Gagging, sickening coughs rasped his throat. The stench was that of rotten meat, skunk, foul sewage. Still there were three minutes before the bell would ring on his alarm for school and he was exhausted. What had happened? Did the basement bathroom back up again?
He peeled opened one cold ocean blue eye and stared at the dust motes floating across his blinds. Rubbing his eyelids, he listened for the sounds of his grandmother hustling around the kitchen, getting breakfast ready. The house was dead quiet.
Overwhelmed by the smell and silence, he pulled on a pair of jeans and dashed out of his room. He crashed down the stairs. The front door was only a few steps away leading to fresh air. A misplaced glance. A stealing sense of terror snapped down his spine. He froze in front of the hall’s full length mirror. What stared back at him was not the restless college sophomore that he had gone to sleep as.
What stood before him unnerved him. He retained the same facial features and his body was the same yet not quite. Something was off, but he couldn’t put his finger on the change. His eyes were starkly different though. Burnt glowing gold with deeply slitted pupils, watched him warily. He blinked, convinced it was the strangely diffused green light shining in through the windows.
Pressure in his skull was almost crippling as he hunched, glancing into the mirror once more. Who are you? He thought. A rippling, like a million bees, in the back of his brain shifted the floor and his stomach out from under him. An unearthly chuckle echoed in his skull. He looked away, breathing heavily as he tried to regain his composure. He had not barfed since he was a sixth grader when Ms. Norwich had the class dissected a dogfish. He had cut into a putrid organ of some kind and it squirted bile all over him. He sure as hell was not going to puke now. His stomach had other plans.
He turned from the hall mirror, ignoring the foreign eyes to find a massive bear of a dog blocking the doorway to the kitchen. Greyed across the muzzle and eyes, it’s hips were unsteady, leaving it sunken and shaking with age.
He backed away from the dog, wary of diseases it could be carrying. His grandfather had been bit by a rabid dog and ended up in the hospital for more than a week. He was not about to willingly get that close to a dog without knowing its owner. Running to his grandparents’ room, what he saw laying inside left him baffled. There lay in the queen sized bed, a large, fat caramel coloured dog with shaggy hair on his grandfather’s side of the bed.
The dog rolled its head up and stared at him. This isn’t happening. Where are Na and Grandfather? I’ve gotta get outta here and find Nat. He turned from the room and quickly made his way to the front entry where the stench was stronger. He eased around, looking for the grey dog, but it had shambled off.
Grabbing the handle, he jerked the front door open. It crash into the wood panelled wall as he rushed into the snow in his bare feet and jeans. It was biting cold, but with adrenaline pumping through his veins he barely noticed. He raced down the block and leapt onto the sinking porch of a green and white cottage and pounded on the door to his friend’s house.
The smell that had woken him up had followed him. It was a horrible, gaseous smell, as if a sewage pipe to the morgue had broken in the night. This can’t be happening. I must be high on whatever’s making this rank stench. He told himself as he wrapped his arms around his naked torso – regretting his mad dash to Nat’s house. It was foolish of him to have such an ingrained fear of dogs. He knew it, but he could not shake it.
“Alexander Deck! What’s the deal with banging down the door at five in the blasted morning? Dude, what happened to you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something, and where the hell are your clothes?” A strawberry blond, green eyed youth asked as he ushered Deck into his living room. He stood a good head shorter and seventy five pounds lighter than the prior football player.
Deck’s best friend pushed him to the wood stove that was trusted to always be warm in the winter. The waif wrapped several blankets around Deck in an effort to warm him back up. Nat dashed down the hall and came back with a pair of his dad’s slippers from one of the many closets that lined the hall.
“Have you checked your folks?” Deck asked in short raspy breaths. Twinging disorientation in the back of his throat and in his ears told him he was close to hurling. Nat turned his head in a questioning gesture and grabbed for the plastic waste basket at the end of the couch.
“Why do you ask?” Nat recoiled from him, handing him the bucket. He backed away for a second as his friend tried to force his stomach to behave. Deck’s eyes settled on Nat’s arms, the scars, at eye level. He focused as he fought to quiet his stomach, not realising he was staring. Nat, his face flushing, embarrassed, tugged quickly at his waffle shirt sleeves bunched around his elbows. Deck’s stomach churned. The bucket proved to be of use after all.
“Just do it would ya,” Deck demanded under the rim of the bucket. Nat sighed and walked down the hall, scratching his head in confusion as he went. Deck had, in the past, asked him to do many strange things, but asking him to check on his parents at bloody five in the freaking morning? He must have seen a ghost or something. He cracked the door to his parents’ room open slowly. The hinges moaned and squeaked. He peered into the gloom. Two small glowing orbs appeared at about the place where the bed would be. A shaft of cold air crawled down his spine. Nat slammed the door shut quickly, trembling as he scurried back to Deck.
