Night after night, they camped among the trees. Pa would pull the handcar off the road, into the cover of the woods. Once they found a nice flat place away from the road, Laura and Mary would sweep the ground clear of rocks and nettles. Then Ma would hang up the big tarp that she had stitched from hides and scraps of old lectricmade fabrics. Finally, snug and dry beneath their little lean-to, they would unfurl their bedrolls and settle in.
Most nights, unless it was snowing heavily, Pa would backtrack a ways to muddle their tracks.
Meanwhile, Ma would begin preparing supper. If Pa said it was safe, they could have a cookfire. Ma might boil a bit of saltmeat with carrots and pickled kale and perhaps a few herbs or moss that she had spied along the road. Sometimes, Ma would bake a big round wheel of soybread in her skillet, and Laura would have warm yellow bread to dip into her stew.
On some nights, after supper, Mary and Laura could stay up and watch the fire dwindle into embers. This was Laura’s favorite time. If he wasn’t too tired, Pa would tell them stories or bring out his two-string and sing them some of the old traditionals Uncle Freddie had taught him as a boy.
It was not easy, sleeping outdoors on the ground night after night. The woods were cold, even beneath Laura’s layers of furs and blankets. The ground was hard and uneven, even lying atop her bedroll. But Laura knew she must not complain. She knew that she must be brave and strong on their long journey to the Wastes.
Late one day, they came to the ruins of a Merican town. They had seen the ruins from afar. The town lay at the bottom of a valley, along the shores of a tiny lake. From the mountain pass where the Old Thirty-Nine Road emerged from the wooded slopes above and began to twist its way downwards, Pa had pointed out the gray shapes of old creetrock buildings. They paused there for a time while Pa consulted his map. The place had no name, at least not one that anyone had bothered to record.
Pa studied the valley below. No traces of smoke rose from the ruins. Nothing stirred. No sounds of human activity were heard. Pa was certain that the town was long abandoned.
The Old Thirty-Nine Road wound down into the valley, taking Laura and her family right towards the abandoned town. Snow was falling gently but steadily by the time they reached the ruins and Pa said they might as well stop for the day and see if they couldn’t find some shelter indoors for a change. He turned the handcar. They left the old number road and made their way cautiously down a side trail that seemed to lead deeper into the old Merican settlement.
According to Pa, that trail had probably been a road once, back when people lived in those parts, covered in creetrock just like the old number roads. The town’s main street perhaps.
Laura looked up and down the trail, skeptical. If there had once been a creetrock road here, the Big Woods had done a fine job of covering it up. Along the Old Thirty-Nine Road, shrubs often sprouted from the cracks and nibbled away at its edges, but the road never disappeared entirely. That was because the old number roads have deep creetrock foundations that make it hard for plants to take root, Pa had explained. Besides, trade convoys still used those roads sometimes, trampling saplings beneath boots and carwheels and helping to keep the woods at bay.
This lonely, forgotten side road was something different. Here, the boundary between road and woods wasn’t always clear. As they walked further, though, Laura began to see what Pa meant. Ahead of her, she could make out a long straight swath where the ground was flat and the trees were shorter and not gathered so closely together.
On either side, Laura began to notice square columns of brick and stone. They were evenly spaced, standing in neat rows. They began to pass one after another, and Laura soon realized that they were chimneys. The houses that once surrounded them had fallen away, their wooden boards and shingles absorbed into the nest of forest foliage from which the lonely pillars rose.
Pa weaved the handcar around the shrubs and brambles that choked the old main street. Every so often, he would hold up a hand, and Laura knew she must be still and quiet while Pa listened. But each time there was nothing but bird songs and the creak of pine boughs.
As they ventured further into the abandoned town, the chimneys gave way to bigger ruins. They began to come across old creetrock buildings, squat and grey. Their roofs were caved in, and Laura could see trees peeping up from inside some of them, like little walled gardens.
Eventually, the trail led them to a cluster of larger structures made of stone and brick. One of them rose three levels high. Its third level had partly collapsed, but still it towered over Laura, bigger than any building she had ever seen.
Pa squatted down next to her and pointed up. She followed his finger to a big circle set into the face of the building. The circle was made of smooth white stone, and a flat bar of copper had been hammered lengthwise across its center.
“That’s a clock, Laura,” said Pa. “Or it was. It was so everyone in the town could look up at that building and know exactly what time of day it was.”
