As the Ash Fell—Chapter 1

It was getting late. Though the sky was hazy—it was always hazy—he could see faint colors just above the horizon. He checked his watch. It was nearly 6:00. He had already been on his feet for 14 hours, and it was about a two and a half hour hike back home.

Another goose egg, Clay thought to himself. Discouraged, weary, and exhausted, he climbed down from his perch in the tree and began the trek home. He started to speculate why it had been so long since he had seen deer in his favorite hunting hideaway. Over the last two years that location had consistently provided him a doe or two each month, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. It was a bit of an oasis just outside of a cave where a small stream trickled into a slightly larger one. The water was some of the purest he’d seen since the ash fell; it was naturally filtered as it seeped through the cracks in the rocks from the hills above. The small wooded area was only about 500 yards from the interstate, yet you’d never know it was there if you were looking from the road.

Though it was nicely hidden away, it was risky to fire a rifle so close to the highway. Even though the days of lane changes and gridlocked traffic were long gone, it was still commonly used by travelers on foot. He could shave 45 minutes off his journey if he used the highway, but Clay rarely did. The hip-high overgrowth in the median and the decayed vehicles that pockmarked the road made it easy for bandits to ambush travelers. Or worse, Screamers could easily be concealed, waiting to kill merely for the thrill of it. The convenience of the road was seldom worth the risk.

Nearly 30 minutes into his journey, Clay heard a noise. It was faint, but unmistakable—a tree branch cracking. He instinctively stopped and crouched down low partially hiding himself behind a twisted mess that may have once been called a shrub. His vantage point near the top of a hill allowed him a clear view of the field from where he thought the sound originated. Clay wasn’t sure if it was from a man or beast. Lately it seemed difficult to distinguish a difference between the two. He slowly raised his Ruger Scout, looked through the optics, and scanned the field. He noticed some movement right at the edge of a tree line. Daylight was fading, but the distinctive silhouette was obvious.

Yes!

A doe and her fawn were feeding in the field just in front of the trees. They were about 200 yards away; he needed to get closer. His hefty .308 was more than enough bullet for the distance, but he didn’t trust himself. With the exception of some powdered eggs and a stale breakfast bar when he woke up, he hadn’t eaten all day. His body was weak, his hands shaky, and his aim would be anything but true. The wind from the approaching storm wasn’t helping matters either.

He carefully removed his backpack and placed it beneath the bush that had been providing his cover. He crept forward, staying low, moving quietly into a better position. As he came to a stop, he reacquired his target. The animals were still grazing, steadily making their way across the field. As he went prone, he felt some leaves crunch beneath his stomach.  The sound was barely audible to him but loud enough to cause the fawn to look up in his general direction.

No, he thought to himself, you didn’t hear that.

The baby looked over at its mother who was not the least bit fazed by her surroundings as she continued to munch on what little she could find to eat. After a moment, the fawn began to graze again, following in the footsteps of the doe.

Clay reached into his pocket and retrieved a velvet bag with a few bullets inside. He opened the bag and pulled a few rounds close to the opening, but left them inside. Because the magazine for his rifle had broken several months back, and he had yet to find a replacement, Clay had to keep extra cartridges nearby for a quick, manual reload.

He clicked the safety off and took aim. He tracked the doe through his scope as it moved; unfocused blades of grass danced around the bottom of his sight picture from the increasing wind which was fortunately blowing in his face. His breathing was shaky and his head cloudy. Clay took a deep breath, slowly exhaling through his mouth. He moved the crosshairs just behind the shoulder and breathed in once more. After expelling half the air in his lungs, he held his breath and pulled the trigger.

The first thing Clay heard after the deafening shot was the cries and moans from the doe as it attempted to stand. His shot was far from perfect and the animal was going to suffer. He shook his head and smacked his forehead with his fist as he laid on the ground. “Nice shooting, Clay,” he said in a hushed, sarcastic tone.

He felt awful, but there was nothing he could do. He wanted to run down and finish off the suffering animal, but he quickly dismissed the idea. The sound released from the 16 inch barrel was substantial, and anyone within a couple of miles would have heard it. Though most people wouldn’t be running towards a powerful gunshot like that, there were always a few nutjobs wandering around who might, perhaps somebody with more firepower. It wasn’t safe. So he waited.

