Afterward: Chapter 5
Later, moving quietly and without much incident other than the occasional cigarette, she made it there. Her people didn't tend to lead them into these parts of the cities because Mark said there were not many resources, and it could be really difficult to escape. The height was what she needed now though. It was probably a foolish decision, but she didn't have many other options. She hoped that from up high she would be able to see someone moving around or some smoke or something.
It was early afternoon. She figured she could probably be able to scavenge around and find some food. Staying up high would also keep her safe from the wendigo for the night. She had picked out the building to climb up hours earlier while she had made her way across the city. It had a lot of glass on it, but there was one particular window that was broken in just the right way for her purposes. Also, most of the windows were still there, suggesting it would survive the storms that raged in the late summer and the autumn. It had a small section busted out at the top, but was mostly intact. Some thinking about how smoke works and she thought she had something clever figured out.
She had spent the last hour humming to herself and trying to count the number of stories she had to climb. Seventeen. Seventeen stories. She'd wander around up there and look around. If she had to she'd set up camp. That would work. Reaching the base she looked up and hated this decision. Hours of walking already had her legs sore and tired. She couldn't just leave her backpack here; someone or something could easily come by and find it.
Procrastination won out and she decided to go look around the area. She chose a direction at random and decided to just walk for a spell. Food and a weapon were on the list of her priorities. Less than a kilometre later she found a building. It said "Seaside Mall." She didn't know what was inside of a building like this; if she had been in one when she was younger, she didn't remember, so she figured she'd open the door and walk in. It looked like a big building. Maybe there would be a lot of things inside.
There were large glass doors at the front, and she hauled one open. It made a weird whirring noise as she did so; she looked up and saw some sort of box attached to the top of it that seemed to be the source. That was weird. She shrugged, figuring it to be just another of the stupid things that used to be. Walking in it occurred to her that she wasn't as worried as she was probably supposed to be. . This was like an adventure. She would get through this on her own, find her people, and they would respect her all the more for it. Making a mistake was okay, learning from it was what was important. Jean, one of the adult women always said that. Fred, the guy who used to fly, said that this was stupid because you couldn't make mistakes when you were dead.
The tell-tale sound of canned goods falling to the ground, that sound that she had all too often been the source of, interrupted her reverie. Someone or something was here. The doors had been closed, and not much of the glass looked broken. More likely people than animals, she thought. Still, a good time to be careful. She sidled to her right while keeping her eyes trained in the direction that the sound had come from. There was a long center area here with a lot of little places full of clothes, mostly, off to the sides. She ducked into the one to her side to shrug off her backpack. It was heavy and it was hard to sneak with it on. There were stands of clothing set up putting outfits on display. She could hide her backpack in there and figure out what was going on. Maybe she would find something to beat someone with if she had to.
Moving into the store, she saw a circle of metal about four feet off the ground with a bunch of clothes hanging off of it. It would be the perfect place to hide her backpack. She shrugged inside of it and came face to face with a young girl.
"Eeeeeeeeeee," the young girl made a noise that sounded like high pressure air escaping from a hose.
"No, no, no shush shush. It's okay. Uh, do you want a cigarette?" The girl was probably no more than eight.
"Hey, uhm, one second. I'm going to look in my backpack, is that okay?"
"Ssssssssp." The girl inhaled sharply, ending the previous noise. Her blue eyes wide she just stared. She looked ready to bolt.
Fishing around made her regret grabbing so many cigarettes and not as much of anything else. She had found some jerky that was probably still good. She pulled it out. "Hey, did you want this?"
A slight and reticent nod.
"Here, I'm going to open it for you. No way I poisoned it or anything." She handed over the opened bag. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
The child nodded again, her face still squished and crinkled with concern.
"Alright, my name is Cait. What's yours?"
"Is that short for Susan?"
"Yeah." She was chewing on the beef jerky with methodical purpose.
The smoke from the recently lit cigarette spiralled upwards within the small enclosure. Time for a little bit of a gamble. "Those your friends elsewhere in here?"
An affirmative nod.
"You want to let them know you're safe?"
With that, Susan sprung up, taking the beef jerky with her, and scampered out of the small enclosure.
"Hey, its safe. It's just another person. She's unarmed."
