It doesn’t seem so long ago I hated that dog with all my heart.
I was just back from the war, about two months, still feeling like I was cleaning sand out of my private parts, if you know what I mean. I also had the bum ear and the bum leg from the war. So all in all I was feeling pretty useless to my family. We were in a tight spot, with Dad long gone, my brother Jorge deep into the meth, my sisters married off and living back in Mexico, and with a tiny sheep ranch that pretty much had no sheep. Well, there we had the two left. Ma tried to hold our family together. She kept saying the Sun always had to shine again sometime. But I could see in her eyes that things looked bad even to her.
The dog just showed up one day, probably looking for scraps. I saw my brother out front, playing tug-of-war with it with an old rope.
I told him, “Jorge, get that pinche dog outta here before it gives you rabies.”
“It’s a great dog,” he said, but I could see it was nothing but a curly-haired mutt, big empty patches of skin on it. Maybe it’s great grandma was a border collie, maybe, but the apple had fallen pretty far from the tree.
“It’s a mangy dog,” I said.
“Could be a great sheep dog,” he said.
“We ain’t got but two sheep, brainless,” I said, but he ignored me. I figured the dog would figure soon enough there wasn’t much chow for him here and then move along.
I limped to the truck and drove out to the edge of our property. Did a perimeter patrol. New habit. We lived outside of Mason, in Texas Hill country. Really pretty land. At least it used to be. You could go fly fishing one day, count wildflowers the whole next day. Now most of it was dry, unkind, not pretty anymore. Can’t keep up good land without good workers.
It was only a little while before the bank would come take it anyway, pretty or not.
Sure enough, we didn’t need another body to look out for.
* * *
The next day the dog was still around, sitting on the steps back of the kitchen door. I walked over, and it scooted out of my way, its tail between its legs. But it didn’t have that look that most dogs do when they’re letting you know who’s master. His body was wiggling, but that dog still had this sparkly look in his eye, like he was playing me for a fool. I give him a good kick off the steps.
But I hit it with my bad leg. Dang. A bolt of pain ran up my knee and to my skull. I caught my breath and yanked the door wide. Inside, I hollered at Jorge, “What’s that pock-mocked mutt still doing ’round here?”
He hit ’bout as high as the ceiling when I came in. The meth’ll make you jumpy.
“Marco!” Jorge was sitting there, rocking from side to side, his supper in front of him. “Marco!” he said again.
“Don’t be feeding that dog, guey,” I told him, “or it’ll never leave.”
Then that boy did something he’d been doing a lot of lately. Crying.
“Listen, Marco, I ain’t got nothing here. My girl left me and took my kids. Speedy’s run off.” Speedy was our collie. A good sheep dog. He went for a long walk months ago and hadn’t come back. Smart dog, I tell you what.
I could see the skin of Jorge’s face was dry and scratched. His mouth was already starting to concave.
“Listen. Listen,” he said, getting up and then sitting back down. “I didn’t get to go to school. I didn’t get to go to the army. That’s all you. On top of that, you’re Mom’s favorite. She looks at me like I’m a piece of furniture. So let me keep the stupid dog!”
My brother never was one to make a whole lotta sense. But I figured he was saying the dog made him happy. At least it wasn’t gonna kill him, like the meth.
“Fine,” I said. “Keep the stupid dog. That’s all we need is another mouth the feed.”
I took my supper and went to the living room. Mom was in there, watching the news. She had her after-dinner bourbon next to her, and was doing her knitting. The TV said Los Angeles was under martial law. Nothing new. Something about the flu getting out of hand, not enough inoculations. You hear the same thing every winter.
Mom looked up from the TV and said to me, “How you like that supper, son?”
She’d made ropa vieja and refried beans. It was pretty darned good. A world better than rations.
“It’s great, Mom. Just like you always made it.”
“Well, that just about finished that last groceries we had. You’ll have to go to market end of this week.”
“How’s our credit?”
“We’re still in good graces, gracias a dios,” she said and knocked on the wood of her chair.
Then she handed her glass to me. “Top me off, por favor.”
I got up, got her bourbon, and refilled her glass. Then I finished up my supper. In New York City, they’d declared a state of emergency.
