Patrick stood on the edge, looking out at the wilderness. What was once lush farmland had turned into desolation. Nature had barely begun the task of reclaiming what had once belonged to it. Behind him were the small collection of houses, shacks really, that used to be his home. The wind caused Patrick to shiver as it brought tendrils of smokes to surround him, carrying with it the smell of cooking meat.
He took a moment to look at what he was leaving behind. There had been good times and more than a few moments of pleasure but that had all come to an end. Now there was nothing left for him and it was time to move on. He adjusted his old grey backpack until it was comfortable and began his trek.
The roads were still the fastest way to travel despite the derelict cars that clogged them up. They were just rusting hulks now that hadn’t moved in over a decade. Some areas were worse than others. Drivers had panicked, ploughing into each other in their desperation to reach safety. It created large barricades of twisted metal that Patrick would usually go around, except for when they occurred on bridges or raised sections of the freeway. There they needed to be negotiated slowly and carefully, since even the smallest edge could now cause a deadly infection. Patrick had long ago learned the safest paths through the closest barricades and passed through them quickly.
He continued along the ancient pathway, passing petrol stations whose tanks had long since run dry. More than a few of them had been burned to the ground. While there was every chance that lightening was responsible, Patrick knew that some men just liked to see something burn.
On he walked, passed golden arches that no longer provided any happy meals. Had there ever been a time when food was so plentiful that even the bins had been full? It seemed more like a dream than a memory, though for the longest time he had been able to scavenge the abundant food that still remained. The years had taken their toll and it no longer worth bothering to investigate them. Anything of value had either been found long ago, or wasted away.
But this trip would be different. He had no plans to return and planned to venture beyond where he had already explored. Chances were that everywhere else would be just as picked clean but he had to see for himself. Until he had, he would still harbour hopes of finding what he needed.
Most of the day was spent talking through familiar territory. As dusk approached he looked for a place he could spend the night, and located one that he had used before. It was well hidden, hard to get to and easily defended, making it the perfect spot to sleep without being disturbed. He took the time to layout his precautions. Tin cans connected to trip wires that would provide a warning if someone was approaching. Despite this, he still slept fitfully. Throughout the night he woke, each time checking that he was safe and that his traps were undisturbed, before settling back down for another hour or two of sleep.
The next day proceeded much like the first. Mile after mile he made his way through areas that he knew well. It was only when he came to another barricade that he didn’t recognise that he realised he had ventured into virgin territory. He took extra care navigating it, careful to test his weight on each foothold before trusting it to hold him. Any sharp edges he covered with a thick piece of leather, which he picked up again after he had squeezed past. It took him longer than any other barricade, but in the end he managed it without any mishaps.
Even after realising he had entered new territory he continued to make his way forward without stopping. He wanted to put as much distance behind him as he could before he started scavenging, which meant spending at least another night out here. It took him a while to find an appropriate place to camp, mostly because he was reluctant to sleep somewhere unknown. In the end, he picked the most promising location, set out his tin cans and hoped for the best. His sleep was more fitful than usual but he might it through the night.
The following day he came to his first real decision on the trip. A road split off from the freeway, heading towards a town called Fairhaven, according to a sign. It was the first turnoff he had come across since passing into the unknown area, and without knowing what lay ahead on the freeway, he decided to investigate.
He had been walking for a couple of hours when he discovered a reason to rue his decision. The road came to a river that looked at least two hundred metres wide and flowing steadily. Patrick hadn’t been the best of swimmers and now he was long out of practice. Spanning the river was what once might have been a truss bridge but had collapsed into a pile of metal and concrete. It still went from one side of the river to the other, with enough support to keep it above the water, but the path across was more like trying to traverse one of the barricades then strolling across a bridge.
Patrick wasn’t keen on backtracking but nor did he want to brave crossing what remained of the bridge. He was about to turn back when he noticed the foot tracks. He had actually noticed them when he took the turn off, but hadn’t given it any thought. After all, there were tracks everywhere and these were at least a few months old. What interested him about them was that they all approached the bridge, wandered up and down the river a little bit, and then headed back the way they had come. So if everyone had come to the same conclusion that what was left of the bridge was too risky to cross, then perhaps the town on the other side had remained untouched. It wasn’t a lot to go on, and actually went against his need to find more people, but it intrigued him. Not to mention finding useful things to trade would help to build trust.
