by Orson Scott Card
Free Lancers: Alien Stars IV, ed. Elizabeth Mitchell (Baen, September 1987)
The Folk of the Fringe (Phantasia Press/Tor, April 1989)
It was a good scavenging trip eastward to the coast that summer, and Jamie Teague
had a pack full of stuff before he even got to Marine City. Things were peaceful
there, and he might have stayed, he was that welcome. But along about the start of
August, Jamie said his good-byes and headed back west. Had to reach the
mountains before the snows came.
He made fair time on his return trip. It was only September, he was already just
west of Winston -- but Jamie was so hungry that kudzu was starting to look like
salad to him.
Not that hunger was anything new. Every time he took this months-long trip from
his cabin in the Great Smokies to the coast and back, there were days here and
there with nothing to eat. Jamie was a champion scavenger, but most houses and all
the old grocery stores had their food cleaned out long since. Besides, what good
was it to scavenge food? Any canned stuff you found nowadays was likely to be
bad. What Jamie looked for was metal stuff folks didn't make no more. Hammers.
Needles. Nails. Saws. One time he found this little out-of-the-way hardware store
near Checowinity that had a whole crate of screws, a good size, too, and not a
speck of rust. Near killed him carrying the whole mess of it back, but he couldn't
leave any; he didn't get to the coast that often, and somebody was bound to find
anything he left behind.
This trip hadn't been as good as that time, but it was still good, considering most of
the country was pretty well picked over by now. He found him some needles. Two
fishing reels and a dozen spools of resilient lime. A lot of ordinary stuff, besides.
And things he couldn't put in his pack: that long visit in Marine City on the coast;
them nice folks north of Kenansville who took him in and listened to his tales. The
Kenansville folks even invited him to stay with them, and fed him near to busting
on country ham and sausage biscuits in the cool of those hot August mornings. But
Jamie Teague knew what came of staying around the same folks too long, and so
he pushed on. Now the memory of those meals made him feel all wishful, here on
fringe of Winston, near three days without eating.
He'd been hungry lots of times before, and he'd get hungry lots of times again, but
that didn't mean it didn't matter to him. That didn't mean he didn't get kind of
faint along about midday. That didn't mean he couldn't get himself up a tree and
just sit there, resting, looking down onto I-40 and listening to the birds bullshitting
each other about how it was a fine day, twitter twit, a real fine day.
Tomorrow there'd be plenty to eat. Tomorrow he'd be west of Winston and into
wild country, where he could kill him a squirrel with a stone's throw. There just
wasn't much to eat these days in the country he just walked through, between
Greensboro and Winston. Seems like everybody who ever owned a gun or a
slingshot had gone out killing squirrels and possums and rabbits till there wasn't a
That was one of the problems with this part of Carolina still being civilized with a
government and all. Near half the people were still alive, probably. That meant
maybe a quarter million in Guilford and Forsyth counties. No way could such a
crowd keep themselves in meat just on what they could farm nearby, not without
gasoline for the tractors and fertilizer for the fields.
Greensboro and Winston didn't know they were doomed, not yet. They still
thought they were the lucky ones, missing most of the ugliness that just tore apart
all the big cities and left whole states nothing but wasteland. But Jamie Teague had
been a ways northward in his travels, and heard stories from even farther north, and
what he learned was this: After the bleeding was over, the survivors had land and
tools enough to feed themselves. There was a life, if they could fend off the
vagabonds and mobbers, and if the winter didn't kill them, and if they didn't get
one of them diseases that was still mutating themselves here and there, and if they
wasn't too close to a place where one of the bombs hit. There was enough. They
Here, though, there just wasn't enough. The trees that once made this country
beautiful were going fast, cut up for firewood, and bit by bit the folks here were
either going to freeze or starve or kill each other off till the population was down.
Things would get pretty ugly.
From some stories he heard, Jamie figured things were getting pretty ugly already.