Never During the Day
Getting home after sunrise was not my first choice, but there was no way to avoid it. We had run out of provisions, and I needed to secure food of any sort for my family. My daughter had not eaten in a day, my wife in two, and myself in several. We would not survive the week. Therefore, I kissed my family goodbye and set out at dawn, using light as my safety and cover.
I had long ago ransacked every abandoned house for a two-mile radius. My plan was simple. Starting from the last house, I searched and expanded outward in a spiral pattern, inspecting each residence with my familiar method.
Although I had not seen another living soul in three years, I still proceeded with some caution. I walked carefully with my backpack on my shoulders, roller skating pads on my forearms, elbows, and legs, and an umpire mask over my face. My eyes and neck swiveled at most noises. This peculiar type of situational awareness had become my standard. It is how we had survived in the apocalypse this long.
However, the hollowing of my stomach and my emaciated images in the mirror this morning indicated we were more desperate than ever. Therefore, I kept my eyes primarily skyward, my ears listening for them. They had never threatened us during the day, especially in full sunlight, but again, situational awareness. Changes were inevitable.
As the morning passed, I received a glimmer of hope. Between three houses, one floorboard, one toilet tank, and beneath one rotting corpse, I had obtained two bottles of water, three cans of corn, one can of roast beef and vegetable soup, and two cans of dog food, high in the all fucking important protein. We had no dog and no longer cared about such trivialities of human versus man’s best friend food.
However, as the sun waned and dusk approached, I sat down on a suburban street curb to catch my breath. I traced the darkening clouds above me, calculating. I had most likely now gone more than three miles. Since finding the previous redemptive provisions, I had searched several dozen houses and found no other morsel of food. Not a can. Not a bottle. Not a crumb. As I sat there, staring at a can of corn, wondering if I had strength left not to open it until I was home, I caught a glimpse of something a couple of blocks ahead of me.
“It can wait, Michael,” I said, wheezing. “Head home. We can make another week off this. Head home, you dumb mother fucker.”
At that thought, I estimated the sunlight, looked ahead at the apartment building, and slapped myself hard in the face.
“Dumb it is then.”
I picked my dumbass off the pavement, cracking my back and rolling my head around as I headed toward the apartment building, peering directly at the headlights of fortune.
Although exhausted and starved, I made good time and had some valuable light left when I stopped in front of the apartment complex. In an old brick building, the windows and doors were boarded up as predicted - a strategy which would likely outlive humanity.
I took off my backpack, found my crowbar, winced at the sky, and set to work. Within ten minutes, I had enough boards removed to wedge the lock. Struggling, I managed to break it off. Metal clanked on the other side of the door. I exhaled, shaking my head, restraining my reoccurring lightheadedness, and pushed the door open.
Stale, humid air greeted me. I wiped the sweat gathered at my brow, squeezed the crowbar in my hands, and entered.
Only one window at the end of the corridor, the hallway itself was dark. I stepped softly upon the mildewed carpet. My footfalls echoed louder than expected. I cringed. An apartment door near me rattled on its hinges.
My heart skipped and found a new rhythm. For a moment, I considered retreating and returning home.
“Dumb, Michael, remember,” I said under my breath. “Dumb and all in.”
I walked toward the sounds, embracing my investigation mode. These were the first embers of life I had encountered in several months. I regretted my last inquiry. It had led me to kill the last human being I thought I would find in my lifetime.
“What’s going to be different this time, dumbass?” I asked, and then immediately answered myself. “Maybe nothing…but maybe everything.”
I reached the door. The thuds stopped. I leaned my ears against the wood and waited. Nothing. Then, movement. Something alive paced in the room.
I am not sure why I decided my next course of action was necessary, but I took a chance.
“Hey, who’s in there?” I asked in a hushed voice, knocking on the door. “I have a gun. I’m coming in. But…I have a gun.”
I shook my head and cringed at my words. They had sounded better in my head, especially considering I had no gun.
While I doubted my words, someone or something began scratching behind the door. It continued for several seconds,
stopped, and then the pacing resumed.
True to my word and desperate for more food, I shoved the crowbar into the door wedge. I crouched and heaved with my remaining strength. The wood splintered, but the lock remained. I stood, caught my breath, thought of my daughter and wife, and gritted my teeth.
I heaved again.
“Ahhhhhh!” I yelled, forgetting silence was my friend.
The doorknob finally caved in, but I slipped forward and hit my head on the door frame. Instant pain shot through my head. Already weak, I collapsed on the spot.
The cracked ceiling and peeling paint above me spun. I lay there in a daze, eyes closing.
