The Hounds of Zegna
By Arthur Davis
Of course, I knew they were coming, though I refused to believe I was the only one who possessed such knowledge. Had I made an adequate effort instead of my typical halfhearted attempt, the earth might have been spared. Maybe it was simply too late by the time I accepted what was happening.
Anyway, here we are under the thumb of Dremlins, ungainly creatures who look like giant golden retrievers standing erect on their hind legs. Except for the absence of a tail and a considerably shortened snout, the resemblance was uncanny. Their long, glistening reddish coat and small toy-like animal heads gave them an air of innocence, of childlike vulnerability.
And that’s how they first presented themselves. As space travelers who had gotten lost, had “taken the wrong turn at Mars,” as a west coast reporter smugly described their arrival eight months ago. First, came the small patrol ship, supposedly off course, filled with a dozen scrawny, fragile adolescent creatures, then, as we were seduced by our collective need to believe the best instead of being cautious about the worst, larger transports filled with yapping, affectionate Dremlins arrived in mass. But a lot can happen in eight months, like the end of civilization, as we know it.
I’ll tell you more later, but right now, I’m late for my appointed rounds. My name is Michael Joseph Denner. If you want, you can call me Mickey. I like that nickname, although I was never successful at getting even my best friends to use it. I used to be a high school history teacher. Not a good one mind you, but adequate enough to get the facts straight, though not much for inspiring young minds. I was never challenged as a child and left that legacy to each adolescent who passed through my eleven tenured years of teaching. Now, laser lamp in hand, I walk the barren streets of my city making sure that they are cleared by sunset like other Walkers, as we are called, do in every other hamlet and great city on earth, by order of the Council of Supreme Dremlins.
For that meager effort, I am rewarded with certain gifts, such as continued sight and breath. Trivial as it may sound, most other humans fared much worse by comparison. By the end of the fifth month, with dozens of battle cruisers hovering like dark clouds over every major metropolis, we should have known. But there really wasn’t any warning. So when the death knell tolled, it was a terrible surprise. Whole villages were consumed by violent plumed bursts of laser light. People and produce were incinerated in the millions like so much fried chicken. We thought they were trying to make an example of us for some yet untold reason until a pattern arose. But there was no rational reason, unless you wanted to accept the destruction of our race as the unadorned focus of their ambition.
The first wave of Dremlin dogs, as they were once referred to, quickly aged into mature adults whose only need was procreation. To perform that function successfully, we learned later, required all their bodily efforts and toward that end they reached out to signal others with the most hideous high-pitched howl imaginable. That searing, biting, ear-wrenching cry did not abate for days and only reached its peak during the darkest hours of their sexual compulsion. That should have been our first warning. Those who approached them to question this process were attacked on the spot. There were no regrets or apprehension on their part. When a Dremlin was in the process of mating, as more and more were, even coming close to them was reason enough for them to fire on you. Those closest to a Dremlin pair at the height of copulation were driven mad from the sound. First thousands, then tens of thousands, took their own lives in order to avert the wracking auditory pain their howl caused.
In defense of our kind, it should be mentioned that the governments and scientists of all nations did their best, but it all happened too fast. Within a period of a few months, the first wave of adolescent Dremlins had matured into ten-foot tall creatures with rapier-like talons and highly evolved ability to sense when they were in danger, if even by strangers hundreds of yards away. By then others had arrived with weapons powerful enough to begin the subjugation. They shot down fighters and missiles, as you would swat a fly from your shirtsleeve. They were impervious to our nuclear weapons, our strength, or interest in unity. We behaved as if we had a choice. They behaved as if we were born to be captives.
Hundreds of millions died in the sixth month alone. It was estimated that four billion vanished in the seventh month under the bright yellow rays their ships flooded the earth with from high in the darkened heavens. We were unable to negotiate or protect ourselves. Still, from what I heard, ten or fifteen million of us remain. For what purpose and to what end I do not know.
“How are you?”
It was my counterpart, Sam Levin. Sam was about seventy years old. He walked his ten square block patrol every night as I did. I walked my route, which bordered his for three blocks of greater Charleston, North Carolina. We spoke twice a night, cautious not to spend too much time together, lest we be detected and relieved of more than our responsibilities. There was no possibility of insurrection. We possessed no weapons except our own imagination, no interest except in our own pitiful survival. The Dremlins routinely purged towns and let us know of the decimation as if we needed any more convincing of the limitations of our capacity or future.
