Blinking, half his face coated in dust, the other in ash, the Non gazed into the morning sky – an indiscernible gray haze. He pulled back his goggles and rubbed his eyes with sooted palms, dusting off layers of filth collected in the night. He relieved himself into the cold embers of his campfire, fished out a strip of jerky, and took a drink of water. The road ran straight to the east without hill or curve, a straight path to an empty life. He shouldered his pack and began his slow hike to Stock.
He reached an overpass connecting the feeder roads over the highway. Poking out of the concrete was the cab of an eighteen wheeler, its grill warped from the impact. The Non paused and looked up at the mechanical troll daring him to cross under its bridge. It would have been just his luck if, after laying dormant in the desert for decades, all fifteen tons of steel decided to dislodge. The Non waited, but the semi just leered at him.
A mile or so further on, he passed a familiar sign riddled with bullet holes:
Exit 248. State Highway 67. FM 1776. Alpine. Sul Ross State University. NATS Midland-Odessa Jtn.
In the years before the blast, the sign was a relief, the first real welcome home and the end of an exhausting supply run. Trudging through the waste with a cart of food, repair supplies, and medicine, the children would drop their burden and shout their joy to the adults. His daughter would race toward the sign with the other children and hug the rusted posts giggling with happiness. From the mouths of children came a hope defying the apocalypse.
The sign groaned on its rusted legs; a bent piece of metal, marked with meaningless letters in a meaningless world, its bullet holes silent reminders to hope’s folly. Had she seen the same sign when she walked away from Number Two-Forty Eight for the last time, or did she see the joy of her youth? He placed a boot into her imagined footsteps, and walked away from his only home.
Stock, as far as he could remember, was a peaceful town. No more than fifty people, living in hollowed out buildings of a quiet, rural community. There were several children her age back then, and she’d run off with them to play games, throw rocks, and irritate the grown ups rather than do work with her father. On one occasion, she and this sandy-haired boy caught a black scorpion behind a boarded up gas station. The Non had a beer in his hand when she came to him, pinching the arachnid’s tail between thumb and forefinger. She held it aloft like some hideous trophy, eyes wide with pride and the eagerness to show off to her daddy. The Non jumped at the sight and slapped her hand. The scorpion fell and slipped his barb into her bare foot. She screamed and screamed. Then he cuffed her across the ear. Sting forgotten, she stared at him with those bulging, seven-year old eyes, not comprehending his violence.
He kicked up a cloud of dust. He didn’t mean to. He just hated stinging things so damn much. Her punishment had been swift, harsh, and unwarranted. Nine years later, she would be punished again, sent to wander the ashen world alone and forgotten. It was that kind of world now. He looked out over land. In the southwest, the Non could just make out mountain peaks breaking though the flat terrain like demon’s claws. Off to his left, was a broad plateau were a wind farm once stood proud in the desert sun as it soaked up the energy of pressure differentials. Now the turbines were collapsed and rusted, and he could almost hear their metallic groaning as they turned in the sickly breeze.
So enraptured by the decay around him, he didn’t hear the growling. There was a snap of sharp teeth, and he leapt back, dropping his pack in his fright. There were six of them with drawn back ears and snarling lips. Heads low and legs primed for the spring, they glared at the Non with fanged, yellowed teeth.
“Whoa, whoa, boys,” he placated, taking a step back.
They had dogs in the tunnel as work animals, though the Non had never kept one. The man who played vet kept a poster of dog breeds on his wall. His girl obsessed over it, and together they went over all the names during visits. He recognized the alpha as a poodle of about chest height with a mock of curly brown fur. It would have been cute if not for the fire raging in its eyes. A quick glance around let him take in the others. A terrier, a corgi, some kind of long-haired mutt missing a leg, a half-blind bloodhound, and a chihuahua. Despite its size, the chihuahua was the most annoyingly viscous of all.
The poodle took a growling step forward, eyes squinted within its bushy brows.
“Down,” the Non commanded. “Down!”
The dogs refused to obey. Five snarling canines regressed to their ancestral state and one yipping lap dog, which would no doubt retain its feisty nature well into the next apocalypse.
