He walked along the dark and deserted street, eyes darting to the left. He was passing another row of overgrown yards and deserted houses, and he'd heard enough stories of what lurked in the tall grass to be wary. He listened for any sounds that might indicate the presence of one of the growing number of savage humans who frequently squatted in the abandoned suburban homes, feeding off the packs of wild dogs and feral cats that roamed the old neighborhoods. Some had been known to attack travelers, particularly those who still bore the basic trappings of civilization.
Civilization. It still existed, just not in the old suburban areas. Those cities still functioning were walled fortresses, the trains that ran between them armed and armored against the primitive tribes that roamed the weed-strewn blacktop of the old interstates. Civilization also existed far beyond the suburbs, in the smaller towns of rural America. But those places were becoming increasingly isolated, cut off from their urban cousins by distance and a widening cultural divide.
He was from one of those towns, a small farming community in what was once Pennsylvania. He was traveling to the city to find a doctor, one schooled in medicine, who could do for his small town what the largely self-taught healers could not. He had been told that there was an old suburban town that had not gone completely savage, and maintained its old rail connections to the city. He hoped the rumors were true. He was not sure he could walk the full distance to the city. He had walked so far already, and winter would be upon them before he could walk back. It was his hope that, should he find a doctor willing to return with him, the doctor would own an electric vehicle. The cities were awash in electricity, and the joltcars, as they were called, could run for many hundreds of miles on a single charge. He had never seen one before. Back home, the mill only generated enough electricity to power the farm vehicles and the town center. Personal electric power was a thing of the distant past, not seen in the small towns since they'd passed the Peak.
He'd read plenty of accounts of life before the Peak, and could see depictions of it in the old movies they showed on the communal television at the town center. He was always so awestruck to see how people had taken electricity and their ease of movement for granted in those days. The days of cheap and plentiful oil. But those days were long behind them, and they'd left the wilderness of the suburbs as their bitter legacy.
His musings cut short as he emerged from the old neighborhood onto what a beaten and weathered sign told him was State Highway 46. To his right was the barren emptiness of one of the ubiquitous shopping plazas that had sprouted up alongside roads like this during the Oil Age. He remembered reading that they had been called "strip malls". From where he was, he saw that some of the abandoned stores still had intact windows. He surmised that this strip mall had been built during the time just following the Peak, and had been made impervious to burglary and vandalism. He approached one, and could see old merchandise still hanging from the racks inside. The windows themselves were scuffed and dented, showing the effects of numerous failed attempts to breach them.
He also saw a number of faded posters hanging inside them, their words so bleached by the sun they were barely legible. One poster promised "Free Power! Free Heating Oil! Free Gasoline!" to any citizens who reported homosexuals and "political dissidents" to the authorities. He almost wished he could gain entry to the store to grab the poster. He was an avid collector of historical relics, and there was very little in his collection from the time most people referred to as The Purges.
It had been the beginning of the end of the central government; a time when alternate lifestyles and opposition politics were a ticket to the firing squad as a crumbling authority tried desperately to keep its hold on a fragmenting society. It hadn't lasted long, and only served to hasten the suburbs' descent into barbarism. The scarcity of oil took its toll on the reach of the government, and by the time he was born, the federal authorities controlled little more than the territory immediately surrounding Washington DC. From what little news his town received of the outside world, he gathered they didn't even hold that much these days.
He moved away from the old storefront, setting his steps upon the cracked asphalt of the old state highway and turning toward the pale light in the east. It was hours yet until dawn, but the bright lights of the city could be seen for miles. He would keep walking toward it, holding out hope that he would find that train station he'd been told about, while despairing at ever succeeding in his desperate mission.
So intent on his goal was he, that he didn't hear the soft pad of calloused bare feet behind him until it was too late.