Time passed. I must have passed out because I had a dream of wet rain pouring down on me.
I smiled. I drank my free access to water. Not having had such a luxury in at least a decade.
Eventually, I jerked awake. My eyes squeezed tight, I brought a hand to my face and felt something wet. Sticky, it sure as hell was not water.
Something licked my face again. I thrust my eyes open. A black furry dog scurried back into the room, panting. Instinctively, I sat up, crab crawled backward and hit the wall behind me.
I sat there a few seconds, panting myself, blinking. I noticed my crowbar and grabbed it, squeezing it against my chest. Meanwhile, the dog, a medium-sized, mixed unknown breed, locked its eyes with mine. It then barked and ran around itself in a happy circle in the middle of the living room.
I flinched one moment and then burst out with laughter the next.
After a minute, I tempered my shock and amusement. I turned my head. Everything had grown much darker.
Fear settled upon my heart, and I stood, leaning against the wall for support as I nearly collapsed again. Without thought, I rushed into the room and closed the door behind me.
Meanwhile, the dog had observed enough, judged me safe, and began to lick my fingers.
“Hey there, little guy or girl,” I said, grunting at the fact I had not noticed its gender yet. “No time for proper sniffs and greets. You have any food in here for me?”
I glanced around. My eyes widened. In the corner, a freshly decaying corpse sat in a torn sofa recliner. I took a few steps closer and squinted in the fading light. The dog’s former owner had had its eyes clawed out. Trails of dried blood ran down his cheeks. Fresh wounds were carved in his exposed hands and neck.
I coughed, dry heaving. I reached beneath my face mask and brought my handkerchief over my mouth and nose. It helped ebb the decay of death in my nostrils.
The dog licked my hand.
“Yeah, thanks, buddy,” I said, nodding, returning to the room. “Focus, focus, focus.”
I rifled through the kitchen, not expecting to find anything - which I did not. Next, I turned the only bedroom inside and out. Nothing. Finally, I found a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup in the bathroom toilet tank.
I walked out of the bathroom and saw the dog sitting on the living room carpet, wagging its tail.
“Gotta love the toilet tank trick, buddy,” I said. “Your owner had a brain in him.”
The dog barked.
“Hey, hey, no offense intended, buddy.”
I approached the dog, bent down, and finally gave it some attention.
“So, I guess that’s it, huh?” I said, sighing, realizing my dreaded situation.
“If I leave now, I probably won’t get back until after dark.”
I stood up and brought a hand to my head. I felt blood at my temple.
“Definitely a dumbass move, Michael.”
The dog stood up as well. It licked my hand.
“Yeah, yeah, I think I need to leave now,” I said, sighing.
I made to leave and opened the door. The dog stood on the carpet and barked.
Standing underneath the doorway, I turned back.
“Pal, I wish you wouldn’t bark. I don’t know how you’ve made it. But, they’re going to come down on us like they did your owner –“
I shut my mouth, stepped back inside, and closed the door shut quickly.
“Shit, shit, shit,” I hissed under my breath.
I ran to the window. The drapes were drawn, covering a shattered window.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
I ran to every window in the apartment and came back to the living room.
“They’re all broke, dumbass! Why did I not notice until now?”
As if on cue, I heard the first familiar gurgling croak.
I froze, straining my ears for its direction. It seemed to be coming from the kitchen. I ran to the bedroom, carried all the covers from a pile in the corner, and ran to the kitchen window. I stuffed one blanket in the cracks of the window. I repeated this process with the other two windows in the apartment.
“Come here, dog!” I whispered loudly, grabbing its collar.
I directed the dog to sit on the sofa chair's left and covered it with two blankets. Then, I found a large box, which likely had
served the same purpose as I intended now, and placed it over the dog’s lump.
Several more croaks came.
“Stay!” I whispered directly next to the box.
I did not stop to consider if my command would be effective. Instinct and previous experience drove my next choices. I grabbed a knife and stabbed the dog's former owner several times, particularly in the abdomen. Fortunately, there was enough blood. It oozed out from some of the fresh holes.
“Sorry, buddy,” I whispered to him.
I then pulled the sofa chair out another inch from the corner. I hopped behind it. I took off my backpack. Kneeling, I moved one side to the wall and used the dog’s covers as another block on the other side. I placed the last two blankets over me, wedging one side to the wall, and tucked the other side behind the corpse. Finally, I squatted with the backpack in front of my chest and tugged on the blankets as hard as I could.
I sat there, chest surging and burning from the influx of oxygen, and listened.
The croaks came from every direction now. And with them, the distant crashing of window glass, thuds of boards and doors, and death wails.
