Picking up Strays
My lips cracked and bled, but I stretched them out in a parody of a grin. No one had anything to smile about… which made my expression all the more disturbing.
And likely to work. The bloody tang tantalized me when I licked at the cracks, darting my tongue in and out. I was crouched down, squinting at the dark figure backed by the setting sun.
“What you got?”
I cranked my head to one side, as if the question confused me. I placed my fingers on my lips, touching the wet spit and blood, smearing it back and forth. With my other hand, I scooped up a handful of the dry grit covering the old road. My main weapon sometimes failed, if they were desperate enough to risk contamination by touching me when I was bleeding. Today would be a bad day to be wrong.
The man tried again. “Food? Goods? What’s in the mangy pack?” He eyed it, and I crouched lower.
“Want it?” I patted the strap on my shoulder. My voice was as cracked as my lips, disuse more than damage. The man blocking my path glared at me, but that wasn’t anything new.
“You’ve contaminated it; besides, you probably don’t have anything anyway. You move on now. Go away.” He stomped a foot forward, dust puffing around his foot. “Git.”
Scuttling away, I stopped grinning as soon as the man was out of sight. Contaminated. I snorted. That’s what everyone feared: contamination. Like they were pure—like anyone who lived today hadn’t been changed in some way.
I still wore clothes, could talk, and was still myself.
Even if I didn’t look like me.
Once upon a time, I’d been a vet tech in an exotic animal clinic. I’d had a crappy apartment and a job with parts I enjoyed, even if I didn’t love it. But that had been a whole other life, one that would be as foreign to me now as my current situation would’ve been to me then. Now I had one outfit to wear, one as a spare, a few cans of food the so called “pure” would’ve confiscated from the non-human if he’d known I had them, and the one thing I truly treasured… a map.
My knife stayed strapped along my spine; the sheath blended into the dark spots speckling my back, and my hair covered the handle.
The sand trickled out of my hand, tickling my fingers. The city was big; there would be more enclaves in it than the one I’d just encountered, but the need to scrounge about drove me hard. Maybe I was a freak, nosing around society as it was now, but I had a purpose.
Besides, maybe I’d find what I was looking for here. It might be possible; the map showed me where I had a chance of success. My nose twitched; mice were rustling about the dry grass to my left. I could smell and taste the tiny creatures.
My mouth watered.
There was time for a snack.
One new thing I could do was run. Anyone could run before, but now I could really, really run. For days, if I kept the pace steady. Fast as a car used to go, when there were roads to go on, if I needed a burst of speed to get away. Endurance required energy though.
And a few tiny morsels weren’t going to get me very far into the city.
The empty buildings were shells of their former glory. Just eight years took the world a hundred or more years into the past and humans were unable to halt the reclamation. Mother Nature wouldn’t be denied.
I straddled the line between the feral creatures roaming the wilderness and the ragged humans clinging to the old ways in hopes they’d come back.
Cushy beds and running microwaves, television and turkey dinners on special holidays. When a day where you got to feel full wasn’t something to be considered special. That wasn’t my dream; I’d never fit into that world.
Hell, when I’d been human, I hadn’t fit into that world. I’d been a loner, more at home when I was allowing the snakes and lizards recovering from procedures to climb all over my hands and arms than when I’d been talking to other men.
The concrete was chewed up by who knew what chaos had reigned when the world came to an end. The pads of my fingers and palm were rough, calloused over as I grew used to my new gait, but the bite of metal jutting up from the floor of the building I targeted for my search would tear them up. I stood up from my crouch, rotating my shoulders until the muscles shifted and felt more natural since I wasn’t running on all fours.
The smell grew as I carefully sifted my way through the rubble until I found stairs leading downward. It wasn’t right, but close enough to mean I had to go down. I whined, opening my mouth to catch a good breath and then closing it when the stench hit me, but down I went, creeping silently.
Why’d I even bother?
I knew the scent wasn’t right. The mold and mildew had damaged the pods. None of them were intact. But if there was one stash here, there might be at least one more. I had to get back up in the fading sunlight before I could check the map for a second location.
