In the morning, the friends found themselves not in warm beds but in a freezing tent. Their body heat seeped out through the thin shell of second-hand polyester. Benj, first to wake, tiptoed out of the tent, letting in a draft.
Nat, comfortably warm between a dun-coloured wolf and a golden yellow wolf, indifferently watched Benj’s coal grey wolf leave. Hazy consciousness flitted at the edges of his sight. White paws. Monstrously huge, fluffy paws with sharp claws.
The wolf nuzzled in, tucking his front paws around his back legs. A massive tail flopped on his nose, warming up the frozen tip.
Nat sat up, gasping for air, clothes under him. “What the absolute fracking hell?”
Yeller’s golden wolf twisted, a half-opened eye regarding him dismissively.
“Sorry, sorry.” Nat pulled his pants out from under him to cover himself and shot out of the tent. He tripped on the tent zipper and found out the concrete was covered in an inch of snow and ice by way of his face hitting pavement. “Crap.” He tugged on his clothes and shook the snow from his hair. Bare feet shot pins and needles up his legs. Staring through the roofless building, he watched the clouds shift colours with the sunrise while he contemplated if he wanted his shoes badly enough to go back into a tent full of wolves.
The golden wolf emerged from the tent and dropped a pair of combat boots at Nat’s feet. It went back and fetched Yeller’s clothes. The man took over his physical body from the wolf and shifted into the emo Viking. His black and green hair dye had disappeared with the first transformation. Ash-blonde curls fell loosely about a pair of built shoulders. Nat cleared his throat and walked out of the concrete shelter to go look for kindling.
Benj joined up with Nat at the edge of the woods to strip dead trees of dry limbs. “You doing alright? Look like you saw a ghost.”
“Nope. I’m good. Just woke up as a wolf. Nothing weird about that.” Nat twisted a tree limb until it snapped off. Snow dumped on him from the disturbed evergreen.
“I have to wonder how long it’ll take to get used to that.” Benj kicked at the snow in search of any fallen branches.
“Anything you find under that is going to be too wet to light or rotten, then it’ll just smoke.” Nat broke apart his branch into smaller pieces.
“Oh. Really? It’s so much easier to find, though.” Benj followed Nat deeper into the forest.
“Great way to find edible lichens and dormant mushrooms.” A deeper voice greeted them.
“Maidin mhaith.” Nat pulled another limb from a dead tree, this time watching for the snow.
“Dia dhaoibh ar maidin. I piled up a batch outside the shelter last night. We won’t be here too long this morning, so come on back.” Yeller took the bundle of twigs and branches from Nat.
“Well, that’s helpful. Alright.” Benj headed back for the concrete building, Nat and Yeller close behind.
Deck had a fire smoking in the burn barrel by the time they escaped the snow and leaf litter.
“Glad you brought matches.” Yeller held his hands to the tiny ember.
“Meh, they were in there. Actually, now that I think of it, this isn’t even my coat. It’s your old one from high school, Yeller.” Deck held out his arms in the welding jacket. He was roughly six foot and burly like a bouncer, whereas Yeller, though taller by three inches, was leaner in the shoulder, but the coat still swamped the ex-footballer. Deck had always been into competitive sports. His varsity coat came to mind as one more thing that he had given up on in leaving Jenton. He snickered to himself. The Huskies, that was their mascot back at school.
“What are you laughing at?” Sun Hee pressed up next to him. He ran a hand along the fringe of her hair. A flush to her cheeks caught his attention, but he stored the thought in the back of his mind.
“I was laughing at the irony of our old team mascot.” His teeth gleamed. Sun Hee quirked an eyebrow and turned to her brother in confusion. A smile crossed her lips, and a giggle took hold. The thought dawned on the rest of the team. Nat snickered, and Yeller rolled with the idea. Zola looked at them, exasperated. Benj shrugged his shoulders; a broad flash of a toothy smile made her giggle too.
The fire burned weakly, barely strong enough to get the chill out of their hands and faces. The sticks smouldered rapidly, and soon the fire was a bunch of coals, and the group was on their way down the road.
Two days after they left the picnic stop, they passed into city lines. Their rations were almost gone, forcing them to skip out on meals.
The sign outside the city was warped and twisted with splits in the metal. Rust pitted the edges. The white lettering on the green background peeled away, leaving dark. The reflector buttons had cracked and fallen away. Portland.
The city looked nothing like it once did. The buildings were either burnt or decaying. It had been one of the early bombings, back at the beginning of the drought. Skyscrapers were falling in upon themselves. Some of the buildings were smouldering and belching smoke into the indifferent grey expanse. The sky behind the cityscape was ashen mottled flesh, and the sun setting in the distance shot blood through the clouds. The War had been to the city and left it to an open grave. It was a corpse, bleeding its heart out to the cold sun. A sacrifice among many.
Slowly, the group made their way beyond the mounds of rubble and into an operating section of town.
“How long have we walked?” Sun Hee asked as she rubbed her arms briskly, trying to bring circulation back into them. Her feet ached, and her legs were numb to the touch.
