Lucie imagines she and the dogs are morphing into one creature, all fur and teeth, blood and bones, with fourteen legs and four heartbeats, twitching itself to sleep in a heap on the dirty mattress, dreaming of salmon and shiraz, long car rides and warm dinners, all the things it took for granted in the old world. The pack stays warm this way, twitching and dreaming, a low whine escaping from the doberman Velvet’s throat as she curls her nose into Lucie’s armpit and kicks at Lucie’s ribs with her claws. Luna, a Great Pyrenees, turns over on her back, paws dangling, in the place where Simon, the other human, used to sleep, Luna’s white fur shedding in wiry tufts that blow around the room, like steel wool wrapped in cotton, tickling Lucie’s nose and chafing her skin. Levi, the old brown chihuahua, mostly deaf and blind in one eye, sleeps in a soundless and motionless coil between Lucie’s ankles, his body humming heat like a little generator.
Sometimes Lucie hopes Simon will crawl through the door and merge into their collective mass of bodies, wrap his long form around her back, pull her to him. She misses the way he spasmed himself to sleep, little earthquakes pulsing underneath his warm skin. She misses tracing the freckles that spilled across his broad shoulders, the two dragon tattoos snaking up and down his lean back, convulsing like wings. She misses the deep bass timbre of his voice, traces of Chicago rounding his O’s.
But other times she fears his return in equal measure and keeps a gun stashed under the mattress just in case. She likes to slide her fingers between the mattress and the wooden floor and touch the gun’s cold, hard edges: five bullets in the chamber, one for each human and canine creature left in her world, herself included, of course.
Mornings are the best time, as the sun rises over the river, and Lucie and the dogs watch the nest of raccoons huddling in the tree outside of their window. Great blue herons and white egrets glide, agile as angels, and the river unfurls from their glossy feathers as they skim its glass lip. The river’s supply of fish seems endless—channel catfish and pirate perch, largemouth bass and blacktail shiners—but Lucie wonders how long it will feed all of them, human and canine and bird alike. Lately she swears she can hear the faint trill of a bugle calling “Reveille” on the other side of the river each dawn. She can’t see anything through the thick web of cedar and hackberry trees that engulf her small house, and maybe she’s imagining the music anyway. But in the womb of half-sleep, Lucie can pretend it’s a normal morning, that she still has human neighbors waking up in the townhouse across the courtyard, that Simon is downstairs making coffee, that she will be going into the studio later that day instead of out foraging with the dogs.
Lucie never wanted three dogs, but before the Blight struck, Simon taught her how to control them. “Always make them walk behind you, especially through doorways,” he said.
“But Luna is bigger than I am. And Velvet is stronger.”
“Doesn’t matter. They sense your energy. Look at the way Levi runs the show.”
Now Lucie and the dogs hike every day along the river’s edge, searching for chokeberries, muscadine, white mulberries, a big stick in Lucie’s left hand to slash away spider webs, the pistol in the holster on her hip to protect them from predators. Lucie waves her right hand in the air, snapping away like a castanet dancer, cueing her pack to follow.
Simon rescued Luna from a shelter in Chicago before he met Lucie. But as the Blight began to tear at Simon’s mind, and he morphed from man to monster, Luna’s loyalty switched to Lucie. When Simon raged, Lucie and the dogs would run into her bedroom closet and snuggle under the rows of jeans and blouses, t-shirts and dress pants. Lucie pretended they were sheltering from a tornado, like her family used to do when she was a kid, four humans and one dog hunched in the bathtub, a twin mattress on their shoulders, sirens wailing. As Simon’s episodes increased in length and frequency, she and the dogs began to spend so much time in that makeshift shelter, Lucie even shoved a small black desk salvaged from the curbside (Simon called it “garbage gold”) into one corner of the closet with her computer on top of it, the cursor on its screen blinking through folds of fabric. Now Lucie writes in journals by candlelight, and most of her clothes have been turned into more practical items like blankets and bandages. And Luna is Lucie’s souldog, the two of them pale and sensitive, quiet and big-eyed—Lucie-na or Luna-cie—two damaged halves of the same whole creature.
