and stuck the rest back down on the roll. He wrapped the strip of tape over top of the fishing line to secure the hooks to the sapling further and keep them from flexing or twisting in their notches.
The finished product was Jackie's own version of a fishing spear or trident, three single-barbed hooks facing inwards to grab as the fish struggled no matter which way it turned. The green wood of the sapling would flex some but it was large enough to be sturdy and long enough to do the job. Jackie undid the laces on his dark brown boots, scratched up and covered with spots and stains, slipped them off, and hung them upside down on branches of the nearest rhododendron. His socks, a heavy knit pair with worn out elastic around the calves and across the arches, but real wool just the same, were laid over the same branches and his rucksack tucked up underneath. As he stripped off his pants, Jackie whistled a jaunty tune that went well with his lifting spirits. Despite the rain, he wouldn't eat squirrel again until the evening and perhaps not even then depending on how well his fishing went. Jackie folded his dark grey canvas pants over on themselves and laid them across his rucksack, belt still in the loops. Naked but for a pair of white cotton y-fronts from the waist down Jackie waded into the river and the rain, feeling for his steps to make sure the rocks didn't shift under his weight and holding his spear out of the water.
Jackie waded over to a group of weather-worn rocks which were creating eddies and churning the water as the current slid by them. He had to wait for a minute to let his eyes adjust to looking through the water and then slipped the head of the homemade spear down into the water gently. There was a fat little brown trout. The fish was poking around the downstream side of one of the rocks, hunting for its supper. Jackie held still and took a two-handed grip on his spear. With a quick thrust down and a twist the three hooks slipped around the trout and dug in as Jackie pulled the spear up and out of the water. The trout was flipping and slapping its tail at air. Jackie splashed his way back to the bank, took a small hook from where he'd left his case of hooks sitting open, and strung the trout up on a short line. He gently pried each of the spear hooks out from beneath the trout's scales and put the fish back in the water to stay cool. He tied the end of the line to the frame of his rucksack and picked up his makeshift fishing spear again.
Jackie fished until he'd caught three or four fish then one at a time unstrung each of his catches, gutted and scaled each fish with his folding knife, and laid each one on the moss beside his rucksack. Jackie opened the main compartment, dug underneath his plastic bags that he used to sort and wrap his salvage, and took out a shallow metal pan. He'd hacked the handle off of when he took it from an abandoned kitchen. It was the perfect size for his itinerant lifestyle.
Jackie scratched at his scraggly beard for a second and said “Now where'd I put that kit?” He dug in the bottommost pouch on the left hand side of his rucksack, found several paper-wrapped boxes of shells for his shotgun, and the folded-up length of canvas he used to patch holes in his clothing but not his cooking kit. Jackie dug in the bottommost pouch on the right hand side and found his trap-making kit for when he planned to stay in one place for long enough to run traps and process the meat from whatever he caught in the deadfalls. “Close, but no cigar,” Jackie said. He dug back into the main compartment, moved around the salvage, his spare pair of pants, his precious stack of underwear and socks that he was hoarding, and finally found the neoprene diver's pouch he used to store his container of rendered fat and small plastic baggies of salt. “Three in a row makes bingo!” Jackie whistled his favorite tune again as he unscrewed the top of the canister, and scooped out a dollop of the congealed lard and wiped it around the bottom of his pan.
Jackie screwed the lid back on the canister of lard and put it back in the pouch. He pulled the drawstring taut to close the pouch and set it back beside the rucksack. Jackie took his electric lighter from the zippered waterproof pocket on the inside of his jacket, dug at the base of the rhododendrons for some dry leaves, broke off a few dead interior branches from the nearest bush, and rubbed the grease left on his fingers all over the pile. Jackie flipped up the cap on the lighter, held down the toggle switch, and watched a bright blue flame whistle into life He held the flame to the small stack of tinder and twigs. The wood was green and damp but the lard and the dried leaves set it to smoldering and then then it caught. Jackie tucked his lighter back inside his coat pocket, fanned the small flames with his hand, and dropped on a few more dead twigs and leaves. Jackie pulled his hatchet from the belt of his pants where they lay, ducked underneath the rhododendron boughs, and made for a nearby oak tree.
