This story has a nicer twin called Xlin. Both stories take place in the second half of the twenty first century, Zero in America, Xlin in a post-revolutionary Pacific Northwest. They are obviously speculative, one imbued with hope, imaging a young person coming of age in a post-capitalist society. Zero, its opposite, takes place in a fascist America, where a young man of color and his dog grow up in a camp loosely inspired by Palestinian refugee camps, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and of course, Nazi Germany. Neither context will come to pass as I’ve imagined it, but my goal was not to predict the future, only to imagine its possibilities.
This story is also about my dog Max, who is 14 years old as I write. My partner and I cannot imagine a better companion. He is so sweet, so fun, a constant source of joy. I wanted to capture elements of his past and personality in a story. Somehow that got mixed up in this other idea, of fictionalizing the darkest tendencies in our political trajectory as a nation. Forgive me Max, you deserve better. The story slipped the leash. If you write fiction, you probably understand. Frankenstein is a real thing. You don’t fully control what you create.
This particular dog begins life in a gated community. One morning, he walks through the electric fence surrounding his yard and receives a dreadful shock. He scurries away, bewildered, his feelings hurt. He sticks to the winding road and when the security guards open the gate for an incoming car, he takes advantage. For several days, he explores the nearby woods, growing hungry. He meets a complicated man who lives in another gated community, one wrapped in barbed-wire, housing thousands of people who have done nothing wrong. The man feeds him, ties a shoelace to the dog’s collar and leads him out of the forest.
At a small gap in a nasty fence, the dog hesitates. The man shoves him through, already convinced the dog would never bite. “Welcome to Camp,” he says, en route to a cluster of abutted white tents. “Someone’s gonna love you, pooch.”
Heads turn, but not because residents are leery of a new stray. The dog, a young collie of sorts, prances up the dusty Camp road with his fluffy, swishing his weather-vane tail. Children stop to pet him and run their fingers through his soft, tricolored coat. When he rolls onto his side with pleading eyes, they rub the thick white fur around his neck and coo.
Man and dog approach the back side of the clustered tents as if sneaking into a circus, which this is not. “No pets” is a top-ten rule, bolded and underlined on every bulletin board in the Big Tent. In one of the hundreds of sectioned quarters, his five-year-old grandson Jared is playing with cars on a dirt floor, alone. His mother Teal, a petite woman who lacks neither personality nor opinions, is working in the Big Kitchen, a large cafeteria, the only hospitable public space in the camp besides a dirt park next to a school that resembles a neglected squat for children.
For weeks, Jared has been nagging her for a dog. He barks and begs under the table. His large brown eyes and arresting sincerity make it hard for her to say no, but common sense overrules her compassion. Papi, the family’s anchor felon, an ethically challenged asshole to many, is the reason they were sentenced to Camp #2082 in Western Pennsylvania, took the boy’s side, but he had lost sway in his daughter’s home.
Jared sees a wet nose lift the shower curtain that acts as a front door and freezes. A stray invaded their space the week before, a female in heat trying to avoid a mob of suitors. It was not romantic, much less comprehensible to a five-year-old. When his grandfather enters the room with his shoelace leash and a dog, the boy requires a moment to comprehend what is before him. He takes a short breath and squeals as if electrocuted, scrambles to his feet, and tackles the dog. Papi beams.
Teal returns from work but her outrage is no match for the bonfire of joy radiating from her son. The dog is not the shit-stained, flea-bitten mutt she had envisioned when countering Jared’s pleas. He is a work of art. After an hour, she concedes. The barking begins and the security team arrives. Teal negotiates. The security team loves the dog too, but rules are rules. The family is forced out of the Big Tent for Amsterdam, a rough neighborhood with few amenities and no ready-made homes. Papi sets to work but the first week is drafty and wet. By Christmas, their shelter has a tin roof and cardboard walls. Teal waits for the New Year to resume talking to her father. Jared and the dog are inseparable.
Jared names him Mervyn, which he cannot explain.
“Don’t work, son,” Papi says, carrying a faded plastic sack of groceries in each hand as they return from picking up weekly rations. Jared trails behind him, Mervyn whimpering to play with a disinterested stray. “Doesn’t match his personality. You should call him Pussy.”