They were near.
A pause of silence. I heard only my own breath. I remained still, waiting.
I knew what came next.
The big crashes. They first came from the kitchen, then the bedroom, and finally the living room window to my left. Glass shattering, croaking, wailing, fluttering. The sofa chair got pounded, shaking behind my back. Then, above me, they beat against the blankets, tearing with intent to bite and kill.
Through all of this, I kept my eyes shut, squeezed my hands on the blankets, and kept myself in a tight cocoon. Nothing penetrated. Mercifully, the dog made no sound.
We both waited out the storm of attack, lasting several minutes.
The croaks, wails, and flutters faded. They abandoned the apartment and moved on to the next, and the next, until finally, they ceased altogether. The only remaining sounds in the apartment for the rest of the evening were my breaths, the dog’s panting, and the insects outside the windows. We all who remained realized the night’s onslaught had passed. We all survived one more day.
I allowed my eyes to rest and fell asleep.
Several hours later, I jerked awake, gasping for air, and clenching my hands. I took a minute to listen to the insects outside and gain my nerve.
Eventually, I pulled the blankets off me, shoved my backpack out and over the sofa chair, and climbed out of my makeshift cocoon. I stood with my body shaking but smiled. The air in the room was crisp, refreshing. I was grateful to be alive.
A muffled whine stirred my musings.
“Dumbass,” I said, hitting my head.
I walked over, kneeled to the floor, and freed the dog from its cocoon as well. It leaped into my arms and licked my face with glee.
“Okay, okay, okay!”
I laughed, grabbed its paws, and finally checked.
“A boy! Good to know…but…we need to get going. My family has probably assumed I’m dead.”
I stood, stretching, and cracking my bones. Dim light poured through the entire apartment. The morning had arrived, along with it, reasonable safety.
I slung my backpack over my shoulders, sighed, and headed toward the door. I twisted the knob, but when the dog barked behind me, I paused and twisted around.
“Boy! Shh! Let’s test those barks later! Come! Come!”
The dog whimpered, standing over the carpet in the middle of the room. When I failed to move away from the door, it ran a few circles, then pawed at the carpet.
I grumbled, assuming it had a difficult time with demands. I approached and gently nudged at its collar. It resisted.
“Boy, please, don’t make me leave you! Your sight, as filthy as it is, will bring a smile to Little D’s eyes.”
The dog continued to resist. I stood, putting my hands on my hips, realizing I might need to leave it here after all.
As though the dog sensed my ill intentions, it moved to one side of the area rug and used its teeth to tug on its edges, snarling, struggling.
“What is it, boy? What do you want me to see?”
At length, I walked over, took the rug out of the dog’s mouth, and yanked it free.
“What the fuck?!”
In the middle of the wood floor lay a half-ass attempt at a false door.
“This is what you wanted me to see, boy!” I said, petting the dog on the head with growing love. “Okay, let’s see what I’ve been too blind to see.”
I fell to my knees, dug my fingers along one side of the door, forcing them an inch deep, and then took it off with one tug. I laughed out loud, immediately covering my mouth to stifle my sounds.
“I hit the motherload!”
In this square foot, three-foot-deep hole, I found several cans of
beef soup, several cans of spinach, a few cans of pumpkin, and even a few dog food cans. And probably the best discovery of all, several different packets of vegetable seeds.
“A garden, boy! I haven’t had one of those in over a decade!”
I remained there a moment, allowing the hope to wash over me like a tidal wave.
At length, I wiped my tears away and began packing the provisions into my backpack. Heavy, I knew I would bear this burden with ease.
Packed and ready, I moved to the door and walked out of the apartment. The dog trailed at my side, wagging its tail.
“We’d better give you a name soon,” I laughed, enjoying the excuse to talk to something alive for once. “I don’t want to have to call you boy from now on.”
When we reached the door, I heard one distinct croak. I hunched nearly a foot and flung my arms over my head, ready to wave off an attack. The dog whimpered, its tail tucked behind its legs, and hunkered for safety behind me.
After several seconds and no assault, I relaxed my body and stood straight. My eyes found the source of the sound straight away. To my left, one raven rested next to a burnt-out lamp attached to the apartment building. The bird pecked at the mangled vines. Its beak appeared bloody. On occasion, it would turn in our direction and croak. Above, in the morning overcast sky, several of its black comrades circled, silent for the time being.
With my hairs on end, I trusted my apocalyptic experience and began the long trek home to my family. The dog nor I looked behind us.
“They never attack during the day...they never attack during the day.”
I repeated this all the way home.