by Pauline Creeden

Survival means making hard choices. Just ask Jennie.

~*~
Jennie pressed her cheek against the scuffed white tiles that smelled of shoes and mud.  She could feel grains of sand as dirt stuck to her face, but she needed to reach under the store shelving unit to get the last can.  Her fingers touched the lip of the dented can and caused it to roll away.  Jennie took a deep breath and barely stopped the curse that surfaced.  The old Jennie might have let the curse slide, like any other high school senior, but not now.  She rose to her knees.

“Did you get it?” Mickey’s young voice echoed through the cold, empty grocery store.

Jennie almost made a smart remark like: Does it look like I got it? But when she looked into her five-year-old brother’s sunken face as he hugged the other three cans to his chest, she couldn’t consider it.

“I’ve got to go around to the other side to get it. Stay here.”

Jennie stood up and brushed off the front of her jacket and jeans.  It disheartened her to look at the empty shelves, but relief still followed finding those last four cans under the shelves.  Following her lead, Mickey stood.

“I’m scared. Can’t I come with you?” He shivered, and Jennie could see his breath.

“Of course you can, Sam.  I just thought you’d be happier here, dear.”

Mickey giggled, Jennie used his love of Dr. Suess-type rhymes to chase away his fears.  She’d found herself rhyming a lot in the past few months since the attacks started.

They made the decision to go to the church that morning.  Jennie remembered when Pastor Billy drove a revamped church bus down the road announcing to anyone interested to come to the church.  They promised to help people make it to Ft. Monroe.  The island military base was the perfect fortress to keep out the dogs and the bitten.

That was a week ago, and she hoped they were still there.

Before they left, Jennie looked out all the second floor windows and could not see her father or any other bitten, so she hoped it would be safe to leave.  She used to love her father more than anyone in the whole world, but now she hoped she’d never see him again.  She and Mickey would starve if they stayed in the empty house and regardless, Jennie didn’t feel safe in their own home anymore.

Jennie walked to the other side of the high shelf unit, still on the look-out for other edible possibilities.  Mickey’s tennis shoes squeaked on the floor behind her.

When she got to about the middle of the unit, Jennie kneeled down again.  She shifted herself the other way and reached back under the shelf with her left hand.  The gravel and dirt on the icy floor brushed her cheek like sandpaper when a smile came to her lips. Her fingers easily wrapped around the prize.  She pulled it through the dust bunnies and cobwebs feeling an odd a sense of triumph.

“What is it? I hope it’s ravioli!” Mickey almost squealed.

Jennie used the sleeve of her jacket to wipe away the dust and grime covering the label.  Her heart sank.

“Hominy.”

“I dunno what that is,” Mickey’s face pinched up, “but you must not like it very much.”

From her brother she took the three cans of succotash, and breathed a deep sigh.  “Well at least it’s something different, right?  God answered our prayer.  We found something other than succotash.”

Then she heard barking, and her heart stopped in her chest.  Jennie swallowed hard, her eyes growing wider.  Her heart resumed, pounding in her ears so that she could hear almost nothing else.  She could see them just entering the parking lot from the west.

The dogs were coming and Jennie knew she needed to run.  Hiding was no good – the dogs would sniff them out without even trying.  Somehow her joints felt frozen in place.

“Jennie, we’ve got to go, they’re coming.” Her little brother’s voice unlocked her joints and she grabbed his small cold hand.

“Come on let’s go,” Jennie whispered and they started to run in a crouched position through the broken glass door and past the abandoned cars in the grocery store parking lot.  The wind blew from behind, and Jennie sighed a thanks that they would be downwind.

As they passed the last of the cars in the lot, Jennie felt the need for speed. Maybe I should pick Mickey up.  But if I do, I might drop the armload of cans.

“Run faster,” Jennie whispered to him, knowing better than to ask. The barking remained far enough away that Jennie doubted the dogs had a visual yet.

“I caaaaannn’t,” Mickey whined.

Jennie winced.  There was no way the dogs didn’t hear his high pitch.  Don’t dogs have super hearing?   She wondered, and wanted to kick herself for rushing him.  Even though she didn’t look, she knew he was on the verge of tears.

Jennie took a risk and stopped.  She unzipped the top of Mickey’s jacket and stuffed the cans of food into the front.

