I swore I would never make dog tar. “Surely there are other animals,” I would say, “to capture and render in backyard furnaces. Surely we don’t need to resort to dogs.” The realists pushed back: “What are you going to catch, then? Deer? There are no more deer. Rats? Too small. Raccoons? You could try—but they fight back. Dogs are docile. They jump into the ovens of their own accord, with just a little urging. Just a little enthusiasm. Just some hand-clapping. You toss in a treat, and there they go. It’s the best solution. Unless—what? You think we should render people?”
I did not. I was not that kind of Fascist. I didn’t think of myself as a Fascist at all, to be honest, which set me apart from my neighbors. “We’re all Fascists now,” my neighbor Ken would say, as he carried a box of squirming puppies up his drive. I didn’t want to believe it.
Sometimes Ken and I would share a homebrew on my porch, and we seemed to fall into the same conversation again and again. “Look,” he would say, “no one wants to burn dogs. Do you think I’m some kind of a monster? But we need to generate energy somehow.”
“There must be another way,” I would say, slapping my fist in my palm for emphasis. “It isn’t right to burn dogs. Or any living thing.”
“But the furnaces run on life force. There’s just no way around it.”
“Can’t we use trees?”
“No. Tar comes from animal spirits. Besides, when was the last time you saw a tree?”
I would stare across the torched suburban landscape and shake my head.
“It just doesn’t seem right to burn up dogs.”
“It isn’t right. But that’s the moment we’re in. Fascists don’t do what’s right. We do what it takes to survive.”
But was that all there was to living? Brute survival? I supposed I was a romantic. I still believed in kindness. I still believed in mutual aid. These were abstract concepts by now, sure—but I believed in them theoretically.
And, in fact, they weren’t totally abstract. I had a secret.
When Ken would thank me for the homebrew, and pop another antihistamine (Ken was allergic to pet hair), and declare that he had work to do, and leave to feed dogs into his backyard furnace, I would head inside and down into my basement. I would close and lock the door at the bottom of the basement steps. I would kneel on the carpet in the old rumpus room. I would work my fingernails under a section of carpet and peel it up. I would turn the latch on the false floor and heave the panel aside. Then I would descend into the pit where I kept my best friend, and fall on the ground to receive his wet kisses.
“Bowser, oh, Bowser, I’ll never let anything happen to you. Bowser, I promise, you’re safe with me!”
The Youth League appeared at my door, cheerful and bright. They wore black sashes across their chests.
“We’re here to install your furnace!” a fresh-faced girl told me.
I pretended to be happy that my government-issued furnace had at last arrived.
“How have you been getting by without it?” a boy with a buzz-cut asked.
I gestured vaguely to the solar panels on my roof.
“Oh, you know. I’ve been improvising.”
The boy and the girl frowned at the panels.
“Solar is not a natural fuel,” the boy said. “The sun is not an animal.”
“N-n-no, of course,” I stammered. “But in a pinch.”
“I’m surprised you made it this long,” the girl said. “When did you apply for a furnace? Was there some kind of paperwork mix-up?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, “a paperwork mix-up.”
“Well, we’ll get you in compliance,” the boy said, and he unlocked the chains on the furnace in the flatbed of their Monster Truck.
The boy and the girl wheeled the furnace out to my backyard, and I showed them where they could put it. In the chain-link enclosure Ken had built next door, his dogs barked like crazy.
“Life is tar,” the girl said as they positioned the furnace. “Tar is Freedom.”
“Fascism runs on Freedom,” the boy said.
“It’s funny,” I said. “When I was your age, ‘fascism’ was a dirty word.”
They stared at me blankly.
“We’ve reclaimed it,” the girl said.
They set the furnace down and the boy explained to me how it worked—though I already knew. Everyone knew.
“You feed dogs in this end,” the boy said, “and tar comes out this end. It’s a marvel of science. A single ounce of dog tar can run a household for a week.”
“Where’s your Monster Truck?” the girl asked. “Is it in the shop?”
“Er—well,” I stammered, “I’ve actually been getting by without one.”
“No Monster Truck?” the boy said. “That doesn’t sound very Fascistic . . .”
“Monster Trucks are Freedom,” the girl said. “How else do you get to the Mega Mart to buy your Purity Steaks? You can’t possibly walk through the Cannibal Lands on foot!”
