This story was published in Zooscape in 2020. It was always about Kobalt, but I named him Shadow in the story so as to make it, I dunno, more professional or something? Shadow was a name we discussed for him because he was all black, but also because he would follow us around from room to room, silently shadowing us, just wanting to be near.
I’m posting the story here, but I’ve changed Shadow’s name back to Kobalt. Here, now, it seems appropriate. I reserve the right to change my mind back in the future.
The food smell led Kobalt a way he hadn’t gone before, so he placed his paws carefully among the jagged pieces of brick and concrete. He stayed to the shadows where he could, letting the darkness hide his black-furred form, and he kept his ears perked high for any noises other than the skittering of little rodents and the buzzing of insects. An 80-pound German Shepherd could handle most things he encountered these days, but not all, and even if he won a fight, he might sustain an injury more serious than those mapped in scars around his body.
Wind swirled and the smell floated around his head. He stopped and lifted his nose, turning one way and then another until the breeze died down and the trail picked up again. Raccoon and blood: fresh, less than a day old. Though he had to find his way around a car that smelled of old fire, over a pile of rubble that clawed at his sensitive paws, and through a gap in a metal gate bent and buckled from the outside (yet still somehow standing), he didn’t mind the obstacles because his nose told him the struggle was worth it.
It was worth passing up the half-rotted possum carcass for this; it was worth abandoning the faint smell behind the cold scentless steel that he knew could open but had never figured out how. This was the kind of thing that sometimes took him most of a day to find, and some days he didn’t find it at all.
The houses around him, some whole, some damaged, remained mostly quiet. The bad smell lingered faintly around some of them, but not so much that his hackles raised. This area had not been easy to get into, but once he made his way through the gate, he felt the difference in the world, an easing of tension. The bad smell was the worst thing he would have to watch out for, worse than other dogs or sharp stones or groups of people with death-bangs, so he walked down the middle of the street along the smooth asphalt, moving to the cooler sidewalk when he could.
He found the source of the food smell soon after: a house that looked not too different from the others. The smell might be inside, he thought until he came to one side of the house where a large tree leaned against it and more of the sharp-clawed rubble lay around the base. The smell of dust was fresh here, as were the smells of other raccoons, cats, and other dogs.
One dog smell in particular came strongly to him, and now his hackles did go up. His ears went straight up and he stood still and quiet, sniffing and listening.
After a moment, he heard it: slow steps and snuffling, the other dog. It was coming around the corner of the house behind him. As quietly as he could, he turned and stood facing that corner, waiting, and when the dog came around the corner, Kobalt sized it up in half a second—half his size, scrawny, only a minor threat—and then leapt forward while the black-and-white dog was still surprised. He barked as loudly as he could: back off, get out!
The dog yelped and stumbled backwards and then took off at a run. Kobalt watched, because sometimes they stopped at a distance to size up the situation, but this dog kept going until he was out of sight behind a house across the street.
After that, it was an easy matter—more or less—to make his way up the trunk of the tree to where the raccoon lay crushed between a branch and the claws of the broken roof of the house. Kobalt had to tear the body to get it free, so he fed himself from the smaller pieces until he felt stronger, enough to take the edge off his hunger. This would be a good time to rest, up on the roof, if only he didn’t need to bring this prize back.
So he hefted the furred body in his jaws, shifting it until he got a good grip, and then made his way down the trunk. The other dog, if it were still around, kept its distance, and Kobalt remained undisturbed as he returned down the quiet street to the gate.
At the metal bars, he had to push the raccoon through and drop it before squeezing himself through. He bent to pick it up and then hesitated. His nose was full of raccoon and blood, but a sound came to him, several creatures moving together heedless of noise. He stepped away from the raccoon and lifted his nose and there it was, faint but fresh on the air. His hackles rose.
He grabbed the raccoon, but it slipped, loose skin and thick coat too much for his teeth to find purchase. The noises grew, definitely coming toward him. He found a grip and pulled, dragging the body along the ground, but at least he was moving.
When he got to the sharp-clawed rubble, he had to slow down even more, and that’s where they caught him.
The bad smell came off them in waves, like the dead raccoon but more wrong, and these creatures were like humans but they moved unnaturally, swinging their limbs like dead weight, their heads listing at an angle. They did not make the familiar barks of humans, none of the words Kobalt knew, but instead made noises like a dying animal that never died. The sound of their steps was something like the sound of his raccoon being dragged across rocks.
They did not move fast; unencumbered, he could outrun them. But to do so would mean leaving his prize behind for them to tear at and eat. It might take him days to find anything else as good.
He’d fought one of these things once, months ago. They were not good fighters but they kept going and they used their paws and teeth when they got in close. One could be dispatched with quick, savvy lunges, staying out of reach of the clublike limbs. But how could he stay out of the way of many? There were more than he could keep track of easily, and though they weren’t fast, they remained close together so that in leaping out of reach of one, he might put himself in danger from another.
On top of all that, he had to guard his raccoon. He started with sharp barks, but they did not run. Humans only understood his barks about half the time anyway, and he knew these things were not human, but the barks bubbled up inside of him and had to be voiced. When they kept advancing, he leapt at the nearest one, tearing away pieces of the leg, hoping to at least cripple it.
