Jared and the dog stared each other down. Between them, the glass door was smeared with paw prints. Jared held his surgical mask in his hand. The dog couldn’t hear him over the howling and barking from back inside the building. Go away, mouthed Jared at the dog. The dog barked at him. No, mouthed Jared, shaking his head. The dog ran up to the door and pawed it again.
Jared looked over his back, into the building. The front desk was behind him, the wood paneling stripped completely. A computer sat dead on the desk. Every scrap of paper, from the magazines to the posters on the walls, had been taken away. Nobody was around.
Jared turned back and pointed out at the street. He was about to mouth Go, but the dog stared up at his finger and tried to jump towards it, barking and bouncing off the glass.
Jared angrily turned away and kneeled down by the wall, placing the surgical mask on the linoleum. There were two panels of wood left, and the rest of the wall stretched down the hallway covered in the remains of glue and nails. He worked his fingers behind the panel of wood and pulled a little. Then he wedged the hammer in and pulled. The panel tore off with a hundred little crackling noises, and then he tore off the other one.
The dog was still whining and barking when he put the mask on over his mouth, took both panels and walked into the building.
It took longer to get into the central yard by avoiding the pens, but Jared wanted to avoid the dogs as much as possible. The barking and noise was aggravating out here, and it was pure hell in the long dark corridors lined with cages and enraged, starving dogs. He was starting to prefer the smattering of lizards and turtles they had in the terrariums.
The walkway to the yard was lined with hundreds of water bowls, an assortment of ice cream tubs, coffee mugs, paper cups, pencil cases and plastic bags, two flower vases and three water cooler tanks, all filled with rainwater. Jared stepped along the other side of the walkway and into the yard.
The staff was standing in a circle around the garbage can. He could see the fire through the holes they’d punched down at the bottom, and it looked a little weak.
“The last panels.” said Jared as he handed Barb the two chunks of wood. She nodded and carefully placed them into the fire. A cooking pot full of discolored water was suspended on top of the can.
“So,” said Kelsey, “what do we burn next?”
“We still have a lot of those neutering posters.” commented Jorge.
“Paper’s not enough.” said Barb. “Do you think laminated wood would burn?”
There was an ambiguous murmur.
“Me neither. We’ve still got about half of the sign and some Venetian blinds.” She jostled the fire with a metal rod. “Start looking around outside. We’ll talk.”
The group broke up, drifting back into the shelter. Jared headed for the front desk again.
He stopped in the hallway, put his hand on the light switch, and stared into the halogen lights. He hit the switch, and couldn’t tell if the lights went on. After a moment or two he decided the power was out again.
Back in the yard, Barb and Jorge were looking up into the sky.
“Helicopter.” said Jorge. “I think it was the Army again.”
“No.” said Barb.
“It was green and everything.” said Jorge.
“No, I mean, it’d be the Air Force, not the Army, right?”
Jorge stared at her. “Ha.”
Barb smiled slightly.
“There was a dog out front,” said Jared. “I think they can smell the urine all across the city.”
“Did it leave?”
“Did it have a name tag?” asked Barb.
“Yeah.” said Jared.
Barb sighed. “I’ll go see if there’s any room.”
“Yeah.” said Jared.
None of them moved.
“Telephone poles.” said Jorge suddenly. “We can cut down some telephone poles!”
“What I don’t understand,” said Jared, “is the gas. So the trucks that deliver gas run on gas, right. But the trucks are coming from a refinery or something, a place that has gas. So why aren’t they coming around?”
Kelsey leaned up against the wall. Her head was propped under the railing studs. The railing had been taken down and burned. “Yeah, but there’s nobody to drive the trucks. Everybody’s sick-”
The barking stopped for a second. They looked at each other. In a moment it resumed.
“Everybody’s sick. I’m sure whoever can drive a truck is out there driving a truck.”
“Okay, but how hard is it to drive a truck? It’s not like anybody else is on the roads.”
“Yeah, true. But also, think about how many places they have to get gas to. I’m sure that when everybody was fleeing the cities, every last drop got used.”
“I wonder what it’s like in the country these days.” said Jared. “People started leaving, what, two months ago?”
Kelsey shook her head and put her hands in between her knees. “I’m sure just as many people are sick or dead out there. It just… it just seems worse in a city, right? Because there’s so many people?”
“I bet there’s less looting.” mused Jared.
Kelsey shook her head. “More, man. All the soldiers are in the major cities.”
A siren burst into screaming life just outside the building. Even over the sound of the dogs it hurt. Jared and Kelsey stood up, staggering down the stairs with their hands over their ears.
The siren cut off after they reached the main floor. A speaker crackled into life, and a loud but vague voice roared over it. Jared caught a few words: HANDS IN PLAIN SIGHT. Just off the main hallway, Barb grabbed Kelsey by the shoulders and pushed her behind the front desk. Jorge, holding the shotguns, knelt down beside Kelsey. Jared threw himself up against the wall beside the desk.
