Authors: N.C. Reed
That night, Rommel slept in the bed, curled up at Billy’s feet, making himself at home. Billy went to sleep smiling.
He had a dog.
Billy awoke the next morning with Rommel whining in his face.
“Okay buddy,” Billy mumbled. “I guess you gotta go, too.” Rising from his small bed, Billy stumbled to the door and let Rommel out into the small fenced yard behind the garage. He went to the bathroom himself, then washed his face and hands. He would have liked a shower, but he had to conserve his water. Once he was at the farm, water wouldn’t be a problem, though.
“First thing I’m gonna do is take me a long shower”, he thought. “No”, he decided, a hot soaking tub bath. “Yeah, that’s the ticket.” He went to the back door where Rommel was waiting patiently to be let back in. Billy smiled, ruffing the big dog’s head. Rommel wroffed lightly, and licked Billy’s hand in return.
“We going home today, boy,” Billy told him. Rommel looked at him quizzically, almost as if asking ‘isn’t this home’?
“No, it ain’t,” Billy answered the dog’s supposed question with a smile. “We get to the farm, you’ll have all the room you want to run in. And a big ole bed to sleep on, too,” he added. Wagging his stub of a tail, Rommel seemed to say, ‘suits me’.
Billy began looking through his garage and packing the tools he knew he might need at home. He would lock up when he left, of course, but if there was anyone else still alive, the lock probably wouldn’t stop them.
“Don’t matter, I guess,” he spoke aloud. “I just don’t wanna have to come back.” He loaded his tools and other equipment quickly, wanting to get on his way. For some reason he couldn’t quite grasp, he wanted to be away from the town, as quick as he could get. He didn’t know why. He just knew that he did.
Soon, he was ready to go. He pulled his truck out of the shop, then hooked it to the trailer. Once it was outside, he called to Rommel. He made one more look through his shop and apartment and he decided that he had everything that he wanted or needed.
“Let’s go boy!” he whistled. Rommel jumped into the open truck door without hesitation. Billy grinned and got behind the wheel.
“We gotta get ya some more food, boy.” He grinned, once more rubbing the dog’s large head. “We git that, and me some tater chips and pickles, and we’re outta here.” They pulled to the front of Alberts, and Billy soon had three more carts filled to overflowing with dog food. After a second, he went back and got all the cat food, too. A dog could eat it, he knew. He also decided to get all the little treats and such, since no one else would likely be needing them anymore.
He finally had everything loaded and he looked around him once more.
“Hardware store,” he murmured. He’d forgotten that yesterday in his excitement over finding Rommel. He took four more carts and headed across the street to the hardware store. Once there, he went carefully up and down the aisles, getting the things he knew he’d need. His daddy had always been careful to keep plenty, and Billy knew just what things daddy had said were on the “need” list.
That was list of things that daddy and momma had told him it would be hard to make or find, and just plain hard to do without. He took nails, screws, silicone sealant, glue, a complete set of hand tools, saw blades…the list went on. He finished just as his last cart was full. He tugged the carts over and managed, barely, to get all of them into the trailer.
At the last minute, he went back. He gathered up as much pipe as he could find, with connectors, fittings, glue, everything he’d need to plumb the house over again. He managed to get that into the back of his truck, but it took some doing.
“We just can’t carry no more, Rommel,” he said at last. Hearing his name, the dog perked up.
“Let’s go,” Billy ordered. Rommel once again leaped into the truck, and Billy set off for home.
It was only a few miles to the farm, taking no longer than thirty minutes to travel, but it took longer today. There were cars all along the road. Billy didn’t understand that at first, until he looked down into one as he passed by. There were people in the cars. Dead people. They had driven until they had died, he realized, and that was where they stayed. There was no one to move them. Not anymore.
For some reason, the dead people in the cars scared him more than the prospect of being all alone. Billy didn’t really believe in ghosts, at least he didn’t think he did. Suddenly he was wondering. All these people had died in a horrible manner, and close together. Would that make a difference? Would the town be haunted? The whole world?
He just didn’t know, and not knowing scared him. He unconsciously rubbed the bridge of his nose, right between his eyes, as he felt his head start to ache.
“No, no, no, not now!”, he thought to himself, on the edge of panic. He had too much to do to have one of his headaches. If he took the medicine the doctor had given him, it would knock him out for. . . .
He stomped on the brakes so hard that Rommel lose his footing and fell into the floor board. The massive dog shook himself and jumped back onto the seat, giving Billy a look that clearly said ‘what was that for?’