“Papi!” Jared says, scowling. “That’s a bad word!”
Papi chuckles. “How about Zero?”
“No,” Jared says.
“Mervyn is such an ugly sound. Hurts my ears. ‘Zero’ on the other hand…” They arrive home. “He’s your dog, but I think you’ll be happier without a stupid name.”
“Zero?” Jared says quietly, as if for the first time. He adores the man, despite his crudeness, because Jared can make him smile when no one else can. “The number zero?”
Papi nods. Jared blinks heavily and tilts his five-year-old head to one side.
“Like the chances of him winning a fight. Or the number of cats around here that are afraid of him.” Papi is makes an “0” shape with his right hand. “The number of kids he’s gonna father.”
Jared makes another face. “Don’t be mean, Papi. Mervyn’s a nice dog. He doesn’t need to fight.” Jared’s arms wrap perfectly around the panting dog, who is fixated on the groceries Papi is pulling from the two sacks. The stiff plastic makes an unpleasant noise as Papi opens a bag of expired animal crackers.
“Hey Zero!” Papi says, a cracker inside his closed palm. The “Z” sound leaves Papi’s teeth and slices through the air. The dog’s ears lift and his tongue retreats into his mouth. His eyes lock on the older man.
“See that, son?” Papi says.
Papi uncoils his thick fingers and the dog snaps up the treat. The new name lodges in Jared’s ear and takes root.
Teal uses the family’s expulsion from the Big Tent as leverage and secures a promotion to Kitchen Director, a rare position of dignity for a Camper. Papi makes friends with all the right people in Amsterdam. No one notices the nondescript kid attached to the relentless, submissive farm collie who makes everyone a little happier.
Each winter is rumored to be the Camp’s last, but the Christmas clemencies never happen. American fascism offers no pretense of rehabilitation, only the collective punishment of undesirables and criminals, the cancer at the heart of the nation. The years accumulate with little variation. More families arrive. The Camp’s barbed-wire borders constrict around the mushrooming population.
Jared loses his teeth, learns to read and write, learns his place. He appears dull and boring to most, a last resort friend to play with if no one else is around. What passes for schooling places him near the bottom of the pecking order. Life’s emotional comforts, like a good face licking, come mostly from Zero. At the park, he watches the other kids play from a distance, building moats in the dirt.
A white girl arrives at the end of 4th grade, a tomboy named Crystal with unhappy red hair. No one warms to her and she pretends not to care. At recess, the centerpiece of the school’s curriculum, Zero, a teacher’s pet of sorts, approaches her with a stick to throw. Jared is swept up in the fun and suddenly has a friend. The three of them are rarely apart for the rest of the summer, spending most evenings at her dad’s newly opened convenience store. Her father is terrifying and bald but he winks at Jared and invites Zero in the store for treats.
At the beginning of 5th grade, the boys notice Crystal, offering walks home from school, cigarettes, and illicit adventures. She ditches Jared to cavort with new friends. Jared returns to his dirt castles and miniature towns made of twigs and trash. The following summer and the next and the next, he and Zero find a way to pass by the convenience store on their way home from anywhere. Crystal never notices him from across the street, until one night, when Zero barks at her and her friends, his tail wagging with hope. The edge of Jared’s sneaker lands hard against Zero’s ribcage. The dog yelps and spins away, bewildered, the whites of his eyes showing, pulling away from what he does not understand.
Puberty hits. A single instructor manages all subjects and middle school grades in a Morton building without heat or air conditioning. Papi offers to find Jared work as a laborer. Even Teal, never without a paperback, gives up on education and secures Jared a job in the Big Kitchen. Zero begs throughout his shifts and bulks up. The days are light on hope, but Jared has pocket money and a place to be.
Teal, Jared, and Zero walk to work before dawn. When the lunch crowd subsides, Jared wanders to kill time. The Camp is large enough for him to still find streets and alleyways he’s never visited. He does not do this at night, as Zero offers no protection. He doesn’t growl or bark when threatened. Instead, her nervously smacks his tongue and averts his eyes.
