short story

“Man’s Best Friend,” a Short Story

This is another sample from my collection Menhir and Seven Stories. Hope everyone enjoys it.

Man’s Best Friend

After the war, everything fell apart. Whatever infrastructure not destroyed outright in the conflict, had been neglected and abused for so long, it literally disintegrated. First to go was the electric grid, followed quickly by the communications and transportation systems. Once those three were gone, everything else dissolved quickly, the government, the economy, society itself.

Lord Chaos took the throne, unopposed.

People suffered. People died.

A lot of people died, the old, the young, the sick, the poor, the most vulnerable. Like a plague, the meltdown spared only the healthy and the strong.

When the dust settled, there were a lot fewer people around, maybe a tenth of the pre-war population, maybe a hundredth. No one knew for sure. Generally, those who survived had resolved themselves into three social groupings: villagers, who lived together in small, fortified hamlets and practiced subsistence farming and raised livestock to feed themselves; raiders, who wandered the countryside in small bands, scavenging the ruins, hunting, and taking what they could from the villages; and rangers, loners, who hunted and scavenged to survive and wanted only to be left alone.

Isaac was a ranger.

***

“Well, look at what I found,” he told Dite. “Looks like it’s our lucky day, after all.”

Dite perked up her ears, glanced over for a moment from her spot beside the foundation wall, then returned to the leg bone she was gnawing on.

“I know, you’re busy.”

Isaac let the charred piece of plywood fall away and squatted down to examine his find. Lying there amid the ash and charcoal, gleaming like gems, were a handful of cans. Food cans. He could even make out the labels as he picked each up: chili con carne, minestrone soup, two cans of peas and one of sweet corn. As far as he could tell, the seal on every can was intact.

It felt like he’d won the lottery. Canned food, particularly vegetables, was really growing scarce. Most cans had been destroyed in the fires following the meltdown, or by exposure to the elements. What had survived had been thoroughly picked over by scavengers trying to fend off starvation. He’d found probably two intact cans over the past three weeks. Today he’d found five.

He carefully stowed the cans in his backpack, zipped it up tight, and turned to the dog. “Ready to head back?”

Dite lunged to her feet, the stub of the leg bone hanging from her muzzle like an old man’s stogie.

“Want to take that with you?”

Her tail briefly swung back and forth. She was a dog of few words.

“Okay then.” He glanced apologetically at the bleached skull lying amid the debris. This had probably been their home at one time; the leg, their leg, now Dite’s lunch.

“Come on,” he told her and swung the pack onto his shoulders.

***

He’d set up camp on a small hill just outside the ruins of the town. At some point in the past, someone had planted an apple orchard across the hill, but the trees hadn’t been tended for years and blackberries and weedy shrubs had taken over the space between the trees. It gave him protection from wind and rain, and from unwanted visitors sneaking up on him. Unless they wished to plow through the blackberries, there was only one trail in or out.

The last of the spring’s blossoms were just fading away on the apple trees.

Isaac dropped the pack to the ground next to his bed roll and took a quick look around to make sure there hadn’t been any uninvited visitors while he’d been gone. Dite dropped her bone and did the same, nose to the ground. He hadn’t left anything valuable behind, but that doesn’t mean some raiding party hadn’t been through to see whether he was weak or worth enough to attack when he did return.

Dite seemed to have found something.

“What is it, girl?” he asked. “Do we have bad guys poking around?”

She didn’t look up. Her nosed stayed pressed to the ground as she followed the scent from his bedroll across the campsite toward the fire pit. She moved to one side and concentrated on his cooking pot, her nose working furiously. The hackles were raised along her muscular shoulders.

“What is it, girl?”

He walked over and bent over to look at the cooking pot without touching it. Dite glanced up at him, then stepped back out of his way. She seemed to be saying “Did you see this?” The inside of the pot looked like it had been scrubbed clean, which is not how he had left it this morning. He’d eaten the last of last night’s stew for breakfast this morning. The remains had still been in the bottom of the pot. Now it was clean.

Someone, or something, had eaten his leftovers.

He slowly stood back up, then calmly turned a complete circle, scanning the brush and apple trees for anyone that might be lying in wait. All he could see was the bright green of the spring’s new foliage stirring in the breeze. The sky was cloudless, the sun beginning to near the western hills as the day faded.

An eagle slowly circled above. It took that as a good sign.

Dite yawned and wandered back to her bone and began working it again.

Whoever had eaten his leftovers seemed to have moved on.

He took a deep breath and set about making dinner.

