Like a Blind Dog in a Meat Market*
Tyron Tibet, a junior from Los Banos High, spied on Heather Healy, a senior, making her way toward the quad. She blundered and tramped through the dry brush a hundred yards outside the school boundary. Tyron had never liked her—a straight-A student with a crown of entitlement—why should he start now? Then again, what if she was the only other survivor?
For ten days following the disaster, he’d gorged through the school’s earthquake preparedness supplies. If he never saw another granola bar, he could die happy. Why hadn’t he paced himself? What if he couldn’t find anything else edible?
Meanwhile, Heather was coming closer. What he couldn’t figure out was, if she’d attended the school trip with the rest of the class, why was she here now? Had she bailed too, like him?
Eleven days ago, the idea of trailing around The De Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco had left him cold. Too bad someone forgot to recharge his wheelchair overnight. Nobody noticed him yank the plug from the outlet. His spare wheelchair, the manual one, gathered dust at the repair shop.
When the yellow bus had departed with his commiserating classmates, Tidbit spent the day Online with unfettered access and no supervision. His only twinge of regret, back then, was skipping lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe on Pier 39. He loved their burgers—hickory-smoked barbecue—a juicy, mouth-watering feast.
A coastal breeze ruffled his hair bringing the sickening smell of cremated fish.
On first sighting in the half-light haze, he thought Heather was a ghost. Her gangly frame and jerky movements were familiar. From a distance, she seemed uninjured. He resisted the urge to charge over and fling himself at her. Why was she here? How did she escape unscathed?
Heather should have been stranded in San Francisco, over one hundred miles away. She wouldn’t and couldn’t have come up with a valid excuse to skip the field trip. Miss Goody Two Shoes would never take a sick day or shirk her responsibilities. Was that what happened in your senior year? Did a mantle of predictable dullness and sensible decisions descend? In which case, why hadn’t she died with the other students on the excursion, assuming they had died? He contemplated asking, “Hey, Heather! Why were you spared?”
Survival was impossible, but he prayed he was wrong. He hadn’t seen a soul since that morning. He didn’t trust the ground not to open, couldn’t believe the sky wouldn’t fall.
Initially, after the shock, he waited for the emergency services, blaring sirens, firefighters swarming the school, EMTs swooping in to save every casualty, and a battalion of TV anchormen broadcasting the news to the rest of the country, the whole world. But no one came. The fires burned for days, lit up the nights, and suffocated the skies with acrid smoke.
Once the ground stopped trembling with aftershocks, Tyron—Tidbit to his few friends—had searched the school. Nobody had remained on-site except the janitor, but Tidbit wasn’t sure. He’d often hung out at the janitor’s office when Mrs. Mandible, the resource center assistant, needed a break. He sympathized. No fun shadowing his every move for a minimum wage, ensuring he had everything, always kind and patient with the special needs students.
In combination, the crumbled masonry, blown out-windows, and overturned furniture was no place for a wheelchair. On his elbows, Tidbit hauled had himself toward the janitor’s office.
Mr. Mandible, the janitor, was sprawled on the floor his limbs splayed at awkward angles, head mashed under a fallen beam. Was it instantaneous? Tidbit had always liked Mr. Mandible—everyone called him, Manny—a bear of a man with a shambling gait and a shameless laugh, who didn’t treat him like a weirdo. He liked Manny’s jokes. Mrs. Mandible called them “tasteless.” She didn’t get it.
“Don’t mind her,” Manny had said. “My wife thinks she knows everything about education, but she don’t. You’re not immature. The ways I sees it, you’re the smartest guy this side of the creek and that’s including the teachers.”
“You’re not wrong.”
“Maybe you’ll be a janitor too when you grow up,” Manny had said. “Then again, you’re not gonna grow up, is ya? Still, ain’t no reason why you can’t have the same thankless job as me, is there?”
“No regular nine-to-five life sentence for me,” Tidbit had replied.
“Just as long as you don’t join the circus or one of those freak shows.”