One afternoon, Jared is walking the perimeter fence when he hits a police checkpoint. A dozen cops have fanned out in the brush surrounding the Camp, weapons drawn, searching.
“You got a permit for the dog?” a weather cop asks, holding onto Jared’s ID card. “He don’t got a tag.”
“I…” Jared begins. The cop slides Jared’s ID into a breast pocket. “There’s no…He doesn’t need a license.”
“The fuck he don’t.” The cop gestures for the leash. His radio crackles, a distorted voice claiming to have found a tunnel entrance. “You might get your dog and your ID back once you pay the fine and buy a license.”
Zero looks at his owner as he is dragged into a shiny paddy wagon. Jared can still feel the leash in hand. His jeans are covered in fur. The cop pushes him aside and takes the next person’s ID card. Jared refuses to leave when threatened, for nothing matters now, not even his own life.
Grief drives Jared to spend a portion of each day at the police station. An elderly administrator claims there is still no record of such a dog, that the whole thing probably hasn’t been processed since they are so busy.
Three long weeks pass.
“I’m sorry Jared,” the administrator says, annoyed with their daily ritual. “At this point, I think you need to prepare for the worst. They might have kept your dog for training. They do that sometimes. Or…”
“Or what?” Jared asks.
“They might have euthanized him. That’s what happens to most strays.”
“He’s not a stray.”
“I know that Jared. I’m so sorry. But if I hear of anything…”
Jared returns the next day and the next. He waits two hours on the fourth day but the secretary refuses to talk to him. On the fifth day, she makes a primitive sound at the sight of him and disappears into a hallway, returning a few minutes later.
“Go to the back of the building and knock on the yellow door. Ask for Sergeant Williams.”
The weathered cop takes his time answering the door. He leads Jared through a well-lit office to a waiting room filled with worried parents. A half hour passes before the sergeant’s large torso reappears through the opaque glass. Jared hears the clicking of claws on tile. The door opens and Zero timidly enters the room before scampering toward his friend, licking, whining, his tail fanning dust into the air.
“You’re lucky kid. This dog is too beautiful to kill, too stupid to train. Just wants to play. All the fucking time. Play play play. Don’t you boy?” The sergeant tries to pet Zero but stops short given the spectacle of affection before him.
“But we still have that fine to deal with,” he says, pulling Jared’s ID from a shirt pocket, “Mr. Jared Mendoza. I believe your mom runs the Big Kitchen?”
“Yes sir,” Jared says eventually, wiping his chin dry. “She does.”
The next morning, Jared returns to the yellow door with $500 in cash and the promise of $500 more. The weathered cop hands Jared the leash and returns his ID. Zero and Jared leave the police station, round a corner, and break into a run. Zero sprints past his owner, his head bobbing like a race horse.
Zero becomes the neighborhood mascot, the dog that outlasted the cops, wore them down, walked away free. The older kids are more respectful toward Jared. He comes to expect the handshakes, the nods of recognition.
“You don’t need to worry, mom.” It is a chilly spring morning. “I know what I’m doing. ”
“It’s not just the cops,” Teal says, holding Jared’s hand on the way to work.. White hair has made an aggressive entrance at her temples. “It’s the people who don’t use the front gate you gotta worry about.”
Jared wants his hand free but lets her keep it. Like any 14 year old, he has become a practiced liar. “It’s just me and Zero out there during the day. We don’t see anybody. And you should see him running through the woods. Chasing squirrels and rabbits. He’s so happy. I’m so happy.”
Teal pulls up to examine her son’s face in the weak morning light. She sighs and kisses his hand.
“They’re there during the day, Jared. Even if you can’t see them. Does he bark our there?”
Jared shakes his head but his earnest look is forced. Teal scowls and looks down at Zero, who is standing between them, sniffing the air. Teal cups the dog’s face. “You better keep him safe out there. You hear me? No barking, OK? No barking.”
She looks back to her son. “If you ever come home after dark, it’s over. You hear me?”
