John Strausbaugh, Stories

dingo220

 

 

The Journal of Emil M

 

 

I was born somewhere in the Outback, sometime in the near future. My parents were post-apocalypse hippies driving across the continent in a VW bus in search of a beach resort called Paradise. It was supposed to be a safe haven from the savage hordes who roamed the continent's interior wasteland—loose amalgams of bikers, punk rockers, bodybuilders, hot-rodders, butch gays — and the starvation and plagues that had made the big coastal cities ghost towns.


One day my mother spread an old quilt in the dust by the side of the road and lay on her back. My father, sister and brother stared as she struggled to give birth. I was difficult about it. My father had to drag me out by the heels. I clawed and bit my mother's insides all the way. When he held me up and gave me an angry bash across the bottom I screamed bloody murder and bit his thumb. I already had a mouth like a piranha's, filled with tiny daggers, and was covered in fur from my groin to my sternum, and all over my head and shoulders.

My mother couldn't stop bleeding. I had torn her up pretty good on my way out. My father held her legs up and stuffed the edge of the quilt in her but it just kept coming. My first kill. My father was so enraged and disgusted with me that after burying my mother by the roadside he drove off without me.

I got all this from my sister, whom I met later in life.

I don't know how I survived. It became part of my legend that I dug up and ate my mother. I don't remember doing that, of course, and don't know how the rumor got started. They've told so many porkies about me. Still, that one may be true.

My earliest memories are scraps and shreds. Days so hot the landscape seemed to waver and melt and me with it. Nights so cold I was afraid pieces of me might break off like icicles. I started out hunting and eating the small things. Scorpions, toads. Gradually worked my way up to snakes, rabbits, ripping their bellies open with my teeth. I remember once eyeing a wallaby and licking my lips, thinking someday, someday.

Occasionally a gang of savages would come boiling over the infinitely flat horizon in a big storm of dust and I'd instinctively hide in the rocks. Other times it would be a caravan of people like my parents, former citizens scurrying across the wilderness toward the coast. I hid from them too. Maybe that was an instinct my father bashed into me in our few brief hours together.

I must have been about three years in the wilderness when I joined a pride of dingoes. I think they adopted me rather than eat me because by that time I was more fierce and dangerous than they were. They raised me as one of their own. I became a good hunter and a better scavenger. We trailed the gangs around the wilderness, fighting over their garbage and leavings. I began to sneak into the gangs' camps at night and steal from them. A hunting knife, a steel boomerang with razor edges, and all sorts of useless personal items they carried around with them I guess out of nostalgia for the way things had been: a postcard of the Sydney Opera House, a cheap locket inscribed from W to S with love, a little puzzle where you slid the pieces around to make a picture of a bald man's face.

The savages started my legend. They called me Dingo Boy. They set all sorts of traps and lures for me but they weren't too bright and I evaded them easily. Then they took to hunting me actively, chasing me and my dingo family across the flatlands on their motorcycles and dune buggies. They decimated my family, but as I mastered the boomerang I picked off several of them in return. Dingo Boy's legend swelled.

Hunting me was sport for them, a diversion. Their real prey was those caravans of citizens hoping to outrun them across the dusty flatlands. The savages roamed the length and breadth of the wilderness seeking them out. Pillaging those caravans was their only survival skill. They depended on the citizens for food, fuel, vehicles, females. The dingoes and I would watch the chase and its inevitable brutal finish from the rocks. Then when the savages had rumbled off we'd descend to fight the vultures for the carrion.

Living with the dingoes I had no sense of time, no language, no culture or conscience. I must have been around six or seven years old when I first began to notice a few rough similarities between me and the savages and citizens. Even though I was more dingo than boy, some kind of instinct now drew me toward the humans, maybe an unconscious nostalgia for my own. I'd stare at that postcard of Sydney with no idea what it was or why it gave me a dull ache. I began to sniff around the human camps more compulsively, both the gangs' sprawling, chaotic bivouacs and the citizens' vehicles drawn up tight in defensive circles. I'd sneak in and stare at them while they slept, still fearful but also fascinated. I singed the fur on my arms many times reaching into the embers of their dying fires. I filched numerous objects from them. A bent spoon, a bullet, a spark plug, a little girl's red plastic handbag with a broken handle, a palm-sized bible with a worn leather cover and curled pages.

