The dust was thick everywhere, a blanket of folded lint that choked the sound out of the air. My mask was heavy; with sweat, with tears, with the burden of having to be out there in the first place, rummaging through the debris of a broken world.
There was a display rack, the carousel kind that you could spin, near the front counter. It was festooned with keychains and little nameplates, a tchotchke Christmas tree for a morning that would never come. A dull charm caught my eye, and I pulled it free to hold it in my gloved palm. A yellowed print of a grey kitten lay under a thick blob of transparent resin. It looked like it was about to pounce through its plastic prison at a mouse only it could see. I was filled with such overwhelming sadness that I dropped to my knees and clutched the ancient trinket to my chest.
After a time, I snuffled and rose. I clipped the thing to my rifle, and moved on.
I had to shoot a deer today. The rations I'd been given for the hunt had run out three sleeps too soon, but I'd been out in the wild for seven or eight too many. The pickings had been slim, and I'd gone out even further than ever before. There was a system; a hierarchy for the things we could scavenge. Canned goods sat at the top, just above the dried or preserved. Preserves were tricky, though. It was all tricky, truth be told. You never knew if the stuff inside the tins or jars would kill you. None of us were experts on what spoiled looked or smelled like. I found that the hungrier you got, the less you cared. Better to die with a full belly, even if you died puking it empty. Anyway, fresh meat was at the bottom of our little checklist. The air did something funny to it, then eating it did something funny to you. Thing was, no one ever really laughed. It was better not to think of it, better still not to handle meat. But sometimes you didn't have a choice. Hunger peeled choices away, slow like, and you could see them curl up and fall away like wood shavings under a chisel.
Hunger was a chisel.
An elder from a nomadic tribe had taught me how to hunt. I never learned his name. Their language was hard enough to understand as it was. They didn't wear masks like we did, not proper ones anyway. Neckerchiefs and old gaiters, and some of them went without. You could tell those ones were sick just by looking at them, but they didn't seem to care. The one who taught me how to hunt, he was one of the unmasked. He was taller than me by a head but thinner, and his brown skin looked tougher than a pair of old boots. He shook all the time. It was one of the signs of the sickness. But when he strung his old bow and pulled, you never saw a straighter shot. At distance, too. I've never had a bow, never found one. But he showed me where to aim, and how to cut animals up proper. He stayed with me a week, then him and the whole tribe picked up and moved on. That was years ago now. We haven't seen them since.
The deer wasn't right. I knew it the moment I saw it through the scope. It was a gray morning and I'd just crawled out of my stinking sleeping bag. I'd spent that night in an abandoned car that had rolled into a ditch on the side of a cracked highway. The windows had all fogged up. I wiped one down with my jacket sleeve and there it was, maybe thirty meters down the road. It just stood there, a phantom at the edge of the mist. Fortunately, the car was an older model with hand operated windows. I slowly turned the crank, and at first it wouldn't budge. I put my shoulder into it and the glass popped down with a sucking gasp that I was sure would scare the animal away. It didn't. I eased the window down halfway and shook my rifle free from its bindings on my pack, then slipped the barrel out into the morning air. I wondered what that air smelled like. I mean, genuinely smelled like. Through the mask everything smelled the same, like sweat and charcoal. Like wet ashes. I mounted the rifle on the top of the window and sighted in. The deer was real, but it wasn't right. Its head looked too heavy for its neck, and it swayed ever so slightly. I could see tiny tremors rumbling through its bony knees.
Animals didn't get the sickness, at least not as far as any of us could ever tell. Not the way people got it, anyway. When a person was sick, you knew pretty quick. Sweats, coughing, and the shakes were all sure signs. We used to have an actual doctor with us, Dr. Emerus. He always made us call him by his full name and title, but he seemed okay with just "doc" or "doctor". He told us that it was easy to mistake the sickness for something that would pass, like a cold or the influenza. Said it was important to give it time. Said you couldn't be sure until the sores appeared. No one really listened to him. I'm pretty sure we exiled a bunch of people who just had runny noses. It's hard to do proper diagnosis when you're armed, starving, and scared.
Dr. Emerus got the sickness and exiled himself. I found his body in back of an old gas station a few kilometers from camp. He'd managed to crawl up inside the open trunk of a big sedan that was up on one of those hydraulic lifts, you know the kind that mechanics used to see what was going on under the cars? I wondered why he chose that spot. Maybe it had been to avoid getting eaten by a bear or cougar. The late stages of sickness make you do funny things. Animals don't eat sick flesh. Not big animals, at least. Maybe not even small animals. Sick corpses don't rot the same way healthy ones do. Which is good, because it's important to know the difference when you come across one in the wild. Nature sure is funny, isn't it?
I took a long time aiming at that deer in the middle of the highway. There was no wind that morning, and no sounds at all except my own breath and heartbeat which both sounded loud enough to scare off any nearby game. But that deer just stood there, trembling like an autumn leaf ready to fall from its branch. I took a deep breath, sighted just above where I figured the animal's heart was, and pulled the trigger. The sound of that shot going off in the back of that car was louder than thunder, and for a minute I swore I'd deafened myself. I cursed myself up and down for being such a damn fool, and got so wrapped up in cussing myself out that I forgot all about the deer.