I flicked on the beam from what looked like an ordinary flashlight, except the bright red beam that shot out of the front could be projected a thousand yards or more. I traced the light up against some apartment buildings and down an alleyway just to make it look like I was securing the neighborhood. “I’m tired every day. I can hardly get out of bed anymore.”
“That’s the way I feel too,” Sam acknowledged.
“But you’re pushing seventy.”
“And look at what it’s gotten me,” he said standing up and scanning his laser beam along a row of second floor windows to make sure they were closed. “I think they’re watching us.”
Defiantly I said, “So what?”
As he walked into the night I heard his response, “So maybe I want to live another day, even if there is nothing left to live for.”
“You think this is living?”
“It is until I find something better.”
“I’ll see you at the meeting,” I said, though I doubted that he heard me.
We were fed our food, left to our own meanderings; those few hundred or so desperate souls within earshot of each other. Every week a representative gathered us up, measured our resistance, proffered directives, and reminded us of our precarious position. I sat through these meetings numb with disbelief and sadness. Why us? What made earth the perfect breeding ground for these beasts?
When the mating howls inflamed an already indignant world, there was an outcry that fell upon dogs all over the world, especially golden retrievers. They were hunted down, killed on sight by citizens with guns who needed to take out their frustration on somebody or something. When the slaughter escalated, people went around and broke into homes and apartments where they knew dogs lived and killed them, and then their owner if there was any interference. Of course, this displaced aggression meant nothing to the Dremlins. They went on copulating in halls, on streets, in public spaces, and especially near restaurants where food was plentiful.
The sight of a Dremlin pair having sex sickened most, if the howl didn’t quickly immobilize them with pain. One frightened legislator in China claimed the Dremlin howl was their most potent weapon. It was the highest sign of their evolutionary power and, at the same time, subjugated all those who would interfere with their design for domination. As they populated the world and long before the dimension of their aggression became evident, those sounds became a normal, if not arresting, part of our everyday lives. After a while, if you were fortunate enough not to come too close, you shut out the sounds as you would grating street noise late into the night.
I had married early and divorced later than was sensible. My wife had been a woman devoid of sentiment and possessed of seriousness so profound that to this day I wonder why I asked for her hand, and why she accepted my initial overtures. Our sex life was uninspired as was our fervor for each other. We never made much noise when having sex. At first, there were muffled groans and some spasms of excitement. In some strange way, I envied the Dremlins their exultation. To be so exuberant, so unabashed in their lovemaking was a true work of wonder. I had never known such sexual glee. I believe few had. I now realize few of us would ever again.
One friend, and I heard this only after my divorce, said my wife and I were “suitable” for each other. Suitable. I thought about that word for years. Now, nothing matters but working myself through the next day. The capacity for survival in humans is quite remarkable. I never thought of this until I saw dozens of newspaper pages filled with pictures of the most notable cities on earth flash up in a cauldron of red and yellow dust. First Geneva, London, Moscow, and Washington vanished. Before the shrieks of international outrage were broadcast, New York, Chicago, Paris, Rome, and San Paulo Brazil were incinerated.
Their laser weapons surgically dissected each city so as not to disturb utilities, transportation networks, and all forms of communication. These weapons systems were far beyond our military’s grasp as were their defensive screening network. They never resorted to nuclear weapons, which surprised most of the military experts. Outside major metropolitan areas, there were no sensitive targets that could benefit them in their conquest. The human devastation was complete. Of course, the slaughter of millions was no longer a topic of conversation for the survivors. We accepted the wanton destruction, always believing that sometime in the future we would coalesce into a lethal fighting force and overthrow our captors. What most found impossible to accept was being cut off from one another. The weekly meetings helped, if only to see the faces of those who had survived.
“Don’t turn around,” the voice directed during the last town meeting. “I’ve been watching you. My name is Sara McKinney,” she continued from behind me.
My imagination flared, but only momentarily. In the last few months since the destruction rained down upon the earth, I was purged of not only my past, but also my need for a future. However, as Sara’s voice filled my ears with words, her spirit filled my chest with possibilities. I nodded slowly to indicate that I had heard her words, though there was no way to communicate to her how desperate I already was for making human contact.
“Ask old Sam Jennings about me. I am not one of them. Please. We need to stick together.”
That was all I heard. That was all I needed to hear. “You know a woman named Sara?” I asked Sam when we next made our rounds, not fully appreciating how dangerous even that question was.