Jared’s courage nearly fails him when he approaches one of the three known gaps in the fence. The first 100 meters outside are almost unbearable, but he is addicted to the smell of dirt and hemlock, the sound of running water. With Zero tightly leashed, he shuffles through the scrub to the edge of the forest. The shadows envelop him and his body tingles with the rush of freedom.
Zero’s nose drops to the forest floor. The dog moves erratically, drunk with choice. Jared begins to sing, to fantasize. His dog is quickly out of sight and barking at a treed squirrel. The leash comes out, for Zero cannot be trusted to stay close. But after treading a short distance, Jared undoes the latch and Zero races off again, leaping over logs and ferns with stunning grace. Since the boy cannot remember the outside world, this is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
Today, the sky darkens in late afternoon. The leaves and needles of the upper canopy hum with rainfall. He builds a slotted teepee from an abundance of downed branches. Before he can finish layering the outside with pine boughs, Zero is asleep inside. Jared snuggles against the dog’s soft coat and wonders what would happen to his mom and Papi were he never to return.
An obviously fake bird call disrupts his flirtation with sleep. A second call, then a whistled reply, closer, then the low rumble of men’s voices. He has not bothered to imagine this possibility. He wraps an index finger and thumb around Zero’s muzzle and quiets his own breathing, expecting footfall. He waits a long time, and though he has not spoken to her in years, imagines Crystal with him, fearful, holding his hand. This shell of bravery propels him to the gap in the fence, but there is no broken seam. The panels of chain mesh meet neatly at the post, newly bonded from top to bottom.
Jared returns to the forest, to his wooded shelter and awaits total darkness. He knows this will be his last trip, knows that his mother will convert worry into rage and retribution.
In the dark, he looks for a paper cup stuffed into the chain link fence, a knee-high marker for the second gap. He finds it repaired in the same way, as if someone wants him to see him rebuked for refusing confinement.
He hides in a band of weeds, lying on his back, watching a blur of clouds that is far too close to the ground. His mind races. He has never used the last gap, the one closer to a street lamp, closer to the Camp entrance. He lets Zero lick his face, then holds the dog in a tight embrace. He thinks of the cop, the yellow door, of the cages for both dog and human.
An older woman is under the lamp post, smoking. She watches Jared and Zero approach the spot where a plastic bag is snagged in the razor wire topping the fence. They push through the loose seam. The woman does not try to help. Instead, she scolds him in an unknown language and laughs. He would help someone in his situation, he is sure of it. The shrew deserves a beating, he thinks, searching for a brick or a piece of garbage to throw at her as he flees. He tries but cannot slow his gate, knowing that his own mother is waiting with frayed nerves, ready to slap him, to hold him.
The Camp knows no abundance. Shortages are rhythmic and sadistic. The water spigot near their home runs only a few hours each morning. There is no official electricity at night, when it is needed most. Jared’s mother must beg and barter for the Big Kitchen’s shitty produce. Wilted lettuce, bruised apples and bananas, tomatoes that carve like wood. Meat is mythical.
A month after Jared’s scare, the shortages intensify. The Camp survives on pasta, oatmeal, and canned vegetables. There is no food on the black market, only hooch and acid.
“All the camps are getting squeezed,” Papi says to Jared. Papi wears thick readers now and is soldering the green circuit board a busted radio. “The Christians are crusading against ‘corruption and immorality.'” He air quotes the last part of the sentence.
“By starving us?” Jared asks.
“It’s their way of keeping the military on a tight leash,” Papi says. “Same for the cops. The politicians shake up their smuggling operations, get rid of a few hundred commanders. Then then shit rolls downhill.”
Jared sits upright and looks at his grandfather. Zero does the same. “How so?”
“They yanked the police chief, right? The new guy comes in and fires all the beat cops who were on the take. The new recruits start cracking our heads for kicks and shut down the tunnel.”
“I’ve never told you about the tunnel?”
Jared shakes his head. Papi smiles and takes a deep breath.
Jared spends the next two years sleeping or working. At 16, he is empty, futureless, double the size of the boy who built dirt castles. There is no point to anything, he discovers. His biological existence is no different than Zero’s, no more meaningful. He considers sacrificing himself in a heroic stunt but there are no targets. Hunger strikes at other camps begin and end without success. The Camp grows more listless and self-destructive. The flu claims hundreds of lives, and many consider it a blessing, a necessary purge of the weak so that the strong have more to eat.
