This story is by R. Scott Wiley and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A whine interrupted Clint’s typing. A paw pressed on his leg.
“Not now, Archie.”
Clint stared down at the beagle. The dog turned three circles and whined again.
“Okay, okay.” Clint followed Archie toward the door, grabbing the leash on the way. He clipped it on in a quick motion and they moved down the single flight of stairs. Archie paused and sniffed the newspaper outside Mrs. Fletcher’s door.
“We’ll stop on the way back,” said Clint. “I’m sure she’ll have a piece of toast for you.”
They went out the back door and into a large vacant lot. Something had once stood in this space across the alley from Clint’s building but the only evidence was random bricks, loose nails, and unidentifiable chunks of wood that occasionally surfaced among the weeds.
Meandering around the lot with Archie, Clint gazed across the way at the backs of the businesses that lined Hayes Avenue. Dry cleaners on the end by the alley; Clint could smell the chemicals from its open back door. A family grocery where Clint bought most of what stocked his pantry. A bar. Not a club with loud music, dancing, and young adults every night. Just a dark bar with people in it who only wanted to drink and nothing else. Clint avoided the place.
Shouts erupted from the street that crossed the alley. Then crashing glass. Clint took a few steps up the alley toward Hayes Avenue. He saw the jagged remains of the pawn shop window across the street. Two men pulled things from the window, handing them to the crowd around them. Clint heard more crashes and scuffling, maybe from the grocery. A woman ran out a door, across the field, and through the fence on the far side. More shouts. Then a loud report, like a shot, followed by several more.
Clint tugged on the leash, and Archie didn’t argue. Back inside their building, they could still hear shouts and horns and related crowd noises. Clint bent down and brushed Archie’s back. “What’s up, Arch?” he said.
They started back toward the stairs, Clint mumbling to himself. The leash jerked from his hand.
The dog had stopped and sat down. Outside Mrs. Fletcher’s door.
“Come on! I’ll make you toast upstairs.”
Clint walked back and knelt to pick the dog up. He froze, staring at the newspaper on Mrs. Fletcher’s mat. It shouldn’t be there. Every morning at 4:00 she stood in her doorway, waiting for the delivery of her paper. Why was it still there?
Clint knocked gently and called her name. He knocked harder and louder. Archie pushed his nose in the crack of the door, trying to open it. Clint tried the knob; it turned freely in his hand. He pushed the door open slightly.
“Mrs. Fletcher?” he called. “It’s Clint. Your paper is out here.”
Archie shoved against the door and went in. “Archie,” Clint hissed, “get back here!”
The beagle kept going. Clint picked up the paper and followed him. “Mrs. Fletcher? You okay? Archie and I are worried about you.”
Everything in the room seemed as it should be. Magazines in squared off stacks by the recliner. Throw pillows lined up like soldiers along the couch. The daisy tablecloth covering the small dining table with a vase of real daisies exactly in the middle.
Clint lay the paper on the table and saw Archie disappearing into the bedroom. Clint moved to the door in three long strides. “Archie! Get back here.”
The pulled shades made the bedroom darker than the front. Archie whined in the gloom.
“We need to go. Come on, you mangy mutt.”
Clint saw Archie’s white patches toward the left. He moved that way as his eyes adjusted to the darker space. He saw a small white-haired figure sitting in a chair in the corner.
“Oh, Mrs. Fletcher. I’m sorry we just barged in.” Clint looked closer. She just sat, unmoving.
“Mrs. Fletcher, what’s wrong?”
Her pale eyes slowly tracked to his face. “I’m not strong enough, Clint. I’m just not strong enough.”
Archie nuzzled Mrs. Fletcher’s right hand and she began stroking his head. Clint knelt in front of Mrs. Fletcher and softly touched her knee.
“Mrs. Fletcher, please tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’m not strong enough.”
Clint heard a rattling sound. He looked down and saw her shaking a pill bottle in her left hand.
“Why would you want to do that?” Clint asked softly.
“The news.” She stared past Clint into the gloom.
Clint waited but she didn’t speak again. “Okay, Mrs. Fletcher. Sit here with Archie. I’ll be right back.”
Clint went back into the front room, blinking a few times in the brighter light. He turned on the television to chaos. People shouting, shoving, fighting. A reporter’s face was inset in the corner.
“…all over the city since the announcement. No fear of consequences now.”
The reporter’s face disappeared and the crowd scene shrank to a box in the top corner. A woman in a green suit appeared in a news studio.
“Terrible reactions,” she said. “to devastating news.” The woman touched her ear and stopped to listen.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “We will repeat the announcement made by the president 10 minutes ago. Then we will switch to emergency communications for as long as possible.”
The woman swallowed, took a deep breath. “A global disaster is imminent. Due to sustained solar flare activity, a massive amount of radiation is bombarding earth satellites and the ionosphere itself. Satellite communications are expected to cease within the next hour. All planes are landing at closest airports. Within the next 12-24 hours, we can expect power and communication failures as well as other disruptions to the infrastructure. The president and her cabinet have been moved to undisclosed locations. Please shelter in place, at home or wherever you are. The army and national guard are moving into strategic areas to maintain order. Since effects on our energy reserves and nuclear facilities are unknown, the extent of the damage to our country and the world cannot be accurately predicted.” The newscaster swallowed hard and looked directly into the camera. “In all likelihood, we won’t be here tomorrow. Stay inside. Hug your family. Pray to God.”
The woman stood. She took off her earpiece, turned from the camera, and walked away.
The screen flickered and began showing the locations of emergency shelters and hospitals. Vaguely patriotic music played softly in the background. Clint turned off the TV and stared at the blank screen.
Slowly he walked back to Mrs. Fletcher. She lay back in the chair, her arm dangling off the side. She no longer stroked Archie. Her breathing had slowed.
Clint knelt down again beside her and touched her arm.
Her eyes fluttered. “I’m sorry, Clint. I had to take them. I’m not strong enough to wait for it to happen.”
Clint stabbed 911 on his cell phone. The phone groaned and played a message about busy circuits. He dropped it on the floor.
Mrs. Fletcher rattled the pill bottle slightly. “There’s enough for you.” The bottle slipped from her fingers.
Clint watched her for a moment. He slid his arms under her thin body and moved her to the bed. He spread a flowery afghan over her. “Good-bye,” he whispered and kissed her forehead.
He picked up his phone from the floor. “Let’s go, Archie,” he said. He took a step, paused, picked up the pill bottle, and left the room.
Archie whined softly and followed. Outside the apartment, Clint locked Mrs. Fletcher’s knob and pulled the door closed with a soft click.
Back in his apartment, Clint looked down through the window. People were everywhere, carrying all manner of things–chairs, clothing, TVs, bags of food. A man even led horses through the melee. Cars tried to nudge along the street. A group banged on the doors of a firehouse.
Clint sank to the floor. He turned the pill bottle, end to end, repeatedly in his hand. The pills made a soft click on each turn. Archie sat by him, staring with a cocked head. He licked Clint’s hand.
Clint stood. He tossed the pill bottle in a desk drawer.
“How about some toast, Archie old boy?” Clint moved about the kitchen. He scrambled eggs and toasted bread and fried bacon. “Breakfast isn’t bad for a last meal, eh boy? I have practically a whole loaf of toast for you.”
As Clint moved to the sofa with his meal, he pulled War of the Worlds from the bookcase.
“Always wanted to read this,” he said to Archie as he sat down.
Clint broke pieces of toast and fed them to Archie. He opened the book and began to read.