Authors: Daniel Kelley
Published by Burning Willow Press, LLC
Burning Willow Press, LLC (USA): 3724 Cowpens Pacolet Rd., Spartanburg, SC 29307
This edition published in 2065 by Burning Willow Press, LLC (USA)
Copyright © Daniel Kelley 2016
Cover Art © L. Bachman 2016
Editing © Michele Thompson 2016
Interior Format © KSowder Formatting Services 2016
All rights reserved.
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Dedicated to my father,
I’d never be a writer if it weren’t for you.
Chapter 1: Blue Devils
The chewing was frantic, desperate.
The boarded windows allowed a few rays of fading sunlight to sift through, giving the room an even gloomier look than the one supplied by the people not moving in it.
Of the multitude of odors in the room, not one of them was good. Prevailing, though, was a staleness, a scent of stagnation. And shit. There was the smell of shit.
The dog’s ribs were pushing out against its spotted fur and, when hit by the fading sunlight, looked like an oddly lifelike version of a Magic Eye optical illusion. Maybe a spaceship, if the angle was just right, or a football.
It was a mutt, no question. Maybe some collie, maybe some hound, maybe any number of things. All that was clear was that it was no more than 40 pounds, had short, patchy fur, and seemed ecstatic over the fact that, right now, it was eating.
The one-room cabin was mostly unfurnished, with only a small end table that now stood at the end of nothing. The powerless refrigerator and kitchen cupboards all stood open and barren.
Looking just as hungry as the dog, three people sat on the floor in the shadows, watching the unaware canine.
Closest to the dog, slouched low, her left arm flat on the floor, sat a young woman, maybe early 20s. Several days and zero showers ago, she was probably attractive — blonde, short, breasts that wanted to push out of whatever shirt she wore — and despite her ragged state, she still maintained some of her beauty. She was wearing a giant man’s sweatshirt that bore the name of the University of North Carolina. It was torn along the shoulder and bore brown, red and black stains. Her jeans, too, were torn and dirty. She was barefoot, and her hair sat tangled and gnarled atop her head.
Sitting a yard or so from each other in the middle of the room were the two men. The first was topless, with a makeshift sling made from his undershirt wrapped tightly around his dead right arm. His robust chest bore a tattoo of the interlocking UNC logo, and his arms, too, were smattered with ink. He must have been 6’6”, 250 even after the weight he had lost, and had an athletic build only accentuated by his state of undress and the stains on his torso and ragged cargo pants.
The other man was sitting cross-legged. He looked surprisingly clean, considering his companions. He had on a plain white T-shirt covered by an open blue button-down. The overshirt looked several sizes too large on him, as did the jeans cascading over his legs.
Each was thin. The woman and the smaller man were perhaps dangerously so, but it was the big guy who was eying the dog like he was Tasmanian Devil on a desert island and the dog had just become a honey ham.
Behind the three of them, not watching the dog, not watching anything in fact, slept an older man. He, more than the clean man, more than the woman, more even than the dog, looked emaciated. Like the big guy, he was shirtless, and his ribs traced lines across his midsection. His head was propped by a rolled-up windbreaker. As he slept, he rocked and shivered, though the temperature in the room couldn’t have been below 65 degrees.
The stench hung in the air, landing on the tongue as often as the nostril. The three who were awake all had looks of disgust mixed in with their hunger.
The room, other than the chewing, was silent. Not only was no one speaking, but, though it was early evening on a summer night, no crickets, no birds, no noises of any kind could be heard. Very occasionally, the old man would breathe a little more loudly in his sleep, or the big guy would grunt as he adjusted his arm, but for the most part, it was chewing amid the silence.
The dog noticed none of this, merrily crunching away on the last bits of his Alpo. Finally, he finished the meal and spun in a few small circles before trotting away from the bowl, wriggling as he walked. He bobbed directly to the woman, pushing underneath her hand with his head and rubbing one against the other. After a few seconds, she relented and began absentmindedly scratching, still looking at the dog’s now-empty bowl. Seeming satisfied she had discovered her purpose, the dog settled at her side, his head across her leg, and wagged his stubby tail.
The clean man watched all this without reaction. The bigger one, though, only stared for the briefest of moments before slapping the floor with his good hand. He struggled to his feet, almost tipping as he compensated for his dead arm. Standing up revealed a small handgun tucked into the waist of his pants. It was the kind that might have been stowed away in a purse for protection, a gun that didn’t “bang” so much as it “popped.”
He glared at the woman and dog for a moment, then turned away. He ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair for a moment and muttered, “Last bit of food. Last bit of food, and we give it to the
.” He spat “dog,” as though he were saying “rapist,” or, considering his college, “Blue Devil.”
dog food,” the woman said, though it sounded more like a routine than an argument.
“Honey, you give me two days without eating, and food is food. I can chew it, I’ll eat it. Don’t much care if it is dry-ass kibble.”
“We discussed this,” the other man said, uncurling his legs and keeping his gaze on the ground. “We give the dog the food this time. Maybe we find some later, maybe we don’t. We don’t, we eat the dog. Keep him alive now and he’ll feed us a lot better than any bag of Alpo. We can last a bit longer.”
The big man nodded and fell silent. Eventually, he muttered, “Damn it.” Then, more forcefully, “
, goddamnit, I’m hungry! If we’re gonna eat the dog, we’re eating him now!”
