The door of Amy’s shelter opened reluctantly. It was a heavy thing, made of tarnished half-inch steel, with a welded-on handle, bolt latch, and thick insulation besides. Amy remembered it being significantly easier to lower into place when she made her temporary exit from the world 75 days earlier. Which really wasn’t surprising. She did her best to get some exercise during that excruciatingly long period, but she was stuck with an unfortunate choice between maintaining her muscle mass and conserving her food.
Amy, who had lived most of her adult life in fear of some kind of terrorist attack, had been in no rush to re-join a world that she’d last seen imploding into total warfare. She’d chosen the food. Choice aside, 75 days is a very long time, and Amy pushed her supplies to the very limit. She was weak with hunger and thirst. So weak that her vision swam with the exertion of opening the shelter door, and Amy paused, panting and collecting herself in the basement of her home.
It was very cold in the basement, colder by 10 degrees than her shelter room, at least, but still Amy sighed with relief at her new-found freedom. Before moving down into her shelter, Amy found her basement to be uncomfortably damp and musty, with it’s stone and mortar foundation inexorably seeping moisture into the space. Even with a de-humidifier running nearly constantly, the space still felt damp and smelled of mildew and earth. Now, Amy took in the smells and relatively dry air with rapturous delight. She thought she’d never breathed air so fresh.
Amy leaned back through the doorway to grab her backpack and nearly gagged. The stink of body odor and a collection of refuse buckets swam up at her. The lids were firmly planted on the buckets, but it didn’t matter. As a group, they emitted plenty of smell to fill up the space, and then some.
Amy hated to think of what she smelled like herself. Probably something like a dead animal carcass left to rot on the side of a highway. Not far off from the way she felt, actually. First order of business would be to find some food and water. Then, she needed to freshen up. Stat.
Amy trudged up the stairs to the kitchen in search of food. Most of the food in the house made the trip down to the shelter in the days before Amy headed down herself, but she opened the refrigerator door anyway. Mistake. Amy slammed the door shut far more quickly than she’d opened it. She guessed that the only thing that saved her from being bowled over completely by the fetid smell within was the wintry temperatures outside during her self-imposed exile. Still, it was really bad. She almost lost her hunger completely, but not quite.
Amy grabbed a dusty glass from a kitchen cabinet installed in the 80’s. The cabinet matched the dated decor found in the rest of the house very well. She never really gave it more than a moment’s consideration, and she didn’t now, either. Moving to the stainless steel kitchen sink, she tried the tap, but got nothing from it but a weak spurt of brown water followed by pops of air bubbles. No water pressure. She didn’t have it in herself to swallow the rusty water, yet, and searched the pantry for something else. Hidden behind a collection of broom brushes and mops on the floor, she found a single bottle of water and a half-empty box of dry spaghetti.
Amy chugged the water greedily and began munching on the spaghetti noodles as she opened up the rest of the kitchen cabinets. She turned up a lighter, a box of matches, and a can of diced tomatoes. She grabbed a can opener and started to open the tomatoes, but thought better of it and stuffed them in her backpack instead, along with the can opener, matches, and lighter.
With her most pressing needs covered, Amy glanced out the kitchen window at the street and paused. She lived in a quiet neighborhood in West View, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa, but still, the absence of activity was striking. The street was covered in nearly two feet of light gray snow. Amy wondered if a plow had been through since she went underground. Even without the plows, there should have been footprints, tire tracks… something. As she looked closer, she realized she did see some tracks. A group of deer had trotted their way between two houses across the street, and some smaller prints, as if from squirrels or chipmunks, wound their way among a copse of trees in her neighbor’s yard.
A chill began to creep down Amy’s spine as her mind processed the scene she observed through the window. “What the hell is going on here,” she said to herself. Where is everyone?
Amy walked over to the hallway closet and grabbed a pair of duck boots that she seldom wore, but felt appropriate given the heavy snow. She walked over to the front door and opened it slowly, breathing carefully, in case anything seemed amiss in the air. Amy was not dumb. Even as she did this, she knew in the back of her mind that the air outside was likely not appreciably better or worse than the air inside, but the extra caution helped her nerves, which were still frayed from her underground ordeal, and not quickly improving.
As she relaxed a bit over the oxygen and stepped out onto her front stoop, Amy felt an increasing sense of unease, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
In her youth, Amy took a handful of trips up to the National Forest near Tionesta, Pa, and she’d always been struck by the relative quiet compared to the familiar suburban sounds of traffic, children playing, dogs on leashes barking. That was nothing. At that moment, the world felt like a gigantic empty coffee can, emptied of its contents, and reverberating wildly with every individual tap of sound.
As her ears adjusted to the new normal, she realized she still could hear occasional distant chirrups of life, but even those seemed vastly muted compared to her memory of the neighborhood she left behind two and a half months ago.
Amy tromped through the grayish snow, across the yard to the street. She was glad for her Columbia ski jacket, and while the weather wasn’t biting cold, she made a mental note to return to the house for a hat and gloves before she ventured out far. She crossed the street to the Bauers’ yard, walked up to the door, knocked twice, and waited. No answer. She knocked three times, more forcefully now. Still nothing. Amy shuffled along the front of the house and peered through the living room window. The house was dark inside and she could see no signs of life, except the Bauers’ fluffy orange cat, Saturn, looking up at her expectantly from the floor.
Amy thought for a second. She really wanted some more information about what was going on here. She was scared, and she just spent a long time underground. She thought that was probably a good enough excuse on its own. She was also on friendly enough terms with the Bauers’s. She thought they would not judge her too sharply if they found her “checking on the cat.”
