The Long Blink
The cloud reminded him of twirled cotton candy at the fair. It even had a straight tail to make the stick that would become coated in the sugary goo of a young child’s fingers. He inhaled deep and instantly he felt the sharp edge of pain.
Blood had dried and soaked through again on Joel’s shirt. It had been a light tan color. He had snagged it from his closet without thinking about where he got it. The logo of his favorite show was faded. He had nearly forgotten she had gotten it for him; once, long ago. Maybe if he hadn’t been the way he was, she’d be sitting here with him now. Maybe if she hadn’t been the way she was, she would have wanted to say goodbye.
He looked up in time to see the cotton candy cloud turn itself into something that resembled a mangled car. He felt the cool damp on his right hand.
“Guess we should be honest in times like this ‘eh girl?” She licked his hand and looked up at him. “Yeah, we should. I was as bad for her as she was for me. Don’t matter though. I mean, well, not anymore, I guess… right?”
Her blue-gray eyes stared at him and he wondered if she was asking him for clarification, or giving him the eye of approval. Seven years. It would have been eight in less than two months. His longest relationship outside of his parents, he mused. Joel lifted his hand and stroked the line of white that broke the gray and black patches of fur along her back. He had always thought it looked like those Olympic ski jumps when she reached out her front paws stretched her back.
Joel looked down at the mess that was his left side. 24-36 hours they say. No watch, no phone, nothing but a necklace around his neck, his pants, shirt, and Laskie with her leash. The sun was getting lower. It had been just before midday when the things got to him. 24-36 hours when it is passed on by bite or scratch.
He felt tears welling up again and hugged Laskie closer, she made a cooing sound and rolled herself over demanding that Joel rub her belly instead. He complied and the tears held their place inside the well without overflowing.
‘Laskie’ – what a silly name in hindsight. He had thought he was so clever when he came up with it (Lassie-as-a-husky), and she had lived up to the name; She followed him everywhere. Joel found himself only going to this bar-n-grill down the road from his apartment. They had this nice covered outdoor section that was dog friendly. Also in hindsight it was one of the reasons he annoyed her so much that she left. He never ventured into new places, and Laskie got more of his attention and care than she had.
“Can’t change that now can I?”
Laskie responded with a soft yowling sound he’d come to associate with approval. Laskie’s approval was important.
24-36 hours they say. When the blood becomes infected through a cut or bite, it takes a little longer. More direct transfer of infection is quicker. If their blood gets in your mouth or eyes; less than 12 hours that way. Happened a lot during the first couple of days. People thought the movies were finally coming true. Zombies they said. Except they weren’t, were they?
A distant explosion, loud enough to break his trailing thoughts, but far enough away to not be felt rattling the ground beneath him, echoed around. Every muscle in Laskie’s body tensed.
“Betcha that was the gas station.”
Laskie looked at him. Eye to eye he saw her twitch and her eyes turn away as they darted around.
“It’s okay girl. Doesn’t mean anything to us right now.” He rubbed her head and the muscles slowly eased up. she vocalized her concern followed by an approval of Joel’s method of calming her. She nuzzled his hand when he stopped. He wondered how blood shot his eyes were getting.
“We should get somewhere.” He looked around, wondering what was next. The sun touched the western horizon. Seven or eight hours, he thought, still got time.
He stood, the ache grew heavy and his head light.
“Not far, girl, we should… jus…”
He swore his lips still moved but the sound stopped. His knees filled with jelly and lowered the rest of his body back to the earthen floor beneath him. Sound returned as his breath grew louder in his ears. Each inhale stabbed at his lowest rib a little more than the breath before. The pain rolled out in waves blanketing him as he exhaled. She licked his face.
Tears had slipped from their ducts and Laskie was removing them, as gently as she could. Using the grass as leverage, Joel pulled himself back against the tree, and she curled around his right arm and leaned into him. His eyelids slammed shut not even allowing for a single bounce in his nodding off. Laskie, laid across his knees, drifted in and out as the sun surrendered to the moon. Her eyes snapping open with each sound or scent that was not his or the tree and grass they laid upon.
