Eventually, I wiggled my way out of a large cement tube that emptied into a weed-choked ditch, almost sliding on my stomach to get through the pipe. Sometimes there were perks to being very skinny. Wringing nasty warm water from my clothes, I stood up and gazed around.
Over the rows of dilapidated roofs, past the barren, razed field of the kill zone, I could see the Outer Wall rising up in its dark, deadly glory. For some reason, it always looked strange from this side. The sun hovered between the towers in the center of the city, gleaming off their mirrored walls.
There were still a few good hours left to hunt, but I needed to work fast.
Past the kill zone, sprawled out like a gray-green, suburban carpet, the remains of the old suburbs waited for me in the fading afternoon light. I vaulted up the bank and slipped into the ruins of a dead civilization.
Scavenging the ruins was tricky. They say there used to be massive stores that had rows and rows of food, clothes and all kinds of other things. They were enormous and easily iden-tified by their wide, sprawling parking lots. But you didn't want to look there, because they were the first to be picked clean when everything went bad. Nearly sixty years after the plague, the only things left behind were gutted-out walls and empty shelves. The same was true of smaller food marts and gas stations. Nothing was left. I'd wasted many hours searching through those buildings to come up empty-handed every time, so now I didn't bother.
But the normal residences, the rows of rotting, dilapidated houses along the crumbling streets, were a different story.
Because here's something interesting I've learned about the human race: we like to hoard. Call it stockpiling, call it paranoia, call it preparing for the worst-the houses were far more likely to have food stashed away in cellars or buried deep in closets. You just had to ferret it out.
The f loorboards creaked as I eased through the door of my fifth or sixth hopeful-a two-story house surrounded by a warped chain-link fence and nearly swallowed up by ivy, windows broken, porch strangled under vines and weeds. The roof and part of the upper f loor had fallen in, and faint rays of light filtered through the rotten beams. The air was thick with the smell of mold, dust and vegetation, and the house seemed to hold its breath as I stepped inside.
I searched the kitchen first, rummaging through cupboards, opening drawers, even checking the ancient refrigerator in the corner. Nothing. A few rusty forks, an empty tin can, a broken mug. All stuff I'd seen before. In one bedroom, the closets were empty, the dresser overturned, a large oval mirror shattered on the f loor. The blankets and sheets had been stripped from the bed, and a suspicious dark blot stained one side of the mattress. I didn't wonder what it might be. You don't wonder about things like that. You just move on.
In the second bedroom, which was not quite as ravaged as the first, an old crib stood in the corner, filmy and covered in cobwebs. I eased around it, deliberately not looking inside the peeling bars, to the once-white shelves on the wall.
A shattered lamp stood on one shelf, but beneath it, I saw a familiar, dust-covered rectangle.
Picking it up, I wiped away the film and cobwebs, scanning the title at the top. Goodnight, Moon, it read, and I smiled ruefully. I wasn't here for books, and I needed to remember that. If I brought this home instead of say, food, Lucas would be furious, and we'd probably fight about it, again.
Maybe I was being too hard on him. It wasn't that he was stupid, just practical. He was more concerned with survival than learning a skill that was useless in his eyes. But I couldn't give up just because he was being stubborn. If I could get him to read, maybe we could start teaching other Fringers, kids like us. And maybe, just maybe, that would be enough to start...something. I didn't know what, but there had to be something better than just survival.
I'd tucked the book under my arm, filled with a new resolve, when a soft clink made me freeze. Something was in the house with me, moving around just outside the bedroom door.
Very carefully, I laid the book back on the shelf without disturbing the dust. I'd come back for it later, if I survived whatever was coming.
Slipping my hand into my pocket, I gripped my knife and slowly turned. Shadows moved through the sickly light coming from the living room, and the faint, tapping steps echoed just outside the doorway. I f lipped the knife blade open and stepped backward, pressing myself against the wall and the dresser, my heart thudding against my ribs. As a dark shape paused just outside the door, I heard slow, labored panting, and held my breath.
A deer stepped into the frame.
My gut and throat unclenched, though I didn't immediately relax. Wildlife was common enough in the city ruins, though why a deer would be wandering around a human house, I didn't know. Straightening, I blew out a slow breath, causing the doe to jerk her head up, peering in my direction, as if she couldn't quite see what was there.
My stomach growled, and for a moment, I had visions of sidling up to the deer and plunging the blade into her neck.
You almost never saw meat of any kind in the Fringe. Rat and mouse were highly prized, and I've seen nasty, bloody fights over a dead pigeon. There were a few stray dogs and cats running around the Fringe, but they were wild, vicious creatures that, unless you wanted to risk an infected bite, were best left alone. The guards also had leave to shoot any animal found wandering about the streets, and usually did, so meat of any kind was extremely scarce.
A whole deer carcass, cut into strips and dried, would feed me and my crew for a month. Or I could trade cuts for meal tickets, blankets, new clothes, whatever I wanted. Just thinking about it made my stomach growl again, and I shifted my weight to one leg, ready to ease forward. As soon as I moved, the deer would probably bolt out the door, but I had to try.
But then, the doe looked right at me, and I saw the thin streams of blood oozing from her eyes, spotting the f loor.