Jackie used his hatchet to strip layers of bark from the oak – it would make a pretty good fire along with a few dead limbs. Jackie hacked three fallen limbs into forearm-length sections and took an armload back with his bark. He laid some of the bark on over the rhododendron wood and dead leaves. Jackie knelt and bent over to blow on the fire and help the bark catch. He stacked four pieces of wood on and around the bark to make a square surface where he could rest the pan. He stood one piece of wood on end and chopped across it with the hatchet to make smaller pieces of wood that would fit inside his makeshift fire pit.
Jackie set the greased pan on the fire to get hot while he turned back to the fish. He laid the first fish up on the top of his rucksack to use it as a makeshift work bench. He cut big fillets off of the bones, left the skin on each, and laid each fillet in the hot pan, skin side down. Jackie opened his neoprene bag again and took out one of the baggies of salt. He put a pinch on each fillet as the skin sizzled and popped.
The smell of the cooking fish mingled with the hot lard, mostly rendered from the drippings of squirrel and possum meat and the occasional deer. It was pungent, it was meaty, and it made Jackie's mouth water. He put the small ends of several branches underneath the pan to catch in the heart of the fire and keep it hot. He would feed each branch in as the tips burned away. It took around a quarter of an hour for a fillet to get done, cooking mostly on the skin side and just a little on the flesh. Jackie pulled the first one off the pan with his knife and set it on a small red plastic plate he kept to eat off of when he had been cooking in the pan rather than on skewers. He crumbled off flakes of the hot trout and ate supper there on the riverbank, propped up underneath a rhododendron, watching the rain fall in big soft drops on the river. It took an hour to finish cooking all of the trout he would take with him. Jackie had to fetch more fallen wood towards the end of the hour and chop it into sections to keep the fire going.
The trout fillets were packed in spare plastic bags each wiped down with a splash of the corn whiskey Jackie'd traded three boxes of rifle ammo to a small community to the south to get. It tasted pretty terrible but it was good for cleaning salvage and could be used to start fires in an emergency. Jackie re-packed his rucksack pocket by pocket, put the trout on top in the main compartment, and then got dressed. He had dried off by the fire from his wading in the river and his clothes had a chance to air out and dry out as well.
Jackie pulled his socks on first, then his pants, then his boots. He cinched his belt down across his pot belly to keep his pants up since he'd scavenged a size too big because they were in good shape and his old pair were beyond patching. He stretched for a second as his joints protested, then shouldered his rucksack once more. The chest strap and waist strap were buckled tight around his body and then he hung his hatchet from his belt once more. Finally, he picked up Ol' Rusty, opened the chamber, checked the barrel to make sure nothing had fallen inside, and then slid the shell back into place.
Another day and a half of steady downhill walking brought Jackie to the outskirts of the town he'd seen from up in the mountains. As he got closer he kept a careful eye out for signs of inhabitants. A lot of people liked to settle in the old towns and cities – some of them didn't take well to strangers. Then there were the X'Lanthos who lashed out in frustration and anger at settlements wherever they found them, leaving only burned bodies and plague behind them. Jackie didn't talk to himself very much when he was around the old cities. He never liked to talk much where other people might answer.
Jackie waited in the woods, watching the city's overgrown outskirts for signs of patrols, for concealed watch-posts, or any other sign of inhabitation. The only residents seemed to be birds and deer every time he looked. The houses on the outskirts were almost ruined by the weight of neglect – sagging glass broken by birds, by storms, roofs washed soft and full of holes or overgrown by seeds which splashed down in standing water and never left. Brick and stone were slowly drilled out by probing roots of climbing vines. Hedgerows left to their own devices became woven walls of roots and branches. Beyond the suburbs taller office buildings, long, squat factories, and downtown apartments by the banks of the river which split the town all had the quiet and fuzzy look of a place where nothing but Nature ran the show.
Early the next morning, after a long night of carefully looking for any signs of light, Jackie pulled out his Eternalite, twisted the knurled ring around the lens to the right to tighten the beam down, and switched the flashlight on. It was a rare find in the salvage world although it must not have been so rare before the war and pandemic since several established traders had standing offers to trade for them in any condition: it was a small flashlight, about length of Jackie's hand and as big around as his pinkie and ring fingers together, and it was powered by a dark matter battery which promised on the packaging never to run flat.
It threw a silver-white light from a ring set back in the lens straight out to light up whatever it touched for several yards. With a second press of the button another bulb would light and the Eternalite would be able to light up objects as much as twenty five or thirty yards away or cast a wide cone out as far as fifteen yards if he twisted the lens to open up its angles. Jackie kept the flashlight low and held in his left hand, so he could see where he was going before the sun rose and could keep Ol' Rusty in his right hand, strap slung over his shoulder to brace against if there was trouble.