“I fancy a life of crime myself, I hear the pay’s better.”
Manny had guffawed, eyes screwed shut and his mouth wide open.
That’s all Tidbit wanted, to be treated the same as everybody else, no special treatment, no kid gloves.
Manny had showed him how to be independent in a crisis. Which chemicals neutralized or cleaned up different spills. How to turn the generator on and how it worked? Where to hide in a lockdown? How to reach the wall mounted phone? No mean feat since tidbit was only three-foot-two last birthday. Where Manny kept the keys? What the security codes were and how to memorize them?
“And don’t you go telling nobody nothing,” Manny had said. “This is strictly between you and me, got it?”
On the fifth day, Tidbit got scared, just for a moment, but couldn’t figure out why? By then the fires had died back, the smoke had drifted, and the thunderous noises had ebbed as if muffled by a dense shroud. Fear prickled his skin like a rash of goosebumps. Used to his own company with no family to speak of, he had nobody to worry about, and nobody would worry about him. For the first time in all of his seventeen years on the planet, he felt the chill of loneliness.
• • •
“I know you’re there,” Heather called.
Tidbit startled. How did she know?
“I’m visually impaired, not blind. Come over here and help me, please.” She lifted the edge of her wide-brimmed hat and peered at him through thick lens glasses. “Tell me your name? Do I know you?”
“It’s me, Tidbit.”
Typical. He didn’t expect to be in her circle of friends, but she must at least know of his existence.
“Tyrone Tibet.” He rolled onto his chest, shuffled to the edge of broken bench, and dropped to the ground eighteen inches below. He needed to find his shoes. “You probably don’t recognize me without my wheelchair—few people do—I’m like a snail without my shell.”
“That’s okay, I’m not offended. You’re far too lofty to notice insignificant specks like me. There’s a whole different climate down here. How’s the weather up there?”
She sighed, more of a huff. Perhaps she’d heard the joke before?
“I notice plenty,” she said, “and when I look at you, I see a guy with bad grades and an even worse attitude.”
“True, I don’t expect you want to be associated with the less intellectual types.”
“You’re bright enough but too dumb to work. You can’t help being born congenitally male.”
“Ouch!” He looked at Miss Goody Two Shoes in a new light: pale eyes, pale skin, pale hair. No great surprise since she was a girl with albinism. However, looking at her now, he saw her determined jaw and firm mouth, athletic legs and swimmer’s shoulders.
“Don’t stare at me, Tidbit. Has nobody ever told you that’s rude?”
“Sure, but I don’t listen to them. I like to make up my own rules, ones that suit me best.”
“Maybe that’s worked for you so far, but it’s not going to work from now on.”
“Haven’t you noticed? We’re the only two people alive unless you know different?”
“You don’t sugarcoat the pill, do you?”
“I’m nothing if not practical. You must be the same when you’re not strutting like a cockerel. I’m not impressed. You’ve lost your audience, so how about we figure things out together?”
“I’ve already figured things out. I have everything I need: generator, food, water.”
“They’re not going to last forever. What happens when the water runs out or turns foul?”
“I’ll get fresh water from Los Banos Creek.”
“That’s two and a half miles from here, nearly three. How are you going to get there? How are you going to bring the water back here?”
“I have a plan.” He didn’t. No plan, no clue. Were they both making things up on the fly?
“Aren’t you sick of granola bars yet?”
“How did you know about those?”
She put her hands on her hips. “I’ve seen you help yourself to supplies before now, and I’ve seen Manny slip you quarters for the vending machine. How many are left?”
“Not sure.” He didn’t like her questions. To date, he had survived by not thinking about anything, not the present, not the past and certainly not the future. Besides, he couldn’t stand her cheerleader approach, the effervescent we-can-do-anything attitude. It made him want to puke. And, she wouldn’t shut up.
“How long’s the generator going to last?”
