It’s a hot and sticky day. One of those that makes your clothes damp and clinging on your skin like leeches, sipping sweat, and soul out of you. There’s a foul smell riding the light breeze that crawls on the street, whistling through cracks and holes; it’s the morning dragon breath of a dying god.
The new world is enveloped in a noisy silence, whether it is not the booming wind that squeezes through a fissure, it's the eerie screech of iron or the trampling collapse of walls and buildings into rubble.
Joe is sitting on a rusty white chair in front of a café. His backpack lying at his feet. Pressing with only the fingertips, he shakes the small round table and grunts in annoyance. There’s some rubbish around, there’s always some rubbish around and that’s not a new feature, the old world was built on trash. Joe collects a scrap of paper and begins to fold it into smaller squares. Then, he tucks it under the table’s leg and checks again for stability. Better.
Through the broken window of the café, Joe hears water dripping in a slow, almost steady rhythm. Each drop is a drumbeat retelling the story of the world: water gathers from all around and hangs over the void. It gets fatter and fatter, it collects and accumulates, it takes all it wants and when it gets more than what it needs, it drops. It falls and splashes into nothingness.
Something whines at his feet and Joe has a micro heart attack there on the spot. With a contorted face and a hand grasping his breast, Joe looks down at a weird, tiny creature. It’s a small trembling dog, white and brown with two large bat-like ears and spots of missing coat that reveal a pinkish rugged skin. It’s a gremlin, concludes Joe.
A scream breaches the sky. By instinct, Joe jolts on his feet and hides in the ruins of the café just in time to avoid being seen by a group of scavengers coming out from what is left of the restaurant next door. He was ready to jump and slide over the counter, like in a cool action movie but, the counter being reduced to splinters, he opts to hide behind a broken column.
By the fuzz made, shouts, and screams and oaths of all colors, it's clear someone is being unwillingly dragged out of the restaurant.
Nothing new, nothing to be curious about. This is a too common scenario, expected as much as ads were expected to pop out at all times back then when the world still stood straight.
Joe keeps it to himself. Whatever it is, he’s not going to get involved. Not that he doesn’t care, or that he doesn’t have any empathy. He does care, a lot -about his skin. What else to do, playing the hero? Jumping out in front of the much likely armed lot, full bloated chest, fists on the hips, and a mantle flapping at the wind? The Dump Knight, your friendly neighborhood Trash-man? His glory would last those few seconds required to raise up a gun and fill that imaginary wide chest with bullets.
“The hell is that?” Cries out a voice among the pleads for help and mercy.
For a moment Joe fears the worse: he got spotted.
“It’s butt ugly, isn’t it?”
“It’s meat, that’s whatsit. Catch it. We’ll roast it.”
They’re talking about the dog who, perhaps accustomed to human speech, or maybe pushed by survival instinct, runs away -in Joe’s direction.
“No, hell! What are you doing?” Joe whispers through his teeth. “Don’t bring’em to me, shoo!”
One of the men leaves the group and enters the café. The little creature is standing beside the broken column, right next to Joe. It whines, tail low between the legs.
One thing Joe has learned since life has decided to run backward is that survival has not a set of rules. Each precarious situation gives its own list of possible solutions, most of which will get you killed anyway and anyhow. Sometimes Joe thinks it’s not a matter of how to survive, but of how to die the less painfully. Man thinks survival comes with knowledge, with skills such as making a fire or build a shelter. All of these require the world around to cooperate. That is not what Life does, and Life is a master at surviving. Life doesn't go in a bush knowing how to collect sticks and beat rocks together looking for a spark. Life goes in the bush, that's all. The rest is all improvisation. The true key to survival is adaption.
The man is a few meters from the dog, thus from Joe and he won’t catch one without notice the other.
A neuron clashes against his alcoholic brother who, in turn, sends a burp by priority mail down a synapse. A muscle twitches, an eye blinks, and Joe feels like he wants to vomit while a list of options appears in front of him.
A: Do nothing. Stay quietly sit with your back at the column. Maybe the thug won’t see you. Yes, hope for the better -that is a quick bullet in the head.
B: Stand up and run. And get a bullet in your back. If he doesn’t have a gun he may have a knife. If he doesn’t have a knife he may hit you with a crowbar or such. Out of nothing to shoot and hurl, the thug may just be faster than your sorry bozo ass and pin you down.
