The rapid draining of Lake Michigan had a synergistic effect coupled with the effects of climate change currently occurring. The aquifer that covered the entire great lakes region, and portions following the Mississippi River basin nearly to its delta, was soon shrunken to a weak image of its former glory. The positive pressure it had exuded upon the Gulf of Mexico all that kept the waters pure, the sudden lack caused salt water to leech into the watershed. Coupled with attacks upon the infrastructure from domestic terrorist supplied by the countries many international enemies, soon left the largest economy in the world in great difficulty. When the largest exporter of food and farming equipment in the world stops shipping almost overnight, the problem rapidly grew to encompass the entire world. Before long the enemies soon suffered a similar crash of their own economies as they discovered how entwined the extremely complex trade structure was. The true death toll from the many causes of The Fall were impossible to measure, as most governments throughout the world collapsed or were overthrown over the next several years.
* * *
She had been watching the farm for several days. One of many in the area, this one seemed still untouched. The nearest government was more than a day away, and no other people nearby. The other farms were part of the old agri-businesses of the teens and twenties, but this one was an old family farm. There were treasures to be found here.
Her name was Kayla, and she was thirteen years old. The elders of her old clan spoke of the times from before she was born, when there was gas to power the rusted, desiccated hulks that littered the roads. She had been to some of the big electric cities, with lights as far as the eye could see, but here with the fallen electric lines, and only corpses to see, there were none of those miracles. Here the biggest miracle, was a small windmill spinning languorously in the gentle wind. Not one of those monstrous, burned-out contraptions as big as old-time buildings, but a small handmade wooden mill spinning to some purpose near the fields. Evidence that someone had been working showed in the small patch of green fields near the house.
She whistled for her dogs, who sat where they were ordered earlier, watching for any trouble. The wary skittish look in her eyes, told of troubles she had not foreseen in the past, and the mental scars she bore as a result. Eight dogs came to her call, silent and focused, obedient to their training. She smiled and touched each on their heads, with a small gesture and different whistles, she posted individual dogs like sentries as she moved to the house.
The house had almost a handmade feel to it. While built of the old-time pieces and parts, there were wood accents carved by hand, and some of the paint faded, peeling though it was, showed the love and care that went into fixing the place to hominess. Definitely not one of the agri-businesses, this was someone’s home for certain. As she walked up the rickety stairs to the front porch, she saw just one set of boot prints in the dust. Large prints, probably belonging to a large man, for a moment she shrank, and a tell-tale of fear shone in her eyes. The growls of her faithful dogs reminded her that she had friends now and need not fear one man by himself any longer. Anyway, the footprints were themselves gathering dust, sign that it had been days ago that they were made. She moved to the front door, with glass still intact, one of many treasures she’d find here today, intact glass was worth a fortune.
She found the door locked, and not wanting to damage the glass, she decided to check the back of the house first. Again, posing one of the dogs to guard the front, she retrieved her wagon, much like a wheel-barrow with four large wheels, it held her lunch and several bags, she would need them all to gather all the treasures this pristine home sheltered. Moving carefully around the side of the house, she gasped with wonder, as she spied the bounty hidden behind the house. Green, nearly a hundred feet wide, with rows of flowering plants, and fruit in several colors. This would feed her for years, if she could take it with her, or trading in one of the trade towns scattered along the highways, she could earn nearly anything she might want. She could see now, that the windmill was pulling water from the ground in a constant dribble and releasing it into troughs that fed the garden and the fields she had noticed before. A practical irrigation system, unlike anything she had seen before, but she had eyes only for fresh berries, vegetables, and leafy greens, treasure beyond measure.
She filled several bags with fruits and vegetables, and some of the hand tools neatly laid nearby. As she moved to the back of the garden she found several crosses, obviously grave markers from those who came before. She could not read, so the names on the markers meant nothing to her. She nodded her head to them respectfully, and thanked them for the bounty. It was important to appease any ghosts when scavenging from their houses, and anyway a little respect never hurt anyone. Enough food for several weeks once she preserved some, and these old farms always had means to preserve food. Tonight, though she would eat fresh food, something she seldom managed.
The back door had only small pieces of glass, and so she was not afraid to damage the door getting in. Pulling out a big hunk of metal, called a Halligan tool, she pried and levered the door open. After expertly prying the glass from the doors, she made her way into the house. She marveled at the neatness of the unplundered house, as she picked up more loot than she could reasonably carry. Her plan was to hide some of the loot, and make a second, or even third trip to gather it all. While the bounty of the garden and the small field were nearly priceless, the food would only last for a short time. To her, the great prize was the stock of canning jars, some already filled with food, these she would take with her on the first trip, one of the glass jars with an unused pressure seal was wealth itself. Passing up the broken plates and cups, and most other kitchen ware, only the fine, black, cast-iron skillet, still shining with seasoning made it to her wagon.
