Siska Vrijburg

The mastiff didn’t count days, but he knew his pack had been gone longer than ever before. There had been four of them. The man, the woman, the little boy, and the mastiff himself. The house was empty now, except for the mastiff and his memories. Sometimes he would dream of them, hear their voices, smell their scents again. Waking alone, the mastiff would curl up on the floor in disappointment. He loved his pack. They’d gone many times before, one at a time or all together. They had always come back before now.

The little boy had been the first to go. The mastiff had tried to comfort the man and woman, had curled up on the floor next to the bed where they slept and wept all day. He nuzzled them and whined when they cried. He had been a good dog, and they told him so. But he didn’t understand about the little boy. He had always come back. Why not this time?

When the man left forever, the woman was already sick. She slept often and uneasily, tossing in sweaty sheets. She no longer left the house. Then the men came for her in their inflated plastic suits that smelled like a newly scoured bathtub. He growled and barked at the men. The house was his to defend. He had always been a proud gatekeeper. But biting was forbidden to him; it was one of the things his pack would not tolerate—like howling, getting on the bed, and relieving himself in the house. So when the men approached warily, the mastiff backed away, bared his fangs but did not bite, and let the men slip past. When they carried the woman out on a stretcher, the mastiff merely whined and licked her hand.

The mastiff saw the men in inflated plastic suits again. He barked at them through the bay windows of his house as they spray-painted X’s on every door, as far down the street as the mastiff could see. They left in white vans and never returned.

The mastiff hated to be alone. Loneliness ached in him like thirst. He waited impatiently for the man and woman to return. They were his pack. They controlled the opening of doors in and out of the house, the flow of water, and access to food. They had stroked his head and back and scratched under his jaw and their touch had made him feel safe. He had never been hungry.

Alone in the house, the mastiff scratched at the door and whined until, ashamed, he pissed on the floor. He knocked over the trashcan in the kitchen. He ate some moldy cheese, crunched up some old chicken bones, licked clean the plastic wrapping that had once contained a snack-cake, and ate the grease-saturated cardboard of an old pizza box. He felt sick after, but sick was better than hungry. He watched the door, waiting for his pack to return to fill his bowl with clean water and let him outside. One day, the lights went out and the fridge stopped humming. There were fewer and fewer cars driving within his hearing. Eventually, there were none.

The mastiff saved nothing for later. He drank when he was thirsty, and now he could only reach a few drops of water by snaking his tongue into the bottom of the toilet, where it tasted of rust and mold. He felt tired all the time. He spent most of his days sleeping on the sofa, dreaming about clean, clear water, warm hands caressing his head, chasing a ball through a park on a sunny day. When he wasn’t sleeping, he wandered from room to room. He climbed the stairs and gazed at the bed the man and woman had shared, where he had not been allowed to lie.

On the night of the rainstorm, the mastiff broke that rule and climbed into the unmade bed. The sound of thunder had always frightened the big dog. In the past, his pack had comforted him during storms. This time, without reassuring pats on the head, he burrowed under blankets that still smelled of the woman. She had, he felt, always protected him from the danger flashing and booming outside. The smell of her soothed him, despite the odor of sickness, like hot blood and rot, that still lingered beneath it. He slept well that night and slept on the bed again the next night.

The next morning, there was a cat in the yard. He heard the cat even before he caught its scent. It mewed, hungry. The mastiff barked. His tail swung back and forth, and his nails clacked on the kitchen floor. His thirst was forgotten. Through the glass door, the mastiff saw the cat scramble up the tree and across a long, low-hanging branch to the far side of the wood panel fence. The mastiff scratched at the glass door. From old habit, he whined over his shoulder, begging to be let out.

He went to the window, where the scent of the cat wafted in fresh and compelling. He’d always believed the screen covering the window was as sure a barrier as the glass door, but when he stood up and pressed his paws against it, the mesh bent under his weight. He scratched at the screen, fell back on all fours, barked, and stood on his hind legs again. This time the screen buckled under his weight and fell into the garden below. The mastiff looked back once more. He listened for the sound of a key in the lock, or the familiar drone of the garage door. He heard only birdsong and the movement of the cat through unmowed grass. Then the mastiff was in the yard, sniffing and digging at the fence. The cat was gone.

The mastiff found rainwater pooled in an empty flowerpot, drank it all. It tasted of clean black soil. He patrolled the yard, marking the trees and the fence. He rolled in the grass. He jumped and danced in the sunlight, running in circles and barking at nothing. A few barks answered him from the distance.