“Hold on to these tight, okay?”

His nose was red from the cold.  Snot ran over his upper lip and tears glistened on his cheeks. His nylon jacket shushed as Jennie picked him up and held him tightly to her chest.  The cans poked her.  She ran faster.  The most direct route to the church was through Huntington Park.  So she slipped inside and followed the tall, chain link fence.

The tops of her thighs burned with every step but she knew she couldn’t slow down.  She had to make it or they’d die.  After being bitten, the dogs would live about a month infecting other animals in their wake, but Rabies L-strain killed a human in three days.  A bitten human would show symptoms within two hours and became a danger to themselves and everyone around them.  She didn’t want to die, and she didn’t want to hurt Mickey.  She didn’t want to end up like her father.

The pungent odor of decay struck Jennie as she grew closer to the big ditch.  Looking straight ahead, she could see the white church on the other side.  Her vision dropped down the concrete hill, and she took a ragged breath, praying, “Oh Jesus, please help us.”

Jennie never thought much about God before RLS hit.  Sure, she went to church every Sunday, even went down the aisle when she was eleven to get saved. She was baptized, volunteered in children’s church, the whole nine yards.  But she never prayed except at meals and bedtime, and although she tried to read the Bible as a New Year’s Resolution every year, she’d never get past Leviticus.

“How am I going to do this, Jesus?” she whispered.

Jennie looked at the angled concrete wall. It tilted toward the middle of the drainage area at an angle about as steep as the roof of her house, and almost as far to the bottom.  The water below should have just been rainwater, but it collected the putrid remains of run-off from the town’s streets and smelled awful.  She could see a lump half covered with rainwater, and it arrested her.  Oh please, Jesus, don’t let that be a dead body.

She heard one of the dogs howl from behind.  Jennie knew that she shouldn’t look, but she couldn’t help it.  Turning, she saw that the howl came from a German shepherd.  With him appeared three Rottweiler or Dobermans and a Golden Retriever.  Their gaze fixed on Jennie.

Jennie weighed her options.  To her right stood the tall chain link fence that kept people out of the park from the street.  To her left, the drainage area didn’t shallow for about a quarter mile.  She had no choice but to go straight down.

She feared the angle might be too steep to try to run, especially with Mickey in her arms.  She couldn’t afford a fall.  Normally Jennie would have gone the quarter mile to the shallows and crossed, but they’d never make it before the dogs came.

“Can I go down the slide?” Mickey asked.

“What?”

“The slide,” Mickey pointed at the steep concrete wall.

It struck her like a slap.  “Sure, Mickey, we’ll go down the slide together.”

Jennie sat on the grass at the edge of the concrete, and let herself down slowly, using her feet as brakes.  She slid on the smooth, orange, river rocks a little at a time, afraid to go too fast, but wanting to get away from the edge before the dogs made it there.

They had just reached the bottom when the dogs came to the top edge.  Thirty feet above, Jennie could see the wildness in the eyes of the leader.  Blood ran from the top of his head, and one of his ears was missing.  RLS made the dogs crazy, and though it increased their pack mentality, they still fought with each other.

The dogs took no time choosing what they would do.  Immediately they turned left.  Jennie knew she didn’t have much time.  They needed to climb fast before the dogs made it around to the other side.

Hunger forced them to stop at the grocery store on the way.  Now they were stuck at the bottom of an open drain trudging through ankle –deep muck.  Oh Lord it is a body! Jennie’s mind screamed, and a squeal escaped her.

Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them away.   She tried not to look down again.  Jennie had to step over a bloated body, and she thought she’d vomit.  She held her breath, glad she still carried her brother in her arms. He buried his head in her shoulder to avoid the smells.

As she stepped over, they heard a moan.  She quickened her pace.  Jennie felt Mickey’s head pop up as he looked at the body over her shoulder.

Her voice shook as she tried to keep it light. “No worries, mate.  Keep your head down, we won’t be late.”

Mickey put his head down but she could feel him shiver harder as he whimpered.

When they reached the other side of the ditch she put him down so that his feet were on the angle of the orange concrete wall.  She turned him facing the church so he wouldn’t stare at the body behind them.

“You’ll have to crawl up on your own, okay?”