One night I leaned over a sleeping woman. Just her head showed from her blankets, with a wild nest of gray and white hair. Her smells mesmerized me. She smelled so different from me, the savages, the dingoes. I almost swooned from it. I was leaning close, sniffing the wax in her ear, when she sat bolt upright with a scream. I ran, a souvenir in my hand.

It was a small mirror. I spent all the next day staring at myself in it. I had never seen myself before, never been aware of my body in that way. I could see now how much I resembled the humans. The gangs more than the citizens. And how I was different from them, too. Not even the wildest of the savages was as hairy as me, and none had my teeth and claws. I stared into my own eyes for the first time, until I went into a kind of self-hypnotic trance. I felt myself floating somewhere between the me holding the mirror and the eyes in the mirror, both me but also neither me.

Late that afternoon a column of greasy black smoke dirtied the flat horizon. The dingoes raced off toward it. I stuffed my souvenirs in the little girl's handbag and ran after them. We reached the site at dusk. A line of six or seven vehicles, smashed, burning, their contents strewn in the dust. The vultures were already at work on the bodies. Men, boys, females too young or old for the savages' use. I found the lady with the wild hair. She lay on her back, much as she had the night before, only her eyes were wide open and staring, and her throat was slashed. I leaned close and sniffed her blood, sweet and metallic. A few dingoes and vultures circled. I snarled and barked them off. She was mine. I bared my teeth and leaned over her neck, but before I could eat I was seized by an inexplicable squeamishness. I had never experienced anything like it. Food was food, and it was always scarce, and you never passed it up. But I couldn't do it. I kept the others at bay until it was dark, then I walked away, leaving her the mirror.

I think not eating her gave me my first taste of humanity — foolish, sentimental, and hungry.

I walked all night, away from the gray-haired lady, and also from the dingoes. I was on my own again.

I began to hunt the savages. I did it the way the dingoes hunted any animals who traveled in packs. I stalked them with their stinks in my face as they roamed the wilderness, and I picked off the strays and stragglers. My first was a biker whom they left behind while he did some repairs. I took him with the boomerang. A few nights later one of them strolled out of the circle of their camp fires to relieve himself in some bushes. He squatted, bringing him down to my height. I crept up on him from behind and slit his throat, just like they'd done to the woman.

I took two, three, five more from the same gang. Dingo Boy's legend grew prodigiously. They spoke about me the way people tell ghost stories. They'd grown used to being the hunters. They hated being the hunted.

I grew bolder. I'd slip right into their camps at night to slit a throat. I'd stand up on the rocks in daylight and jeer at them as they roared by. I was doing that once when a mohawked geezer stopped his hot rod, stood up, and put a long metal tube to his shoulder, aiming at me. I saw the flash and puff of smoke, then a rock near my head splintered, then I heard the bang. It was the first time I ever saw a gun fired. Ammo was precious to them. I didn't quite know what had just happened, but the shattered rock was warning enough. I never made myself such an open target after that.

One day I watch from a rocky escarpment as six bikers peeled off from a gang and made camp just below me as the rest thundered on across the wasteland. I'd never seen that before. I licked my sharp teeth and waited for dark. The six of them ate and drank and cut capers around their fire, as the savages were wont to do. I didn't know what alcohol was but I'd seen them drink themselves into stupors many nights. Eventually these six lay where they fell in a rough circle around the dying fire.

When the last embers winked out I stole down the rock face. The biker nearest me lay on his back with his bare throat an open invitation to my blade. I knelt beside him and watched him snore for a while. Then I reached the blade across him and prepared to slice.

His eyes suddenly flew open. He grabbed my wrist in a huge hand, yelling for his mates. His other hand clamped around my throat and squeezed. I felt my eyes and tongue pop out and my brain swam.

