Authors: N.C. Reed
We won’t always be here, son, Billy’s dad would say as he showed Billy something or another. You’ll have to know how to do this alone when we’re gone.
Billy hadn’t always understood why they would leave. He had learned, though, that people always left. Some went to heaven. Some went somewhere else. Somewhere that Billy didn’t want to go.
But Billy’s mamma and daddy had made sure that he could look after himself just fine. He still remembered the day that his dad had led him out to the barn. He had just turned twenty-one, and his garage had been open for a year. He was doing real well. Daddy had decided that if Billy could handle that responsibility, then he could handle other responsibilities as well.
Once in the barn, the elder Todd had closed the doors and then led Billy to the far back corner, where all the junk lay. Odd bits of farm equipment, old bits of leather and metal, and stuff that was broken, but might be used to fix something else. Only daddy never got around to using it.
His father had started clearing away all that junk, and Billy helped. When it was all moved, Billy was surprised to see a door, but lying on the ground, instead of standing up.
You can’t ever tell anyone about this, Billy, his father had cautioned before opening the door. If people know it’s here, they might try and take it from us. Understand? Billy didn’t, not exactly, but if wasn’t supposed to tell, then he wouldn’t. He knew how to keep a secret.
Daddy had opened the door then, and Billy could see steps under the door. His father had walked down about three steps, then stopped, motioning Billy over to him. He showed Billy a switch, then turned it. Lights came on down in the hole. “Runs off sunlight”, his father told him. “I’ll show you how to care for it.” He walked further down, and Billy followed.
Below, under the barn, was a room that Billy was shocked to discover. He wished that he had known about this growing up was his first thought. What a great place to play! But this wasn’t a play room. There were buckets stacked along the far wall, each labeled and dated. All the buckets, he learned, were food of one kind or another.
Along another wall were two gun racks. Guns the likes of which Billy had ever only seen on TV. There was a row of rifles, shotguns, and on the wall behind them, pistols and revolvers. Billy already knew how to shoot, of course, and had guns of his own. But. . . .
“These aren’t like your guns, son”, his father had said. “These are different. I’ll explain each one. These crates are ammunition”, he said, pointing to the back wall, where several large boxes sat.
“Why do we need all this daddy?” Billy had asked. It wasn’t that he didn’t like all this, but he couldn’t see a need for it.
“Sometimes things happen”, was all his father said. “When they do, we need to be prepared for them.”
It took Billy and his father almost two months to get through everything. His father had made several notebooks, which were copied several times. Inside them were instructions and advice for every possible scenario that Billy’s father and mother could come up with. Everything from house fires to atomic bombs.
But there wasn’t nothing in those notebooks about being the last man alive. Billy thought on that as he finished his Coke. Was he the last man on earth? Surely not. There had to be more than just him, didn’t there?
His train of thought was broken then by a clanging noise from outside. Billy took his rifle, the one his father had always kept hidden for him here at the garage, and walked carefully to his small office. There was a window there and from the doorway, where he couldn’t be seen, he peered outside.
It wasn’t quite dark yet, he noted. He could see several dogs outside, milling around. The can he had been using for his trash was overturned, and three of the biggest dogs seemed to be in a standoff over the contents of the can. Billy watched in fascination as the three huge animals looked each other over. One was a Rottweiler, he could see, but the other two he didn’t recognize.
Even as he watched, the Rottweiler lunged at one dog and then actually attacked the other. Swiftly, and seemingly without effort, the Rottweiler seized the large dog by the throat, and shook him. The other dog, recovering from his dodge, instantly fell on the second dog as well, and the two killed it in seconds. That left two.
The two dogs circled each other warily, neither able to gain an advantage. It was the dog Billy didn’t recognize that struck first, lunging at the Rottweiler and trying to grab his throat. The Rottweiler seemed to have been waiting for this and side stepped the rush. As the larger dog extended himself, the Rottweiler clamped his massive jaws on the back of his adversary’s neck, and bit down hard.