Clay pulled the bolt back, spitting out the shell onto the ground a few feet away. He patted around, found the ejected brass case, and stuffed it into a pocket. Grabbing a new round from the bag, he chambered the bullet and closed the bolt.

Looking through the scope, he contemplated taking another shot from where he was, but decided it would only further expose his location. It could also end up being another lousy shot, furthering the animal’s agony and possibly ruining some of the meat.

The doe’s cries and snorts continued for about ten minutes before there was silence. Clay stayed put another ten minutes as he kept an eye out for signs of other people. He saw no indication of danger so he approached the doe. He towered over the lifeless body; blood had splattered in every direction as the animal kicked and jolted around in a hopeless attempt to flee. Sorry, girl, he thought to himself as he bent down and grabbed the hind legs to drag it into the woods. Not far. Just enough that he would be hard to see by any potential passersby.

The temperature had dropped many degrees since he left the creek. Puffs of his exerted breath could now be seen as Clay field dressed the animal. His fingers were starting to numb, and his efforts were becoming painful. Tired, hungry, and uncomfortably cold, he felt vulnerable and was eager to leave.

An hour had passed; the light was all but gone. He still had the neck, and shoulders to harvest, but there was no time—he had to move out. Clay had no chance of making it home now, so he decided to stay at the cabin for the night. Walking through Normandy Creek in the darkness was not a risk he was willing to take.

Clay stuffed the last bit of meat into an insulated bag, collected his pack from the bush, and headed off for the cabin. He was chilled to the bone. His tattered jacket provided little in the way of protection from the wind, and he had forgotten his gloves. He feared winter was coming early this year. The winters were long and harsh, not something he ever thought he would experience in Texas. And it seemed that each year it came sooner and stayed longer—like an unwanted house guest. But for tonight, it would actually benefit him greatly. It would keep the meat from spoiling.

He reached the cabin without incident and felt a wave of relief rush through his body. The cabin was in a rustic house in a relatively undeveloped area. It wasn’t quite the country, but the neighboring houses weren’t so close that the inhabitants could have heard one another singing in the shower each morning. Clay often thought it would have been nice to live there when things were still normal: mowing the lawn; firing up the barbecue pit for the big game; watching the kids chase lizards. What a life! But Clay quickly pushed thoughts like these out of his head—thinking of the past was just too much to bear at times.

Clay entered the garage through a side door and stumbled his way over to a heavy-duty floor mat towards the rear of the garage. He lifted it up revealing a floor door to a small underground shelter hidden beneath—the cabin. He opened the door and descended a few steps before closing it behind him allowing the mat to fall back into place, hunching his 6’2” frame to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling. He left the bag of meat at the top of the steps and made his way down to the shelter.

He fished around in his backpack and found his flashlight. The light was dim—virtually ineffective—so he pulled a small crank out of the side of the flashlight and began winding it like a fishing reel. Gradually, the light got brighter; the beam danced around the room as he wound it.

He tossed his pack onto a cot towards the back wall and walked over to some boxes stacked in the corner. The room wasn’t much bigger than a jail cell, about ten feet deep and six feet wide. It had a musty smell that would stay with him for hours after leaving. It was far from warm, and it was not uncommon to have a rodent or insect wake him. Despite the lack of comfortable accommodations, it was a home away from home. It was safe, and when he left supplies there, he always found them when he returned.

He retrieved a candle from the boxes and placed it on a small bedside table and lit the wick with a match from his pack. The room went dark after he turned his flashlight off. The faint flicker from the candle was the only thing preventing total darkness.

Clay warmed his hands over the tiny flame, repeatedly making fists in an effort to get his blood circulating again. Using a small pocket knife, he speared a couple of thin strips of venison and began rotating them over the flame. It took a while to cook, but it was well worth it. The taste was indescribably good, and the precious energy it provided, albeit just a little, was much needed. He followed it down with some water and a hard candy he found beneath a table at Rita’s Diner earlier. He didn’t care much for peppermint, but he wasn’t about to complain about the rare treat.

He laid down on the cot and pulled an itchy blanket up to his stomach. Despite his exhaustion, Clay had a hard time falling asleep. He reached into the front pocket of his pack and pulled out an MP3 player and ear buds. Shortly after, classical music overpowered reality. Chopin was on stage for the night, and, as always, he performed flawlessly. Sleep finally came.

