by Scott Cahan …. A GIRL, HER DOG, A MAD SCIENTIST, AND THE END OF THE WORLD
I’ll be posting this story in 3 parts over the next 5 days. Please read and enjoy. Reader input is greatly appreciated. If I get enough positive response, I may continue the story. But don’t worry. The story comes to a natural ending in the 3rd part.
END OF THE ROPE . . . by Scott Cahan . . . . . . . . . . .
Erin woke, as usual, to the wet tongue of her dog, licking her face as if to say, “Get up and feed me.”
“Morning Prince”, she groaned, prying her eyes open to see that it was 9:00am, the same time, give or take 5 minutes, that her dog woke her up every day. “You’re right on time.” She forced herself to rise up from the bed until she was sitting upright with her eyes closed. The temptation to fall back into the comfort of sleep was strong. The day that lie ahead of Erin held no enticements for her, only monotony and boredom. Her dog Prince, on the other hand, had plenty of enthusiasm for the new day. He leapt up onto the bed and gave Erin another lick on the cheek to help sway her. Erin’s eyes cracked open. She stroked her dog’s long fur, swung her feet to the floor, and said in a sleepy voice, “Come on let’s go.”
Prince was a pure breed Belgian Sheepdog, a medium sized dog with beautiful long black hair across most of his face and upper body. Brown hair covered most of his legs along with a streak across his back. He bounded out of her room, down the short hall, then into the kitchen. Erin made herself a couple of crackers with grape jelly and a small bowl of dog food for Prince. Erin stood purposeless in the middle of the small kitchen, pushing a cracker into her mouth. She wore flannel pajamas decorated with stars and moons that were fast becoming too small for her teenage legs. Her hair was a sandy brown color with overgrown bangs in the front, falling a few inches below her shoulders in the back. She had big blue eyes and a smile that her Mom & Dad used to say “lit up the room every time she walked in the door”.
Prince, as usual seemed to inhale his food. Within seconds, he was ready to leave the kitchen. Erin pushed open the swinging door and found her Uncle Arthur kneeling by the front door of their small house. He was messing with the end of a white rope that lay in a coil on the tiled floor by his feet.
“Good morning Erin.” Arthur said, in an unusually happy tone.
“Doing another experiment?” Erin asked, having seen her Uncle in the same position six times before over the last seven weeks.
Dr. Arthur Gallows looked up toward his thirteen year old niece. His eyes were overly magnified in his thick glasses. With the back of his hand he brushed away a clump of messy brown hair with streaks of gray in it. His face was thin with tired lines beneath his eyes. He smiled and said, “Yep, it’s time for another experiment.”
Prince skirted past Erin’s legs to get close enough to sniff the rope on the floor. Erin’s face got suddenly serious as she asked, “But, all your research dogs are gone?” Her expression turned to horror as she realized what was happening, “You can’t … No Uncle. I won’t let you.”
Arthur’s smile went away as he turned his attention back to the rope.
Pleading, Erin said, “You can’t take Prince. You said you wouldn’t. You said he was different.”
Arthur stopped working and looked up, “I always said I would never use Prince unless we were desperate. And, Erin, you have to believe me. We are desperate.”
She looked down at Prince, sitting innocently next to her legs. She kneeled down, wrapped her arms around Prince’s neck and cried.
Arthur continued to plead his case even though it was clear she had no interest in hearing it, “We’re almost out of food. The water re-cycling system is breaking down. The air filter system needs repair, and the generators are being held together by duct tape.”
Prince fidgeted nervously in Erin’s arms, sensing from her tears that something wasn’t right. He tried to pull himself free, but Erin held tight.
Arthur moved closer to Erin, trying to look her in the eyes. Desperately, he said, “Erin, listen. I think I’ve got the serum perfected. I think it will work this time and Prince will be fine. Think of him. He’ll finally get to go outside and run around. The first time in seven weeks.”
Erin looked up at Arthur with tear tracks down both cheeks, “You don’t care about Prince. You never cared about the other dogs either. All you care about is yourself!”
Defensively, Arthur said, “That’s not true. I care about you too. I’m trying to take care of you, just like I promised your Dad.”
“Then if you care about me, don’t take away my Prince. He’s all I have!”
Arthur spoke more forcefully, “That dog is our only hope. If he lives, we live.”
“If you want to live so bad, why don’t you go outside!” she cried.
