Dedicated to Muhammad Ali Pasha
I am sneaking peaks at him over my book while inhaling the smell. Stacks of books. Everywhere books. This is an old style library and I did not think I would find another human anywhere. I have been living here for some months but I cannot tell you how long. This whole town is abandoned. It was so far out from the cities it was not looted bare after the riots, floods and earthquakes. Books had been spilled out of shelves over a cracked foundation that was still level although I had noticed rain had ruined some of the books when I had found this place.
When I first came here I started to clean up the mess, a little bit at a time, walking to the various stores in the small town main street for supplies I had hoped to find people but all of them were gone. It was eerily strange. No bones. No vultures. I was very glad at that time to find a town with food stocks and a pharmacy left. There were neatly parked cars everywhere. Some of them were even unlocked but nothing worked after the EMF’s went off.
The place was full of people’s pets, however, and horses and cows and many had already broken free or died from starvation but, for the most part, there was food everywhere. Toothpaste to last one human a life time. Books full of knowledge. And now….
I would have loved to see even an ugly human being, ANY human being but I have the great good luck to see a really handsome fellow. He has dark, wavy hair and a dark brown beard and moustache. Dark eyes like sweet chocolate and long long eyelashes. His brow is like a bird with wings outlining those amazing eyes with a frame of perfection. His lips are like what mom once said about my little sister, “She has such sweet lips the bees stung them.”
Everyone lived all over the United States and I have no idea who is alive or dead but mom was lucky. She passed away smiling before the wars. I pushed those thoughts back. Thinking that way is a great way to go crazy. I had seen some crazy people on the way out of the chaos the city had become when the power failed, suddenly, everywhere. Planes crashed at the air force base. Cars wrecked on the freeways and there was so much destruction no medical personnel could really help because there was no neighboring state or place where the same things did not happen.
It has been so long since I talked to anyone I wondered if I had a voice left. I had watched him come in: the door that didn’t fit right on the slightly slanted frame let in the raw sun. I never went out in that sun without protection. Part of the atmosphere was probably missing: the good part. Silhouetted against the light he did not know anyone was in here as I was behind a bastion of shelves, at a small table, looking through a hole in the books. Just in case the light would shine on my face I keep the book before me and peek over it and watch him. He shut the door and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. Sun bleached jeans and a red plaid shirt and a base ball cap. He went over to the water fountain to try it. It still works. The whole water system in this weird town still works. When he threw the cap off to throw handfuls of water over his dusty hair I wanted to tell him that but I could not say anything. What should I say to a stranger?
I watch him. He looks tired. Throwing water all over his face and head in the water fountain. He looks hungry. OK this is the time.
My voice sounds rusty and I think he just jumped ten feet and hit his head on the ceiling!
“Hey. I am soory I did not mean to scare you.”
He is looking at me like I have two heads and one eye! I get tense watching him walk slowly towards me as if he is not sure I am real. I can tell he is speechless. He is standing right in front of me and in this broken, dusty library in this broken, dusty world he reaches out and I still as still as a rock while his hand touches my cheek.
“You…Real are…you are REAL!”
He is snatching his hand back like I am on fire! That is OK I spent most of my life with guys, who were that kind to be serious about, running AWAY from me…the aim low players all had a great time with me and I did with them too because, face it, we all get what we can get. If he thinks I am repulsive that’s OK. Maybe I can get him to be friends.
“Would you like a Snickers Bar?”
“YES!!!!” His whole face is bright and he is smiling! Oh hell I think I am in love!
“Here, be my guest.”
He is trying not to eat that Snickers bar too fast but it is gone in less than a minute. He looks up, suddenly, with guilt on his face…
“Sorry I am. I was so hungry I did not leave you any.”
“Not a problem. This town was not looted. This town is very very weird. How did you find this place?”
Those dark brown eyes looked very sad.
“On a plane I was, landing and the world; insane it became. Planes crashing. People running and screaming and fire in everywhere. Cars not working. Airport was near the end of city and I went away from all and did not even try to pick my luggage or save anything. People in stalled wrecked cars and a man grabbed me and crying he was. His wife was crashed into the glass , to death, bleeding. No police. No ambulance. Nothing. He let me go and into the field by the road I was going. Some people, yelling at me, were. I start run. Stop I did not until in the middle of …”
He went on describing how he had came here to see his uncle and how he knew he could not find him and walking and raiding empty houses for food and water and how he even buried a child he took care of a few days before the poor kid died because there was no doctor and his parents were already dead. He thought it was maybe a head injury. He buried them all by himself. He showed me the still fresh, raw blisters on his hands that were unused to farm life. He had tears in his eyes. I did not know what to say. Any people we would find would be traumatized. In a sort of desperation to help I said softly,
“I will show you the pharmacy. There are lots of useful things there. You can choose a house to live in. They are all empty but the library is mine. I always wanted to live in one. Come on lets go!”