Climbing up the stairs, I hugged the inner section near the wall. The stairs were iron and had rusted in places. Corrosive rain etched everything as it dripped through and seeped below the surface of the world. I stepped wrong, and the metal beneath me broke away.
I yelped as my foot fell through the hole, throwing me forward. Everything shook and groaned, the shrill screech ringing in my head. The metal grate scored my palms, but the stinging pain was nothing to the torn muscles in my calf. I was lucky the whole staircase hadn’t come down.
Retreat into the woods wasn’t an option, not with how much blood covered me. I tore my leg up even more, trying to get it out of the hole. My blood clotted a lot faster now, but I still needed time to heal. Height was my best bet while I was giving off wounded scents.
If I was lucky, I’d find my favorite nest. I’d passed an equipment yard not far back, and I could probably make it, even with my leg chewed up. Finally off the stairs, I yanked my shirt off my back. I tore off the sleeves, using my hard black nails to tear the seams. I used the main body to bind my leg and then awkwardly tied the sleeves around my hands. It was a waste of a good shirt, but it wasn’t like the cold was coming soon. I could still wear it sleeveless after I gave it a good cleaning.
Luck was with me; not only was there a lift in the equipment bay, the damn thing still worked and wasn’t corroded beyond use. I patted the metal platform once I extended the scissor lift high into the air. The key went into my backpack, which I stuffed under my head. The metal was uncomfortable; there was no give to it at all.
Once upon a time, I’d had a bed with a real mattress. And a pillow. Sometimes, when I was really lucky, I found one of those, but it just wasn’t practical to carry around something so bulky. Occasionally I tortured myself thinking about sinking into bed every night, safe in a home of my own. That might be what I missed most of all. I’d bet—if I could find someone to bet about a bed—it’d feel like sleeping on a cloud. Or a marshmallow. I’d been sleeping rough for a long time, and the ground was baked hard under the fine layer of grit hiding everything. Even when my bed wasn’t a metal platform, getting comfortable wasn’t something a night’s rest included.
My senses were finely tuned to the darkness, and I woke up twice to scrabbling sounds in the building, but nothing came close to my perch. The early morning light, the sun just shimmering behind the horizon, and the last glimmers of light in the evening were my times of day so I was up early. The squeak of the lift was loud in the silence. I darted away from the building in case it brought any interest; the yard was full of rusted hulks of construction equipment, giving me plenty of places to hide.
Once I found a safe distance, I pulled out my map. The city’s grid was keyed up on the display and my location blinked in the center after I unfolded it to its full length. I swiped a quick mark over the building with the broken pods and then began to zoom the map to the second location.
I could either work my way around the city or go straight through.
Speed or safety?
Looking around, I chose speed. I’d already been here too long. I wanted to get the pods and get out of the city. I folded up the map and stowed it back in my pack. There was no prey close by, so I pulled out a can. I yanked off the lid and grimaced.
The labels long since missing, I didn’t know what I was going to get when I opened a can. I wasn’t picky, but I didn’t like canned fruit. I’d rather have potted meat; at least that was protein. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers and the sugar in the syrup would give me a good boost of energy for my run through the city.
I slurped down the fruit, carefully licking at the syrup as it dripped out when all the pieces were gone. I stashed the can in a small hole I’d dug with my foot while I squatted against a wall. No sense in leaving a trail if I picked up a hostile.
This trip I was searching for plants that had been designed to hold water. Scientists had feverishly focused on any study that would help combat the growing drought as the planet dramatically shifted and changed and we’d had confirmation that several cities in this region had labs working together on the problem before society completely collapsed and people began changing.
Hopefully the second location would yield what the compound needed. Pan and I had already passed through two other cities, and I was tired of the traveling with him; he was good at gleaning supplies, but he was a pain in the ass.
Running took all my energy. The blocks between me and my goal sped beneath my feet as I kept up a steady pace, even with the limp from my sore leg and hands. I refused to call it scurrying, but when I sank down to run on all fours, I tried to keep to the shadows. Upright, I had the outline of a man from a distance, which sometimes helped when I was avoiding enclaves of so-called pure humans. I hated it when they threw rocks at me when I was caught running in what was becoming more and more my natural position.
