Dog Food – Part Two

Hong Kong

A dull thud, followed by soft movement, woke him. Sleepy and cold, he lay concealed by the blankets, his ears poised to catch another sound. A clattering, scratching on wood, a whooshing sound, a sharp crash.

He retracted into his blankets like a rabbit into his warren. Fear nipped at his ankles, but Aaron kept it at bay. Silently, one eye open and with prying ears like satellites, he tried to pinpoint the sounds.

To his dread, to his horror, to his feral and childish anxiety, the sounds came from his parent’s bedroom.

Emerging from his bedding like a hatching, Aaron nearly floated across the living room and came to a stop at the black door. The wood had swollen and warped from exposure to the air. The brass knob was dented and tarnished, caked with dust from weeks of disuse. Aaron was rooted to the floor for a long time, twisting his fingers together and trying to quiet the heartbeat that worked its way into his throat. He wanted to say something, to talk his worries away with no one to hear. But this time was different. Something was listening.

Sweat beaded on his forehead as he ground his teeth to the gums. Aaron could disappear better than any ghost. At the whisperings of danger, he could speed off faster than a bullet, vanishing in a puff of ash. He was more quiet than falling snow with footsteps half as light. Whatever monstrosity that had tunneled its way into the bedroom hadn’t heard him. With merely four small steps to the window, it never would.

But Aaron had responsibility. A lonely soul walking a shattered earth, it was his job to maintain his apocalyptic Eden. He had to start with his parents.

His fingers, far too thin for someone his age, wrapped around the cold knob like a spiderweb. He froze while a surging rush of fear and doubt cascaded through his mind, but his nerve was strong. Turning the knob, he gave the door a slight push and watched it swing open on its wet hinges.

A wall of stale air hit him in a wave. The bedroom was much the same as it ever was, with the broken television still mounted to the wall, picture frames stained and crooked, dirty curtains just brushing against the soot-covered floor, and, most strikingly of all, empty. On cue, the noises had suddenly come to a halt, anticipation as fragile and quivering as his. Aaron stood in the doorway for longer than he should have. With a thousand-pound step, he moved quietly into the bedroom.

He shuffled through the dirty carpet, stepping over the crumpled sheets, his wide eyes twitching and spinning around the room. They halted on a small, shaking ball, crouched in the corner of the room. He crept closer, as silent as clouds scraping together, and knelt to the ground to watch.

A dust-colored pigeon had stumbled its way through the broken window. Terrified, its iris opened and closed, watching him intently. Its breast fluttered wildly as its head jerked from side to side to get a better look at its giant assailant.

Tension drained from Aaron’s muscles as he sighed, his breath kicking up dust. In a gentle, but rapid movement, he quickly grabbed the bird, pinning its wings to its side. It kicked and fought for a moment before he brought it to his chest and stroked its head with his cold fingers.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, Birdie,” he cooed, readjusting his grip to better comfort the pigeon. “I thought you were something else, but I’m glad it was just you in here. I’m not gonna hurt you. Before everything died, my dad and I were going to get a pet. I wanted a parrot. My dad didn’t like birds, but the guy in the store let me hold one, anyway. He told me to be really gentle and to keep petting them so they won’t try to fly away.” Aaron stopped his stroking and let his hand fall to his side. The pigeon was still.

“I think you’re the first bird I’ve seen in a long time,” he continued. “There are other animals around here, like rats and stuff. There was a dog around here a few days ago, but he was a jerk and bit me.” The bird swiveled its head, looking at Aaron. He smiled and resumed petting it.

Without an anchor, his gaze drifted, migrated over the room, until it fell softly on the bed. Under the thin sheets and above stained pillows lay two thin, dry, branch-like figures. Wispy, blonde hair fell over the face of the right body. Both were fused to the sheets, wrapped tightly around them like funeral garb. Remnants of clothes rested on their shoulders, torn and ruined by exposure.

“That’s my mom and dad,” Aaron said quietly to the bird. “I mean, that’s their bodies. My real mom and dad are in heaven right now. They died a long time ago. Not at the same time. My mom got sick first. She cut her arm on some metal and started coughing a lot. She got really thin and stopped eating because it made her sick. None of us ate for a while because dad spent all his time looking for medicine for my mom. I laid down with her a lot when he was gone.” He stopped petting the bird and looked down at his frayed shoes. “She told me that I was strong and that she would be okay because she was a survivor. She said I got that from her, that I was a survivor, too.”

He shuffled his feet, wiping one eye with the back of his hand.

 

NEXT CHAPTER: DOG FOOD – PART THREE

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: DOG FOOD – PART ONE

ALL CHAPTERS

more by WILL HEMLEPP

Photograph by Jacob Montrasio

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