The mastiff lay in a smudge of sunlight. When he grew hungry, soon after sunset, he tried to reenter the house, where the kitchen floor was still half covered in a sparse sprinkling of brown pellets. He could reach the windowsill by standing on his hind legs, but his back paws slipped and scrapped against the siding until he fell. His back crushed what had once been a well-groomed patch of cilantro, now overrun with weeds.

The mingled scents of the house drifted out the window. The mastiff detected, beneath the rotting garbage, the smell of the woman of his pack and for a moment he imagined that she was just inside, standing in the kitchen ready to let him back in. He barked at the back door and was answered with silence. He howled and his howl was filled with loss and loneliness. Other howls, from distant houses, answered his and for a moment he wasn’t alone.

That night in the yard was more pleasant than the last few in the house. Despite his hunger and the chill in the air, it was good to be away from the smells of rotten food and his own waste. The air smelled cleanly of grass and pollen except when the wind shifted and carried the smell of smoke from the city, glowing orange.

Faced with the prospect of another day without food, the mastiff began to dig at the fence. The dirt under the sod was moist and black. It came away in heavy chunks. Soon, he could fit his forepaws through to the other side, then his snout. It was not yet noon when the brindle mastiff had dug a hole big enough to fit most of his massive head. At the first whiff of freedom, the mastiff barked and danced in a circle. In his excitement, he jumped over the fence and landed smoothly in the tall grass of the lawn next door.

The mastiff looked back at the fence, ran once around this new yard and then around the little white house into the front yard. It was still home, familiar, but this was a world he had only ever seen from the end of a leash.

The neighborhood had changed. The last time the mastiff had been taken for a walk, the streets had been alive with the noise of passing cars, playing children, human conversation, muffled televisions and radios from inside the houses. No longer. In the relative quiet, the mastiff could hear birdsong, the chirping and buzzing of insects, and the occasional skittering of rodents.

With no one to tug on his leash, the mastiff could sniff under the doors of every house. Many of these smelled of rotten meat, decay, and mold. The mastiff found the smell of death unsavory and avoided these houses. Others smelled of food—old food, food long gone bad—but food. He would circle these houses, bark at their windows, scratch at their doors. His hunger was an obsession.

Water was less of a problem. The mastiff drank rainwater from plastic kiddie-pools, from potholes, from red metal wagons, from birdbaths, from the seats of plastic patio chairs, and from the beds of abandoned pickup trucks.

At a house that smelled of old food, the mastiff found the gate to a fence swinging open. The yard was full of crab apples fallen from a tree around which a leash was tied. The dog at the end of that leash was long dead—a shapeless pile of fur writhing with white maggots. The mastiff gave the dog’s remains a reluctant sniff and turned away. There was a small swinging door into the house from the back yard. It was meant for a dog much smaller than the mastiff, but he forced his broad shoulders and thick ribs through.

This little room had been the dead dog’s home. A crate lay against the wall filled with blankets and a well-chewed strip of rawhide. There were two bowls, one empty but for the residue of long evaporated saliva, the other, miraculously, full of food. The dog could see and smell the patina of mold covering the small brown pellets, but he ate. The bowl, like the door, was designed for a much smaller dog. The mastiff licked it clean in moments.

Sated, he followed a familiar smell into a small room at the top of the stairs. They were together, a man and woman, in each other’s arms. They had been dead longer than the dog outside. The putrid smell, which had penetrated to the mattress of the bed they shared, was starting to fade. A faint earthiness was beginning to eat away the odors of rotten meat and old shit. And under that, almost too faint to detect, was the sour smell of the sickness. The mastiff left that house and that yard and returned to his own house. He didn’t scratch at the door or jump the fence, but he did curl up on the mat before the front door.

The next morning, he woke up to sharp, cramping, abdominal pain. The day was spent in misery—diarrhea interrupted only by brief restless naps, mouthfuls of grass which he later threw up, and a few trips across the road to a birdbath for water. Standing on his hind legs and lapping up the scummy water took all the energy the mastiff had. After each drink, he would stumble back to the mat in front of his old house and curl up again.

