The neighborhood dogs dragged building debris to the lot at the end of the cul-de-sac. Forgotten timbers, downed tree limbs, driftwood. A development sign hung by the road at the edge of the patch of sand. It read, Future Home Of: with nothing written beneath.
Drew didn’t think he could refer to them as neighborhood dogs anymore. You needed a neighborhood to have neighborhood dogs. Stray was the better word, orphans left behind by one crisis after the next. Public health then economic then housing then climate then back to public health. There wasn’t much of an economy to speak of, so the cycle ended, and the neighborhood with it.
Drew watched the dogs from the treeline, sheltering behind a pine, pitch slicking his palm. He wanted to go down to the lot and inspect the structures they were building. Or to pet the dogs, if he was being honest. Oxytocin was a rare commodity.
Drew thought better of it. The dogs, like everything else, required calories, and Drew wasn’t the fastest source of them. So he stayed at the treeline.
From his vantage, they looked like odd nests, the boards and sticks and timbers layered over one another in a weave, each rising to the tallest dog’s height. They had open doorways, no roof to speak of. The dogs worked tirelessly, the German shepherds and huskies, pomeranians and pugs. The lot became a village, narrow roads winding between one hovel and the next.
At night, the dogs bedded down amidst their handiwork, lying inside, on the bare sand floor. Drew thought it seemed more comfortable than his own sleeping arrangements, a threadbare hammock strung in the nook of a tree, high enough so night prowlers, human or otherwise, wouldn’t be able to get to him, at least not quickly.
Once Drew attempted to entice a shih tzu away from its task, a burnt strip of squirrel meat in hand, a whistle on his lips. The dog was far enough away from the others he was sure they wouldn’t notice, but Drew miscalculated. Every dog in his line of sight bristled, nose to the sky, snarling at the scent.
They dropped their timbers and darted towards the treeline.
Drew threw the squirrel—the entire carcass, not just the burnt strip—and sprinted into the forest, choosing a tall tree to roost in until the feeding frenzy subsided.
Before the crisis cycle, Drew had been a carpenter’s apprentice. He was mostly a gopher. Go-fer this, go-fer that. He was good at lugging shingles up scaffolding, sweeping discarded nails, cutting boards to length. He’d never done much of the actual construction, rarely putting hammer to wood. He appreciated what the dogs did, the simplicity of it.
All the old homes had been looted and burned or flooded or bombed or converted into cult compounds or swallowed by sinkholes or otherwise doused in chemicals that brought a rash to Drew’s skin, caused his windpipe to swell shut.
Only the dog’s homes seemed inviting anymore.
On a rainy day, Drew watched as a number of the bigger breeds dragged larger pieces of plywood over one of the shorter hovels. It took him a moment to realize they were constructing a roof. The low buildings had seemed so effortless, so natural. The addition of this hole-studded amendment looked wrong, impractical. No dog would be dry beneath the porous eves.
The rain grew heavier. Eventually the dogs gave up, filing off to their own nests to bed down with their mates and pups, sheltering close for body heat.
Drew pulled his hood tight about his face, hands tucked deep in his pockets, still cold despite four sweatshirts, two coats, and a windbreaker.
The dogs didn’t seem to mind the damp so much.
With someone nearby they could actually touch, he understood why.
Another month passed. Every roofing experiment ended in failure. Many of the dogs had dragged the few crooked boards from their woven walls, casting them aside. It hurt Drew to watch them undo their work. He understood how important the sense of security was, the comfort of protection.
While he watched the dogs, someone stole his hammock. The activity consumed most of his time—time he should be spending hunting and foraging, preparing for winter.
Without the hammock, he now slept directly in the notch of the tree, back scrunched, an eternal crick in his spine.
When the snows finally came, and the dogs returned to their task of constructing roofs, Drew couldn’t hold back any longer. He’d seen roofs built. He could be a valuable tool to the town of dogs. Maybe they would accept him, use him for his opposable thumbs and slight knowledge on the subject. Maybe they would be thankful and allow him to pet their matted coats, to scratch behind a proffered ear or rub an itchy underbelly. Or maybe they would see him for what he was—a walking meal, barely more than skin and bones. Enough to satisfy their hunger for one night.
Drew understood the possible outcomes. He’d been weighing them for months.
His parents always had golden retrievers when he was growing up.
A pair of the breed shared a hovel by the edge of the lot.
Drew figured on a scale of pomeranian to doberman, the goldens were a good entry point.
He took off his gloves, approached slow with palms outstretched, waiting to see if he smelled friendly.