“My meds! I forgot my meds!” Billy shouted to no one in particular.
He looked frantically for a way to turn the truck around. Nearly in a panic, he couldn’t focus on where he was, or what he needed to do. All he could think about was his meds.
As if sensing that his new person was in danger, Rommel looked around him in confusion, seeking a threat. Seeing none, he looked back to Billy, and suddenly head butted him in the arm. When he didn’t get a response, Rommel repeated the action a second, and then a third time.
Suddenly Billy looked at the dog, still slightly wide-eyed. Rommel ran his head under Billy’s hand, encouraging him to scratch. Billy did so without thought, rubbing and scratching the giant head for a full five minutes as he calmed down. The motion brought him back to clarity.
“Thanks, boy,” Billy gave the dog’s head a final ruffing. Realizing that the truck was still in gear, he placed in park, easing his now aching foot off the brake pedal. He took a few deep breaths, and then shook his head.
“I gotta keep calm,” he said to himself. “Gotta keep calm,” he repeated three more times. It became almost a mantra as he put the truck back in gear and started down the road. He remembered, now that his panic was gone, that he had a year’s supply of all his medicines at the house. Something else his mom and dad had managed to get for him. He kept buying his prescriptions regularly, adding them to the stocks, and then using the oldest of the stockpiled medicine.
“We can always go back and get the medicine after we get settled,” he told Rommel. The dog looked at him, head cocked to the side, then wagged his stump of a tail, as if saying ‘sounds good to me’.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Billy eased onto the small road that led to the farmhouse, stopping half-a-mile off the main road to open the gate. He drove through, locked the gate behind him, and then drove the truck and trailer the rest of the way up to the house.
As the truck pulled in front of the two story white frame house, Billy looked it over carefully. He hadn’t been here in almost three weeks. The fact that the gate had still been locked was a good sign, but he was always careful. Daddy had taught him that.
He and Rommel got out, the dog sniffing the air. Billy watched him for a moment. The dog didn’t react to anything, so Billy decided to go on inside. He led the dog up the steps to the porch and unlocked the front door. Rommel hesitated slightly, but when Billy walked in, the big dog followed.
After checking the house, both Billy and Rommel were satisfied that all was well. Billy checked to make sure that the power from the PV cells was still working, and then checked the batteries in the basement. The charge meter was right where it was supposed to be. Happy with that, Billy headed back upstairs.
He got back in the truck, and backed the rig to the barn. Rommel ran alongside, barking furiously, as if worried he was being left behind.
“Relax, buddy,” Billy laughed. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere without ya.” For some reason this seemed to appease the dog, and he trotted alongside the rest of the way, quietly. It took a while, but Billy got everything squared away where it belonged. He put half the food away in the ‘hole’ as he thought of it, checking on the batteries there as well, just as his father had taught him. Finding everything there to be okay, he secured the barn, and once more got into the truck.
He drove to a smaller barn well behind the house, where he off loaded the other half of his supplies, including the other half of the dog food he’d gotten from Albert’s. His father had taught him never to put all of his eggs in one basket, and practiced what he preached. Fully half of the stores that Billy’s parents had amassed were in a much smaller ‘hole’, beneath this barn. While it didn’t have its own PV system, a line ran from the house to allow a lighted interior.
“I’m glad that’s done,” Billy said to himself, wiping sweat from his brow. Doing so made him aware of his odor.
“I stink, Rommel!” he said with a laugh. “I need a bath worse’n you did!” Again, Rommel looked at his person, head cocked to the side. He’d heard his name, but no command, so his confusion was understandable.
“You’re the only one I got to talk to, now, boy,” Billy explained to him. “Better get used to it. Now I aim to have a bath, and then I’m gonna cook the both of us a good steak!”
The steak had been good, Billy decided. He’d used a marinade that his mother had taught him to make, one that she had said really brought out the flavors of beef. Rommel had seemed to enjoy it too.
“How’d you like that, boy?” he asked, grinning at the enormous dog. “Good stuff, yeah?” Rommel wagged his stump of a tail in agreement, or at least what Billy decided to take as agreement.
Billy cleaned the dishes, and the table, making sure that all was where it was supposed to be. Something his mother had taught him. If you put things back where they belong, you won’t have to look for them next time you need them.
Billy walked out onto the front porch after that, taking a seat in his favorite rocker. Rommel followed, and sat down beside him. Billy absently scratched the big dog’s head as he looked out over the farm.