Tidbit adopted a thoughtful expression as if he were at that very moment mathematically calculating how many more minutes were available before the engine sputtered to a permanent stop. The only way he’d managed to remain sane so far was by zoning out on video games. Escapism worked for him. Why wouldn’t it work for her?
“It’ll be good for long enough.”
“Great.” She tapped the toe of her shoe on the floor. “I see you’ve used your time well.”
“Lighten up, lady. Don’t get your panties in a twist.” Tidbit felt outsmarted, like a dumb grader at college. Her relentless questions made him squirm.
“Have you checked out the science lab?”
“When we get to the creek we’ll need to test the water, check its not contaminated, or if it is, with what? Whether its drinkable, safe.”
“I think I flunked that module. Must have been doing something more interesting like having a life.”
“Well,” she huffed, “that’s not going to last the two of us forever. Are you planning to stay here indefinitely or should we try and move north? San Jose is only sixty miles away. Maybe other people have survived too, if we can only get to them. We should try and help. Everybody’s got to work together.”
“I’m fine here.”
“We need to look ahead and plan for the future.”
“Yes, you and me.”
“I don’t remember inviting you to share, or have you abandoned commonplace manners now we’re facing the end of the world.”
“You think you’re so funny, but you’re just lame.”
“Lame? You think Tetra-Amelia Syndrome is funny? Just because I’ve got no arms or legs.” He wiggled his fingertips and toes at her. “Please don’t mock my disability, or I’ll cry.” He blinked piteously and lowered the corners of his mouth. “You’ve hurt my feelings.”
“Stop clowning. I don’t think you’ve got any feelings to hurt, dumbass.”
“But you want this dumbass to share all his worldly goods with you—not a good plan little lady—play nice.”
“Keep your sexist bullshit to yourself.”
“Or perhaps you just want shelter, get out of the shriveling heat before you burn. Aren’t you albinos prone to skin cancer?”
“Why are you being such a little shit?”
She strode past him with more confidence than she could possibly feel at that moment. Her crepe soled shoes crushed the scattered broken glass and she disappeared into the crumbling building.
“Who are you calling little?” he shouted.
• • •
Tidbit glowered. Who did she think she was, interrogating him about a bunch of what ifs? Who put her in charge? He’d been doing okay, better than okay, until she appeared out of nowhere. He should ask her a few difficult questions like what had she been doing during the last eight days?
He heard barking and turned to see a dog leaping through the brush acting like its tail was on fire, jumping and twisting, snapping its fangs with blood on its snout and jaws. Could it have rabies? What was it attacking? Pounding and tearing at something. What had it caught? Some small animal, or something larger?
How many bodies, both animals and humans were left forsaken all over the land? Like Manny, dead and covered with a blanket, locked in his janitor’s office because Tidbit couldn’t decide else what to do. He caught a whiff of rancid meat, a foul, sour smell, turning his stomach.
Maybe Heather had a point. What would they be eating in another week?
Swallowing his pride, he turned away from the dog and it’s hideous prize, picked his way gingerly through the debris and entered the shattered building.
Ceiling tiles and strip lights dangled above him. The drinking fountain had come away from the wall and lay in the corridor in a pool of gritty water. He hadn’t come this way since the shock and had spent most of his time in the teachers’ lounge partly because he’d never been in there before, and partly because it felt safer with a veneer of adult authority.
“Where are you hiding, Heather?”
“I’m not hiding. I’m in the science lab.”
He found her swiftly and hovered near the doorway. The door itself had been ripped from its hinges.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She stood next to what remained of the chemicals’ cupboard surrounded by hundreds of small plastic bottles and several large canisters.
“Trying to put together a test kit.” She took out one of her earbuds and turned to him, “Like I said before.” She held up a device the same size as a phone but different. “However, I can’t find anything to carry them.”
“You need a bag?” He glanced around the room. At first he couldn’t identify anything in particular. The mess and chaos had jumbled the scene in the wreckage of the room. He picked up a torn-off aluminum pipe, the strut that usually supported the school-chair’s desk tablet, and poked through the detritus around him.