I'd finally fallen for one of their traps. The others surrounded us. One took the knife. Another grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me on my back. He dropped on me with a knee in my chest that pushed all the breath out of me. I clawed his arms good, until he got both my wrists in one hand, balled his other into a fist and punched me hard in the center of my face. I saw bright lights behind my eyes as the bridge of my nose collapsed and blood spurted. He smacked me a few times with his open hand. I snapped at it blindly. He yelled something and his mates laughed. He punched me again, flattening my nose further, and I blacked out.


*
 


When I came to it was hot, dazzling day. I was trussed up and gagged on the ground, my ankles bound and chained to the back of a motorcycle. My captors fired up their engines. They started across the flatlands, dragging me.

There was great rejoicing when Dingo Boy was dragged into the main camp. They hauled me before their leader. Like me, he was a monstrosity. He was enormous, the biggest man I'd ever seen, wearing only a loincloth to show off his hugely muscled physique. Yet he was also obviously sick, deformed. His skin was pallid and shinily hairless. Blue veins pumped just under the scalp of his bald head, and he wore what I would later know to be a hockey mask to hide his face.

He examined me through the mask. "Who broke the nose? Come here," he said, in a strangled voice. I didn't know language at the time. Only later, recalling this moment with precise clarity, would I comprehend the sounds he made.

The savage who'd punched me stepped up to the huge man. The leader grabbed him by the sides of his head and bashed the hockey mask into his nose. The man crumpled to his knees.

The leader turned to others. "The boy pongs woefully. Clean him up."

They hauled me away and gave me the first bath of my life. It took three of them. I thought they were trying to drown me. Then they brought me to the huge man's tent.

Maybe recognizing in me a fellow freak, he took me as his personal pet. I went with him everywhere, chained and gagged. He fed me scraps from his own bountiful meals, just enough to keep me on the brink of starvation and too weak to cause him any more trouble. He had me washed daily, far more often than any of his men. When they rode into battle I was lashed to the front of his hot rod like a hood ornament. At night I slept, still bound and gagged, on the ground by his pallet. Once, when he was hand-feeding me scraps, I snapped at his fingers. He beat me with my chains. Next morning, as two big men held me to the ground, he filed my teeth down to nubs with a steel rasp. I was in agony for days. My only consolation was the sure knowledge that I would kill him someday.

Life with the gang was an unchanging routine as they prowled the wasteland in an aimless, ceaseless search for citizens to attack. Gradually, like a domesticated animal, I realized that the sounds they made had meanings. Go, stay, eat, drink, ratbag, kip, bugger. I learned that my captor was addressed by many names and titles, the most common being Fearless Leader or just Fearless. I learned that I was called Dingo Boy or just Boy, and that Come here, Boy, spoken in a tone of unusual tenderness when Fearless and I were alone in his tent, also meant bugger. My understanding of the savages' limited vocabulary grew, but it was a long time before I realized that I could speak too, and then I didn't let on.

After several months there came a time when instead of our usual wandering hither and yon we trekked a straight path four days' ride across the wilderness, coming to a place the savages called Bum Hill or Bottoms Up. It was a giant rock, naked and smoothly rounded, the top cleft roughly in the middle. In the setting sun it glowed pink. It really did look like giant stone buttocks. Even I was amused.

Three other gangs had already gathered there in a sprawling bivouac. Fearless was joining forces with the other leaders to form a huge war party, maybe three hundred vehicles of all shapes and sizes from dirt bikes and dune buggies to funny car dragsters, souped-up flatbed trucks, old school buses converted into war wagons, all bristling with razor wire, window bars, spikes. Our first night in the camp there was a big feast with much merriment and mayhem and horseplay. Fearless proudly displayed Dingo Boy, trussing me with chains to a pole the savages danced around a giant campfire, sparks singeing my fur. Several recently captured citizens, young and comely males and females, were humiliated and abused. The four leaders withdrew into a large tent for a palaver.