The minestrone had captured his imagination on the walk home. It had been all he’d been able to think about. He went to the backpack and unzipped it. Inside, he kept everything he valued in this life: his folding knife, a box of wooden matches, a tattered volume of Shakespeare, and a yellowed old page from a newspaper, featuring a photo of the President and the headline “Final victory is near.”

He reached past his other treasures, retrieved the can of minestrone and a can of peas, opened each and dumped each in the cooking pot and gave the contents a stir. As a final touch, he unwrapped a crumpled piece of foil and broke half his remaining dried meat into two pieces. Half he crumbled into the cooking pot. The other half he tossed to Dite.

She left her bone just long enough to scarf down the meat, then resumed her hunt for marrow.

He kindled a fire and set the pot nearby to heat up.

As he waited for the soup to heat up, the sun dipped down toward the western hills. The shadows of the apple trees grew longer. The air began to lose its afternoon heat.

Soon the scent of real soup began to fill the evening air. He stirred the pot every few minutes to keep it from burning and fought the urge to start eating now. Though his stomach rumbled and he was salivating more than Dite, he knew it would taste so much better when it was fully hot. It would be worth the wait. Good things were always worth doing right.

Dite’s head snapped up, her ears cocked, her eyes focused on something down the hill.

“What is it?”

Dite got to her feet. Her hackles were up again, and a deep, rumbling growl sounded within her chest.

Isaac eased over to his backpack and pulled his pistol from a side pocket. He only had five cartridges left, but it would have to do. Ammunition hadn’t done well in the fires either.

Truth was, if he needed more than five shots, he was so hopelessly outgunned all the ammunition in the world wouldn’t do him any good anyway.

Dite hadn’t moved. She still stared down the little trail that they’d followed up to the camp. It was the only easy way in and out. The only way without crashing through blackberry brambles and losing much of your skin.

He peered in that direction, but could see nothing threatening in the growing gloom. The sun was setting and the shadows were rapidly overpowering the daylight.

“I know you’re out there!” he called out. “Show yourself or go away!”

There was no answer. Dite remained transfixed by whatever was out there.

“I’ll set the dog loose!”

“Please don’t.” a voice answered out of the gloom. It was the voice of a woman. “I’m not armed. Please. Call off your dog.”

“Come out where I can see you. Make sure I can see your hands.”

He cocked his pistol. In the still evening air, it sounded like a bone breaking.

“Okay. I’m coming. Just, please, don’t hurt me.”

A figure detached itself from the shadows and eased forward into the circle of light thrown by the cooking fire. She was a young woman, early to mid-twenties, wearing only a torn tee shirt, cut-off jeans and tennis shoes. Her hair was a mass of dark tangles falling over her shoulders. She held her hands up over her head, palms spread toward him. Even from this distance, he could see fresh scratches on her thighs.

If she was hiding a weapon, he didn’t know where.

“Where are the others?” he asked. “Your friends?”

She shook her head. “They’re all dead. I’m the only one left.”

Isaac wasn’t sure he believed her. Raiders weren’t above using women and children as bait to get their targets off-guard. But she posed no immediate threat. He eased his pistol’s hammer down and turned to Dite. “Lay down, girl.”

Dite looked at him, then turned and circled back to her unfinished bone. She plopped on the ground with a noticeable sigh.

“Please, mister. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

His soup. He turned back to his cooking pot. The edge nearest the fire was just beginning to boil.

“Shit!” He shoved the pistol into his waistband, grabbed the spoon and quickly stirred it. If her appearance had made him ruin his dinner, he was really going to be pissed. Thankfully, it didn’t seemed to have burned. The spoon scraped bare metal on the bottom of the pot and it didn’t smell scorched.

He looked up at the young woman. She still stood where she’d been, her hands in the air.

Isaac sighed. “You can lower your hands.”

She did, but didn’t move from where she was standing.

He sighed again. “Come on over.”

She smiled and walked over to a spot beside the fire just a few feet from him. Isaac watched her, fascinated by her gait. She seemed to be torn equally between shy wariness and eager anticipation. Up close, she also looked tired and much older than her years warranted.

Everybody aged fast these days. If they survived.

“You’re lucky,” he told her. “I usually only have enough food for myself and the dog. I found extra today.”

She nodded. “It smells wonderful.”

Yes, it did, and he really hadn’t planned on sharing it with anyone.

“Well, have a seat,” he told her and pulled the cooking pot off the fire. “I usually don’t have dinner guests, so we’re going to have to share my cup.”

She sat down cross-legged on the dirt beside the fire, flashing tan, muscular thighs in the golden fire light. “That’s fine. I just really appreciate it. You have no idea.”