“How about this?” He lifted a backpack, shook off the dust, unzipped it, and dumped the contents: books, binders, a squashed brown-bag lunch, an iPhone, and well-worn P.E. clothes rolled into a ball. He checked the phone for power—dead. “This do?” He held up the backpack.
“Bring it closer, I don’t see so well from that distance.”
“Fine, but I can’t move so well with all this fucking crap everywhere.”
“You need to learn some better coping strategies.”
“You seem to over-react to the little stuff, but are as cool as an ice cube about Armageddon.”
“It’s complicated. Maybe I’m more like one of those icebergs, you only see the tip not the complexity beneath the surface.” He coughed. “Anyway, tell me, how do you know you’ve got the right chemicals if you can’t see the labels on the bottles?”
“Ever heard of Braille?”
“Give me your hand.”
She took his hand in hers and curled his fingers around the neck of the bottle. He felt the bumps on a square of plastic. “Cool. You know what that means, what it says?”
“Yes. Its hydrochloric acid—won’t need that. Mrs. Mandible helped me with the 3-D printer. They also have an RFid.”
“Radio Frequency identity label. This reader,” she waggled the device that looked like a phone, “speaks the label aloud for me.”
“Hence the earbuds.”
“You’re not as stupid as you look.” She grinned and gave him a little shove. “See, we’re going to get on fine.”
“Chuck it all in here and we’ll get on our way to the creek. Better to get there before nightfall. I have a flashlight.”
“Great.” A frown furrowed her brow. “You know it’s nearly three miles from here?”
“There’s one thing we haven’t discussed yet.”
“Only one?” He liked to tease her and she didn’t seem to mind.
“Who’s going to collect the water samples? You or me?”
“I assumed me,” he said, “and you’d wait here.”
“Your electric wheelchair … it’s not a mountain bike. There’s some rough terrain and who knows what else? Could be all kinds of dangers. We’ve no way of knowing. You wouldn’t believe what I saw when I was coming here. How are you going to get there safely?”
“Walk.” He wanted to ask her what she had seen. The fact that she didn’t volunteer any examples kept him silent. “That’s why I need to leave soon. I’m not as quick as the average guy.”
“How are you going to get down to the riverbed from the bank? And how are you going to get up again, especially if you’re carrying the samples?”
“I take your point. You go then. You’ll be faster.”
“No, I can’t see more than a few feet ahead. I’d never find it on my own. I only know the general direction.”
“So what you’re saying is, you need the skills of a sniffer dog.”
She giggled, a warm bubbly sound without a hint of sarcasm.
“No,” she said, “what we need is a pair of legs for you and a pair of decent eyes for me.”
“And where are we going to find those?” He stretched out his hands, palms toward her. “Perhaps someone left some spares for us buried under all this rubbish.”
She snorted with laughter. “Enough.” She gathered her supplies and unzipped the backpack. “I could get used to your sarcasm, given time.”
• • •
Tidbit hovered at the edge of the water on the sandy shore of the riverbed. Above him, Heather sat with the backpack on a bank of scorched grass . It was early evening, and he watched a burning red ball of sun sink below the horizon. He took his flashlight from his pocket and pumped the handle a few times.
“What exactly do you expect to find in this creek?”
“I’m testing for poisons like pesticides and lead.” Heather had lined up several large empty containers in case the water turned out to be safe. “And then there’s my favorite, coliforms, don’t want to be drinking those.”
“Don’t ask, you don’t want to know.”
“Okay. Let’s just say nobody wants to drink something that should have stayed in the toilet bowl. Now, you fill the test tubes to the red line.”
“Got the test strips ready?”
“Yes, but they’re tiny, so you’ll have to read the results and I’ll interpret.”