Sometime during the warmest part of the day, he opened his eyes to a strange vision. Another dog, a brown and white smooth fox terrier, stood in the street. She stared at the mastiff. Her oversized ears perked up like bat wings. The mastiff tried to rise but could only lift his head and whine. The fox terrier, no longer afraid, trotted up. She sniffed him, licked his face. The mastiff could smell the terrier’s last meal—not garbage or dog food, but fresh raw meat. The mastiff tried to rise again, but, like a dream, the fox terrier was gone.

As the mastiff rose the next morning, he felt a tug that reminded him painfully of the little boy grabbing his fur with stubby fingers. His loneliness renewed, he drank once more from the birdfeeder and followed the scent trail of the fox terrier. Tracking by scent came easily. His world was made of odors, each unique. To him, the fox terrier was a combination of scents that together struck a single chord. There were moments when he lost the trail, distracted by other smells, but he could always find the fox terrier again. She pulled at him. She seemed a comfort, somehow.

When he found the fox terrier, she was behind a house with peeling white paint and barred, broken windows. Chain-link surrounded the back yard, but the gate had been removed from its hinges and sat against one wall of the house. The yard was all sandy dirt and scattered dandelions. No trees or bushes grew, but there was an old, rusted slide. In the far corner of the yard, the fox terrier slept in her doghouse, far too small for the mastiff to enter. The doghouse had white wooden walls and a roof made of ribbed aluminum. It had been carefully painted with the image of a large yellow flower.

The fox terrier woke at his approach. When she barked the mastiff stopped, kept back. The fox terrier crept into the open. Their noses met. They moved around each other in a circle, sniffing. They exchanged playful barks. Playful barks turned to playful bites, which led the mastiff to knock the little dog over and pin her to the ground with his mouth. The fox terrier whined and showed her soft belly. Satisfied, the mastiff let her up. The two dogs took turns chasing each other around the small yard.

The mastiff eventually grew tired of play and went out in search of food. The fox terrier went with him. When the mastiff stood on his hind legs to nose inside a dumpster, the smaller dog darted behind it and came out with a wriggling rat. She laid the rat at the mastiff’s feet with a pleased bark. He watched the injured rat as it writhed, big and black, its fur slick and greasy, a broken back preventing escape. He ate it whole.

The mastiff had never before tasted fresh meat or warm living blood. The rat was a tiny meal for the giant dog, but it was superb. The mastiff knew now what he would do if he ever caught one of the cats or squirrels he had chased his whole life.

Several more times, the mastiff relied on the fox terrier to provide a rat or squirrel for his dinner, but he soon learned to do his part. The mastiff, with his loud bark and long shadow, could easily scare animals towards the fox terrier’s deft jaws. But it takes many rats to satisfy the mastiff’s appetite and, over time, rodents in the terrier’s neighborhood grew more scarce and more cautious. The two dogs began to expand their territory.

The fox terrier was only the first to join the mastiff’s new pack. Some dogs were friendly from the start, like the fox terrier had been. Some were hostile, jealous, territorial. Either way, there was a fight. Dominance was everything. The mastiff, bigger and stronger than any dog he met, always won. But each fight taught him something. He learned what to do when another dog got a grip on his ear or his tail and how to use his size and weight to force smaller dogs onto their backs. Soon the pack was six strong. The fox terrier, two fearless black and white mutts from the same litter, a pedigree springer spaniel, a white lab, and the mastiff.

The mastiff’s toughest fight had been against the white lab. The white lab, already scarred from numerous fights, fought the mastiff with both ferocity and intelligence. His attacks came at unusual, hard to defend angles, then he would dart away, force the larger dog to pursue him, staying just out of reach. And when pursuit lagged, the lab would strike again. This tactic wore the mastiff to near exhaustion until finally the lab darted away too slowly and the fight ended as they all did, with mastiff holding his challenger down, teeth on throat. The white lab lied motionless and let out a whine of submission, but the mastiff did not release him. He held the lab’s life in his jaws, felt the pulse of the other dog’s heartbeat, and growled low in his chest. Then, after a long moment, he eased off, yawned, and turned away from his defeated rival. And so, the mastiff held his place at the top of the hierarchy, but his friendship with the white lab was wary.

He was always wary. Whenever there was food, but not enough food for everyone, he had to fight. Every time a new dog joined the pack, he had to fight. Every time another dog wanted the first bite of a fresh kill, he had to fight. Those who still had their balls were the worst, they were always pushing and fighting, always trying to rise up in the pack, to usurp him at the top. The mastiff had lost his a long time ago in a distant white room. He didn’t miss them; he didn’t understand he was missing anything. But he had come to recognize the savagery of dogs with balls. He could recognize them by their smell, and he no longer let them run with the pack. When he met a dog with balls, he chased it off or killed it.