It took Jackie almost an hour to leave the forest edge and walk through the first of the suburbs. He kept to the middle of the old road which seemed to parallel the river to keep the most space around him. In the darkness Jackie could just make out the first glimmers of dawn to the east, on the other side of town. His experienced eye passed over the houses on either side of the road and ignored them. When tragedy struck none of them were likely to have large stockpiles of anything and so survivors would have cleaned them out already. Some of them were missing doors, others had windows prised from their frames, and none of them were likely to have anything easy to pack in his rucksack that was worth the trouble to carry.
Dawn colored the sky in stripes of pink and purple as the clouds felt the sunlight before anything below. Jackie switched off his Eternalite and clipped it to the mounting underneath Ol' Rusty's barrel. Even though the package claimed the battery would last forever Jackie didn't want to take any chances with it. After nearly an hour of walking and exploring the city's downtown area Jackie found where he wanted to work.
It was an old apartment building sitting in the middle of what must have been shops and restaurants, taller by three or four stories than any of its nearby neighbors. Cement anchors had long since given way and the fire escape had come crashing down, probably years before. It would be possible to explore the middle of the building with no problems anyway since the brick construction had only small windows and the roof was probably intact. There were three shops in the first floor, all opening out onto the street as Jackie looked at the structure.
The first, on the left, was probably some sort of office. It had big plate glass windows which had broken long ago but a metal rolling shutter also. The front door was intact but the sign over the door long gone. Stumps of wires corroded beyond recognition peeked out of colored plastic tubes and creeper vines had sent roots the other way. The second, in the middle, had surely been a shop, possibly a grocery store, possibly more of a this-and-that for the people who lived in the apartment. Either way, although the glass in the door was broken and the shop inside mostly bare and in disarray to boot it was still worth having a look. A practiced eye might spot something the desperate did not. The third shop, on the right, looked to have been some sort of home furnishings place – lamps, chairs, and object d'art were still sitting, fading on the display floor. Back rooms of such shops could be treasure troves of small jars of chemicals worth quite a lot to settled communities, tools worth giving him hot meals, dried fruit, and several days of shelter to homesteaders out in the wilderness, and if Jackie was lucky even computer equipment that he would have to be very, very careful about selling but which would be worth an incredible amount in trade.
With the apartments upstairs, Jackie figured he'd spend several days there even if there wasn't that much to find. He got to work immediately – the lock on the furniture shop's door was easy enough to force with the short pry bar he kept tied to the frame of his rucksack and Jackie checked everywhere first with Ol' Rusty before he got down to work. The main room was a medium sized rectangle with ten or twelve foot ceilings. The buff-colored walls were set with thin touchscreen panels which must have showed selections from the product catalogs of the various design companies whose products were sold in the store. Samples of overstuffed wing-back chairs in two different fabrics and a rich honey-colored leather and a sleek table-and-chair set finished in a black lacquer were all equally faded where they faced the window. A chair and side table sat in front of a false wall in the window display to create the illusion of home and a purchaseable comfort. Clouded plastic strips showed where the “invisible” lights were supposed to have been hidden in the otherwise seamless surface of a nightstand. Right by the door was a desk with a card file, a glass vase, and some papers arranged on a desk blotter. It was a quaint touch which said much about whoever had run the shop. They clearly wanted to appeal to old-fashioned sensibilities.
Jackie stripped off his rucksack and coat and hid both in the seat of a chair facing away from the shop window. He closed the door behind him and balanced the vase half on a small stack of cards from the index. Anyone opening the door would be sure to topple the vase and he would hear it if he were in the back. The main area of the shop was easy enough to check, nothing of any real value that he could actually carry. In the back, however, behind the “shop staff only” notice which still scrolled discreetly across the surface of the door at eye height when he touched the doorknob, Jackie found a few things worth his time.
On a shelf over a workbench were several small jars, one of which contained thermal paste, one of which contained a cleaning agent for rusty or corroded metals, and the last of which contained cyanide powder. Traders would gladly take all three, especially since they were mostly full and in good condition – the jar of thermal paste was even still sealed. In one of the drawers was a small tablet computer, probably used for design by whoever had worked back here but still worth something for its parts even if it didn't work as it was.