They hadn’t eaten much since they had left Jenton, and her stomach no longer rumbled; instead, it burned continuously in a plea to be filled. Snow had quenched it only for so long, but now a meal would be good. She patted at her pocket, the one over her heart where, in the inside pocket, she kept her small wallet that held the group’s entire cash hoard, $416.23. She looked at Benj and then at Deck and Yeller. Nat and Zola had dropped behind the group and were discussing what it had been like when the art museum that they had passed was open. Now the building was in complete ruins. Art had been ripped from the walls. What was worthwhile had been sold; everything else had been destroyed.
“How many miles, or how many days, Sun Hee?” Yeller defined sarcastically. He, too, was grouchy and in pain; he wanted to sit in a warm house with a fire and a tall cup of coffee. The calves of his pants were soaked through with the freeze, and he was thankful for his waterproof hiking boots. Clothes would become a necessity eventually, but for now, food.
Sun Hee glanced at him sharply, not in the mood for his quip. “How many miles,” Sun Hee retorted as she stopped and sat down on a rubble pile and emptied one of her boots of rocks and water. The wind bit into her heavy wool socks, and she quickly slid on her boot again. She wiped the mud from her hands onto her jeans, no longer caring that they were designer jeans that her mom had saved up for three months to buy for her. Her mom was gone; her dad was gone. She had cried her eyes out until she was empty and hollow inside. The only thing that took up that open space was the wolf now. The store where the jeans were bought had burned to cinders. The jeans were warm and kept under the onslaught of freezing sleet and snow. They were no longer fashionable, just functional.
“Maybe fifteen miles,” Benj estimated, helping his sister up after she got her boot back on.
“Is that all?” she muttered, her shoulders slumping. They wandered into Portland, wary of their step. Skeletal remains poked from under crushed metal and concrete. There hadn’t been enough people or enough sympathy to save and bury the damned and the dead. The buildings had been entirely stripped of paint and left in grey bent metal abstract sculptures. Shattered glass glittered in the streets. Windowpanes yawned wide with razor-sharp teeth.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Zola confided as she moved closer to her cousin. He wrapped one arm around her and pulled her under the warmth of his long welding coat. Nat closed rank on her other side, boxing her in to reassure her.
“Come on, we need to find somewhere to rest and dry out,” Benj encouraged. He shuffled down a side street, glancing at door frames and alleys he passed.
“Hey genius, all these places are going to be as cold as it is out here. Where do you think we should stop?” his sister barked sarcastically. Dark alleys raised her hackles. The city reeked of piss, mould, and gas. She lept away from a loud bang of a massive icicle falling from a building, hitting a metal dumpster. She was exhausted and done with the place.
Deck reached for her, pulling her under his arm as he put himself between her and the dumpster. “Sunny, play nice. We’re all in the same spot as you,” Deck bit out between chapped lips.
She recoiled and lowered her head to her brother. “Sorry.”
“We’re all tired; it’s okay.” Benj blew hot air into his gloves for the momentary heat while he eyed Deck’s manhandling of his little sister. She had calmed under the man’s touch.
Benj left off to his own with everyone else buddying up for warmth, flinched at a touch to his hand. Nat pulled him back to their group and moved Zola over to him. She chewed on her lip at the sudden change and tried to hide a smile when Benj wrapped his arm around her.
“Hey! My hand warmer!” Yeller protested the cold.
“I’m warm,” Nat offered.
Yeller side-eyed him. “I’m good.”
Building after building, they tried to find a deserted space out of the wind, but every turn they made, they found another group of people who told them to scram. Hours passed, and thunder boomed low in the sky above their heads. Icy wind howled through the streets, gnawing at the group. Sleet drizzled down the walls of the buildings, creating murky puddles on the roads. The pavement turned treacherous in the muck.
Yeller spotted an empty east-west alleyway close to seven in the evening. The burned-out buildings on either side of the scrawny throughway were tall enough to hide them from the wind. The group scuttled to a concreted alcove that had once been a backdoor. Nat sighed as he leaned against the wall. The group looked up in horror when he sloughed to the ground.
“Nat, Nat! Are you okay?” Deck skittered over to his best friend. Nat had gone ghostly white. All the blood had drained from his face to leave behind trails of green and blue. His lips had turned a light shade of purple.
Benj reached for his hand and pulled the scarf away from the cut. It was wet and crusting a honey puss. The bright red mangled skin around it was hot to the touch. His breathing was clipped and shallow. Yeller squatted down next to them and laid a hand on Nat’s forehead. Unfocused green eyes rolled under half lids. “I knew it,” Benj whispered to himself.
“This is bad,” Yeller confirmed what Benj was thinking.
“It’s gotten infected.” Benj prodded carefully. Nat recoiled, wincing in pain as he tried to take back possession of his hand. Benj kept hold of it, testing Nat’s waning strength. The waif gave up too quickly for his liking.
“Where can we find a doc?” Yeller asked as Deck helped him heft Nat onto his back. “You’re gonna have to hold on, Nat,” Yeller directed. Nat curled an arm around his shoulder in a feeble effort to do what he was told. He slumped lethargically. Deck kept his hand on his back to steady him from slipping off. “Damn it, not again.” Yeller pressed at his cheeks as tears threatened.
“And Sun Hee needs to be seen.” Benj caught her attention. She looked up at him apprehensively. “If we can find a doctor. You look like you caught something. Colds and flu were manageable before everything fell to pot. If you or Nat need, we’ll stop moving about and let you rest, ‘kay?” He offered his shoulder to the swaying form, and they moved on.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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