Sam dropped his flashlight, wiped his brow, and then bent down to tie his shoes. He went through the motions, but I knew he was simply tired and needed an excuse to stop walking. I had no idea if he would respond, or even if he could be trusted. If he hadn’t first engaged me a month ago, I would never have allowed myself this one temptation.
“McKinney?” he asked.
“Her first name is Sara.”
“She lives over on Townsend?”
“Sam, I don’t know anything more than her name.”
“How do you know her?”
“I don’t really. I just thought you did,” I said and walked away quickly. I was stricken with fear. How many Sara’s could he know? How could he put me through that? We were standing in an open space. Patrol ships glided overhead. The night was bathed in moonlight.
Was I mad? Why couldn’t I have waited until the moon was less radiant? When the sky was completely overcast. No, I had to know immediately. I was never going to make it to Sam’s age. However, I didn’t consider that an onerous limitation.
I slept poorly that night. In the morning, I ate breakfast and called into central control. The ritual was the same every day. I was asked to repeat everything I saw and did the day before. The voice interrogating me was different every day, though it always sounded feminine. When I said I was done, the connection was broken. The phone was in limited service and was only to be used by the Dremlins or to contact them.
Was Sara a Dremlin plant? I suspected those were around, though it never made much sense. If they considered us a threat, why keep any of us alive? Of course, I had no answer to this. I didn’t believe anyone had. Moreover, if so, it was too late to save ourselves or our dying planet.
But Sara was a voice. A Spring voice imparting possibilities that I had long ago given up. I waited eagerly for the next town meeting. I sat down and waited until the regional director read through his report. But all I heard that night was his rasping, biting voice, and a film of what had been done to those in other villages who did not heed their code. I allowed myself the opportunity to glance around, but only with my eyes. They knew when you turned your head. Guards positioned on either side of the church aisles in which we were housed for our weekly meetings came over and struck down anyone who turned or nodded off. Some were pulled from the crowd and never returned.
“You will do what you are told or you will be purged. We have made that clear to you and every other member of your mongrel race,” the regional director said in his strange English. The hideous animal was an old Dremlin. His coat was shaggy and unkempt. His talons were horribly long and less aligned with the others than we had seen on younger ones. He stood on the dais, as had an ordained priest only a month before. Only this messenger spoke of destruction and damnation as though he was the representative of the underworld. All vestiges of the church had been stripped from the walls, all signs of God or holiness or religion had been purged from sight. I imagined others believed as I did that those closest to religion and God were on a select list to be extinguished first lest they foment unrest and defiance.
The audience of two hundred or so looked on in muted bewilderment. It was only a year ago that we lived in peace and innocence, unaware of the plot being hatched against our towns and villages, against cities swarming with humanity, against the survival of the planet. Then, in only months since first landing and being welcomed by most of humanity, these small endearing visitors from space, from a planet our scientist called Zegna, for want of a better word, and from a galaxy that we thought devoid of life, as though we possessed the powers of such infinite knowledge or insight, descended from the sky in untold hordes.
The first animals looked like fairy tale-like gremlins one scientist observed. Except when he wrote a real-time internet article about the most important event ever to have impacted humanity, he pressed the wrong letter on his keyboard. Instead of hitting a “g” he struck a “d, “and in one stroke these once cute animals were transformed, and shortly thereafter became the hideous raptors they are today.
“We will be conducting experiments in this town and in nearby towns. No one will be hurt, but there will be some changes in members of your friends and family.”
No one will be hurt. What choice was there? We are all doomed, I thought, no longer searching the crowd for Sara. There probably was no such woman. Sam must have been thinking of someone else. If he knew of her, if she told him she was going to speak to me, to take such a risk in the first place, he would have known.
What does it matter? Tomorrow we will be melted down as the Nazis did the gold teeth of six million Jews a hundred years ago or wind up in a test tube on planet Zegna. I couldn’t recall where the astrophysicists told us the galaxy was that harbored such a malevolent race. We still didn’t know what they wanted from us. Those who were curious enough to ask were now dead. There was no rhyme or reason to their viciousness. There just was, or was not, depending on your point of view. As for myself, I saw no future in my future. Sooner or later, I will do or say something and disappear with the pull of a trigger. I will not be missed. I will simply not be.