Finally ascending to the upper floor, she found the former owner, and she had to calm her dog Justin, as his hackles rose upon seeing the body. Vermin had not been at it yet, and even flies were minimized, due to the general dryness of the air. While she did not much care for men, she still was raised to respect the dead. She covered his body with a hand made quilt from the bed nearby. Corpses aside, the room was tidy and neat. She started to gather more from the rooms upstairs, more blankets and quilts that she might want in a few months, picture books from the children’s rooms, and clothing that fit her well, probably from those buried outside, she thanked them again as she gathered her loot. In the room with the dead man, she found little of use, the gun used for suicide had several bullets still in it, and those were of course quite valuable. On a table were several pretty objects, hair combs like her mother used to wear, ribbons that used to tie up hers when she was a baby, and the most beautiful, shiny, gold necklace. While it all seemed useless right now, she might be able to sell it later, and it weighed very little, not hard to justify some beauty as well.
She gathered enough loot for at least three trips. She separated it into piles for later transport. One pile was bulky things that would keep, blankets, heavy clothing, heavy tools and the like. The second pile consisted of higher value things that would not spoil, like canned goods and such, and the last pile, all the fresh food from the garden, the firearms, because she also found a varmint rifle with a whole box of shells, her dogs would eat well, and the pretties found upstairs. The first pile, she hid under a tarp a short distance from the house, thinking that another scavenger might miss it, the second pile she stuffed into an old burnt-out wreck several minutes away, figuring that no one would search it for anything of value, and the final pile, she loaded into her wagon to take home. She had stashed a bicycle nearby, and once hooked up to the wagon, it made pulling the load much easier. While the noon sun was quite overbearing, she had drunk her fill of water, and even grabbed some bottles of the stuff in case she might become thirsty. It never paid to ignore fresh water, as hard as it was to come by lately. Her hide was a few hours away, and while she was quite skinny, her legs were used to the constant labor of bicycling, wiry might be a better term. Accompanied by her faithful dogs, the last part of her trip was secluded and hidden. She stopped to be sure no one was following her, and that none were hiding around her house. The last bit of the trip was around several derelict cars, behind some dried-up old trees, and down in a drainage culvert. Originally there had been tools and things stored for working on or repairing the roads, like some sort of cache, but these were old long before she was born, and likely no one remembered that they were here.
During the trip home she took several breaks to kill rabbits and squirrels, all looking even skinnier than her, life was hard for everyone, it seems, but her dogs needed to eat, and she was alright with some rabbit in her stew too. Her first actions were to camouflage the entrance again so that she need not worry about anyone chancing upon her. She wheeled her bike and wagon inside, and prepared dinner for her good dogs. Rabbit and squirrel stew with fresh vegetables pleased them immensely, one of the hoarded dog biscuits each for dessert. She pedaled a standing bike near her bed that charged up a battery for her night light. That final task done, she lay down in a giant pup-pile and looked over the treasures that she had gathered. She ran the brown polished combs through her gnarled hair, imagining that she looked beautiful like her mother, but from before, not what she looked like after, she preferred not to think about then. She also gently stroked and rubbed the silky ribbons, soft and cool in her hands, she had not felt anything so fine in many years. She leafed through a few children’s books, and some with pictures from before the fall, finally ending with the pretty necklace. It was polished and shiny, like it was glowing in the light of her lamp.
The heart shaped locket was slightly more than an inch wide, and about a quarter of an inch thick. The whole thing was covered in small decorations, like flowers and leaves and such, etched right into the metal. It was only by happenstance that she managed to push on the special clasp, and the locket sprung open revealing a secret compartment. Inside, she found a black and white picture of a woman with black hair complete with the combs that she found earlier. The woman had a pretty smile, like she was smiling to a secret friend. Kayla imagined that she was her secret friend, and that they were smiling to one another. It had been some time since she had any friend but Justin and the other dogs lying beside her. Like her mother used to say, “If you lie down with dogs, you get to wake up, causer they won’t let anything happen to you.” She casually itched at some fleas in her hair as she turned off the light, and went to sleep in her warm puppy-pile.