The other dog yelped briefly, struggling to free himself. His struggles simply made the Rottweiler’s job easier. The massive jaws clamped down tighter, and Billy thought he heard the bones breaking from inside the building. Shaking the other dog violently one last time, the Rottweiler dropped him. As Billy watched, the victor looked around at the other dogs in the pack, as if asking if any of them wanting to dispute his dominance. None did, and the pack slowly moved off, leaving the spoils of Billy’s trash can to the giant Rottweiler.
Billy watched as the massive dog claimed his bounty, wishing he had a dog like that. The Rottweiler lifted its head suddenly, looking around him, sniffing the air. His gaze came to rest on Billy and stayed there. Billy was shocked. There was no way for the dog to know he was there, but he did! Billy did something then that he never did, but he wouldn’t regret it. He made a snap decision.
With no uncertainty at all, Billy ran to his little kitchenette, grabbed the last of his sandwich meat, and ran back to the door. He opened it slowly, eyeing the Rottweiler, who was still looking at him. The dog didn’t move, but it did growl deep in its chest.
“It’s okay, buddy”, Billy called, holding some of the meat out to the dog. The smell of the meat enticed the large hound, and soon he began to shift on his feet, just a bit. He didn’t offer to come closer, but Billy kept working. He sat down on the ground, cross legged, having read once that dogs found this non-threatening. It seemed to work. The monstrous dog began to inch closer, still wary for any tricks. Billy held himself as still as possible, just holding the meat out before himself.
The Rottweiler sniffed the air, and took another cautious step. Billy took one slice of the meat free and simply laid it down. The Rottweiler eyed the meet with suspicion, slowly coming forward. He sniffed carefully, always with a wary eye on Billy. Billy remained motionless, studying the dog even as the dog studied him.
The dog’s collar had a tag in it and suddenly, as the dog lifted it’s great head, Billy could, for just an instant, read his name; Rommel.
Rommel. Billy said the name softly and the dog instantly locked eyes with Billy. Billy held out the meat again and spoke softly, “take it Rommel. I won’t hurt ya boy.” Rommel’s great head tilted to one side, eyeing the man-thing that had called his name. He hadn’t heard his name in a long time. A week was a long time in dog time.
“It’s okay Rommel”, Billy repeated, still in a soft, friendly voice. “It’s yours if you want it.”
Rommel had until recently been a pet. He remembered a man giving him food. It was a good memory. He cautiously leaned forward, sniffing the meat in the man-thing’s hand. It smelled okay, not like some of the things he’d eaten recently. He nibbled softly on the edge of the meat, and it tasted good. Suddenly, he grabbed the meat, running off a few steps, then stopping.
The man-thing had never moved. It showed no fear. Rommel could smell no fear from him, nor sense any danger. This man-thing wanted to be friends. He gulped the meat down in three massive bites. He hadn’t eaten this good in a while. He looked at the piece still on the ground, and quickly added it to his meal.
Billy watched as the big dog looked up from the last piece of meat, as if wanting more.
There’s no more, Billy admitted. Carefully he stood. If he could find Rommel another meal, a good one, then maybe the dog would stay with him. Billy estimated that the dog was well over one hundred pounds, though he’d lost weight in the last few days. Billy remembered that Albert’s had many bags of dog food. On an impulse, Billy started that way, then stopped, looking back.
“Come, Rommel. Dinner Time.”
The dog remembered Dinner Time. It meant food. He wagged his tail once, which Billy thought was encouraging. Calling the dog again, Billy turned and started for Albert’s. It would be dark soon. Billy had a flashlight, but he didn’t relish being in town after dark. He needed to hurry but he could only go as fast as the dog.
And the dog was being cautious.
Billy could understand that. He was cautious himself. It took several minutes, but finally they were back at Albert’s. Billy opened the door and stood waiting for Rommel. The big dog eyed him with suspicion, but Billy made no move. He spoke to the dog, low and friendly.
“Come on, Rommel. I’ll feed you. C’mon, boy, it’s Dinner Time.”