3: Fake death. As a rehearsal before being poked, uncovered, killed, looted, and killed some more.
Number that looks like a chair: Scare the S-word out of him. Well, worth a try.
As the man slowly approaches the dog, a few steps away from the column, Joe jumps out with his arms stretched in the air, shouting with a booming voice. The thug, mostly surprised, not truly scared, swaps on the debris and falls. A rusty bar of steel, popping out from the fallen upper part of the column, goes through his head.
“Jeez,” Joe pictured the man running away in fear, didn’t really see that coming.
Someone calls a name from the group, asks what is going on.
Before anything else may happen, Joe picks up the small dog, tucks him into his jumper, and runs away.
He climbs a window and ducks. He can hear the thugs arguing while entering the café. He squat-walks away, head down. His knees are on fire. He passes through the building and comes out from the other side. By now, he thinks, they would have found their dead friend, fortunately, they won’t suspect he had anything to do with that, right? After all, men go around headbutting iron poles all the time.
The screams and the oaths fade away as Joe puts more and more distance between him and them. Finally, reached a safer area, Joe releases the dog.
“Alright, shoo now, go.”
The dog tilts its head and stares back. Its tail is wiggling like crazy.
“What do you want, a Scooby snack? Shoo!”
The tail never stops whipping, it flaps at the ground with an irregular tick and a tock that sounds like a clock marking the time until this strange smells covered human will pet its head. It sits and Joe notices its injured leg. It keeps it bent, retreated against its body. It looks like the canine version of those Chinese lucky cats.
“Why are you doing this? What are you expecting me to do? You want me to pet you? I don’t do petting. I can’t pet you. I don’t.” Joe sighs, he feels a bit silly; is he arguing with a dog? He decides to just walk away.
The dog starts behind him. Several times Joe turns back, tossing his hands around trying to shush away the animal but without success.
He could really do with a drink. It’s an eternity since his last sip (namely: yesterday).
“Say, doggy, do you have a flask on you or something?”
The dog spins on itself, smelling the air, then the ground, and then, suddenly, it just starts away.
At first, Joe feels happy about the puppy finally finding its own way.
“They grow up so fast.” He says. Then, it occurs to him that dogs have a developed sense of smell and that the little beaten creature may have picked up the scent of something.
Aren’t dog famous for tracking down scents?
“Wait for me, ehm, friend?” Joe starts behind the dog.
The duo adventures through an abandoned house and crosses a road crowded with cars. Then the barking. The dog has found what it was looking for.
“Yeah, keep it down, Fido. We don’t want to attract any unwanted attention, do we?”
With a sprint, the animal leaves Joe behind and disappears into a poorly lit alley.
With a wide smile, Joe enters the tight passage. The tall palaces at both sides cut out the already weak sunlight leaving the lane at the mercy of shadows. When planet Earth was still jumping and bouncing, in this kind of alleys, one would have got robbed. Probably stabbed too.
A group of dogs is feasting on a corpse. Joe can't clearly make that out, due to the darkness and the gore show, but he's pretty positive that their meal was a man, a long time ago.
The other dogs are bigger than the little Fido and look somewhat wilder, more aggressive, and generally more unfriendly. The canine version of human thugs.
They have no issues with the pup; when the little dog approaches and starts ripping meat off the dead, they almost ignore him. A quality to admire. Humans tend to share and be charitable only when they have way more than what they think they need. In scarcity, everyone is a ferocious beast guarding his own chewing bone.
A dog, the biggest and meanest looking, brown and black, with slick fur and pointing ears, raises up its head when Joe appears at the mouth of the alley. It snarls at the man and gives one bark of warning.
Joe remains still, his brain requires more than the average time to process the occurring events. When he finally realizes that, even in the scenario where he wouldn’t mind a bite of that fleshy pudding, he is not welcome to join the group, he begins to slowly retreat.
The dog, on the other end, begins to slowly advance.
Man and dog stare each other because since he was a child, Joe was told to never look a beast into the eyes and he never listened to anything whatsoever. Joe apologetically waves a hand before sprinting away.
With big leaps and swinging arms, Joe runs away.