I settled into my bed that night no longer thinking about Sara, just the bleakness of our world, of my puny existence. I suspected there was some sort of resistance forming out there. Younger men with more motivation and skills were cloistered in barns and caves around the world. First, they would have to secure themselves then find a way to communicate with others in nearby towns and villages. They would be bold and brave and, I believe, doomed. The Dremlins would have already anticipated this reaction. If they had the ability to sense danger or clandestine activity from across the town center, they might be able to extend it miles and miles from their headquarters. No, we were lichen compared to their intellect and creative superiority. We were no match for their ambition no matter what it was and in what form it was manifested. I glanced outside my window. There was a full moon again. The last time it had appeared, I had asked Sam about Sara.
“Hey Michael, you want another?” a voice barked against a background of music and scrambled words.
I spun around on a tall stool slamming my right elbow into the edge of the bar as my wrist struck the glass of beer I was nursing. A bolt of pain shot up into my shoulder, a splash of beer landed against my right sleeve. I gasped. I must have struck a nerve. The pain was so sharp I felt a tingling in my fingertips. I immediately recognized the bar and most of the patrons staring up in shock at the pictures on the television behind the bartender’s stooped shoulders. It was the afternoon news. The date indicated on the giant television monitor was September 16, 2037. Cameras panned in stony silence as scientists from the Army surrounded what looked like a flying saucer the size of a city block that seemingly had crash-landed in the desert outside of Tempe, Arizona.
“I knew it would happen sooner or later,” the bartender noted.
“I wonder what they’re going to look like?” someone behind me questioned.
“Like small dogs standing on their hind legs,” I offered without thinking.
A smattering of laughter was heard all around followed by some even more bizarre conjecture about what the aliens from outer space would look like. I cleaned off my sleeve and massaged my elbow. I studied my shoes as though I needed more evidence of who I was and where I was. I knew the bar and bartender. I recognized faces in the crowd though none seemed to acknowledge me. I paid my tab and removed myself from the crowded bar, walked into the street, and looked up at the bright blue heavens. It had finally happened. We were not alone. In all our collective arrogance, we were not alone. I had not dreamt it for nothing. I must have known. A police squad car was parked at the curbside near a fire hydrant. I walked over to the blue and white car. Their radio was tuned into the local news. Both officers were listening intently, though not so engrossed so as to ignore my approach. I noticed their bodies stiffened defensively.
“Maybe you can help me officer,” I said. They nodded politely. “I’ve been watching the news about the spaceship and I know what’s going to happen. I saw it all before. I want to tell somebody about it.”
“You just come out of there?” one of them asked.
I turned to the bar. “Yes, but I’m not drunk.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“I’m not a crackpot and I’m not drunk. And I can tell you what they’re going to look like. I can tell you what they’re going to do. That might have some value, even if I came out of a bar.”
“With all due respect sir, I’m sure a million other people can also speculate on what they look like.”
“I’m not like a million other people. I saw into the future and I know what they’re going to do.”
“And what’s that?” the same one asked, only this time he was less threatened by me and obviously not taking a word I had to say seriously.
“You know,” I said standing up against the car. “I think I’ll try the newspapers. Maybe they’ll be more receptive.”
They watched me cross the street in front of their car before focusing their attention back to the news. Within an hour all the Dremlins will have emerged from the saucer. Their small demeanor and unstable gait will be instantly endearing to billions worldwide. They would be perceived as unthreatening, an accident from outer space that would change our world forever. Scientists would be ecstatic to have these live samples of other life forms who could communicate with us if even in a rudimentary manner. The fact that they will need our care will throw us off guard. How dangerous could these little creatures be? And their voices, their little squeaky utterances, would sound so much like a human infant, mothers all over the world would feel a maternal instinct towards the furry dog-like misfits. How deviously cunning and manipulative.
I walked six blocks to the offices to the Charleston Times. The usually silent building on the corner of Decatur and Mitchell Streets was a hotbed of nervous fervor. Every window in the building was lit. Camera crews and reporters milled about outside. I had seen this before, or at least been aware of all the commotion when the saucer first landed in what now appeared to be my dream. One of our satellites picked it up coming in from beyond our galaxy. Hundreds of telescopes and sophisticated space probes picked up the incoming ship. Some scientists speculated that it might be something far more ominous, such as an asteroid hurtling towards earth. I thought about that while two reporters rushed from the building and sped away in their car. What could be so important? Didn’t they know what was coming? Didn’t anybody else know what I knew? All this was for nothing. We were doomed from the beginning. There were no defenses and what made it worse, we wanted so desperately to believe these aliens were friendly and not the kind we’d been exposed to in the movies and television for a hundred years. It just couldn’t be those kind one Hollywood reporter mentioned when he first caught sight of the immature Dremlins. However, if they were so callow how could they pilot their ship halfway across our galaxy?
