I awoke suddenly, startled by a pulsating car alarm, a sound I hadn’t heard in five months. I used to hate them. Now, they were a comfort sound, like the smell of roast turkey on a holiday. I miss car horns so much it made me want to cry.
I never wanted to be one of the “Chosen Ones”; though that name had never been officially given to us. It was usually the media that determined titles like that. Now, there wasn’t any media.
We sometimes refer to ourselves that way, within my new circle of “friends”. Those include “Slurry Mary”, who obviously sustained some kind of head injury or drug induced brain damage, during her lifetime.
My other compatriot, “Crackhead Ken”, was a product of the street. His life work consisted of hustling and stealing for rocks of cocaine. However, the criminal skills he acquired now made him an invaluable ally.
When “The Sickness” came, the depraved, addicted, and violent were heads above the healthy, ambitious and honest as the ones that would be miraculously spared. It was as if higher toxicology, deformity or mental infirmity levels made you more resistant.
That was one of the reasons for conspiracy theorists to suspect a bio attack that selectively targeted society’s elite minds and bodies. Talk shows decried government cover-ups and terrorist schemes. That lasted two months, until there was no one left to host those shows; the last CNN broadcast ended when an anchor suffered a seizure and died during a newscast.
It began with the dogs and cats. That also added fuel to conspiracy gossip. Knowing how attached Westerners are to pets, they were the perfect vehicle to carry the virus.
What started as an alarming news story became as virulent as The Sickness itself. Suddenly everyone knew at least one person who was sick.
The symptoms were not painful, and were generally over in 72 hours. The end result was always death. We “Chosen Ones” had to watch as loved ones, friends and pets quietly passed away. Within five months, nine out of ten people on the planet were dead or dying.
Some individuals of both species had apparently won the genetic lottery. We were immune, but any desire to go on living was hard to define. There is a passage in the Bible that alludes to “the living envying the dead” in the final days. That couldn’t have been more prophetic.
In less than six months, Toronto had turned into a dangerous drug-haven like ghetto. You dared not walk the streets after dark, and you always carried a weapon. Only, food was the new crack cocaine and hydration was like heroin. Bottled water became the most valuable commodity, as water treatment plants shut down. There was no one left to staff them. Carpenters, plumbers and auto or boat mechanics now ruled the world. There wasn’t a need for lawyers, financial managers, or anyone else who lacked relevant skills.
My new “family” was Slurry Mary and Crackhead Ken. We scavenged together and maintained a cautious relationship. Upsetting either one of them could turn deadly violent. I personally watched Ken kill a man over a can of tuna and some beef jerky.
I picked myself up off the bed, just as Ken and Mary both entered my hotel room. We were staying at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, at the southern end of Toronto’s downtown core. It was close to the lake, which was a source of water. However, we didn’t feel safe drinking or cooking with it unless it was boiled. That required the use of a generator, which precipitated the necessity of finding a container of gas. Searching for fuel was sporadic and generally futile.
Mary shouted over the droning car horn, “I busted into the drug store. Got blankets, magazines, candy, and I think these are Percocets.”
I inspected her bounty, “Mary, those are antacids, and most of the people in those magazines are dead.”
Ken held an armful of packages containing greenish grey-tinged beef and chicken. We learned many weeks earlier that the expiration date on most things is not as crucial as we always believed. However, these products made me shudder, “Ken, we can’t eat that. Come on, we still have houses we can hit.”
The mere mention of a family home instantly sparked freeze-frames in my mind of my wife and dog. We had a nice little house on a quiet street. Then, there was a news story about a disease that was killing pets. Within a week, our beloved Labrador died in our arms.
Two days later, my mother had passed away. Before I could even make plans to fly to the funeral, my wife came home with a fever. We both knew what that meant. Only eighteen hours later, our life together meant nothing.
We used to laugh, a lot. I just wanted to laugh with her one more time, or hear her say something from the memories I cherished like, “I love summer!”