They worked in tandem and in silence. Heather sorted and ordered the white testing strips on a contrastingly, dark scrap of tarp. Tidbit collected the water from the river with a pipet and filled the test tubes. He’d had the time to ponder their predicament. Thrown together by circumstances, he had to admit that if he needed a partner, then Heather was a great choice. In a way, he was growing to like her quiet efficiency and patience. She made him feel calmer as if everything was going to be okay, and if things weren’t okay, somehow Heather would figure out a solution.
“There you go.” Tidbit held the rack of test tubes steady. Heather leaned over and took them from him while he scrambled up the bank to sit next to her. Like this, they were the same height, shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face. Beads of sweat dotted her pale skin. Her lips were dry and cracked.
The light was failing, and long shadows crept across the parched earth. He still hadn’t asked her how she arrived at the school? Nor had he asked her anything personal. Did she have a family? Was she worried about them? Must be. He felt the need to ask her something to show he wasn’t a total monster.
“Do you take any meds?”
“Meds?” She inserted a testing strip in the last test tube after several false starts. “For what?”
“For your albinism.”
“No. There isn’t a fix or a cure. This is who I am.” She shrugged. “Would you want a cure? Would you want to change, be different?”
“No.” He grinned, “Although I wouldn’t say no to darker hair. Girls like that, dark, shiny hair, at least that’s what my last girlfriend said, ‘sexy.’”
“Listen to you, ‘my last girlfriend.’ How many have you had?”
“A gentleman doesn’t count.”
“You’re saying you’re a gentleman?”
“I’m a man, almost, and I’m gentle. Want to make something of it?”
She grinned. “Nope.” She passed him the first test strip. “Give me the flashlight. I’ll crank it. You read the strip. If that one turns yellow that indicates the presence of harmful bacteria.”
“What if it’s green?”
“That’s good. Green for go.”
Tidbit checked the other strips, told her the numbers, colors, and degree of saturation.
“Excellent!” She punched the air and then returned all the equipment to the backpack. “I think we should test it again every time we collect some water. Things are okay now, but that might change. You never know when contaminants might sneak in farther upstream. Let’s go and fill our containers. We’ll do it together to check they’re not too heavy for you to carry.”
“My muscles are as good as the next guys.”
“True, but it’s a long way back to the school and if you’re holding them by the handles, the containers are going to bump and rub against your body.”
She half-filled two containers and Tidbit tested their weight. She was right, they hung down along his ribcage and the bottom rims dug into his hipbones.
“What do you think?” Heather examined him with a critical eye. “Can you manage?”
“Sure.” Heather took them from him so that he could climb the bank unfettered. “You’re the one doing the heavy lifting.”
Once they’d both reached the top of the bank, Heather put a container either side of him close enough for him to reach. Tidbit put the flashlight in the backpack, and they were plunged into darkness. After a few seconds, his eyes adjusted, and he could just make out a few bright pinpricks of stars in the oily black sky. Sluggish clouds drifted west exposing a watery moon. He took a deep breath.
“Heather, are we going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Heather said in a determined tone squaring her shoulders, “we make a great team. Ready for the return journey?” She squatted down with her back facing him. “You can entertain me while I walk. Give me five different methods of dying your hair black so you can wreak havoc on romantically minded females.”
“Not you then?”
“In your dreams.”
Tidbit donned the backpack and snapped the safety strap across his chest. He clambered onto Heather’s back and then grabbed the handle of each water container
“Okay legs,” he whispered into her ear, “let’s see if you can beat the women’s unpowered land-speed record and make it back before midnight?”
“No probs. Point out the hazards in advance. Together, we’re going to make this work.” Straightening her back as she stood, a chilly breeze snaked up behind them. “You must have a bird’s eye-view from there, unlike me.”
“Yes, that’s true, but neither us remembered to pack a crystal ball.”
• • • • • •
* “Like a blind dog in a meat market.” Definition:
1. Out of control and probably ineffective.
3. Incapable of or unable to take action.
Inspired by the true life story of the friendship between Haixia and Wenqi in China and their heroic efforts to plant thousands of trees and save the ecology of their country.