by Robert L. Slater
Slobbery, warm dog breath tugged Keryn to awareness.
“Shudder, what time is it?” Her neck burned as her shoulders tightened as she twisted to read the clock. Her eyes took a moment to focus. 8:05. “Sorry, Boy. Mama’s still sick.” Sick didn’t really cover it. Dying probably, along with the rest of humanity. How long had she slept this time?
Shudder nudged her side, head-butting her. He needed her to get up.
Keryn tossed back the covers, warm and wet from her sweat. Her head felt like a pomegranate clamped in a vise. She struggled to stand, stepped into her slippers, grabbed her bathrobe, and wrapped it around her goose-bumpy body.
“Yes, good boy can go outside.” She shook off the chills and walked tentative steps toward the kitchen.
Shudder skittered happily back and forth, his nails clicking on the stone tile.
Keryn stepped into cold wetness by the backdoor. “Shudder, baby, did you mess inside?”
Shudder crossed to the slider, his head down. He knew he had done wrong, but she had been asleep for days.
“It’s all right, big boy; Mama’s fault.” She slid open the door.
As soon as he passed through the door, Shudder scampered out, yipping. His boisterousness made Keryn smile. Shudder did a full circuit of the fence before picking a spot to do his business.
Keryn heard barks in the distance. Shudder’s head shot up, staring. A small mutt arrived at the fence, yowling. Shudder kept his distance, but warned it away with a growl.
In seconds, the fence became a wall of dogs; bulldogs, terriers, and retrievers. Then a snarling Doberman arrived. The other dogs backed off. Their barking and growling terrified Shudder. He froze in place, whimpering.
“Shudder! Come to Mama.”
He tucked his tail and ran to Keryn. As soon as he got behind her, he stuck his head out and barked angrily.
“Come on, brave boy.” She pulled the door shut as the pack outside bounced against the chain-link fence. Shudder scampered around safely, sliding in the wet spot. Keryn nearly laughed, but it came out as a wracking cough as the roar of the dogs rose.
As she closed the door, at least a dozen dogs shoved against the fence, bowing it inward, but looked like it would hold. Why did they want in so badly? It was like Shudder was a snack. How bad had it gotten? Keryn had always avoided the news. Now, everyone was sick and dying. What could be more depressing?
Keryn tossed a towel on the wet spot and opened a new can of wet food specially formulated for Shudder’s nervous tummy. She knelt and set it down, but as she stood the room spun. Keryn dropped to her knees, leaned forward and breathed, concentrating on her breath, slow and steady, in and out.
She pulled herself up onto the barstool, one rung at a time, clinging to it. When she felt stable, she followed the wall back to bed, collapsing into it, without bothering to take off her robe or slippers. Mission accomplished. Sort of.
Keryn awoke in the dark. She felt better; but her head felt fuzzy and her nose was running. Hunger gnawed at her stomach. Shudder snuggled up to her back. She slid out of bed, taking her time, still feeling weak.
In the kitchen, she tore open a box of crackers. She got milk out of the fridge and poured a glass. Chunks spilled from the spout. Keryn poured it down the sink. What day was it? She popped the top of a ginger ale and took a sip. Always good when you’re sick.
Shudder padded out of the bedroom and tapped across the stone tiles to nuzzle her hand. She let him eat a bite of the cracker out of her palm.
“You want out, Shudder?”
He yowled gently.
She let him out.
He hustled out a few feet into the yard and did his business, then sidled over to the fence and peed on it.
She smiled. “Heart of a warrior. Brave as a mouse.” Barking sounded in the distance.
Shudder hurried back inside as the dogs appeared again at the fence. Keryn patted his head. “Good boy.”
Her stomach twisted; Keryn grabbed for the slider handle and dropped to her knees. Her guts contracted. Ginger-aled crackers spewed everywhere. Should have started with broth. Her body shook as her re-emptied stomach tightened again and again. Tears dripped and her throat ached with the tearing and the acidity. She rolled to her side, away from the puke, and lay by the back door until she fell asleep.
A whimpering from Shudder woke Keryn. “Where are you?” The sound echoed down the hall from her bedroom. She crawled on her hands and knees and found him hiding under her bed.
“What’s the matter?” She couldn’t coax him out; she pulled herself up on the bed and sat resting. She was still hungry. How many pounds had she lost on the Pandemic Diet?
