Billy Todd looked at the world around him, feeling as if he were on the outside of a glass menagerie, looking in. Smoke still rose from several places around the small town, but he knew no one was going to be putting out any fires. There was no one left to put them out.
Clutching his rifle, Billy walked across the street, careful to keep his eyes open for feral dogs. Funny, he thought, how it took centuries to domesticate the dog, and only a few weeks for him to revert to wild animal.
Of course, not being fed would do that to you, he allowed.
The virus had swept across the globe like a whirlwind. It had happened so fast that no one had ever bothered to name it. There hadn’t been time, Billy figured. One minute everything was fine, then it wasn’t.
That had been the word most people had used, in the few short days where anyone had been talking about it. In what had seemed like a few short hours, the power had gone out, and other utilities, such as water and gas, had quickly followed.
Television stations kept broadcasting for a few more hours, gradually falling silent as the people running them fell sick and died. Radio stations had stayed on the air using generators for another day or so, being more closed, more isolated, but they too, in the end, had gone silent.
Billy had hid in his small apartment, using carefully hoarded food and water, waiting for help to come. None had come. For anyone. The last reports he had heard had claimed the death toll worldwide had climbed into the billions. Billy could scarcely credit that number. It was hard for him to imagine. Impossible to imagine.
William Conrad ‘Billy’ Todd was a small town mechanic. Born and raised in Cedar Bend, he’d never been further than Nashville in his entire twenty-five years. His world revolved around cars, and the small farm he had inherited when his parents had passed away two years before.
He’d never really done anything with the farm, being too occupied with his job as a mechanic. He had made good money fixing cars for people. With the economy in the tank, more and more people were fixing the problems with their older vehicles, driving them longer. And Billy was the top mechanic in the whole county. Everyone said so.
Had said so. There was no one left in Cedar Bend to say anything, now, so far as Billy knew. This was the fourth day he had dared venture outside the small apartment in the rear of his shop. The fourth day in a row that he had prowled the area around his garage, seeing no sign of life outside animals. Apparently, only humans were affected by the virus.
But for some reason that Billy simply could not credit, he had not fallen ill. He couldn’t imagine why. There had to be a reason, he figured. Things just didn’t happen for no reason. One of the silliest things people told him when they brought their cars in for repair was ‘it stopped for no reason’.
There was always a reason. Billy was very good at finding those reasons, and fixing them. But he couldn’t find the reason for his still being alive, when everyone else was dead.
Billy knew he wasn’t anything special. Never had been. He wasn’t the smartest, or the strongest, the fastest, wasn’t the best looking. In fact, he wasn’t the best at anything, except fixing cars.
Somehow, he didn’t think he’d be fixing many cars for a while.
Clanging metal startled him, and he swung around to confront the noise. A dog looked at him from the overturned garbage can, studied him for a second, then turned his attention back to the garbage can.
Billy watched the dog sift carefully through the can’s contents for a moment, then resumed his walking. He’d have to watch for that dog on the way back, Billy knew. If he didn’t find anything worthwhile in the can, he might decide some raw Billy would go mighty good about then.
Billy had found several bodies out and about, and most of them had been eaten at to some degree or another. Even the dogs that ate the dead didn’t seem to get sick, though. Apparently the plague really was only deadly to humans.
Today would be the last day, he decided. The last day that he would search through town for anyone still living. Tomorrow he would pack up, and head to the farm. He had been in town when things got bad, and hadn’t realized what was happening until it was late. Fearing the sickness, Billy had elected to stay in his small apartment rather than risk going to the farm.
In a way he was glad he had, since he would have wanted to drive into town from the farm to see what had happened. Being the only living person in town for four days had cured him for the need to see it anymore. Once he reached the farm, he’d decided, he would stay there. He knew, now, that no one was coming. There was no one to come. Even the government radio, the NOAA channel, had gone silent three days ago. If they weren’t on, then no one was left to do anything.