Gravity pulls at Zero with more conviction. He is 10, then 11. His interest in cats and garbage wane, his skin grows dry and flakey. A daily walk to nowhere, always past the long shuttered convenience store, is his only joy. But the darkened shop comes alive one Easter Sunday. People are coming and going from its front doors. Jared ties Zero to an exposed pipe and risks a trip inside. The store has only soap, cigarettes, and candy, but the residents lingering nearby are visibly excited.
Jared sees Crystal at the cash register. She is taller, more woman than girl, still incapable of smiling. He returns the next day, and the next. On the third day, he comes out of the store to find a familiar bald man scratching Zero’s neck.
“I remember this dog,” Crystal’s father says. “And I remember you, young man. Jared, right? Still working for your mother?” He smiles and wags his head in the direction of the Big Tent while his fingers work Zero’s neck.
“Yes sir,” Jared says.
“You can call me Liam,” he says, offering a hand. The bald man contemplates Jared over the long, firm shake. Jared is the first to give up and the man finally lets go, satisfied with the young man’s earnestness.
“You know,” the man says, “Things are starting open up again. If you’re sick of cleaning tables, I could use a hand around here.”
Jared’s eyes widen involuntarily. His aorta stretches.
“It’s a special job, helping people. You’ll be underground, so you can’t talk about it. You know how it is around here. Snitches and bitches.”
“Yes sir,” Jared manages. He looks through the window and finds Crystal’s unflinching eyes trained on him. “What kind of job exactly? Sir.”
“Supply chain. It’ll be hard work. But I pay my people well. Think about it, and if you’re still interested, come back tomorrow morning, and we’ll get started. How does that sound?” The man offers his hand again. Jared takes it with more determination and laughs at his good fortune. He sneaks a look inside and is not disappointed.
“That sounds good, sir.”
“Liam,” Jared repeats.
The man releases his grip with the amused, condescending look of any easy win. “And bring the dog. If I remember correctly, he’ll like being back in the woods.”
The summer passes and Jared barely sees the sun. Labor transforms his body into a stooped, muscled machine that can clear two meters of dirt and rock each and every day. Zero is perpetually dirty, a state he keenly enjoys. An impatient carpenter named Falcon oversees the work, making sure the tunnel is level and straight. At the end of August, Jared hits tree roots. He veers upward and finds sunlight and the warm, scented air of the forest.
Falcon teaches him how to camouflage, and to build with no nails, no power tools. Only mortise and tenor joints, with the occasional screw. The carpenter takes Jared’s dedication for granted. He never praises, nor does he criticize. They work in silence, building a pair of supply huts in the forest using sawed logs and fallen timber. They pump out water that collects in the tunnel then floor the 200m passage with rough plywood. They build carts and shelves and crates. A trickle of goods becomes a flood. The convenience store becomes the general store. The Camp residents buy underwear, batteries, toothpaste, pencils, hardware, knives, vodka, and medicine. There’s more dignity to be had, even some for Jared.
Zero exhausts himself in the forest each morning, then returns to the store with Jared for lunch and a snooze. Crystal bribes him with treats and spoiled food. He stays at her side for the rest of the afternoon while she runs the register. Crystal’s icy indifference to Jared thaws. He is becoming family at the expense of his own.
“So you’re a smuggler now?” Teal asks one evening after Jared returns home from several nights in the forest.
“It’s not like that mom. New project. I can’t talk about it.”
“So you’ll trust an Irish smuggler but you won’t trust me? Twenty-two hours of labor and all I get are dirty socks and a wall of silence?”
Jared doesn’t know why he finds it hard to tell her anything. It’s as if he has forgotten how to be her child. “Alright, alright,” he says finally. “But you can’t tell Papi, OK? He talks too much.”
Teal looks at him one the top of her glasses. “Understandable.” She pours herself a glass of water for blue jerry can and takes a seat next to Zero on the floor.
“Cabins,” he says.
“Cabins?” she asks.