The other man stood up, though, at only about 5’8”, it couldn’t have been intimidating to the burly giant facing him. “No, Carl, we’re not,” he said, still calm. “We’re going to be here for a while. Long as we are, we have two options for food: the dog and —” he paused, looked to the ground, then to the old man behind him. “— and Mike. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not too excited about eating anyone’s father, let alone the father of one of my dining companions. The dog’s not big — he won’t feed us long. We wait long as we can.” Carl shook his head, fingering his hair again. “We haven’t heard anything from outside in days now — maybe it’s ended. Maybe someone will come for us soon. But maybe they won’t. We can’t keep being stupid.”
“Screw you,” Carl said, grabbing the gun from his waistband.
“What are you doing?” the woman asked, worried.
“I’m hungry,” Carl said again. “The dog’s food.”
Carl stopped. The other two turned to the voice. Even the dog, noticing something was up even when he failed to notice the gun pointed at him, raised his head to look to the old man. Carl blanched to see the man struggling to pull himself upright.
“Dad?” he said, his voice having going up almost a whole octave.
“You aren’t killing that dog.” Mike’s voice came out pained, breathless, belying his age even more than his withered body. Hearing the voice, the dog perked up, rose from the woman’s side and trotted over. He wagged his tail at the man, who returned the pleasant gaze for a second and used his right hand — the one he wasn’t using to hold himself up — to scratch behind the dog’s ear.
“Dad, we’ve got to,” Carl said in a whining tone. “I’m hungry. You’re starving. We don’t kill the dog, we die.”
“You aren’t killing the dog,” Mike said again, no bargain in his voice.
“Boy, give me the damn gun!”
Carl, abashed, let his arm fall to his side. His shoulder sagged like a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. He looked around for a moment, as though trying to find a loophole in his father’s demand. Finally, he trudged over and obeyed. Mike repositioned himself so he could sit upright.
He counted the remaining bullets. Two. In the silence of the moment, the first faint sounds could be heard some distance from the door. It was indistinguishable, but it was there nonetheless.
Mike replaced the clip and sighed. “I saw my daughter —” his voice cracked. “My daughter, my wife get attacked. Saw them die, right in front of me. I’m not about to see that happen to me — or, God forbid, my son. We shoot the dog, we don’t shoot the dog, we die one way or the other. There’s only one good way to do it. We ain’t makin’ it out of here, and you all know it. Just ain’t got the guts to say it.”
“You don’t know —”
“Don’t tell me what I know, son, I’ve lived this world a hell of a lot longer than you have.” Mike’s eyes began leaking tears, and he sniffled once as he spoke. Other than counting bullets, his right hand had never moved from the dog’s head. Staring at the gun, he said, “Two bullets left. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna become one of
.” He, too, had given a “Blue Devils” spit.
The sounds outside were getting louder and more recognizable, if no more understandable. They were distinctly human, though they were not words. A second later, a few tentative scratches at the door were evident. No one inside seemed to notice.
Carl had started crying, too, like his dad. So had the woman. The other man had backed against the wall. “What does that mean, Dad?” Carl asked.
“You know good and well what that means,” Mike said, angrily but calmly. He nodded to himself and, with a shaking hand, pointed the gun at Carl. Though the hand tremored, the aim was true — one shot, and Carl fell to the floor, dead.
The dog yipped and hopped up but, trusting Mike, didn’t yet run away. The woman cried out and tried to move forward.
Before she could make much of a move, though — and before the other man even tried — Mike turned the gun on himself, using their final bullet. At the second death, the dog began barking feverishly, only serving to increase the scratches and moans on the other side of the thin door.
The woman got halfway to Mike’s body before, realizing the futility, she stopped and turned to the other survivor. He stepped away from the wall at last, and she collapsed into his arms, sobbing.
For the briefest of moments, he tried to comfort her, but he at last noticed the noises outside. His head jerked up, all of a sudden a hundred percent more aware than he had been. He looked in every direction, seeming to try to locate the source of the sounds. After a second, he exhaled, then put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back so he could see her face.
She looked up to meet his gaze. “They’re almost here,” he said, the sternness of his gaze belying the attempted soothing tone of his voice. “Can you run?”
Her eyes went wide as she finally realized they were in danger. Finally, she nodded.
“Good,” he said, ushering her toward the back window, over the sink. A hammer sat on the counter, and he grabbed it as he leapt up. Quickly, he removed the boards, revealing no glass and a passage to the outside. She jumped onto the other side of the sink to help him and, as soon as the gap in the window was wide enough, he helped her through. Almost at the same time, the door on the other side of the room finally burst open, and what seemed like dozens of people streamed through.
People, though, in form only. The bodies coursing into the old room were humanoid, but there were certain, inarguable differences. The first one through was dressed in jeans and a Green Day T-shirt, with a leather strap on his wrist and ratty shoes on his feet. He was, though, missing a good bit of scalp, and had a patch of skull exposed to the air.
A later one, a female figure — in a light-colored short skirt and blue halter top — was walking around armless, staggering and moaning as she meandered. Her shoulders were no longer bleeding, but, judging from the stains on her clothes, they had been for a long time earlier.
The cleanest one of the group was still significantly dirtier than anyone in the room had been. He had no visible signs of injury, but his right leg dragged behind him as he shuffled.
Most of all, though, were the eyes. The eyes of the creatures must have had color at some point, but appeared as though they had since been run through a black-and-white processor. The whites were whiter, and the rest of the eye was a milky gray, certainly unlike any real human eye.
The man, still with the hammer, hastened his way through the window as well, casting one last, pitying look back at the two dead bodies and the still-barking dog. Seconds later, the dog stopped barking, as the first creature to reach it grabbed the canine by his haunches, lifted him up, and took a bite from his midsection.
The two runners never saw this, though. As soon as they were clear of the small house, the two of them ran as fast as their bodies would carry them. Behind them, a dog’s dying howl and the continued groans of their pursuers forcing through the open window were still on the air.