The next day, after rising late, the savages all busied themselves tuning their vehicles, sharpening the blades of their makeshift weapons, and dandying themselves for battle with new tattoos, scars and haircuts. Then, when the sun had set behind the giant pink buttocks, I was lashed to the pole again, and paraded around the camp. The savages cheered and mocked Dingo Boy as my pole was set upright in the dirt in front of a large barbecue pit. A chopped and turbocharged pickup carried the four leaders to a spot beside me. They made speeches and the savages cheered. The young captives from the previous night were dragged out. I watched them butchered and roasted. Their flesh was diced and piled on hubcap platters passed through the crowd, so every savage got a taste. Fearless speared a cube and shoved it into my mouth. I spat it at him. He laughed. The savages danced war dances around another enormous bonfire, like the older ones had seen red Indians do in movies before the event they variously called the Flop, the Big Prang and Independence Day. In his tent that night Fearless was in a state of high excitation. He took me twice, with my gag in and my wrists bound. I resolved again to kill him, soon.

The next morning I was lashed to the front of his hot rod. All the savages, in full battle motley, fired up their three hundred engines, shattering my eardrums with their din, and we thundered off across the wasteland. A little past noon the four leaders gave a signal and the vehicles flung themselves out in a single line. We roared up a low, dusty ridge line and stopped at the crest. In the wide, sandy wash-out below I saw the largest convoy I'd ever seen. It must have been a hundred vehicles long, all in a neat line of cars, buses, campers, trucks.

A small man called Wank, one of Fearless' dogsbodies, was riding shotgun with him. He leaned over the hot rod's rumbling engine, grabbed a fistful of my matted head pelt, and hissed in my ear, "Lookum all that meat, Boy. Fat and juicy, just like yer old mum." I decided that I'd kill him after Fearless.

The attack was simple. There was no battle plan. At a signal from the leaders the savages just roared down the hill toward the caravan's flank. When we hit the flats at the bottom of the gulley and were roaring toward the exposed and innocent-looking vehicles the savages got a big surprise. From the windows and sides of every vehicle weapons suddenly appeared and started firing. I saw flashes and puffs of smoke. I delighted in the startled looks on the savages' stupid faces as the bullets zipped into their flesh and through their makeshift armor. They flew backwards and their bikes skittered in the dust and their hot rods caromed into one another. One round sizzled past my head and I heard Wank squeal. Rapid, orderly volleys of fire poured out of the caravan. The attack disintegrated into chaos, the savages smashing their vehicles into one another as they tried to veer off and escape the buzzsaw of bullets. Fearless braked hard, almost pitching me headlong out of my chains. All around us the savages were trying to turn around and run back up the hill, but the bullets flew everywhere, knocking them off their bikes, cutting them down behind the wheels of their cars and trucks. Screams and shouts mixed with the crackle of the guns and the desperate whine of straining engines and the din of machines smashing together. Bullets sang all around me, punching the front of the hot rod. The motor choked and a front tire popped.

My only worry was that I might be killed before I had the chance to kill Fearless. He struggled his bulk out of the hot rod and lumbered uphill. With all his gleaming muscles he was a big and slow target. I watched a bullet smash into the back of a knee. He crashed to the ground, burying his hockey mask in the dust.

The carnage lasted only a few minutes. A silence fell over the scene of destructions. A fog bank of gray gunsmoke drifted away from the caravan, while columns of black petroleum smoke rose from the savages' wrecks. All around me they sprawled dead or dying. I had not felt such soaring joy in all my young life.

Citizens emerged from their vehicles, bearing their weapons. Several were in military uniforms, which would explain the disciplined firepower if I knew then what a uniform was. Others were in the tossed-together hippie mufti most citizens I'd seen wore. These cheered at the site of all the downed savages, while the soldiers threaded among the bodies. Some they dispatched with a shot to the head or a knife at the throat. I thought they'd do the same to me when they reached me. I struggled against my chains and gag. I heard Fearless moaning in the dirt just up the hill from me and was furious that these strangers would end his life before I got the chance.

The soldiers' eyes widened when they got near me. They spoke soothingly to me as they warily loosened my restraints. I jumped down off my perch and snarled at them. They took a few steps back and lowered their weapons at me. I turned to see two more of them standing over Fearless. One aimed a weapon at his pale neck.

I shouted my first word. "No!"

I ran up the hill and threw myself on Fearless' back. His pallid flesh was warm and sticky under the sun. I bit and clawed at it. A hand lifted me by the fur at the back of my  neck. Fearless rolled himself over.

