When We're Gone

I step into the empty street, a giant purse full of pentobarbital in one hand, an axe in the other.

The neighborhood pets are waiting for me.

I don't get far before it strikes me: without the sounds of the city, I can actually hear the wind in the trees. The sounds of traffic and the other everyday everythings are absent.

It makes my footsteps louder.

The animals hear me.

John-the-man-I-was-sleeping-with, not John-my-husband, said this would be difficult. He said I'd have to "steel my resolve." He said I'd have to focus on the larger picture, on ending suffering. He begged me to continue the work he started the morning after everyone got sick.

It's been a week, and many of the animals are already dead. Dehydration will quickly kill most of them, John-my-lover, not John-my-husband, said. They'll kill each other, if there's more than one pet in the house. They'll eat things that aren't food. Some will eat the rotting corpses of their owners. Eventually, they'll starve. In any of those circumstances, they will suffer.

I walk in the middle of the street. A frantic yipping staccatos from the townhouse on my left. My summons.

John-my-lover warned me that some of the dogs would be aggressive. But the little white lap dog only barks at me when I break the window with my axe and climb inside the house. No alarm sounds. The alarms have been silent for four days.

She piddles on the floor in her excitement — a small amount of piss — she obviously isn't getting enough to drink. Maybe a little from a leaky bathtub faucet, but even that won't provide water much longer.

I find the dog food by the line of ants leading me to the pantry. How quickly the insects will take over when we're gone. I imagine the entire city covered in bugs, ants climbing spirals around the Statue of Liberty, moths laying eggs in the paintings at the Met, roaches marching bravely down the highways.

The dog leads me to her food bowl, which I fill. I keep my eyes averted from the corpse in the corner of the kitchen. Her master's leg has obviously been chewed on. Poor thing. Poor everything.

While the fluffy thing eats, I open my purse and remove a syringe and a vial of pentobarbital. I put in only the amount John-my-lover specified for small pets.

She's filling her belly but stops to growl when I approach, thinking I'm after her food. I don't have time to let her finish. There are more houses to visit.

I murmur reassuring noises at her, then quickly plunge the needle between her sharp shoulder blades, jutting out from her hunger. In under thirty seconds, she's resting peacefully on the linoleum, wet nose touching her food bowl.

The front steps of the house are in shadow and make a cool resting place while my heart rate thunders down to normal. Killing the dog wasn't easy, but it wasn't as hard as John-my-lover made me think it would be. Before all the death, before this flu that's killing us all, it might have been harder. But now I've seen bodies in graceless death, human and animal alike, and I guess I'm stronger for it.

A faint mewling sound reaches me, and a small gray cat walks in my direction. What do I do? John-my-lover didn't say anything about euthanizing pets that are already outdoors. I reach toward the cat, but it hisses and bolts over a fence.

The next house has a dog again. It's more aggressive than the last, but it stops snapping at my heels when I find my way to the kitchen. "Where's your food, boy?" He cocks his head at me. "Your kibble? Chow? Puppy chow?" I cough into my sleeve and examine it automatically. No blood.

He gives three short barks and rushes toward the cupboard behind me. I should have looked more closely — the cupboard door is covered in scratches. He's gnawed on the corners. There's a child lock, though, so he couldn't get it open.

I feed him, and he doesn't even notice when I approach with the needle.

I break in to three more houses. Two are empty of pets, and in the third, the two cats are already dead. I swipe a tin of cat food, in case I see the small gray cat again. John-my-lover would argue for the cat's euthanasia. The cat has been too long domesticated; its survival skills will be meager.

I work my way down the street, and the sun that warmed my back in the morning is now high overhead. I euthanize many more cats and dogs. I even euthanize a parrot. One dog barks so savagely inside its house that I can't make myself go in. I wonder if John-my-lover would forgive me for this. But we are, all of us, beyond forgiveness.

The morning after I first slept with my biology professor, the first person died of the virus in the U.S. My biology professor ceased to be Dr. Riggins and became John-my-lover.

And John-my-husband knew. Not that I'd had sex with another man. No, I was still the same innocent, cheerful, buxom young wife slash child bride in his eyes as before. What John-my-husband knew was that this virus would be devastating.

"The wrath of God is a frightening thing indeed," John-my-husband said. "Let us pray to be worthy of His forgiveness."