* * *
I had the dream again. I was sitting in the back of a truck, and we were making good time on this road outside of Mosul. That’s when we must have hit it. An explosion so loud it was the last thing my right ear would ever hear. I went tumbling, feeling things break in my body. I was on the side of the road, one arm curled under me, my other hand opening and closing on the dirt.
I woke up in the corner of my room, blankets tangled around my leg, covered with enough sweat to make my shirt and shorts wet.
Lord, I hated that dream.
Well, it was about time to wake up anyway.
I hobbled downstairs and found my brother curled around that dog on the couch. You could see the ribs easy on both of them. I went to wake Jorge, when the dog bared its teeth and me and growled at me. That son of a bitch.
“Wake up, guey!” I said, bouncing then tilting the sunken cushions with my good foot so the danged mutt and he rolled off the couch and hit the floor. “Time to go to market.”
Waiting in the truck, I saw Jorge was bringing the dog along, helping it into the back.
I waited till Jorge was in the truck.
“I bet you named him already?” I said.
“That I did,” Jorge said. He was drumming on the dash like it was a conga.
“So what you name him?”
“Pendejo,” he said and used his fingers like drumsticks.
“Pendejo.” I laughed. “What the hell for?”
“It’s the only thing he answers to. “Get out here, Pendejo!’ ‘Sit, Pendejo.’ ‘Fetch, Pendejo.’ Old Pendejo is his full name.”
Pendejo was not a nice thing to call someone, even a dirty-looking, curly-haired, mangy dog. But I guess the name kind of fit.
* * *
When we pulled into the Super S mart, there were a mess of cars and trucks parked outside. People were coming out with two or three shopping carts apiece, hauling away food, water, supplies.
We passed Mr. Perez loading the back of his truck.
“Morning, Mr. Perez,” we both said.
“Marco. Jorge. Seems like new deliveries didn’t come this week and won’t be coming next week. Better stock up now, boys.”
We said our thanks, found a parking spot, and went inside the store. The dog would’ve followed us — it wanted to be wherever Jorge was — but my brother got some rope and tied it up in the truck bed.
I hadn’t seen this kind of chaos in the store since the last round of big tornadoes we had a few years ago. The shelves were pretty bare, and there was no beer left at all.
We was just about finished loading the back of the truck, the damn pooch Pendejo watching us the whole time, wagging his nasty excuse for a tail. He had chewed through the thick rope Jorge had tied him up with. Some chops on that dog.
So that’s when Jorge went up front to start the truck when I heard him yell.
I looked around the side and saw one guy punch my brother square in the face, knocking him back, then pulled him out of the cab. Another guy right was behind that guy with a crowbar. It was the Gardner brothers, Aaron and Ryan. Local roughhouses. I went to move, but the pain that shot through my leg stuck me in place.
That’s when the dog jumped them. He had gotten to the roof of the cab without my seeing him, and from there he landed right into Aaron’s chest with his paws, pushing him back and away from Jorge. Ryan took a step toward him with the bar, but the dog barked up a fierce storm. Old Pendejo flashed his teeth and growled like a bear and stood his ground. Jorge lay twitching on the ground, dazed and bloody.
Ryan swung the crowbar, but the dog was faster, and leaped high and bit the air — so close to Ryan’s face he must have felt the breeze.
“Whoa! Villalobos. Back your dog off,” Ryan said. “Thing’s probably got rabies.”
“What you want, Ryan?”
“We just want the truck, Marco. Just give us the truck.”
“Get your own goddamn truck.”
“Ours broke down. We gotta get gone out of town.”
“I ain’t letting you. And sure enough this pooch ain’t letting you.”
“Hell with this,” Ryan said, and he dragged his brother up and they got out of there. Pendejo kept up his barking and growling the whole time till they were out of sight.
I helped my brother up, and we both got the dog get into the cab with us. Then I hit the gas.
Fighting the Gardner boys would not have got us killed, but it wouldn’t have been easy, what with my leg and all. I had to admit I was impressed by the dog.
“That Old Pendejo’s full of fight,” my brother said, starting the conga again on the dash. “He sure can kick some butt.”
“Sure can,” I said. “Old Pendejo.”
We both laughed. It was good to laugh with my brother again.