Interesting. Didn't actually bother to check. These people seemed sloppier than her people. She checked the battery on her music player. Still plenty. That was good. She liked having music to fall asleep to and it would be a pain to charge it when she didn't have any food.
Susan's head popped back into the makeshift cover, "What's your name?"
"Kay," and Susan left again.
It seemed as though that defused the situation. She had come in peace, as it were, offered cigarettes and beef jerky. That was probably good enough to make friends. Cait didn't really know. She hadn't actually met people outside of her group in a long time, and even then only in very controlled situations. This was new. Exciting.
She stretched up and flicked the ash off of her cigarette, careful that it hit the floor instead of the clothing so she didn'tstart a fire doing so. Sometimes, but not now, she thought back in a bemuse fashion to how she learned that lesson. Starting a brush fire with an errant ash was a funny story when no one was hurt.
"Hello," Cait said to the arranged group, trying to hit the right balance of chagrin .
"Get out of here," an adult male with patched clothing and an adequately kept beard appeared to be the head of the group. Susan was behind his right leg, peering out behind it while sucking on the beef jerky.
"You heard us. Get out of here."
"Why? I'm just a kid."
"Yeah, but we don't know you. We don't know who you are with. Ain't no way a kid survives on her own. No offense."
"Yeah, well. Offense taken."
"Alright, well that will happen. You don't gotta get out of town just yet. We'll just be watchin you. We see anyone else with you or following you, you'll be in the ground even if we're going to be joining you soon after."
"Fine. Give me something for the beef jerky your larva is sucking on."
He squinted for a second, as though trying to weigh something by sight. "Fine. Canned peaches do?"
"Yes. Three cans."
"You'll get two." Cait thought, for just a second, she saw his lips twitch towards a smile underneath that beard of his.
The transaction completed, Cait took the opportunity to note that these people had firearms.
Cait turned and walked off in a huff. If she was going to be shot, they would've shot her already. No one to make it look like an accident to by shooting her in the back.
She continued her huff back up the street and then wandered around the base of the tower, hoping to lose whoever might actually be following her. She then set about climbing the stairs that she had held off from climbing before.
Story after story after story, she climbed the flights of stairs. They were concrete and painted white. There were a lot of cigarette butts in the hallway already, but from the smell she could tell that they were long old.
Her legs began to burn but, with stubbornness fueled by her recent humiliation, she soldiered on. The burning got worse and worse until she started to feel light-headed. She gritted her teeth and kept pushing until the weight of the backpack and the exertion finally conspired to undo her as she started to fall back down the stairs. She caught the railing along the wall, stopping her from falling.
"Damnit Cait. You've got to keep a better head."
She still had a few stories to go. She let loose a heavy breath and pulled open the door into the rest of the building. Her backpack was set down to one side so she could explore the rest of the floor. The first step was to try to find some food. Sometimes food was hidden in the strangest places. The adults told Cait that they were related to monkeys. She'd never seen one, only seen them in books and pictures. Cait had always figured that people had to have more in common with squirrels. They both hid food like their lives depended on it, and both were terrible at finding all the food that they had left behind.
She didn't find much. A couple of "Powerbars!" that she had found. Previous experience told her that some of these took forever to go bad, and other ones went bad really quickly. She wasn't sure which these were, but added them to her backpack nonetheless. She'd find that out later.
Still not feeling up to tackling the stairs just yet she collapsed back into some chair and was surprised to see it roll away to the side on her. A giggle escaped from her when she realized that she had fallen because of the wheels. She grabbed the chair and held it up in front of her and walked to the aisle between all the weird desks with little grey walls around them. She turned to her right, a grin spreading across her face, and she took off at a full tilt running before slamming the chair to the floor and sliding along.
A wail of laughter escaped her throat as she careened along, spinning and turning and bouncing off of the felt grey walls that didn't reach the ceiling. How had she never found a place like this before? The cities that her people had always said to avoid or skirt around seemed to be full of surprises. There were those people she had found, Susan was young but seemed to be raised very different to how she was. Plus, meeting people on her own was something that she hadn't had firsthand experience with. There were these gigantic buildings; why couldn't people live in them? This place was empty and seemed like the wendigo could be easily trapped in one building or another.