Patrick decided to give the bridge a try but at the first sign of danger he would back off. It proved slow going. There was one beam that went most of the way along, so he set off along it. He tested his weight first, jumping up and down a few times, and when it held his weight he began to cross. Progress was slow as he took extra care and inched along. As he approached the end of the beam, he felt it begin to bend under his weight.
He thought about turning back but realised that he had already come too far. Ten meters ahead of him was a stable part of the road, stretching out to the remains of the bridge. In between was the worst part of the jumble. There were a couple of spots that might serve as footholds but only if he got the chance to test them first. The sound of the bream creaking as it continued to bend under him made him realise that he would not get that chance.
As the beam finally snapped he took a leap to the closest of the possible footholds, a patch of road held up by steel girders. His relief lasted only a moment as more groans and creaks began to sound. The perch began to sink and topple to one side, so he quickly looked for the next possible spot and made the leap to it. He paused for just a moment as it too started to fail and leaped again.
By now the whole section was starting to collapse and each leap was just enough to keep him from going down with it. The last spot he landed on was already below the section of road, so he used it to leap up as high as he could and grab a hold as the whole jumbled remains of the bridge fell into the river and were swept away.
He hung there for a moment to catch his breath, thankful it was strong enough to hold his weight. Pulling himself up, he turned and looked back at the large gap separating him from the rest of the bridge. Now more than ever he knew there was no turning back. After a quick check to make sure he hadn’t cut himself, he resumed his walk along the road.
It only took a couple of hours for him to reach the edge of the town, passing a sign that proclaimed a population of 14,303. He wondered if there were that many people left in the whole country. As he entered the town he became more careful, adopting simple habits that he didn’t even think about anymore. Walking in the shadows, moving silently and pausing to survey an area before crossing it had all helped to keep him alive this long.
The town itself was like so many others he had been in before. It had the usual make up on buildings, pub, supermarket and petrol station, but they were different to the ones he had seen before. While they still had the broken windows and cracked walls, it seemed the result of neglect rather than the deliberate destruction typical of everywhere else. He had to quash an overwhelming urge to rush and check what they might still contain. Now was when he needed to be the most careful.
The first significant building he came to was the library. Being devoid of food people thought they weren’t worth scavenging but Patrick knew how much power they contained. When he went inside, it was complete chaos. The shelves had been knocked over, leaving all the books in a jumble. The large sunroof was broken, allowing the weather to saturate and scatter the books. Some around the edge appeared to have escaped the worst of the damage but it would still take far too long to sort through them for something useful, like a book on farming or first aid.
As he was leaving he noticed a book on the ground, Less than Zero. There were times that he felt like that, so on a whim he picked up and made room for it in his backpack. If worse comes to worse, he could always throw it away later.
Next, Patrick headed for the supermarket. He couldn’t remember the last time that he had found something useful in one but it was a habit to check them first now. Walking through the double doors that had only a few tenacious shards of glass clinging to them, he made his way to one of the checkout lines. The cash register was still full of notes and coins but contained nothing of use. The shelves were devoid of edible food, but what Patrick found interesting was that so much of it had been allowed to rot. Everywhere there were piles of mould that spread a rotten stench throughout the building. Patrick wasn’t surprised to see the canned food had been picked clean so he moved on to checking out the pet aisle. It still amazed him how long the taboo against eating pet food had lasted. Even after the first brutal winter, when people were starving in the streets, he had still been able to find a few cans of Whiskers here and there.
As he turned into the aisle he heard a low growl and he froze. A blue heeler, just above knee high, was standing in the middle. Surrounding it were piles of dog food cans, some of which had the dog had clawed open with its deadly claws. Its hair was patchy and more grey than blue now. Scars and festering wounds dotted its body and it was missing half of one of its ears. Around its neck hung a frayed piece of leather that might have once been a collar.
