by Nick Story

When it became clear that their owners were not coming back from wherever they had been taken, I let all the pets out of the building. A few cats, but mostly dogs. I figured they’d have a better chance outside.

“Go forth. Find happiness,” I told them. But they just hung around out front. They’d gotten used to it here.

I watch the dogs from my window. I recognize a few of them. The poodle from 3A. The dachshund from the fifth floor. The crazy-eyed beagle from the basement apartment.

They sleep in piles near the hedges, or in the weedy flower bed.

They forage for garbage or rats.

They lope and chase each other. Sometimes I go out and throw the ball. The furry bodies fly full speed up the empty street after it. When it rains, they either sleep in the hallway or stay out and get wet.

They seem to be waiting for something. I wonder if they miss their owners. A nice thought, but it seems unlikely. The world isn’t nice like that. And yet they remain, which is surely evidence of something.

I try to remember their owners, but some link has been severed. Dogs are the main event now, not the people who had taken them on walks, forced them into Christmas sweaters, talked to them like they were babies.

There’s still plenty of nonperishable food at the grocery stores, because the only human left to feed is me, and I don’t eat much. Sometimes I pick up food for the dogs. They all love the tinned sardines. The dachshund is the only one who will eat the canned green beans. This is why she is my favorite.

When I go for a walk, they follow me. We form a pack. They’ve designated me as their leader, which is a mistake on their part. I’ve never led anyone anywhere.

I feel as though the dogs expect something of me. Something big. Deliverance, probably. Strangely, I expect deliverance too, though not from myself. Never from myself. And I should say “hope for” rather than “expect.” And only on certain days.

I sometimes wonder why the men who relocated everyone did not shoot the pets. I suppose they wanted to conserve bullets. I heard about this in a movie once. I can’t remember which movie. Some character talking about the value of every bullet. The movies can teach you things. I wish I could watch one now. The days are long and shapeless.

The wind is loud at night, I’ve discovered. So are the barking dogs. I follow their conversations when I can’t sleep. There is a chat going on all over town. I wonder if they discuss different topics, or if the conversation is always about the same thing.

I suppose my main feeling most days is that I am now an unclaimed person. I used to feel claimed by my girlfriend. My mom. A friend or two. Even by the building itself—this is my stairwell, my mailbox. Now nothing pulls me in any particular direction. I could do anything. I sometimes dance around naked. I sometimes talk to myself in bad English accents. But these stones sink to the bottom of the pond without a ripple. The dogs certainly don’t care how weird I get.

The other day, the beagle and the dachshund got in a fight over some dead thing. I ran out to break it up. The beagle bit me on the thumb, drawing blood. I hit it and it ran off, whimpering. The little dachshund from the third floor seemed grateful, looked at me with her ridiculous pointy face.

I went in and washed the cut. I saw myself in the mirror. The dirt, the shaggy beard. Seeing myself like that made me wonder why I was still here, that is: why the men who came—in a hundred semi-trucks to round everyone up—had left me in my apartment.

Maybe they left me so someone would be around to admire their work. After all, if the town was completely empty, if nobody was here, how would you know it was empty? You needed at least one person to witness the emptiness. But if someone was here witnessing the empty town—even if that someone was just me—then it wasn’t really empty, now was it?

And it wouldn’t have been empty anyway, because the dogs would have been here.

I must have left my door open, because when I came out of the bathroom, the poodle, the lab, and the dachshund were sitting on the couch. The beagle was sniffing around in the kitchen. They were making themselves comfortable. As if they belonged.

Nick Story is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Indiana Review, The Cafe Irreal, and Beyond Words.
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