He hated to leave everyone lying about. He knew everyone in the small town. Had known them all his life. Now they were dead. He didn’t know them anymore. And they didn’t know him.
He would need food, he knew. Water he had in plenty at the farm, but food not so much. Oh, he had food, right enough. And he could grow his own food, when the season came again. But it was almost winter, now. No chance to grow anything now. He would have to have enough food to get him through the winter.
Albert’s grocery would have what he needed he figured. Well, he hoped. There was no telling what folks had done in the few days before everyone died. Billy hadn’t ventured out during those days, even when folks had come by, banging on his shop door. He had kept the lights off at night, hoping that no one would want to break in. No one had.
Billy decided that he would check the grocery, and Mister Wickam’s hardware store too. He needed a generator. He had one, but it was small. He needed a larger one. Which meant he’d need fuel.
As the list grew in his mind, Billy started to get a headache, which made him think of going by the Rexall. He’d need medicines, in case he got sick, and bandages in case he got hurt. He had a first aid kit in his garage, of course, but he needed more than a few Band-aids, or a small tube of anti-biotic ointment. He needed get more and better stuff.
Realizing that he needed a lot more stuff than he’d first thought, Billy knew he’d need a trailer. No way could his pick-up haul everything. He sighed. His headache was getting worse. That always happened when Billy got flustered. He got a headache. The doctor had called them migraines. Billy’s mother had suffered from them too. Sometimes, she’d have to lie down for hours with a cloth over her eyes, and earplugs in her ears. Light and sound, she had said, made the migraine hurt worse.
Making his way up the Alberts’ front door, Billy carefully looked through the window. He was glad he couldn’t see anyone. He didn’t want to see anyone else he had known lying dead. Or worse, eat by dogs.
Billy tried the front door, finding it unlocked. He was a little surprised at that. But glad he didn’t have to break in. He had never broken into anything. He didn’t want to start now, even though he knew it didn’t matter anymore. Billy had always been a good boy. Everyone said so.
Had said so. No one was around to notice if he was good, now. But his mom and dad had raised him to be a good boy, and he knew they were in heaven watching him. The preacher had said so. He wondered if the preacher would say Billy was a thief for taking things from Albert’s. ‘Thou shalt not steal’, the preacher always said. He said it every time someone stole something. Well, he used to. He wasn’t saying anything anymore. Billy decided that meant the preacher wouldn’t say he was stealing.
After looking around for a minute, Billy took a cart, and started down the aisles. The store was in good shape. He had expected everything to be all torn up, lying on the floor, like one of those movies or stories where the world ended.
Had the world ended? Billy wondered. This part of it was pretty ended, he decided. But maybe, somewhere, there was people like him. People that found themselves all alone. He wondered if they wondered if they were alone in the world.
Billy took dozens of cans of his favorite vegetables from the shelves, and placed them into his cart. He also took the Treet, and the Spam, and all of the canned hams he could find, as well as any other canned meats he came across. And the tuna. Three country hams hung near the meat department. The smell told Billy that the rest of the meat was ruined, but the country hams would be okay, so he took them.
When the cart was filled, he pushed it to the front, and took another. He walked down another aisle, taking toilet paper, and paper towels. A man just didn’t want to be out of toilet paper if he could help it, Billy knew. He also threw in some plastic cups, paper plates, and plastic eating utensils. This cart filled quicker, so it was back the front for yet another. This one was cleaning supplies. Billy liked to keep a clean house. His mother had taught him that. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. Billy figured right now only he and God were around, so he want to be clean.
After three more carts, Billy decided he had everything worth saving at the front. He stood there looking at the carts, deciding what he should do. He peered outside, and noticed there was still plenty of light. He decided that he would get his truck, and Mister Nelson’s trailer from next door, and come get the carts now.
He walked back to the garage fairly quickly, though always making sure to watch for the dogs. Billy wished he had a dog. He’d been afraid to have one at the garage, because his insurance wouldn’t pay if the dog bit anyone. His father had told him it wasn’t good business to have a dog if he couldn’t get insurance because of it.