I made my way past the throng to the city desk on the third floor. Phones were ringing on every desk. Everybody was screaming directions and vital information at each other. Every desk and tabletop was occupied. Every ounce of energy was being expended to cover the most important story since the creation of the earth itself. I looked about as though I was a spectator to my own death. Who would listen to me?
“Have you ever heard of the planet Zegna?” I asked one of the reporters who rushed by so quickly he couldn’t possibly have heard my inquiry. Three police officers were huddled around one of the dozen television sets mounted around the room which looked more like one of the late twentieth century commodities trading pits. There was an unmatched excitement in the air. The world as we knew it, the entire universe, and most importantly the religious leaders of the world were going to have to rethink their history. Apparently, God was hard at work in other planets too.
A young man with a fist full of papers bumped up behind me. He apologized and was courteous enough to ask if he could help me even though it was apparent that he had no real interest in being that patient.
“I want to talk to the editor about the space ship.”
“Right now I don’t think the president himself could get through to the editor,” he said with some pride.
“I have some information about who they are that might be valuable.”
“Who they are?”
I caught myself here, lest I sound as energetic and vested as I believed I was to the two police officers. “Yes.”
“But we haven’t even seen them yet. In fact, we don’t even know if anybody is alive on that ship.”
He was right. “I see your point.”
“You know, why don’t you come back tomorrow? Maybe things will settle down around here so you can find someone you can talk to.”
I took a sudden liking to this young man. He was showing more patience and respect than I had seen or would have expected under these conditions. I also finally realized no one was going to listen to me today, or if I came back tomorrow.
“Don’t mention it.” he said and quickly loped away.
I walked out of the newsroom. I was also too uneasy with what I knew to expose myself to potential ridicule. This incident was going to bring out every crackpot and lunatic on the planet. From evangelists, who would chastise us with the “I told you so’s” to those who believed this marked the end of the world. How was I going to tell them they were right? How could one man warn the world? Moreover, did I really care to? I struggled with this question as the elevator let me off on the ground floor and I wandered into the pandemonium on Decatur, which was taking place in every village and hamlet on earth.
A crowd ten deep surrounded a giant television monitor in one of the windows of the news building. An Army general was approaching the downed saucer. Slowly, a hatch opened at the other side of the gleaming gray spacecraft. Minutes passed until there was discernible movement. Everyone had an idea who or what was going to fill the screen and change our lives. When a small dog-like creature wobbled out into the daylight and fell to its knees a cheer rang out, with women oohing and aahing as the general’s aids rushed to help right the creature.
I knew the rest of the tale. I wandered into a small park and found myself a bench. Across the park, I could see the tall, ornate steeple of the Confederate Army clock tower—a landmark in Charleston. I was born not far from here thirty-eight years ago in a hospital that has long ago been converted into a major office building. Charleston was South Carolina’s oldest city, a major Atlantic coast port and the first city to adopt a historic preservation-zoning ordinance in the country. We had a major military college, internationally renowned arts fair in the Spoleto Festival and one of the East’s most visited tourist attractions. Seven months from now, like a thousand other cities, it would lay in ruins.
We were so desperate to believe, especially the politicians and scientists. After an extensive medical examination, the original group of young Dremlins toured most major capitals of the world. Every politician and important head of state wanted to be photographed with these lovable, if noisy creatures. Even as the animals grew, only the most astute behaviorist noticed that they became less friendly, less forgiving of being petted like tame pets. The scientists, especially the physicists and the Pentagon’s highest-ranking weapon’s wonks, wanted to know everything. The heads of the major religious groups waited patiently. Some suspected they wanted to prolong any interaction with the Dremlins for as long as possible. Official statements were handed out to the press that these denominations were glad no one was actually injured in the landing. Other than that, there was a notable silence from the religious leaders.
A panel of international astronomers and doctors was organized by the United Nations to pose questions to the Dremlins. What was so unusual was that the panel was organized, convened, and ready for their first presentation within six weeks of the landing. What was equally unexpected was that the Dremlins were open and responsive to every question from the location of their planet to the propulsion system of their ship. They invited inspection of their craft to any number of engineers and aeronautical experts. The scientific bounty from these early interactions was heralded as a quantum leap for humanity. A body of knowledge was being amassed at a startling rate, though not as quickly as the Dremlins were growing.