What could I tell them? I thought fast.
“The thing is,” I said, “well—without a furnace, I’ve had no tar, and without tar how could I fuel a Monster Truck?”
The boy and the girl considered this.
“Good point,” the boy said.
“So I sold my truck a while ago and with the proceeds I bought a boatload of Purity Steaks, which I then froze, and I’ve been living off them ever since.”
“Of course,” the girl said, nodding gravely to herself. “Well, now that you’ve got a furnace, you can drive a Monster Truck again. Are you familiar with our subsidy program? We’ll bring you the paperwork. ‘A Monster Truck In Every Garage,’ as the Prime Minister says.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The boy and the girl left. I stood on my porch and waved at them as they peeled out of my driveway. When their gun turret disappeared over the hill, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God they hadn’t asked to come inside.
I went inside. I surveyed the swarming glass tanks of my subsistence operation. What would the Youth have said if they’d seen? I knew their thinking: to grow your own food was Unpatriotic. It meant you didn’t believe in The Economy. If you believed in The Economy, you drove your Monster Truck through the Cannibal Lands to the Mega Mart to buy your Purity Steaks with your surplus tar. That was how you proved your Allegiance. Each of us had a solemn duty to circulate tar through The Economy. The performance of that duty marked you as a Patriot. Which was another word for Fascist. Which we were all supposed to want to be, because that’s what the times demanded of us. Life was war, and war was all against all.
Cockroaches bristled in the tanks, a living pelt of legs and antennae on the corn cobs and dead mice I’d dropped in to feed them. The roaches ate, they fought, they hissed. My cattle, my sheep. My dinner.
Down in the basement, I moved the false floor aside. Bowser smiled, his whole hind-end wagging in excitement to see me. I threw myself into the pit and embraced him.
“Bowser, Bowser, it’s a new hell out there. Hell on earth.”
He licked my face, which must have tasted of tears.
Later that week the Youth arrived with my government-issued Monster Truck. I had just made myself a sandwich of cockroach paste and pickled dandelion root, but when I heard the rumble of engines up the road, I set the sandwich aside. I pulled down a slat on the drawn blinds and watched. The Youth rolled up in two trucks: their own truck, which the girl drove, and my new truck, which the boy drove. He parked it as the girl idled at the curb.
I hoped they would just leave my new truck and go, but my neighbor Ken was out on his lawn dumping dog crap into the street, and he waved to the boy, and the boy went over to say hello. Ken and the boy spoke for a bit, looking over their shoulders at my house. I could tell from here that Ken’s allergies were acting up. He kept sneezing. I figured all that dog crap must be setting him off.
A white panel van appeared on the street, and Ken and the Youth watched it pull up. The van belonged to the Dog Catcher. The Catcher jumped out and shook Ken’s hand, and Ken introduced him to the Youth. The three of them talked, looking over their shoulders at my house, and then Ken handed the Catcher a can of tar. The Catcher went around his van and brought out two dogs in a cage. The Youth laughed at the dogs. The Catcher did too. Ken took the cage to his backyard enclosure while the Youth and the Catcher stood talking. The Youth talked for a long time with great passion, then the Catcher beckoned him near, and they conferred with their foreheads nearly touching. The girl Youth got out of the Monster Truck and came over to join the conversation. The three of them talked awhile, and then Ken returned with the empty cage, which he handed back to the Dog Catcher. Then everyone shook hands and smiled and said goodbye, and the Catcher got back into his van, and Ken went into his house, and the girl and the boy came up to my door. I steeled myself to face them.
But they didn’t knock. I heard them on the porch, heard the creaking boards, then heard their footfalls down my front steps. I rushed to the door and looked out the peephole. The Youth got into their truck and drove off. I rushed to the window. I pulled down a blind. Their gun turret disappeared over the hill.
I opened my front door and something the Youth had propped up on the doorknob fell at my feet. My heart jumped into my throat. Was it a summons? Did they know about my secret dog? Would I be hauled before a tribunal for Misuse of Fuel?
No—it was just my paperwork and a pamphlet from the government about the joys of Monster Trucks.
It was dark, it was night, and I was in bed, when the people came for me. I awoke to the sound of my door being kicked in. Then I heard footsteps. I wanted to react, but I was frozen with fear. They wore black balaclavas. I didn’t know who they were. They rushed into my room and pulled me from my bed and dragged me onto my front lawn.