“We’re building cabins. Underground cabins in a hidden part of the woods. A place for people to go, like for weddings and birthdays. Like a vacation from this shithole. Go stay in the woods with your friends and family. They’re pretty fucking cool. Me and this guy Falcon are building them.”
She knows to overlook the ‘shithole’ and the f-bomb. “All this time, I thought you were building tunnels.”
“I was. Now we’re building cabins. Liam wants me to run the place when we’re done. You’ll be my first guest. I promise.”
He doesn’t expect the worried look. She stops petting Zero to pull a stray curl from her son’s forehead and weave it behind his ear. “What happens when the cops decide to shut him down? What happens to you?”
“I see cops at the store all the time. That’s how it works. If there’s a crackdown, we’re gonna know about it. I’ll just hang low for a few months.”
“Honey,” she sighs. “What if it doesn’t happen that way? What if this is all a set up? Another game they are playing with us? What if…”
“Then they throw me in jail, mom! They shoot me! What’s the difference? How is that any different than this?” he says, spreading his arms wide. “Why is that any reason to stop doing what I’m doing. I make people happy, mom. Happy! Do you know what that means? Have you ever been happy?”
He regrets every word. Teal does not answer. Her head droops and comes to rest on his shoulder. Her body shudders inside of his powerful arms.
“You’ve never told me how you ended up here,” she says. A soaking rain has delayed work on the cabins. Jared and Crystal are hauling shipments through the tunnel to a safe house connected to the store.
“My grandfather,” he says. “Stealing food.”
“I thought it had to be a felony?” she says.
“It is if you do it enough. He worked at a ritzy steakhouse in Manhattan. He had a whole system, co-conspirators.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“The Bronx,” he says. “But I don’t remember it.”
“I remember my green swing set in our backyard with three huge trees,” she says nostalgically. “I built a treehouse in the middle one. We lived on a cul-de-sac so all the neighborhood kids played in our yard.”
“Where was this?” he asks.
“Philly,” she says. “Kensington.”
“So how did you end up here?”
Crystal gestures at the ceiling and puts a finger to her lips. They empty the cart and walk the tunnel in silence. When they reach the open air, she lights a cigarette.
“Ever thought about leaving this place?” he asks. “You’re white. You could probably get amnesty when you’re 21.”
“Not an option in this family,” she says dismissively and takes another drag. “How about you. Thought of joining the army?”
Jared nods his head from side to side. “Maybe. I don’t know. This isn’t so bad.” She is watching his face for meaning, and lets a corner of her mouth bend upward.
In the afternoon heat, they haul another 50 crates of something heavy and unmarked from a supply hut to the cart hidden inside the tunnel entrance. She walks in front of him, never behind. They are wearing identical boots, both pairs covered in mud. They are silly with exhaustion.
“I like your t-shirt,” he says out of nowhere, a compliment he formulated that morning. “Goes with your hair.”
Her generic pink t-shirt is a red at the armpits and collar. Sweat drips from her nose and chin.
“You’re fucking kidding,” she says with an expression he cannot read.
“You’re flirting with me?”
“I’m not,” he says in retreat. “I genuinely believe that.”
She rolls her eyes. “Don’t forget,” she says, kissing her index finger and branding his forehead with it.”When we’re down here, I’m your fucking boss.”
She turns, lifts another crate from the cart and stacks it, then leaves the rest for Jared. Zero follows her out of the basement, eager to lick the sweat from her calves. Jared wipes his own brow clean.
The clandestine cabins are an instant success. Liam does not charge much, only $30 a night. He did not have them built to make money, only to beget loyalty and goodwill. Access is invite-only. Patrons must find their own way through a hole in the fence, arriving after dusk and leaving before dawn. The rowdiest of celebrations can be heard from the Camp, adding to their allure. Strangers approach Jared, cash in hand, pleading for a connection.
Not all the Camp residents are sanguine about the wooded retreat. With many palms to grease, no open secret in the Camp can burn too brightly. The previous crackdown came without provocation, or none that Jared could name. He begins to doubt Liam.