The cattle looked good, he thought. There was good grazing this time of year, and the vet had been out to see them just three months ago. Billy didn’t figure there' would be another visit from the vet anytime soon. He’d have to do what he could. He knew the cattle were important, as were the horses. There were eleven cows, one bull, and four horses on the farm. Billy knew them all by name. They were good animals.
He decided that tomorrow he’d get the Ranger out and ride over the farm. He needed to check the fences, and the water holes. Had to keep them clean, his father had taught him. Billy didn’t mind hard work. He’d always enjoyed it, in fact. It seemed to help him keep his mind centered.
Billy knew he had to be careful now that he was all alone. The people who had helped him since his parents had died were gone now. Of course, so were the ones who often caused him problems, too.
His spell earlier in the day, with the medicine, scared him more now as he looked back on it. If Rommel hadn’t been there, and snapped him out of the mess he’d been in, Billy knew he would probably be still sitting there. Frozen. Unable to make a decision.
When Billy was calm, and not under stress, it was easy for him to see where his shortcomings were. He could see things clearly then, but if panic ever gripped him, or if he ever felt like he’d made a wrong move or a bad decision, it could cripple him for hours. With things like they were now, he couldn’t let that happen. He might not have the time to recover.
Frowning, Billy sat further back, easing the rocking chair into motion. He would need a plan. For everything. His parents had taught him that making a plan was a good way to make sure that everything that needed to be done got done. He needed a plan for making sure that he didn’t have any more episodes like on the road today.
So long as he made his decisions carefully, like his mamma and daddy had taught him, he shouldn’t have any panic attacks. If he was sure of his plan then he would know he had made the right choice, even when it felt like he hadn’t.
“I need a plan,” he said aloud. “Yeah, that’s what I need. I need a plan.”
He took the small notebook he always carried with him from his pocket. Something else he’d learned from his parents. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. If you don’t write it down, you won’t remember it. It didn’t happen.
“Plan,” he mumbled to himself again. He wrote PLAN in large letters atop the first empty page and then he sat back, rocking and thinking.
This might take a while.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny. As he stood on the porch looking out at the bright new day, Billy was almost able to forget that the whole world had died. That he was alone, save for Rommel, at least for now.
True, there might be other folks somewhere, but everyone he knew of in and around Cedar Bend was gone. He shuddered at the memory of all the bodies, especially the ones in the cars between his home and town. For some reason those in the cars bothered him more than anything else. He didn’t know why, but they did.
He still couldn’t figure why he was still alive and everyone else was dead. What had he done, or not done, that everyone else had or hadn’t? He had spent a lot of time figuring on that, but he just didn’t know. He just didn’t, and that bothered him too. If he had time to think over long on that, he knew it would bother him worse and worse until he couldn’t think of anything else.
But he had plenty to do today. Picking up his rifle, he whistled loudly. After a few seconds, Rommel came racing up from where he’d been running around the yard and marking the trees. Billy started for the barn.
“C’mon, boy. Daylight’s a wastin’.” The big dog followed him faithfully, right at his side.
Once in the barn, Billy walked to the four wheel drive side-by-side his father had always used to check the farm over. Billy hit the key, and was pleased to hear the engine turn right over. He hadn’t used the Ranger in a long time, over a month he figured, which reminded him of something else.
Whipping out his trusty note pad, Billy made a note that he needed to get parts, filters, oil and the like for the Ranger. Heck, he decided, he might even get a whole new one. Be nice if he could find one with a cab, and a heater.
Rommel had backed away from the noise the small ‘truck’ made when it started. He now stood several feet away, evaluating this new development. Billy noted that, and called to him.
“C’mon, boy. She won’t bite,” he laughed. Rommel cocked his head to the side, but remained rooted where he was. Billy frowned at that.
“Rommel, come on,” he repeated. “We ain’t got all day, you know.” Rommel cocked his head in the other direction, but moved no closer. Billy began to feel frustrated.
“What am I going to do if he won’t get in?” he thought to himself. I want him to go along, and I can’t use the horses yet with him along. They need time to get used to one another.
Repeated calls to the dog had no effect, and Billy’s frustration grew. He felt himself slipping away, and caught it.
“Gotta keep calm,” he told himself. “Gotta keep calm.” He thought for a minute, remembering how Rommel had ran alongside his truck the day before. Of course! If Rommel could follow the truck, he could follow the Ranger! Smiling at himself for solving an unexpected problem, Billy stopped trying to urge Rommel into the small utility vehicle and instead put the Ranger in gear. Easing it into motion so as not to spook the dog any further, Billy moved the Ranger toward the barn door. Rommel started barking immediately, but Billy, for once, ignored him. He pulled the Ranger outside, and stopped long enough to secure the barn door. Rommel ran outside, still barking some, though not as much as before. He circled the Ranger warily, barking at it on occasion, as if testing the new beast.