As he prayed aloud, I could think only of the other John's fingers on my lips, tangling through my hair, unbuttoning my jeans….

I make my way down the street. The animals call to me, but no people. I don't think I'm the only person left, but I haven't seen anyone else — alive — in days.

There's the gray tom again, regal on a welcome mat across the road. "Here kitty-kitty." My voice startles me, too loud for the quiet street.

Not looking at the cat, I pull the tab on the tin of food. It hisses open. "Here, kitty-kitty."

The cat approaches, sniffs at the food, turns up his nose.

"It's Fancy Feast," I say. "Still not good enough for you, little king?" My needle is ready, but when I reach for him, he skitters to the side, racing down the street.

I shrug, continuing slowly after him. I euthanize three cats in a house reeking of piss, and I keep my nose and mouth buried in the crook of my elbow, coughing and hacking away as I inject them with the drug.

Despite my coughing, it's a peaceful death for the cats. And that peace for them, it's what John-my-lover wanted. Veterinarian by day, biology professor by evening, seducer by night. In all his forms, John-my-lover advocated the humane treatment of animals.

As I fill the needle yet again, this time for a German shepherd so weak she cannot stand up, I glance down.

There's a spot of blood on my sleeve.

It was only a matter of time.

"Nobody has immunity," the scientists said from their laboratories.

"God will spare no one," John-my-husband said from his pulpit.

Surely, somewhere, there's a basement stockpiled with supplies, the residents hunkering down, pissing in buckets, waiting for the virus to sweep through and run out of hosts.

But I don't have such a basement, and it's too late to make one.

I know how this ends, I watched it with John-my-lover, and with John-my-husband before him. The bloody nose is followed by open wounds that ooze and weep, coupled with short bursts of delirium, and then constant hallucinations, vomiting, and death.

John-my-lover worked until he was so taken over by the virus that he wasn't even a person anymore. He was an animated corpse, necromanced into action. He hacked and gagged, choking on his own vomit, soiling his pants, and still he worked, dedicated to the animals, the strangers' pets, until he stopped breathing.

But the animals — these blocks of homes are endless. I can't euthanize all the animals in this neighborhood, not in a whole borough, and definitely not this entire state.

"What good does this do?" I asked him, before he got sick.

He pulled the needle from the back of a pug's neck. "It did good to that one, to keep her from suffering," he said. "And I'll go to the next house and do good to one more."

But I don't want to hack up blood, choke on my vomit, shit my pants. The disease gets bad fast, but it lets you linger to infect as many others as possible.

I finger the syringe and the vial of pentobarbital, do the math in my head while I shuffle toward the park. The stray cat I saw earlier is back. He meows at me loudly, keeping his distance.

"Scat," I start to say, but it ends in a cough.

There's a bench I love, facing a hill dotted with boulders, and I picture it in my head as I walk. The cat follows, purring. Is he real? Is this the onset of the hallucination stage of the death, the part that keeps its victims up and moving, breathing on everything and everyone? Or is this cat a messenger of the devil, come to hear an accounting of my sins?

Which John was right?

When I find my bench, I ease into it and gaze at the scene in front of me. Warm sunlight streams through the bright green leaves of the trees. There's a corpse propped against one of the boulders, but I look away from it.

The cat jumps beside me on the bench, nudging my hand, purring. Looking for — what? Affection?

"I don't have anything for you."

But I do. Slowly, so as not to startle him, I use my free hand to pull the syringe and drugs from my purse. John-my-lover, he'd approve. This cat won't be able to fend for himself, stay warm in winter. He'll kill rats to eat, sure, and birds, but only until other predators move in and eat him. He's domesticated, not meant to live as a wild animal.

I load the syringe for him.

But…who am I? Just another human playing God, doing no better than either of my Johns. This cat could make it. He could find shelter, find a mate even. He could escape whatever predators come. He has a chance.

A chance that so few of us have.

I add more pentobarbital to the syringe, and more. And more.

I press the needle to my elbow, and instead of the chorus of howls rising from abandoned houses, I fall to darkness to the sound of a gray cat, purring.


Beth Hull lives in northern California with her husband and two children. She writes novels and the occasional short story, and this is her second appearance in Bourbon Penn. One of her fundamental Rules of Storytelling is don't kill the dog… so of course this story was inevitable. To learn more about Beth, her work, and the many ways she breaks her own rules, you can visit her website, http://bethhull.com.