When Clay’s eyes opened again, it felt as if he had only slept a few minutes. He watched as light danced around the ceiling for several seconds before he looked at the candle. It was several inches shorter than when he fell asleep. He wasn’t sure if the candle provided any actual heat, but the soft glow of the wax light and the occasional floating ember offered him a creature comfort that was few and far between.

He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the cot, making fists with his toes on the cheap, small rug. He let out a big yawn and stretched his arms over his head. Clay felt well rested, which surprised him given that he had only four, maybe five, hours of sleep, if he had to guess.

Inside his bag was a granola bar. It was stale. Very stale. Most every food that had a barcode no longer held the consistency or texture it once had, but it was a small boost of energy for the rest of his journey home. He drank the last few gulps of water in his bottle and tossed it back into the pack. He had not planned on staying at the cabin for the night and had not brought enough water. He usually kept a few extra bottles and some canned goods in the cabin, but he had gone through those a couple weeks back and had never restocked his supplies. He made a mental note to drop some things off the next time he was out that way.

He laced up his shoes and slung his pack over his shoulder. Grabbing his rifle, he took a quick glance towards the stairs as if to memorize the short, straight path. He leaned over the table and with a quick puff of air the candle’s flame vanished and the room fell as dark as a moonless night. Cautiously, he walked towards the stairs and reached his hand out to feel for the doorway. As he made his way to the top of the steps, he could feel the temperature drop. It wasn’t much, but it answered his question about the candle providing warmth.

He pushed up on the door, and light flooded the stairwell as if a dam had burst from above. He quickly turned his head and squeezed his eyes shut, completely unprepared for the solar onslaught. His eyes eventually adjusted, and the world once again faded to a drab, grey tone that was only bright in comparison to the dungeon he had slept in.

How long did I sleep? he asked himself.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old pocket watch that once belonged to his father, his grandfather before that.

“Nine-thirty!” he said in astonishment. He wouldn’t have guessed it was a minute past seven.

On one hand, he needed the rest and it wasn’t often he was able to pass out for nearly 12 hours. On the other hand, though, it was still cold outside, he knew it would be warming up which would increase the risk of the meat spoiling. Not to mention he had missed the ideal time to travel on the road—a short span of time after which the Screamers had already retired for the night but before most people would be out and about for the day. The fewer encounters during travel, the better.

Clay set out hoping there wouldn’t be any setbacks that would prevent him getting the meat home in a timely manner. He recalled a time when he was delayed six hours while a group of bandits waited to meet up with another group. He had stopped for a few minutes allowing himself to rest, but by the time he got back on the move, he had to quickly find cover. There were easily 25 of them, and once the other group arrived, they had to be 50 strong. Fortunately, he had no time-sensitive cargo, and he could just wait them out.

Since he missed his short window to travel on the road, he would have to pass through Normandy Creek. The threat of Screamers was no longer there, but he always hated that route. He had yet to walk through without seeing some remnants of a brutal, ritualistic sacrifice hanging from a tree or lying lifeless in the leaves. Each time it was something different. As if every murdering spree was unique, like a sadistic snowflake. This time was no exception. He came across bloodied clothes half buried beneath some leaves and grass sending a chill down his spine that was not from the temperatures outside.

He crouched down and searched through the worn out khakis and flannel shirt. Nothing. He did a quick search around the area and found three 9MM cases. It looked like whoever owned these clothes didn’t go down without a fight though Clay doubted the man’s fate would have been any different either way.

At first, he thought the shells were nickel plated brass, but upon closer inspection, Clay realized they were zinc plated steel and Berdan primed as well; they would be useless to him. He dropped them back to the forest floor and continued on. He said a silent prayer for the recently departed and happily left the area.

Reaching the top of a hill, he could see home. He always felt relieved to see it soaring in the sky like a tower of hope in a world of despair. Even though it was just a couple of miles away, it would still take him more than an hour to get home. Cautiously, he would go up and down side streets at random to lose any potential tails that might be tracking him from afar. It was inconvenient, especially after long journeys, but it had become standard operations security (OPSEC) to ensure nobody knew where his home was.

Satisfied with his evasive maneuvers, Clay made the final approach.

 

 

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