The title of manager is a misnomer. Jared is still Liam’s mule but with the added responsibility of cleaning the cabins each morning. His resentment is tempered by the freedom of the woods. Outside and alone, his thoughts can wander. Zero can find dead things or slick feces to roll in. The privilege is worth the risk.
Zero’s once sleek body is now covered in fatty tumors, some as big as a fist. Footsteps or an opening door no longer stir him, due either to hearing loss, laziness, or both. His balance disappears for weeks at a time, leaving his head cocked to one side while he begs. He zigs and zags into walls. The steep basement stairs confound him and he rarely descends them without a wipe out.
His answer to old age is barking. At everything. The habit brings a fall from grace. Papi taps him on the nose, telling him to shut up. Crystal shoos him from behind the store counter but defends him when Liam threatens banishment. Only Jared loves him as before, perhaps more, though ceaseless barking in the forest could bring ruin. Fourteen is an unlikely age for a Camp dog, yet Jared’s imagination, his future, does not compute without Zero. He cannot remember a single day that did not start with a face lick and a pee walk.
Jared’s habit of rising before dawn means that he is often the first to arrive at the general store. On a beautiful fall morning, he finds Liam, Crystal, and a crew-cut cop named Mike already in the basement office, each of them irritable and twitchy.
“Jared!” Liam says. “Thank god. Grab your tools. You’re gonna go with Crystal. And where the fuck is Falcon?”
“What’s going on?” Jared asks. The cop’s eyes dart to Jared and then Zero. His belt is covered with menacing gadgetry, anchored on the right side by a black semi-automatic pistol.
“Crackdown,” Liam says quickly. “I need you two to dismantle everything outside. Hide it, break it apart, whatever you have to do. The tunnel entrance, the main supply hut, the cabins. We can rebuild when all this blows over but for now, it has to disappear. You understand me?”
“Yes sir,” Jared says. “How long do we have?”
“An hour,” says the cop after glancing at his watch. “Two at most.”
A minute later, Liam hugs his daughter while scanning Jared for loyalty. They are standing in a dirt hallway, a spot Jared dug into existence. Zero pulls a trace scent from the dank tunnel air and steps toward his morning buffet. Liam seals the hatch above their heads, snuffing out all light, all hope of a quick return. The folly rolls forward.
The tunnel entrance takes a half hour and never fully collapses. They cover it but not their own tracks. They don’t notice the blood on their legs, the scratches on their arms, the splinters.
The supply hut is indestructible, the path to it well-worn. They give up after a few minutes and head for the cabins, which Jared now thinks of as a hiding place. But where is his dog? How many cops are already in the forest with their weighty belts, their batons drawn?
Zero is neck deep in a stagnant pool of black muck. The cool liquid delights his skin and the stench hides his scent. He is a predator. But he is a pack animal too. Where is Jared? Where is the girl who feeds him things from crinkly plastic pouches?
He smells smoke, more than the usual amount. He drinks from a favorite stream along the way, the path he takes every morning. Jared’s smell is faint. Zero feels alone and vulnerable. He quickens his pace and stumbles.
The smoke grows worse. He can smell nothing else as he follows the path to the cabins. His old eyes see fire. The cabins are on fire. There are men in dark clothes moving about. He can smell Jared but he cannot see him, cannot hear his own name being called because he is now barking and barking, his cataract eyes wild with fear.
“Zero!” It is the girl’s voice. She and Jared are on the ground, face down, their arms behind their backs. A man is standing over them. The man is yelling at Jared, kicking him.
Zero finds air within the smoke to keep barking. It is the only thing he can do. The man turns toward him, pulling an object from the right side of his belt. He should bite the man’s leg. He knows this is stronger than barking but he has never done it to a human. It is not something he does, even now.
The man who hurt Jared is very close. Zero’s throat burns from the smoke and from the violent bursts air and sound. He barks to his left and his right. He is breaking the air, breaking the man’s ears. Jared, too, is barking, his voice torn and weak.
The man raises his arm slowly. The ancient dog is backing away. The black thing in the man’s hand is pointed at his head. The man’s eyes say they are ready to do something horrible. The gun flashes white, a brightness that arrives without sound, without time to say goodbye.