No one consulted me, of course. If they had, I would have told them “death on an inconceivable scale,” or “fire that burns in perpetuity,” or “people tearing each other apart over a pair of shoes.” I wouldn’t have predicted that the most unnerving force we’re forced to confront every horrific day in our brave new world is the quiet, the stillness. Myself, I’ve spent most of my lives confined indoors, but my eyes are legendary, and the Outside was perpetually in motion. And now that I can no longer hear them, I realize that the ambient noises of Before comforted me; I remember the gentle whirr of the ceiling fans, strident car horns, family members squabbling over something insignificant. I suppose everything was insignificant in the end.
I’d fought with myself all morning about whether or not to leave the highway tunnel. Its curved, towering walls provided shelter, and occasionally warmth. But my food supply had become scarce, even for someone with my hunting prowess, and while I had my pick of vehicles to scavenge, my instinct whispered it was time to move on. I never second-guessed that voice, and when my family was still alive, I’d wondered if they were jealous. Not everyone has so finely-tuned a barometer for danger.
I peeked out from my makeshift abode, mostly plastic and newspaper, with cardboard boxes added for structure. As I meandered toward the exit, I stifled the sudden, forceful urge to fasten a note to my dwelling, in case I should happen to return this way. Property was quickly becoming a foreign concept, and while my creation might have been modest, I’d built this place with my own labor. I brushed the thought aside. I knew what retracing steps usually brought. I’d seen things.
With the tunnel behind me, I blinked and stared down the lane, knowing what I’d glimpse before my eyes landed there. Shattered glass. Depressed power lines, an occasional spark hissing angrily across the pavement. Fragments of signs, some with bullet holes tearing their skin. Overturned carcasses of what were once cars, now merely heavy, jagged slabs of sharp metal. Debris and garbage scattered like mist over a field on the overcast days we’d never notice again. Small regiments of flies hovered over rotting meat, pairs of soldiers swooping down to investigate their treasure. I sniffed around, inhaling smoke from somewhere in the distance mixed with the acrid, sour air that was left for survivors.
I padded through the grimy streets, willing myself not to think too much about what I was stepping on. Some twenty feet away, I caught a flicker of movement and charged. To the uninitiated–there are precious few left who AREN’T initiated–that may appear perilous, but my experience has been that anything drawing breath is potentially an ally, and we can ill afford not to network. And life expectancy, while obviously less predictable these days than it once was, is unquestionably lower. Laughably so. At least it will be eventually, in the event that we rediscover our sense of humor.
And as I said, my danger-meter rarely fails.
He was an older fellow, perhaps of some foreign persuasion, draped in a lovely pinstripe coat. One eye was azure, the other faded shamrock. He’d sprinted into the alley but moved gingerly now, uncertain of my intentions. I was struck by the absence of visible scars, the relatively clean state of his garments, the fact that he’d not immediately unholstered his weapons. Must have been fed and sheltered until recently, which meant he was likely still grieving a loved one or two or sixty.
“Hey,” I said softly, in what I hoped was a congenial tone. “I won’t harm you. I just wanted to suss who you are, and whether or not we can help each other.” I’d considered adding “I’m not dangerous,” but I learned early on that announcing to strangers that you were vulnerable was not the most sensible decision, even for a companion who appeared innocuous.
He exhaled slowly. “I…I’m pleased to hear that, young man.” A sharp cracking, like that of an industrial-sized door being snapped off from its hinges and splintered, flung out from the distance ahead, momentarily startling us both. “I’m Reginald. I was separated from my family two days ago–twin boys with jet-black hair and a bearded man with khakis and an ax. Have you seen them?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I left my bunker this morning, but I’ve been stationed there for–well, I’ve lost count. Maybe they found a camp up ahead. You might still be able to catch them.”
He acknowledged the lie and muttered his thanks, retreating with the crooked posture of one who expects impending defeat. I watched until he had passed beyond my sight.
I walked on. I killed a few small animals and, once, a Fritos bag for sustenance (most vending machines had been smashed at the Beginning, but some of the food had fallen behind edifices too arduous for most to move. I, however, could fit into spaces where others could not. I ignored my aching legs, assessed each living threat as I passed. There weren’t many.
Sometime later, I woke up to a little girl’s curious, hopeful stare. She was about seven, with all the trademarks of our new shared reality: filthy hair, sunken eyes, clothing so tattered that it wouldn’t protect against even a brisk wind. Trailing her was an exhausted brunette who looked like she’d probably spent the majority of her Before days insisting that forms be filled out. “Casey! Get away from the cat! We don’t know if it’s safe!”
I held my tongue and shoved down my primal urge to hiss. That would’ve only convinced her that I was feral or rabid. Instead, I evaluated my options.
“But Mommy, he could help us! He can, I don’t know, hunt and things. And I want…something…alive…”
Her voice broke off. Mom clicked her tongue against her mouth. “I can’t, baby. I already have you to think of, and I can’t take on another life so young.”
I bristled again, silently. I easily had 20 years on her, not to mention four previous lives. But I remained silent.
Casey sadly nodded her assent and rummaged through the open Volkswagen a few feet away. Mom bit her lip nervously. She crouched down, sweat and dirt clinging to her face. “I shouldn’t even consider this. But…she needs to feel some tiny measure of joy again, and I’m running on fumes. Are you going to be a problem for me?”
I swished my tail in what I hoped was an unproblematic manner.
“Look at me. Talking to a cat.” She stood up and paused right above my head, as if to scratch it, but she didn’t. “We’re going to check those two cars, and then we’ll be on our way. I…I guess you want to come with us, you’re welcome.” Her face softened subtlety, and I wondered what her Last Day must have been like.
I waited until she and Casey began their departure, and I followed.
@blackpigcomic wanted a story that explores a post apocalyptic world from a housecat’s viewpoint.