Laura didn’t understand how someone could know what time it was just by looking at a big circle, but she thought the clock was very pretty, the way its white stone contrasted with the brown stone blocks that surrounded it. For a while, it seemed that they might stay the night inside the clock building, but when Pa inspected it he said it was too clogged up with rubble. The tall stone walls looked sturdy enough from the outside, but inside the upper levels had all spilled down into the lower levels. There would be nowhere to set up camp.
It was the same with the other big stone buildings. Finally, just as Ma was warning the girls that they would probably need to spend another night out of doors, Pa pointed to a plain square structure. It was separated from the clock building by a grove of young pines. They made their way towards it.
The building was made of creetrock, the lectricmade stone that seemed to characterize all Merican ruins, its surfaces dappled all over in the telltale grays and yellows. Cracks twisted and spread up and down its sides, and orange decay stained its ridges like frosting on a soycake. But every wall still stood. They would serve to keep out the wind. Its roof had survived as well, at least in part, enough to shelter them from the snow. After a brief inspection, Pa emerged, swung his rifle back over his shoulder and nodded. He wheeled the handcar around the back, out of sight, while Laura and Mary helped Ma push aside some of the rubble blocking the doorway.
Several large, empty windows invited the woods into the front room, but a short hallway connected this exposed area to a more sheltered space around the corner. Tentatively, Ma led Laura and Mary deeper into the abandoned building. When they came to the back room, Ma unwrapped Baby Grace and handed her to Mary.
Laura wandered about the room, examining the mysterious shapes that rose from the shadows. There had been ruins scattered around the Big Woods near their home. Buried nearby, Laura had sometimes found broken glass bottles and rusted pots and pans and Merican coins but never the great treasures of Lectric Times that Pa talked about in his stories. This abandoned creetrock chamber promised a better sort of scav, and Laura gazed about in awe.
Beams of sunlight broke through in patches from the dilapidated roof, and it gave the place an eerie quality. Laura stopped in front of a pile of rubble. It was more than twice her height. Bent metal bars and yellowed shards of hardmold weaved in and out of one another, all so twisted and weathered that it took Laura a moment to recognize the outlines of tables and chairs within the chaotic heap. A sunbeam fell directly down upon the rubble pile, illuminating its jagged surfaces and casting deep shadows into its hollows. Flakes of snow rode the sunbeam downward, gently settling and disappearing into the nest of broken furniture.
“Don’t touch it, Laura. You’ll get yourself cut again,” hissed Mary in Laura’s ear.
Mary stood behind her, bouncing Baby Grace against her shoulder.
“I wasn’t!” Laura hissed back, though she had just been thinking of doing exactly that. A long rod that looked like it once had been the leg of a tall stool jutted off to the side of the pile, and Laura couldn’t help eyeing it, wondering if she could pull it free without upsetting the rest of the pile.
The creetrock building had been a restrant, Ma told them. She too was taking stock of the room, noting where the snow sprinkled down through the ceiling’s gaping holes and where it did not. When Laura asked what a restrant was, Ma explained it was a place where wealthy Mericans would go during Lectric Times and have their suppers cooked for them by servants. She pointed to a pile of broken clay plates lying in a corner.
“For a few coppers, you could come inside, and the restrant servants would cook you all manner of food and then bring it to you right at your table. Through that doorway’s the kitchen, if I’m not mistaken,” she said and pointed to a pair of rusted iron doors, one of which hung crooked by a single hinge.
Mary thought a restrant sounded like a marvelous place. Laura wasn’t sure. What if she didn’t like the food the servants brought her? She would have to eat all of it, for she knew it was very bad to waste food. She thought she would rather eat food cooked by Ma, who knew just what Laura liked and always gave her perfect Laura-sized portions.
But she knew that a special place like a restrant was probably full of special lectric scav, and she eyed the iron kitchen doors, wondering what treasures might be found in the chamber beyond.
Suddenly, just as Laura was considering this, she heard a noise. It came from behind the doors, from the room that Ma said had once been the restrant’s kitchen. The noise was a clattering, as if a collection of objects had been knocked to the floor. Ma froze. Cautiously and quietly, she stepped in front of Mary and Laura. She put a finger to her lips to tell them they must not make a sound. Laura inched closer to Mary and clutched her sister’s hand. They all stood still and watched the doors. They hardly dared to breathe.
