They found the German Shepherd outside a rusty storage building three months ago. Ava had never seen a dog, so when the scrawny creature came around the corner, she screamed for her parents. Her father came up behind her, holding the shotgun which they kept in the car when driving through abandoned cities.
Ava flung herself at her mother and waited for Dad to shoot the dog.
‘I won’t let bad people get near you. That’s why we’ve got this gun,’ Dad had told her. Ava thought they had bullets, because she had been taught to load a gun and that guns wouldn’t fire without them. She waited for her eardrums to sting, but no shot came.
Four ravens stared from atop a telephone line.
Dad laughed. He swept the dog up in his arms and carried it back to their four-seat car with dents alongside it and one flat tire.
‘Roger, don’t give it too much…’ Mum said as he fed the dog and gave it some of their water. The dog devoured the food. When Dad closed the trunk and it realised there would be no more, it became skittish. Ava thought Dad would let the dog go back to living somewhere among these buildings, with twined plants reaching up the side of them. But he caught the dog by the scruff of its neck, opened the car door and fumbled for something on the floor. They had a coil of rope that Mum kept telling her not to play with, because they might have use for it. Dad got one end of the rope and tied a noose around the dog’s neck. Ava frowned. They were always whispering about not enough food when they thought she couldn’t hear, so it seemed silly to feed the dog then not let it live. But Dad explained it wasn’t a noose that tightened.
They got back in the car and Ava sat beside the dog in the back seat and saw that Dad was right: no matter how hard she tugged at the rope, the dog would not stop licking her feet. The dog laid its head in her lap, fur tickling the goose bumps through the tears in her jeans. She decided to call it Kadie.
Not a week later they came upon the house where they were staying now. Dad said that their maps showed no cities nearby, but Ava also remembered him saying maps weren’t reliable. There weren’t any new cities, but some places weren’t there anymore, and other cities were abandoned. Some smaller towns and villages had become self-sustaining communities that made collective decisions. Others had leaders and trade. But cities were desolate places, where gangs roamed. They looked for things to eat, and sometimes traded with other gangs or towns which let them get close enough to barter.
Her friend Macy had told her tales of gangs who ate humans, but Ava didn’t believe her. No-one was that cruel.
When they arrived at the house, Dad went in with his shotgun and a knife he’d kept in his belt since they left the community. She waited in the car with Mum and wasn’t allowed inside until the sun had almost completed its daily journey, and fractals grew on the windshield.
While Ava explored the house with Kadie, her parents stayed in the kitchen to whisper like they did the night they’d left all of her friends behind. Behind the house she found a fenced garden. The fence had fallen over in some places, but the yard was full of grass and vegetables, apart from a plot in the corner where the plants had been ripped up and the earth overturned. When Kadie began digging there, Dad got awfully annoyed and made her whimper.
But that was months ago, and these days Ava and Kadie spent their days playing around the house, and in the garden – just not near that plot of overturned dirt where the flowers and grass wouldn’t grow. They seldom spent time in the room her parents gave her, because it was a boy’s room, and had toys she didn’t want.
‘They’re not mine. We can’t throw them away. He’ll want to play with them when he gets back,’ she said, when her father tried to clear the toys away. Mum ran out of the room and Dad went too quiet.
When she was sent to bed, Ava let her feet stretch outside the duvet so Kadie could warm them. The dog would snuggle up to her until Ava got annoyed by the foul breath and shoved it back to the foot end. Ava told Kadie about her friends Macy and Faylinn from the village they left, and about her parents arguing when they thought she was asleep. Kadie lay on the pine floor while Ava made lines in her fur and let her woof at the things that upset her – and she understood that this was why her father had brought the dog along.
The door squeaks shut behind Ava. Dusk moves its graphite pencil over the landscape and the warmth of day seeps out of the ground. Kadie patters beside her. She takes the lantern from its hook outside the door. Kadie rubs against her as she lights it.
The dark isn’t scary with you here.
Ava lets a hand trail through the dog’s fur. They climb together through a gap in the fence. She lets Kadie lead her through the darkness, with the sun tucked away behind the hilltops and the moon veiled by clouds. Her eyes take a while to adapt. Dad told them to stay close, but the weeks spent around the house have made Ava restless and eager to explore. They get to the road and begin to follow the crumbled asphalt to the nearest town.
Ava takes off her shoes when they reach the street outside town, and walks barefoot to the first row of shops; the windows lie shattered in the street. The town seems deserted. Silos stick up from behind a row of buildings and there’s a water tower with stairs coiled around its legs.
‘Can you climb those?’ she says to Kadie. The dog licks her right hand. Ava giggles. They leap over a flowerbed with no plants in it, pass a row of cars and begin to climb the stairs together. Wind creeps through the sleeves of her jacket; although the house isn’t far away, she can’t see its lights anymore.
Kadie pants beside her. They reach the top of the water tower as the moon escapes the clouds – the top is a dome encircled by railings. Ava lets her bare feet dangle over the edge and leans back so she can see the moon. Kadie puts her head in Ava’s lap.
She watches clouds pass by the moon; some linger - as though curious about this glare in the night sky – but most rush past.
They’re chasing the sun.
Ava’s eyes wander over the lifeless town, the greenhouses outside it, and the rocky hillside where the moonlight weaves moving carpets through the passing clouds. She spots a silhouette on the carpet. It moves, like a cockroach down the mountainside, climbing over rocks, shifting side to side as if stopping to sense its environment. What is it?
‘Shush, Kadie.’ She slides a hand around the dog’s neck and holds it close as the shape climbs down the hillside and prowls towards town.
‘Sometimes people eat people. They take young women with them, and their parents never hear from them again.’ Macy said her older brother told her things like that.
‘It’s not like that sweetie.’ Mum had refused to tell Ava why the women were taken. ‘You’re too young – they don’t take the young ones.’ Her voice broke like that vase Kadie had swept to the floor with her tail, last week. Ava wanted Dad to be there to hold Mum, but he wasn’t, so she did.
The shape becomes a man.
He walks over the asphalt where Ava took her shoes off, stops and combs a hand through what hair he has left.
Ava gets down on her belly. Trees sway beside the road that leads out of town.
‘Lie down Kadie – now.’
She swallows. Kadie whines and lies down. As Ava reaches out to soothe the dog, her hand touches something and recoils.
Her left shoe falls from the tower and thuds against the asphalt below.
Her hand trembles as the man comes towards the tower, detaching a chain from his belt. He stops beneath the tower.
Above them the moon is full. Kadie’s teeth glisten.
Ava buries her head in the fur.
Fredrik Walloe is a Norwegian freelance journalist and writer who likes to feed London squirrels and sip coffee while people-watching.
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Photo credit: Egypt Courtyard, by Susan Greenberg