The pillows that had been jammed in my ears by the gunshot slowly dissolved into a high-pitched whine. I shook my head and reshouldered the rifle to peer down the scope. I thought I'd missed, and the deer had taken flight, but I saw its crumpled body on the buckled blacktop. There was a time, quite a long time ago now, that we'd have to be very careful about shooting guns. The noise could bring all kinds of trouble, mostly in the form of feral raiders. I guess the sickness caught up to them. It seemed the outlaw lifestyle didn't include taking basic precautions against disease. Or maybe they'd abandoned the area for greener pastures, as if such places still existed. Either way the only threat left from firearms was to ourselves, and more than a few of us had chosen to eat the business end of our own weapons rather than face another season of scrounging the cursed earth. But I couldn't do that, not me. At least, that's what I told myself. I'd even seen someone do it once. We'd been sitting around the fire one evening, and Marcia had suddenly stood up from her log and she'd had the hollowest look in her eye, like she was staring into the day after tomorrow. It was empty, you know? Like the soul had already turned out the lights and was clearing for departure. She'd mumbled something about needing to take a piss and just marched straight away from the fire, all stiff-legged. Tom had nodded at me to go after her, and I caught up with her just as she was putting her handgun to the side of her head. She'd made it look so easy. Messy, but easy. But I just couldn't do that to myself. I guess there was still something filling me up inside, something urging me to keep going. What that something was, I couldn't tell you. God's gasoline, maybe.
I opened the car door and made my way down the road to the kill. I think I had some anxiety, but I'd managed to beat it down with the shame of nearly deafening myself. It was there though, a humming kind of electricity that coiled in my guts. The morning mist was lifting, and I swear to you that a weak shaft of sunlight was shining down on that sad little body, lighting it up just perfect like it was on display. But it wasn't perfect. If I'd suspected it from afar, I knew it for sure up close. Something was telling me to leave it, just get on down the road to the next spot. Maybe there'd be tins of soup, ones that weren't all bulged and deformed. Or maybe a sealed box of cereal, or a stash of pristine candy bars. But then I remembered the last time we'd had deer. The memory of the smell of it sizzling on the spit overwhelmed my senses.
"You make sure to cook the shit out of that buck, now," Tom said. "There's a good reason that meat's a last resort. You know this."
"I know, I know," I said. I turned the spit. The flames from the fire seemed hungrier than we were, as if that were even possible. I tried not to look at the pack of starving folks who'd gathered around. Marcia was still alive in that memory. She had a look in her eyes that told you she was still willing to give it another hour, if only to catch a taste of the greasy feast.
"We used to have regular cookouts," she said. "My parents had a lot of friends. At least, I think they were friends. We had a big summer place, on the lake. We'd go out there and there'd be cars down the drive for a mile. People had to hike up if they came late. Plenty of room for everybody. A few would stay in the guest rooms but most would camp. Tents. But the food. Oh God. The food."
"Stop," someone said.
"Let her talk," someone else said.
"There'd be roasts. Pork, big hams from the oven in the house. Spitted meat too, like this. But not like this. Clean. At least, you'd know it was clean. Fresh breads. And salads. Mom made this one out of grapes, I can't remember what it was called—"
"Waldorf," Tom said.
Marcia's eyes went wide, but she never took her gaze off the spit. "Yeah! Waldorf," she said, slow, like she was tasting the word. "There was always a lot of that left over. Folks didn't seem to care for it, but I loved it." And that was the end of her story, or at least it was all she wanted to tell because she went quiet and no one else seemed to notice.
We ate well that night. No one got sick. That was a good memory. But that was a long time ago.
That little deer in the road was all wrong. The blood was too dark. The skin came off so easily I barely needed my knife. The meat looked like green marble in the morning sunlight, and there was precious little. I carved what I could and wrapped it in some sheafs of newsprint that I found in the car. Headlines about desperate searches for cures: some calling it a hoax, others the apocalypse. Then the black blood that seeped from within blotted them out.
There were two small hearts and a single lung inside the carcass. I left them. I don't know why, but dressing that animal took something out of me. It syphoned out a bit of that gasoline. I stood and wiped my bloodied hands on my trousers. I wanted to cry, or scream. I shouldered my pack instead, and started the long journey home.
The ragged maps and my even more ragged orientation skills told me that it would be a good while before got back. The meat wouldn't make it, not raw as it was. I camped early, in the late afternoon, and set up a makeshift smoker. The nameless elder had taught me how. I knew it wasn't fair to call him "nameless". He had a name; I just never knew it. As I sat next to my own meagre fire that night, watching the oily smoke waft through the tented pine boughs, I remembered something else about him. There'd been a thing he'd done after killing an animal. Something spiritual. He'd tried to show me. I could remember the movements: how we knelt down next to the kill, put our hands on its flank then up to the sky. But there were words. Words I'd only remember in my dreams. I wondered if by not doing whatever ritual, I was somehow condemning the spirit of the animal to a worse afterlife than it deserved. But maybe that's what we were. Maybe no one had prayed over our corpses, bloated and riddled with the sickness that was killing the world of people.
These are the kinds of thoughts you have when you're starving in a dying land.
I pulled a small chunk of blackened flesh from the fire. I lifted my mask to take a bite, and it tasted charred and dry. I washed it down with a swig of dew I'd collected.
"I guess we'll see," I said.—
This piece is an expansion/rewrite of a shorter work, "Tchotchke".