When the Ranger didn’t react, Rommel promptly hiked his leg, and urinated on the rear passenger tire, then immediately jumped back. Still no reaction. Rommel snorted, confused. Why wouldn’t this thing react? Billy watched in amusement as the large dog continued to circle the utility truck, sniffing, growling, and lightly biting in sequence, trying to get a sense of the beast in front of him, or at least provoke a response. Nothing.
“Satisfied?” Billy finally asked, moving to take his seat again. Rommel looked at him in confusion, as if to say, ‘what is this thing?’ Billy laughed and called him again, motioning to the passenger seat. Rommel circled to the passenger side, still cautious. He approached slowly, and Billy again patted the seat beside him.
Rommel recognized the motion, knowing that was what Billy did when he was ready to ride. Ride. Rommel finally connected the two things. Billy was going for a ride! Tentatively, Rommel raised one foot, placing it on the seat. The shaking of the vehicle caused him to withdraw it at once, but then he did it again, and waited. No reaction. He slowly placed his other fore paw on the seat, and again waited. Still nothing.
As if suddenly satisfied since Billy wasn’t afraid, Rommel leaped into the seat.
“Good boy!” Billy praised him, rubbing and scratching his great head. Rommel preened under the attention, and Billy put the Ranger in gear. He was careful to start out slow, so as not to spook the dog. Rommel was a little nervous as the vehicle started moving, but soon got the rhythm of the bouncing utility, and began to relax.
His first hurdle of the day completed, Billy started on his rounds.
Billy found the cows going about their business as usual. They were long accustomed to the Ranger, and paid it no mind at all. Rommel, however, was another matter.
Billy’s father was a farmer, not a rancher. He kept a few cows as a hedge against lean years, and to put beef in his own freezer. Sometimes he bartered the beef for services he needed rather than having to pay with cash. As a result, Mister Todd had never used a stock dog. The cows were not used to seeing a dog in such close proximity. Two small donkey’s, adopted through the Wild Burro Adoption program, kept dogs, coyotes, and the like away from the cows.
Rommel started barking as soon as he saw the first cow. Billy laughed at him at first, thinking it funny to watch the city raised dog reacting to farm animals. He didn’t notice at first the commotion Rommel’s presence or actions were causing among the small herd.
Cows bellowed, both in fear and annoyance. The burros, hearing the dog, looked up from their normal laconic existence, ears pricked. Rommel noticed that, and tensed. That was when Billy finally began to wake up to what was happening, and it was almost too late.
He just managed to grab Rommel’s collar as the big dog went to bolt from the Ranger and run after the fleeing cows. The dog struggled briefly, trying to go after his fleeing prey.
“Rommel, NO!” Billy commanded, trying to make his voice as authoritative as possible. The dog didn’t quite ignore him, but he didn’t stop struggling, either.
“No!” Billy commanded again, this time with a soft rap to the head. That seemed to get Rommel’s attention finally, and he turned to look at Billy.
“No,” Billy repeated, this time more quietly, but just as firm. Rommel finally calmed down, shifting in the seat. He was still eager to run after the cows, but understood now, that he wasn’t allowed to.
The cows, though, weren’t aware of Rommel’s new found knowledge, and were still heading away. Billy watched as they gathered speed, suddenly very concerned. Where were they going?
“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought him along after all”, Billy thought. “Now what have I done?”
Panic began to set in, despite all he could do. His ‘keep calm’ mantra wasn’t working, at least not yet. He breathed deeper, still keeping an eye on the cows. Just as he was sure they would run themselves to death, or impale themselves on the barbed wire fence, the small herd turned and dove instead into a small pool of water about one hundred yards from where Billy sat. Immersing themselves in the cool water seemed to calm the cows, and Billy watched from where he sat as the animals got control of their ragged breathing and began to act more normally.
The burros, having seen that the dog presented no threat to them, had simply gone back to eating, though they did wander slowly over to the water hole themselves. Their presence provided the final bit of calming that the cows needed. After ten minutes or so of watching, Billy saw the first cow emerge from the water, and begin cropping the grass around the hole. Others followed suit, and soon the small herd was back to normal, as if nothing had happened.
Billy breathed a sigh of relief, calming down himself. He looked at the dog.
“I think we’ll ride the fences from the outside, Rommel.”
