The night sky was completely obliterated by clouds – not a single star could be seen; the thin slice of moon that would normally have been visible was entirely masked by fat, spring cumulus. The darkness was nearly a tangible thing. The feeling left Rick Milton nervous and twitchy. It didn’t help that he was as afraid as he’d been any time in the last five months. In addition to the darkness, the place where Rick found himself was giving him all kinds of bad vibes. Rick’s skin glistened with cold sweat. A steady tic had started in his right eye. Rick’s hands were cold and the bottoms of his feet felt prickly.
Rick stopped in a stand of trees and took a deep breath.
What’s my problem, he wondered? It’s not like I haven’t snuck into a hundred other places. There was something about this place, Rick decided, that felt different from any other. He couldn’t explain it.
From what Rick had seen in the daylight, the farm was well-defended. He’d spotted numerous defenses as well as a guard station on a high hill. Probing the place at night was a calculated risk.
As a cool droplet of perspiration ran down his spine, Rick shivered. He had a feeling that there was much about this place that he hadn’t seen. Rick was starting to reconsider his nighttime escapade. As he turned it over in his mind, Rick figured that for every defensive placement or trap that he’d seen there was probably another that he had missed. Stumbling around in the dark was, potentially, a great way to find those traps … and end up caught in them … or worse.
Rick found a fallen tree and sat down gingerly. An owl hooted at him from a nearby branch. Rick quietly opened a pack of beef jerky and tore off a piece with his teeth. The act was painful. Several of Rick’s teeth had started to rot. His dental hygiene had not been the best over the last several months. Toothpaste was rarely at the top of his list when he broke into a home or business. Rick couldn’t recall the last time he’d run a toothbrush over his teeth let alone used dental floss. His dentist would be very upset … if she only knew.
Had she survived? Rick pictured her in her white lab coat – perhaps holed up in her dental office as looters broke down the door to look for anything of value – with her ever-present mask covering her face. Rick chuckled. The woman had always been such a bleeding-heart liberal. She’d probably tried to reason with the looters. Perhaps she had offered them a hand up to help themselves out. Instead, Rick guessed, they had simply helped themselves … to whatever she had and, probably, to her as well.
Although, Rick avoided occupied buildings, he knew many looters did not. They simply overwhelmed the inhabitants by numbers or force and took whatever they wanted. Usually the men and children were killed and sold for meat, or left to starve if the looters weren’t connected with a meat market, and the older girls and women were raped before being either left for dead or sold. Rape … pillage … burn … well, not always burn, but sometimes. Most of his competitors were barbarians, Rick reflected. He considered himself a gentleman by comparison.
Rick’s reflective mood carried him in the direction of his own family. He hadn’t thought about his wife and kids for quite some time. He hoped they were well. Rick bore no ill will towards his wife for leaving him. They had simply disagreed about the best way to survive – leave for what Rick’s wife assumed was the relative safety of rural America or stay and hope to survive in a suburban area.
“I don’t think either of us was 100% right or wrong,” Rick murmured aloud. “I hope they’re still alive. I hope they haven’t been found by some greasy band of violent looters.”
The owl continued its incessant call. Rick was tempted to shoot the owl to shut it up … until the still-rational portion of his brain kicked in and warned him that the shot would bring far more unwanted attention than the owl.
As he finished his jerky, Rick took a swig of water from his military surplus canteen and then relieved himself at the base of the tree where the owl sat.
The owl flapped its wings and flew off into the coal-black night. Rick raised the middle finger on his left hand and pointed it in the general direction of the owl’s flight path. As he did so, the package that had held his jerky fluttered to the ground.