"Wot the bluddy fack are you, mate?" one of the soldiers scowled down at his mask.

"Mine!" I shouted, swinging and kicking in the air.

The soldier turned. "The bluddy fack are you too, sonny?"

They hauled us down to the caravan. The citizens gawked and buzzed. "They caught one of their ringleaders," a man said, "and a feral kid." From that day forward I stopped being Dingo Boy and have been called the Feral Kid or just Kid.

After plundering the savages' wrecks for what they could use, the caravan moved on, leaving the corpses for the dingoes and vultures who were already circling the site, drawn by the columns of smoke.

I gradually realized how different these people were from Fearless' gang. They treated me with wary kindness and even bandaged Fearless' leg. They fed us. Although they stared at us, it was with curiosity, not the malice and mockery the gang had shown me. Their women and children were not captives, but lived freely with the men. The leader of both soldiers and citizens was a quiet, humorless man named Captain Walker. He didn't bellow and beat them the way Fearless had his gang. He just made decisions and gave instructions. They didn't kowtow and toady, the way the gang had. They just all seemed to have faith that he could get them through the Outback, and followed his lead. Once in a while a few of them would even disagree and argue with him, which amazed me. Fearless would have killed and eaten them. Captain Walker listened quietly, and sometimes even let them change his mind. For a while I took this as weakness in him.

They had a doctor among them, a woman named Alice with hair like the dead woman whose mirror I stole. She carried a worn leather doctor's bag with a few instruments rattling around in it. When she first examined me, held tight by two strong soldiers, I thought she was the caravan's cook, determining how best to prepare me. She cut some of the knots out of my tangled pelt, and combed me with a steel comb.

Fearless was kept chained up in an old horse trailer, which also carried two pigs, half a dozen scraggly hens and a rooster. Otherwise he was not mistreated. Without his gang he was a changed man, just a freak, a monstrosity, lower even than I. Captain Walker sometimes had him brought up to the front of the column to consult him on an upcoming stretch of wilderness and the gangs we might encounter there. But usually he was left alone in the trailer with the other animals who, like him, might once have been wild, but were now domesticated and harmless.

Alice took me under her wing. Once I realized she wasn't going to cook me, the soldiers weren't needed. She'd heard that I'd spoken a few words and asked me a lot of questions about myself, which I did not answer. So she told me about herself and the others in the caravan instead.

I didn't understand much of it then. She told me that most of them had lived in and around a place called Canberra at the time of the event the savages called Independence Day, and she called the Fall. This, I very dimly understood, was the collapse of the old civilization, brought about not by war or other cataclysm, but by a cascade of systemic failures, a kind of exhaustion. Civilization, she gave me to understand, had become fantastically complex and precariously artificial. It had just barely maintained itself for a long time, and then it simply fell apart and collapsed in on itself. Hence the Fall. Order quickly gave way to chaos, comfort to want, safety to peril. Canberra, she said, and places like it called Sydney and Perth and Melbourne and other names, had been spots where vast numbers of citizens lived and worked together in relative peace and harmony. But as both the systems that maintained civilization and the people's faith in them fell apart, these places became more horrible and dangerous than even the wilderness.

She and the others in the caravan had fled to a place outside Canberra she called a military base, where they met Captain Walker and the soldiers. This base had once housed many more Captain Walkers and soldiers, but they'd all left. Violence, starvation and disease spread. It was probably something to do with these diseases, she said, that made freaks of me and Fearless. They heard that the situation was similar in many other places. They were safe inside the military base, so they hunkered down, hoping to wait it out.

Then they began to hear rumors of a refuge all the way across the continent, a place by the sea on the western shore called Paradise Beach. It had been, she said, a holiday resort, and now it was a sanctuary, a haven remote from the chaos and the plagues that ravaged the area where they were, with an abundance of food from the sea.

She handed me an old, creased postcard. Two comely young women wearing not much stood on a glistening white beach, with a gleaming blue sea and a cloudless sky, a slightly lighter shade of blue, behind them. They waved at me and showed teeth as white and shiny as the sand.