That was how Pa found them when, a moment later, he came tramping down the hallway, dusting snow from his clothes. When he saw the looks of fear on their faces, he stopped in his tracks. His eyes met Ma’s. Then he followed Ma’s gaze towards the kitchen doorway. Now all four of them stood still, watching the iron doors. Laura felt her heart beating in her chest. Another clattering sound, fainter but unmistakable, came from the dark recesses of the restrant kitchen.
Pa nodded and unshouldered his rifle. He smiled at the girls to let them know it was ok. He was just being cautious. He crept closer to Ma.
“Place has sat undisturbed for quite a time by the looks,” he whispered. “A fair bit of settling’s to be expected after the knocking about we’ve been doing.”
Still, he held the rifle’s muzzle aloft as he approached the iron doors.
Pa peered as best he could through the gap left by the crooked right-hand door, which leaned drunkenly from its one good hinge. It did not seem as if Pa saw anything out of place. After pressing his eye to the gap from every angle he could think, he turned back to Ma and shrugged. Then, gingerly, he tested the door. The rusted old iron let out shrill creak, but begrudgingly the door gave way. Pa eased it open.
“Charles . . .” Ma whispered. The word hung there, floating. There was a breathless tone of fear to Ma’s voice that Laura did not care for, not at all.
Pa’s head disappeared behind the door for a moment or two. When he emerged, he shrugged again and motioned to Ma.
“Lamp,” he said, mouthing the word silently.
Ma picked Pa’s flint out of his satchel. Then she went to the lantern that sat beside their bedrolls and lit the wick. She crept towards the kitchen doors and handed the lantern to Pa. Pa kissed her on the cheek. Then he nudged open the door once again and squeezed his way through the narrow opening. Laura saw him set the lamp down on the floor just as the door creaked shut once again, leaving only a flickering glow dancing within the gaps in the doorway.
Ma backed away and crouched beside Laura and Mary. They listened to the sounds of Pa picking his way around the kitchen, sliding obstacles out of his way, rummaging in debris.
Then suddenly there was a more frightening noise. It was a growl, the growl of a wild animal. It was like a wolfdog’s growl, only it was higher pitched, less resonant and guttural. Beside her, Mary gasped and clutched Laura’s hand more tightly. Ma stood, placing herself between the girls and the terrible sound coming from the old lectric kitchen. Laura noticed for the first time that Ma had picked an iron table leg out of the pile of broken furniture. She gripped it in her fist like a club.
“Charles? . . .” Ma called, her voice forcefully level.
Suddenly, the door burst open as Pa stumbled backwards. It lurched back and forth on its single hinge until finally the hinge snapped.
The old iron door broke free at last. Briefly, it stood there teetering, as if unsure what to do next. Then, it came crashing to the floor. The door was lighter than it looked. Still, it made Laura jump when it landed with a hollow thud, kicking up clouds of dust and dried leaves that swirled towards them. Beside her, Mary shrieked.
As the dust settled, Laura peeked her head out from behind Ma. The kitchen doorway stood open. The lantern sat on the floor just past the threshold, throwing big enigmatic shadows across every surface. Black against the lamplight, Pa’s silhouette stood in the doorway. He held his rifle high, aiming back towards the kitchen.
“Charles!” said Ma. “Charles! What’s in there?”
All at once, the tension in Pa’s body seemed to melt away. To everyone’s surprise, he let out what sounded like a laugh. He set down his rifle. Turning to them, he wiped a hand across his forehead and then all the way down through his bushy beard. He shook his head and chuckled in relief.
“It’s alright,” he told them. “Just let myself get startled, that’s all. It’s alright.”
“Is something in there, Charles?” Ma demanded. “What is it?”
“What is it?” said Pa. “I’ll be hanged if I even know how to answer that. And you’ll not believe me til you lay your own eyes on it in any case. Laura, fetch me a strip of saltmeat from my pouch. Let’s see if we can tempt him out.”
Confused but excited, Laura let go of Mary’s hand and went to Pa’s leather satchel. Never taking her eyes off the dark recesses of the kitchen, where shadows cast by the lamp continued to dance, she opened the satchel. She pulled out a bundle of dried meat wrapped in hide and removed a piece. Then she crept up behind Pa and handed him the hunk of salted deer.
Pa tore the meat into even smaller strips and placed one just outside the kitchen doorway, resting it on top of the fallen iron door. He then motioned for Laura to back away, and, together, they joined Mary and Ma and Baby Grace at the other end of the room. Pa told them to be very quiet.