For the first few minutes, he thought he might be able to keep them away. One went down to its knees, struggling to pull itself across the rubble. He took aim at another, but then saw that one had reached his raccoon and he ran back over the rocks that clawed at him to throw his weight at it, knocking it over. The bad smell filled his mouth but he tore at the neck, at the arms, at the legs, and the thing did not even cry out or howl, but gurgled and sputtered and flailed.
A weight landed on him, driving him down into the rubble. Stone teeth stabbed his side and leg and his foreleg twisted awkwardly. He yelped once, struggled, and then barked again. Dead flesh clawed at his sides and teeth grazed his leg. He kicked out and felt his claws sink into softness, ripping it, but still the thing did not stop.
His feet found purchase and he sprang free, but as he regained his balance, another of the creatures loomed over him. He seized the raccoon and lurched away, but rocks rolled out from under him and he tumbled backwards.
Now panic rose despite his instincts. They were all around him now, and all that saved him was that they seemed more interested in the raccoon than him. He would have to let it go if he wanted to live. He would have to. He—
A loud crash shattered the air. Kobalt folded his ears back as one of the things fell across him again. But it didn’t claw or bite, just lay there.
The noise of the death-bang still echoed when the next one came, and another, and another. The bad smell filled his nose, overwhelming even the smell of his raccoon. His ears rang.
When the bangs stopped, he couldn’t hear what was going on around him, but he knew he had to get free. His hind legs pushed at the ground, scattering rocks and seeking purchase to shift the weight from over him.
A shape came into his vision: a human. Startled, he barked, and the human put a hand out. “Good boy,” it said, and then some other barks in a calm tone.
Kobalt stilled, watching it. It looked up above him and tapped the side of its head. “Good <bark>,” it said. and then, “<bark bark bark bark> dog.”
The weight on him shifted. He struggled again and a voice behind him said, “Shh, good boy, wait.”
He stopped, making sure he had a good grip on his raccoon. Now the ringing in his ears faded and he heard noises around him again, Several humans, barking in low voices to each other, dragging the bodies of the creatures into a pile together.
The weight came off him. He got to his feet, shook himself, and then picked up his raccoon, looking warily around at the humans. The one in front of him remained crouched. “Good boy,” it barked again, its tone remaining calm.
It didn’t reach for the raccoon, so Kobalt stepped carefully to one side, waiting to see if the human would stop him or follow. He caught its scent now through the thick smell of raccoon and the receding bad smell: she was female.
She watched him pick his way over the clawed stones and to the edge of the rubble. He waited there for a moment and then kept going along his path.
They followed him, crashing and stomping their way behind him, which was a good thing in general. The noise would likely scare away anything Kobalt couldn’t handle on his own. He did not want to lead them all the way back, but he couldn’t move faster than them, not burdened as he was.
So they came to his street finally and to the house with the car where the door should be and the old rubble around it. Kobalt ignored the humans until they arrived at the house, and there he did not want to show them the way in, so as much as he wanted to go inside, he set down the raccoon and lay beside it, staring at them.
They barked among themselves a little, but didn’t go away. He appreciated that loyalty in them, and an instinct in him tugged gently toward that group. They had followed him and he could follow them; they had the good smell and they were good hunters. But stronger instinct and loyalty kept him lying where he was.
Scuffling movement came from the house behind him. His ears swiveled back, and then one of the people in front of him barked in alarm and pointed at the window. Another raised her death-bang as their alarmed barks grew louder.
Kobalt sprang to his feet and barked: go away, get out! When they didn’t move, he ran to the window and stood in front of it facing them, and barked again.
The one with the death-bang raised it. Kobalt came forward and barked again, his voice higher with panic. He couldn’t fight a death-bang but he couldn’t let them use it, either.
The human who’d crouched in front of him put her hand on the death-bang, and the other human lowered it. They all watched him, and then the human said, “Good boy,” and barked some more in a calm voice.
Kobalt stayed alert, and barked again: get out!
This time, they understood. “Come on,” the first human said, but to the other humans, not to Kobalt. “<bark bark> go.”
He watched as they retreated to the end of the street and turned the corner out of sight. Their smell lingered in the air. Maybe they were waiting for him. It would be good to hunt with a pack again, if they could let him bring food into the house. When he set out again, he would remember their scent.
With some difficulty, he got the raccoon up onto the car, and from there onto the small porch roof. He pushed the raccoon through the narrowly open window and then squeezed through himself.
The bed he landed on let out a puff of dust and familiar scent. He whined softly and nosed the sheet, but the scent was cold and faint.
Raccoon in his mouth, he walked down the hall to the stairs and from there down to the large room on the first floor. His hackles rose instinctively, but he went forward and dropped the raccoon on the carpet where he’d eaten so many meals in the past.
They lurched out of the shadows as he retreated to the stairs, the sound and smell of meat drawing them forward. These creatures were not as decayed as the ones that had attacked him earlier. Their clothes bore tatters and stains, but their flesh remained mostly intact.
He stayed on the landing, looking down as the figures tore into the raccoon, eating noisily, shredding it with clumsy fingers and dull teeth. Kobalt’s stomach growled, but he kept still, resting his head on his front paws.
When they were done, they might be ravenous for more, but he’d fed them yesterday too, so he hoped they would be quiet. And if they were quiet, then he would go down among them and hope that they would rest their hands on him and rest beside him. When they did that, he felt their love like a flicker trapped under rubble, and he knew that the good smell would return to them one day, if only he remained on the right path.