I can’t think about that, now. I don’t even articulate her name in my mind or allow myself a mental image of her. It’s too painful, and you can’t show weakness in front of anyone, now.
After she was gone, I sat in our house. I couldn’t even catch my breath, for days. During my self-imposed isolation, I refused to pay attention to media or even go outside.
In that time over 90% of the world’s population perished. Now, my only family was the two people I shared the Fairmont Hotel with.
I walked with them for two blocks; finally we found a car we liked. Ken broke in and started the engine; both skills he learned in his crackhead days. It was a Honda Civic, which we knew would be a conservative user of gas.
Early on, when most everyone had disappeared, we spent a week breaking into stores and carrying out gas cans. Then, we spent another week filling them at various abandoned gas stations. There was actually a line up at some pumps. People on foot were just trying to insure they could maintain internal combustion mobility, for as long as possible.
The first house we broke into was in an area populated by high income families, and they often had hefty pantries filled with canned foods. Their freezers were worthless to us; by now they were filled with vile meat and maggots.
There was an unwritten rule among the “Chosen Ones”. We generally broke front windows or left the doors open in the houses we ransacked. That way, others didn’t have to waste time in places that had already been scavenged.
Ken broke a window on the front door of a high-end, traditional-looking two-story home. Nice antiques, a television that was not a flat screen in the front room. The house had probably been inhabited by a middle age couple. There was no evidence of youthful offspring, like MP3 players, video games or boy band posters.
We entered an area that looked to be an office, and were confronted with a vinyl banner. There was a logo with a photo of a cute puppy. The text beside it read, “Shilala Kennels: Award Winning Shiloh Shepherd Breeders”.
“No wonder it smells like dog shit,” Slurry lamented as she sniffed the air.
“Yeah, I sure do miss having dogs around,” Ken snorted and coughed up a wad of phlegm on the dining room floor, “I’d always stop and play with one, ‘cause they never looked at me with judgement or anything. You know what I mean?”
Before I could nod in agreement, we heard a noise from somewhere in the house. We froze, thinking someone might still be living there. Some people had guns and ammunition they stockpiled when the panic hit. There were neighbourhood gangs that were comprised of former stockbrokers and university students. Now, by necessity, they were ruthless survivalists. There were pockets in the former city of Toronto that you no longer dared to venture into, unless you were well armed or suicidal.
We heard the sound again. It was the unmistakable “yip” of a small dog. After a second of stunned staring at each other, we scurried toward the sound. There was a wooden door we opened and discovered stairs to a basement.
Stumbling without light, because Slurry had forgotten the flashlight in the Honda, we finally hit a concrete floor. Ken blazed one of the butane lighters he brought from his collection of approximately three hundred.
The stench made me feel faint, for a second; Slurry actually vomited. As Ken scanned the room with his lighter, we saw hundreds of piles of dog waste, as well as several dog carcasses, adults and puppies. There were dry dog food pellets lying everywhere.
Ken shouted, “What’s that?”
The three of us turned our attention to a corner where large bags of dog food were stacked, all torn open. In the darkness, there was a movement. That was followed by a sound that was unmistakably a dog growl.
I squatted and spoke softly, “Hey, what’s going on? Are you a good boy?”
After attempts to whistle and eight verbal invitations, a pair of shiny eyes appeared from within the stacks of bags. I continued to coax, until a tiny body made itself visible. It was a puppy, probably about four months old. I could see he was male.
It was hard to tell whether weakness or fear made the little creature hobble so slowly in our direction. It paused warily every ten feet, as our coaxing urged it to trust us.
Finally, it ventured close enough for me to let it sniff my extended hand. It was very cautious and precise, thoroughly and loudly sniffing each finger, while its shiny almond-shaped eyes gazed directly into mine.