Minutes passed. They stared into the flickering lamplight. Nothing happened. Then, softly at first, there was a skittering sound. It was the sound of claws scraping against the creetrock floor. Through the doorway, Laura saw a shadow rising within the kitchen. Slowly, the shadow grew. It rose tall and fearsome from its unseen source, its shape warped into grotesque proportions by the lantern lying on the floor.
As the skittering came closer, the shadow took the form an enormous four-legged beast, lumbering its way towards them. Mary squeaked in alarm and clutched Pa’s coat.
“Shhh,” he told her. “There’s no danger. Watch.”
The monstrous shadow loomed ever larger, growing more distended as the creature approached the lamp. Suddenly, it appeared in doorway. It crossed in front of the lantern. Instantly, the shadow shrunk back down, whipping around in the other direction. The creature paused there in the doorway, a black silhouette surrounded by the flickering lamplight.
Laura couldn’t believe how tiny it was. The shadow had only appeared tall and ferocious because of the angle of the lantern. The little black shape crouching in the kitchen doorway was no bigger than a loaf of soybread.
The creature crawled tentatively forward. It snuffled, extending its head towards the bait that Pa had laid. As it approached, unable to resist the scent of the saltmeat, its features finally became visible.
Laura had never seen an animal like it, not even in the pages of A Children’s Illustrated Book of Animals. It had a flat snout like a pig and cheeks that drooped down over its mouth in a comical grimace. Its coat looked black at first, but as it snuffled closer, Laura saw that it was brindled all over in light brown stripes like a tiger. Its head seemed too large for its body, and it waddled forward on a set of stubby, thoroughly impractical, legs. Queerest of all were its ears. They were enormous. They stuck straight up from its little round head like a bat’s. Laura could not have imagined anything less terrifying.
“Pa . . .” she whispered, “What is that thing?”
Pa scratched his beard thoughtfully as the creature made its way to the strip of saltmeat. It was missing an eye, Laura now saw. Its remaining eye, unnaturally large and round, regarded them warily even as the little animal began gnawing at the meat.
“It’s a dog,” said Pa. “No doubt about it now that I’ve had a better look. But if it isn’t the head-scratchingest dog I’ve ever laid eyes on, I’ll eat my hat. I’ve run across packs of wild ratdogs not much bigger than this. But I can’t say I’ve ever seen the like of those ears. Some jimmed-up breed from before the Bust I reckon. Where’s a dog like that come from, that’s the real question. Hard to imagine such a thing surviving long in the woods on those stubby little legs.”
Pa approached the pigdog slowly. It backed away, abandoning its treat, and began to growl its high-pitched growl. The sound now seemed adorable rather than frightening. Pa crouched low and extended a gentle hand. The little dog stopped growling. It tilted its head and examined Pa with its one bulging black eye. Finally, it crept forward to snuffle at Pa’s hand. When Pa offered it another scrap of deer meat, the dog snatched it right from his hand. Pa laughed.
“Certainly tame enough,” he said. “How’d you get here, little fella? Where’s your people?”
The little dog allowed Pa to reach out and scratch it between its big bat ears. Giggling, Laura and Mary both rushed to Pa’s side. The pigdog feigned a meager retreat but quickly bounded forward again to greet the girls.
“He’s friendly!” Mary exclaimed.
They watched the dog bury its face once again in the deer meat.
“Hungry, but he’s not malnourished,” Pa observed. “Escaped from some bunker do you suppose? Uncle Freddie used to say, bunkerfolk have the queerest things squirreled away in their holes.”
“Nonsense, Charles,” said Ma. “I haven’t heard talk of bunkerfolk since I was a little girl. They all died off years ago. Perhaps he ran off from a trade convoy that passed this way. Who knows what strange pets they breed out west?”
Pa and Ma continued their discussion in low, serious tones. Laura could not bring herself to pay any attention. She and Mary were absorbed by the slobbering antics of the little brindled pigdog. When he had finished all the deer meat, he licked Mary’s hand. Then he licked Laura’s. Then he yipped and spun around in a happy circle.
“What should we call him?” asked Mary.
Laura thought of the story Ma would sometimes tell them at bedtime, about a little boy who uses some magic soybeans to climb up to the moon.
“Let’s call him Jack.”