Her careening ended with a gentle bumping into the glass window. She knocked on it with her knuckle to see how solid it was. The reward was a solid sounding 'quong' noise as it vibrated the slightest bit. Good. These were solid. If there were a storm then this place would be safe. Cait had no idea how the people used to live like this. There would be so many people packed so densely. They'd have to spend so much time looking for food. People were weird, she decided. The collapse must have happened because everyone wanted to live close together so they could have lots of people to talk to and do stuff with, then they couldn't get enough food. She knew that they packaged food up; it wasn't just found in places. What she wasn't positive was where some things like "Powerbars!" came from. She hadn't seen one growing. Ever.
She felt that now she probably had recovered enough to keep climbing the stairs. A good push and she would probably be able to make it without another break. She shrugged back into her backpack, double-checked her boots were still tied on tight, and went back to climbing. She fumed at the poor airflow to the staircases. She liked to smoke as much as the next person but she didn't want to end up like the deer meat that they had smoked a year ago. They had built a small shack for it and just put it in smoke for days at a time. It came out all dried out, but still tasty. Mark said that this would make it last through the winter better. Then he had teased her, saying that with her smoking, he was one of the only adults that didn't mind, her lungs would look just like the deer meat and they'd be able to eat them too.
A tight smile danced across Cait's face at the memory as she continued to climb, her teeth gritted. The poor sleep from the night before, the stress, the physical demands above and beyond her norm, all were together starting to take their toll. She rewarded herself for passing the tenth story by pulling out one of the cans of peaches she had so recently traded for, and using the tab on the top to pull it open. She'd have to track down a new knife and some other lightweight tools she figured. That was added to the list of things to do.
finally mounted the top floor some time later. She had put her headphones back in after finishing the peaches, drinking the juice that they had come in, and putting the can back in her backpack. She could repurpose it into a small stove, Mark had taught her how. It would be able to burn small, controlled, and cleanly. Cleaner anyways. She played some song that Claire would put on from time to time and get misty. It was performed by a group of men who couldn't spell "beetle" correctly, and were very concerned about holding someone's hand. Cait could never understand that. You held someone's hand to drag them somewhere, to keep from being lost, and so on. It wasn't really a comforting thing.
She opened the door to the floor she had been shooting for. She felt beaten. Today hadn't been as successful as she had hoped. That made sense though, she knew, it was her first day alone. It was weird, this disconnect between her thoughts and her emotions. This was a reasonable situation to be in, but she still felt guilty and lost.
Dragging her feet along the carpet the walked through the floor she was confronted by a large glass door. It looked fancy and said "Belleweather and Loeb, LLP" on the door. She pulled the door and, although it was heavy, she was able to enter. Inside was fancy. There were polished wooden floors with a bunch of chairs in a circle around three sides of the room while there was a large table thing with one chair along the right hand side. She whistled to herself as the shouldered the backpack off behind the big table area. There were a bunch of those plastic things that were like her Apple, but different. They didn't work for one thing, so were of no interest to her.
She wandered through Belleweather and Loeb, whatever that was. Maybe this was where they lived, Cait thought. If so, it was amazing. The place had a huge library, though a quick search indicated that the majority of the books were filled with little words and talked about something that Cait, frankly, couldn't understand. There were a bunch of rooms along hallways with fancy looking desks with more of the plastic boxes on them. Each room, Cait saw, had one of those wheelie chairs. At least she wouldn't be bored here! A lot of the rooms seemed to have those glass bottles that Mark and Steve and a bunch of the other adults got excited when they found. She hadn't been allowed to drink any before. There had been a very stern talk between several of the parents when she had asked. Growing bored of the discussion, she had tried to grab a bottle of the strong smelling liquid and drink some but that had gotten her in a lot of trouble. Thinking back now she remembered it smelled like smoke and a swamp. She didn't understand why Steve, especially, had been so excited over that particular bottle.
She still had to find the specific window she had spied from a distance. It would make, if her figuring was right, a good vent for a fire. She would be able to keep the place warm at night, have protection from the elements while using this as her base, and have a great way to see around the city.
Making her way down the hall she eventually found it. There was a large room with books along one wall, and a large 'U' shaped desk dominating the room. There was also a couch that she laid down on to test out and was happy to see that it was very comfortable. This would do for a bed for the night.
