Before he does the Bad Thing, the world Dog knows is a good world. Runs in the park, leaping into the air after the flat thing, food to fill his belly, and a bed to sleep on at the foot of the people. It is a good cave, with good fire.
After the Bad Thing, the people take him to the cage place. Dog huddles at the back of his concrete box, desperate to shut down the incessant barking and scents of fear, madness, chemicals, death. He loses track of time.
A new thing comes. Dog hears a roaring in the sky that is so loud it drives him deep inside himself, and then it gets more quiet than ever before. The cage people don’t come, and the cage place stays dim, unlit.
Dog hears a skittering sound. This is not a rat, come after the rations of kibble. This is a different sound. This skittering has too many legs. Dog huddles in the back of his cage. Another dog barks, then yelps and yelps, then is silent. The skittering thing passes Dog’s cage, pauses, and then goes on.
Dog waits one more long day, unable even to mark his cage, desperate for food and water, and the next morning, he noses the cage door, and it opens.
Dog knows he is to blame for this too.
The good smells of his old world, and the smells of the prison (urine, feces, fear, chemicals), are replaced with a new world of smell, fire and chemical spills that overwhelm the sensitive glands in his nose. Cars are abandoned everywhere. Highways and overpasses crumble. Dog picks his way through still-burning rubble. There are people but they are the wrong people. After the Bad Thing and the cage place, Dog doesn’t trust people anymore. He isn’t sure he would be welcome in his old place, so he doesn’t try to go back there.
When the people call to him, urging, beseeching, “Hey Buddy! Hey, dog! Come on, we’re not going to hurt you!” He sidles away, galloping fast when they throw something at him, skirting trouble. His belly is hollow and he needs food, but he can’t trust people.
There are new chemical smells along the river, and there is a fire all along the top of the water. Even Dog can tell that is wrong. Thirsty, he laps a little at the water in a small cove along the shore, but the taste burns his tongue. This is bad water. There’s a dead turtle and a pile of dead fish wedged against the roots and mud, but Dog can tell they won’t be good to eat. He doesn’t even want to roll in them.
He finds an old wrapper with the scent of burger on it, and he eats that. Even if he vomits it up, the smell is strong enough to make him pretend that he is eating something.
At night, he finds a den in a pile of rubble and curls up nose-to-tail there.
He dreams of the Bad Thing. He growls both in the dream and in his sleep. It is just a warning growl. Go away, he tells the eyes. Go back. He doesn’t like faces in his face. People don’t get so low into his face, so these eyes are not people. The people are barking and no one is listening to his growl. The eyes get closer, and the not-person reaches out and touches Dog, even though Dog has clearly warned it away. Dog barks another warning, and in his sleep he yips and struggles.
The hand slaps at Dog, stinging his nose, and Dog loses control, snaps, his teeth biting flesh, catching the soft face just below the eyes. Coppery blood fills his mouth, startling him, and he jumps back. There is silence, a drawn intake of breath, and then screaming.
He wakes, his sensitive ears and sensitive nose pricked up and alert. It’s dark, heavy cloud cover, no stars. In the before days, dogs watched the stars with the people. Dog hasn’t seen stars in a long time and while he doesn’t miss them, he knows something is missing.
He smells a person. All the person smells are there without the strong smells of soap and food and clean clothes that usually cover them. The person scrambles over the rubble, coming toward Dog’s den.
Dog tenses. The person moves around, and then stops. Dog imagines the person curling up nose-to-tail. He hears whimpering, and then sniffling. Dog knows exasperation. This person is being too loud. If he is not a predator, he needs to be quiet before he draws predators down upon them.
Maybe the person knows that because the whimpering stops, the rustling stops, and Dog dozes, half-alert for danger.
The gray light comes. There is silence except for wind. It drones over the rubble of Dog’s den in the crumbled concrete. Dog uncurls, fully awake, and sniffs the air. The person is still there, whimpering again.
Prey. His mouth fills with saliva. Sometimes the cousins are strong in Dog. Both aspects of Dog struggle inside him, the wolf and the cave, the pack and the pact. He gives a low woof, but Dog doesn’t know which call he is answering.
Dog rises to his feet, yawns and stretches, and saunters out of his den. The person is only about fifteen feet away, tucked in his own den under a triangle of concrete, and he looks up when Dog approaches.
The person is small. His eyes are low, right in Dog’s eyes, and the same fearful aggression rises inside Dog. He growls, despairing. If the small person comes near him he will bite, and more bad things will happen. He will go back into the cold cave with the bars, and the world will become even more strange and fearful than before. Dog backs away and trots off, stumbling in footsore weariness and with weakness from hunger.
He looks back once. The small person is following him.