Well, Billy decided, he didn’t need insurance no more, that was for sure. And he really wanted a dog. Maybe he could feed one of the wild dogs, and make friends with it? He didn’t know. And dogs needed shots. He didn’t know how to give them shots, and Doc Hayes, the town vet, wasn’t going to be taking any new patients anymore, Billy knew.
Reaching the garage, Billy fired up his truck, which he’d kept parked inside while he was closed. Pulling out of the garage, he got out and closed the garage door, then climbed back inside. Mister Nelson’s Lawn and Garden Center was right next to Billy’s Garage. Billy had worked on Mister Nelson’s truck, a beautiful old Ford that he’d restored with his son. Billy had asked Mister Nelson once why he didn’t do the work himself, since he’d restored the truck. Mister Nelson had smiled sadly, saying that he and his son, Donnie, had worked on the truck together as a father/son project. But that had been before Donnie had gone off to war in the Far East. Or was it Middle East? Billy couldn’t remember.
Donnie hadn’t come back from whichever one it was he had gone to. Or he had, but in a box. With a flag on it. Mister Nelson was very proud of that flag, and of his son. He kept the flag on display in his store, with a picture of his son above it, in a uniform.
The trailer was one that Mister Nelson used to deliver the small tractors he sold. It was small enough that Billy could pull it with his truck, but big enough to carry most everything he needed to take with him. In no time, Billy had the trailer hitched up. He thought about leaving Mister Nelson a note, then remembered why he needed the trailer. Mister Nelson wouldn’t ever read the note, so Billy decided not to leave it.
Billy drove carefully down to Albert’s, parking in the fire lane. Billy grinned a little at that. He’d always been afraid to park there, even to load his groceries. He’d been afraid his truck might get towed. That wouldn’t happen today, so Billy parked there, even though he wasn’t supposed to.
Once the carts were loaded, and tied down, (his father had taught him it was always important to tie down a load, so nothing broke), Billy drove back to the garage. He backed the trailer into one bay of the garage, unhooked it, then placed the truck in the other bay. By now Billy was hungry. He wanted to walk down to Loretta’s Diner and get a cheeseburger. Loretta made the best cheeseburger in three counties. Everyone said so.
Had said so. Billy remembered that Loretta wasn’t making cheeseburgers anymore. Not ever. Sadly, he decided that he wouldn’t get a cheeseburger. Shaking his head at his misfortune, Billy went into his small apartment, and made himself a sandwich. He was almost out of chips, he realized.
He hadn’t gotten any chips! How could he have forgotten potato chips! He’d have to go back and get chips. And pickles. Billy loved pickles.
Billy ate in silence, washing his meal down with a Coke. Greatest drink ever, Coke. Billy had always thought so. He’d have to enjoy what was left carefully, he decided. Once he drank all the Coke left in town, there wouldn’t be anymore. Probably wasn’t anyone left to make it anyway.
Billy finished his meal, and carefully put everything away, just as his momma had taught him. He missed his momma. He missed his dad as well.
Billy took stock of his situation. That was something his dad had taught him. Never rush off in a blind panic, he’d always said. Make sure you know what you’re doing. Billy had always found that had worked for him.
Billy knew he wasn’t very smart. Plenty of people had told him that. Never about cars, of course. When they need their cars fixed, they all told Billy how smart he was. But any other time, he was dumb. Or odd. ‘Odd Billy Todd’, he’d heard more than once.
He’d grown up hearing all these things, so once he was grown they hadn’t really bothered him anymore. His parents had never called him that. They had taught him how to do things, how to take care of himself, and how to protect himself.
We won’t always be here, son, Billy’s dad would say, as he showed Billy something or another. You’ll have to know how to do this alone, when we’re gone.
Billy hadn’t always understood why they would leave. He had learned, though, that people always left. Some went to heaven. Some went somewhere else. Somewhere that Billy didn’t want to go.