"Doesn't that look nice?" Alice asked.

It was my first sight of beach and ocean, and the only comely young women wearing not much I'd ever seen were being violated by savages and not smiling. The postcard gave me a confused ache. When she reached to take it I snatched it behind my back and snarled.

"All right, love," she said. "You can keep it for a while. But if any of the other children ask to see it you must show it."

She resumed her story. Getting to Paradise from Canberra, she said, would mean a trek of some 4,000 kilometers, much of it across a forbidding wasteland prowled by the savage gangs. But as the conditions where they were worsened and worsened, the citizens decided they must make a try for it. They asked Captain Walker to lead them. They outfitted and armed their caravan as well as they could and set out.

That was several months before they met up with me. The caravan was now only about half the size of the original group that left Canberra. Disease, accidents, exhaustion and attacks by gangs had whittled their number. But, she said, those who had survived this far were stronger and wiser for it. And we were now less than 1000 km from Paradise. Probably, she said, it was where my family was heading when we were separated. Wouldn't they be glad to see me again?

I didn't know what she meant. I wouldn't know my family if I ate them. Maybe they would recognize me. But if they did, would they welcome the freak?

Thinking about this, watching how the families in the caravan treated their children, raised in me stormy emotions I didn't like or comprehend, so I stopped thinking about it. I focused my thoughts on one topic only.

By the third week they weren't bothering to guard Fearless' trailer. He was so obviously defeated, a pathetic monster. The kids giggled and called him Humungus. I looked in on him often, when no one else was around the trailer. We stared at each other through his mask. He sat on the trailer floor, his wrists and neck collar chained to the wall, the other animals rooting and pecking around his pale, hairless legs. He didn't look so big to me now. Without his gang to pump him up, he looked physically smaller, sick and ridiculous.

I was riding with Alice by then, usually up on the roof of her ancient little station wagon, which was called a Subaru, a word I found endlessly soothing and pleasant. When the caravan made camp in the evening, they drew the vehicles into two circles, one inside the other, making an excellent double-walled fortress, with guards posted all around the perimeter. Alice slept in the back of the Subaru. I usually slept up on the roof, where I could hear and feel the night. If it got cold, I would slip down into the Subaru and lie beside Alice and watch the nightmares storms across her face, her eyes wild behind the lids. Watching her nightmares told me more about what the Fall must have been like than any of her words. Sometimes she would wake, and find me leaning over her. Her eyes would fill with an infinitely deep sadness, and she would throw her arm around me and pull me down to her shoulder.

One night when the nightmares had passed and her face went smooth with unruffled sleep I slipped out the back of the Subaru and crept around the inner circle of vehicles. The moon, almost full, was in the west, bathing the compound in watery blue light. I quietly opened the gate of Fearless' trailer. The animals stirred, recognized my familiar scent, and went back to sleep. That was why I'd visited his trailer so often. I stepped inside. He was in his chains, his back to the wall. His hockey mask regarded me with its empty eyes and holes for a nose and mouth. That was what I saw in my nightmares, that impassive mask hovering all those times he petted me, fed me, beat me, ruined my teeth, forced himself into me.

I crouched close and stared into those empty eyeholes. I knew he was in there, awake, staring back at me. He knew why I'd come. He wasn't going to fight. In fact, I suddenly realized he wanted it. An end to his defeat and humiliation.

I showed him the scalpel I'd filched from Alice's bag. Held it up to his eyeholes so he could see the sharp little blade glisten in the wan moonlight slanting through a slit in the wall. He raised his chin slightly, offering me his pale neck. His carotid pulsed like a thick blue worm under the skin. I lay the blade against it. The worm flinched. I heard his breath quicken inside the mask. A trickle of sweat appeared at the crest of his naked skull and ran down toward the strap clamping the mask tight to his face.

I snarled into his eye holes, showing him the ruined stumps of my teeth. Then I moved the scalpel up beside his ear and slit the mask's strap. I slid my claws under the mask and lifted it off his face. He lurched and rattled his chains. The pigs stirred and snorted.

