I’m starting to get the mental gears greased for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and decided to try to write improvised stories of varying length and likely questionable quality as part of the process on a daily basis for the days remaining until NaNoWriMo starts in earnest. The inspiration for each piece will come from scrolling through my Home page on Pinterest until I find a picture I feel (for whatever reason) to be inspirational as my prompt. The length may vary, but each piece will have a target length of at least 1700 words, as that is near the minimum required on a daily basis to complete the NaNoWriMo challenge. Only minimal edits are done with the results below and the work is the effort of a single writing session.
I always welcome people who want to be “buddies” on the NaNo site. My user name is Michael_Raven, if you want to link accounts.
[Length: 1785 words]
Lucas heard the feral dogs before he saw them. They were whining in frustration, growling and intermittently barking as if doing all of these things would somehow get their quarry to acquiesce and come out from whatever hidey-hole they were in and subject themselves to being made dinner. Even pigeons, largely lacking a sense of self-preservation even now, when there were no people to cater to lazy feeding habits by tossing out breadcrumbs, wouldn’t succumb to such tactics. Yet, the dogs carried on barking, whining and growling in their denial of “things as they are”.
Lucas hadn’t had a very high opinion of dogs before the fall of civilization and this, he felt, was a perfect example of why he needn’t bother to change his opinion to be more generous in his opinion of them.
Had it been any other day, any other time, he would have left the two mutts to their worrying at the rubble inside the storefront that had succumbed to the rioting when everything first went to shit, but it was getting dark and had started to rain. And it wasn’t just any old rain, but one of the cold ones of late October that might change over to sleet, snow or freezing rain given a temperature drop of a few degrees. One never knew what to expect in a Duluth autumn, hence the running joke when there were still enough people to jest about the weather: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”
Minnesota humor. Kitschy and understated. Lucas didn’t miss it much at all, though he hadn’t been able to bring himself to leave it entirely either.
‘Hey-ya, git, scram, ye bastard mutts,” he yelled with waving arms and a walking staff he carried to keep his balance. At first the two dogs turned around and lowered themselves to the ground to make a stand, growling, but Lucas had dealt with such responses before from the many dogs that had gone wild since the collapse and tossed one of the fist-sized rocks at the dogs he kept in his wool trench-coat pockets for just such an occasion. Lucas never took aim at any of the dogs he encountered; the dogs hadn’t gone feral enough yet to forget that humans were higher on the hierarchal chain. A firm voice and a little show of force often proved to be enough. When it wasn’t, the staff changed most dog’s mind.
One yipped in fear and scrabbled across the broken linoleum and out of the open doorway of the storefront, bounding up the street to find easier prey, his companion in hot pursuit. Lucas didn’t envy the two dogs — the rain started to fall in earnest and already formed something not quite rain and not quite snow, but a heavy, wet composite of the two.
In the waning light of the day, Lucas investigated with a flashlight he carried around in another of his pockets to see what had gotten the dogs attention. In the rubble, he could see a small, shallow cave of sorts, but evidently deep enough for whatever hiding within to escape the dogs’ clawing and digging at the debris. Lucas couldn’t determine what they were after, but he did see two eyes reflecting the light of the flashlight.
The eyes were too big to belong to a rat. “Probably someone’s cat,” he muttered to no one but himself. It was increasingly becoming a habit of his of late. While he didn’t miss the throngs of people, he did sometimes miss their sounds and made up for it the best he was able by talking to the air, if not to another person.
He shrugged his shoulders. A cat was no threat and would probably slink out once he turned his back.
Lucas walked over to the inner door he’d seen from outside. The door was solid core wood painted white that screamed “manager’s office” in his mind. Manager offices of retail spaces, he discovered in recent months, were excellent places to set up camp. More often than not, they had small or no windows to guard a safe against break-in. That left the door for possible egress, and one of these solid core jobs was enough to keep most of the wild things out, though a steel door was better for keeping the other danger out: people.
Thunder boomed outside and lightening crossed the skies outside, making Lucas jump. Though not unheard of, thundersnows hadn’t been something he had expected to experience this evening. The wind picking up and bringing some of the wet snow through the broken display windows into the store.