But Billy’s momma and daddy had made sure that he could look after himself just fine. He still remembered the day that his dad had led him out to the barn. He had just turned twenty-one, and his garage had been open for a year. Was doing real well. Daddy had decided that if Billy could handle that responsibility, then he could handle other responsibilities as well.
Once in the barn, the elder Todd had closed the doors, then led Billy to the far back corner, where all the junk lay. Odd bits of farm equipment, old bits of leather and metal, stuff that was broken, but might be used to fix something else. Only daddy never got around to using it.
His father had started clearing away all that junk, and Billy helped. When it was all moved, Billy was surprised to see a door, but lying on the ground, instead of standing up.
You can’t ever tell anyone about this, Billy, his father cautioned before opening the door. If people know it’s here, they might try and take it from us. Understand? Billy didn’t, not exactly, but if wasn’t supposed to tell, then he wouldn’t. He knew how to keep a secret.
Daddy had opened the door then, and Billy could see steps under the door. His father had walked down about three steps, then stopped, motioning Billy over to him. He showed Billy a switch, then turned it. Lights came on down in the hole. Runs off sunlight, his father told him. I’ll show you how to care for it. He walked further down, and Billy followed.
Below, under the barn, was a room, Billy was shocked to discover. He wished he had known about this growing up, was his first thought. What a great place to play! But this wasn’t a play room. There were buckets stacked along the far wall, each labeled and dated. All the buckets, he learned, were food of one kind or another.
Along another wall were two gun racks. Guns the likes of which Billy had ever only seen on TV. A row of rifles, shotguns, and on the wall behind them, pistols and revolvers. Billy already knew how to shoot, of course, and had guns of his own. But. . . .
There aren’t like your guns, son, his father had said. These are different. I’ll explain each one. These crates are ammunition, he said, pointing to the back wall, where several large boxes sat.
Why do we need all this daddy? Billy had asked. It wasn’t that he didn’t like all this, but he couldn’t see a need for it.
Sometimes, things happen, was all his father said. When they do, we need to be prepared for them.
It took Billy and his father almost two months to get through everything. His father had made several notebooks, which were copied several times. Inside them were instructions and advise for every possible scenario that Billy’s father and mother could come up with. Everything from house fires to atomic bombs.
But there wasn’t nothing about being the last man alive. Billy thought on that as he finished his Coke. Was he the last man on earth? Surely not. There had to be more than just him. Didn’t there?
His train of thought was broken then by a clanging noise from outside. Billy took his rifle, the one his father had always kept hidden for him here at the garage, and walked carefully to his small office. There was a window there, and from the doorway, where he couldn’t be seen, he peered outside.
It wasn’t quite dark yet, he noted. He could see several dogs outside, milling around. The can he had been using for his trash was overturned, and three of the biggest dogs seemed to be in a standoff over the contents of the can. Billy watched in fascination as the three huge animals looked each other over. One was a Rottweiler, he could see, but the other two he didn’t recognize.
Even as he watched, the Rottweiler lunged at one dog, then actually attacked the other. Swiftly, and seemingly without effort, the Rottweiler seized the large dog by the throat, and shook him. The other dog, recovering from his dodge, instantly fell on the other dog as well, and the two killed it in seconds. That left two.
The two dogs circled each other warily, neither able to gain an advantage. It was the dog Billy didn’t recognize that struck first, lunging at the Rottweiler, trying to grab his throat. But the Rottweiler seemed to have been waiting for this, and side stepped the rush. As the larger dog extended himself, the Rottweiler clamped his massive jaws on the back of his adversary’s neck, and bit down. Hard.
The other dog yelped briefly, struggling to free himself. His struggles simply made the Rottweiler’s job easier. The massive jaws clamped down tighter, and Billy thought he heard the bones breaking from inside the building. Shaking the other dog violently one last time, the Rottweiler dropped him. As Billy watched, the victor looked around at the other dogs in the pack, as if asking if any of them wanting to dispute his dominance. None did, and the pack slowly moved off, leaving the spoils of Billy’s trash can to the giant Rottweiler.