As the light grew brighter, I had to stop and put on a pair of dark goggles. I ducked into a dim alley filled with old trash. Piles of mush were built up here and there, paper and other garbage that had broken down when it still rained and then baked into misshapen piles. I didn’t look at them too closely; who knew what there might be in the mess? My eyes couldn’t handle the full light of the day and the relief was instant when I tied the strap for my lenses behind my head.
I sighed. A small chunk of concrete fell at my feet. I crouched, darting looks all around me. No one threw it… that just left straight up.
“Shit.” Upside down on the wall, a good twenty feet above my head, was another man. Not a pure… a contaminated. “What do you want?” I hissed. The guy crawled down the wall, claws finding tiny little cracks in the concrete. Were his ankles… backwards?
A squirrel. This guy had been touching a squirrel and now he was stuck as one. Could he still talk? He was small, even smaller than me, and he wasn’t wearing any clothes. He was covered in fur and had a long, fluffy tail curled up over his back. How the hell did he climb on the wall without scratching up his junk?
He was close enough to jump on me, and I didn’t like it. I backed away to the opposite side of the alley and pulled out my knife. “Stay back,” I warned. I looked around, making sure we were alone. It didn’t look like I’d been cornered in here. “Why are you following me? I don’t have anything.”
“Following?” His voice was small and squeaky. He dropped to the ground and stayed down, flattened and craning his head to look up at me. I reconsidered my first impression; he wasn’t a boy, but he wasn’t much past a youth in size. How’d he survive on his own, as young as he had to be? “Have?”
“Nothing. I just said that.” Was he mimicking me or asking me?
“Can.” He licked his lips, his gaze locked on my pack.
“Shit,” I cursed again, but it was worth repeating. He’d been following me since I ate and I hadn’t noticed him? He was either very good, or I was being dangerously sloppy.
I definitely didn’t have time to waste; if I missed my rendezvous, I’d be in a bunch of trouble. I rummaged in my bag, which was still open, and grabbed a can. I cracked it open; he might not have enough of his human self to remember how to do it without some help, and then I tossed a can back in the direction I came. It hit the ground with a clank and then began to roll. The squirrel-man became still, eyes darting from me to the rolling can, but his tail—the bushy thing the only part of him not waif-thin—went straight above him and flicked side to side.
“Go get it.”
“Go on. Go get it. Git.” The echo of using the same word the pure used on me wasn’t lost on my sense of irony.
He crawled sideways a few steps, and when I didn’t move, the squirrel-man darted to the food and picked up the can. He jammed his nimble fingers in the gap, and then he licked the tips. “Mmm.” He yanked the lid all the way off.
I didn’t have time to watch him; I had to go. I slid my knife back in the sheath, put my closed pack on my back and then, with one quick look back to make sure he was focused on the food, I left. Questions about my stalker kept me occupied as I ran, but I shoved them away and forced myself to focus on my surroundings—making sure to look up as well as all around me.
A cautious man was one who lived to see another dawn; an incautious man could be dead in a heartbeat. I stopped one more time to check my progress on the map after I had to deviate to avoid a building claimed by pures; I’d seen two of them outside holding metal poles like weapons. My makeshift bandages weren’t needed on my hands, but the shirt had stuck to the wound on my leg and dried. I had no way to get it off without yanking it, and that would hurt too much, plus I’d probably just start bleeding again.
“Fifteen blocks. Two straight, four left, one right, five straight, two left, and one right.” I repeated that a few times; the midday sun was already passed and stopping again wasn’t necessary if I didn’t get lost. My leg and the stop for the squirrel-man had slowed me down more than I thought, and this area of the city was pretty congested. There were a lot of broken hulks of cars and hiding places for attackers that I had to skirt.
The watch I’d held on to when everyone switched over to smart phones still worked, so I knew a full hour passed before I was surveying the lab where I hoped to find the plant specimens. A miracle, most of the ground floor was solid, with just the doors broken inward.