Joel dreamed. His mind taking a surreal journey and twisting every moment into one where he found himself dying over and over again. Laskie whimpered each time he mumbled or cried out. She never moved, he didn’t wake.
The first ray of sun came through the trees to the left and Joel’s eyelids began a slow march that matched the pace of the sun as it cleared the hills in the east. His thoughts a fog of presents turned into explosions and dinners that turned bloody.
“Still light out. I must’ve-” the fog parted as a certain synapses found a path through, letting him know the sun was on the opposite side from where it used to be.
Laskie jumped up. A single bark and the line of white down her back became rigid as she landed in a sitting position watching Joel. He ran it through.
“Ah, Jesus. Oh, fuck… fuck. That’s what another, maybe, like nine hours?” He looked at Laskie, her head unwavering as her eyes followed every moment of his mouth.
“So, um… let’s see – eight hours. Right, we’ll say a full eight hours before, and nine more now. SHIT!” He slowly lifted the tattered shirt. The blood was no longer free flowing but the wound was open. The edges were swollen and red with yellow puss the consistency of gravy. Deep, dark lines radiated outward from the wound stretching across his entire torso like a road map of the Los Angeles freeway. The hole itself, the torn bite, was blackish red and reminded him of the time he found a rotten London Broil in his fridge after returning from a camping trip. He was rotting. The flesh in and around the wound was dying, or was it already dead he wondered?
Not dead. They all said zombies, but they weren’t, he knew that. No one was actually rising from the dead; they were just going brain dead from the infection. Brain sections shut off like switches. Joel didn’t understand it all, but he knew enough. Seventeen hours or so in.
“By tonight, I … Ah, fuck, I don’t wanna go, girl…” he stroked her head as the tears chased each other down his cheeks. Cries turned to silent sobs and he no longer cared about the pain his left side used to conquer the rest of his body.
His vision began to change; a pinkish-red tint colored one half the world. The left side, always the left. They couldn’t explain it and he had no ability to understand their phony excuses. The blood vessels in the left eye were bursting, coating his eye in red as the tiny vessels leaked their content across the wet optical globe. Soon it would bulge and then would go dark, but only on the left side. This was it, he thought, the final hours have come.
“I don’t wanna… Oh God, I don’t want this to happen.”
She licked his hand before her head spun. Laskie’s legs went taut as she leaned into the barely audible growl.
A voice called from somewhere behind him. Joel tried to turn his head, but the sound was coming from his left, back where they had already been. Laskie stepped between him and the sound.
“Easy boy… I’m not gonna hurt ya.”
“She. She’s a girl,” Joel said with a cough.
The owner of the voice stepped into view. A large man with a face as round as his belly. His black hair disheveled, and a patchy stubble that covered his face betrayed any argument he may have given to being able to grow a full, even beard.
“I’m Enrique.” he started to hold out his hand and step forward but snapped it back as his eyes grew to saucers and expanded his round face. “Oh shit man. Did they get you? You okay?”
Joel didn’t move as Enrique jumped back. A haze was creeping into the space between his ears. Not like this, he thought, please go away before it…
“… is too late.” He didn’t even realize the last words of his thought had been spoken aloud.
“Shit man, they got you? You’ve been bit?” Enrique asked as he pointed to the drying blood mess of a shirt covering Joel.
Laskie stood firm but the growl had ceased. Her eyes did not leave Enrique and she held position between the two men. Joel nodded, or at least hoped he nodded. He tried to move his arm, but nothing seemed to happen.
“How long ago?” Enrique asked his right hand held by his side as he took one more subtle step backward.
“Not sure, not… much time… left.” Joel felt his breath getting shallow.
“Yeah. Her name… is Laskie.”
Laskie’s head turned to Joel, and back to Enrique.
Enrique held out his palm, “It’s okay girl.”
