Amy was moving slowly and there was nothing she could do about it.
The topography of the Pittsburgh area is notable for its makeup of hills and trees, broken up only by virtue of the progressive efforts of civilization. Navigating Pittsburgh roads is known to be a hazardous winter activity in the best of times, between the blind turns around hillsides, the steep grades, and the pothole-stricken pavement.
Mercifully, Amy was not currently beset by the pothole issue, but this was only because the legion of area potholes, divots, and other imperfections were filled in with a foot or more of snow and ice.
To her credit, Amy was wearing a good, sturdy pair of duck boots that kept her feet dry in the deep snow, but she was woefully out of shape from her time spent underground, and the snow and ice and landscape meant a difficult passage. Good boots or not. Good shape or not.
It was snow in spirit, if not in appearance. Nowhere was the pure white snow that Amy loved playing in as a kid. Snow so brilliant she had to shield her blue eyes every time the sun peeked through the clouds and lit up the landscape in a cold fire of white light. Amy had loved to grab handfuls of snow and much on it, even though her dad once melted snow on the stovetop to show her how dirty it sometimes was. She didn’t care. It looked good and it tasted good. That was enough.
This snow was a depressing shade of gray, pockmarked as if diseased by dark spots. It didn’t look entirely dissimilar to the accumulation of snow she saw often by the side of a busy roadway in winter, after plows have churned up the silt of the road and leagues of cars have sprayed muck and gray-brown fumes in their wake.
Amy felt she was making painfully slow progress. Literally painfully slow. Her breath came in hard raspy gasps and she stopped frequently to deal with her burning quads and lungs. As she stared at the sickly looking snow, she wondered again what, exactly, was filling her lungs during these fits and gasps.
She tried to push these thoughts out of her mind as soon as they entered. Unfortunately, the landscape, diseased and radioactive as it may be, had not yet bestowed on her any special breathing abilities or weird neck gills to filter the air.`And unless she’d missed some critical part of adulting, she didn’t expect to find a plethora of breathing masks to protect her every time she ventured outside, Metro: 2033-style.
Truthfully, Amy was more comfortable outside than in at the moment. She was haunted by what she’s found at the Bauers’ house; the image of the rats seething around the Bauers’ desiccated bodies flickered before her eyes every time she thought of moving indoors, even for brief jaunts to warm up, rest, and root for supplies.
In the two days since she left home, Amy guessed she made roughly 4 miles, although she’d never been great with distances, and the intensity of effort required by the snow and her poor conditioning skewed her viewpoint. She was following US-19 because she knew that it, generally speaking, led directly to Pittsburgh.
An intersection with I-279 southbound had forced Amy to make a decision on this count. I-279 flowed more directly toward Pittsburgh, but US-19 would take her through more housing areas where she thought she could scavenge for supplies, or, even better, find someone to help her figure out what in the hell was going on.
The thought of finding help was both painfully appealing and outright terrifying, which was another reason why she ultimately decided to steer clear of I-279, with its broad lanes and wide open sightlines. She had no idea what to expect from the living when she finally encountered them.
Amy had already encountered countless dead bodies, though she tried as well as she could to block them out. They filled stalled and wrecked cars all over the roadways, and more than once Amy thought she’d stepped on suspicious lumps under the snow. She was sure that anyone out there had been through quite an ordeal.
Even with these endlessly disconcerting discoveries, Amy felt a growing awareness that something was off, even in the context of a possible cataclysmic event. She’d found more bodies in a few houses, yes, but she’d also found houses that appeared to be not just empty, but abandoned. Standing cold and lifeless, but untouched, as if their owners expected to return at any moment but never did.
The cars, too. There were snow-covered lumps of cars strewn all across the roadways, in various states of disrepair and abandonment, but Amy thought there should be many more cars around, especially given the empty homes. It seemed like either people were missing, or she was being actively avoided.
Amy felt so incredibly alone. During her extended period underground, Amy was by herself, but she always harbored a fantasy in the dark recesses of her mind that she might open the vault door and find the world exactly as she left it, or maybe slightly altered. A few bombed out city centers, perhaps. She wasn’t ready for this. Now, after seeing the complete absence of humanity in the world, she felt a despair unlike any she had ever known. It was only her hopes of reaching her brother in West Virginia, and of miraculously finding someone willing and able to help her, that kept her pressing forward with a purpose.
This afternoon, though, Amy had begun to feel a presence.
It didn’t come on all at once, nor was she quite aware of her dawning perception. Call it a latent instinct, or premonition, woman’s intuition; take your pick of miraculous 6th senses. Perhaps she’d heard a series of noises, and her brain logged the information even as Amy’s thoughts were divided between the road ahead and her internal dialogue. But slowly, Amy found her pace slightly quickening, and she began to make out shapes moving in the sides of her vision.
Every time Amy turned to look straight on, she saw only a beat up trash can, or mailbox, and she mentally chided herself for losing her senses in the face of extraordinary stress.
Amy was now looking down a street lined on both sides by old Victorian and Craftsman-style houses, along with the occasional dark storefront. The typical small-town storefront on the ground level of two stories of weathered brick, with an upper floor devoted to an apartment or store offices. Since she was a kid, she’d always wondered about streets like this. Wondering how different the neighborhood had been in times of greater prosperity. Pittsburgh was a re-defined city in the late 2010’s, trading the dying steel industry of the 20th century for technology and medical advancement, but some areas had yet to fully recover.