When he had lived with his first pack, the water had almost tasted of nothing. Just the faintest tang of copper, the mild chalky aftertaste of calcium, and the chemical scent of chlorine. Now the water he drank smelled of feces and rot, it tasted oily and gritty with mud. It swam with creatures just barely big enough to see. When he drank too much of it, his stomach cramped, and he shat foul-smelling liquid which clung to hair on the back of his legs. But his thirst left him no choice.

When it rained, water would rush through the streets. This water was cleaner, despite the dirt and trash it would wash along with it. But it wasn’t as clean as the water in his old home. The water of which he still dreamed. The mastiff dreamed of clean water on nights when there hadn’t been enough, clean or dirty. On other nights he dreamed of bowls of food, the crunchy little pellets—how they had tasted freshly poured from an airtight bag. Filling and delicious, despite the monotony. Some nights he dreamed of other things, of a soft bed, of chasing a ball across warm grass, of the man scratching him under his jaw line in just the right spot to make his back leg twitch.

Most nights he dreamed of food.

The mastiff ate first whenever the pack found food. It was never enough, not for a dog his size, not when he had to share. Much of the time, they ate trash. But, by the time the weather began to cool, all the edible garbage had rotted beyond recognition. They relied more and more on hunting. Rats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits flourished in the empty city. Racoons and opossums were rare, but they provided more meat and were easier to catch when spotted. The pack ruthlessly pursued any cats in their territory. They ate the few they caught, but cats were lean and their sharp little claws left stinging cuts. Only once did a member of the mastiff’s pack chase a skunk.

At the outskirts of the mastiff’s growing territory, there was a single chicken coop in a fenced-in yard. The birds, while difficult to corner and catch, fed the pack for days. It was the most satisfied the mastiff had felt in this new world. But after the last chicken had been caught and devoured, the pack suffered from weeks of hunger in which little prey was found.

Then an intruder entered their territory, a large brown mutt. The intruder—smaller than the mastiff but thick across the chest—smelled of fear and desperation. The mastiff could smell that the other dog still had his balls and was therefore dangerous. The intruder’s ears pressed against his skull, his lips curled back revealing yellow teeth, black-spotted gums.

The mastiff growled low, bristling as he approached. His pack spread out and circled around the intruder, cutting off lines of escape. The intruder was ready to fight, and that made him easy to surround. The mastiff moved toward him, dominating his attention. The intruder growled low while it poised to strike, but his growl became a high-pitched yelp when the white lab clamped down on a rear leg. He turned to face this new threat, and the mastiff clamped his jaw down hard on the other dog’s neck. On other days, in other fights, the mastiff would have simply held him there, bite firm but not fatal. But a hunger born of hard, lean weeks gripped him.

The mastiff closed his jaws, felt his fangs puncture the intruder’s neck, felt warm salty blood fill his mouth, felt the vertebrae shift and spine snap. The dog fell limp, a small gasp escaping through his constricted airway like a whistle.

They began by licking up the blood where it spilled, then the mastiff bit off the dog’s balls and swallowed them whole. As the sun set behind the city’s skyline, the pack feasted.

The brown mutt was the largest prey they’d caught. And yet, divided six ways among all the dogs in the pack, only the fox terrier ate her fill. That night, the pack huddled together against the autumn chill. Something had changed for them all. Other dogs, they now knew, could be prey. The next day, they wandered out of their territory, moving through unfamiliar surroundings toward where the buildings were taller and packed close together.

They no longer encountered lone dogs. The few that had survived had banded together. A single dog might be prey, but a pack of dogs never was. Slowly, the pack began to starve again. Until, in a park near the center of the city, they found the horse. The horse was already dead, and a pack of dogs was already eating it. But this was a prize worth fighting for.

The grass in the park was long and seedy; it had evidently fed the horse well. It was large, fat, and meaty. The horse’s many wounds cast steam into the cold air. Its brown and white coat, where it wasn’t torn and bloody, had the gloss of good health. The dogs eating the horse looked up at the approach of the mastiff’s pack. Their muzzles were red with blood. They were lean but not gaunt. Five of them were pit bulls, two were German shepherds. One of the pit bulls had hanging teats which swayed with her every movement. Several of the males had balls. Those had their ears cropped, their tails docked, and fighting scars old enough to be almost invisible. Most were as big as the white lab, some were bigger than any dog in the mastiff’s pack, save the mastiff himself. All were fighters. All were dangerous.