Then of course, there were the cynics who, in this case, were right from the beginning. They urged prudence, but in the face of how the first ship of Dremlins was embraced, their cause was drowned out by the international carnival atmosphere that swept the planet.
“If it hadn’t been for a slight navigational error we would have remained alone in our world, possibly forever,” the chairman of the Latin American Treaty Organization lamented. The most enthusiastic supporters hoped other Dremlins would follow to rescue the survivors of the Tempe Landing, as it was often referred to. They got their wish.
A strange peace settled over me. I stretched out my legs as far as they would go and shook myself like a dog working the muscle spasms out of his awakened body. There was really nothing to do. Nothing for me or anybody that would change the course upon which we were headed. Unless I had some kind of first-hand evidence and could convince someone in authority, we were all going to die. But of course there was none. There was no way to prove what I knew sitting here this bright Fall day. Even I came to question myself. Was it all a dream? No, of course not. Clearly, I had already experienced something that had not yet happened. The memories were too vivid and omnipresent, the facts and circumstances of the past months I had just lived through were all too pure and unwelcoming to be the byproduct of a twisted and corrupt mind.
In my reverie I could easily conjure up images of the earliest Greek wars with Epaminondas, Philip, and Alexander; the great Roman wars with Hannibal, Scipio, and Caesar; the Byzantine and Medieval wars and the French revolution with Napoleon Bonaparte; the European conflicts of the 19th century along with the American Civil War followed by the “War-to-End-All-Wars” and the most horrible Second World War. I can easily recall the wars that infected the Mideast a quarter century ago.
And in every one of these conflicts there was the same strategic territorial or xenophobic rationale. Why was this invasion and subjugation so different? The answer was as obvious as it was opaque.
What would have happened if Hitler had the weapons these monsters possessed? What if Stalin—whose dictates were reportedly responsible for the death of 20,000,000 people—had these weapons at his disposal? The difference here is that there was no one Dremlin leader, no general or politician to which we could forward an appeal for leniency. What they had done, what they intended to do, was so far and away more calamitous, it made two of the most vicious murderers of the twentieth century seem tame by comparison.
“You don’t seem very excited,” the woman said as her dog dragged her to the side of my bench.
I was startled at the sight of the German Shepherd. She had a sweetness about her. I wanted to reach out and pet her head but decided against it. The woman looked familiar, though I was in no condition to press my memory for details. “About what?”
“The space people. The aliens,” she clarified. Her Shepherd sniffed about the tips of my shoes then looked up at me. Her soft bright brown eyes and active expression was so compelling, and yet all I could think was that she was somehow related to those who were going to destroy us. “A spaceship landed outside of Tempe, Arizona.”
“Yes, I’ve heard.”
“My goodness, you seem so detached.”
There was a freedom about my attitude that even I was aware of. I was also aware of the number of dogs in the park. It gave me a terribly unsettled feeling. “I guess I am.”
“How can you not be excited?” she said tightening the leash around her hand and falling onto the bench. “The president was on television trying to reassure the nation.”
Thank goodness he wasn’t trying to get through to the editors at the Charleston Times. “I guess I missed it.” I began to massage my right elbow. It was quite sore and a little stiff. Tomorrow it was going to be a lot more tender. By next Spring, I will look back on this bruise as a very temporary and inconsequential inconvenience. By next Summer, who knows?
“He was so confident. It’ll be on again. You’ll catch it.”
“Was he reassuring?”
She straightened her hair. She was wearing baggy jeans overalls over a baggy white sweater. She was an inch or two taller than I was. Her face had an open sharpness about it as though she would listen but would not be easily convinced. “I’ll catch him later.”
“Well, Jillian here is really interested in the spaceship, aren’t you honey?” she said bending down to nuzzle her cheek against her dog.
“That’s a beautiful animal you have there.”
“That’s my best friend. She’s been with me for three years. She’s my lucky charm.”
“Have you ever heard of the planet Zegna?”
“No. Can’t say as I have. But you should know, I’m not one for science.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a fitness instructor. I have my own gym in North Charleston. I’m just visiting my sister over on McMurtree.”
The young woman was thin, athletic, the very personification of health, and if I may say so, a beauty. She was pretty in a soft, mellow way. Her looks weren’t as flagrant as so many young women’s were these days. From her style and grace, I imagined her to be somewhat of a throwback to a kinder, gentler era. “My name is Michael Denner.”
“I’m Jennifer Winslow. Friends call me Jenny. And of course, you already know Jillian here.”
