Falling Back

Andrew Leon Hudson

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
Groucho Marx

“Bring me home,” Ronnie whispered through gritted teeth. “Bring me home, thasa girl.” Bonita growled, her own teeth buried in the jacket sleeve of his free arm, gripping hard as she scrambled backward, pulling him across the broken pavement.

Ronnie tried to think past the pain, which wasn’t in his leg, oh no, not by a shot. It wasn’t even where his jacket had shucked up under his chin and rubbed the front of his neck raw. No, the pain was in his head. All in his mind.

Pain, what’s pain? It’s nothing, pain. You just have to stop thinking and its gone. Just silence those thoughts and wait for it to melt away. But never forget your destination, and keep your grip on the prize.

That most of all he must not let slip away.

His fingers tightened on the strap of the dead scavenger’s backpack, dragging it across the rubble exactly the way Bonita was dragging him. A treasure trove full of military grade vac-packed Tac-Snacks, the very one championed by the survivalist-porn ad campaigns that ran right up until the Great Yellowstone Blow Off finally distributed Wyoming, Montana and Idaho directly into the global atmosphere and put an end to broadcast media.

“It’ll be… good eating tonight, girl,” he muttered.

Bonita growled, nipping his forearm through his sleeve. A reprimand for being so talkative while they were exposed out here in the deserted, dust-shrouded badlands of central Birmingham. He tightened his grip on her collar and tried to keep his mouth shut.

The backpack banged into his left knee, and it seemed that the pain in his right knee eased sympathetically. A flicker of optimism blossomed. Perhaps he had released himself from pain’s grip by focusing on its mirror-point for a moment. Perhaps thoughtlessness wasn’t the key after all. Perhaps he was unlocking marvellous healing energies with his mind.

But then Bonita pulled him over the curb and onto the road, and as Ronnie’s arse dropped, his legs slapped flat against the concrete paving. Pain swept out of his ruined knee and, instead of only feeling like he’d been shot, it was as if someone had dropped a nuke into the wound, red radiating into orange into yellow into a blinding white.

Ronnie passed out before he could scream.

In her simple way, the dog was relieved when the man lost consciousness. It stopped his grunting, his twisting and groaning, his constant whispered encouragement. That meant her chances of getting them back to the nest unnoticed by predators were a little higher.

She backed away, paws scrambling, teeth sunk into the sleeve of his jacket as she dragged him, but his slack fingers slipped out of her collar and so she paused for a better grip, biting down on his arm through the leather.

His hand dangled at the wrist, pale from lack of blood. It waved above his head like he waved to her, as if he was pleased to see the sky.

The sky, a carpet of brown thunderheads, unbroken for half her lifetime. Growing darker now. Night would soon fall. She had to get them back.

Her mind was on the pups.

When Ronnie came around it was night and they weren’t moving. His arms ached in different directions, like a ballerina holding a pose long beyond her tolerance.

He couldn’t feel his hand, tried to move it, finally lifted his arm from the shoulder, up off the ground like a falling tree played backwards. Before the near black of the clouds, the void-shape of his fingers twitched and he sighed, dropped the arm beside him as the blood began to flow, tingling, intoxicating the ache.

Then he realised both his hands were empty.

With a grunt of dismay he struggled to raise his head, craning to see--and there was the backpack, thank god. Just beyond his reach, but there.

Bonita stood beside it, looking at him.

“Good girl, Bonita,” he said, just a dry throated croak, but too loud. She flinched and ruffed at him in low warning. “Okay,” he whispered, “you’re right, you’re right.” With absolute darkness descending upon them, only sound might bring other scavengers down on them.

He’d never been a dog person, back in the good old world, but when Bonita came into his life in the horrible new one, she’d been a blessing--hunting down rats and sharing them with him, not to mention an early warning system for the sort of rats that sneak up and cut your throat in your sleep.

He’d been devastated when, a year ago, she somehow got out of the cage he made to keep her. When it turned out she got knocked up by some lucky mutt and came back with a swelling belly he’d been pissed. Despite her usefulness he’d wondered what he was doing, feeding a pregnant dog on half his scrounge--but when her little mongrels popped out, one by one, he knew it’d been the right decision.

Thirteen little lives.

Including the two stillborns.

Bonita put her nose into the pack. She’d got it open somehow, clever bitch that she was, but he could see from a mangled Tac-Snack lying by his hand that she was having less luck getting the plasti-tinfoil wrappers open.

