By Joe McKinney
If they’d come a few minutes earlier the dogs would have surprised him in the bedroom, kneeling next to the bed, muttering his goodbyes to his dead wife. They’d have found a middle-aged man in shabby clothes, dirty gray hair hanging in curtains over his face, his expression ashen with grief. He would have been unarmed. They could have torn him to pieces. But they came too late, and when they broke out of the treeline and into his weed patch backyard Mark Vogler was already on his feet and headed for the kitchen, where he had moved most of his tools.
At first there were only two of them, both mangy and feral, but there were almost certainly more moving around in the dense cedar thicket that lined the yard. The dogs were part of the pack that had been trying to get at him for the last week, chewing holes in the boards he had nailed over his windows and doors, baying in the night, melting into the cedar thicket that surrounded his house like ghosts when he got drunk enough to stagger onto the back deck and take pot shots at them with his pistol.
Now, numb with grief, but not as numb as he thought he’d be, he leaned his forehead against a gap in the boards and watched the dogs charging the house. He wasn’t afraid, and he found that funny. He tried to tell himself that he should be afraid, that this time the dogs would smell death inside the house and keep at it till they got inside, but instead all he could think about was how long it had been since he’d slept last. What was it, two nights? Three?
He coughed. Yeah, he thought, it’s mutated all right. I’ve got a day left, maybe two.
“You need to do it if you’re gonna do it,” he said.
He grabbed an old Ruger pistol he kept on the counter and ran his finger over the trigger. The gun was a .357 with a blued barrel and walnut grips, nothing fancy, but solid and reliable.
Probably the last solid and reliable thing left in this world.
His eyes snapped to a loose corner of the plywood board he’d nailed over the back door. A Doberman, its muzzle streaked with blood, one eye clouded to a pale milky pink from a recent fight, was forcing its head and shoulders inside.
“Aren’t you the smart one?” Vogler said. “I didn’t see you.”
Ropes of saliva and flecks of foam flew from the dog’s bloody mouth. There was a stuttering growl rising in its throat, and its one remaining eye rolled in its socket with a feral intensity that only hunger could create.
He put the business end of the Ruger against the side of the dog’s head and, doing his best Dirty Harry, said, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?”
He fired, and then everything the animal had ever known and experienced sprayed out across the rainwater-sodden floor.
He stood there looking at the mostly headless corpse of the dog and he thought about what an animal knows, what its memory is like. This one looked four, maybe five years old. That meant it might have started its life as someone’s pet, though that phase of its life would have ended quickly. It might not even remember what life as someone’s pet was like, the regular meals, the occasional belly scratch. Most of its life had been spent feral, roaming the ruins of San Antonio with the packs, feeding on the detritus of a gone world.
The clicking of claws on the terracotta tiles of the back patio pulled his attention away. Both of the dogs he had seen earlier were there now, their sinewy bodies weaving through the rusted remains of his lawn furniture.
Vogler moved fast. He kicked the boards off the back door. They tumbled away easily with the Doberman’s weight to pull them down. The next moment he was through the door, his weapon trained on the lead dog. Vogler fired, turned, then fired again at the second animal. The first collapsed instantly from a solid head shot. The second fell back with a whimper, veined bubbles forming and popping at the hole in the side of its chest.
He kept the weapon trained on the second animal, waiting for it get back up, but it didn’t. It stared at him, panting, and he stared back at it, waiting for that exact moment when the dog’s life left its body.
He was looking at the dog, but he was thinking of Margaret, his dead wife. His grief was real, that much he knew, but he felt like he was too shallow to grieve her the way she deserved to be grieved. She had loved him honestly, despite all his years of self-absorption and putting his career before her, despite his ability to convince himself that providing for her was the same thing as loving her, and that made him wonder if his grief was for her passing, or for himself having to live without her.
He thought, Oh Jesus, am I that shallow? I am, aren’t I?
Vogler looked up at the tree line. The rest of the pack had come out of the trees. They were standing inside what had once been his yard, the fur bristling down their backs. None of them barked. The feral ones didn’t do that.