It had its teeth bared, saliva dropping, as it continued to growl at Patrick. He thought about just backing away from the danger but he couldn’t just leave what he needed, even if it wouldn’t completely satisfy him. Slowly he unsheathed his hunting knife. “Easy there boy. No reason why can’t share this food. I’ll even open some of those cans for you.” Patrick didn’t know if it was the calm way he was speaking or if deep down the dog remembered a time when humans were its friend, but it stopped growling. It turned its head to side and its remaining ear perked up. “That’s it. We’ll be great friends.” The dog took a tentative step towards him, followed by another. Soon it came close enough for Patrick to reach down and give it a scratch. It twisted around so he could get the right spot, wagging its tail when he did so. Patrick took the opportunity to give it a hug, causing the dog to wag its tail harder, thumping against his leg.
Suddenly Patrick tightened his grip, trapping the dog. He drew his knife across the dog’s throat, holding it tight as it struggled against him. Its struggles grew weaker as its blood flowed out across the floor. Patrick felt the familiar tingle as he watched the dog’s life force slip away and shivered. He laid the body back onto the floor, “Sorry boy.” He set to work dressing the carcass, hands moving methodically with a long practiced skill. When he was done he stored the fresh meat in his backpack along with some of the cans.
Since there was still too many cans left over for him to carry, Patrick searched for some place he could hide them. An office in the back had an air duct that was tricky to get to. By shifting the table and stacking some training manuals, he was able to reach it and hide the rest of the cans inside. After he was done, he returned the room to how it was. There was no guarantee that they would still be here when he returned, if he returned, but it was nice to know that he had a little cache stored away.
After checking that there wasn’t anything else of value in the supermarket, he made his way back out. As he was leaving the supermarket he paused to read the community notice board. There were notices for the upcoming school fete and calls to form a neighbourhood watch meeting to combat the rising crime. He almost laughed at the petition calling for a reduction in carbon emissions in order to save the planet.
One notice caught his attention. A new factory outlet had opened just outside town, selling solar power systems direct to the public. Fully automated, simple to setup and able to provide nearly half a household’s electrical needs, all for just $9,999 after government rebate.
He grabbed the notice as he left and followed the small map that was printed on it. The route took him out of the town proper, passing more intact buildings that he wanted to investigate further, but he forced himself to keep to his current goal.
Patrick knew that he had arrived at the right spot by the large number of solar panels that were installed on its roof. Just as promising was how intact many of them looked, with just a few broken by what looked like storm damage. When he saw the loading bay was open he couldn’t resist any longer and, abandoning his normally careful approach, he jogged over to it.
Inside was complete carnage, on a much larger scale than the library. The metal shelves had also been knocked over, but being five times as large, they had created an even bigger mess. It was a huge tangle of metal, cardboard and electrical equipment, all smashed together, stretching from one end of the warehouse to the other.
“Hello there,” a voice called out from the shadow, causing Patrick to jump. He recovered and went on guard, scanning for the source. Standing on top of one of the piles was a young man, probably still a teenager. The long brown coat he was wearing had blended in with the cardboard boxes. Patrick stared at the young man, trying to work out what was different about him.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the young man. “It’s quite a mess isn’t it?” Patrick realise that it was the combination of little things. While his hair was also shoulder length, it was been neatly cut. His clothing had been sewn and patched up, not frayed and full of holes. Most of all, they clung tightly to his filled out frame, not hanging loose over skin and bones. The young man’s look changes to one of concern. “Are you ok? Jacinta said that there were still people out here on their own.”
Patrick’s mind raced to find the appropriate response. “No. I mean yes. I’m ok but I haven’t been alone. You just surprised me is all.”
The young man gave a laugh, “You startled me as well.” He began picking his way down the pile.
Patrick reached for his knife but stopped when he realised that it wasn’t an attack. “I thought the down was deserted. Didn’t realise there were still people living here.”
“Oh, I don’t live here. I’m from Greenville, up north.”
Patrick wrinkled his eyebrow “Greenville? Never heard of it.”
“Really?” the young man said. “It’s the biggest town in the area.”
Patrick just shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess since I grew up there, it’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t heard of it.”
“So what are you doing here then?” When the young man’s smile wavered, Patrick realised how harsh he had sounded. “Sorry. I’m not really used to dealing with people.”
The young man’s smile returned. “Don’t worry about it. As for what I’m doing here, I still like to scavenge for stuff. There is still so much just lying around. Not to mention that it’s a nice break from farming duty. How about you? You on a break also?”