The Non hooked his right foot into the backpack’s strap and edged backwards, dragging the pack with him. The dogs, saliva dripping from lips, stalked after him.
“Get out of here!” he shooing them with a dismissive hand. The poodle snapped and tore off a piece of his thumb.
“Fuck!” he snapped, nursing his injured hand. His foot caught in the backpack and he stumbled backward, a cloud of ash rising from the impactl. Though dusted goggles, he saw the beasts approach, confident with prey on the ground. The Non’s heart hammered. This was why banishment was death. He saw his girl, alone and scared in a dead world, being mauled to death in the ruins of civilization.
He scooted back, never taking his eyes off the hazy outlines of the dogs, when he felt the revolver rub against his side. Hands covered in sweat and ash, he fumbled for the gun. For some reason, after contemplating suicide in myriad different ways, the idea of being torn apart by house pets did not appeal.
With a triumphant cry, he yanked the gun from his jacket and pointed it at the poodle. The dog snapped at it, and he instinctively drew back his hand. Of course the dogs didn’t fear the gun. What’s to fear from the unknown?
Well, let me introduce you.
He pointed the barrel at the animal, had a change of heart, then pointed it to the sky. The explosion rang out in the empty land like a macabre church bell. The dogs fled, and the Non was left alone with only the ringing in his ears to keep him company.
5 bullets left, he lamented.
He stood, dusted himself off, and stooped to gather the backpack. With a snarl, the poodle charged and knocked him back to the ground. The gun flew from his hand and landed in the ash with a gentle puff. The dog sank its teeth deep into the Non’s arm. He howled in pain as the poodle shook its head, driving the teeth deeper, the sickening thought of the animal biting clean trough the bone filled his petrified brain. In a panic, he beat at the dog over the head with his free hand, but, prone as he was, there was no force to the blow. The poodle growled only the fiercer.
The other dogs gathered round, barking their fury and confusion, but not joining in the attack. The gun was at least that effective.
Gritting his teeth, the Non scooted on his haunches toward the gun, eyes darting between the semi-circle of baying onlookers and the poodle attached to his arm. He glanced back. The gun was about six feet away. Sensing an opening, the poodle let go, lunging for his throat. He pushed back on it with his good arm, so the dog decided to worry his hand instead.
He screamed. The other dogs stopped barking as the two contenders fought over the Non’s hand. With a grunt, the Non punched the poodle in the face with all the leverage he could muster. The exhausted animal let go and stumbled back. Ignoring the pain in his left arm, the Non clawed toward the gun and grabbed it when the poodle redoubled its efforts as it bit into his calf.
He howled again and hit the dog with the butt of the revolver, but the poodle raged on, rending flesh and muscle with each furious shake. Collecting himself, he watched the poodle’s eyes, beaded in furious concentration, as he placed the barrel two inches from the animal’s head, and with a hand trembling with fear and pain, he pulled the trigger.
The beast let go. The other dogs ran and did not come back. The Non ripped off his mask and goggles, and breathed deep lungfuls of acrid air. He turned at the poodle and watched it whimper and paw the earth as it writhed in pain, volcanic ash mixing with its blood and entrails from the gunshot to its gut.
Missed at point-blank range.
It looked in the Non’s face, eyes wide with shock and terror. He stood with the impulse to leave the animal and let it die slow and alone like the world around them.
Filthy fucking animal.
He shook his head, regaining himself, and looked into those eyes. Those deep brown eyes. A puppy’s eyes, wide with fear and pain, needing a helping hand from a dog’s best friend. With fumbling fingers, he did the only thing he could.
He stared at the corpse for a long time, clutching and releasing the revolver. He only needed the one bullet, but instead he used three to kill a dog. Yes, it was trying to kill and eat him, but wasn’t it just doing what millennia of conditioning had taught it? But so did he. And if self-defense was an evolutionary conditioning, why the guilt? If he had just done it, put the damn gun to his head and pulled the trigger like a fucking man, this animal would have lived. If he’d been more of a man, so would his girl.
And, once again, he was so wrapped up in his own bleak thoughts he did not notice the sound of approaching feet or hear the shouting of voices until he saw weapons at his head.
What will happen to the Non NEXT? Who are these MYSTERIOUS people? Find out in the next…