Dog Eat Dog

“I’ll rip yer fuckin’ ‘ead off!”

            “Back off, man, I didn’t touch your damn dog –”

            “Don’t yuh dare lie to me, yuh son of a bitch, I can smell ‘is meat on yer breath!”

            I pull my shoulders into my body and dodge past the men shouting in the middle of the Market, my pocketknife unsheathed under my jacket. I risk a glance over and see that they’re having a stare-down. I avert my gaze before they have a chance to notice me breaking taboo to look directly at their faces.

At what point do you finally have to hit to kill someone’s pet? Not like we haven’t all thought about it at some point even briefly, but as long as you have some spare water or clothes for trade, you can come by some pigeon, rat, or squirrel without too much trouble. Usually.

I duck under the mud-crusted blue tarps hung between buildings, past collections of tattered belongings inside locked cages and boxes: pages of softcover books bound by grimy rubber bands; wool socks with hole-bitten heels; a pile of what looks to be rain-sodden pigeon jerky.

            I try not to think of the jerky for too long. It’s not something I can get away with stealing around here, and my heart sinks at the thought. I know that back home in the empty bathtub, my sister Lily is laying half-awake, her shirt like a curtain outlining the wave of ribs beneath her skin. I wish we still had our mattress, but I had to give it away for two cans of sardines. It was all we had left, and food is food. Lily wasn’t even able to talk when I left, and for days now I’ve been dreading coming home to find her cold and still. Nothing more than a thread is holding our luck together.

            I’ve got to find something for Lily.

            Most places around here have been claimed and guarded by the desperate dwindling population, but there are a few corners that have been abandoned to the rats. It’s not poking around if nobody cares.

            I walk into the alley north of the Market, and as it bends around the corner, a large rusted fence looms over me. There are scraps of stripped wire wrapped along the top, a few nails tied in – the closest thing to barbed wire.

            There’s a line cut into the bottom right corner of the fence. People need places to meet for dealing, I guess. I crouch and test the fence, pulling at the corner. It’s a bit stiff, but sure enough it makes a gap big enough for me to crawl through to the other side.

            The other end of the alley along the building to my left is blocked in the same way with garbage piled up against a fence. It smells like pee and rotten potatoes and I can feel the weight of it on my tongue. I turn my attention to the back door of the squat building.

            On my tiptoes, I look through the glass window of the door and am met by murky lighting. The floor is bare, but on the back wall is the shape of what I know at once to be a metal shelf. I’m hoping for the dull gleam of cans, but I get something better – the smile of light off glass. A jar that looks pretty damn full from where I’m standing.

            Grinning, I test the door first, knowing it’ll be locked. It is, but this is something I can work with. I take my lock pick out of my pocket and begin to test the pins one by one. A few minutes go by until I hear the satisfying click. My heart is a plane speeding down a runway, and the rabbit part of my brain is saying It’s too easy it’s too easy. But I don’t care. I don’t care.

            As I approach the jar I see the remains of the label: Seasoned Recipe Green Beans. Lily is going to be able to eat tonight.

            I pick up the jar and am about to twist the lid open before I stop. My nose flares and my arm shoots out to drop the jar back on the shelf. Jagged holes dent the lid on one side, letting in air. The beans are entirely frosted over with mold. Rats must have found it. The jar stares at me content, filled with its white-blue forest of spores.

            “Fuck!” I scream, tilting my head back. I’m trying not to cry – the only thing I can do right now. My breath heaves for a while. I try to focus on my breathing. I’m still breathing. Another moment passes before I open my eyes and see the top shelf.

Waiting there is the most vibrant green I’ve come across in what feels like a lifetime. It’s a jar of pickles, laying on its side against the wall, looking back at me.

            Before I can think, my arms reach for the next level of the shelf, my feet finding footholds, and I’m climbing. Maybe the jar isn’t real. Maybe my hand won’t be able to touch it, and pass right through. It’s real. The glass is cold and smooth and beautiful. Then, we’re falling.

            As the shelf starts to lean, all I can think is that I have to hold onto the pickles. I have to wrap my hands and arms around the jar, curl my body against it, save it from shattering, save it for Lily.

            Then pain flashes against my forehead, at my shins, my back. I open my eyes after a moment, my view obscured by the grey of the shelf. But looking down, I can see the green inside the jar – intact.

The shelf is on top of me, and I don’t feel the pain until I try to move my legs. I take a moment to shift my arms, and I manage to place the pickles by my head so I can work on freeing my legs. My sneaker is stuck between corners of the frame.

Two voices clatter behind me, and I freeze. I try to turn my neck against the floor to see through the doorway. The voices are coming down into the alley towards me, and while I’m caught debating whether to stay still or move to hide, a man enters. He shouts something, and another man rushes into sight beside him. For the most horrible second, nobody moves. And then everything happens.

My hands reach from my feet for the jar, and rough edges from the shelf rake my arms along the way. I’m too slow. The first man snatches the jar, and looks at it with wide eyes. He wraps it under his jacket, and the second man hoots, laughing.

By the time I’ve pulled myself free, they’re long gone. I sit there crying for a long time, thinking of Lily.

More sound comes down the alley, and I don’t bother to stop crying until I hear its breathing. The muzzle of a dog pokes into the doorway. Round eyes stare at me, wary. Ribs stretch the skin beneath its short brown fur.

            “Hey,” I say, reaching out a hand. My throat is rough from crying, but I try to sound comforting and gentle. “Come here, boy.”

            He steps towards me, and I keep my hand out. The dog comes closer and sits. I reach out and place my hands on either side of the dog’s face to pet it. His tail wags twice.

“There we go,” I say, smiling. Slowly as I can, I reach into my pocket and grab the handle of my pocketknife.

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