Laskie turned again to look at Joel. He nodded, this time he could feel the muscles in his neck work. He tried to speak, to tell her it was okay, but no sound came from him. She gave a long blink, a look Joel knew from every time he told her to do something. She would give him the blink and then turned to do whatever had been requested. She swung her head around and stepped forward sniffing at Enrique’s splayed fingers. She leaned into him as he moved to stroke her head. She licked his hand and he smiled, accentuating the uneven stubble across his cheeks.
Laskie turned away and stepped back to Joel, laying beside him as he spoke again, “She says… you’re okay.”
“She’s a good girl, I see, guess I’ll take that. Better than what some people think o’ me anyways.”
The two men half-chuckled. Joel broke into a serious of coughs. The ribs stabbed sharp with pain. Tears leaked from his eyes again, and he was sure that he would die from the pain alone.
“If only,” he said, again not realizing he’d given voice to a thought.
Realizing he had spoken, Joel tried ‒ and failed ‒ for a deep breath. He looked the man in front of him over with his one remaining eye. He was younger, by a few years. A backpack was slung over his shoulders and a large knife was at his side, flopping from a belt that held his baggy chinos up. His shoes, which under normal circumstances cost nearly as much as Joel’s car, looked brand new; barely touched by the dirt of the world in which they walked.
“Hey man, I, I… I don’t wanna be cruel man, but I ain’t gonna stay here. You’re
sick and, well, ya know what I mean?”
“Yeah… I know,” Joel said.
Enrique shifted the pack on his shoulders and offered his hand out to Joel. Laskie leaned in faster and licked his hand.
“Wait. Please… can you… do
something? For me?” his eyes fixated on the knife at the man’s side.
“Oh shit, are you askin’… I um…”
“Yeah.” Joel could see he was no longer looking at him. His eyes cast downward towards Joel’s feet.
A long silence hung in the air. Laskie stood again and faced Joel. Enrique stepped in and knelt before him.
“What’s your name, bro?”
“Joel, I… I am very sorry for what happened to ya. Shit man, ain’t no one deserve this shit.”
Joel coughed as he tried to nod. The half the world that was not tinted red swam in a darkening haze. Laskie licked his face. He lifted his hands to her head, rubbing her face. She licked as she whimpered.
“You… be a good… girl, okay?”
Laskie’s eyes blinked slowly.
“Now,” Joel said as his eyes half closed. His eyes were too dry for tears to flow. He had not seen Enrique slip the knife out and into his hand, but he felt the point as he reached him. His eyes closed and his hands wrapped around Enrique’s. Laskie began licking furiously as the larger man leaned into the blade. Both sets of hands guided the shimmering steel into his chest. Aiming for Joel’s heart, Enrique closed his eyes and turned his head.
Joel’s last gasp was lost in the sound of the long howl Laskie released. Her head leaned back to the sky, and the ski-slope stripe down her arched back shivered as the blade’s hilt stopped when it made contact with the skin.
Time changed as they sat unmoving. When Laskie’s howl came to an end, Enrique, with one hand still on the blade reached up and stroked the face before him. He closed Joel’s eyes the remainder of the way.
Laskie licked Joel’s face clean. When she dropped to her haunches before him, the stains of tears and dirt had all been removed. She threw back her head again and released one more low, mournful howl. Enrique, with knife still in hand, stood. He felt the tears run down his face.
“Shit, man I’m so sorry… I hope you rest easy, bro.”
He stared at the lifeless body before him. He scrunched up his face and took a deep breath. He hadn’t noticed Laskie move until she started licking his empty hand. He looked down at her and rubbed her head.
“I’m sorry girl. Laskie? Right?”
She sat down beside Enrique’s leg, looking at Joel. He pulled out a rag and a water bottle. He washed his hand and wiped his knife as clean as he could. After examining his hand ‒ no cuts or scrapes ‒ he slid his knife back in its sheath and looked down at the dog with the white stripe breaking up the even blotches of gray and black beside him.
He turned and began walking away. Turning his head back to the man under the tree, he looked at Laskie sitting there, watching him.
“Well, ya comin’ or what?”
She climbed in Joel’s lap bringing her face up to his. Her wet nose touched his. She stepped gingerly off his lap and turned towards Enrique. Her eyes closed and opened in a long blink.
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