The next several days she managed to retrieved all three of her piles of loot, and was going to try for a fourth, when she saw a professional team in an electric truck working the same road, it was good fortune that she had managed to take all of the good stuff before they came. She took several days resting near her home, sniping small animals for the pot, preserving some of the food from her latest find, and relaxing with her babies. She was driven inside, when light rain started up, meaning she would have fresh water for some time, truly a good thing.
* * *
Kayla didn’t like going to Mama June’s. Mama was a bit creepy, and there were always some men at the outpost. She was tempted to stay in her home, safe with her friends, but she’d recently made a good haul, that she knew would earn her some nice things. Mama June paid really well for glass or mirrors, and things like that. Kayla had found a house with several whole sheets in the doors and windows. Not only that, but she also found some fresh fruits and vegetables. She knew Mama couldn’t pass those up. She packed a wagon full of goodies scavenged from the old farm, including the pieces of glass, wrapped in blankets to keep them from breaking. While most of the canning jars she’d come across, were filled with preserved food, she did include several empty jars, with perfect lids, those would fetch a good price too.
She hooked her bicycle to the wagon and whistled to her good boys to come along. The dogs were excited to go out, cause after each trip, they received one of the priceless biscuits she kept hoarded. She gave them the look that meant all business, and they all settled into their spots. One of the reasons she disliked going to Mama June’s, was that her dogs were not allowed. She normally didn’t go anywhere that her boys couldn’t follow, but Mama’s was the closest outpost, and the one likely to give her the best price. She left before sun up, hoping to avoid meeting other travelers; you never knew when they might try to take your stuff, or worse. It took the better part of 8 hours of hard riding, along with a few stops to eat lunch, shared of course, and use her new varmint rifle to shoot some squirrels she spotted, for the boys to eat later. It was a bit after noon when she saw the outpost. Bad people sometime hid amongst the derelict cars, so they could jump out at you. Now that she was past the dangerous part of the road, she hid away her guns. The rifle had to go into the wagon, but the big pistol she’d found recently, so big it barely fit her hands, she put into the hidden place under her bicycle seat, just in case.
She pedaled up to the gate to Mama’s, and shouted to be let inside. The gateman was kinda creepy too, all greasy, and the way he watched her butt when she rode away from him. She gave him the look that settled her dogs, hoping it’d work on him too. She whistled the special commands to her boys, and they all went to different hiding spots outside the gate. Justin, the oldest of her dogs, and her very special boy, did not like leaving her side, and he let her know with a small whine. She scratched him behind the ears to let him know it would be ok, and sent him with the others. As she pedaled the rest of the way to Mama’s place, she heard the gate slam shut behind her. While she was uncomfortable without her friends along, she had been to Mama’s before, and was sure it would be ok.
Mama was a tall skinny woman almost 2m tall, and she had a comforting smile, that helped put her to ease. Kayla had been coming to Mama’s for her entire thirteen-year life, even before her mom had been killed, they had used Mama’s almost like a base. “Well, look who’s here, it’s been an age since you were here last, Kayla girl. How you been child?” Kayla smiled in return.
“I found some treasures, Mama, I know you’ll love ‘em. You’ll be so geeked when you see.” All of her tension left her, when she thought, about the coming deal. “Come see what I found.” Mama followed her out, and marveled at the whole panes of glass, the intact mirrors, she looked interested in the canning jars and some other items, but Kayla knew she had her hooked with the fresh vegetables and the small box of strawberries.
“Very nice, child. I haven’t seen fresh berries in a while. Let’s talk over some tea, I’m sure we can make a good deal.” They haggled for a half-hour, finally agreeing to nearly everything Kayla wanted. Probably the best trade, was maintenance for her bike as well as a new tire pump. Twice this week she had to walk her bike and the wagon due to some problem. After loading her wagon with all of her trades, she sat with Mama waiting for the mechanic to finish her bike. She started to feel sick and sleepy. “Are you ok child…” and she heard nothing for some time.
She felt like she was floating, and could barely open her eyes. From slitted eyes she saw that she was naked in a bathtub. She felt someone scrubbing her hair, and tried to ask, “Whaa…”
“Just making you look pretty for your new husband sweety,” Mama June said from behind her. She tried to fight to stay awake, or even to just move her hands, but found herself fading again. When she woke again, the sleepy feeling was replaced with pain and nausea. She was laying on her side in a moving box, with her hands tied behind her. Her nausea became too much, with added motion sickness. As she started to retch, there was nowhere for her to turn, so she was forced to vomit where she lay, with some of it splashing on her, and of course she had to lay in it. As soon as it started, she heard a man cursing.