He finger-walked the Tac-Snack into his palm, pulled the seal with clumsy numb hands, then watery, nutrient-rich sauce was running over his cracked lips and he groaned, sucking out a few of the chewy, meaty, spongy chunks. Mouth full, he tore the package wide enough for Bonita and held it out.

She snatched it, jerking her head to slop the rest of its contents down her throat. It was empty too soon.

“That’s your lot,” he said, but one wasn’t enough, not for either of them.

“Bring,” he ordered, flicking his fingers. She licked her chops, then hooked the strap over her jaw and dragged it close enough for him to grab. Clever bitch indeed.

He pulled the pack onto his chest, counting the remaining packs by touch. Maybe forty meals, but he’d have make them last. Make them a reward. One for him, another for Bonita and the pups. The eight that lived to open their eyes had always been hungry.

Too hungry, really. But weren’t they all?

Ronnie knew that Bonita knew he only did what needed to be done, when he took those poor little stillborn bodies away and came back with scraps of meat for them to share. He’d petted her afterwards, curled around her for warmth, the pups nestled against her belly, where he could rest a comforting hand amongst them.

All those hungry mouths were so many, though, too many for her to sustain and not wither away herself. He couldn’t let that happen to his only companion.

A gentle, persistent squeeze in the night was all it took to provide food for another day, and there would be more milk for the others.

They’d all grow stronger for it. It was for the best.

Yeah, she’d understood.

“Home, Bonita,” he said, when she’d finished licking the Tac-Snack wrapper clean, pushing it through the dirt with her whole muzzle stuffed inside.

He swapped arms, clutching the backpack to his belly with the right and holding his left above his head for her to grip. He braced himself, winced when her teeth nipped him through the sleeve, and wondered if he had been better before. His other hand was still tingly-dead so it would hurt less, but at least with this one could grip her collar properly.

Bonita took the strain, digging her paws in, and--like the train of carriages jerking into motion one by one behind the locomotive--his shoulders, back, backside and legs began to grind over the ground. He hissed out a breath as his knee began to glow, a nauseous throb sensitive to the slightest motion. Bonita growled into his arm in warning, but she didn't stop. He wondered, distracting himself from the needling haze, how far they were from their nest. The last five waiting pups. The chance to bandage himself up and finally rest.

He didn’t notice as, beneath his still numb arm, the backpack began to slide off his body--not until its end began to drag on the tarmac, pulling itself down his belly.

He grunted, scrabbled blindly for the straps, tried to wind them around his arm.

“Bonita, stop,” he whispered. She didn’t.

It dragged down his right flank, heavy on his hip, his useless sausage fingers unable to prevent the straps slipping away.

“Stop girl!” he ordered. She growled.

It bumped beside his right thigh, mere shrinking inches from the wreckage of his knee. In desperation he let go of her collar, but she fought to keep her grip on his left arm, prevented him from reaching down with it to--

The backpack jounced his knee.

His leg erupted.

Ronnie wailed, his whole body thrashing, knocking the backpack aside. It rolled away, one turn, another, as reached futilely for his leg, hovering his free hand, afraid to touch it.

Bonita dragged him backward again and this time he howled. She let go with a bark--he’d never heard it before--and jumped back, teeth bared, but Ronnie wept with relief, humming to himself as the fire slowly, slowly ebbed.

She came close and pulled at his arm, but he shrugged her away. She tried more forcefully, and accidentally bit beneath the cuff of his sleeve, breaking the skin of his wrist. Ronnie yelped and slapped her away, only then seeing where the invaluable backpack had rolled to--just beyond his reach.

“Bring, Bonita,” he said, voice low and hitching. “Bring the pack, let’s go.”

She came to stand by his side, nuzzled her face into his jaw. “Okay, girl, okay, but let’s get home,” he said, and rubbed her fur. She licked his face, the sweat that pain had squeezed out of him, and he pushed her towards the pack.

“Bring the food, Bonita,” he ordered, raising his voice once more.

But she didn’t.

Instead her jaws closed on Ronnie again--gripping his throat.

Cutting off his voice, his breathing, his blood.

After the man’s struggles stopped, the dog looked at the backpack for a moment.

The memory of the food it contained was still fresh. So too was the memory of the shiny, tasteless skin that she had been unable to get into without his clever hands.

Then she bit into a slack arm and resumed dragging them towards the nest.

Many meals for her pups. Those that still lived.

She’d understood.

© Andrew Leon Hudson 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:13 Sun 28 Aug 2016
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