She let out a long sigh, pushing air between her teeth and her lips. Wishing she had water, she cursed herself for not thinking of that sooner. She sat down in the middle of the U that the desk created and pulled out her knife and the can from earlier. Working at it she cut the air vents just like she had been taught. The U would hopefully reflect some of the heat back in at her. While cutting the holes she noticed that the little nook underneath the desk would fit the cushions and her comfortably. That would help keep her warm. Good.
The put the finished project down in the approximate center of the U. One step done. She was then forced to make a decision she had been putting off. From all the walking her flannel shirt was drenched with sweat and sticking to her. She didn't have water to clean herself with so changing into another piece of clothing would just make it filthy too. Eventually she succumbed and stripped the shirt off, and laying it over a chair to dry, and air, out.
She stretched briefly, enjoying the relatively cool air. Cait looked at herself in the reflection of the window. She looked okay. Maria, another of the adults from her group, had been talking to her a lot lately about becoming sexually mature and being attracted to boys or something. She never really understood that. Like, she did understand it. Animals had sex; that made more of them. She just hadn't gotten around to the part where she was interested in it.
Once, Cait had seen a feral cat get mounted by a big tomcat that Cait had been feeding. He was usually so gentle with her and she had named him Snicker because of a noise he made when hunting. Snicker had grabbed the female cat by back of her neck. The female cat had screamed out. It sounded horrible. Cait didn't understand why she was going to start wanting something like that. Sometimes she worried about Maria. She obsessed too much about the way that things used to be and kept trying to prevent Cait from doing anything.
The other people, however, seemed to enjoy it. Maybe it was a thing like drinking, that you got used to by doing it. She didn't really look forward to that. Anything you had to get used to in order to like sounded too much to her like the same kind of herd think that had screwed up the world.
She decided to go check if there were any bathrooms. Sometimes you got lucky and they still had water in the toilets that you could boil to make it clean. Leaving the room she glanced at her backpack and after thinking on it for a moment figured she was safe enough to do this without a shirt. The air felt good on her skin, and it was good to do this. She would never have been allowed to do this back with her group.
Stalking through the floor she kept her eyes out for anything she could use. It was often a matter of life and death determining what she would and wouldn't have access to later on. One of the biggest problems, she quickly realized, was that all the furniture was either plastic and metal, or if it was wood it was way too heavy. She wouldn't have any twigs to burn in her small fire. Those books she had seen earlier would probably fit the bill. Rolled up pieces of paper were often just as good.
She decided to head towards that room full of books while she tried to find bathroom. It was good to have something to aim towards. While making her way over to that part of the floor, she realized why so many of the men walked around shirtless now. It was really comfortable. Maybe if she was every to be as top heavy as Maria was, she'd disagree. She didn't have that problem though. A couple of the men fawned over Maria, often more than the other women.
Cait wondered why that was, while she pulled books off of the shelves. She had seen adults to a lot of things that they tried to protect her from. They weren't usually successful. She noticed that Maria did an awful lot of jiggling about, especially when drinking with the men. Cait wondered if that was part of it. She wasn't like Maria; she lacked the overly full lips, the long hair, or the fat layers over he hips. Cait took pride in these differences though. In the wild, animals that looked like Maria tended to be prey; especially prey that got caught. Animals that looked more like Cait, by contrast, tended to be the predators.
Cait moved several loads of books into her little camp. She had noticed that they had many different kinds of paper so she decided to try a few of each. A voice in the back of her head nagged her that she had so many things that she was screwing up; she knew she wasn't remembering everything that people had tried to teach her. There were so many things she had to do: she knew that. There just wasn't enough time. She tried to make a mantra out of "she still had time, she still had time."
A pile of books was ready, but in her path back and forth from the library she hadn't seen a bathroom. This was also becoming problematic because she was starting to have to pee. It was now that she also realized a terrible problem with her plan to be this high up; there was nowhere for waste to go. She could suffer the trade off of security for ease of getting food, but this was a problem that was increasingly pressing.
Dropping off the last load of books she took a moment to center herself. She had a problem. Problems could be solved. The pressing need in her bladder reminded her that this particular problem needed to be solved in the immediate future. If it wasn't, her bladder informed her, it would be forced to take matters into its own hands. It was then that she noticed the plastic container that would serve perfectly for her short term needs. It was about a foot tall, three or four inches across one way, and just under a foot the other. Perfect. She grabbed it out from under the desk while trying to simultaneously pull her pants down. The result was her falling over.