Families are always rising and falling in America. Hawthorne, I think. I wonder if the same can be said of cities. It was the type of quote Amy memorized to make herself feel smarter, though truthfully, she’d never read The House of the Seven Gables. Never even opened it, actually. But she’d seen The Departed, and wasn’t Scorcese just as good? She thought so. Anyway, it seemed to fit. What is a city, anyway, but a group of people who have decided to live together, and whose fortunes generally rise and fall together by their collective efforts and divine providence? Amy wondered if Pittsburgh was rising or falling now.
Maybe the more important question is whether the human race is rising or falling.
Jesus. That’s enough with the waxing philosophic for now, Amy. My internal dialogue gets depressing as fuck.
Amy was exhausted, and she had ignored the growing pangs of hunger in her stomach for about as long as she felt capable. Scoping a rare dry area next to a trash can under the awning of a storefront nearby, she decided it was as good a time as any to make a stop. A dingy and weather-beaten wooden sign above the awning informed her that this was home of Mike’s TV and Radio Repair.Wonderful, she thought. A store that was useless even before the apocalypse. Amy didn’t want to take the chance of another gruesome discovery just for a taste of stagnant indoor air and some overpriced A/V cables. She aimed for the dry spot next to the trash can.
Amy unslung her backpack from her shoulders and dropped it on the ground next to the store. She leaned back against the trashcan with her antique .22 bolt-action rifle still hanging over her shoulder. It was uncomfortable, but she was too tired to really care. Reaching into her backpack, Amy grabbed a can of Dinty Moore beef stew she’d been saving for a special occasion. The special occasion being that she was really hungry and wanted some damn beef stew.
She had to laugh a little bit inside at the change in fortune. Three months ago, Dinty Moore beef stew was a step above dog food. Now, gourmet masterpiece.
Amy cracked the pop tab and breathed in the luscious aroma of cold, metallic, salty, processed stew. She half-drank and half-scooped the contents into her mouth with two fingers, trying in vain to savor the taste and fight the urge to scarf it down within minutes. She had a spoon buried somewhere in her backpack, but why exercise modesty? Not like anyone was watching her to make sure she abided by proper European-style table etiquette.
So singularly focused was she on her feast, that she nearly didn’t notice the sharp crack of a twig breaking roughly 100 yards away. It took her a moment, but suddenly she was on her feet, backpack in her left hand and can of stew unconsciously remaining affixed to her right.
Amy nearly cried, she was so happy about what she saw. Making its way toward her slowly, hopping here and there roughly along Amy’s footprints in the dull mounds of snow, was a Golden Retriever.
Its fur had lost the bright sheen attended by constant brushings and an indoor life; its golden coat was stained, dark, matted, and mangy from weeks or months of living outdoors, but as it made its way closer, she could see it was still wearing a collar and tags. This was someone’s pet! Or it had been, anyway.
Amy was about to put on her best sing-song voice to draw the dog closer, even though she felt it probably wasn’t necessary, when two more dogs, and then a fourth appeared from around the side of a distant house from the direction she had come. There was a Black Lab and a German Shepherd, and what looked like a Pit Bull mix with a mottled brown coat bringing up the rear. All were wearing collars of various types, just like the golden retriever in the lead. The Lab and Pit Bull both sported nylon straps, while the Shepherd wore a stainless steel chain.
Amy’s right hand, which had been holding the can of stew toward the golden retriever in a welcoming gesture, unconsciously lowered to her side as she considered her growing group of friends.
They must be half-starved. Just let them have the stew and I’m sure they’ll be friendly enough, or they’ll run off, having sated their hunger a bit.
Amy set down the can of Dinty Moore and took several paces backward as she watched the dogs continue to draw closer. The can was extra-large, and though she’d eaten a fair amount already, there was enough for each of the dogs to get a small morsel.
The Retriever’s eyes never left Amy as it made its way closer. Amy could see that it was wet around the mouth, so it had been eating or drinking something recently. She hoped that the dogs weren’t too hungry and wouldn’t fight each other for the food. The Retriever paused as it reached the can, and sniffed the contents thoroughly. It took a single lick of the stew, and then stepped past, in Amy’s direction.
Amy looked on in fascination at the dog’s decision to leave the stew for its fellow companions. Now only 25 feet or so away, Amy could see the sad state of the dog’s fur much more clearly. It was even more matted than it had looked from afar, but the myriad spots she’d taken for mange at a distance appeared to be ugly scarred and scabbed flesh, torn by what looked like both the serrated edges of bite marks and some smoother lines that looked like possible knife wounds.
The Shepherd and Lab passed the can without pausing and began to fan out slightly from the Retriever in the lead. Amy looked with awe at the Lab, who was similarly scarred and missing his left eye, and the Shepherd, who appeared to be relatively unscathed, apart from a shortened tail. The Pit Bull sniffed at the can and whimpered at the others for a moment, then thought better of it, and moved between the Shepherd and the Retriever to Amy’s left.
Amy was involuntarily moving further backward now, but the dogs were drawing closer. Now roughly 15 feet away, Amy could see that she was mistaken about the Retriever’s muzzle. It was wet, but not due to water. Stained in splashes and specks across its mouth and chest was the unmistakable red-brown of drying blood.
Amy began to move backward more quickly as the dogs continued to fan out and move closer. As she fumbled with the zipper of her right jacket pocket, where she kept her .32, a low, sinister growl erupted from the Retriever’s throat.