Finally, I slowly moved my hand and started to gently stroke its throat, then the back of its neck, and finally the top of its head. As it grew comfortable enough for me to reach for it, I picked it up, cradled it lovingly and held its head in the crevice of my neck.
After an initial wiggling struggle, my stroking and whispering seemed to have a calming effect. Its body was still rigid, but at least it had become complacent enough to nervously submit. As it calmed down and started sniffing and licking my neck and face.
I remembered my own dog. How I loved him; I quickly dismissed the memory from my mind. I can no longer think about how my life used to be.
Slurry spoke first, “What are we going to name him?”
Without hesitating, I said, “He’s my dog. I’m naming him Faith.”
Slurry started to sputter protests that the dog belonged to all of us, as Ken protested that “Faith” was a girl’s name.
I stepped backward and eyed the exit to the stairs. My breathing was heavy, and I could feel my heart pounding, “It’s my dog. He came to me. I’ll let you help me take care of him, but he’s mine. And his name is Faith.”
I realized that I had broken into a sweat, and I was trembling. Apparently recognizing that I might not be entirely stable, at the moment, Slurry and Ken both mumbled in agreement. We carried the puppy and the bags of dog food to the car.
We parked in front of the hotel, so Ken and I could carry all the dog food into the building. Slurry waited at the car, guarding Faith. A dog would be a highly coveted possession in this petless and apocalyptically sad city.
As we gathered Faith out of the car and carried him toward the building, two figures suddenly darted toward us from around the corner. I shoved the dog into Slurry’s arms, telling her to hold on to him and get in the building.
I recognized them immediately as two men that lived within the immediate area. We had never trusted them. They appeared as if they had stockpiled liquor early on, and may have even scavenged the contents of some drug dealers’ buildings.
The first one to speak was a skinny, bearded man with shaggy blond hair, “Hey, you have a dog! Can I see him?”
Ken and I were poised in defensive stances, as Slurry backed toward the door, holding the puppy who was struggling to get down on the ground.
I gripped the claw hammer I always carried in my side pocket. I saw Ken pull the knife from the sheath on his backpack. In my mind, I envisioned burying the claw hammer into “Blondie’s” skull. Ken could take care of the other one with his knife. We both stood ready. Killing these two would be a matter that required no hesitation, apprehension or guilt. This puppy was the last decent, loving, innocent, pure, genuine thing left in our world, and no one was going to take that away from us.
The second man was fair-skinned and forty-something with a shaved head. He spoke with a British accent, “We mean no harm.” He glanced at his partner who reached for his backpack.
Ken and I both raised our weapons. The Brit made a dismissive gesture, “Are you hungry? We just found a large freezer storage facility, and much of the stuff was good. We’ve got smoked meats, even some cheese.”
The blond scruff grinned proudly, “I found some frozen bagels. Had to scrape some mold off.”
Ken and I tentatively lowered our weapons. We looked at Slurry who was desperately trying to hold on to the struggling Faith. She fell backwards, the dog got free and ran immediately to the strangers. They petted him profusely and made exclamations about what a good boy he was.
Then, before we really gave much consideration to sensible security, we all convened in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms. We enjoyed a meal of stale bagels, smoked meats and moldy cheese sandwiches.
Everyone played with the new puppy, and we found out that our new friends had formerly been a lawyer and a financial consultant. They lived two blocks away, in a condo complex.
From that day forward, our lives changed. Now we were joined by our two new friends, Rob and Alec. We didn’t even know their names for the first three weeks.
The five of us regularly walked Faith, as we teamed up to look for food and supplies. Six months later, we moved into a building together, as did six other people who met us walking Faith.
We’ve assigned each other jobs, and we all eat communal meals together. In the evening, everyone plays with Faith. He is the joyful glue that holds our little community together.
There are rumours of a female Labrador Retriever, several miles away in Mississauga. If it’s true, we plan to let them meet. Maybe we can begin by starting a dog family, and see what happens from there. At least now we have Faith.