Patrick put a smile on his face. “Something like that. It feels more comfortable out here for me, and seems to be the best source for my needs.”
“For sure. I have to say, I’ve never found anything like this.” The young man made the last jump down to the ground where Patrick was standing. “I’ve only heard stories about what it was like to have electricity. The old guys are going to be stoked when they hear about this.”
Patrick didn’t answer right away. Instead he scanned the warehouse, trying to estimate if anything might have survive the destruction. The young man noticed him looking around. “Listen man, I’m not sure how big a town you come from, but from what I’ve seen so far, there’s more here than mine could use. The way I see it, we both arrived on the same day so we’re equally entitled to them. I’m happy to split it, fifty fifty.”
Patrick’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the young man. “That’s a pretty generous offer, especially since you were here first.”
“Well, Jacinta always says that it’s better to share and work together. In the long run you’ll both gain far more than what either of you might in the short term by being selfish. I think she’d approve of this.”
Patrick considered the man young man carefully. “This Jacinta sounds quite wise. I look forward to meeting her one day. As to your offer, it sounds more than fair, but perhaps we should see if any of these things actually works first.”
The young man gave him a big grin. “Sounds like a plan. I was just trying to work out how to get one out. Good thing you turned up when you did.”
“Yes, quite fortunate. Shall we get started?”
They set to work shifting the shelves, manhandling them out of the way to get at the boxes underneath. They took it in turns to lift the weight while the other pulled out any intact looking parts from underneath. They scrambled over the piles, grabbing anything that wasn’t damaged too badly.
Patrick was on top of the pile, holding up a sheet of metal so that the young man could grab the parts underneath it. When the young man was clear, Patrick let go of the sheet. It fell with a clang, causing a small gust of wind, along with a shifting in the pile that threw him off balance. He teetered on the edge, about to fall into the jagged metal when the young man’s hand shot out and grabbed him. It held him tight until Patrick steadied himself. “Thanks,” he said.
“Anytime,” the young man said, giving him a nod and a smile.
They returned to work and soon had all the various parts they needed. They carried them outside so they would have room to work. The young man held the manual in his hands, turning it this way and that as he looked at it. Patrick took it from his hands, turned it the right way up, and began to read it out loud. The young man set to work following the instruction.
Piece by piece the system took form. When they were finished, a series of solar panels were laid out before them. Patrick finished connecting the last wires from the panels to the control board. He looked at it for a moment then held it out to the young man. “Why don’t you do the honours?”
The young man looked surprised but then he grinned. “Are you sure?”
Patrick nodded. “Just turn the dial and everything should start up.”
The young man took a deep breath and turned the dial. Nothing happened. His shoulders slumped as he let out his breath. “I felt sure we were onto something. Something really big.”
They weren’t looking at the board when the first light flickered on so they missed it at first. As is it grew steadily brighter they took notice and stared at it. It was joined by other lights until the whole board was lit up.
The young man jumped up. “It works, it really works,” he yelled. He flung his arms around Patrick in a hug. Patrick was surprised at first, but then he reciprocated and wrapped his arms around the young man.
“I’m sorry,” Patrick said. The young man just looked at him quizzically before it was replaced by a look of surprise. He slumped in Patrick’s arms, who then laid him down on the ground. As he pulled his knife from the young man’s back, Patrick felt the familiar, sweet, tingle, rush through his body. His shivered with pleasure, enjoying every minute of it. When it finally subsided, he cleaned his knife on the young man’s shirt and returned it to its sheath.
Patrick realised that he should have found out more details about the young man’s town. Still, he knew it was to the north and that there were other towns in the area. Other places where he could find what he needed.
He picked up his backpack, adjusting it until it was comfortable, and began his trek.
• Still not sure about the name Patrick, especially in combination with the book he picks up. Feels a little heavy handed, so open to other suggestions (I happened to be reading American Psycho at the time). I did originally want to keep him nameless, hence the title, but it became a little awkward in the scenes dealing with the young man. Any suggestions on this would be appreciated.
• How is the pacing of the story and its length?
• Is it a believable post-apocalyptic world? Does it need more or less detail to help establish this?
• Any continuity type errors or lack of logic in the events.
• Any other thoughts or suggestions?