She, my hand, grabbed and, along with her, towed me like a broken car. She was a tall, strong girl. Curly blond hair that, somehow, did not match a face that looked stretched between German, Jewish, and maybe something else too, she almost, like a drag queen, looked. Some guys might have thought she was sexy but she was not my type: too masculine. Still I had not seen anyone in so long that was not dead or dying a warm hand was nice.
For a brief moment the thought of kissing her, over my brain cells, sped and stopped ‘dead in it’s tracks’ as it became clear that might be a lot like kissing a seven year old with the knowledge of an 80 year old and the thought was disconcerting to say the least. Her eyes were the colour of blue-grey ice, unless the sun hit them and them they turned green and then, when, back at me, she looked and light left, black they became. The way she appeared made my brains feel scrambled and it was impossible to decide if she hideous or beautiful she was. But the first strong and almost normal person she was too so I liked her right away not, WHY, understanding. Confused. How was I seeing her mind so clearly and, nothing, she had explained?
A house we passed. On the porch a sad German Shepard dog waiting was. Maybe, for people who never came, waiting. This had to be a sign of fate. All my life I had dreamed of wanting just such a dog but…
…but that life was over now and all the rules and fears that went with it.
“Wait! Stop! This house I want!”
She and I, there we stood, hand in hand while a million ideas, into mind canyons, avalanched. The huge dream my whole life I had this was: alone in a house that mine was and a dog for a friend like this dog but I never, all those things, wanted this way. As if she could read my mind she said,
“Did we ever think, in the days before now, that all the good stuff we had meant someone else went hungry or suffered and now we see all the price paid for everything…”
Her words shook me but I dropped her hand and sweat, blisters stinging, awkwardly, on my shirt wiped. I started up the stairs of the porch and the dog suddenly rose and, fangs bared, growled. She, still talking, like someone who is starving, talks but the words faded and the dog’s face was so clear. I, to the dog, sent an idea that ‘I, your friend, am.’ and went slowly closer. Suddenly, the sound of plastic crackled and shut up she did and put something in my hand.
A piece of beef, jerked and dried.
Towards the dog I held it out and the dog did come and take it and, growling, back away.
Another pair of eyes watched them both from the second story of the white frame house across the street from where they stood. These eyes had watched the girl as she had come into the almost abandoned town. They had watched her clean up the library and they had watched her explore what was left of a once bustling and busy place of life and commerce. The mind behind the eyes had plotted and projected and planned the right moment to get the girl and make love to her and make children and repopulate this godforsaken place but a damn stranger had just come along and ruined everything.
How often, in his islolate-addled thoughts, he had come upon her as she scavenged the 7-11 on the corner and, in his dream sequences, she had looked upon him the way she was looking at the stranger now. The idiot did not even return it. This he could also see. He went to the mirror on the wall and looked at himself. He was short and fat and she would never consider anyone like him as long as someone else was around. He had been enjoying the fact that their singularity made them so much like the people who had been abandoned on an island and he knew, he knew with a certainty that was like law, that had no one else come along and he had gotten over his shyness she would have loved him. She was not the kind that was so beautiful she would think she was above him.
He went to the window and looked out again through the slit in the curtains and saw the stranger feed the German Shepard and almost cried at the way she stared at him. Her body language and her whole being screamed love and he was like a blind man. Something inside of him broke and he rationalized his actions by the fact that everybody dies.
He had also noticed that, in a childlike fashion that was very weird for a grown woman, she had failed to procure a weapon although doing so would have been simple because they were everywhere. He watched them walk up the street and saw the dog follow them.
After he had fed the dog the jerky she noticed his hands again.
“Hey you need that looked after! We can come back here later let’s go to the pharmacy!”
“Your hands. If they got infected with something they would rot off. We can’t have that now can we?”
“No. No we can’t!” He smiled at her and shadowed the sun with that smile! DAYUM! What a smile!
“It’s just two more blocks. You can see the outline of the sign just ahead.”
They walked, followed by the Shepherd, until they made it to the doors and the place was wide open and ready for the taking of anything. She got behind the counter and started to play like a little kid.
“Sir do you have a prescription? We do NOT allow DOGS in here! Is that YOUR dog sir?” She tried to sound stern but she sounded like a Smurf on crack. He started laughing. There were some key rings with little fur animals on them and she started to throw them at him. He started to catch them and throw them back when the Shepherd, now beside him, leapt up and grabbed one and started to pretend it was a live thing he was fighting with! Without thinking he grabbed the dog by the ruff and started to try to take it away from him and soon they were in a tug of war and when the cheap little key ring fell apart they both were thrown backwards by the force and he landed on the floor with a happy German Shepherd on top of him licking his face.
“Hahahahahaha you are his pet now! What is your masters name oh mighty dog!”
“Dog food we need.” He got up off the floor and started to look through the isles.
I watched him saunter up the first isle and leaned on the counter thinking what a handsome man he was and he must be a good man that a strange dog would love him so quickly? The dog grabbed another ‘toy’ in his jaws and went after him. I could barely see his head over the tops of the shelving when he said, “Here boy!” and I heard the sound of ripping twine and paper and the sound of happy crunching.