Arthur changed his tactic, kneeling down next to Erin who had turned her face away, burying it in Prince’s fur. Trying to sound more compassionate, Arthur said, “Erin listen. I’ve gotten closer to success with every dog. Each one has lived a little longer than the one before. I’m almost positive I’ve got the serum right this time. He’s going to be all right Erin. I can feel it. Soon, he’s going to be free again. Once we see that he’s safe, you and I will be right there beside him. But, he has to go first.”
Erin continued to sob, her tears matting Prince’s hair together next to her cheek. Her eyes were closed but she felt Arthur’s presence just inches away, waiting for her to give in. In her mind she struggled for something to say, some way out of the situation that would allow her to keep Prince with her. But, she knew her Uncle too well. She knew he considered himself far superior to her. Not only because of his age, but because of his intellect. He had years of college and years of experience working in top science facilities doing top secret work. It was much easier for her to tolerate Arthur before the war. Back then, Erin’s parents were around to keep him in his place. But, ever since she and Arthur had been stuck together in the bomb shelter, he used his intelligence along with his overblown pride as his two favorite weapons against her.
Erin slowly lifted her head and looked with disdain at her Uncle. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and glared at him as she said, “I have no choice do I?”
Coldly, Arthur shook his head to say, “no”.
Erin turned her attention toward Prince. Looking into his brown eyes that were full of innocence and love. She brought her hands up to either side of Prince’s head, burying her fingers in his long black fur. She said, “I love you Prince. I always will no matter what.” Tears came and she struggled to say what she needed to say between sobs, “Don’t be afraid. You’ll be all right, and I’ll be out soon to join you soon. OK?” She hugged the dog tightly, then pulled back to look him in the eyes again and then she whispered a name that she had reserved only for his ears. She knew if anyone else had ever heard her calling him by this name they’d laugh at her and say it was childish, so the words had always been for Prince alone. Softly, she said, “You’re still my Prince Charming. Remember that ok? No matter what happens out there, you’ll always be my Prince Charming.” She lingered for a few more moments, looking into Prince’s playful eyes. She kissed him on the side of his face, and then stood and turned away.
Seeing the dog free, Arthur wasted no time trying to tie the rope around Prince’s neck. Prince turned his head and backed away in resistance. Arthur pinned him against the wall and managed to form a loop around the dog’s neck. A guttural growling sound came from Prince.
Arthur grumbled, “Stupid dog. “
Erin looked back at the scene, glad to see her Uncle’s difficulties. Without emotion, she said, “He treats you the way you treat him.”
Arthur finished his knot and hurriedly stood up to get away from the threatening dog. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
Erin said, “If you were nice to Prince he’d be nice to you. But you’re not.”
“I’m not interested in making friends with dogs, Erin. I’m interested in saving our lives.”
Erin had no interest in continuing the conversation so she sat quietly and watched her uncle finish his preparations. Although the six previous attempts at the same experiment had failed, Dr. Arthur Gallows was undeterred. Progress through experimentation was his life. Before the war he had been a leading scientist for the U.S. Government, on the Weapons of Mass Destruction Preparedness Team. His last 3 years in that position had been spent experimenting with illegal steroids, experimental hormones and highly controversial super drugs. He and his team were trying different combinations in hopes of developing a liquid cocktail that would keep humans alive in the event of a chemical or biological attack. In theory, the concoction would cause the human body to evolve at such a rapid rate that it could survive in the most hostile of environments. The formula was dependent on the ability of organisms to adapt to change. Author and his team were operating under the assumption that if they could find the right formula they could jumpstart the human evolution process, causing a human body to change and adapt and do whatever was necessary to survive in a greatly shortened amount of time. A process that would normally have taken billions of years would take place in a matter of minutes.
Two weeks before the war, Arthur and his team had finally been successful in developing a formula that kept four rats alive in a tank filled with toxic air. The scientists were just about to start the next step, experimenting with larger doses for larger animals, when the big war broke out.
A little more than a year earlier, Arthur’s marriage had ended and he was forced to move in with his brother David along with David’s wife Cheryl and their daughter Erin. It didn’t take long for Arthur to convince David to let him build a bomb shelter in the back yard. Fear was the motivating factor that drove Arthur to build a solid, air-tight structure that contained all the necessities of home along with a mini-version of his laboratory from work. The more he had learned about the horrible effects of bombs that spread deadly chemicals like nitrogen mustard or sarin, and bacterial bio-agents like anthrax or glanders into the air, the more fearful he became. Arthur spared no expense on the shelter, adding two generators, solar paneling on the roof, a water recycling system, an air sterilization system, and a separate room on the back to house the six dogs that he required to continue his experiments.