Billy watched as the massive dog claimed his bounty, wishing he had a dog like that. The Rottweiler lifted it’s head suddenly, looking around him, sniffing the air. His gaze came to rest on Billy, and stayed there. Billy was shocked. There was no way for the dog to know he was there. But her did! Billy did something then that he never did, but he wouldn’t regret it. He made a snap decision.
With no uncertainty at all, Billy ran to his little kitchenette, grabbed the last of his sandwich meat, and ran back to the door. He opened it slowly, eyeing the Rottweiler, who was still looking at him. The dog didn’t move, but did growl deep in it’s chest.
It’s okay, buddy, Billy called, holding some of the meat out to the dog. The smell of the meat enticed the large hound, and soon he began to shift on his feet, just a bit. He didn’t offer to come closer, but Billy kept working. He sat down on the ground, cross legged, having read once that dogs found this unthreatening. It seemed to work. The monstrous dog begin to inch closer, still wary for any tricks. Billy held himself as still as possible, just holding the meat out before himself.
The Rottweiler sniffed the air, took another cautious step. Billy took one slice of the meat free, and simply laid it down. The Rottweiler eyed the meet with suspicion, slowly coming forward. He sniffed carefully, always with a wary eye on Billy. Billy remained motionless, studying the dog even as the dog studied him.
The dog’s collar had a tag in it, and suddenly, as the dog lifted it’s great head, Billy could, for just an instant, read his name; Rommel.
Rommel, Billy said the name softly, and the dog instantly locked eyes with Billy. Billy held out the meat again, and spoke softly; take it Rommel. I won’t hurt ya boy. Rommel’s great head tilted to one side, eyeing the man-thing that had called his name. He hadn’t heard his name in a long time. A week was a long time in dog time.
It’s okay Rommel, Billy repeated, still in a soft, friendly voice. It’s yours if you want it.
Rommel had until recently been a pet. He remembered a man giving him food. It was a good memory. He cautiously leaned forward, sniffing the meat in the man-thing’s hand. It smelled okay, not like some of the things he’d eaten recently. He nibbled softly on the edge of the meat, and it tasted good. Suddenly, he grabbed the meat, running off a few steps, then stopping.
The man-thing had never moved. It showed no fear. Rommel could smell no fear from him, nor sense any danger. This man-thing wanted to be friends. He gulped the meat down in three massive bites. He hadn’t eaten this good in a while. He looked at the piece still on the ground, and quickly added it to his meal.
Billy watched as the big dog looked up from the last piece of meat, as if wanting more.
There’s no more, Billy admitted. Carefully he stood. If he could find Rommel another meal, a good one, then maybe the dog would stay with him. Billy estimated that the dog was well over one hundred pounds, though he’d lost weight in the last few days. Billy remembered that Albert’s had many bags of dog food. On an impulse, Billy started that way, then stopped, looking back.
Come, Rommel. Dinner Time.
The dog remembered Dinner Time. It meant food. He wagged his tail once, which Billy thought was encouraging. Calling the dog again, Billy turned and started for Albert’s. It would be dark soon. Billy had a flashlight, but he didn’t relish being in town after dark. He needed to hurry. But he could only go as fast as the dog.
And the dog was being cautious. Billy could understand that. He was cautious himself. It took several minutes, but finally they were back at Albert’s. Billy opened the door, and stood waiting for Rommel. The big dog eyed his with suspicion, but Billy made no move. He spoke to the dog, low and friendly.
Come on, Rommel. I’ll feed you. C’mon, boy, it’s Dinner Time.
That seemed to convince the dog. He eased through the door, careful to stay as far from Billy as possible. Once inside, Billy allowed the door to close. That didn’t set well with the giant Rottweiler, but Billy simply stood very still, waiting for Rommel to calm down again. As he did, Billy moved toward the dog food aisle.
