He took a deep breath. The air was tinged with filth and corruption, some from the recent troubles, some not yet worn away by time after the days before. The smell of the lake lay under it all, faint this far inland—the lake. Water. They couldn’t swim. Water wouldn’t actually stop them, they could wander as long as they liked across the bottom, but if they couldn’t reach up to the surface, they couldn’t get to you. If he could only get to a boat …
He scanned the streets, doorways, windows and alleys around himself. Still no sign, but it wouldn’t last. He couldn’t sit still for long, not here. Not in the middle of this death trap.
Skin crawling with the feeling of exposure, he trotted down the street. He wanted to run, but his energy was flagging already and he couldn’t afford to burn it all right away. It’d be gone too soon as it was.
Brick and glass facades faced him from either side of the street. Trees still grew in many places, while others had long since been broken down. Old power lines lay lifeless on the streets and walks in places, but he paid them no mind; it’d been years since they carried any charge. Colorful urban graffiti was still visible on many of the old brick walls under newer layers of dirt, soot and in places, blood.
A loud growl came out of nowhere. Whirling around, heart pounding his blood like a drum, he whirled around—but the street was empty. He realized with a pang that he was hungry; very hungry. It had been hours since he’d had anything to eat or drink, and he’d been moving fast for a long time in the heat.
A shop with a painted green brick facade boasted a sign that read ‘Little Nepal Restaurant.’ Like everything else around, it was quiet as the grave, large picture windows dark and barred, the glass intact, the door locked. There’d been nothing edible in there for a long time.
He hurried on, keeping an eye on the signs he passed as he went. Hunger would leave him a little weak and very uncomfortable. Water would have to be found much sooner.
An intersection brought him a promising looking old coffee shop; like the restaurant he’d passed, all the windows were unbroken and one of them, a smallish window higher off the ground, was unbarred. He hoped this meant that the place had gone unlooted. It was just barely possible he might find something of use inside.
The trick would be getting to the window. It looked like it could be part of a second floor to the place. A small fenced off area below the window looked like it could once have been a street patio. The fence was iron, rusted now. Not nearly high enough to provide access to the window. It might offer access to the broken old ‘Coffee Place’ sign above the street level windows. If the sign would hold his weight for just a few seconds, he should be able to reach the window and get in.
He’d have to break the glass first though. A pair of long-empty newspaper vending machines were chained to a rusted no parking sign a few feet from the fence. They were too big and heavy to throw. He was about to try one of the few remaining scattered white plastic chairs within the fenced enclosure when he saw a crumbled area of curb at the corner.
“Perfect,” he muttered to himself, surprised at how dry his throat felt. His tongue was drying too. Hefting a chunk of broken concrete, he reared back and let it fly at the second story window. It sailed through with a loud crash and tinkle that made him wince and cast anxious looks up and down each street; the intersection was a four-way crossing and until just how had been silent.
No reaction. No movement. He almost wished they would show up. He’d spent hours trying to get away from them but now that he had, he couldn’t help feeling like he was in the calm before one hell of a storm.
He relentlessly shoved the thoughts aside and braced a hand against the coffee shop’s stained wall, climbed up onto the low rusty iron fence. He stared up at the sign above him and winced again. It projected out from the wall well enough, and would give him plenty of hand-holds, but it was as old as everything else on these streets. Even when it was new it was never intended to hold a man’s weight. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, about 5’8”, 150 lbs, but he was going to have to get off the sign and up and over to the window pretty fast. He was no athlete.
He also didn’t have time to second-guess. Either it would work or it wouldn’t. He shoved those doubts away too.
He balanced himself as well as he could on the very narrow fence, keeping a hand on the wall, and leaped as high as he could. His arms flailed a bit as he tried to catch the sign, scrabbling at the plastic, and then he was down. His leg flared in pain as he landed wrong; he bit off a cry of pain and surprise.
More surprise than pain, thankfully. He looked around quickly; still nothing. A few quick test steps told him he’d be able to walk, though running would be pushing it.
“Wonderful,” he muttered. “Just what I needed.” He looked back up at the sign again. There wasn’t much option really; this was the best prospect he’d seen all day.
He climbed back up again and leaped, a little more awkwardly than before. His hand slammed into the sign, breaking the plastic, but it held. He gripped tight and managed to swing himself up enough to grab the top of the sign with his other hand. His weight was too much for it; he heard it creaking and groaning as the flimsy backing of the sign began to twist and pull.
Hand over hand he made his way across the Coffee portion of the sign to his left; the window was above the big ‘C’. He needed more leverage; he swung his legs to and managed to snag one of them on top of the ‘f’. The groaning protest of the sign got louder; something popped within, but it kept on holding.
He was sweating, making his grip on the plastic sign more difficult; he shot a hand out to grab the window sill and caught it. Squeezing the sill tight, he managed to grab it with his other hand, keeping his injured leg on the sign, his good leg against the wall. Arms groaning in protest, he pulled himself up as though doing a chin-up and groaned. The inside of the sill was covered in broken glass.
His arms were getting dangerously sore, but he took a hand off the sill and punched as much of the broken glass still in the frame inward as he could. He then quickly and carefully brushed the glass off the inner sill; he still managed to get a small cut, ruby blood welling up from the side of his hand. It wasn’t bad. “Won’t be bad until they smell it, anyway,” he muttered as he pulled his way inside. Talking to himself was becoming a habit.
He was in a small office, probably belonged to some manager of the coffee place downstairs. It was musty, smelled like a place that’d been sealed for months. Stale air, and—and there was a corpse laying on its side against the far wall, far past putrid, dessicated with age, most flesh gone, empty eye sockets seeming to stare right at him. He paled and fought the urge to scream, started edging his way to the office door.