Oof, this was hard. I wasn’t sure where I wanted this to go, and exposition has always been a challenge for me. Looking back, I realize I’ve been shifting between tenses, so if this becomes a full-blown short story, I’ll need to do some hefty editing. Also, I clearly read too much Stephen King (if there is such a thing as that).
He squatted. The tide swelled apathetically around his feet, and oily water seeped into his worn, too-large shoes. He should have removed his shoes before stepping into the water; keeping his feet dry was important. Walking on soft, wrinkled, water-logged feet for long periods of time could cause blisters and ultimately open sores. And once his feet became damaged, he would no longer be able to keep moving. But as he dipped his hand in and out of the contaminated water, he felt he had more pressing matters at the moment.
He held up his hand. His raw, pink palm stood in sharp relief against the iron-gray sky. He watched as thin rivers of red trickled down his forearm and collected at the rolled-up sleeve of his flannel shirt. He unfastened the shirt buttons awkwardly with one hand, gingerly slipped out of the sleeves, then dropped the shirt to the ground. He planted a wet shoe on the placket, and with his good hand, pulled hard on the sleeve near the shoulder seam. The threads were popped and frayed, and the sleeve easily came loose.
The puncture wounds began to seep a deep, syrupy red, and he pressed his wrist to his breastbone. His undershirt, already shiny with grime, didn’t register the new addition. He lifted his wrist, placed the severed sleeve against his chest and held it in place with his injured arm. With his right hand, he wrapped the flannel around his wrist then tied it in a knot, tightening it with his teeth. The fabric left a gritty residue in his mouth, and he spat a few times to clear it.
It was an impotent effort toward dressing the wound. He shuffled toward the shipping container, the one he’d slept in the night before, and sat down heavily. Most of the container was submerged in coarse, damp sand, too thick to clear away with bare hands. The sheet of plastic he’d used to protect his sleeping body from the wet had since collected water—condensation from the air, maybe—and he could feel his pants become cold and sodden.
He pulled his knees in close, digging his toes into the sand, and listened. There was no sign of the dog or any other living form. There was the shoosh of water on the shoreline. There was the dull, hollow thud of old plastic containers knocking between rocks, trying to free themselves. There was the crunch of pebbles under his soles as he shifted his feet. There was nothing else.
He marveled at how different his situation was now than just fifteen minutes earlier. Before the dog, he’d been whole, and about to have the first meal he’d had in days. His feet and clothes had been mostly dry, and there was no immediate death sentence waiting for him. Had he known, he would have conceded the can to the dog. “One hand for one can,” he said aloud. Finally, he pushed his body upright. It was time to walk. There was nothing else he could do.
He stayed close to the water, examining the tide pools. There used to be crabs, starfish, sea anemones. Any of those would be a welcome feast. But those had either long been picked off by the last remaining birds or people, or had died off themselves. Every so often he’d see a bloated fish—a rockfish or a halibut—floating in one of the pools. He’d been hungry enough to bite into their rancid, flabby carcasses, bones and all, but he restrained himself. The fish had absorbed the worst of it. Judging by the seabirds who had taken the chance on a sushi dinner, succumbing to hunger would be a decidedly superior fate than the death they’d faced. He’d seen them strewn across the shore. Their swollen, black tongues lolled out of gaping, lifeless beaks; their eyes oozing and crusted; their bodies a crumple of feathers and flesh. Of course, he hadn’t seen any birds—dead or alive—for a long time.
He walked carefully among the rocks. Although they were the best chance he had at finding something to eat, they were also dangerous. An ankle could be easily broken by one wrong step, and should that happen his death sentence would be moved up.
“How’s Thursday for you?” he said aloud. He’d started doing that lately, speaking out loud without even knowing he was doing so. He needed to break that habit. He didn’t need to alert others he was around, or let any wild animals hear him. He was a meal, too. With this thought, he wondered why the dog hadn’t taken him. It could have. Why didn’t it just kill him and pull the flesh from his bones? Maybe there was just enough domestication left in it to honor that once concession.
“Or maybe it just wasn’t quite hungry enough,” he thought.