There they beat me. They were mostly silent, but a young man’s voice blurted, “Dog lover,” as he kicked me in the ribs. I was sure it was the Youth who’d brought me my Monster Truck. The blow from his boot knocked the wind out of me. My vision swirled as if in a kaleidoscope, but a kaleidoscope of darkness. The next thing I knew I was hovering above, watching the people beat me. I felt detached—not just literally, which I was, but emotionally. At first, I didn’t realize who or what was being beaten. Then I thought, “Hey—it’s me!” I flew down and tried to plead with the people to stop, but they couldn’t hear me. I flew back up and tried to kick their heads, but I didn’t really have feet, just hazy extensions that stretched underneath me and passed right through their skulls. I looked so pathetic on the ground, loose and mushy, like garbage bags full of old tomatoes. Was that really me? No, not really. What I was was up here.
I felt myself lifted into the sky. Then I found myself in a tunnel, headed for a light. Dogs came bounding out of the light, shimmering Golden Retrievers.
“Am I in dog heaven?” I asked one of them.
“No,” the dog said in a deep, resonant voice. “This is just plain heaven. Normal heaven. There’s only one heaven.”
“But you can’t come in yet,” another dog said. When the dogs spoke, they put their snouts up and barked, and the words were dubbed over the barks. “Your work is not yet done on earth.”
“No! Please! I don’t want to go back! You don’t understand. It’s hell down there.”
“Yes,” said the first dog that had spoken to me, “but you carry the spark through hell. You carry the spark, and in hell the spark is kindled. There it becomes a fiery heart. Only in hell can a soul grow. Do you understand? That is why you must live in hell.”
“But I don’t want to live in hell!”
I looked past the dogs to the light at the end of the tunnel. How I felt for the light was how a stream must feel for the sea: you are ready to pour yourself into the bigger version of what you are. It was how laughter must feel for a joke. But this was the ultimate joke. A joke that doesn’t end but at the punchline goes infinite. I moved toward the light. The dogs blocked my way.
“No,” they said, “it is not your time. Go back to your body.”
And then, just like that, I was back in my body. And the whole thing hurt. I heard someone yell, “Enough!”
It was Ken. I opened a swollen eye and saw him come down his front steps and push his way through the people. They stopped beating me and parted to let him through. He squatted down beside me. He picked me up from behind and dragged me toward my house. I felt his hot breath in my ear as I watched the people stand on the lawn, their fists at their sides, watching Ken drag me away.
I dreamt that I was down in the pit playing fetch with Bowser. I threw a hard rubber ball for him to chase. But the pit was so small that the ball just bounced off the far wall and hit me in the head. I picked it up and threw it again and it hit me in the head again. Bowser really wanted to play, and I felt sorry for him. It must be sad to live down in this pit, when all a dog wants to do is run around. Though I told myself that Bowser was an old dog and didn’t need to run around as much anymore, not like how he used to run in the days before everything changed. Before life became war. I supposed life was always war, but for some of us, the lucky ones, it seemed like it wasn’t for a while. Now those days were over. I picked up the hard rubber ball and threw it again for Bowser to fetch, and the ball bounced off the wall and hit me in the head.
I awoke to a pounding headache. I was in bed with no memory of how I’d gotten there. I tried to move, but my body hurt too much. I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes again, Ken was sitting in a chair next to the bed. He watched me for a moment. I watched him. He reached for a glass of water on the bedside table. He held a pill to my lips.
“Take this. It’ll help with the pain.”
I let him place the pill in my mouth. He tipped the glass of water so that I could drink.
“How do you feel?” he said.
“Mrrrroah,” I said.
“Well, you’re lucky to be alive. Here’s the thing.” He sighed and gave me a frank look. “I know you’re hiding a dog in here. I can tell by my allergies. And I know you’re not just fattening it up for fuel. You don’t intend to use that furnace out back. I can tell. You’re a dog lover.”
I expected him then to place his hands around my neck. To push his thumbs into my windpipe. To softly do me in. That’s not what happened.
“At the same time,” Ken said, “you’re my neighbor. And I believe in Loyalty. There’s a very simple solution here. You just have to have Strength. And you have to show it. Strength and Loyalty, right? And Patriotism. That’s what it means to be part of what we are. Otherwise, you’re not part of it, and we have to destroy you. So you know what you have to do. Prove your Strength. Look, if you don’t, I’ll find the dog myself. I’ll sniff him out with my allergies. I’ll turn him into tar myself.”