That seemed to convince the dog. He eased through the door, careful to stay as far from Billy as possible. Once inside, Billy allowed the door to close. That didn’t set well with the giant Rottweiler, but Billy simply stood very still, waiting for Rommel to calm down again. As he did, Billy moved toward the dog food aisle.
Rommel lifted his massive head, sniffing cautiously. He could, of course, smell the spoiled meat, which made him salivate. But Billy took down a bag of IAMS dog food, lamb and rice formula, and opened it. Rommel’s ears perked up at that, remembering the sound of food in a bag. He trotted over toward Billy.
Billy had taken a large bowl from the shelf nearby, and filled it to overflowing. Rommel hesitated for less than a second before burying his head in the bowl, eating greedily.
Billy watched him eat, careful to make no sudden moves. He really wanted Rommel to see him as a friend. Billy had a feeling that the large dog would be good company to him.
For his part, Rommel seemed to be completely fixated on the food bowl. Vague stirrings of memory came to him in flits and flashes. Chasing a ball…lying by the door…shaking of a food sack…walking on a leash…being groomed. He stopped eating suddenly, looking up directly at Billy.
The man watched him, friendly, unafraid. To Rommel that was important. He had learned that afraid people tried to hurt him. They threw things at him. He didn’t like that. But this man wasn’t afraid. Almost nodding, as if making up his mind, Rommel decided that this man-thing was his new friend. That decision made, Rommel returned to the food bowl.
Billy watched the dog eat, smiling to himself. He thought Rommel might stay with him now, which meant he’d have to come back to Albert’s tomorrow and get all the dog feed. Well, he shrugged, he was coming to get chips and pickles anyway, so no problem.
Billy let Rommel eat until he was full. As the dog finished his meal, Billy gathered up some dog shampoo, a brush, and a flea collar. If Rommel was going to live with him he’d need a bath and grooming. Rommel, seeing the brush, actually wagged his tail, which Billy took as a good sign.
Billy led Rommel to the back of the store where there was a large tub. Billy set his things down and patted the tub with his hand. Rommel jumped inside it, remembering this as well from before. Billy brought three jugs of water over to where Rommel sat waiting. The first one he poured on the large dog in its entirety, making sure to cover as much as he could. The second he sat beside the tub. Taking a handful of the shampoo, Billy began to wash the dog.
Rommel stood still, knowing that the bath would make him feel better, as Billy rubbed his head, and then his back, belly and legs, Rommel whined just a little, happy. Billy noted the fleas that Rommel carried were dying rapidly, and used the second jug to wash him down after the time was up. He quickly brushed the dog down, getting the excess water from him.
Rommel enjoyed that exercise more than the bath. Rommel had always loved to be brushed and he eagerly pushed himself into the brush. It felt good against his skin. Finished, Billy took the last jug of water, and poured a bowl full, allowing Rommel to drink his fill. Once he was done, Billy called him to follow, and walked to the front of the store.
It was dark, now, Billy saw. For a moment he was worried. He hadn’t been out after dark since IT had happened. There were no lights in town. He had his flashlight and now he switched it on. Looking back, he called for Rommel to follow, then opened the door. Rommel followed.
Billy made his way carefully back to the garage, looking down at Rommel on occasion to see if the mighty dog was still there. He was. Once Rommel stopped and began growling, deep in his chest. Billy stopped as well. Suddenly, several large dogs, at least five, ran into the street in front of them, barking and snarling.
Rommel made as if to attack, but Billy laid his hand on the dog’s head. “Stay”, he ordered, and Rommel did. “Good boy”, Billy soothed. The other dogs, wary, started around them. Billy and Rommel turned to keep facing them, and Billy leveled his rifle at the nearest one.
The dogs had seen a rifle before, and knew it was danger. As soon as Billy hefted it to his shoulder, they broke and ran. Billy watched them out of sight, sighing with relief as he lowered the rifle. He looked at Rommel, who was still watching where the dogs had gone, but had not offered to follow.
“Let’s go home, boy”, Billy said. Rommel recognized home, and followed.