"I AM NO MAN"
The Crow awoke. He lay still and listened and assessed his surroundings. The smell of musky smoke from his warming fire....wind gusts rattling the steel roll up door....then silence. He had taught himself to awake and lie still, pretending to be asleep, all the while using his senses to first determine whether his immediate proximity appeared safe. Given the dust and ash choking the upper atmosphere and blocking the sunlight, every day was cold and dreary, and people very rarely bathed anymore. What was the point? It's not like you would be going to dinner at a public restaurant or something. Thus, it was entirely practical to use one's sense of smell to detect the presence of another human in the vicinity. And of course, listening and taking heed of any suspicious or unnatural noise was invaluable to one's survival. Satisfied he opened his eyes, scanned, and then slowly sat up. He wiped his eyes and scratched his head. Lice probably. Vermin were a given in the new world. You just learned to accept it. His stomach began to growl almost immediately, but he was out of food and so he ignored it. He sat and pondered what to do. He was tired and every day was an effort to simply survive.
He'd been on the move for a year now...it had been about 2 years since the collapse of 2018.
It had started when the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had finally "gone over the edge" in response to a U.N. Security Council veto by the U.S. of a food relief program to assist famine stricken DPRK. North Korea had then launched multiple Uranium warhead intermediate missiles against targets in South Korea, wiping it from the earth. Simultaneously, they'd sent up three ICBM's, destroying Tokyo, exploding one high in the atmosphere over the west coast of the United States, and using a third to level the Los Angeles basin The U.S. had responded immediately with an all-out retaliatory nuclear strike, destroying Pyongyang and several other strategic targets. China protested the retaliatory strike, but wisely decided to stay out of the fray. No matter, the damage was done. The power grid of the entire western U.S. was disabled, and power generation, food production and distribution collapsed touching off rioting. Martial Law was declared, but the military and police were soon overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the problem and desertion within their ranks. At the same time, ash and dust from the nuclear strikes had clouded the upper atmosphere, cooling the earth, and ultimately causing crop failures. It wasn't a "Planet Killer", but enough of a nuclear winter to make life very hard. The house of cards that was the fragile, inter-dependent world economy began to unravel, and soon industry was at a standstill in the major nations and the food riots and unrest cascaded around the globe. Within a year, 75% of the world's population had died from famine and disease. Only the ruthless survived, preying on the weak.
A former resident of the Pacific Northwest, The Crow had sheltered in place for the first year. He'd buried his father who had died from heart disease/lack of medical care, his wife who had been killed in a gunfight with marauders, and a small daughter who had died of Pneumonia. Initially, he been grief-stricken and had attempted to end his life. Climbing a ladder. he'd fashioned a noose and tied it off to a tree limb in his yard, but the limb had broken under his weight. Upon closer inspection he found the limb was rotted inside and couldn't possibly have supported him. He laughed at the irony of it...that he couldn't even end his own life. In a way, it snapped him back into reality and, having nothing to hold him, he'd loaded his firearms, a .308 Remington 700 and a milsurp .38 revolver, placed a few belongings in a backpack and took to the road. He'd been slowly moving toward the southwest, having heard rumors of a reconstituted "Republic of America" being formed there, hopeful for a new start...or die trying.
Slowly he got to his feet, drank some water, and gathered his belongings. He hadn't taken more than a few steps when his bowel started in and he knew he was going to be sick and dropped his kit in a hurry. Ten minutes later he stepped out of the back door on wobbly legs and started off once again. As he passed through the town, he watched for anything useful as he scanned for threats to his safety. It was pointless to search buildings and cars; they long been plundered and stripped. Occasionally one could find a discarded piece of clothing to layer for warmth. Shoes were very rare, and usually were only found on the feet of dead men, and then so badly worn as to be useless. The Crow slipped into a alley and used his rifle scope to study the street ahead. On a sidewalk next to a building were skeletal remains of some person that had perished. People had long stopped burying the dead, not being able to spare their few precious calories on the effort. He paused to check the skel's pockets but only found a few coins, which he case aside. Money was worthless.
Just outside of the town, he was moving in cover alongside a stream, filling his canteen and gathering Watercress when he noticed an object in the bushes. Moving closer, he saw that it was a backpack attached to a skeleton. He'd long since ceased to be squeamish about such things, and waded through the brush until he reached the skel. The pack was wet and moldy and worms were crawling on it. He opened the flap and looked inside. It appeared to be filled with clothing, now rotten with mold. He pulled it out and cast it aside. Next came a rotted box of crackers. At the bottom his hand closed around a can. The label was long gone and he had no idea what it contained. Squeezing the can, it appeared to still have integrity, so he shoved it in a coat pocket for later inspection.
Back on the road, there were signs of the passing of the marauders he'd seen the previous day...shoeprints and tracks from their cart could be seen in mud "track traps" here and there. Later, at an old Community Park overgrown with weeds, he found their cold campfire and other signs they'd made their camp there the previous night. And something else...a dead girl. She looked to be 12 or so, just a few years older than his own daughter. The Crow vaguely remembered seeing a girl that age helping pull the cart through town. She lay on her back with open eyes, fixed on the sky. Her hair was dirty, matted and tangled. Her clothes, a pink knit sweater with an embroidered cat and blue jeans, were torn and dirty. She had bruises on her face and hands. Her neck was broken, and it was obvious she'd been murdered, probably for some menial reason, such as stealing food. She looked like a broken, discarded doll, and he wondered whose baby this was and what her life had been like prior to the Collapse. He gathered her up and placed her inside an old car. At least the animals wouldn't get to her.
By now he was completely spent and desperately needed sustenance. He gathered twigs and bits of wood and reconstituted the marauders camp fire and cooked the Watercress he'd gathered. It was rich in vitamins and warmed him. Curious, he pulled the can from his pocket and used an old rusty B.S.A. pocketknife to open it. It was canned Pears. Not a favorite, but beggars can't be choosy, as his father always said. He dipped a finger and tasted it. It was certainly well past it's expiration date by a couple of years, but seemed safe to consume. The juice was sweet and reminded him of better days, long past, when food had been abundant. He took his time, savoring the treat which would soon be gone. He sat for awhile in the cool air and looked up at the dim sky. The sun was nothing more than a glowing spot somewhere above. He looked over at the car containing the dead girl and thought how lucky she was to be free from this nightmare. He shook it off and boiled more water, which he transferred to his canteen, kicked out the fire, and moved off.
A few miles further on he decided to make camp and settled under a big Oak tree next to a foothill just off the side of the road. The grass was very high and would conceal him from view. He had spread a tarp and was just about to start a fire when he heard shouts and loud laughter erupt looking about, he saw the glow of a campfire and smoke rising from the opposite side of the hill. At that moment he heard movement in the grass and lay motionless. Just a few yards away, the Scout that had stopped at the hut the previous day was patrolling the area, maintaining a secure perimeter for the camp, and was headed straight for the Crow's campsite.
TO BE CONTINUED...