She trudged to the kitchen and put a single-serve chicken soup to heat in the microwave. Movement caught her eye. Dogs from the other day roamed her yard. They had dug a ditch under the fence where Shudder peed. One dog saw her and started barking. In seconds, several swarmed against the sliding door, their growling breath fogging the glass. Shudder couldn’t go outside again. Call the pound? She laughed. Don’t be stupid. No one would answer.
Keryn sat down at her breakfast nook and turned on her tablet. The news was dark. Nothing but death. Everywhere. Planet-wide. The good news was, if you weren’t sick and exposed, you were probably immune. But she was sick; she was going to die. Soon. She knew it in her soul. Poor Shudder. What could she do for him? She couldn’t let him go outside.
When her mother died a few years ago, Shudder had been faithful, comforting Mama in her last hours, nursing her alongside Keryn. It had been hard watching Mama go, but at least she had gone quietly in her sleep, not in pain with her body ravaged by disease.
Shudder wasn’t sick, but if he went outside, the other dogs would eat him alive. Her heart thumped loud in her ears as realization dawned. She needed to help him sleep.
Did she have any of her mom’s sleeping pills left? How would she get them into him? She could grind the pills up and put them in food. She’d have to fix something he’d want to eat and feed it to him at the table, for herself and for him.
She made a can of beef stew. He always loved the chunks of meat and gravy. She rolled a big potato lump through the powder and the gravy. The bitter medicine taste was gross but not overpowering.
“Here you go, baby, your favorite.” She slid a chunk of beef through the powder and then through the gravy. He gulped the whole chunk, nipping her finger. “Don’t bite Mama.”
She fixed a second chunk like the first. He bit it, chewing this time. His head cocked to the side as if to say, “This tastes weird.”
On the third bite, Shudder sniffed it, and shook his head, saliva flying. Keryn couldn’t get him to eat any more. It might put him to sleep, but it wouldn’t do the job she wanted it to, needed it to. She shoved the chair away from the table, glancing around for inspiration. The butcher block caught her eye. No. She couldn’t stab him or cut his throat.
When he went to sleep, could she strangle him with his choke chain? No. She didn’t have the strength or the heart. She needed something quick, like a gun, but she had nothing.
She’d grind more pills and put them in his food. He’d eat if he got hungry enough. She didn’t want to see him die or damn him to slow starvation by letting him live. She shoved a can of wet food into the ancient can opener and slammed the lever. It spun, groaning, its teeth tearing into the metal. She twisted open the pill bottle as the can twitched at the end of the cut. Tears fell into the pestle with the pills; she ground them in. Avoiding its jagged edges, Keryn carefully pulled the can off the opener and mixed in the mash. She slammed it into a clean food bowl, leaving a giant pill shaped glob in the bottom.
Keryn set the bowl down in its spot and stood to rinse the can. Head rush. She took a deep breath, dropped the can in the sink, and hurried to finish her share of the stew. But her slippers slipped. In slow motion, the stone tiles rose to smash into her cheek. She heard the crunch more than felt it. Her tongue tasted blood. She fell to her back, breathing heavy. Had she eaten enough of the sleeping pills? Would Shudder eat the rest when he got hungry enough? He trotted over, nails clicking. He licked at the blood on her face.
She shoved him away and rolled to her knees on the blood-slicked floor. The pill bottle was on the counter. She managed to pull herself up the drawers and grab it before collapsing back to the floor.
“Come to Mama, Shudder,” she cooed. He came. Her head spun. She pressed pills into his open mouth. He growled. His jaw snapped shut, canines penetrating her hand.
“Ouch!” Keryn cried.
Shudder jumped away. She dove for him. Her head again hit the cold stone, this time on her temple. She collapsed to her side, closing her eyes, begging the world to stop spinning. Sleep was coming. She had consumed enough, at least enough, to sleep. Desperately, she picked pills off the floor, swirled them in her mouth, and choked them down. Darkness came.
From time to time, she woke to Shudder licking her face or nuzzling into her chest. She tried to rise, but her limbs felt like lead. “Sorry, baby,” Keryn said. “Mama tried.” Her voice sounded strange; the words jumbled together.
But Shudder seemed to understand. He howled mournfully and slobbery kissed her wounded hand.
Robert L. Slater writes “fast paced, adrenaline soaked” science fiction with “dark, compelling” characters. His 2014 novel, ALL IS SILENCE, set in a bat-virus pandemic with eerie echoes of Covid 19, has earned fans, awards, and worldwide exposure.
To give voice to his students who were dealt challenging hands, Rob created Lizzie, who is “so compelling, she grabs you by the heart and pulls you along until it’s three in the morning, the story’s over and you just want to read more.”