“Damn it, don’t throw up in the wagon!” The gruff angry voice was replaced with an ugly face scowling at her. He grabbed her from where she lay, which she now recognized as a buckboard wagon pulled behind some animal. As he manhandled her, she realized she had no clothes. Her stomach was rumbling and upset, and she gagged again. “Oh no you don’t,” he said, as he forced her to her knees on the side of the road. “You’re not tossing yer cookies on me. I don’t get paid enough fer that crap.” As she finished throwing up, the pain from her stomach was joined by pain lower down, and she saw blood and some nasty fluid coating her thighs. She started to cry from confusion and pain. She was startled by rapid movement from the corner of her eye, and a surprised yelp coming from behind her. Her head was becoming clearer after eliminating the drugs from her belly. She started turning around, and saw her boys worrying at the squirming man that hurt her. Justin had his jaws closed on the man’s throat, while two more of her babies were holding down his arms. After several minutes, he stopped squirming, and all she felt was relief.
No matter how many times someone said that dogs don’t really think, Justin was the proof they were wrong. Somehow, he managed to figure out she was in the wagon, got the rest of the dogs, and followed along until he had an opportunity to save her. “Justin, good boy, good boy. Come here baby, help me out.” With help from her dogs, she was able to remove the rope tied around her arms. She found some clothes that fit in the wagon along with some trade goods. She cleaned herself up, turned the horse around, headed the way they came. It took some time to completely clear the cobwebs from her head, but she finally figured out where they were. Somehow, she lost the rest of the day, drugged by Mama June. It would be dark soon, and they were still several hours from Mama June’s. She intended to get her things back, all that was owed her, and maybe some more.
The time flew by as they headed back to the outpost. She was in an angry state, and was not thinking clearly, or perhaps she’d have run and hidden rather than face her betrayer. Instead, filled with righteous anger that only exists in a teenager that has been terribly wronged. Whether smart or not, by the time the moon was high, she came in sight of the walls of Mama June’s. There were still lights on and the sound of a generator running inside the enclosure. With the noise of machinery, and some raised voices, no one heard the small noise she made climbing over the fence, and opening the gate for her boys to come in. She went first to find her bike and her wagon. Everything had been taken from her wagon, including her rifle. Fortunately, the secret under her seat had not been found. She first wheeled her wagon and bike out of the outpost. Her initial plan was to point the gun at June and get her things, but from the sounds coming from her place, there were several men inside with her, and Kayla couldn’t face them all. As she was trying to decide what to do next, one man came out alone stumbling for the outhouse. She grabbed a metal bar laying nearby, and waited behind the building for him to emerge. She hit him as hard as she could in the back of the head, it was the creepy man from the gate earlier. He dropped without a word. She swung the bar at his head again, and again, and a few more times until her arms grew tired, and he stopped twitching.
A few minutes later, someone else came out looking for the first man. She was not as lucky the second time. There was blood everywhere, and this man not as drunk as the first. He started to yell for help, when Kayla whistled Justin and her boys into action. The man tried to pull some weapon from his pants, but was just too slow. The screaming started almost instantly, and almost drowned out the snarling of eight dogs that were shredding him like a squirrel. While they made fairly quick work of him, it was not quite fast enough to be ready for June and her men to run out of the trading post door. June was first out the door, took one look at the huge cannon, too big for the teenager’s hands pointing at her head. With survival skills honed by years of larceny and deceit; she dove for the ground instantly. Kayla had never fired a handgun before, and certainly nothing with the recoil of a .45. Fortunately for her, she did not know enough to unchamber the round that was in the pistol when she found it. Even more fortunately, she didn’t shoot herself handling the weapon. Unfortunate for the two men following June out the door, the lucky shot hit the mechanic center of mass. The young girl stood only 1.5 meters tall, mostly from poor nutrition during her formative years, so the round entered his chest at an upward angle, with an exit wound the size of a baseball, which then struck out the handyman behind him. The recoil of the heavy weapon held sprained her wrist, and she nearly dropped it. She advanced on Mama, whistling for Justin. The sight of the dog covered in blood cowed her completely. Setting Justin to guard the treacherous woman, Kayla went into the building and grabbed everything she was owed, and more besides. Ignoring Mama talking to her, she simply packed up her gear and stuff. As they were leaving, Justin ripped the heart-shaped golden locket from Mama’s hands, and brought it to his person. She pedaled out of the trade post, and never looked back.
She learned that Mama was killed soon after, and of course one of her acquisitions was a new box of dog biscuits When they got home, each of her boys got one with her thanks.