“Why . . .” I groaned.
“Why . . . dogs?”
“Look, we’ve been through this. What—you want to burn people? The Economy runs on tar. We make tar from the life force. And dogs are a renewable resource. Look, nobody likes it, but you have to be pragmatic. You have to be realistic. And, it’s true, you have to be hard-hearted. But facts are facts. There is no other way.”
The pill that Ken had given me was already working. I turned my head. I flexed my fingers.
“Take a pill every two hours. If you need me, ring this bell.” He pointed to a cowbell on the bedside table. “I’ll be around. Once you’re up and about, you do what you have to do.”
Ken left. I closed my eyes.
Some hours later, or maybe days, I opened them again. I swallowed a pill and waited for it to take effect. Experimentally, I turned my body. My sides ached, but I managed to sit up. I saw no way around what I had to do. I dropped my legs over the bedside. Stiffly, I rose.
I crept to the washroom. My face looked like a dead thing. Red and purple and swollen and dead. I washed my hands. I rinsed my mouth out. I daubed my puffy eyes with a wet towel to wipe away the crust. My subsistence operation was thoroughly smashed. The glass tanks lay shattered on the ground. The cockroaches were everywhere, lazing on the furniture or up and down the walls like living blemishes. I went downstairs to the basement.
I remembered Bowser as a puppy. Bringing him home in a cardboard box. Back in those days, dogs were our allies, back before all against all. Or maybe I was fooling myself. That’s how Ken saw it: “You’re fooling yourself—it was always all against all. We just forgot that fact for a while. We got comfortable and we forgot.”
In the basement I slid the false floor aside. Bowser came wagging toward me. I’d promised to keep him safe. But I couldn’t keep him safe anymore. Ken knew he was here, and Ken would sniff him out, so there was no safety. Back before all against all, you never really knew what your neighbors thought, and it never really mattered. They stayed on their side of the fence and you stayed on yours.
“Oh, Bowser. You’re always so happy to see me. How can that be? What is wrong with you? Don’t you know what I am?”
I got down on one knee and hugged him. He licked my face. I fell on the ground and let him slobber all over my cheeks and my closed eyes. For a moment I felt wild with hope. I told myself there must be a way to save him, to save us both. Wasn’t there a way? Then I remembered the light at the end of the tunnel. How could I have forgotten that? In my battered and drugged-up state, I’d forgotten, but now I remembered. He was going to a better place.
“Come on, Bowser. Let’s go for a walk.”
He remembered the word, I could tell. His butt wagged extra hard. His joints were stiff from age and from living in this pit so long, and he struggled to climb the rough steps out, the steps I’d hewn from the dirt with a shovel and my bare hands.
“Come on, boy. Come on.”
He sat down on the steps and looked at me and whined. But he smiled, he wagged his tail. I picked him up.
“Oof—when did you get so heavy?”
It isn’t right to keep a dog in a pit. But it isn’t right to burn a dog in a furnace. Nothing’s right. That’s what all against all means. Ken would agree: “There is no right. But that also means there is no wrong. You do what you have to do to protect your property and survive. And the way to do that is through Strength. So Strength is the only law.”
I carried Bowser out to the back. My tears fell into his chocolate hair. Wasn’t there another way? Couldn’t we all just get along? I set Bowser down and turned the handle to light the furnace. Lefty loosey. I heard the fire blast within. The dogs in Ken’s enclosure barked like crazy. I noticed him watching me from his kitchen window, and I was glad he was there. I wanted him to see this. I wanted to make a point.
The furnace light came on. READY. I opened the door and heat blasted out. It dried my nostrils and tightened the skin on my face. I patted Bowser’s head. I lifted him up and hugged him close and wondered why dogs trusted us. Either they couldn’t see us for what we were, or else they could see straight through us to the core of what we were. I wasn’t sure which one it was. I looked inside the furnace. I would fit. We both would fit. To make a point.
But I stood there clutching Bowser and I said no.
No, no, no, no, no.
Trevor Shikaze‘s fiction has appeared in n+1, The Baffler, The Walrus, and elsewhere. He lives in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @trevorshikaze.