“Get out of here!” he yelled.
They didn’t move. They didn’t even flinch.
He ran down the steps and into the yard, screaming at them and waving his arms in the air like some mad prophet coming down from the hills to announce the end of days.
All but one of the dogs ran. It was a short-haired lab with a scar down the left side of its muzzle and the dirt and blood on its flanks was so thick that Vogler couldn’t tell what color it had once been.
“You better run, you son of a bitch,” he said.
But the dog just stared at him. Vogler raised the pistol and closed one eye and put the front sight square on the dog’s head and pulled the trigger.
The gun blast echoed through the surrounding hills, and when the noise was gone, Vogler wondered at how quiet it was here at the end of the world. Like a graveyard on a Sunday morning.
He couldn’t catch his breath as he remounted the stairs and went back inside. In the darkened kitchen he stood with one hand over his heart, trying to will himself to breathe. And then he coughed. He coughed hard, again and again, and each hack felt like something was inside him, trying to claw its way out. When the coughing finally subsided he steadied himself against a granite counter top that had been the finest money could buy not so many years ago, before the San Antonio flu and the military quarantine and all the useless madness that had come with those times. He stared at the light fixture above the empty floor where their dining room table had once stood. The room seemed to swell and contract, swell and contract, like he was standing inside a giant lung, and he thought he was going to vomit. Vogler had been a surgeon in the early days of the flu, and he’d heard patients describe this exact feeling, the same nausea-inducing hallucinations, the shortness of breath, and he knew what was coming. Another six or eight hours and his lips would start to take on the blueberry stain of cyanosis as his lungs filled with fluid and he drowned to death in his own blood and snot.
And then he remembered the pistol in his hand. Vogler looked down at it then and was surprised to see it was still there.
“Just make sure you save yourself a bullet,” he said, and was mildly amused at how easy the decision to use the gun on himself was to make.
He wondered what it was going to taste like, the soot-stained metal.
Vogler stepped outside again to see if the pack had returned, but the yard was empty. He leaned against the porch railing and let his mind drift. Behind him stood an eight thousand square foot monstrosity, a moldering Mediterranean-style villa that had been his dream home ten years ago when he built it for Margaret. It stood on top of a low, domed hill, commanding a view of other hills, other mansions. They were all wrecks now–all that remained of what had once been the Dominion, San Antonio’s wealthiest neighborhood. Looking to the south, he saw the city skyline and the yellowish, hazy dust that rose from it. Those streets were crowded with the mummified corpses of the victims of H2N2, the San Antonio Flu.
He turned away.
There was an obligation waiting for him inside. Margaret, in the dying moment of clarity that had penetrated her fever, had asked him to bury her next to their son in the soft dirt beneath the old oak in the front lawn.
He had promised her he would.
“Promise me you will,” she’d said, trying to sit up, trying to grab his arm, but unable to do either. “Tell me you will. Promise me.”
At first he thought she repeated herself because of the fever. Maybe she wasn’t thinking clearly. But then he saw the look on her face and he knew different. He knew her mind was as sharp as ever.
Twenty-five years earlier, right after completing his residency, his head swollen with pride at his accomplishment, there had been a nurse, a sexy brunette with brown eyes and small breasts and graceful hips. A short, white hot affair had followed. He ended it when Margaret found them out. And then, as she made him promise to bury her body next to their son’s, he had seen an echo of the doubt and mistrust that had plagued their marriage during the decade after that affair. He felt its sudden return now like a knife in the gut.
He went to the bedroom, and with a great deal of difficulty, for the coughing had returned, he shouldered her shrouded corpse and a shovel and headed for the old oak tree in the front yard to do his widower’s duty.
He dug for two hours, listening by turns to the slice and crunch of the shovel cutting into the earth and the snarls and yaps of the pack that was circling around him.
He touched the pistol in the waistband of his jeans and felt reassured by it. When he was done, he was going to lie down on the other side of his son’s grave and eat the gun.
