My friend the dog and I face The Wolves. We are halfway up the side of the hole, but even as they stand at the bottom, it feels like they are all around us. As they turn away from their black leader and fix their rabid eyes on the two Strays, Hungry is the only thing you can hear. Alpha barks:
-What are you doing here?
-We came to hang with you.
-We want to hang with you.
-You see what we do with dogs that aren’t fit to hang. What makes you different?
Silence barks into laughter.
-You’re bold and stupid. That’s a good combination.
Maybe we’ve got a chance here. I don’t have to look at my friend to know he isn’t leading us anywhere, so I do my best to seem confident and he follows me down the hole. We’re a Tire’s length away from Alpha.
-You caught us at a good time, Stray. We’re short a member.
-We’re at your service.
-We’ll see. Now what to do…
Alpha thinks, and The Wolves listen. His teeth look stronger than bone, and they open to bark at the closest dog:
-Get the cat.
The dog looks confused, but I don’t think anybody is about to question Alpha. The dog leaves.
-So you think you know Hungry?
-It’s all we know.
-You know nothing.
-You know nothing, and we can’t know you until you meet.
I’m not sure what he means, but The Wolves all seem to understand. They come together in silent agreement to form a new circle. This time, around my friend and I.
-What are you doing with us?
-That depends on what you do. If it turns out you’re Wolves, you’ll never know Hungry again. If it turns out you’re not, you’ve seen what happens.
-You bet. Your friend, does he bark too?
-Yes, he can bark.
I look at my friend, who looks like he doesn’t know what to do. I nod, and my friend the dog barks. The Wolves laugh. His bark is weak and small.
-Your friend knows Hungry better than you do.
We are startled by a loud clatter and then a garbage bin tumbles down the side of the hole. As it crashes down into the center, The Wolves move out of the way and reform as it settles in front of us. The dog from before reappears then slides down the hole to meet the garbage can in the middle. Using his mouth, he pulls off the top. Everybody is still.
Inside the can, there’s movement. The can rolls from side to side, and then slowly, a cat emerges. It’s the scrawniest thing I’ve ever seen. I wonder how long The Wolves have kept it for. It’s bald and bony legs drag it forward, looking like at any second it might drop dead, and then suddenly, it bolts. But The Wolves are quick, and ready, and it doesn’t make it far before The Wolves have closed the way forward. It stops as quickly as it started, its meatless, puny body light with Hungry, and then turns around and bolts again. When it flees between the limits of the circle, hissing and spitting, The Wolves growl as it comes close, and the thing growls back a sharp, scratchy sound.
Alpha steps towards us, and the cat shrinks away. They look like they know each other.
-This is Hungry.
Alpha returns to his friends and the cat tries to run. It makes it to the side of the circle, where it’s greeted by the snapping mouths of angry Wolves, and then it shrinks back towards us. The ugly, hairless thing looks worse than we do, and no more interested in facing us than we are in facing it. Truth be told, dogs don’t much care for cats. They’re filthy nasty, and worst of all, tricksy. Especially the ones from the streets. I’ve had my share of scraps with them, and it’s better not to bother. But when The Wolves come together, Alpha amongst them, the circle becomes even smaller, and it is clear that the only way out is forwards and somebody is getting killed today. I look at my friend.
-Time to be Wolves.
-How do you want to do this?
-It’s just a scrawny little cat, right?
-There are two of us, and one of it. Let’s do it quick. On the count of three, we go.
-One, two, six, four-
-Big three or little three?
-Four, four and a half, five and three quarters, THREE!
We turn and dash at the cat. It lowers itself to the ground, then we get close, it leaps between us and disappears. All we feel are claws. They tear at our faces, our backs, and throats. I bite and I scratch but it’s so fast that by the time I realize I’m chewing my friend the ruffin’ thing is on the other side of the circle. The Wolves roar in amusement. I feel the pain before I see the blood. It comes from all over and drips from our bodies to the ground. And then the cat stops being a cat. It is a limp, living body, standing in our way. My friend barks:
-That didn’t work.
-You cross behind it while I distract it, and when I bark, we both jump.
-And then we get nasty.
My friend the dog turns away and slinks along the outskirts of the circle, staying far enough away from The Wolves to say he doesn’t trust their snapping mouths. I face the cat and growl. It hisses back, showing those nasty teeth. Woof. What an ugly little thing. While I wait for my friend, The Wolves bark:
-WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
When you’re watching the circle, you see The Wolves and you hear their noise. And you know whatever’s in the middle feels surrounded. But it’s different when you’re inside. Feeling them around you, you understand. The circle is strong and fragile. At any moment, it can collapse, and consume whatever happens to be inside.