The computer went towards the back of the rucksack next to Jackie's supply of clothes, the jars were wrapped in plastic bags and placed to one side on top of Jackie's supply of clean underwear. The jars were plastic but nevertheless, Jackie did not want to take any chances with his salvage. Jackie shouldered his rucksack but did not bother with the buckles since he was only going up and into the apartments. He picked up the vase and stack of cards to bring with him as an early warning system then opened the door, looked around the street, and sidled out and along the front of the apartment building.
Jackie ignored the other two shops on the ground floor for now. Odds were they'd been emptied already and since he was planning on sleeping in one of the apartments Jackie wanted a chance to scope out the whole place well before dark. The interior of the apartments featured a slim row of mailboxes finished in a mirrored chrome, now tarnished with neglect. The walls were the color of cafe au lait and had been painted with a suede technique to contrast the dark colored trim and the once-bright chrome details. The floor was tiled with alternating black and white tiles about ten inches on a side set in a checkerboard on the diagonal to the walls. The stairs were covered with a narrow strip of carpet, not particularly plush and now sunk deep in dust.
The air was still and the lights were off. Jackie didn't bother looking for switches or trying the ones he saw. Even if for some reason the power had still been on turning the lights on would be a beacon for trouble. Jackie turned on the Eternalite and swept the corners of the room with the narrow beam. Satisfied that there was no immediate risk, he twisted the knurled ring back to the left to open up the angle but did not turn on the second bulb. The stairs were sound enough when tried and Jackie went up them one step at a time, testing each before his weight went on fully.
At the first floor Jackie swept his light down the hallway to see more of the same décor, daylight streaming in the window at the far end of the hall, and every door standing open, clearly forced. Several doors had gunshot holes. Likely someone had settled here and raiders found the camp. Jackie did not bother stopping to search those rooms.
On the second floor the doors to the rooms had not been forced and Jackie walked down the hall to check each of the four apartments. The first apartment on the left had been done in white and black with metal furniture scattered around. The cabinets all stood open and some chairs had been overturned. Knife marks showed in every cushion, someone had been here before. Jackie was disappointed but moved on.
The second apartment on that side of the second floor was the same way although decorated in shades of blue and white with grey accents. There was a collection of pottery scattered around the room, most of the vessels broken but the plates intact. Here too the cushions and chair linings had been cut by someone searching the place. Jackie turned away, but something nagged at him. He turned back and took another look inside the apartment. The windows were still intact if slightly rotted around the sill. The shades were not drawn and daylight didn't show anything particularly out of place for an apartment that had been searched by a scavenger or itinerant survivalist like himself. Jackie shrugged it off and closed the door behind him.
The first apartment on the right looked like it had been searched and Jackie was ready to move to the next floor when something caught his eye: this apartment had not been searched so well as the others. There was not so much disarray. Jackie went in to do a proper job. He put his rucksack on the table in the main room, took out the vase, and set up his intruder alert just as he had downstairs in the shop with the vase balanced partially on the stack of cards. He ignored the kitchen since the cabinet doors were half open and something smelled spoiled anyway.
Jackie carefully shifted the furniture, checked up underneath the table, and rattled the vase on the small side table by the door to the balcony. Someone had stuck the silverware in the vase but that was about it. He went back to the bedroom, ignored the closet in the narrow hall for now, and looked around. The room was in disarray, clothes strewn across the floor, a clock clearly in need of a battery on the nightstand, the door to the bathroom standing ajar. Jackie pinched his nose and thought for a second. Nothing on the floor looked like it was his size or anything he'd want but he opened the drawers anyway. There was some clutter in the top drawer: a packet of condoms, some pens, a cheap looking bracelet, and a phone in a nylon holster that Jackie took and blew the dust off of before he tried to turn it on. The cloud of dust caught him by surprise and made him cough several times.
Jackie stepped over to the curtains and pulled them back, then opened the window to get some fresh air. The sunlight showing the dust which still swirled and danced in the air hit him like a sledgehammer. That was what had been wrong with the other apartment! The window was open but the apartment didn't show the signs of any weather having gotten in.
A surge of panic clenched Jackie's chest as he breathed in the fresh air and realized that the sour smell was everywhere in the apartment. It smelled like tomatoes and vinegar and the flat, metallic scent of ozone. Jackie had never smelled that combination before but he'd heard stories at the trading posts, That smell was X'Lanthos, with weapons quite literally hot. Someone must have been here not long before he was and either fled or got caught mid-search.
Jackie heard a dull “thunk” from the other room of the apartment.
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