He thought he probably did. There had been plenty of nights he’d gone to sleep with his stomach growling displeasure.

He pulled his battered old metal cup from his backpack, scooped some of the soup out of the cook pot, and handed it to the young woman. “It’s hot.”

Their hands touched briefly as the cup changed hands.

“Thanks.” She smiled through the steam rising from the soup. Her eyes were a brilliant green, the color of the young leaves on the apple trees.

Isaac was suddenly self-conscious. He turned from her and busied himself with adding fresh wood to the fire. It was still spring. Now that night had truly fallen, the air would quickly develop a chill. Beside him, the young woman concentrated on eating. He didn’t have to watch her to know the intensity she showed in devouring her food. He’d seen it before. When you’re very hungry, flavor is of less interest than simply filling your stomach.

Dite calmly worked her bone on the other side of the fire, mining for marrow, and watched them with alert eyes. She didn’t seem to hear anyone else lurking out there in the darkness.

Within a couple of minutes, the young woman had emptied the cup. She handed it back to him. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He scooped up another cup of the soup and offered it to her.

She frowned and shook her head. “It’s your turn.”

“I ate yesterday,” he shrugged. “You didn’t.”

Again, she flashed that smile at him, but she took the cup. “What’s your name?”

He told her.

“I’m Allison,” she said. “My friends call me Ally.”

Isaac nodded. “Hi, Allison.”

“Ally.”

“Hi, Ally.”

***

“So what happened to you friends?” he asked.

“They got sick. Vomittng, diarrhea,” she said. “Pretty soon they were vomiting up blood, then they died. One by one. There was nothing I could do.”

He nodded. She’d said the words calmly, but the firelight caught the tears in her eyes.

“You didn’t get sick?”

She nodded. “But not as bad. I was better in a day.”

“It was probably something you guys ate.”

“Probably. Some rabbit meat we had was starting to turn. David said it would be fine. Couldn’t let good food go to waste.”

Isaac poured the last of the soup into his cup and handed it to Ally.

“What about you? You haven’t always been alone, have you?”

“I’m not alone. I’ve got Dite.”

Ally smiled and looked over at the dog. “She’s certainly a good watchdog. What’s her name mean?”

“It’s short for Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love.”

Dite had heard her name and watched them both with alert eyes.

Ally turned back to him. “What about friends? Family?”

“My wife and daughters died in the war. A bomb made a direct hit on our house.” He shrugged.

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry about your friends.”

She smiled, but there was very little happiness in the gesture.

***

After dinner, Ally gathered the empty cooking pot, Isaac’s battered cup, and the jug of drinking water, took them to the edge of the camp site and began to wash them.

Dite stopped gnawing her bone to watch her, wet nose working the air hard.

“You don’t have to do that.” he told her.

Dite made a sound in her throat, half whine, half suppressed bark. She usually got to lick the pans clean of any food. Once she was done with them, all Isaac would have to do was rinse them out. Of all the things he had to worry about these days, the sanitation condition of Dite’s saliva ranked pretty low.

“It’s the least I can do,” Allie insisted without looking up. She’d poured some drinking water into the cooking pot and was scrubbing it now with her fingers.

Dite glanced over and met his eyes. He could only shrug. She seemed to sigh, then returned to working her bone.

Allie tossed the soiled water out into the darkness beyond the firelight, set the pots aside to dry, and turned back to him, drying her hands on the material of her shorts. Her nipples were erect, pushing against the thin material of her tee

“Honestly,” she told him. “When I found your camp, I was hoping to steal a few scarps of meat, or something. Enough to keep from starving.”

“There was nothing to steal.”

She shook her head. “So then I hoped when you came back you’d spare a few scraps for me. I never expected you to share your meal.”

“Times are tough,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be human beings.”

“There aren’t many people who think that way anymore.”

“I don’t know that there were ever that many who thought that way. The world’s always been a very selfish place.”

She thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. “Funny how we never remember those parts, just the good times.”

Isaac nodded.

She turned and peered at the area behind him. “Is that where you sleep?”

He turned to look behind him and nodded. It wasn’t much to look at. He’d strung a tarp up between the trees to protect himself from sudden rains. Below that, he had an old gray woolen blanket for warmth and another one that served as a pad and pillow. It was simple and comfortable enough.

He could also roll it all up and carry it on his back when it was time to move on.

“Kind of cozy,” she said.

He shrugged.

She nodded and strolled over to the bed roll.