Simon rescued Levi too. He hopped into the passenger seat of Simon’s truck one sweltering August in Texas when Simon spotted Levi on the street, brown fur matted and caked with hotspots and insect bites, a smelly old flea collar around his skinny neck. Only Velvet was Lucie’s original dog—aggressive, territorial, devoted to her family. But now, with Simon gone, they are a pack, the four horsemen. Levi the clown. Velvet the warrior. And Luna-cie the twin flames.
Lucie was not immune to the Blight, but she figured out a way to stop it in its tracks. Save yourself. Give up something you love. If you were lucky, the Blight only ate away at something you could live without—an ear, maybe. An eye, an arm, a kidney. But if it chose your mind, like it did Simon, or your heart, like Lucie’s mother, or your spine, like Lucie’s brother, then what you had to give up would probably take your life with it. Lucie was a singer in the old world, and the Blight attacked her throat. She woke up one morning after Simon was gone, her throat so bruised and swollen she couldn’t swallow, her tonsils fuzzy and engorged as tennis balls. She thought about cutting them out and cauterizing the wound, but she had no medical training. Instead she sat outside all night, watching the full moon’s reflection in the river, humming and chanting despite the pain, offering her voice to the water, Luna howling softly beside her. In the morning, the pain was gone. She could swallow, but she could no longer speak.
Now she carries the burden of her losses like stones in the belly of a fairy-tale wolf. As she lies in her canine heap on the mattress, an ink-black vulture swoops toward them, perching on the tall loblolly pine tree just outside the window, fanning its wings out, a black ballerina preening before a bow. And Lucie thinks about the last good day: the vultures wheeling and diving as she and Simon and the dogs lay on a blanket in the meadow where they had gotten married, a morbid picnic of valium and bullets spread out around them. “Do you know why vultures don’t have feathers on their faces?” Lucie asked Simon.
“No. Tell me,” he said, lacing his big fingers through her smaller ones, drawing her hand to his lips.
“They were the only animals brave enough to push the sun away from the earth, and it burned their feathers off. But it saved all the other animals.”
“You and your stories,” Simon said.
It was their second anniversary, and they had used half of their last tank of gas to drive north to Oklahoma. The Blight had decimated their world by then. They had lost everyone and everything they loved: their families and neighbors, Simon’s job at the university, the university itself, all the other researchers and faculty and students dead. Lucie and Simon were running out of food. Simon hated the way he was changing as the Blight ate away at his brilliant mind, turning him into something to be feared rather than loved. But on this particular Tuesday Simon was lucid, so he would be strong enough to kill all of them with his father’s gun, saving himself for last. That was their plan anyway.
But life doesn’t always go as planned. Instead Lucie dosed the last glass of Pinot Noir with just enough valium to put Simon into a deep but temporary sleep. Then she brushed his blue-black hair off of his olive face, kissed his forehead, gathered the dogs into her old red Volkswagon beetle, and drove 300 miles back home to Texas, not a soul on the road, windows rolled down, Luna and Velvet shoving half of their bodies out of the windows, paws on the sills, wind blowing their fur back as they inhaled the cooler October air.
It isn’t much to live for, but it’s enough. Shelter, books, and candles. Berries, birds, and river. Velvet, Levi, and Luna-cie. And the music that warbles from the other side of the river. Maybe one day Lucie will try to cross the river with her pack. She wants to tell the others her secret. If there are any others. She can no longer speak, but she could scribble it down on a scrap of paper. She could scrawl it in the dirt. She could tell them how to stop the Blight. Tell that ghostly bugle player and his comrades, if he has any comrades left, they’ll have to be very brave. To give up something they love.
LeeAnn Olivier is a writer from Louisiana who strives to use words the way that visual artists use paint. Her poetry chapbook Spindle My Spindle, which features the voices of suppressed female characters from myth and fairy tale, was published by Hermeneutic Chaos Press in 2016. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in a dozen literary journals, including Driftwood Press, The Puritan, and Damselfly Press. Her latest project is a collection of lyric essays exploring the power of art and landscape to aid in trauma healing. Olivier currently lives in Texas, where she teaches English at Tarrant County College.