* * *
On the way back to the house, Mom called my cell and told me she’d gone to Mrs. Coleman’s, who’d taken ill. Mrs. Coleman had two daughters, both of whom had moved to the coasts soon as they were old enough, so she had no one to take care of her. Mom was always doing stuff like that for people.
It was before noon, and my brother said he didn’t feel like looking over two scrawny sheep. I guess his laziness was catching because I didn’t feel like doing much of anything either. Maybe it was because my knee was throbbing. Maybe it was because Mom wasn’t around for the first time in a long time, and so it felt like we were kids who had the run of the house.
I said to my brother, “You want a beer, Jorge?”
“Say what? It’s not even noon, bro.”
“I’m getting a beer.”
“Hell, then get me one, too.”
So we sat drinking beers in the living room, me in Pop’s old chair, and Jorge in Mom’s, and Old Pendejo cleaning hisself on the rug in front of us, making these disgusting licking sounds.
“I wish I could do that,” he said.
“Don’t you think you should get to know the dog a little more, guey,” I said, and we both got a kick out of that for a while.
Jorge broke into a bag of chips and ate them like a starving man. “Chips,” he said. “Chiiippps,” between and during bites.
After a few beers I told him I was worried about Mom.
“She’ll be all right. Mrs. Brown still has her old shotgun she used to scare us with as kids.”
“No, I mean, Mom, Mom’s getting older, and this ranch ain’t got the legs to go much longer.”
“It’s pretty much past dead, I say.”
I looked at him. His body seemed melted right into the chair. He looked even more useless than I felt.
“I’m worried about you too, Jorge.”
He laughed. “You got your own problems. Let mine be mine.”
We didn’t say nothing for the longest time after that. Just drank beer after beer. The TV was on, but there was no picture. “Cable’s out,” my brother said. “Shoot, it was just on last night. Something about air traffic being stopped, borders being closed.”
“Same old drill,” I said.
“Same old drill,” he said.
I cracked open another beer. My brother kept shifting around in his chair, kind of restless, picking and scratching at hisself. Sometimes he would get up and walk around the room, and the dog would follow him. Finally, Jorge put in a DVD for some action movie we’d seen a million times. But then he started talking.
“What was up with those Gardners today?” he said, looking at the screen.
“Just loco,” I told him. “They were always a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”
He laughed. “But why would they want to leave town? You think this virus got them spooked?”
“Everything spooks them. Here we are, miles from the nearest big town. We got nothing to worry about. Worst thing’ll happen, it’ll hit Houston. They’ll make people wash their hands a lot, and that’ll be the end of it,” I said.
“But, Marco, I heard — I heard that people that pass from this thing . . . well, they don’t stay dead.”
“Well, that’s what I read.”
“On the Internet. Though it’s not working.”
“What you mean?”
“I don’t know. Internet went down. Probably ‘cause of the cable.”
“People spend too much time on the Internet anyway,” I said. “That’s all false information and gossip. Shoulda seen all the stuff they wrote about us in Iraq. Don’t pay that garbage any mind.”
It was getting on long past suppertime, and we’d finished three six packs. I looked over at Jorge, and he was looking kind of paler than normal.
“You look tuckered out, guey. Go on to your room and get some rest,” I told him.
He said maybe I was right and took off. The dog followed right behind him. Me, I took two steps and collapsed onto the couch. I propped my bum leg on a pillow and lit out.
When I woke up, it was night time. I rolled over and saw my wallet on the floor. Must’ve fallen out when I fell asleep. It was empty.
I found the dog was tied to the front porch and gnawing on the thick piece of rope keeping him tied.
My brother was gone.
* * *
I had an idea where Jorge was, out at the Motel. Kids had been getting high there for years. Even I used to go there. I got out my M9 pistol from my foot locker, loaded it. I pictured aiming it right at Jorge’s head.
I put the gun in the drawer next to my bed, and threw myself down on the bed.
The dream came back that night. Sitting in the truck. Driving outside of Mosul. The explosion so loud. I went tumbling, feeling things break in my body. On the side of the road, I had one arm curled under me, my other hand opening and closing on the dirt. Then someone was calling my name, getting my attention, bringing me back to consciousness. “Villalobos! Villalobos! You all right?” It was my CO, and I think he saved my life, snapping me awake before I could fall deeper. You know what I mean.