My blood ran cold. No wonder she wasn't afraid. No wonder she had followed me here and was watching me with the f lat, glazed stare of a predator. She had been bitten by a rabid.
And the disease had driven her mad.
I took a quiet breath to slow my heartbeat, trying not to panic. This was bad. The doe was blocking the door, so there was no way I could go through her without risking an attack.
Her eyes hadn't turned completely white yet, so the sickness was still in its beginning stages. Hopefully if I kept calm, I could get out of here without being trampled to death.
The doe snorted and tossed her head, the jerky movement causing her to stumble into the door frame. Another effect of the sickness; diseased animals seemed confused and unco-ordinated one moment but could switch to hyper-aggressive fury in the blink of an eye. I gripped my knife and eased to the side, toward the broken window along the wall.
The doe raised her head, rolling her eyes, and gave a raspy growl unlike anything I'd ever heard from a deer. I saw her muscles bunching up to charge, and I bolted for the window.
The deer lunged into the room, snorting, hooves f lailing in deadly arcs. One of them caught my thigh as I darted past, a glancing blow, but it felt like someone had hit it with a hammer. The doe crashed into the far wall, overturning a shelf, and I threw myself out the window.
Scrambling through the weeds, I ran for a partially collapsed shed in the corner of the backyard. The roof had fallen in, and vines completely covered the rotting walls, but the doors were still intact. I squeezed through the frame and ducked into a corner, panting, listening for sounds of pursuit.
For the moment, everything was silent. After my heartbeat returned to normal, I peered through a crack between boards and could just make out the doe's dark form still in the room, stumbling about in confusion, occasionally attacking the mattress or broken dresser, blind in her rage. Okay, then. I would just sit tight until psycho deer calmed down and wandered away. Hopefully, that would be before the sun went down. I needed to head back to the city soon.
Easing away from the wall, I turned to observe the shed, wondering if anything useful was still intact. There didn't seem to be much: a few collapsed shelves, a handful of rusty nails that I quickly pocketed, and a strange, squat machine with four wheels and a long handle that looked like you'd push it around. To what end, I hadn't a clue.
I noticed a hole in the planks beneath the strange machine and shoved it back, revealing a trapdoor underneath.
It had been sealed with a heavy padlock, now so rusty a key would've been useless, but the f loorboards themselves were rotten and falling apart. I easily pried up several planks to make a big enough hole and found a set of folding steps leading down into the darkness.
Gripping my knife, I descended into the hole.
It was dark in the basement, but at least an hour of broad daylight remained, enough to filter in through the hole and the cracks in the ceiling above me. I stood in a small, cool room, concrete lining the walls and f loor, a lightbulb with a string dangling overhead. The walls were lined with wooden shelves, and on those shelves, dozens upon dozens of cans winked at me in the dim light. My heart stood still.
Lunging forward, I snatched the nearest can off the shelf, sending three others clattering to the f loor in my excitement.
The can had a faded label wrapped around it, but I didn't bother trying to figure out the words. Digging out my knife, I jammed the blade into the top and attacked the tin furiously, sawing at the metal with shaking hands.
A sweet, heavenly aroma arose from inside, and my hunger roared to life in response, making me slightly dizzy. Food! Real food! Prying back the lid, I barely took the time to glance at the contents-some kind of mushy fruit in a slimy liquid-
before I dumped the whole thing back and into my mouth.
The sweetness shocked me, cloyingly thick and pulpy, unlike anything I'd tasted before. In the Fringe, fruit and vegetables were almost unheard of. I drank the entire thing without pause, feeling it settle in my empty stomach, and grabbed another can.
This one contained beans in more glistening liquid, and I devoured that, too, scooping the red mush out with my fingers. I went through another can of fruit slime, a can of creamed corn, and a small tin of sausage links the size of my finger, before I finally slowed down enough to think.
I'd stumbled upon a treasure trove, one so vast it was staggering. These kinds of hidden caches were the stuff of legends, and here I was, standing in the middle of one. With my stomach full-a rare sensation-I started exploring, taking stock of what was here.
Nearly one whole wall was dedicated to cans, but there was so much variety, according to the different labels. Most were too faded or torn to read, but I was still able to pick out a lot of canned vegetables, fruit, beans and soup. There were also cans containing strange foods I'd never heard of. Spa Gettee Ohs, and Rah Vee Oh Lee, and other weird things. Shelved in with the cans were boxes containing squarish bundles of something wrapped in shiny, silvery paper. I had no idea what they were, but if the answer was more food, I wasn't complaining.
The opposite wall had dozens of clear gallon water jugs, a few propane tanks, one of those portable green stoves I'd seen Hurley use, and a gas lantern. Whoever set this place up sure wasn't taking any chances, for all the good it did them in the end.
Well, thanks, mysterious person. You sure made my life a lot easier.
My mind raced, considering my options. I could keep this place a secret, but why? There was enough food here to feed my whole gang for months. I scanned the room, pondering how I wanted to do this. If I told Lucas about this place, the four of us-me, Rat, Lucas and Stick-could come back and take everything in one fell swoop. It would be dangerous, but for this amount of food, it would be worth it.