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Nicholas had feared them in the beginning, when there numbers were unimaginable and they packed into the tunnels, crawling on top of one another in a never-ending search for food. But there were less of them now and Nicholas was no longer a child. He had come to an understanding over the years. He knew how they searched for food and how they nested. He could tell them male from female. And, now, he knew with certainty that they were leaving him.
So Nicholas went to old man Quintana to tell him the news.
"They're going away," he said, setting down a skewer with four rats on it, "migrating or something. And I'm going with ‘em."
The old man sat in a lounger in the basement of the community library he called home. He appraised the food for a moment then looked up at the ceiling and the tarpaulin that Nicholas had helped him tape up when the water pipe had burst. "Off with your herd, eh?"
"They're moving north. Out of the lowlands."
"You think they know something?" said the old man as he rose to his feet with obvious pain.
Nicholas shrugged. Quintana shuffled over to one of the writing desks and began plying through a stack of hardbacks. "I don't need a book this time, Mr. Quintana. No questions neither. I just brung you the rats because... well, I gotta go."
"They'll come back, Nick. Hopefully you'll come back with them," he said and picked up one of the hardbacks, cradling it to his chest. "I won't live forever," he continued, looking down below his pajama pants at his swollen and vein-studded feet. Then the old man sighed and gazed out at the light filtering through the sub-level windows. "I suppose I'm thankful that this place has proven to be such an unattractive target for looters. Still, I'd hate to think that when I'm gone that this edifice, all this knowledge." His chin quivered. He grasped the book tightly where his grey beard spilled into his unbuttoned pajama top. "Would just dissolve."
That same morning Nicholas Soams stuffed his few belongings and a milk carton filled with water into a backpack and began to follow the trail of dung and nesting material northward through the tunnels. By afternoon the surroundings were no longer familiar and his progress slowed. After stopping for a meal of pecans, dandelions, and smoked rat, he came to an open culvert. A creek ran into the drain and the cement bunker had been taken over by mud and cattails. Nicholas climbed up into a forested ravine and stopped, listening for any of the sounds of man above the background noise of cicada calls. Nothing. He made his way slowly toward a line of houses, looking for a manhole cover and a length of pipe uncluttered enough to make a suitable campsite.
The houses here were large.