She made her way back over to the front door and wiggled the doorknob, surprised to find it unlocked. As she walked inside, Saturn immediately strolled over and rubbed against her legs, purring. He’d always been moderately friendly on his frequent excursions outside, but this was new. He seemed just about starved for attention. Amy reached down and scratched his back, finding him to be leaner than she remembered, but obviously not malnourished.
Amy looked around. The house looked basically normal. The furniture was in place and looked like it was basically the same as the last time she’d seen it, when she returned a cookie tray after the Bauers’s welcomed her to the neighborhood. Slightly shabbier, perhaps. The carpet seemed a little dirty with cat hair, as if it had not been vacuumed in some time, but she didn’t expect an elderly couple to keep up as well as they used to. The only thing completely out of the ordinary was that the phone was on the floor.
Moving toward the hallway leading back to where she knew she’d find the master bedroom, Amy called out, “Hello? Anyone here?” Only one door was closed in the hallway, and she guessed it was the master by the cat door installed near the base. Those people did worship that cat. She knocked on the door, and, not hearing an answer, she entered.
The smell hit her first. Death. The smell of decaying flesh came to her in waves, disturbed by the door being pushed into the stagnant room. The withered corpses of George and Helen Bauers lay in their bed, still locked in a lovers’ embrace.
Amy’s revulsion at the smell was quickly replaced by sadness, and she felt tears sting her eyes as she remembered how kind the couple had been, and how touching it was for them to have gone out this way, together. She glanced at the open pill bottles on George’s nightstand, and quickly decided she didn’t care. If they decided it was time for them to leave, she wouldn’t judge.
Amy was just about to shut the door and leave the Bauers’s to their peace, when she thought she spotted movement at the foot of the bed. She couldn’t help herself. It was clear the couple was dead, so what in God’s name could be moving. She walked over to the bed, pulled back a corner of the comforter, and screamed.
Beneath the comforter lay a writhing mass of rats, engorged by chewing through the remains of the Bauers’s legs. Little was left but bones and cartilage beneath the knees of each, and their thighs were a patchwork of missing flesh. As she looked on, horrified, a large albino rat crawled out of a hole where Helena Bauers’ vagina should have been. Disgusted in a way she had never contemplated possible, Amy dropped the comforter, and stumbled back from the bed as several of the rats fell onto the floor and began crawling toward her, languidly. She tripped over her own feet, hitting her ass hard on the floor, but barely felt it as she scrambled to the door and slammed it shut.
She was covered in a cold sweat and had to get out of the house immediately. Amy rushed to the front door, and threw up the limited contents of her stomach the second she cleared the threshold. She shut the front door and sat back against it, weeping, as she wondered how everything could have gone so horrible so quickly. She didn’t want to go back in the house. Every ounce of her body told her that she couldn’t possibly to it. What she just saw was too awful to comprehend, let alone willfully bring herself nearer.
But her rational mind knew she must. She couldn’t stomach what unknown horrors she might find in other houses on her street, and she knew now what lay within this one. She needed food and more supplies. She had to go back in.
Setting her teeth, Amy walked back in, and went straight to the kitchen, thinking as little as possible about what she’d seen in the bedroom. She was grimly happy to find the kitchen cabinets well-stocked, and she filled her backpack with cans of creamed corn, peas, chili, and peaches.
Amy knew Mr. Bauers was an outdoors-y sort of guy, so she headed next for the garage. The garage was dimly lit, by virtue of a panel of windows set in the two-car wide external door. The Bauers’ tan Buick sedan sat under a film of dust next to a yellow Cub Cadet. Amy wondered if either would ever run again. There really wasn’t much use for the car at present. With the roads under two feet of snow or more outside, Amy thought she’d need a snowmobile or a monster truck to have any hope of navigating the roadways.
In a row of cabinets along the back wall, Amy found an old compass and a bowie knife in a leather holster. The knife handle was heavily-worn leather, but examining the blade, Amy found that it had been dutifully resharpened to a fine point. She unfastened her belt and slid the holster around to her left hip. Rooting around in the cabinet a little further, she came away with a box of .22 caliber bullets. But she didn’t see a gun anywhere in sight.
Amy spotted a step-stool near the garage door and pulled it over to the cabinet. She climbed to the top step and looked in again. There. On the top shelf, all the way at the back, Amy saw the wooden handle of what looked like an old rifle. She moved some junk out of the way and pulled it out. The rifle was covered in dust and grime, but nothing looked obviously wrong with it. It was a bolt-action type, single bullet, with a rudimentary notch on the top of the barrel for sighting targets. Amy brushed off the top of the barrel and read “Springfield Model 15” inscribed on the top. The rifle had a strap attached to the stock.
Amy had seen plenty enough in the short time she’d left her shelter. The antique .32 pistol in her jacket pocket was hardly worth an peace of mind in the face of God knows what horrors she might yet encounter. Without any further hesitation, Amy slung the rifle over her shoulder and shoved the box off ammo in her backpack. If she was going to find something out there, she was damn well going to be ready.
Amy reluctantly stepped back into the house to make her way through on her way back outside. At the front door, she paused just as she pulled the door shut behind her, as a disturbing thought nagging at the back of her mind finally burst through with clarity. Saturn. The rats. That was why he wasn’t starving.
While the thought of a few of those rats getting their “just desserts” was strangely satisfying from a karmic standpoint, Amy couldn’t bear the thought of Saturn getting his nutrition from his former owners, even secondarily so. She opened the door and left it ajar.
Crossing the Bauers’ yard to the street and back to her own house, Amy went back to the hall closet and grabbed her warmest hat, a pink knitted cap with wool lining, and a pair of ski gloves. With these in hand, she thought she was finally ready to get going.
Amy guessed it was roughly 200 miles to her brother Jake’s cabin near Charleston, WV. She said a silent prayer that he was still there, and safe. Amy stomped through the snow on her street in the direction of US-19, hoping fervently that the worst was behind her.