I opened my mouth, inhaling as I smelled and tasted the air. Nothing like the other building, though there was an odor wafting on the breeze, I didn’t think it was coming from inside. Before I went in, I did a loop around the building. The entire first floor was concrete, the windows not starting until the second floor. It. was a strange design, but it gave me hope. Maybe the corrosive rains affecting the metal would not have damaged this building.
Creeping silently, hugging the walls, I went inside. I pushed my sun googles up, letting my eyes adjust to the dim light. The darkness farther inside the building, away from the broken doors, was impenetrable. I’d have to use a flashlight. I pulled my slim light out, giving it a few pumps to make sure it was charged. It cast only a small circle of light, but that was enough to see.
Thankfully, the stairs were stone and only went up. I decided to explore all of the ground floor first. Odds were, the research went on down here, where it would be more secure. I’d venture upstairs only if I had to.
Being right brought me a certain satisfaction, though I had no one to share it with when I found the lab. The doors were gone, rusted and collapsed to the floor in misshapen piles of brittle pieces, but the specimens were intact for once. I loaded them into my pack carefully, wrapping the two pods in my spare clothes.
“Homeward bound!” I muttered.
Getting out of the city was a quiet affair; the sun blazed down from midday to early evening, and not many could handle the heat. As long as I could block the light from the sun, I was fine with all the warmth it could blast down on me, but most of the pures and other creatures like me hid in dark places that offered some relief from the heat.
The heat of the day didn’t last long, though, and nighttime was brutal for me. I had the hardest time keeping warm. By the time I made it out of the city and was close to the rendezvous marker Pan left tied to the strut of a bridge we’d have to cross to get home, I’d started to shiver. At least I didn’t need my googles anymore, but I couldn’t wear my spare shirt, since I needed it for padding, and my other one was still torn up and tied to my leg. Pan could take one of the pods, and then I could put on my spare shirt.
“Who’s that?” Pan hissed.
I jumped and then glared at him. I hated when he hid like that, though I knew it was better to be safe than sorry when we were traveling away from the compound. “Me, you idiot. Who else would it be out here?”
Pan rolled his eyes. “Not you. I could hear you coming a mile away with the way you were stomping about. Him!” He thrust a finger, pointing and staring behind me.
Was it the pure? Had he tracked me, deciding to risk contamination for whatever I might have in my pack or found in the city?
Nope, I wasn’t that lucky. A pure we could scare off.
The squirrel-man was frighteningly persistent. And fucking sneaky. Even on my guard, I hadn’t caught him following me; I thought I’d left him far behind, eating a good meal I’d go without if it took us too long to get back to the compound.
Squirrel-man froze, his gaze locked on me. I looked away, crossing my arms over my chest and rubbing my hands up and down to generate some warmth on my pebbled flesh. “He’s harmless.”
Pan snorted. “No one is harmless. He’s survived this long, hasn’t he?”
That was a good point. “Well, he’s quiet. He managed to follow me yet stay out of sight all day.”
“Are you suggesting something?” Pan shook his head. “You really can’t help yourself, can you?”
“What if I’d “helped myself” when I found you while looking for those pills for Amerie?” I reminded him. Pan’s hooves clicked on the floor of the booth, and he looked down, avoiding my gaze. “None of us would have made it on our own; we all need help. This world has gone to hell in a handbasket, and without working together, we’re all just going to die alone and starving.” I’d been found by a man mixed with a canine species while he was traveling to try and find his family. He’d told me about a compound filled with changed ones like us, and when it was the choice between finding them or starving on my own, I’d left my apartment and taken to the road.
It was dangerous, but I’d found a certain comfort when I was traveling that I had no longer found cooped up in the safety of my apartment. I’d been slowly going insane, locked inside the city. The compound was too big and too busy for me to stay there long, but it became my home base.
Amerie forged everyone into a group focused on not just surviving, but living again in the new reality of the world as it was today. I was a scout, a finder… and I didn’t always bring back just what Amerie sent me for. Sometimes, when traveling the road, I found beings who needed my help. Just like I’d never been able to pass up an injured animal as a vet, the same compassion compelled me to help save them too.
The world might have gone insane, but my rescues helped keep me in touch with my human self. Squirrel-man would just have to come with us.
“Hey you. You coming?”
So can you figure out what animal he was holding?