With the Ranger on the outside, there were no more disruptions. Billy rode the entire fence, stopping at the other two gates to make sure their locks were undisturbed. They were, of course. There was no one left to bother them that Billy knew of.
Rommel had settled down at last and seemed to actually be enjoying the ride. Billy figured that the next time he went to use the Ranger that Rommel would hop aboard with no problems.
It still nagged at him that Rommel had almost started a stampede. The dog wasn’t used to cattle, and the cattle certainly weren’t used to an aggressive dog like Rommel. Billy was bothered by the fact that he had recognized that using horses around the dog wasn’t a good idea until they were used to one another, yet he had completely overlooked the possible problems of taking Rommel into the pastures.
I gotta start thinking about things more carefully, he chastised himself. That could have been a lot worse.
He sighed, realizing that despite his P L A N, things just weren’t that cut and dried. This was a whole new world, and he would have to be more careful in the future. He didn’t want to leave the dog behind, but until he figured a way to make sure there wasn’t a repeat of today’s experience, he realized he just might have to leave Rommel at the house when working the cattle.
Just until they get used to him, that’s all, he promised himself. That decision led to another problem.
“And how do I get them used to him being there? Not to mention, how do I train him not to take out after the cattle like that again.”
Billy grunted in exasperation. It seemed every time he solved a problem, another one, or two, cropped up in its place. At that rate, he’d have more problems that he’d started with, and soon. Shaking his head, as if that would rid him of the problems, or at least the thought of them, Billy started the Ranger moving back toward the house. He still had a lot to do today.
He needed to go back into town, as bad as the thought bothered him. Every time he turned around, there was something that he needed and didn’t have. Or at least, didn’t have enough of. Using the Ranger today had reminded him that he would need more gas than the farm tank was likely to have in it. The tank held five hundred gallons when full, but Billy knew it wasn’t full. What he didn’t know was exactly how much gas was in the tank.
And he knew he should know. That was something his father had taught him. Knowing what you have also lets you know what you don’t have, his father had always said. Billy stopped the Ranger and took out his notebook. He carefully wrote that saying on the inside cover. He figured that way he’d see it almost every day, as a reminder.
I need to know what I have. I gotta do better. I got to make a plan, and I gotta stick to it. Returning the notebook to his pocket, he started on toward the house.
Something else was still nagging him. There was just no way, none that he could figure anyway, that he could be the only person left alive in the world. His own world extended very little beyond Cedar Bend. He hadn’t seen anyone else alive in Cedar Bend. He was smart enough to know that this didn’t necessarily mean there was no one else. Just that he hadn’t seen anyone.
And what about folk who lived outside of town, like he did? Were some of them still alive? There were a lot of people that Billy knew, people that knew him, that lived on farms just like his, or even bigger. His farm wasn’t that big compared to someone like, say, Mister Silvers. Jeremiah Silvers was the next farm down from his. He hadn’t seen Mister Silvers in some time. Could be he was still alive, him and his family. He could go over and check on them.
That idea warmed him a little, until he thought of something else. What if they’re all dead? What if I go over there and Mister Silvers and his family are dead, just like all those people in town? Like all those people on the road? That thought took the warmth he was starting to feel away again.
Another thing was, what if Mister Silvers didn’t recognize him? Would the old man shoot him? Would his family? Billy just didn’t know. He’d known Mister Silvers his whole life. He had worked on his truck, on his wife’s car, and on his daughter’s truck, too. The son wasn’t old enough to have a car. Or, maybe he was, Billy thought, and it just never needed any work done on it. Yeah, that might be it.
There was also Widow George, who lived a few miles across a country lane from Billy. You could almost see her house without binoculars when the leaves were off. Was she alive? Was she okay? Maybe he should go check on her, and see if she needed anything. She was gettin’ on in years, he remembered. Might need a hand or two. He liked Widow George. She kept her car clean, and always had him change the oil right on time. He liked that. People who took care of their cars, and their animals, were usually good people. Smart people.
Of course, Billy knew he wasn’t smart, but he always took good care of his truck. Okay, so maybe people who took good care of their cars weren’t always good people. But Widow George was good people. He knew that for a fact. Maybe her keeping her car took care of was just a coincidence.
But, Mister Silvers always took good care of all of his cars, and Billy was pretty sure that Mister Silvers was okay. He stopped the Ranger again, this time in sight of the house, and slapped his leg. How was he supposed to figure out who he could trust? If it wasn’t people who took good care of their cars, then who? It came to him all at once.