The shout came from inside the dilapidated store. It was amazing how overgrown things had gotten, how quickly it had gone to shit, Jason thought to himself. It had only been a year and half since the Dark Dawn operation started, and ultimately failed. It had become clear to everyone that there was no longer a central power, no government, no rules except the ones you made for yourself. America, and presumably the world had been reset. To be honest, Jason didn’t really mind it, save for the cost he paid to be there. His oldest son’s life, the innocence of his other son, the trauma of combat brought to his wife and daughter, all part of the price tag of this wild new world. Jason thought about all of this as he moved cautiously through the broken glass doors of what used to be a big box store.
“Anything left?” Tony asked, as he and Jason looked around the well-looted insides.
“No food or guns, but there were a couple of boxes of ammunition in the back warehouse.”
“What kind?” Jason asked.
“.22’s” James replied.
“Well,” Jason sighed, “Better’n nothing I suppose.”
“That’s not all that was back there pops,” James said.
“There were three packs,” James’ voice suddenly dropped off, “They uh, they were scattered and picked through. The boxes of bullets too looked like they’d been tossed aside. Whoever left those packs behind… I don’t think they wanted to.”
Jason looked at his son, then at Tony, a man from the camp who regularly volunteered for supply runs. He was skinny and only about five years older than his son, but boy was he fast. He could climb too. He used to be involved with something called parcore before the shit hit the fan. Used to live in the city, but made his way out here to check on his aunt when it all went down. He had dark brown skin and an easy going smile, but he’d proven himself time and again in the face of danger. Jason liked the guy, and what’s more liked the affect he was having on his son. It was good for James to have friends again, even an older brother figure.
“Let’s not be long then,” Jason said, “Whoever relieved those poor bastards of their bags might still be around.”
“Yea man, let’s be quick about it,” Tony piped in, “we haven’t been out this far before, and if I’m being honest, the place doesn’t have a good vibe.”
Jason had to agree with Tony on that point.
“Alright,” he said, “let’s split up and check the aisles, I’ll take the garden center, Tony you hit clothing and housewares, Jim, see what you can find in hardware.”
Looters, at least the initial ones, were very rarely peppers. Sure they grabbed canned food and blankets and water, but they neglected seeds, plants, clothes, hardware, Tupperware, all kinds of important stuff. They’d been lucky so far on their supply runs. Rarely had they come across other people, and when they had, so far at least, the interactions were relatively friendly. Jason was sure that the supply teams wore body armor and carried impressive armament. The idea was to intimidate any potential others from trying their luck. A few people had approached them in desperation, and some of them had become members of the camp. Most however, hightailed it in the opposite direction, and Jason didn’t mind keeping it that way.
Even though they’d been lucky in their runs, the camp was big, and they went through a lot of supplies. Women, children, over half the town had gone to the camps, or had been rounded up by the government soldiers. When Jason decided to stay, he knew it would be a challenge, but he believed that together they could make a safe and worthwhile life for his family at the camp. Deep down, though he would never breath a word of it to anyone, he was beginning to wonder if he’d made the right move.
“Hey Jason!” Tony shouted from across the store. “Come take a look at this.”
Jason found Tony standing over a pile of children’s clothing. Tiny little denim pants, bright colored t-shirts emblazoned with things like “lil trouble maker” and “Daddy’s girl” piled up in the middle of the Men’s clothing section. The sunlight didn’t reach very far in, but he could sense a hesitation in Tony. His breathing was quick and he seemed to be frozen where he stood. Jason shined the light on the barrel of his assault rifle onto the pile and nearly choked on his own spit. The clothes weren’t piled at random, but placed carefully to form a capitol letter A with a circle around it. It was the symbol for anarchy, Jason recognized, but that’s not what made him gasp. The tiny little outfits were all stained through with blood.
“Jim!” Jason shouted, “Gather what you have and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Jason looked to Tony who was still staring at the grotesque monument to lawlessness.
“Guess you were right about the bad vibe,” he said, “Come on, let’s go.”
It was about noon, and the sun was high above the surprisingly thin cloud cover. April was fast approaching and they needed to upgrade their rain collection systems, which was the main reason for this particular supply run. Jim met them at the door dragging a cart full of hosing, a few pieces of gutter and various tools and hardware. Jason handed the gutter pieces to Tony, tossed the hosing over his shoulder and told Jim to leave the rest. Jim looked at his dad puzzled, and looked to Tony for confirmation. Tony looked as if he’d seen a ghost, which put Jim on edge. He unsoldered his rifle, and abandoned the cart.
“Everyone behind me,” Jason ordered, and cautiously exited the store through it’s busted front doors. He scanned the parking lot, but the only thing he saw was the DDTF truck and the four-wheeler they came in on. Jason scanned the houses on the far side of the street through his scope. Checking each window, each door, each yard for signs of change or movement. Nothing. The vehicles seemed to be unaffected, and from the looks of things there wasn’t another soul for miles around. They made their way to the vehicles quickly, Tony mounting the four-wheeler and Jim tossing the supplies into the truck and climbing into the cab with Jason. Soon the sound of their vehicles was only a distant echo to the unseen man standing atop the box store roof. He had watched the vehicles leave, taking special note of the direction they were headed.
“Hey Manny,” Jason stepped out onto the roof of the community center and greeted the man with a wave. Manny had been kneeling at the base of the largest of 7 rain barrels and talking heatedly to two of his helpers.
“Please tell me you were able to find carbon filters,” he pleaded. Jason’s expression gave away the answer, and Manny let out an exasperated sigh.
“I know it’s not your fault Jay,” he said, “but if we can’t find carbon or ceramic filters, we’re going to have a tough time making this rain water potable.”
“I know it Manny,” Jason said, putting his arm on the man’s shoulder, “but you’re the best rain catchment guy in the camp, and I have faith that you’ll be able to rig something.”
“Sure, I can rig something,” he said with frustration, “I already have rigged something. I mean look, we’ve got rain barrels, flush diversion systems, I jerry rigged the sediment filters, and was able to make floating extractors for inside the barrel, but that’s not enough to make it drinkable, and that was our plan for the new system!”
“ I know it Manny, but don’t lose faith, we’ll find what we need, I’m sure of it. I’ll take another group out tomorrow, head east this time, towards the old warehouses, there’s got to be something useful out there.”
Manny just sighed, and Jason could tell the man was tired and overworked. He’d never seen someone so passionate about rainwater before. Apparently he ran a rain harvesting business on the side before things went dark. He wasn’t a pepper necessarily, more of an old hippie, who wanted to live off the grid for political and social, reasons more than survival preparation. It didn’t matter one way or the other to Jason, he was here, and he’d built several amazing systems so far, but this current one was supposed to provide potable, pressurized water. They’d come across some hand pumps and a huge load of PVC piping at a hardware store off the state route about 4 months back and Manny’s face lit up as if it were Christmas. He started making plans and promises, but as the project wore on and the necessary parts became scarce, his enthusiasm was waning.
“We didn’t come back completely empty handed,” Jason said, as Tony and Jim came through the roof door.
“Guttering!” Manny shouted, “With leaf guards built in!”
The spark seemed to return to the man’s eyes and Jason decided to leave him to it. He hadn’t seen his wife and daughter all day, and something about what they’d found in that box store was still weighing on him. The thing Jason hated most about the bad feelings he’d get, the ones deep in his gut, was that all to often, he was right.