I woke on the floor again, blankets around my leg, covered with sweat.
I noticed then the dog was in the room. It walked slowly over to me, its dirty nails scratching on the floor, wagging its dirty tail, and damn if that dog didn’t sit down right in front of me and put its head in my lap. He looked up at me with these huge brown eyes. Looking right through me. Like it knew.
I got up, got myself a shot from my bottle next to my bed, sat back down in that spot on the floor, and the dog put its head right back where it was before, and looked up at me again.
* * *
I woke up late, a few hours past dawn, and I was about to call Mom on my cell, when the house phone rang.
“Marco. Gracias a dios! Hurry!”
When your mother calls you half-hysterical on the phone, you better get going. I didn’t think twice when the dog followed me into the cab, and we raced out the ranch in a cloud of dust.
I heard the shotgun blast about a mile before we got there.
The truck had good pickup, and I floored it.
The dog and I jumped out of the car at the same time and ran for the door, Old Pendejo barking fiercely the whole way. I ripped open the front door. He pushed right past my legs and ran inside. In the foyer it smelled — it smelled like a thousand places I knew in the war. In the kitchen, there was Mom was sitting on the floor, with a shotgun in her lap.
And there, in front of her on the floor, was Mrs. Coleman. With her head busted open like a pumpkin tossed out a speeding truck. I’d see things like that before, but seeing it on Mrs. Coleman’s plain, brown kitchen floor just made it much more disgusting. She had on her bunny slippers, too.
My mom started talking. “She got the strangest fever I ever saw,” Mom said. “She was so cold, so cold. I made her some soup, but she wouldn’t eat it. Did you boys eat?”
“Yes, Mom, we ate.”
Mom nodded. Her hair, which was always neatly combed, was a big cotton candy mess above her head.
“What happened, Mom?”
“She got up, looking horrible. Really bad. And then she attacked me. Like she was . . . like she was trying to eat me. She was trying to eat me. She clawed me like an animal.”
My mother showed me long, deep scratches on her arm.
“I got to get you to the hospital.”
“I shot her. You have to understand, I had to. Then she got up again. She got up again. So I had to shoot her again.”
I saw then that Mrs. Coleman also had a spread of gunshot across her left side. The kind of shot that should have stopped just about any woman in her 60s.
“I’ll call the sheriff later,” I said.
Mom showed me the cell phone in her hand. “I tried. No answer.”
Mom seemed like she was in shock, but she said she just wanted to go home. In the truck, she whispered, “Drive faster, Marquito.”
At the ranch, I picked her up and carried her inside the house. There was blood on her apron.
* * *
I wanted to get Jorge, and drag his ass back to house, but Mom was sick, and I had to take care of her. I sat on the floor right outside her room while she slept. Old Pendejo, he stayed right there with me.
I went downstairs and made some toast and tea with a little of her bourbon and brought it up to her. She was propped up on a bunch of pillows and staring out at nothing. It looked like she had a fever, but she looked cold and pale.
The dog came into the room with me.
“Some food for you Mom.”
“Thank you, son. But I don’t think I could keep it down.”
“Well, I’ll just put it here. Tea’s got some bourbon in it.”
She reached for that right away. She said, “I see that mangy dog is still around.”
“Yeah, it’s Jorge’s. It’s his best friend,” I said and sat down in the chair by her bed. The dog sat on the floor next to me, and my hand naturally went to pet him.
“Looks like he’s pretty attached to you, too.”
Mom suffered a lot in her life. My dad was from Mexico City, and he met Mom when he was in the army back in the day. She was from Fajardo, which is in Puerto Rico. That’s right, we’re Mexiricans. Mom used to live right on the beach, she told us. But Dad took her deep into the heart of Texas, I guess, where the skies go on blue forever, but there ain’t no beaches. I know she had a tough life here on the ranch, with one son a druggie and the other pretty much a gimp.
But what on Earth could have made her shoot Mrs. Coleman in the head? Mom was just too young to be senile.
“Where’s that wonderful brother of yours anyway?” she said.
“He’s —.” I couldn’t think of a lie fast enough.
