Copper is the most antsy, selfish, stupid dog. She yips when you’re not paying attention, she flops on the floor and pushes your feet, belly jittering like jello, eyes pleading. Or she sneaks by your toes to beg, and if you pet her she pees.
If I put my hands on her head and push down to her rump, she pumps out a puddle.
Copper sleeps in the back office with the door locked and a gun on the desk. Where I sleep. I don’t trust the other dogs. They’re dreamers. But Copper sleeps lightly, and has a good ear, and will nose me awake when they are nearby.
Not that they are a threat. I’m more afraid of humanity. You know, those hairless apes who move undetected and outsmart doors. The kind who would love to find a pet store with at least three years of good eating. The kind with guns.
So that’s how I spend my nights. Puddles and yips and the fear of waking to something scrambling at the door. To animal shrieks.
My mornings are less exciting.
Down here, we don’t have the weather for clear glass. The owner installed black windows to deter the sun’s stare, the flaming sword. Iron bars for thieves. A surprisingly perfect arrangement for someone trying to survive the end of man. The rise of man’s leftovers.
So, I sit by the window and watch, and I’ve long stopped feeling chills when they walk by. I’m curious. Some sit on benches to rest, and I wonder if the sun gives them energy, but then they’d be green, not silver blue, and eating mulch instead of meat. Some bump into each other, and I wonder if that’s some passive aggressive thing the undead do. Like the narrator in Notes from Underground shouldering his enemy.
Some run after squirrels, who’ve done rather well, living high above clawing fingers. The wiser dead sit and watch like me, treating the others with stony judgment. Why waste the energy? Why get your head stuck in tree knots or newspaper bins or break off fingers and toes? Their sagely whites turn to the clouds, and sometimes I think they shake their heads in disgust at fellow cadavers (although these might be convulsions).
Some of the dead have routines. Pushing grocery carts, baby strollers. Walking back and forth from the car to the bank, the car to the bank. Hell, there’s even a couple who hold hands, fingers petrified into shackles, mocking the preacher who told them ‘til death do us part.’
It’s easy to forget they spend every their slackless lives searching for living things. My meat, for example. And the meat on four legs, two legs, and no legs in my store. That I’m observing a society of blind, mute, dumb cannibals.
Only three months ago, my boss was on the phone telling me to lock the doors and shut off the lights and fill the tubs with water. We have these drums in the back—installed after Hurricane Alyssa. Outside, the living began to run, and the dead followed, and I watched hoping no one would try to break my window or shake the door, shrieking.
Finally, after long hours of staring at the dead, and them staring at themselves in my window’s reflection, I released the birds. From the roof, of course. I figured they’d be fine. With the electricity gone, I knew the aquariums would turn green, so I fed the fish to the cats and dumped the water. Hey, I’m no saint. I keep the mice in their cages, too, for emergency rations.
The dogs and cats, I let loose in the store. Their droppings go over the roof. Toward the back. I don’t want to dirty my view.
Luckily there’s plenty of chow and even a few cans, and there’s enough water, even if it smells weird. The pets have made themselves a society of their own, and they wrestle and play and growl and fight and meow and ruff and ignore the dead that pass like shadows. Mostly, the animals sleep. Only Ollie stays muzzled. He kept barking.
We’ve had one visitor. I was sitting by the window, looking at a guy in a tux with a faded yellow flower in his fist, wondering if he ate his prom date, when I saw him stop, and turn, and run. I saw them all stop and turn and run.
There was a brown flash among the cars, something down by the wheels and fenders, followed by gray hands.
“No, no, no,” I said. I hoped they would get it quick. “Get the hell out of my parking lot. Run until you hit trees.”
There was, I knew, a code of emotional ethics still operating in the back of my mind.
With every passing second, the weight of temptation was growing. That nasty bit of morality that kills us faster than cancer.
Because if I went out there, if I was bit, if I joined the elements, no one would be here, monitoring food, cleaning messes, keeping the cats and dogs from fighting like cats and dogs. It wasn’t just me that counted now. There were twenty-eight lives depending on me not doing the right thing.
Relief. For the first time in a year, the lot was cleared of corpses. The walkers, resters, bumpers, blunderers, squirrel-runners, bird-biters, the sages—chasing the stray dog. Hell, even the married couples agreed on something for once.
My animals, sensing something, came to observe—the Labradors with noble frowns, the cats’ paws tucked beneath their chests. \
Then, like a scene from a night terror, the stray trotted out from between the cars.
Maybe it smelled the cat musk and hot breath, our furs and fears not as airtight as I hoped.
The dog sniffed one of those trash receptacles you see in mall circuits—the kind that look like they’re made in a blacksmith’s shop. She was small and emaciated with wild eyes.
I decided. I opened the locks and called.
“Come on,” I shouted, held out my hand. “See, human? I’m not going to eat you.”
They were coming. I could see their heads above the cars. Below the clouds. Hear growls, cries. The dog was looking at me, keeping her body between us, ready to run. She was sniffing. I don’t think she was smelling me as much as the musts and mists curling out the door. Smelling the fear and love, saliva and shit, the living things.
It was probably that last bit that convinced her. She ran. I turned the locks. The dead came gurgling and smashed against the door, struck against the rails over the windows.
Eventually they calmed down, white eyes peering at gloomy reflections. Maybe the mirror black made them uncomfortable. I had long moved the animals into the office, hissing at the dogs to shut up. The gun on my desk.
After so many hours, the dead forgot.
And now that dog sleeps beside me at night, and when she pees at my touch, her body shaking, her eyes pleading, I clean it quietly before going back to sleep.