Dog follows the food smells, picked out by his nose from the scents of burning fuel, twisted metal, and dead bodies. He follows the scent to a smashed car, its persons hanging half out of the seats. The bodies are dead and Dog will have to scavenge sometime, but for now the pact is stronger than the pack, and he noses around to the passenger side, half climbing in. There’s a sack of groceries. The milk jug has burst, spewing rotten milk everywhere, and there are two plastic-wrapped steaks that have also turned. Dog paws at the steak, biting away at the plastic and tearing into the meat, bolting it down in huge chunks. Dog hears the small person come up to the car, and he gives a growl. This is his find.
The small person ignores his clear warning and climbs up into the car next to Dog. He doesn’t look at Dog, just goes straight for a box of cereal, prying at it with scratched and dirty fingers. Since he doesn’t go after Dog’s find, Dog relaxes. Side by side the small person eats and Dog eats, and when Dog finishes the steak and noses around for something else, the small person holds out a small hand with a few bits of cereal in it.
Dog stops. The pact of the cave and fire is strong in him now, responding to the offering the small person makes. Dog forces himself to look at the small person, crouching despite himself, because he is afraid of what he might do.
Dog knows this person is a young person. His clothes are torn and dirty, and he smells of feces and urine, and he has dry cereal on his breath. He is skinny and scratched. Holding his breath, Dog accepts the offered gift with delicate tongue. The small person plunges his hand back into the box and pulls out a few more bits. Dog takes the cereal and gives the boy’s hand a tentative lick.
In this way the boy feeds Dog, alternating between giving Dog and himself handfuls of cereal.
The hurtling jets make them jump apart. Dog growls and the boy shrieks, throwing the box down and scrambling to hide in the footwell of the passenger seats. He cries and cries, and Dog doesn’t know which way to turn. The Bad Thing has come again, and Dog doesn’t know what he did wrong this time. He gives into his fear and he bolts.
There is a great explosion, yellow flame and white light, and black and gray smoke, and Dog is rolled over by the energy of the blast. He rolls and hits his head, yelping in pain. He is left unconscious in the middle of the broken road.
When Dog comes to, yelping and whining, he gets to his feet. His ear stings, and his hind leg drags. Gentle hands pat him and he snaps at the hands. He doesn’t want hands. He wants a den to hide in until the pain stops. He wants to go away. But the small hands keep tugging at him, and dimly he recognizes the smell of the boy. The boy’s face is wet and he shows his teeth, and he tugs hard at Dog. Dog can’t hear anything because of the blast but he knows the boy is barking at him.
Dog gives in and stumbles after the boy.
This den isn’t bad. It’s barely big enough for the two of them but that’s good. Dog crawls inside, his bad leg throbbing, and snaps at the boy when he crawls in after him. The boy pats him again and curls up next to Dog, away from his bad leg. The boy opens his hand and tries to give Dog another bit of cereal, but Dog just turns away dully. He doesn’t want food right now; he wants time and a dark place. Dog lays his head on the boy’s belly, taking comfort from the warmth. The boy strokes Dog’s ruff with one hand, and sucks his thumb. Dog and the boy doze.
Dog doesn’t know how long the whisper of too many legs has been going on. He wakes to hear each reaching step, a long pause between every sound. His nose is blind. The thing does not smell, so Dog can’t see it. He can only hear the slow, skittering footfall of too many legs.
The small person hears it now too. He lifts his head, his thumb in his mouth. Wet comes down his face and drips on Dog’s back, but he doesn’t make a noise.
Step. Pause. Reach. Step.
Something long pokes into the den, unfolding angularly, and taps almost at Dog’s feet. Dog feels a growl come up in his throat, but he remembers the bark and the yelp and the silence. He remains still.
After a long moment the leg retracts and they hear the awful sound of its slow scraping retreat across the rubble.
Dog and the small person stay still for a long time.
It’s night again, raining. The rain sizzles when it hits the concrete rubble. The rubble shifts around them as machinery moves over the broken roadway. The slab of concrete, the roof of their den, trembles and shifts. In the face of this new danger, Dog freezes. Somehow the boy understands. He lifts his head, and there is something, some resolve, that Dog recognizes.
“Up, Dog,” the boy commands, and the words pull at Dog’s muscles as if with a string. Dog knows Up. Sit. Leave it. Come.
He follows the boy out of the den, struggling to move his injured leg. He yelps but quietly, forlornly.
The boy stops once to look behind them and Dog follows the direction of his gaze. He sees lights on a big machine, breathing fire and smoke, its giant tracks coming down over the pile of rubble. The boy scrambles and runs, and Dog follows, the machine chasing them.
Dog has seen big machines before but he has never seen a machine like this one. He sees another and another, and the machines point their long whiplike arms at Dog and the small person.
The roar of jets overhead, screaming in formation, make the machines jerk their whiplike arms around and point them at the sky. They throw themselves upward to rope in the jets, but the jets peel away. Dog and the small person scramble off the broken roadway into the shallow woods along the highway. Dog is relieved to be in the woods. There are good smells, like bugs and small animals, and there are old markings that make Dog feel almost normal. He wants to lift his leg to mark a tree, but his bad leg won’t support his weight and he can’t lift it. So he piddles on the ground, and throws the scent as best he can. It feels good to have something he knows to do.
