Okay, here’s what happened. My husband creates these writing prompts and puts them on the calendar for me (he’s awesome). I don’t see them beforehand. Last night, I dreamed of my dog, Bliss, who died eight years ago this month. Then I got up and saw my writing prompt—and immediately burst into tears.
I knew I couldn’t write about Bliss, or my current dog, Ferris, or really, any other dog I’ve known. This one needed to be different. I turned on the TV as I was getting ready for work, and The Twilight Zone was on, one of those post-apocalyptic episodes. I guess that was in my head as I drove to work, and I came up with this (yes, on my lunch break).
He’d slept in the shipping container, the one that faced the bay. There were others around it, but most of those were open to the shore. He figured that facing the water was safer; who or what was going to approach him from the water? He could also avoid announcing his presence to the world—any movement, any light could be deadly. On the other hand, of course, he couldn’t see anything that might sneak up from behind. He took his chances.
He didn’t know what the containers had originally held. Whatever goods had been there had long since been washed away, even by this unimpressive tide. He assumed it was probably something that wasn’t of much use these days: cigarettes, toys, patio furniture. But thinking that maybe there had been shoes, blankets, or canned goods, he searched every container thoroughly. There was nothing.
He’d seen food in a can only a few times in the past year. It always startled him when he found one. It was a relic, something he could not believe existed in plenty at one time. He could remember plucking them off the shelves in multitudes: refried beans, tomato sauce, okra. When he thought back, that seemed as strange as going into a museum and taking paintings off walls and gold chalices from display cases and tossing them into shopping carts.
The first can he’d seen since the stores and houses had been emptied contained green beans. There was no brand; just an illustration of the perfect green bean on the front. “Plato’s ultimate green bean,” he’d thought. Of course, he had no can opener, and managed to puncture the metal by smashing the can repeatedly on a rock. He considered sticking his fingers in the jagged hole to pry out the beans, but fearing a cut and inevitable infection, he resisted. He poured the bitter, grassy water into his mouth, being careful not to touch his lips to the fractured tin, then found a long, flat stone to use as a miniature crowbar. He spent the next hour meticulously prying the hole open, pressing the rock into the hole then pushing it downward. It was slow work, but he had time.
He’d almost made an opening big enough to remove a bean when he saw the dog for the first time. It was long-legged and ropy, with large paws and ears like sails raised to the sky. Dogs were almost as rare as canned goods, perhaps even more so. It was medium-sized, thin but with tense muscles visibly contracting beneath its meager hide. Its matted fur was crosshatched with scratches and scars, and he was surprised to see its ears were completely unblemished.
Most of the remaining dogs looked like this. The pets—the lap dogs, the overbred toys carried in purses—were the first to go. The larger working dogs lasted a little while longer because they trusted people. That turned out to be a mistake. Then there were the strays; the ones who had learned to live on their own. But if they had any leftover whispers of domestication, they could be coaxed with even the smallest tidbit of food. They went next.
He’d met a woman who kept a dog. She was going east while he was heading west, trudging uphill through dust and brush. He’d seen the dog first. Startled, he stopped in his tracks. The dog did the same. He then took a step forward, and the dog retreated, scrambling and barking. He chased it, and as he summited the hill, he saw the dog at the feet of a young woman. She had her left hand looped in a small bit of rope tied at the dog’s neck. Her right hand was on her hip; her fingers brushing the handle of a pistol tucked into the waistband of her filthy jeans. She said nothing.
He pointed at the shepherd mix. “Is that your dog?”
“Yes,” she said, but offered nothing else.
“You’re keeping a dog?” he asked again.
“I am,” she said. No one moved.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of foolish?” he asked, nodding at the dog. “You have to feed it, don’t you? And,” he said, visibly sizing the dog with his eyes, “It’s a waste of meat. There’s not much of that around anymore.”
“She helps me hunt,” she said. “She’s loud. She lets me know when there are others around. And she protects me from…” she paused, giving him a once-over similar to the one he had given her dog, “…people.”
He took a step toward her. She loosened her grip on the dog’s makeshift collar but tightened her fingers around the gun. The dog, feeling the shift, moved forward, straining against the rope and pushing her ears back on her head.
He stopped his advance. “Well then,” he said. “That’s a good dog.”