If I told her what I knew she would nod politely and run for the bushes with her dog yelping at her heels. I would expect that of anybody. “Pretty name.”
“Why thank you. No one ever said that to me, not in just that way.”
“I can assure you, it was meant as a compliment.”
“Oh, I know.”
“Isn’t McMurtree behind the Confederate clock tower?”
“Yes. It’s one of my sister’s favorite places.”
“I love that memorial too.” The Confederate tower held out more than just the momentary flicker of time to me. It was a destination. The symbol of what I perceived could be my resting place if I decided to change my history.
“How come you’re not glued to a television set?”
“How come you aren’t?”
“If you’ve ever had a pet, you know their needs come first.” Jillian looked around the park with a curious eagerness.
I tried to assemble the details of my day before being shocked out of my reverie in the bar. How did I get there in the middle of the afternoon? The last time I was in a bar, I was watching the opening game of pre-season professional football in August with friends. I couldn’t recall anything before slamming my elbow. Hard as I tried, I seemed to have no past and if that was correct, no future either.
“Jennifer, did you ever share a secret with a stranger?”
She glanced around the park. Nearly everybody was listening to a pocket radio or collecting in small clumps discussing the news that had rocked the world. “What do you have in mind Michael Denner?”
“Well Jennifer, I’ll tell you. Firstly, the game works best when played by total strangers.”
“Even those who have shared a park bench together?”
“Those are the best kind.”
“Oh, this sounds really exciting, and please, it’s Jenny.”
“It’s simple Jenny. You tell me something that you’ve been dying to confess to someone, knowing that it will mean nothing in particular to me, but it will relieve you of the burden of holding onto it by yourself.”
“Strangers meeting on a train share a little part of themselves and then move on. No strings. No consequences.” She patted Jillian who quickly became less obstreperous. She continued to stroke her forehead until the dog’s energy was calmed. “Sounds mysterious.”
“You’re free to walk away anytime you feel so inclined. And I can do the same.”
“But you wouldn’t, because I think you want to tell me something really important to you. Am I right?”
“You’re much more than a gym teacher, Jenny.”
“And you look like you’re about to burst unless you don’t get something off your chest.”
“That obvious, is it?”
“Sorry, but it is to me.”
“It’s important to me that you trust what I say and there is no way for me to say what I have to say without possibly frightening you.”
“Me in particular or to anybody you want to tell your secret?”
“Good. I just don’t want to be the object of a stranger’s secret.”
The use of the word “stranger” bothered me, then again so did the word “suitable.” “That’s not what this is about.”
“Well, if you ever wanted to get my curiosity going, you’ve succeeded.”
“I will ask you for one thing.”
I pulled back from her. “That you give me enough time for me to finish my story even if you want to leave before it’s over.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.” She sounded guarded now. Her light, frothy manner had dissolved into a heightened hesitation.
“I know. It’s something that I shouldn’t have asked of you,” I said crossing my arms across my chest. “Well, if you’re game, so am I.”
“I’ll let you know when I’ve had enough.”
“Fair enough,” I said and began. The tale of the hounds of Zegna was told as I had witnessed it. I left out no detail, no unpleasantry bound to frighten or sicken. I spoke over the course of an hour with clarity of detail that had eluded me all my life. I spoke from the heart and when I was finished there was a period of time when all that moved were Jillian’s attentive ears. If Jennifer had been one of my pupils she would have never walked out of class when the bell rang.
“How would you feel Michael, if a stranger told you that story?”
“As disbelieving as you probably are,” I answered.
“I don’t know what to say to you.”
“I think you would have been better served if I had said nothing.”
“I don’t know,” she said and, with a gush of air that surely emptied her lungs, added, “My God, if you’re right!”
“There is no doubt in my mind.”
“I can see that,” she said staring down at Jillian.
“But you know, what does it all matter?”
“If someone told you that you had less than half a year before your life would change for the worse and forever; well, that would certainly matter.”
“I never thought of it like that.”
“It’s like being told by a doctor that you only have four or five months to live and after that everything you’ve known and come to rely upon will start to collapse all around you. Now what do I do?”
She was right. “I told you something that might help you.”
“But what if I believe you and don’t want to be helped?”
“Then I have done you a terrible disservice.” I had told her more than my secret. I had given her the power to adjust her life before it ended, but she would have preferred to be kept in the dark. I had given her a chance to prepare. And in saying what I had said, gave myself the same gift. Except that it seemed to mean more to her than to me. “You know if you tell anybody else they’re going to think you’re crazy and you might suspect I am.”
