(PART ONE OF THREE)
Cold outside… cold in here, too. Feels like the whole world is stuck inside a freezer, waiting to be thawed out at a later date. It’s probably warm in Guatemala or somewhere like that, but those places are so far away it’s almost as if they don’t exist.
We’ve been in this building for three weeks. Foods mostly gone… we’re down to one crate of Fancy Feast (smells terrible but it tastes okay) and a few jugs of Poland Spring water. And of course, we’ve got booze. The bottom floor of this building was occupied by a liquor store; a well-stocked one at that. The bottles survived the bombings, the attacks, the shotgun blasts, and everything else… somehow, they held on, unbroken… waiting for us to find them. A miracle at the end of the world. A couple of times a week, we’ll draw straws to see who’s the unlucky bastard that has to go down there and re-up our supplies. Last week it was me. Brushed up against death for the bourbon I’m drinking as I write this. For Margaret’s vodka and Lem’s fancy tequila, for Danny’s spiced rum and for the wine coolers we’ve been giving the kids. Whatever shuts them up, I guess.
When I pulled my straw (really just splinters of wood) out of Lem’s hand, before I even looked at it, I knew it was my turn over the barrel. Just had that feeling. Everyone compared lengths and mine was the short one. I shrugged. That time, I guess. No matter.
They gave me the list. I wrote a few things down, stuff I wanted, because I didn’t want to forget anything in the heat of the moment. I stepped into our makeshift bathroom in the far corner of the building and took a long, thoughtful dump. It cleared my mind, made me feel lighter, but Christ almighty if it didn’t stink like cat food. This fucking place… this fucking miserable place.
I buttoned up my coat; the army one made out of thick material. I put on a silly, hunting-style hat that I’d swiped off a dead policeman a few months ago, but then I took it off and switched to a ball cap instead. The earflaps on the hunting hat are warm, but they do make it harder to hear; you need to have all your senses in working order when you’re on a liquor run. There are those who found that out the hard way. We used to have fifteen people in our group, you know.
We moved all the heavy furniture out from in front of the main door. We put our ears up against the wood, listened close, but heard nothing. We knocked loudly on the walls and on the door itself, but again… nothing. We opened the door and I stepped out into the hallway. Margaret handed me the shotgun and a box of shells. She was so pretty, before all this started. Like an actress on a soap opera or a Broadway show. But she’d lost an eye during the First Attack, and the scars on her face had built up from there. You could still see her beauty, true, but you had to squint. Not that I’m any great shakes, mind you. Being old and fat isn’t going to land me on magazine covers. If magazines still existed, of course.
I loaded the shotgun, cocked it, and slowly walked to the stairs. They were barely visible in the gloom. I thought about turning back and taking down that last inch in the bottle sitting next to my cot, but… no… I needed my senses sharp, not dulled by the booze. It would be there when I got back, I thought, and I’ll use it as well as the new stuff to toast any of those miserable bastards I happen to kill. They used to be human, right? They deserve a toast at their end. That’s how I do it, anyway. Must be the religion bubbling up in me.
Suddenly, I felt arms around my waist. I started a bit, nearly tipped right over down the stairs. It was one of the kids… Lira, I think Margaret calls her. She was hugging me tight, not wanting me to go. Not wanting to hear about another death in the group, to be more accurate. Lord knows she’d heard enough stories… enough explanations… about where so-and-so had gone, or how they were up in Heaven now, looking down upon us all. Or some horseshit, I don’t know. I don’t concern myself with the children too much. Long as they’re quiet.
I brushed the little one off, told her to get her ass back in with the adults. Margaret gave me a mean look from the doorway and I saluted her with the barrel of the shotgun. I thought to myself that I just might lie down next to her when I got back. Drink my drink with her and see if she’s of the mind to get physical with an old man such as myself. That would be a fine reward for a job well done. That, and the booze of course. I took a deep, frozen breath. I raised the shotgun to my shoulder, ready to shoot.
And then I took the first steps down into the dark.