“Bad, bad,” the boy says, his sobbing like Dog’s yelps. Dog knows the boy can’t help his yelping. “Bad machine. Go away. “
There is a small dead furry animal. Dog bits into it, tearing away fur and crunching the dessicated bones. There is some meat and delicious marrow, and he eats. The boy crouches and watches him. Dog growls at the boy. The meat is his. The cousins have reared their heads inside him.
A distant explosion lights up the night sky, and for an instant the light is emblazoned on Dog’s eyes. A whiplike arm rises upward from the highway, and catches a jet, flinging it out of the sky. They both watch with uncomprehending eyes.
Dog smells a new person before he sees him, and before the boy sees him.
“Hey,” the person says. Dog knows Hey. Hey is like a bark. Look at me. Pay attention. The boy turns around and freezes.
The man is a dark shape in the night, but that doesn’t stop Dog from seeing him as clearly as if it is full daylight. The man smells like the boy, urine, feces, sweat, and dirt, and overlaid with that, fear. And something more — Dog smells craft, desperation, sourness.
“You got food?” the man says. The little boy stares at him. The man laughs, a dreadful bark. “Yeah, you don’t got food. You got a dog, though. Come here, buddy.”
The man picks up a stick, drops it, looks around, and picks up a rock. He hefts it. He is so intent on Dog he cannot see what is behind him.
Dog feels the growl start inside him. It’s soundless at first. He quivers with it, and his hackles stand up on his thin neck and shoulders. His head goes low and his eyes bore into the space behind the man where the thing is coming. The boy hears it; the man doesn’t. All the man’s attention is focused on Dog.
“Good dog,” the man says.”Nice dog.” His scent is vivid with fear. “Nice doggy. Jeez, bet you’re rabid. Bet you are. I’m not going to hurt — ” he breaks off and charges at Dog, swinging the rock.
Dog charges too, past the man at the thing. Its many legs reach for him and he is rolled over and burned where they touch. His yelp and the man’s scream mingle in his ears.
Dog is flung clear of the thing, and he goes down hard, his bad leg burning. He scrambles to his feet to see the thing embrace the man with its too many legs, and the man’s scream is cut off.
On the other side of the man is the small person.
Still grappling the man, the thing turns toward him, and Dog gathers his strength. He creeps in low and driven by instinct, grabs a long articulated leg, and tears it off. Dark liquid flows and Dog jumps back, rips at another leg. The thing can’t untangle from the man. It is hooked into him with its legs and teeth all down the center of its body. Dog rips again and again, until the thing falls over, surrounded by ripped-away legs.
Dog comes to his senses slowly. He is blind in one eye. His ear has been torn off. His hind leg throbs and he has broken ribs. He raises his head, but that’s as far as he can go.
The dead man and the dead thing are sprawled out in the small clearing, long articulated legs everywhere, blood and dark fluid mingled on the weeds and in the dirt.
He smells the boy. The boy is fully overcome with hunger and thirst, and he can’t cry anymore. He lies in the dirt, his dessicated thumb near his mouth, and his eyes stare up at the sky. Only the faint rise and fall of his thin chest under his t-shirt indicate that he still lives.
The sound of an engine creeps over him, as if something is growling at a register no one can hear, only feel.
This is not one of the bad machines. Dog has ridden in one of these vehicles, with knobby tires and wide seats. The vehicle drives along the road and then rumbles off into the clearing. Men and women get out. Dog can smell them. Under their clothes and dirt and sweat, behind the metallic and chemical scents of their gear and weapons, they are clean and healthy. He can smell fear, and tiredness but no sickness, no despair.
They see the bloody clearing and the bodies and break into a run.
“A kid! There’s a kid!” The woman drops to her knees, hands off her weapon to another soldier, and gathers the boy in her arms. They cluster round, and try to give the boy water, talking in loud voices, all bustle and movement. A radio crackles.
The others survey the carnage, the dead man, the thing, the legs, and Dog.
“Jesus Christ,” says a soldier. He kneels and puts his hand on Dog’s shoulder. His hand is hard but kind.
“Come on, move move move, we’re out in the open. There are more coming up from the south.”
“Got the boy?”
“I got him,” the soldier says, and she does, holding him as carefully as if she could carry him in her mouth. The boy has bags and lines attached to him, and even Dog can see that he is pinking up, that his skin is rehydrating, that he is coming back. He will not die.
“Sir, should we bring the dog?”
Everyone turns to look at Dog. He knows they are weighing a decision.
The pact is clear: He has been a Bad Dog.
It is the boy who makes the decision. He reaches out his hand to Dog. His voice is muffled.
“Come,” the boy says.
Dog knows Up. Sit. Leave it. Come. He gathers himself, pushing against the pain, and hobbles after the boy.