A police car with lights spinning sat parked at an angle to the front doors. Barb walked to the glass door, holding her hands up, then motioned to the lock. GO AHEAD, howled the car. A moment later she unlocked the door and stepped into the parking lot, her hands still up.
The door of the police car opened, and an officer stepped out. He had a blank look on his face as his eyes roamed around the front of the building. His mouth was covered in a fancy-looking air mask.
“Okay, ma’am. What is this place here?”
“Animal shelter.” said Barb. “I’m the director.”
The officer nodded. “Animal shelter…” he muttered. “Does that mean you have cells, or um, secure rooms?”
“No,” lied Barb, “we just have cages.”
The officer looked off to the side. “How large are these cages?”
“Small.” said Barb. “Very small.”
The officer nodded. He shivered as he surveyed the building.
“How’d you know anyone was here?” asked Barb.
“You got a plume of smoke rising from here for the past three months.” said the officer absently, looking at the roof. “You got food?”
Barb nodded. “Animal food. But we’ve been eating it.”
“You’re feeding the animals?”
Barb nodded again.
“Why?” asked the officer flatly.
“It’s what we do.” said Barb weakly after a moment.
The officer looked over at the building. He nodded towards the garage. “You have a truck here?”
“Yeah. Two. A little bit of gas left in them, I think.”
The officer nodded. “All right.” He scratched his filter mask. “Well, we might be back for the trucks sometime this week.”
The officer touched his hat. “Thanks for your cooperation, ma’am.”
“Any news about a vaccine?” said Barb.
“Nope.” He pulled the door open again and stepped inside. The police car’s flashing lights turned off. There were four cops in the car, and they spent a moment talking. Then the car drove away.
When it was gone, Barb looked around and then went back inside. Jared shut the door and locked it.
“We’ll cut the pole so it falls into the parking lot over there.” said Jorge, pointing over the edge of the roof. “There’s nothing in that lot.”
“What about the wires?” asked Kelsey. “Won’t they electrocute us?”
Jorge rubbed his forehead. “Barb, do we have any pruning equipment? Cutters on a long stick?”
“We might, actually.” said Barb.
“We’ll use them to cut the wires.”
Kelsey started to say something, and Jorge cut her off, “All the wires, okay? One by one, as close to the pole as we can.”
Kelsey crossed her arms. “I just don’t think it’ll work.” She reached into her pocket and tossed a piece of dry food into her mouth. “I think somebody’ll get hurt.” she said around the food.
Jared was pushing his own food around his hand. “Why don’t we just cut down a tree?”
“Because the trees are too small.” snapped Jorge. “Do you think the bushes out front will burn?”
“Yeah, actually. Besides, what if someone calls?” Jared immediately regretted adding that.
All three of them stared at him with varying expressions.
“Look,” said Jared, “I just don’t think we can just start tearing the city apart. I mean, it’s looting, isn’t it?”
“He’s got a point.” said Kelsey. “Why else keep feeding the dogs, when we know… we could always, you know-”
“No.” said Barb. “That’s not something we’re going to consider.”
The hairs on Jared’s neck went up. “That’s my point. We’re keeping people’s pets alive because… well, the fact that we’re sitting around keeping these pets alive is kind of… a sign that we think things will get back to normal and people will someday want their pets back.”
“Well,” said Jorge quietly, “animals shouldn’t die just because of a disease they can’t get.”
“Right.” said Barb. She contemplated the telephone pole. “The fact is that we’re probably not going to get sick. The four of us.
Because we have almost no contact with other people. Because the odds are with us already, none of us have been sick yet, I think we’re entitled to cut down a telephone pole so we can have clean water.” She stared at the pole again.
“Get the fire axes. Meet us out front.” she said after a moment.
Jared and Kelsey tramped down the stairs.
“How many people do you think are actually dead, like, directly because of the plague?” asked Kelsey.
“I remembering hearing that they thought…” Jared considered, “250 million people would catch it?”
“I’m just saying that when this is all over, I bet it’ll turn out that way more people than that are dead of, like, secondary stuff.”
Jared pulled an axe out from the filing cabinet with the weapons in it. He handed it to Kelsey and took the other one himself. The barking and howling in the background seemed to have died down somewhat.
“I bet,” continued Kelsey, “I bet there’s wars going on somewhere. Some people flee the cities, other people loot stuff- we stay at our job for some reason- and I bet somebody started a war.”
“I heard there was a war in Africa.” suggested Jared.
“And we? We went back to work.” Kelsey shook her head. “Everybody is totally insane.” They stepped into the front room. The lights were back on.
“Blackout’s over,” Jared said as he quickly turned them off. “I’m gonna fire up the computer and check the news.”
Kelsey looked out the front door. Jorge and Barb were standing beside the telephone pole. Jorge was trying out a surgical saw on the pole.
“People are insane.” she mused. The dogs started making noise again.