But there was the horse.

There was the hunger.

The mastiff moved closer, his stomach grumbling, and was met with a chorus of snarls, growls, and angry barks. The white lab and two of the mutts began to bark back and soon both packs were barking and growling, each trying to scare the other off. The mastiff could sense the fear and hesitation in his own pack, but he knew their fierce loyalty well. They would follow him into death.

The two packs met with barks, growls, the scrabble of paws and, soon, whines and howls of pain. The mastiff tried to end a white pit bull quickly, with a swift bite to the neck, but the other dog was a canny fighter, avoiding the first strike and retaliating viciously from below. They tumbled together in the dirt and dried grass, and when they came up, the white pit bull’s jaws were locked firmly on the mastiff’s ear. The mastiff jerked away, in pain and fear, and the teeth tore loose from his ear. He retreated then, and his pack followed.

The other pack pursued, but not far. The horse lay exposed behind them, and they turned back to protect it. It was like his fight with the white lab. He led his pack in a wide circle around the horse. His rivals turned to watch them. He darted in, scrapped briefly with one dog, drew blood, backed out. The dog followed, turned back. And again.

The mastiff’s pack fanned out, enough to force attention in multiple directions, but not enough to leave any dog isolated. They circled, paced, howled. Darted in and out. And again.

One pit bull followed further from the horse than the other dogs in his pack would go. The mastiff’s pack surround him. Overwhelmed him with their numbers and their viciousness. The pit bull’s pack responded to his screams, abandoned the horse, tried to force a fair fight. But the spaniel ran around them, climbed the horse, and barked. When the other pack ran back to protect their prize, the spaniel retreated into the trees, only to return the next time they abandoned the horse.

This continued for a sleepless night. Both packs were exhausted. Both packs bled in the grassy park. But gradually, the mastiff’s strategy began to work. His pack, desperate and hungry, with nothing to lose, managed to isolate another dog. And then another. The scales began to tip in their favor. Only then did the pack close in for the kill.

The mastiff, slick with sweat and blood, led the charge. He slammed into a pit bull with all of his weight, ignoring his fatigue. He tore at throat, belly, another throat, howled in pain when teeth gripped his haunches, kept fighting. He trusted his pack to do their part and fought hard against two dogs, now three. As many as he could reach with his snapping jaws.

The fox-terrier let out a yelp of pain, high-pitched and chilling. The sound of it tugged at the mastiff’, filled him with fear, pulled him out of his bloodlust.

He abandoned the dog he had already injured and looked in the direction of the fox-terrier’s cries. He found her pinned by a German shepherd, bloody and ragged. The mastiff ran in her direction but was knocked to the ground when another pit bull slammed into him. The mastiff was on his back snapping up and raking at the pit bull’s belly with his rear claws. He went for the throat but caught the other dog’s hanging jowl instead. The other dog snapped and thrust, trying to grab on to the mastiff’s snout, but the mastiff held him at bay. Back on his feet, the mastiff forced the bleeding pit bull to the ground.

The dog’s jowls ripped free, torn open. The two dogs turned and snapped at each other. The mastiff moved faster. He bit higher this time, latching on to the pit bull’s face, his top fangs in an eye-socket, lower sinking into the pit bull’s muscular cheek. The mastiff bore down. Just as the other dog’s struggles began to slow, the mastiff felt the fangs of another dog biting into his left leg. He released his grip on the first dog to attack the second. The shepherd released the mastiff’s leg when the bigger dog bit into his neck. Loose skin and fur were torn away, and the mastiff now faced two dogs. They circled, baring fangs. The pit bull was grotesque with half his face torn off, but he was no closer to backing down, and the German shepherd seemed to bear no real injury at all, despite the blood staining the white parts of his coat a clownish pink. The mastiff would have fought them both, fought to the death. It was no longer about the horse.

But, before either side could launch another attack, the white lab jumped between them barking and growling with fresh fervor. Together, the mastiff and the white lab tore into the remaining dogs until long after they’d stopped fighting back.

The white lab, half-red now, walked with one rear foot curled beneath him, in a trotting, asymmetrical gait. He was the only surviving member of the mastiff’s pack. The mastiff licked the faces of his dead and mourned. He lingered longest over the body of the fox terrier, licked the blood and dirt from her face until it looked as clean as when they had first met.