“It’ll be like it used to be,” he said to the simple cedar post marker at the head of his son’s grave. The boy had been twenty years old when he died, but at that moment, Vogler thought of him as he had been many years earlier, a four year old child coming downstairs in the middle of the night to climb in bed between his parents.
Vogler wiped the sweat out of his eyes and went back to digging. Despite the coughing, despite the knowledge that there wouldn’t be anybody to throw earth on top of him when he was done, he had a sense that the labor was a good thing, that he was making good on the most important promise he had ever made. It felt good to sweat. The stiffness in his lower back felt good. The pain was honest, and Margaret deserved that. After all the years and all the troubles, she deserved something honest from him.
Later, when the hole was finished and the body was put inside and he had said all he could say in words to a woman who had shared his life with him and given so much of herself to him, he began to shovel the dirt back in.
So absorbed was he with his work, so overheated by the unaccustomed exertion, that he failed to hear the big black dog loping through the grass towards him.
He didn’t so much as hear the dog as feel the weight of its stare on his back. And when he did finally feel that weight he spun around on his heels and let out a startled cry at the charging black mass of fur and teeth.
The dog leapt at his face and knocked him down and tore into him. Vogler put his hands up to keep the dog’s teeth away from his throat and they fought, not as man and dog, but as two wild things whose only weapons were the muscles and the fists and the teeth they were born with.
Vogler managed to get one hand in the dog’s mouth and grabbed onto its lower jaw. The dog’s teeth shredded the palm of his hand, but Vogler wouldn’t let go. He twisted the jaw and the dog went down. But even then, even with the dog on the ground, whining in pain, Vogler refused to let go. He pushed the dog’s head up and away, exposing the throat. Vogler threw punch after punch into the soft flesh of the dog’s throat. “You go to hell, you son of a bitch!” he roared, screaming the words with the rage of one who has seen the world around him die and has been unable to do a damned thing about it, even for all the wealth and power that had once been his to command.
The dog convulsed under the blows, raking at Vogler’s belly with his back claws in a futile attempt to save himself. But there was no stopping Vogler’s attack. As a civilized man, he had farther to fall to reach that savage state where only survival mattered, and when he did finally make that fall, when the protective veneer of reason and humanity fell away and there was nothing left but the bright burning spark of primal rage inside him, he proved to be the stronger. He sank his teeth into the dog’s throat and tasted the fur and then the blood as the dog’s life leaked from its veins and down to the corners of Vogler’s mouth.
The dog kicked once, twice more before it died, and with that last kick snagged the trigger guard of the Ruger and pulled it from Vogler’s waistband. Vogler was bent over forward so that he couldn’t feel the gun leave its seat. But he did hear it go off, and he did feel the bullet punch into his belly and go tearing through his organs like a boy with a stick who has rammed the pointed end down into a fire ant mound and stirred it till nothing but an angry mess remains. That was what his belly felt like. That was what the pain of being shot in the gut felt like.
Vogler coughed in disbelief, then pitched over, face down in the soft black dirt beneath the oak tree. He lay there, trying to catch his failing breath, his eyes growing darker by the second and his skin crawling with sudden cold till it seemed he was the only being left alive on the barren, bald tip of the world, the blackness of space all around him. The thought passed through his mind that in the time before the world died of the flu he had been a surgeon, the head of a hospital…a wealthy man…a married man…a father. And now, he was a dying man, and none of it counted anymore because now he was none of those things. Now, he was merely a tree falling in the woods, unseen. Unheard.
The dogs closed in on him. He could hear them, he could hear their excited panting and their slobbering jowls slopping together, and he knew what was coming. Though he couldn’t see, he could still feel, and he could feel hot breath and wet teeth on his fingertips, the teeth pulling at the skin, almost gingerly but for their sharpness, taking a hesitant first taste of the flesh.
“Plague Dogs” originally appeared in Potter’s Field 3, published by Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2009. The anthology was edited by Cathy Buburuz.