Rommel lifted his massive head, sniffing cautiously. He could, of course, smell the spoiled meat, which made him salivate. But Billy took down a bag of IAMS dog food, lamb and rice formula, and opened it. Rommel’s ears perked up at that, remembering the sound of food in a bag. He trotted over toward Billy.
Billy had taken a large bowl from the shelf nearby, and filled it to overflowing. Rommel hesitated for less than a second before burying his head in the bowl, eating greedily.
Billy watched him eat, careful to make no sudden moves. He really wanted Rommel to see him as a friend. Billy had a feeling that the large dog would be good company to him.
For his part, Rommel seemed to be completely fixated on the food bowl. Vague stirring’s of memory came to him in flits and flashes. Chasing a ball. Lying by the door. Shaking of a food stack. Walking on a leash. Being groomed. He stopped eating suddenly, looking up directly at Billy.
The man watched him, friendly, unafraid. To Rommel that was important. He had learned that afraid people tried to hurt him. Threw things at him. He didn’t like that. But this man wasn’t afraid. Almost nodding, as if making up his mind, Rommel decided that this man-thing was his new friend. That decision made, Rommel returned to the food bowl.
Billy watched the dog eat, smiling to himself. He thought Rommel might stay with him, now. Which meant he’d have to come back to Albert’s tomorrow and get all the dog feed. Well, he shrugged. He was coming to get chips and pickles anyway, so no problem.
Billy let Rommel eat until he was full. As the dog finished his meal, Billy gathered up some dog shampoo, a brush, and a flea collar. If Rommel was going to live with him, he’d need a bath, and grooming. Rommel, seeing the brush, actually wagged his tail, which Billy took as a good sign.
Billy led Rommel to the back of the store, where there was a large tub. Billy set his things down, and patted the tub with his hand. Rommel jumped inside it, remembering this as well from Before. Billy brought three jugs of water over to where Rommel sat waiting. The first one he poured on the large dog in it’s entirety, making sure to cover as much as he could. The second he set beside the tub. Taking a handful of the shampoo, Billy began to wash the dog.
Rommel stood still, knowing that the bath would make him feel better. As Billy rubbed his head, and then his back, belly and legs, Rommel whined just a little, happy. Billy noted the fleas that Rommel carried were dying rapidly, and used the second jug to wash him down after the time was up. He quickly brushed the dog down, getting the excess water from him.
Rommel enjoyed that exercise more than the bath. Rommel had always loved to be brushed, and eagerly pushed himself into the brush. It felt good against his skin. Finished, Billy took the last jug of water, and poured a bowl full, allowing Rommel to drink his fill. Once he was done, Billy called him to follow, and walked to the front of the store.
It was dark, now, Billy saw. For a moment he was worried. He hadn’t been out after dark since IT had happened. There were no lights in town. He had his flashlight, and now he switched it on. Looking back, he called for Rommel to follow, then opened the door. Rommel followed.
Billy made his way carefully back to the garage, looking down at Rommel on occasion to see if the mighty dog was still there. He was. Once Rommel stopped, growling deep in his chest. Billy stopped as well. Suddenly, several large dogs, at least five, ran into the street in front of them, barking and snarling.
Rommel made as if to attack, but Billy laid his hand on the dog’s head; Stay, he ordered, and Rommel did. Good boy, Billy soothed. The other dogs, wary, started around them. Billy and Rommel turned to keep facing them, and Billy leveled his rifle at the nearest one.
The dogs had seen a rifle before, and knew it was danger. As soon as Billy hefted it to his shoulder, they broke and ran. Billy watched them out of sight, sighing with relief as he lowered the rifle. He looked at Rommel, who was still watching where the dogs had gone, but had not offered to follow.
Let’s go home, boy, Billy said. Rommel recognized Home, and followed.
That night, Rommel slept curled into bed at Billy’s feet, making himself at home. Billy went to sleep smiling. He had a dog.
Odd Billy Todd now available in it’s entirety on Amazon Kindle;