Then he returned to the horse and ate. The first snows of winter began to fall.

The horse meat froze every night and a week later froze so solid it never thawed again. Every day, the mastiff and the white lab would lick the ice and frost from the horse and gnaw off fresh pieces of meat. The frozen horse meat never spoiled, the dogs never had to go far from the shelter they’d dug in the snow, and, slowly, their wounds healed. The white lab never regained the full use of his injured rear leg. The mastiff’s torn ear withered and fell off.

The pack began to grow again. The German shepherd that bit his leg came slinking back in hungry desperation, properly submissive. A group of adolescent pit bull pups were next. The mastiff had to fight one of the males, sometimes every few days, but the dogs were welcome for their warmth and for the added protection of numbers.

By spring, the dogs had stripped the horse carcass almost clean and broken most of its bones for marrow. After the first thaw, the flies came to swarm on the remaining scraps of meat, and the pack moved on in search of new meals.

They moved through the heart of the city, through blocks containing only the blackened skeletons of burned buildings. In some places, buildings had fallen, rubble buried the streets. In other places, fires still burned unchecked. Smoke scalded their lungs and stung their eyes. There was little prey and less water. The pack moved through as quickly as possible, hardly glancing up at the towers of steel and glass stretching towards the ashen sky.

Soon, the city’s buildings grew shorter and sparser, grass and trees more common. The streets began to resemble those the mastiff had left behind on the other side of the city. It was there they found the man.

The mastiff didn’t recognize the smell at first. Just the nagging sense of something familiar but forgotten. Then it returned to him. A living man. He had faint memories of the man of his pack throwing the green ball in the park, scratching his jaw, saying he was good. His memories—but they seemed like they belonged to another dog, living in a house, eating brown pellets, drinking water so clean it almost tasted of nothing. That dog was long dead. The rest of his pack, unsettled, alternated whines and barks, ran in small circles.

They found him in a small shop, loading cans of food into a large brown duffel bag. He wore a camouflage cap and a surgical mask and smelled of sweat and his latex gloves. He froze when he saw the mastiff. When he saw the rest of the pack, he stood and backed away. The pack stepped forward. The man held out a hand, palm out. He spoke to the dogs, said words they half remembered. Words meant to be reassuring, words of calm. The mastiff curled back his lips and growled at the man. The words changed. Commands. Reprimands. The mastiff thought again about his old pack. Although he could tell by his scent that this was not him, the voice of this man reminded the mastiff of the man from his old pack. He remembered obeying commands in that voice, of being rewarded with praise and a caressing hand, or maybe a treat. But the mastiff knew his place now. Submissive to no one.

The man smelled of fear. The mastiff growled again, low and confident, and inched forward. The man withdrew his hand, reached in his coat, brought out something black that smelled of metal and clean oil. The shepherd barked an alarm. The mastiff attacked.

The mastiff slammed into the man, biting his arm. The thing in the man’s hand exploded louder than any thunder. The mastiff bit down harder and twisted, dragging the man to the ground. An acrid smoke reached his nostrils as they fell. The man was screaming now, but the mastiff could barely hear it over the ringing in his ears. The rest of his pack swarmed on the man now, attacking his throat, his groin, ripping open his coat to get at the soft meat of his belly. The screaming stopped. The mastiff felt a ghost of guilt—his old pack had forbidden him to bite. But there was pride, a sense of power. A letting go of the past.

They licked the warm salty blood. Ate the fresh red meat. The man might have been the last. The mastiff never saw another.

In another shop, they found a colony of rats. Then food grew scarce again. They continued to move away from the city and its buildings. More dogs here, but sickly, weak. Prey.

One day the mastiff and his pack roamed out of the farthest sprawl of houses. There was a highway, but they didn’t follow it. They followed the creek that cut through the woods. It was autumn, and their paws crunched on fallen leaves. There were mice in the leaves, and chipmunks and squirrels. They chased groundhogs and rabbits and raccoons, eating better than they had since the man. The city to their back, they wandered farther out. They drank from the creek in places where it moved swiftly over smooth round pebbles. It was so clean it almost tasted of nothing.

There were farms, here and there, between the forests and fields. In one farm, a field of corn grew wild among tall grasses and weeds.

There were deer among the corn.

The mastiff had never seen a deer before, but when he did, he knew exactly what to do. They were the thing he had always wanted but had never known.

The mastiff and his pack gave chase.


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