“I know where he is. You don’t have to tell me.”
I didn’t say nothing. I just kept petting the dog.
“He’s why I hide my money all over the house, you know.”
She finished the tea and put down the cup. “I gotta close my eyes for a few minutes. You don’t have to stay.”
* * *
I closed the door behind me and stood there in the hallway, feeling more useless than ever.
That’s when the dog started wagging its tail. Touching my hand with its nose and then going to the stairs and coming back to do it again.
“What’s the matter, boy? What’s the matter, Pendejo?”
The dog led me outside, and then he did the damnedest thing. He found this rope and he nudged it right up to me. I picked up one end and right away he picks up the other in his teeth.
Dang. My brother was out getting high, and my mother had just killed her friend and now was upstairs sick with Lord knows what, and all this stupid dog wanted to do was play tug-of-war.
Stupid simple animal.
And you know what?
I could feel the heat of the setting sun on my shoulders, and Old Pendejo, he was pulling pretty hard. I could feel an ache in my forearms. I felt like a kid again, like a boy, better than I had felt in a couple years.
It was a good feeling.
Stupid dog was right. Right there he taught me something important. To enjoy the little things, the small moments.
And then he stopped.
His eyes did this sort of dance, to the left and to the right, and he dropped the rope from his mouth. He turned and looked toward the western arm of the ranch, where a series of hills lead over to the Brown property.
There were three of them coming over the hill. With the sun behind them I couldn’t see their faces. They walked slowly, wobbly, like they had all the time in the day and more to burn.
The dog started barking, then running toward them, and then running back, behind me. The dog was scared. I thought this dog had the biggest cojones I’d ever seen. But now he was scared and tucked behind me.
I looked back at the three figures. I was about the call out, when right then another figure ran out from a small grove of trees we had, over to my right.
It was Jorge, his mouth opening and closing, yelling something. I could hear it like a whisper in my left ear. It took a second to work it out. “Marco! Marco! Run!”
When he was a few feet away, the dog ran to him, jumping up and down on him, barking, “Hello,” I guess.
But Jorge ignored him. “Get your guns, bro!”
The three figures weren’t much closer. But I could see they looked pretty odd. One looked like it had a broken neck.
There was a Remington 700 in the house, and the M9. I got to the house first and grabbed the rifle.
“What’s going on?” I yelled at my brother, running up the stairs.
“Give me the rifle,” he yelled.
“You’re getting the gun.”
“Why not the rifle? We gotta hurry.”
In my room, I checked the pistol, then handed it to my brother.
“Why can’t I get the rifle?” he said. “I have to get up close with this!”
I ignored him and checked out the window and the three figures were just approaching the front yard. Then I realized there were a few more a few yards behind them. I could see now that there was something wrong with all of them. They were deadly pale, some of them had blood all over their mouths. One of them for sure had a broken neck. And another had a hatchet stuck in its chest.
“Who the hell are these people?” I said.
“They came to the Motel,” he said. “At first I couldn’t tell them apart from everybody else. And then they just starting eating people. It’s that virus, I tell you, that virus!”
“Whatever,” I said. “Vamos.”
You live in the Texas Hill country like we do, with its small towns and big ranches, its oaks and its rivers, and the miles of big open sky, you sometimes forget there is a whole other world out there. You think the world out there can’t touch you. Sometimes you forget. Until you’re forced to face it.
As I stepped out the door I shot the first one. The bullet went through his chest and he kept coming. Next shot I stood my ground and aimed. Right between the eyes. He went down.
My brother took aim and shot the ground in front of another one.
“Aim for the chest,” I yelled.
He did and shot the next one right in the face.
“Again,” I said.
Old Pendejo didn’t have a gun but he was barking his face off. He looked nervous, ready to pounce, standing there between me and my brother. Good dog.
We had four of them down by the time I had to reload. I could smell them from the front steps. It was nasty, hot smell, like being upwind of a body dump next to an overused latrine.
Just as I was reloading, that smell got even more powerful. Coming from my right. Just as I turned, I felt the dog right behind me. I saw him crashing into two of them.
Before I could react, I saw another one come out the trees, stumbling. I took a breath and aimed and breathed out and shot. His head split open.
