It's really interesting what happens when you're forced to reduce what you want to say to such tight constraints. It's different from journalism--obviously--but something about telling a fictional story, one that has no facts or necessaries attached to it like a news story or a review has, something you are totally free to invent, and having to tighten it down so harshly really forces you to make brutal--and brutally necessary--choices and distill, distill, distill.
Relentlessly. Which I need to do more of in my other writing anyway.
So anyway. Here's a story. I would love any feedback you might have.
by Kurt Brighton
I saw the last dog today, skulking around the debris across the cul-de-sac, a scrawny ghost the color of the iron sky.
He has evidently taken up residence near the burned-out basement I’ve chosen.
We regard each other, I suppose, as potential threat and potential meal, twin flickers of life amid the collapsing houses and the hulks of burned-out cars and trash--all the detritus of a dead civilization.
I imagine a future archeological expedition visiting from some distant planet, delighting in the cornucopia of garbage we’ve left behind, attempting to make sense of our absurd excess.
The dog darts away whenever I emerge, which lately is less and less. My activity slows, my circle shrinks. I am winding down like an old-fashioned clock, spiraling ever inward until finally I will cease, like everyone else.
Resting on the edge of the foundation’s blackened cinderblocks, the tatters of my lungs drawing ragged breaths, I see him sitting primly on his haunches ten yards away, panting, watching me. He remembers how my brothers treated his brothers, when push came to shove.
I wonder if he’s figured out I have little chance of catching him.
Hell, I don’t trust him either. I must look a tasty, if malnourished package of protein.
Not yet, old boy.
The birds died off first, dropping en masse as though some remote signal had silenced their whirring machinery, gravity reclaiming them as they plopped to the ground, sullen, inert.
First the sky, then the sea. The beaches turned into charnel houses as the ocean disgorged the entirety of life hidden in its great belly, all washing ashore to putrefy in heaps of scales, fins, guts and rot.
But it took the blight of the wheat and corn and the subsequent bovine and porcine holocausts that followed to cause real alarm.
And alarm quickly turned to panic, as it is wont to do. After the food riots, the dogs were next.
Their 10,000-year relationship with hominids was so ingrained that even as they watched their brethren getting their throats cut--screaming and thrashing, tossed in still-twitching chunks into the stewpot--even then, many dogs raised no fuss when it was their turn to be led to the chopping block. Ever-obedient, they sought human approval, even at the last.
The cats weren’t so easy. But then, when had they ever been?
I catch myself laughing and realize I said that out loud.
Is the dog cocking his head?
This wary fellow was obviously no pushover. But, I suspect, neither was he a survivor of the great snarling packs that briefly ruled these wastelands.
Greedy, hungry man with his tools and weapons hunted them down before turning on one another, though the packs took more than a few humans themselves.
No, I’ve decided this grey ghost and I were both loners, even before, and that it’s our outcast nature that has saved us.
Saved us for what, I don’t know.
I awake to a soft clinking of cans a few feet away. I shift and hear a startled yip as the dog scrambles up the piles of detritus and out of my basement, tail between his legs.
Well, thanks for not starting in on me. Not yet, anyway.
The dog peeps his head over the edge, watching.
Our eyes lock for a long moment, and I could swear his sheepish grin matches my own.
I decide. It’s time.
I struggle to a sitting position and reach under my makeshift bed and pull out a length of rope and a Tupperware container with the last of my rice, uncooked but softened by water, scavenged weeks ago from the kitchen of a well-stocked hausfrau named Joan.
Thanks also for the half-case of bottled water, madam.
Those were the saddest things, the unused things, the undone things: the reminders people wrote themselves about calls they never made, unshopped shopping lists, dates circled on calendars--Joan’s rancid Ben and Jerry’s in her dead freezer.
I pop open the plastic lid and force myself to eat a small handful. But instead of sealing and secreting the container beneath me, I leave it open atop a pile of cans, loop of rope in hand.
Come on down, boy.
I drift off again. When I awake, he’s noisily cleaning out the Tupperware. I try to minimize my movements so as not to startle him.
He looks at me, unmoving, except for licking away the last of the rice.
Hi there, I say.
His amber eyes blink solemnly. This close I can see he’s actually white, with a long ivory coat that has been soiled grey. He watches as if he’s waiting for me to give him some command, some echo of a long-ago life.
After a moment I let the rope drop.
I got nothing for you, kiddo. Sit, stand, roll over--do whatever the hell you want.
He sighs, as if he understands.
Sometime later--I must have drifted off--I feel a snuffling along my arm. Hot breath, then a cold nose grazes my neck.
Aw, jeez, buddy, my rice wasn’t enough?
I don’t even have the strength to fight. On the other hand, I don’t really care.
Sometime later I wake up to the sight of a wet nose framed by two amber eyes mere inches away. I feel a warm body next to mine. The dog looks at me for a few moments, then licks my face, tentatively at first, the twitching tip of a tongue making darting forays onto my skin. I feel the old familiar sensation of a dog tail wagging next to my leg.
The wagging grows more pronounced.
Good dog. Won’t be long now, buddy.
Arm shaking, I reach up to scratch him behind the ears. He wags some more. He lays his head on my arm. As I drift off his amber eyes are the last thing I see.
Hope there’s enough left to keep you fed for a while, old boy.