Moments later she had rectified the entire situation and was squatted, carefully, over the container. She looked out the window, suddenly feeling more than a little vulnerable, as she listened to the regular report of liquid first hitting plastic and then more liquid.
"Well, now that that's finished," she said, to no one in particular, as she pulled her pants up. She proceeded to carefully lift the now body temperature container. To her quite rejoicing she hadn't missed at all, preventing the rest of the room smelling for the rest of the night. She moved over to the hole in the window and, lifting the plastic bin above her head she tipped the container and contents out the window.
If I keep doing that, she thought to herself, there will end being a very filthy street below me. She wondered, looking out over the city, where all the poop went back when humans had filled the city. She knew all about digging holes and the decomposition of waste, but with so many people here where on earth could it all go? She had heard that the metal box things with wheels on them used to move without being pulled by anything. Maybe the small container she had thrown out was for human waste then other people would pick it up periodically to drive it outside of the city in those vehicles. Cities must have been incredibly foul smelling, she thought.
This resolved, she knew that she had to start setting up a better plan. Organizing based around a series of things need to be done had not gotten her as far as she had hoped during her first day. Furthermore, those people from earlier might be nearby. She was pretty sure she was safe; they could have killed her earlier if they had wanted as they out numbered her and everything. That being said, better safe than sorry. She found a clean sheet of paper that was only a little water damaged inside the desk she was camping under and grabbed a writing utensil. The then proceeded to go around the floor she was on and worked on mapping it.
Not a skilled cartographer by any sense, the map was not ideal. It did, however, help her make better sense of where she was. It also helped her figure out that, despite the size of the floor, it was approximately symmetrical with the library, the lobby, and some sort of large room with a huge table in it, where she guessed meals must have once been eaten, making up the central line of symmetry. After finding the first washroom, she was able to begin making predictions based on her map. That allowed her to figure out all the spots where water would be, and she found that there was water in several of the cisterns still. That was lucky. It meant that there probably was no one coming around here regularly. There were also a lot of dead plants all over the place. This was also good, she mused, no one was coming around to water the plants. They were old and brown and shriveled. She didn't recognize them so she wouldn't be eating any.
She also found, at opposite ends of the floor, two small kitchenettes. Each had a fridge in it, she avoided those. Checking the cupboards, however, she found a lot of coffee and some canned goods. Mostly in the noodles in red sauce of allegedly tomato origin. This would keep her going for a few days. She put her headphones in and listened to more music. She didn't understand how people had these little apples that could be absolutely full of music and then be powered by the sun. Despite having something like that they kept fighting over just about everything, from the way she heard it.
The music sang about hard work while she moved the cans into her little room. It was better to have them close by for when she would need them.
It crooned about death while she started to develop a way to barricade the heavy glass doors. After trying a number of different ways of leveraging things one again another to make sure that no one could get in quietly, she realized that tying the door closed would've been easier. Using her knife she managed to disassemble a chair near the door and used some leather strips she fashioned to tie the door closed.
With the sun setting across the city and sending vast shadows across swathes of the floor she was on, she was collecting the plant pots from across the floor and setting them up in the hallway near the room she had set up camp in. She had an idea for how to use them but wanted to see how many of them that she had first. The temperature started to drop quickly once the sun was off the building. The sweat on her bare skin started to take its toll so she called it quits, putting on another shirt from her pack. She made little rolls out of the paper she ripped from books and used them to start a fire in her can stove. While that started she began whittling strips of wood off of a wooden chair she had smashed up earlier trying to barricade the door. The strips also got fed into the fire and it started to warm her noodle soup. She stared at it quietly, her music off so she could make sure that there was battery to listen to it before bed.
The can depicted some sort of fictionalized version of the noodles she was about to eat being sentient and having eyes. She didn't understand how that could convince people to eat it. The sun quickly finished setting over the city, as though leaving in a rush. Buildings interrupted its goodbye and it wasn't long before Cait was left with nothing but the little light of her fire to keep her warm. She grabbed a bunch of clothing out of her bag and used it to set up a cosy nest for herself under the desk.
Nestled into her next of clothing she kept slowly feeding scraps of wood into the stove to keep warm. She plugged in the Apple and cued up some new music. She hadn't had it for long so it was still amazing to keep hearing new music. Her eyes became increasingly heavy as she started to drift.