I heard the dog howl. Old Pendejo was ripping and pulling at one thing but the other one was clawing, and sinking its teeth into the poor dog’s hide.
I fired the rifled but it was empty. So I swung and used it like a bat, knocking the biter’s head up and cocked to the side. With two more swing down I had crushed its skull. The dog meanwhile had made quick work of the other one.
“No fair when they go two on one, boy,” I said. And Pendejo, his muzzle covered in blood, barked back.
“We got those,” my brother said. He looked like hell. Pale and scratched up.
“You look like hell,” I told him.
“I’m still prettier than you,” he said.
“Listen, son, we gotta get outta here. There’s more of them coming.”
“What are those things?”
He asked where Mom was, and I told her she was upstairs, sick.
“Sick with what?”
I told him about what I’d seen at Mrs. Coleman’s, that I’d thought Mom was a killer, but now that I’d seen these things, I understood.
My brother right there checked his weapon for ammo. “Marco, listen, we gotta. . . we gotta take care of her.”
“Of course, guey—.”
“No, we can’t. . . we can’t let the old lady go that way.”
“The virus. She’s probably got the pinche virus. She’s gonna turn into one of them.”
“Hold on,” I said, but he was running up the stairs. The dog took a look at me and ran after him. “Jorge! Wait!”
Running up the stairs was not an option for me. But I couldn’t let Jorge do what he was going to do. I took the steps slowly, pulling myself up. He was right at her door at the top of the steps.
“Jorge, stop!” I wanted to understand this thing first.
He was in Mom’s room. I forced myself the rest of the way. He was aiming at her. Jorge.” He turned. I stood my ground and aimed. And shot.
He crumpled to the floor.
The dog sniffed at his body.
I bent down to check him — and from behind me my mother latched on to my neck.
She was one of them now. Jorge had been right. She’d been infected.
She was strong, but skinny. I found the pistol on the floor and used it.
The house was quiet after that. I didn’t feel anything. The world had turned into a crazier place that I ever could’ve imagined. I had fought a war to help protect people I had just killed.
I checked the MP. One bullet left.
Old Pendejo whimpered. He nudged me in my leg, but gently, almost caressing it. That’s when I realized. He was all bit up, too, like Mom had been. And those crazies outside.
Could it turn a dog? I wonder if he was wondering that, too.
He looked at me with those big, brown blazing eyes. He knew. And he knew what I had to do.
I had seen some of my best friends killed in front of me, but I never did for them what I did for that dog. I cried. I cried like a child.
“Goodbye, Pendejo,” I said.
* * *
I got the rest of the ammo and took the truck. Wasn’t much gas left but I figured I’d take it as far as it would go.
I got a few miles from the house when I saw them. Over two dozen of them, moving on the road that slow, stumbly way they do. There was no way around them. I revved the engine. As I came to them, they looked up and reached out for me.
I plowed. They were softer than people.
They flew apart in pieces.
There were so many of them.
I lost control of the truck. I couldn’t see where I was going with the blood on the windshield. The engine lurched. Then I hit something. Hard. The truck spun and turned, and turned over. Glass. Metal crunching. Then it stopped.
I crawled halfway out, got to my feet, reached back slowly for the rifle.
They were coming for me.
I got partway to my knees and took a position. I started shooting at everything that moved, my rage boiling in my guts.
“Pinche gringo culero ve a chingar a tu reputisima madre!”
I shot and reloaded, shot and reloaded.
“Pinche gringo culero ve a chingar a tu reputisima madre!”
And then — I thought there would be more. But it was silent there on the road.
I collapsed on the ground. Something else was broken inside me.
I couldn’t get very far. I didn’t have the will. I didn’t want to go no more. I was on the side of the road. I had one arm curled under me, my other hand opening and closing on the dirt.
It took a long while, but then he came. Of course he would. I turned my head as much as I could and saw him, walking slowly in. Doing that death walk, but on four legs. He looked even mangier. Old Pendejo. Bullet hole in his hide. Those old sparkling eyes empty now, but still looking right at me.
Well. If it’s going to happen, might as well be your best friend.
I could feel its hot breath on my neck – it stank like death and latrines – and just as a drop of foamy spittle hit me and made me shiver, the dog bit.