“What was in there?” Deck asked.
“I – I don’t know,” stuttered Nat.
“I don’t know what was in there. There’s something in there that’s not-not right!” Nat backed up against the wall at the corner where it met the hall.
“Large dog?” Deck pulled the blankets closer around him.
“Maybe, I guess, why?”
“Che-check the mirror, quick,” Deck pressed him. Nat picked up his mother’s small antique hand mirror lying on the table next to him. His forest green irises and round black pupils no longer existed. Radioactive lime green with a slit of black in the centre of them. His temples throbbed. Pressure in the back of his head made him see spots. Suddenly, what stared back at him was the normal Nat McCormick that had always been there. Reddish blonde shag hair that got in his green eyes was still the same, but the facial structure had shifted. Something was off, but subtly so.
He looked up from the mirror, glaring at Deck. Something was amiss with him too. Maybe he was imagining it. It was almost primal, animalistic. “What’s going on?” Nat hissed past another cruel throb. He glanced up as a sharp ringing permeated his ears, the sound breaking at his eardrums like shattering glass. Deck doubled over in pain.
They looked to the window to see the a cop on his snowmobile, with a silver whistle, a plethora of dogs nipping at his heels. The whistling stopped and the sound in their ears deadened. The thud of a rolled paper on the wood door resonated through the long hallway. The howl of dogs drifted through the disturbing silence. They watched the woman cycle on, the ringing taking up at the end of the block. Dogs,big husky mutts, continued their chase. A sickening sensation of nostalgia permeated Nat’s senses as he watched the creatures race up the street. It was misplaced like deja vu. He had never seen them in his life. Yet names trickled through his brain, out of reach, each one on the tip of his tongue before they melted away.
Nat eased off the couch and made his way to the foyer, opening the door to a gust of cold snowflakes in his face. Quickly, he picked up the paper and pushed the door shut. He stopped dead at the front page. Deck jerked up, anticipating having to catch him before he landed on top of him on the couch.
“What is it?” Deck asked, standing up to look at the paper. He peeked over Nat’s shoulder. The front page knocked the air out of him.
RWE BOMB DROPPED OUT OF JENTON Last night, while our small town slept, an RWE bomb was dropped outside of our peaceful town. The burning of the Richmond Orchard is predicted to impact the business district by this afternoon. Water pressure is causing issues for the few firefighters that were capable of responding to the call last night. Please evacuate the city by noon today. All city utilities from 3100 block to 4800 block will be cut by 2:00 p.m. this afternoon. Due to a lack of security personnel, we are asking that you take all valuables with you. We will no longer be able to respond to emergencies in the evacuation zone. —Thank you, Mayor Rick A. Rouler
“A rad-waste bomb outside of Jenton,” Nat whispered in disbelief.
“Do you think this explains why there are all these dogs in our houses, the Richmond’s burning?” Deck asked him, doubting even what he had asked.
“No, I – I don’t think it’s the orchards. The dogs you saw in your house, did they seem familiar in some way?” Nat asked. A buzzing in the back of his head was threatening to sink him. He massaged his neck in a futile attempt to relieve the pain. The pressure was unbearable. His gut dropped to his feet and a cold sweat beaded on his brow.
He was not prone to anxiety attacks, but he had seen his mother suffer a mental breakdown when he was in his freshman year of high school. He wondered if this was the beginning of one.
“Kind of. See if you can locate your folks. If not, we need to get. Pack. Looks like it’s gonna get bad,” Deck warned.
“See you in a little. Meet me back on my porch, ‘k?”
“Yeah,” Deck waved him off as he let himself out the door.
“Hey, Deck?” Nat asked before he had walked too far. “What?” Deck still had a blanket wrapped tight around him, but he was beginning to tremble again. The heat was not going to stay with him long in the ash laden snow.
“Grab your MREs and stuff. The war’s finally hit Jenton. I don’t think we’re coming back.” Nat stared at the burning skyline in the direction of the college buildings. Deck followed Nat’s gaze and nodded in agreement.
Deck dashed back to his house, his borrowed slippers turning damp and cold with every step. He entered his house cautiously. Seeing no dogs, he rushed upstairs and pulled on a pair of thermal underwear and two pairs of wool socks and his army surplus black boots. He stretched into his thermal under sleeves and into a graphic long sleeve shirt of a woman lying comfortably on a Bahamian beach drinking a margarita. He shrugged on a heavy black hoody, then pulled on a khaki welder’s jacket that he had borrowed from Yeller. The coat was tight with the surplus layers, but it would serve seeing as it was freezing outside.