Right now, that’s us. And the cat. When The Wolves bark, we feel their drooling mouths tear through stillness until all that is heard is their roar. And as they stand side by side, their roar becomes like one big, nasty dog, angry, Hungry. If one of them were to collapse upon us, they would all go, and there would be nothing but the mouths and the Hungry. They must be satisfied.
When my friend is in place, I bark and we jump. Again, the cat lowers itself to the ground, waiting for us. Then at the last moment, it leaps out of the way, dragging its claws across our bellies and disappearing. And when my friend and I crash and tumble in the dirt, The Wolves howl with laughter. I see we aren’t here to kill this cat. We are here to entertain.
As we get up and shake ourselves off, the cat makes its back like a bridge and hisses, then continues pacing between the limits of the circle. My friend turns to me.
-That didn’t work either.
-This time, you distract it, and I will sneak from behind and catch it.
-Then we become Wolves.
My friend growls at the cat, and I sneak around the sides of the circle. When I get close to The Wolves, they bark:
-NEVER KILLED BEFORE?
My legs shake as their spit lands on my face. I am here to kill this ugly thing. When you’re inside the circle, you become whatever they want you to be.
My friend is face to face with the cat. It swipes at him, and he backs away. I ready myself, waiting for the right moment…
When my friend lunges at the cat and it jumps back, I spring through the air. At the last moment, it turns around, but it’s too late. I crash into its bony hide and we tumble over, legs and tails everywhere. But I come out on top, and hold it to the ground.
-TEAR IT OPEN!
-BLEED IT DEAD!
-RIP IT APART!
It scratches and scratches at my face, the panic of life in its eyes. As the pathetic thing struggles beneath me, I notice its ribs, those little bones, lying delicately under the ruined fur. I put my paw on its chest to hold it down, and feel something beating inside.
My friend the dog is standing above me, Hungry in his eyes.
-Kill it, now.
The cat still clawing at my face, I turn to my friend, and he has the rabid look of The Wolves. The cat kicks at my stomach and scratches at my face, writhing about and thrashing its head from side to side. It hisses and spits. I wish I barked cat.
-SPILL ITS BLOOD!
-KILL THE RUFFING THING!
Hungry. As its fragile bones snap between my jaws, my mouth fills with blood and the air with this horrible sound that comes pouring out of its mouth. The screech grows louder as I bite through its throat, digging my teeth deeper inside. The little body tears and tears at my chest then the clawing grows weaker and then becomes scratching until finally it stops coming. I lift the writhing thing up in the air, shaking it back and forth as I squeeze the life out. As its life spills from its body and scatters to the ground, The Wolves howl in delight.
I drop the still-breathing thing with a wet splat. As Alpha comes forward, its tail twitches, spinning in a pool of its own blood, while those sad little claws bat helplessly in the air. In one bite he rips the stomach open. Still clinging to life, the twitching becomes convulsing, and then dies.
Alpha tears back the ribs with his terrible jaw and a loud CRACK. Inside are the parts of the cat and this little beating ball. He sticks his mouth inside and tears it out. Alpha raises the little beating ball in the air, above the spilling body, and the ball bursts as his terrible jaws close down. The Wolves howl once more in delight.
-My friends, time to eat.
The circle collapses as The Wolves crash forward, bumping my friend and I aside. The bald, torn body of the cat is eaten bite by bite as my friend and I watch. I’ve never eaten cat before, but meat or not, my stomach knows it would be tasty. When the body is gone, bones and all, their greedy tongues lick the blood from the ground. My friend turns and barks:
-That was our cat.
-What do you mean?
-We killed it, we eat it.
-It should be ours.
-Not bad, Stray.
Alpha comes forward, stepping in front of The Wolves, the cat’s life still dripping from their mouths.
-I didn’t think you would do it. Not until you shook its body in the air like that. You’re nastier than I thought.
Alpha is barking to me, not my friend.
-I’m feeling charitable. You caught me at a good time, us being short a member and all.
-So what now?
-Don’t think you’re in. We gotta get to know you a little better before we decide whether or not you’re fit to hang. All I’m saying right now is we’re not going to kill you. Not today, at least.
-Tomorrow, when it first starts getting dark, come back and meet us here.
-And my friend, too?
-Yeah, sure. If he’s feeling up for it.
My friend, trembling at my side, has a faraway look in his eyes. Even as we bark about him, he is silent.
-Now get out of here before I change my mind.
-Thanks again, Alpha.
As we climb from the center up the sides of the hole, The Wolves go back to lying around, barking, and wrestling. Refreshed by our latest kill, we can still hear them from the street. My friend turns to me:
-That was our cat.
-Bud, it’s theirs.
-It should have been ours.
-Leave it alone.
-We killed it, we eat it. That’s the way.
-But they caught it. We wouldn’t have killed it if they hadn’t let us.
-Let us? I didn’t see any of them barking to kill it.
-Just be happy they weren’t barking to kill us.