Erin sunk down against the hallway wall. She watched helplessly as Arthur made final preparations to take her best friend away from her. Prince had been with her since she was nine. He’d helped her get through her awkward tween years and transition into her teens. Spending time with him had proven to be the best therapy for bad grades, two-faced friends, and fickle boys. Prince always accepted her, always loved her. The thought of losing him was almost too much to deal with.
She saw Arthur reach up to a counter to his left and pick up a large syringe, filled with a cloudy white serum. The thought of the serum going into Prince made her stomach feel queasy. She closed her eyes and she remembered the day she and Uncle Arthur were forced to go to the shelter. She had just gotten home from school and was in the back yard spending some time with Prince, as she did every day before heading in to do her homework. She had just tossed Prince’s favorite deflated soccer ball across the yard and watched him bolt off to retrieve it when Arthur burst through the back door of their house, causing a loud CLACK sound as the door slammed against the wood paneling. The sound made her jump. She turned to see Arthur rushing toward her, ordering her go into the bomb shelter.
“Just go!” Arthur shouted.
She had never seen her uncle in such a frantic state. His unusual behavior caused Erin to panic, letting out a shrill scream as she turned to run toward the shelter, just 20 feet to her right. It was a long metallic building, shaped like a half circle from the front, 30 feet wide. Its length stretched back 80 feet deep. Erin stopped just in front of the metal door and waited while Arthur tried to get a key into the door knob. His hands were shaking, causing him to drop the key. As he bent over and reached for it on the ground, Erin remembered Prince. She turned and called her dog, who was standing on the far side of her yard with his flat rubber ball protruding from between his teeth, looking confused as to why his owners were acting so peculiar. Hearing his name, his ears perked and he took off running back toward them. Erin felt Arthur’s hand pulling on her arm.
“Come on!” He demanded.
The door was open, and she hurried inside, followed immediately by Prince who wanted nothing more than to show Erin that he had retrieved the ball.
As soon as the metal door was locked and sealed shut, Erin demanded, “Where’s Mom and Dad?”
Arthur looked away from her and said nothing.
“Open the door! We have to go get them!” Erin shouted, knowing it was too early for them to be home from work. She knew going to get them meant driving across town to find them, but she didn’t care.
Arthur spoke, “Your Dad called. He said he would go get your Mom and they would try to make it home, but …”
“He knew things were looking bad. He said if they didn’t make it home, he wanted me to take care of you…I said I would and then the phone died.”
“So, they’ll be here soon then, right?” Erin forced a smile beneath her tears.
Arthur had heard the report on the radio, and the partial report he saw on the television before it went to snow. He knew it was bad. The best reply he could give Erin was, “Maybe they will Erin. Maybe.”
Erin opened her eyes just as Arthur was inserting the needle into a hairy fold of skin on Prince’s back. She winced, feeling the pain for him. Prince, on the other hand was oblivious to the needle. He seemed to sense that something was about to happen and looked anxious. He was panting with his tongue hanging out. He kept his eyes fixed on Erin, waiting for her next command. She looked away, not being able to look Prince in the eyes at that moment. She felt as if she had betrayed her best friend.
Arthur placed the empty syringe back on the counter. “Now, I need to get him outside before the serum starts to do its job.” He stood and pulled the rope that was looped around the dog’s neck. Prince resisted at first, but gave in and followed after Arthur jerked hard on the rope and said, “Come on stupid dog! We don’t have much time.”
Erin watched through watery eyes as Arthur lead Prince out the door and into a small room no bigger than a closet that he called the air chamber. It was a room between the living space of the shelter and the outside. Any time the outer door was opened and closed, air sanitizing agents were automatically blown into the room to kill any harmful bacteria that had entered the room, and then stabilize the air.
As Arthur came back through the heavy metal door, leaving the dog in the room, he was careful to bring the rope back into the shelter with him, threading it through a hole in the door that had a rubber seal inside the small hole, creating an airtight seal. Once the rope was in place he pushed the door closed then turned the deadbolt over the doorknob.
Erin pulled up her knees to her chest and dropped her head, folding her arms around her to block out the scene. She cried softly, knowing how the scene would unfold. Arthur would look at his watch, waiting for another minute to pass, and then he’d push a button next to the door that would cause the door to the outside to open. Then all attention turned to the rope to see when the dog ventured out of the shelter and into the outside world. Normally, they would both stare at the rope, watching it’s every movement. Sometimes it would move out fast, several feet feeding through the hole every second. Sometimes it would move an inch at a time. It didn’t matter how much it moved. All they cared about was that it continued to move, because as long as it was moving, they knew the dog was still alive.