“I’ve been thinking about my mother in Pittsburgh. I have other relatives there and so many friends. My God. Every city is going to perish?”
“Every large city on the face of this planet is going to be incinerated in the first week. There is no defense. Thousands of smaller villages and the remnants of smaller communities like this are going to be kept alive but I don’t know why.”
“Just like that?”
“Nearly six billion people gone in less than two months. Most of modern civilization lost in a vapor. I lived through it Jennifer. I know what it’s like.”
A shadow descended upon this pretty young girl. I was overtaken by pangs of guilt. I didn’t have to say what I said, and yet I desperately needed to talk to somebody. I had friends, but in this case, unusual as it was, I really was more comfortable with a complete stranger. I thought a moment about the possibility of her and I meeting again, but it was apparent that what I had told her needed to be digested, and not in the company of the messenger. We both had to prepare for what was about to descend upon us.
“Jennifer?” I asked bringing her back from wherever it was that she had spent the last few moments.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I was just thinking about my baby brother. He just finished up his residency in medical school in California. We’re all so proud of him. He worked so hard to get what he has, and now it’s all for nothing.”
At that moment, I didn’t want this girl to believe me. Maybe not one word of what I had said. “He should know too.”
“I don’t feel well, Michael,” she said getting to her feet. “I think I should go now. I don’t mean to dispute what you’ve said but, you know it’s very hard to believe.”
“Impossible actually. I really didn’t expect you to believe me, and I’m not going to share my story with anybody else. I don’t need to wind up in some sanitarium and miss out on the death of civilization.”
“That sounds sick.”
“What else is there left but to be a credible witness to the destruction? What would you do?”
“Kill myself. Maybe.”
“I thought of that. And it may come to that. But for now I have time. Not a lot. You have time too. If you have loved ones go to them.”
“Then I would have to leave Charleston. Maybe go to the countryside where it is safer?”
“Just don’t forget to take Jillian with you.”
She came to my side and softly kissed my cheek. “Thank you. I mean it. If I didn’t believe you before, I do now.”
“If you had any intentions other than honorable you wouldn’t have wanted me to leave. You’re a good man, Michael Denner.”
I thought about asking her to call me Mickey, just once, but it was really too late for that. “Sometimes I am.”
“Did you ever think of contacting Sam Levin?” she asked and got up.
“No. No, in fact I hadn’t.”
“You might try.”
“You know, that’s a great idea. I have the time and he probably lives somewhere around here.”
“You too,” I said. Jennifer loosened the dog leash. Jillian turned and gave me one last playful glance before they disappeared around a thicket of bushes.
I spent the rest of the day in the park, more relaxed and renewed than I could recall. The pulse of people around me picked up with each new interaction with the aliens. By the time I got home, every channel was carrying the same story.
ALIEN CRAFT CRASH-LANDS IN THE UNITED STATES. AMERICA AND REST OF WORLD REACHES OUT TO EMBRACE INHABITANTS OF ANOTHER PLANET LOST IN SPACE.
How naive. How completely typical of our race, I thought. They would soon learn. They would witness the spectacle on television as reports came in from a smattering of cities. Ships landing, supposedly to locate the first one that had fallen off course. By the time their search was completed two dozen ships would have canvassed most of the earth’s surface. Satellites picked up their movement in our atmosphere but since we could not communicate with them, we could only wait. And we did. And as we did, we became more comfortable with those first dozen Dremlins. It all seemed so innocent, so much of what we all wanted to happen.
They would learn. First about the howling in the night, then all day long. They would learn not to look or hear and most importantly not to listen to the rumors of what these creatures were living off of. Smaller animals, some said. Rats and mice, others said with a note of appreciation. Dogs and cats was the most common speculation. And through it all, no one recognized a flesh eater for what it was.
I watched attentively on my television until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I recalled every event that took place from the first encounter to the first military interaction when the first warning was given and the first human life was taken.
I turned to the calendar on my kitchen wall. I had five months, maybe a little more before the purge began. I would live my life to the fullest in that time. I would take deep breaths, walk up to strangers, and tell them how important it was to live life to the fullest.
I would play in the park. I would divest myself of all my savings and travel and when my meager wealth was gone, go into debt until the very end. I would sing and dance and try to find someone who believed me and in our closeness share the need to wring every ounce of life out of the time remaining.
I would live as if there were no tomorrow, if only because I knew that there wasn’t.
– end –