“What about these?” Mickey’s hands still cradled the four cans of food in his jacket.

Jennie didn’t know what to do.  Her jacket pockets were full.  She felt the corner of a picture frame from the outside of her jacket and knew there was no room.  They needed the cans.

“Give them to me.”

Jennie tried out for softball last year.  She sucked.  She couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a softball.  But she took the four cans and held them in the crook of her left arm.   She tossed one up, trying to get it over the side.  Immediately it came rolling back down.  She sidestepped to her right to keep it from landing in the muck and picked it back up again.

“Come on, you can do better than that.”  Mickey turned to encourage her.

Jennie was concentrating too hard to rhyme, “No, don’t turn – look straight ahead.”

She tried again, this time it landed in the grass and rolled away.  She took the second one, and threw it too high, causing it to go almost straight up.  The can hit the side of the wall and slid back down to her caterwaul, dented in the part she would need to open.

Jennie bit her upper lip and started to sweat in spite of the brisk wind.  This was taking too much time.  She needed to concentrate on her throw.  She tossed the dented can again and had it roll off toward the church, just like the first.  The third can just barely made it over the edge. And she threw the final can, relieved to see it land just over the lip as well.

“Okay, let’s go.”

Mickey crawled on all fours directly in front of her.  Jennie felt like they were in a 1960’s Batman and Robin skit.  Climbing the slanted wall was easier than sliding down had been.  The rough surface between the smooth round stones gave them plenty of traction.

As they reached the top Jennie looked immediately to the left.  The dogs were just making it through the shallow area, and as she watched, the pack split up.  Two dogs ran down the ditch area along the bottom, while the others ran toward them.

“We have to hurry.” Jennie yanked Mickey to his feet.

“Ow,” he complained, tears glistening in his eyes.

“Sorry,” she offered sincerely. “Hurry up and go, I’ll get the cans.”

He started toward the church while she bent down to gather up the four cans of food.  They were spread about, but she dove for them one at a time and snatched them up.

Not much time passed before she followed Mickey.  She chanced a glance and saw the dogs were not far away.  She ran toward the door of the church yelling at the top of her lungs.  Fear gripped her when she remembered no one might be there.

“Help!  Is anybody in there?  The dogs are coming! Someone please open the door!”

Mickey made it to the first step, and Jennie followed twenty feet behind when she saw her dad come around the corner of the church and head for her brother.

Her father had the bloody bare patches on his head where he had been pulling out his own hair, a tell-tale symptom of infection.  Red and swollen, his face hardly looked like Jennie’s father any more.  Drool frothed from the sides of his mouth and she could see his bloodshot eyes.

“No!”

Jennie’s scream distracted her father and made him hesitate on the way to her brother, looking her direction.  She gripped one of the cans tightly in her right hand and without a second thought, she threw the can.

It hit her father square in the forehead with a sickening crunch.  He fell backwards, his knees folding in an odd fashion.  Jennie’s mouth dropped open in shock.  How did she not miss?  Realization washed over her as she remembered that David didn’t miss Goliath, either.

Jennie gripped another can of succotash so tightly that the tips of her fingers felt numb.  She silently prayed her thanks and that she wouldn’t need to attempt another throw.  Her father didn’t move.

As Jennie sidestepped past him, she heard the big door of the church creak open with her brother wailing and bawling on the church step.  Mrs. Crawford, Pastor Billy’s wife, stepped out and picked up her brother.  She tried to soothe him and gestured toward Jennie.

“Hurry.  Hurry, the dogs are still coming.”

She had forgotten them.  Jennie turned and saw the dogs just starting around the corner of the church.  She ran up the steps and into the door.  Jennie could hear them starting to tear apart the body of her father.  Instead of relief, grief and guilt struck her.

“Did I just kill my father?”  Jennie looked up at Mrs. Crawford with tear-filled eyes and choked down a sob.

“No honey he was dead already.  Your daddy’s in heaven now, don’t let what happened today worry you none.”  She took Jennie’s whimpering brother and walked toward the group huddled at the front pew.

Jennie nodded, keeping her back to the door.  Sinking down to the floor, she hugged her knees and listened to the dogs outside.  Jennie took a deep breath, closed her eyes and prayed.

Original Fiction © 2012 Pauline Creeden