Short Story: A Measure of Compassion

The old man sat in his rocking chair on the front porch of his home. The scenery was something out of an old photograph from the dust-bowl with only the most minor, verdant patches to differentiate the times. His shotgun sat to one side, leaned up against the wall between him and the old hound dog whose eyes were as milky white as her owner’s.

Rain began to beat a steady tempo atop the porch’s awning above. The dusty horizon was splattered darker with each moment that passed. Even before he’d smelled the rain, he’d felt it in his bad knee. A century ago he might’ve been out dancing in the downpour with Mary, but she’d been gone decades now, and damned if the old hound hadn’t developed two left-feet in her old age.

There was a streak through the sky like some fool’d shot a missile out of the old nike base down the way. He almost didn’t believe his eyes, but the hound’s milky-whites reflected the elongated string of fire that arced downward through the sky too. He was convinced, especially when in the distance, past old Peterson’s former farm, it struck the ground like a flaming lawn dart. There was all manner of fire and smoke billowing along the horizon, but given not a soul lived ’round these parts anymore, he sensed he’d be the only one able to investigate.

He hobbled down the few steps to the wet earth, one-two’d in his half-hunch toward his blue pick-up. The dog waddled along after him, her steps even less sure of themselves than his. As usual he stooped to lift her, help her up into the truck. It grumbled to a start beneath them, began the turbulent trek up the dirt-drive and across the cracked asphalt for the abandoned fields to Peterson’s back acres.

The smoke and fire died down as the rain became more dense, weighted the day’s light nearer toward nighttime darkness. Were he not so sure of his whereabouts, he might’ve lost he and the poor hound in the muddy landscape ’til night turned to day. Instead, he jostled his way over the hard, wet terrain toward the smoke-plume that lessened with each breath.

The truck’s head-lights splayed over the first signs of wreckage with a dutiful gaze. Bits of tall metal stuck from the ground at all angles, most red-hot. Whatever had crashed didn’t look like any missile he’d seen in his army days. As a matter of fact, the bits didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before. They weren’t made of any metal he could place, too dull for steel, too firm for aluminum and with a sort of queer glow that looked more like oil on water in the sunlight.

He slipped out of the truck to help the hound down to her feet, then groped along a fender to cross the high-beams for the wreckage. The smoke was near gone by then, the fires embers along the edges of hot metal and smoldering grasses. The old man thought to go closer, but even the hound knew it best not to. Instead, the pair circled wide around the area, made sure to lean in over the taller edges of the dirt crater that’d been carved out for better looks of the interior.

It wasn’t until the two came full-circle that the old hound began her howling. She danced back and forth in place, left-footed and all, with her ears back and her arthritic spine stiff. Her growls became howls as much aged-whooping coughs as they were canine vocalizations. The old man put a hand on her head to calm her, but she only went quiet. She still danced backward with a wheezy whimper, as ready to flee as any creature he’d ever seen.

It was then that a shadow caught his eye at the edge of the head-lights. It turned to a silhouette of gangly, human-like features as it clawed itself through the dirt, drug itself forward. The old man would’ve run if he’d been capable of anything more than awe. The hound would’ve done the same if not for her stubborn devotion to staying at her master’s side. All the same she began her howling again, this time louder, more frightened than anything.

“Shush it now,” he said with a backward swat of the air. She went quiet as he stooped down, offered the poor soul a hand, “You alright there, friend?”

A curious bunch of clicks and sharp sounds echoed in his head, as if they’d come from his own thoughts. He wasn’t sure whether his mind had gone suddenly, but he kept himself focused on the wretch that drug itself toward the light. When its gnarled hand graced the light it was charred almost black over a deformed set of three fingers.

The strange hand reached for the old man to help while the weird clicks and screeches sounded again. He worked himself down to his knees, grasped the cold, wet hand that felt more like rubber than skin. With a heave, he drug the creature back to see the face of something more inhuman than even the most frightful carnival attractions from his youth.

“Good lord,” he said with a breathy voice. “You ain’t human.”

The dog whimpered as the creature came to a rest in his lap. He looked its head over to see the the viscous sheen of tears that leaked from black, oblong eyes. With a hand he ushered the hound over. She approached carefully, sniffing as she went. Another wheezy whimper saw her inch toward the creature’s face. It made a few clicks with heavy breaths, lifted a hand toward the dog. She slapped his face with a wet tongue, and the clicks and screeches made a stutter as if altogether shocked to laughter.

The old man cradled the creature’s head as it looked up, teary-eyed. For a moment there was a silence that even the rain didn’t feel right in breaking. Then, with that same curious way, words formed in his head as if from his own thoughts.

“Th-aankk you, fr-iend.”

With a last breath, its eyes closed and it went still.

The hound gave one, deep and mournful howl. The rain picked up. The old man did his best to lift himself and the creature for the back of his truck. By morning, a hole was dug. The creature filled it– just a little to the left of Mary in the back acre. He wasn’t sure whether to mark it with a cross or a star, so he left it blank.

He finished moving the last of the earth to fill the hole, leaned on the edge of his shovel while the hound laid in the dirt. Her milky-whites more sad than he’d ever seen ’em behind the little cyclones of dust kicked up from her hard snorts.

“I suppose we ought to say something,” he admitted aloud. The hound huffed a breath against the dirt and lifted her head. He scratched an eyebrow with a dirty thumb, “I don’t rightly know what to say though. If’n you think you got something, now’s the time.”

She gave a sharp whimper, went silent. They listened to the wind for a moment, his eyes on the sky above. She whimpered again and the wind stilled.

He nodded, “I suppose that’ll have to do.”

They returned home to retake their places on the porch. The old man settled into his chair as the hound collapsed in her usual way. He stared outward, uncertain of where the creature’d come from, but sure its final moments were as peaceful as they could’ve been, given the circumstances. That was something, he felt; if nothing else, any visitor should know a measure of compassion. His only regret was that he couldn’t show it more.

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