“What your name is?” The stranger asked the dog and thought about it for a few minutes. Suddenly the dog began to bark so loudly it hurt my ears! “Hey boy easy now…what it is?” The dog growled deep in his chest and then, just as suddenly, relaxed as a gust of storm-front wind slammed the heavy glass door, which had been ajar, open all the way! “OK your name is ‘Growl’. You understand?” The dog shook the key ring toy at him. He took it as a ‘yes’.
I watched them play. I never wanted anyone the same way I wanted this man and how sad he had come at this time in life when it was all so precarious. Never had Death been more real or more present than it had been this last year. Only a few times before but that had been personal and not nationwide; not the kind of mass die-off and genocide that had occurred, perhaps, all over the world?
“Come here and get your hands fixed. I have no idea if it will work or not but this way you can still use them.” Thunder cracked and the skies grew darker with cold and the dog whined and pawed his new pet.
“Dog food in the cart is. Put all your stuff in the cart and push it we will.” He had a great idea in that so I did that and we pushed the plastic cart back and made it to his ‘new house’ just as the first big, cold drops fell and Growl ran under the house to hide from the storm. The stranger dragged the heavy cart up onto the porch and tried the door. It was locked but the screen came off the window easily and we pushed the glass up and crawled over the sill.
It was cool, dark and dusty inside. Our eyes adjusted to the light and saw it was very neat and clean but dusty and cobwebbed. The sound of water smacking the roof clashed with the almost immaculate interior. The stranger threw open the front door and propped open the screen and yelled, “GROWL! COME!” Growl peeked from under the porch and, tail between his legs, ran up the stairs and quickly into the house. Something strange happened when the dog came inside: he went running everywhere up and down the stairs howling until a huge thunder-crack sent him under a side table by the couch. The stranger laughed, “Coward you are!”
“I think he is also looking for the people who used to live here.”
He went under the table and rubbed the wet head of the crazed dog and the dog’s tail thumped once…then twice.
The cart was full of junk food and coke and bottled water. It also had a few tubes of Neosporin and a box of latex gloves and cotton gloves and baby wipes.
“The bathrooms still work but none of the electrical things do. Go wash your hands so we can fix them.”
“OK” he said and disappeared into the kitchen. Shortly I heard noises upstairs and thought he had found some useful things up there and heard a showering noise. Well of course! Some host I had been! I used the showers at the gym next to the library and it had probably been a while for him!
Growl looked mournfully at me from under the table. I had to talk to him.
“Hey I know you are scared. I was scared too for a long time.” He was listening to me. “I thought I might never find another human being ever and that I might be the only one left and I know that sounds silly but I really thought that. I know you loved them…the ones who lived here before. You were ready to defend them when we came and yet you also knew, somehow, that we were OK? I wish I could make you understand they are never coming back but maybe it is better that you don’t know.”
Growl came from under the table and sat on my cold feet as I sat on the old couch and opened the boxes of gloves and Neosporin. A few minutes later the stranger came down the stairs and he looked like a different person! the clothes were a little big but they were a close match! Growl got up and ran over and sniffed the clothes and started to whine and he reached down and scratched his head. Whoever the man of the house was he had good taste in clothes! Tan suede Earth shoes and brand name jeans and, of all things, a polo shirt! He came over and stuck out his hands and I squeezed Neosporin into his palms and told him to pretend it was hand lotion and he followed instructions and then I pulled one cotton glove over each hand.
“Use the latex gloves if you think you will be around germs.”
The storm was starting to abate. He sat in the dusty armchair and fell asleep while the rain blew into the open front door and Growl sat in front of the sleeping man like a sentinel. I checked the couch for spiders and curled up and went to sleep as well.
The man across the street watched them come and go and come back with goods to start a house with. His heart was breaking and he had never spoken with her and didn’t even know her name! God only knows what they were doing in there now! All the things he wished he was doing! He punched a wall and was lucky there was no stud there and he made a hole in the sheet rock that was, somehow, satisfying.
He went into his ‘man cave’ and opened a drawer. In it was a fully loaded Glock 40. He picked it up and looked outside. For a moment he wondered why they left the front door ajar and looked at the sky. The rain would end soon. He went out the door and walked slowly across the street letting the sound of the rain mask both scent and sound as he was aware of the cowardly dog, having seen him hide under the house during many storms. The dog did not scare him. The stairs to the porch were concrete and did not creak.
Growl heard something and raised his head and saw the figure in the door raise the gun to fire at his friend and he leapt across the space before the man could aim. As he leapt he released a deep rumble.
I heard him and sat up on the couch just in time to see Growl flying through the air! A man with a gun was there and he was trying to aim at the stranger to kill him! I jumped up and pulled the stranger out of the chair and threw him on the floor just as the shot went off and, like some weird dream scene, hit me the same time that Growl hit the man with the gun and ripped out his windpipe. He fell back sputtering and gurgling as the dog, standing on his chest, kept ripping holes in his face and neck as blood went everywhere. The pain hit like a shock and then it was blissfully gone and all my sight began to fade into stars and universes.
Just as everything turned into pure light I saw the face of an angel looking into my eyes and I smiled at him.