Curious, he turned and watched as, with a single, fluid motion she unsnapped her shorts, let them fall to her ankles, then kicked them aside. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath. Women’s underwear had been designed to be pretty, not survive daily wear and tear. Most fell apart within a matter of months.

She pulled her tee shirt over her head, tossed it aside with the shorts, and crawled under the blanket.

Isaac didn’t move. He wasn’t terribly sure what his next move should be.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

Dite looked at him from across the fire as though she too were wondering.

He got to his feet.

“Look,” he said. “You’re very nice and I feel bad for you, losing all your friends like that. But I’m not really looking for a wife, or girlfriend, or anything.”

She smiled. “That mean you’d rather sleep alone tonight?”

“I’m just trying to be honest with you.”

She nodded. “Okay. Now you going to get undressed, or what?”

He got undressed.

***

Sometime during the night, Dite growled. Isaac instantly went from sound asleep to fully alert. Dite was his early warning and security system. It was her job to let him know if any uninvited visitors prowled around the camp and she took her job very seriously.

He lay awake without moving for a few minutes. He didn’t even open his eyes just in case someone was watching him. Instead, he focused on listening, on trying to identify the intruder that had Dite on alert.

She growled again, a low, rumbling warning. But she didn’t bark. Interesting.

A voice whispered to Dite, trying to calm her. The voice was too quiet to make out the words, but he recognized the tone. It was the same soon a mother used to calm a crying baby. It was followed by the slow, stealthy padding of footsteps.

Someone was in his camp. Someone had snuck into his camp and done it without driving Dite berserk.

He slowly opened his eyes.

The fire had died down into a glowing pile of coals. Now the moon shining through the branches of the apple trees overhead was the greatest source of light, bathing the camp in stripes and patches of cool white light. Everything else was pitch blackness.

The night was silent, but for Dite’s low growling and the distant yip of a lone coyote.

As he watched, a shadowy figure moved in front of the fire and hoisted something onto its shoulders. The figure took another step and Allie moved into a patch of moonlight. His backpack was on her shoulders. His backpack, with every single thing of value he possessed.

Except his pistol. He kept his pistol beside him when he slept, under the edge of the bed roll.

Isaac held still as she glanced in his direction, then, satisfied, turned away.

He grabbed the pistol, tossed the blanket aside and climbed to his feet, stark naked. “Was this your plan the entire time? To make nice, then steal everything when I was asleep?”

Allie was a darker shadow at the far end of the camp. She paused in mid-stride near the trail leading down the hill. She seemed to be deciding her next move. Or waiting for his.

Dite was on her feet, watching Allie. She too was waiting.

“Is Allison even your real name?”

She didn’t answer. She didn’t turn to face him. She just stood there and let his words wash over her like surf.

“Why didn’t you just bash my head in while I was sleeping? It would have been easy.”

Allie made her decision. She bolted down the trail and into the night.

“Dite! Go!”

Dite leaped after her, a dark silent shape bounding through the night. She was now a hunter, a predator, and like most predators, she didn’t bark, or growl; she just moved, and moved quickly.

Isaac found his jeans and stepped into them.

In the near distance, something crashed through the brush and branches. Allie cried out. Then she screamed.

Dite had caught up with her.

***

By early afternoon, the sun was high and hot overhead, baking the ruins below the orchard until the air rippled with the heat. A light breeze moved just enough to keep the it from being unbearable.

Isaac placed the final strip of meat over the lowest tree branch and stepped back to admire his work. Every branch within reach had strips of red meat hanging from it. Seventy five pounds, he guessed, all cut into thin, dangling strips. The visual effect was decidedly odd. It made the tree look like it was growing some exotic type of foliage. A meat tree.

Food was too scarce to let it go to waste. There were no more refrigerators or freezers. Cutting thin strips and hanging it in the sun was the only way to preserve meat these days. The final result would be something like jerky and it would keep forever as long as it stayed dry.

He moved over to inspect the first strips he’d hung. They were coming along nicely, the edges already turning black and jerky-like. Within a few hours, it would be dry enough to keep from spoiling.

Dite watched him from her place beside the fire. She had a new marrow bone to work on, a fresh one, and her belly was full of the scraps Isaac had tossed her way. She was was happy.

Isaac sighed and rubbed his face. He’d been up most of the night and was tired, but could not sleep just yet. It would take hours for the sun’s heat to work its magic. His job now was to protect the meat from scavengers and wait.

Dite stood and came over to press her head against his thigh. He reached down and rubbed her ear. “I know, girl. You and me. I know.”

Dite wagged her tail.

Isaac bent down, picked up a tattered pair of cut-off jeans, and tossed them into the fire.

The End

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