-And then you thanked Alpha??
-This is pack life. This is how it is.
-Where’s your pride?
-If we want to be Wolves, we gotta learn to walk the walk and bark the bark.
-But I want to EAT!
-Soon, bud, soon. Once we’re Wolves, life will be easy.
-I want to eat, NOW!
-Please, no more Chinese…
In his eyes, a light appears as he thinks the thought.
-Well, why not?
-Look at you.
-If you get sick again, I won’t be able to help you.
-You know I’m right.
-I know HUNGRY.
-Soon, bud, I promise.
-I WANT TO EAT NOW!!
I let it drop. There’s no sense in trying to reason with a dog. We head back the way we came from. As we walk, he leads, his tail hanging between his legs. From behind, I watch the fading fur cling to his bones, his ribs sticking out from his sides.
-You look as bad as the cat.
-That was our cat.
The next few blocks pass in silence. Slowly, then suddenly, the Shoes begin to fill the streets as we get closer to the heart of the city. We come to a busy street. When I stop to let the Tires go by, my friend goes right in. Even as they bark and swerve towards him, he doesn’t seem to notice or care. I’ve never seen him move so confidently. He’s at the other side before I have a chance to go after him, and I have to run because he doesn’t even stop to look back.
By the time I catch up, the Shoes are everywhere. He walks straight ahead, even as they get in his way and try to kick at him, and before long the floppy ears, the bony body, and the sinking tail disappear in the crowd again. Luckily, though, I know where we are. Past the mailbox, there’s the fire hydrant, and then, I break through the crowd and see him sitting in front of the Italian place, staring into the open doors.
-Woof! Lost you for a minute.
-You alright there, bud?
-You smell those smells?
-They could be our smells.
-What are you barking about?
-I’ve never smelt nothing so good in my life.
-Bud, don’t go mad on me.
– I can taste it…
-So warm, it fills you right up…
-I can…taste it…
The Hungry in his eyes is gone. His eyes don’t even look like they’re there at all. He’s someplace else.
-Can you…taste it?
And just like that, he bolts through the open doors and into the Italian place. From inside comes a crash, then a scream, and then I follow in after him.
I’ve never been inside before. Of course, I’d always wondered what it was like- who hasn’t?- but to go inside? I knew better. Inside is where the Shoes live. It’s not a place for Strays. I don’t have much of an imagination, and even if I did, I couldn’t tell you what I might have imagined. But as I stand in the entrance, this certainly wasn’t it.
First, there’s the ground. It’s soft, just like outside, before the Shoes put that hard stuff down, only it’s different. Like, it’s soft, but you couldn’t dig here. Then on the ground, there are all these weirdly shaped things, things that look like they’re made of trees, and on the things, there are piles and piles of food. And around the things, the Shoes are sitting, on these other things made of smaller trees. The room is full of them, the Shoes and their things. And at the opposite side of the room, my friend the mad dog has knocked one of them over and spilt all the food.
The Shoes scream and run. Some of them scatter from him, others stand on their things to avoid the foaming fury of his mouth, and still others chase after him, stumbling over the mess. I can’t see him, but I know where he is because more and more things keep getting knocked over. He reappears here, and disappears there, now with this food, and now with that, taking from the Shoes all the wonderful smells and leaving a mess everywhere. And all the while, I stand in the door.
He grabs a blanket hanging over one of the things and when he pulls, there’s this CRASH as the food spills on the floor. He buries his face in the steaming pile of Italian goodness, deaf to my barks.
I make a dash for him, but a stampede of Shoes makes for the door and I get lost in their way. They scream and bark and they kick, and I can’t get by, darting from one side to the other, I can’t get by.
I just want to save my friend. But still, trapped by the entrance, I can’t help but think how good the place smells, even as the Shoes run like crazy everywhere. And as the mad dog finishes one pile of food and dives into another, devouring everything, I can’t help but think about my Hungry. Not even as a big, nasty looking Shoe comes out from a door in the back with this weird piece of metal in his hand, or as he walks over to my friend who is still eating and eating, or even when he takes the metal and beats it over my friend’s head. All I can think is HUNGRY. My friend falls under the blow, but he just gets back up and keeps eating, food, foam, everywhere. And the Shoe beats him over the head, again and again, until my friend’s head stops eating and then splits open and this gray stuff inside spills all over the blanket and the things and the food.
His limp, sad body is just lying there when the Shoe turns and starts walking towards me. And finally I make it through, dashing past the stampede of Shoes, not heading for the door, but straight into the mess for the nearest pile of food. The Shoe starts running, but before he can get to me, I grab a loaf of bread that my friend the dead dog knocked to the floor and then I run out of the Italian place and away from the Shoes. And I run and I run past the hydrant and the mailbox all the way to the park and then under the shade of a great big tree, I eat.