His face glistened pale and pink in the moonlight. Some disease unleashed by the Fall had eaten away his lips, leaving his mouth a ragged hole full of rotten teeth. His nose had collapsed flatter than my broken one. He had no eyebrows or eyelashes. One eye drooped, milky and blind. The other bulged almost out of its socket, like a boiled egg with a bright blue iris painted on it.

It was a pathetic and revolting wreck of a face, but it wasn't frightening and I didn't hate it. I had hated the mask, not this pitiful mess of flesh.

I grinned into it. Then I left, taking the mask. He moaned behind me.


I slept beside Alice, with my head on the mask under some rags.

*
 

We reached Paradise six weeks later, after several more adventures along the way. It looked much as it did in the postcard, only crowded with refugee citizens who'd managed to reach it from all across the continent. The little beach resort had swelled into a sprawling, makeshift settlement.

The members of the caravan split up, filtering into the Paradise community, some finding old friends or relatives to stay with, others shifting for themselves, parking their vehicles near the beach and setting up new homes. Captain Walker and his men joined the armed volunteers who patrolled the outskirts of Paradise at all times, guarding it against savages. They also turned back any new refugees showing signs of the infectious diseases the Fall had unleashed. Alice helped with the examinations. It was a sad duty, she said, but necessary.

There was a small amusement boardwalk at the beach, where the kids of Paradise played skee-ball and ate flavored ices and watched cartoons in a little theater with a battery-operated projector. There was also a Dunk the Clown booth. Before dispersing, the members of the caravan had a big palaver, and decided that was where Fearless, or Humungus as most people now called him, could be of most benefit to the community. Sometimes I'd stroll down the boardwalk and watch kids toss balls at the bull's eye above the trap door where Humungus sat, pink and pale in his loincloth, his horrible face slack and emotionless. Whenever a kid hit the target Humungus dropped into a vat of sea water and made a huge splash.

I'd continue up the boardwalk to my own place of employment, a small enterprise called the House of Laffs. It is an old-fashioned sideshow, featuring a handful of anomalies and monstrosities produced by the Fall, and The Feral Kid is one of its prize freaks. I stand behind a rope line and snarl and gibber and shake my fur and show my claws and the kids shriek and laugh. Of course, I'm not really a Kid anymore, and my employer periodically contemplates changing my name to The Feral Man. I always talk him out of it.

One day a young woman stood just outside the rope line with two children, a boy and girl, who looked almost as wild as me. As she watched me go through my short routine I saw her face freeze with startlement and then tears ran down it. She approached me after my show. She was, of course, my sister. Although she had only seen me for a few hours after my birth, and I had never really seen her before, we knew each other. She told me that on that day years earlier when my father left me by the road in the wilderness, the savages caught up with the VW not much farther on. They killed my father and brother and took my sister as a camp slave. She was with them for seven years, during which she gave birth to five little savages before managing to escape, bringing along the two youngest.

At her insistence, I moved in with them. She told me my real name, the one my father gave me in our brief time together. But her kids grew up calling me Uncle Feral, and I like it.

Humungus died a few years ago. He'd been sick for some time and had retired from the dunking booth. I got his mask from under my pillow, where I'd slept on it every night. I have only two other mementos from that time — the postcards of Sydney and Paradise Beach, taped to the mirror where my reflection still mesmerizes me from time to time. I took the mask out to the back yard and burned it in the trash barrel.

Some nights after the House of Laffs closes I walk down to the water's edge and watch the surf glisten in the moonlight. Paradise has grown into a real city, with all the benefits and detractions of civilization. The young people have no memory of the Fall or the civilization that came before it, and you can tell they've grown weary of hearing the old stories about it all. It's been years since the last gang of savages tested the city's defenses. We worry more about our own homegrown criminals now, one of the inevitable effects of city life. Most people believe there are no savages out there at all anymore, or if there are they've withdrawn deep into the wasteland, where they're a menace only to themselves and the dingoes.

Sometimes I get an ache, and find myself wanting to go back. A breeze will rustle my pelt and stir my blood and I think that somewhere inside I'm still feral in more than name only. I lick the ruined stubs of my teeth and remember the taste of human flesh.

 

 

 

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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh

 

 


 

 

 

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh