When I go to sleep, the strangest thing happens. I see all these things, only my eyes are closed and I’m not moving. Only I am moving, and my eyes are open. That doesn’t make sense, I know. It’s crazy. But let me try again.
I’m at the park and when it gets dark, I find this tree to sleep under. I sniff around a bit until I settle on a spot, then I lay down. Dogs are great at sleeping. We can do it just about anywhere. You close your eyes and the next thing you know, the dark is gone, the great ball of light is back in the sky, and the sore and the tired are a little bit better.
Except this time, when I go to sleep, the strangest thing happens. I close my eyes, and when I open them the park is gone and I’m running in a city I’ve never seen. Except it looks familiar, somehow. There are streets and there are Tires sleeping alongside the streets, but there aren’t any Shoes around to drive them. I run and I keep running. And just as I start to wonder if I’m running from something or for something, these dogs appear from the buildings and run towards me.
As they approach, they look at me and I look at them. There is no fear. They run like me and I run like them. And as we move as one over the streets, I realize that these aren’t just dogs. These are my brothers. Separated as puppies all those dog years ago, they’ve found me, they’ve found me, and now we are together.
We run through the parks and the trees, under the bushes and the bridges, and over the weird thing where the wet comes out. If you’ve ever gone to the park and chased after a bird or a ball or something, you know how much fun running can be. But as I run with my brothers, step after step, dog with dog, all that matters is our feet and the road. We lose ourselves over the pavement, all the blurry world disappearing behind.
Streets become other streets. We press on, until ahead, there is something else. We see it from a distance, standing in the road, waiting for us. As we get close, it turns to bolt. It flees from our pack, something small and scrawny, something…the cat. Alive and nasty. Ragged, afraid. As we rush forward in mad pursuit, all I know is that we must catch it.
Still running, I look to the brothers at my side. Teeth bared, coats flowing in the wind, I know I am one with them. But then something funny happens. Their teeth begin to grow sharper, their muscles leaner, and their thick coats thin, and all the while their beauty becomes darker and nastier, until they aren’t my brothers at all. And as well as I knew them a moment before, I see them as Wolves now, enraged, transformed, drawing near their pray. Hungry, I am one of them. But even as I run by their side, the joy is gone, the excitement vanished, and all that remains is this cat and our mouths. We must be satisfied.
The panicked cat looks back, and we surge forward. There is a crash and a screech as we tumble to the ground, a fury of mouths consuming in the street. Jaws close around the pathetic life. When it’s over, I see suddenly that the ruined body isn’t a cat at all, no, no…the small, scrawny something that fled so alive just a moment ago is gone. And as the Wolves scatter back to where they came from, leaving me alone, I see it’s not a cat at all, but my friend, my friend the dead dog…
I open my eyes again. The great ball of light is back, and all around me is the park. I’m still here, under that tree. What a terrible vision! Over there is the bridge where I found that body, covered in flies. It seems like so long ago. I try to remember the look of my friend, the city, those dogs, but like the cat, they flee wherever I search for them. Have I been here all along?
I watch the Shoes drive their Tires over the bridge. They look so strong. Do Shoes ever die? I wonder where that body has gone. Once in a while, a sort of open-Tire goes by, where the Shoe sits in the front like normal, but in the back, where the other seats usually are, is this uncovered part used for carrying stuff. Sometimes the Shoe will put boxes or blankets there, and sometimes they will even be other Shoes riding there, but once in a while, I see a House riding in back, its fur coat blowing in the wind and its tongue hanging out of its mouth. They cross the bridge and they never look back. I leave my tree behind in the park, heading in the same direction.
When my friend the dog died, they threw him out with the garbage. From the park, I go back to the Italian place. I find him lying there, half-buried in bags, those sad, worn feet still sticking out. For a while, I just stand above him, looking at his body. Then I pull the garbage bags on top of him, covering what’s left. When I’m done, you can hardly see the body at all. But I will always know it’s there.
What would it be like, being a House? No loss, no bodies, no Hungry. They play with their families while we die in the streets. I wonder how the world will be without him. My friend, my brothers, Mom. When I die, will anyone think of me? This is too much thinking. I get carried away, sometimes. Drifting through the streets, Shoes, Tires, hydrants, smells, mail boxes pass me by. The city goes on as before, and no one notices.
I wander until it’s time to meet. The great ball of light is sinking in the sky when I reach their spot. My feet fall from the familiar pavement back to the emptied earth, but it feels strange to be here now. Last time I wasn’t alone. Silence sets in the square as I make my way down the hole and towards the Wolves.
Alpha stands at their front. His friends are a half-circle at his back. Will they welcome me or eat me whole?
-You came alone.
-Some dogs are lucky, some ain’t.
-It was the Hungry that did it. He went mad.
-It wasn’t the Hungry that killed him. It was the Shoes.
-Well, there was this Shoe that beat him open. But he had been stealing. It was the Hungry that made him try to steal from the Shoes.
-Tell me, Stray, what do you eat?
-And where does the garbage come from?
-From the Shoes.
-From the food they eat.
-You wouldn’t have to eat garbage if the Shoes didn’t have all the food. Just like your friend wouldn’t have had to steal.
-But the Shoes make the food. It’s theirs.
-Make the food? And what, little Stray, do you think they make it from?
-I…I never really thought about it.
-You think they just make food out of nothing?
-Well, where does it come from?
-I’ve seen things, Stray, things you can’t even imagine. There are places outside this city, places without concrete. They have big open spaces, where you can run around and be free. The most incredible things grow right out of the ground. But the Shoes come with their machines, and they tear everything down, and then they use it all to build their cities.
-I don’t understand. How do-
-You can’t, can you? Look. Food doesn’t just appear. The Shoes go to these places and steal it. They eat and eat and leave us nothing, and so there is nowhere to live but here.
-When you bark food…what exactly do you mean?
-Sometimes the food is like what you find at the park. It comes from the ground and they eat it. But the Shoes like meat, too. You know where that meat comes from?
-I haven’t eaten much besides garbage.
-Dogs like you.
-No. You. My friends and I here can’t be touched. The Shoes are smart enough to know not to ruff with us. Running with the Wolves is living, not surviving, not waiting for the scraps they toss out with the bodies of the dogs that fed them. We fend for ourselves and we take what we want. There is no other way.
-But what about the Houses?
-What about them?
-The Shoes don’t eat them. They care for them.
-What the Shoes do for their Houses isn’t caring. It’s slavery. They are there to amuse, so that the Shoes can forget about their sad lives. That’s it. The sadder the Shoes, the more Houses it has. And any House pathetic enough to adore their master is a disgrace to all.
-Because it’s us against them! Strays, Houses, Wolves, all of us! Dogs against Shoes. Except it’s only us that’s doing anything about it. While the Shoes grow fat in their buildings, the Houses eating from their plates, you starve on the streets. You run in fear from their hand and you wait for their charity. But not us.
-I don’t want to starve anymore. I’m ready to join you.
-You thought your friend was ready before he died.
-I’m not my friend.
-We’ll see. This will be your one and only chance to prove you can run with the Wolves. We’re going to go on a little adventure, and when we arrive, everything will become clear.
-You walk behind. Now, you will see what it means to be free.
As the half-circle disperses, Alpha leads us out of the hole. I chase to follow, but once I catch up and the Wolves fall into place around me, we move as one. Walking with the Wolves, the city opens before us. The Strays on their cardboard beds hide in the alleys as we approach, trailing the scent of their fear. On the sidewalks, we don’t have to weave through the Shoes, because like the other dogs, they flee from us. They get out of our way, leaping into the streets, as the Tires bark their horns at each other. For the first time, I feel welcomed.
I’m surprised to find that we’re heading into the nice part of the city. Strays don’t usually come here because the Shoes don’t like us around. In the broken parts, they don’t care as much because everything is dirty anyways. But here, they can tell when you don’t belong, and they let you know it. Of course, if they didn’t mind, we’d never leave.
In the nice part of the city, the air smells better and the streets feel softer, and all the places where the Shoes live have these parks around them. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, exactly how big their parks are, because the fancy Shoes like to put walls up everywhere. The fancier the Shoe, the bigger the wall. Sometimes they use bushes or fences instead. But walls are the best for keeping Strays out. They’re good for hiding things, too. And there’s always something on the other side.
We stalk through the paved streets. There are only a few Shoes around. They scatter to the sidewalks as we make the road ours. Their Tires are sleeping on the sidewalks, which is good, because the Tires are faster and nastier in this part of the city. They are also very shiny. As we pass their fancy buildings, the Shoes look on, angry, but quiet. Like it or not, there’s not much to do before a pack of prowling Wolves.
We turn on a new street, darker, empty. When Alpha hesitates, I realize he doesn’t know where we’re going, exactly. He barks at the dog to his side:
-Ahead. Not far.
-When we arrive, I want you to go in first.
The streets are still. There are lights that hang from these big metal poles around here. The Shoes stick them in the ground for when the great ball of light goes away. Shoes don’t like the dark. They don’t see very well, because they don’t have very smart noses. Most of them prefer to stay inside. Just look at their buildings…
It’s funny how sometimes you can be going somewhere without even realizing why, and it isn’t until you get there that you stop to wonder. Standing on a dark side-street with the Wolves before a large wall, I don’t know what we’re doing. My new friends turn away when I turn towards them. I look to Alpha.
-What are we doing here?
For the first time, Alpha grins. He turns back to the dog from before and barks:
-Go. Make sure everything’s straight.
The dog peels away and disappears under the wall through a hole I hadn’t noticed. Alpha turns back to me.
-You see, Stray, there are two types in this world: those who wait for scraps, and those take what they want.
The other dog reappears.
-Ready. We’ll fit.
-Good. Stray, follow me. The rest of you, wait for my bark.
As the Wolves line up along its side, Alpha leads me around the wall to a spot where the wall is made of metal bars, like a gate. Although it’s dark, there’s a light on in the building that spills into the space outside.
-What are we-
These Shoes have a big park. Their building is right in the middle of it. You can run around the whole thing, only you can’t see the other side from here because the building is in the way. On the house, facing opposite our bars, there is a door that leads inside. At its bottom, there is another door, not for a Shoe but a dog, and it’s from this door that the most beautiful House I’ve ever seen appears. When I see her, it’s like all the dark goes away, just for a moment. Wearing a big, shiny collar, she sniffs around a bit, and then stretches herself out before coming down the stairs. But that fur, oh dog, that sleek coat, layered in smooth waves and folded over that body…
-Some of my friends found her a while back. They followed her home.
-They saw her out at the park one day with her Shoe, and they swore she was the best looking dog they’d ever seen. They followed her back here so they could watch some more. Every night at the same time, the Shoe lets her out for a quick lap around the yard, and every night, she struts around like this. Look, she’s going to disappear around back.
I look back at the House, and she’s making her way around the side of the place. It’s hard to look away. She’s got this pampered confidence, graceful and unburdened, that you don’t see with Strays. A soft assurance that she knows who she is and where she belongs. I guess that comes easy when you know where your next meal is coming from.
-She’s got a Shoe that can’t hear or see, and they live alone. That’s what made it so easy to follow her. She’s one of those service dogs, whose only purpose in life is to work for her House, to keep him from bumbling around the place like some useless animal. And that’s why she must pay, for helping these monsters keep us on the streets.
-Now for our fun.
When she disappears around the back of the building, Alpha barks NOW! Under the wall, the first of the Wolves squeezes itself through the hole, making its way into the park. The startled House jumps, barks for her Shoe, remembers he isn’t coming. But then when the second head appears, followed by another and another, the House begins fleeing around the other side of the building and back into our view. All her beauty consumed in ugly panic, she makes straight for the door. Except by the time she reaches the stairs, the fifth and the sixth are already there, and she rushes, rushes right to their waiting jaws. The others pursue from behind. Once she realizes she’s trapped, the circle is already taking shape around her.
Alpha orders me after him. We follow the wall back to the hole, where he disappears, leaving me back alone on the dark street. I pause, listening to the muffled sounds on the other side, and for a moment, I think about running. The wall passes around my neck, my shoulders, my stomach, squeezing the Hungry so tight it fills me up. Ahead, I can see the Wolves forming around their latest catch. Behind, I feel the empty night calling me.
This is my only chance. The grass is the softest that’s ever tickled my feet. I cross it until I’m at Alpha’s side, behind the pack. I hear cruel laughter and snapping jaws, and above it all:
The circle is closing. The House cowers in the middle, and one of the Wolves makes his way towards her.
-What are you doing to me?
My legs begin to shake. I turn to Alpha, towering at my side.
-What are you doing to her?
-Stray, after tonight, you will know the Wolves.
The dog continues forward, and his friends bark him on. With every step, the House shrinks back, but keeps looking over her shoulder.
-Please. You don’t have to do this.
-WE WANT TO!
She’s running out of space. When she looks back again, about a Tire’s length from the circle, the dog lunges at her, his heavy body landing wide as she dashes away. There’s this moment, right as the dog is landing and she’s turning to face him, that she could snap at his neck with her pretty jaws, or somebody could jump in and attack his blind-side. But before she recovers, the next dog leaps out at her from the side. She’s fast, and she slips away, but just barely. The dog pursues her into the center as the other falls into the circle and they begin again.
I look from the circle to Alpha. He watches intently, a half-smile fixed on his mouth.
-Alpha, what are you doing??
-She must pay.
There is a WHELP as the House narrowly dodges the next dog, pursuing in the wake of the last.
-Please. She’s got an owner-
-Why do you care?
-You just don’t get it, do you?
His eyes burn into me.
-So starved and forgotten you don’t realize that no one is coming to feed you. That’s the difference between you and I, between us and this House.
-But this has nothing to do with food!
-It has everything to do with it! Why do you think you’re starving? Why do you think she’s not? It’s because the Shoes take everything and they leave us nothing! This is the world they’ve built, the world we must live in! There is no other way!
The next dog snaps at her tail. It slips through his jaws, but not before he can catch his teeth on the tip. As the end of her tails tears off, she whimpers back to the other side, no time to stop, she’s starting to slow down…
-Alpha, I’m begging you, just stop.
-Why is her life worth any more than your dead friend on the street? Do you think she’s better than you? Do you think she’s special because she has a collar around her neck? You are same, only she lives obediently under the hand of her master! What a sad life, to be entertainment, waiting for food! And yet how she worships that Shoe!
She looks tired. Another dog enters the circle, snapping at her heels, and I think of how beautiful she looked when she stepped out that door, how proud. Now she just looks tired, the same royal coat shaggy and ragged. The shiny collar seems heavy around her neck.
-This is too far-
-Take control of your life, Stray! Stop waiting for your master! Think of your friend, and how he died, alone and forgotten, like all the rest of them!
I turn to the circle. The Wolves have nearly worn out their prey. She stumbles, breathless and slow. That poor beauty, so sad in her helplessness. They howl in amusement. I am amongst them, watching as she cries, watching as the circle closes, as she collapses and the first one mounts her.
-PLEASE!! I’LL DO ANYTHING!!
-YOU’LL SHUT UP!
-LET’S HEAR YA BEG!
-I’LL DO ANYTHING!!
-YOU CALL THAT BEGGING, BITCH?
And that’s when the first one starts to bone her. He throws her down, forcing her face and muffled cries into the ground. Her beauty falls under the power of the body above her, and as they laugh, she sinks ever downward. Laughing, crying. Watching, I think of Mom, and how she wandered from her yard on that dark night all those dog years ago. I think of my brothers, born into the city. Maybe they died, lost in the crowd, like my friend the garbage. Or maybe they grew up and became something else, like my new friends the Wolves. Killing, taking, beginning the circle again. Against their jaws, it’s all the same. Are we only meat?
The first one howls as he finishes. He thrusts her forward and they roar in amusement. Then the second one starts. There is a shatter above as glass breaks against the building, and from over the walls in the street, a Shoe is yelling. But you can no longer hear what he’s saying, the screams are so loud. The second one goes on boning, a thin stream of blood now dripping from between her legs.
Alpha looks into me. If the Shoes hadn’t put those lights on those big metal poles, he’d be so dark you couldn’t see him. But even without the light, from the way his eyes burn as he watches, you’d still know he was there.
-I…I don’t want this.
-What do you mean?
-I mean I want nothing to do with this.
-It’s too late for her.
-But you can stop them!
-THAT BITCH IS IN HEAT!
-She’s part of the problem.
-She’s got a name, for ruff’s sake!!
-She must be fixed.
-For the love of dog, STOP!!
-There is no other way.
-This is all wrong! It’s not the Houses, it’s not Shoes, it’s YOU! You’re the problem!
-You keep killing and taking, and for what? So you can pretend to be somebody? You’re the reason the city is like this!
-You’re getting on my nerves, Stray-
-She doesn’t deserve this! And you…you think you’re different? You’re a dog, just like the rest of them.
His bark is so loud that the circle almost stops. As Alpha turns to me, the whole lawn becomes quiet, except for the sounds of the next dog boning and the whimpers of the House below him. Face to shoulder, Alpha stands a whole head above me.
-Stray, I swear to dog, you take that back, or I rip your head off.
Staring into his eyes, everything becomes still. For what seems like the longest moment, we just stand there, looking at each other. The dark in him stares through me and I stare right back through it. I think of Mom and that dark night, the circle beginning again. And even as my legs tremble beneath me, I never once bow my head.
The grass is warm at my feet. It feels soft like a blanket as I walk away, so pleasant I don’t stop for the cries ringing out behind. What’s in a name?
With every step, the ground seems more welcoming. I make for the hole.
I can’t stop them, but there’s still something I can do.
-YOUR NEXT STEP IS YOUR LAST!!
Even against the rabid will of the Wolves, I can still walk away.
-STOP HIM NOW!!
I’m almost at the hole. I can feel them coming from behind, but it’s too late. Sticking my head under the wall, I can see lights on the other side, hanging from those big metal poles. They seem so bright. I dig my feet into the soil, preparing to cross to the other side, but then I feel their jaws around my legs, back, throat. It’s too late. No pain. Just a final glance to the sky, those headlights seem so close…
I feel their jaws release, and the hole vanishing around me. My body feels unburdened, energized, and as I finally break free from their circle, it throws me over the pavement, those lights growing brighter and brighter. Ahead, on the street, I see an open-Tire driving. A family of Shoes stands on the back. And as I approach from behind, they wave at me. The Tire slows down. From above, they smile and shout my name. I run faster than I have ever before, surging forward, almost flying…
Into the back, into their arms, waiting for me. Their soft hands all around, soothing the sores and the pain. Over the highways and out of the city, the concrete disappears, and ahead, the road stretches on forever. Finally, finally, I arrive, as the great ball of light falls in the sky.