He tried the knob of the door. Unsurprisingly, it was locked. The fact may have stymied more than a few people, but Lucas had once taught himself to pick locks on a lark — more for something to talk about at parties than to commit any nefarious acts. The skill had proven more than useful of late, as well as the locksmith tools that came with the training kit he had purchased online, back when there was such a thing as online stores.
Within moments, Lucas had the cheap lock picked and opened the door to a treasure trove. Not only was the room safe against the elements, but the store’s manager office had apparently doubled as a storeroom for some of the canned goods sold there. None of the looters apparently had thought to look within.
He decided he might have to pause his journey and winter here, or somewhere close. There were no promises he would be so lucky down the road, and there was no rush to get anywhere anyway. Lucas had vague notions about hiking to someplace with fewer extremes in weather, like Seattle, but the weather outside told him he might not get far away from Duluth before he was stranded by snow in earnest. The plague had proven to have terrible timing, or he had dallied on the “arrowhead” of Minnesota too long before starting on his trek, or both.
Those decisions could be made on the morrow, he told himself. Tonight, he would focus on celebrating his find and feast a bit before sleep.
He set up the camp stove he had found in an outfitter’s store near Gooseberry Falls, opened up a can of the generic jellied, denatured alcohol people called Sterno, regardless of the name on the can, and plopped it in place. Then he inspected the menu items he could choose from for the evening’s dinner.
Deciding on canned chili for dinner (perhaps two, he told himself) and canned peaches for his desert, he used a lighter wand to start the jell in the can aflame. Lucas had never been able to decide if cooking with jelled alcohol was same in an unventilated area, so he cracked the door open to encourage some ventilation and then stirred the beans with a camp mess kit knife he had requisitioned from the same outfitter as the stove.
He wasn’t sure if the dogs would come back, thinking he was gone. So he took an old computer cable he found in the office and rigged the door to stay propped open by tying it to one of the heavy shelves, but keeping it from opening far enough to let anything the size of the dogs inside without giving Lucas plenty of time to ready his staff to shoo them back out.
Lucas grew sleepy after eating his fill of chili and peaches, the tins stacked in the corner for disposal in the morning. The open door seemed a stupid thing to leave open, but he’d finally gotten comfortable with a stomach full of food and his sleeping bag wrapped around him. He hadn’t seen a living soul for days, and didn’t expect to have trouble, so he relied on the jury-rigged wire catch to keep out the dogs, should they return and let the heaviness of his eyes give over to sleep.
He awoke to a clatter of metal, and Lucas quickly turned on the flashlight to determine the cause, his other hand reaching for the staff he kept close to his body. Looking around, he could see nothing that might have made the noise until the beam landed on the empty tins. He’d decided to allow himself two cans of chili as well as the peaches and the pyramid he had made of the three cans was in disarray, with one missing.
Something rattled outside the door.
Very slow and quiet, Lucas sat up and crawled on his hands and knees to the cracked open door and looked for the source of the noise.
The storm had let up and the snow had changed over to a lighter, more crystalline flake that captured the light of the moon, sparkling silver in the night like a thousand lights. In the store, Lucas could see the missing can of chili.
And at that can was a small red fox.
He watched the fox as it tried to get the small amount of chili he’d left in the bottom of the tin, lapping at it in hunger.
Lucas looked back at his newly acquires stash of food. He had more than enough, he decided. It was the meanness and tribalism of people that had gotten them to this place, the least he could do was show compassion in what was likely to be a new world.
As quiet as he could, he opened up another tin of chili and set it out just outside the open door. The fox caught the motion in the corner of his eye and looked up, ready to bolt if Lucas made any threatening gestures, but curious as to what he was up to.
Lucas crawled back to the place where he had been sleeping minutes before and watched the door, sitting up.
There was a space of time where Lucas grew convinced that the fox decided against taking the offering and was about to retrieve the open can to save for breakfast when he saw the whiskered snout reach over and snatch the can away from the opening at the door.
Lucas heard the tin banging around on the linoleum smiled, and curled back up in his sleeping bag, feeling good for having done something not-awful for another living thing.
When he awoke, he sat up and was surprised to see the fox curled up inside the office. It looked up at him in the dim light, then put it’s head back down to sleep.
Lucas decided he was in no rush to find a place to winter, laid down and let both of them sleep until later in the day. They’d both earned it.