The U.S. of After Chapter 49
Gideon and his two buddies opened up with their rifles into the swarm of dogs that ran into the store, their eyes red with disease and their mouths foaming something awful. Clayton jumped in front of me to bat a medium sized nearly hairless dog away with his walking stick. It made a sound like when we used to go to baseball games and the guy would hit one out of the park. This time, though, it was a nasty dog whose feet slipped and tried to gain ground on the slick tile floor between the two lifeless checkout counters.
“Don’t just stand there,” Gideon screamed. “Shoot at something!”
So I did. Oh gosh I did. I shot at several of the dogs and started crying at the horror of it all as the powerful shotgun kicked my shoulder. Their faces were not the lovable faces of the dogs I had owned throughout my life, but the twisted, diseased faces of rabid dogs. As I fired off the first round, catching one of them along the side and dropping it to the cold floor, I had a flash memory of Chewy, my Labrador who got out in the woods and was bitten by one of those skunks or raccoons or something. He came home with a bloody wound and because my Dad was away so much forgot to get his rabies booster that year. Before long he was a growling monster under the porch who had to be put down. Well, now there were a hundred or so growling monsters out in front of the store biting at each other and darting in and out, at least the ones fearing the gunshots.
The loud bangs of the guns were not making them run, but making them growl and whine and snarl at us. One of the bigger ones darted in and had one of Gideon’s guys pinned to the ground, and then another group of the dogs fell on him, tearing and biting as he screamed and screamed and finally stopped screaming.
I saw Clayton out of the corner of my eye as the dogs began to swarm us, and he said something kind of under his breath and then I saw something so strange. A man appeared just between us and the dogs, his arms outstretched, and he shot hot light out of him, a light hard to look at very long for fear of blindness. It was so startling that my gun went off in his direction, but the blast went right through him as if he were a ghost. His shaggy hair floated around his head as if he were under water, and he hovered just a foot or so off of the floor. The light beaming from him caused the dogs to run in fear. The whole lot of them skittered across the floor and slid on the tiles, falling down and stumbling on one another, biting the ones that got in their way, and then the bright man was gone, a floating mist of bright little particles.
“Let’s go,” Clayton said to the rest of us, and we followed him without a word, our bags of canned goods slung over our shoulders, our legs pumping hard as we went down the street to hear the sound of the dogs way behind us barking and carrying on. Whoever or whatever the guy was who appeared in the store needed to come back because those dogs started running after us again, their barking getting louder and louder. Gideon and his crew didn’t bother firing backward as we bounced out of there so fast that we heard a few cans drop out onto the pavement. The dark waters of the river were right in front of us.
No boat. Where was the boat?
I could hear my heartbeat thumping in my ears as we rounded a corner near the dock and heard the squeal and growl of hundreds of those dogs on our heels. I didn’t look back, but jumped right off the pier and into the water, joined by what was left of our group who splashed in right behind me. The current was so strong. I didn’t think about that at all.
It was so hard to hold on to the heavy sack of cans. It weighed me down so much. I thought about letting go of it, when I heard Gideon shout from behind me.
“Ditch the guns!”
I heard heavy breathing and grunting as the men and I swam hard against the midnight current, and me trying so hard to hold on to the sack of cans I had managed to get. It was so dark, and the people from the village were too far away to hear us. I started screaming when I came up for air, but my lungs just wanted to breathe, and I wasn’t going to let go of the food because everyone was so hungry. Little Anya was so hungry.
I started getting tired, my legs feeling like they could boil the water around them. My lungs sucked in air and I tried to keep above the water, and that is when I felt a hand pulling on my right arm, right up into a boat. It was Ryan and Rick, the two guys who Gideon had left with the boat. Ryan, a tall guy with dark hair, and Rick a shorter stockier fellow with a peppery grey van dyke mustache, pulled us all up into a metal boat. My eyes caught the words “Bass Ackwards” painted on the side in big green letters, glimmering in the faint moonlight.
“Are you guys ok?” asked Rick, his voice a welcome sound.
Gideon heaved his body into the boat, and I noticed that he didn’t have his bag of cans. In fact, no one had their bag of cans except for me. Gideon gave a thumbs up, and then looked at me and started breathing out a wheezing laugh.
“Looks like you guys got showed up,” laughed Rick, his elbow arching upward as he worked the engine’s pull rope. “This little girl here brought home the bacon.”
The three other guys who were with me lay in the bottom of the boat, some of them with their limbs hanging over the side, and I heard weakened laughter all the way back to the two pontoon boats waiting near a sand bar.
I just kept thinking about that guy who died, but I guess Gideon and the others were just calloused about that after all they’d been through, all except Clayton who sat on the edge of the boat and looked out toward the city, his face looking old and worn.
Clayton eventually brightened up, and took to calling me “hero” for the next few days. It started out kind of funny, but then he ran it in the ground and I had to ask him to stop. He only smiled and said he would, then winked at me like he knew something I didn’t. We all had a pretty good meal that night, and as the morning sun came up over the skyscrapers to the east, I thought more and more about the glowy guy in the H.E.B. I could just see him there, floating above the floor, but after a while I had to think real hard about what he looked like, kind of how I had to think real hard about what my Dad’s face looked like or what he sounded like. It was like the memory of it was fading away faster than normal, and pretty soon I stopped thinking about it all together.
Weird how I am talking about it now. Now I remember it, but then it kind of passed away from me, gone on the mists that hovered over the waters of the river at sunrise.