Russian Strays by William Falo

“It may be suggested by some books that it is not a sin to kill an animal, but it is written in our own hearts – more clearly than in any book – that we should take pity on animals in the same way as we do on humans.”  –Leo Tolstoy                 

Petya placed the case of darts on the ground, and aimed the gun at one of the stray dogs that sniffed the bait he’d placed near the entrance to the junkyard; he steadied his shaking until a sharp pain on the back of his leg made him wince. The world spun around him, and he started to black out; something edged into his fading view, and he saw a dark-haired girl glaring at him with canine eyes until a dog barked, and she disappeared along with the light.

[private]He struggled to his feet only to discover the darts broken in pieces except for the one in his leg. “Damn her,” he said. “She won’t stop me from getting those stinking dogs.” Despite his anger, the image of her face with the penetrating eyes made him desire a woman for the first time in years. That night he walked past the vibrant nightclubs filled with excitement, and watched the prostitutes from across the street.

A woman in red boots called out to him, “Why are you staring at me? Come over, and we can get to know each other.” She lifted her skirt up higher than he’d ever seen a woman do before. Snow started to fall when he crossed the street with anticipation burning inside him. “Hey Ekaterina,” another girl called out.

That name made him stop, and his hands shook. The girl walked toward him; her boots clicked on the street despite the snow. The clicking haunted him.

The image of a girl laughing at the scar the dog made on his backside filled his mind. It marked him as a coward because he turned away and the dogs attacked his girlfriend. Ekaterina died from an infection she received from the wounds while he survived with only the scar.

“Are you interested?” the prostitute called out, shattering the nightmare.

“Leave me alone,” he said, and he ran through the cold streets until he reached the subway near the square apartment building where he lived. Out of breath, he dropped onto a bench, before ascending the stairs to his room. The sound of footsteps drew his attention, and he startled when a dog walked out of the metro; he heard stories about strays riding the trains, but never believed it. He followed the dog toward the area where he’d encountered the girl, until he turned away when he heard footsteps around him.

The walk through the frozen streets to the square apartment block seemed to take longer than usual, and he saw people in the windows of the ground floor rooms. A woman cooked on a stove, stirring a pot of boiling water probably filled with potatoes, while two little girls danced around her. A man smoked a crooked pipe by a front door while the smoke plumed through the flurries; he stopped a minute to watch him until a small boy called out for the man to come inside. These images of families haunted him, and he leaned against a dumpster, still feeling nauseous from the tranquilliser. He would have to get more darts from the office, and planned to return to the same location even though she might show up again, or because of it.

The heat shut off in the night, and he shivered under a pile of blankets because he’d forgotten to get wood for his fireplace. The night filled with memories of his father’s anger when he’d failed to protect his girlfriend. The image of his father holding a rifle in Afghanistan, wearing an army uniform with a medal next to it, always made him feel like a failure. Unable to sleep, he dug through dust-covered boxes until he found the picture. The flame of a match caught the edge, and made quick work of the photograph. The medal wouldn’t burn, and he opened the window letting in the cold wet air; against the wind he threw it out into the snow.

The next day, the snow crunched under his feet when he stalked the pack of strays that frequented the area. A search of the location didn’t reveal any footprints, and he aimed the gun. The bang made the dogs startle, but the dart had already pierced the side of a brown terrier. The other dogs ran away in panic, but the terrier collapsed on its side. “Yes,” he said, and ran toward it. After scanning the area he picked the dog up, and carried it to his truck. He drove toward the shelter, knowing the other dogs would not return to that area for a day or two.

A man let him into the remote building where barks filled the air. He handed him the crate; inside the dog stirred to life, and sniffed the air.

“Just one?” the man said.

“For now,” he answered, and waited to get the crate back. The terrier whimpered, when the man grabbed it by the neck, and tossed it into a pen. Another man dragged a brown dog toward a long hallway. The dog fought against the man until a kick knocked it over.

“Where is he taking that dog?” Petya asked.

“To the chamber.”

“You mean –” he stopped.

“Yes, what did you think we do with all the strays? Look in that window.”

He saw a room filled with numerous dogs; many of them ran in circles, or fought each other. But what caught his attention was the ones that didn’t move, the dogs that stayed in the corners, curled into balls with swarms of flies hovering over them. Petya turned away, and rushed out the door.

“Wait, I have your receipt for the dog,” the man yelled, but Petya never looked back. Steam drifted out of the metro station past the bench he sat on, followed by a group of street children. They walked by him holding brown bags, stopping to inhale the contents. Their stained clothes barely covered their bodies, and he wondered how they didn’t freeze to death. He went down the stairs when the smell of glue made him nauseous, fearing the street children might try to rob him.

A shriek filled the station, and the ground below him vibrated, causing Petya to lean against the building. A light flickered inside the ticket booth, and he saw a familiar face. The dog girl. His hand shook, and he stumbled backwards into a dark stairway. A door closed, and the girl walked out of the booth up an adjacent stairway. He followed her into a newer section of Moscow filled with single dwellings that he could never afford. She never looked back, and he stayed in the shadows, stopping to sip vodka that he kept in a small container in his jacket pocket. It felt like fire going down his throat, and the warmth spread through his body.

The houses looked like mansions compared to his apartment. How could anyone be unhappy here? Why did the girl hang around with the stray dogs? She entered one of the larger houses, and his chase was over, until he saw her shadow move into the light of a window. Despite the cold ground he sat behind a bush, and watched. After countless sips from the bottle he dozed off, only to be awakened by yelling. The girl slammed the door, and left the house holding her hands over her face. Petya saw no movement from inside the house. He crept up to the window. The frost of his breath blurred his view, but he saw the man on a chair next to a bottle of vodka. He took out his bottle, and tipped it over; the vodka made a hole in the snow. After relieving himself, he ran to find out where the girl had gone.

The new snow made her tracks easy to follow, and he gained ground on her until he left the plush neighbourhood, and entered a junkyard. The sound of dogs made him stiffen; he smelled their wet fur before he saw them gathered in an opening. The girl sat in a clearing surrounded by a pile of debris. A small terrier like the one he’d recently shot was curled up on her lap. The light from a lantern shimmered in her eyes, highlighting the darkness under them. The man must have hit her. He gasped. The dogs growled, and approached him with bared teeth. He reached for a gun that wasn’t there.

“Fuck,” he said, and backed up. The girl stood up, and saw him.

“What do you want?”

“Please, stop the dogs.” They crept closer to him, their fur stood up on end.

“Only if you stay there, and don’t come any closer.”

“I won’t,” he said, and crouched down.

She whistled, and the dogs returned to her. When she waved her hand, they sat by her side.

“What do you want?” Her voice cracked.

“I’m sorry, but I followed you.”

“Do you work for my husband?”

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t know him. I saw you yesterday.”

“You’re the dog catcher.” She stood up.

“Yes,” he said, and looked down.

“I should let them attack you.”

“I finally saw where they take them. I didn’t realise.”

“How could you not know? Did you think they gave them away as pets?” she asked.

“No, I took the job because –”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re taking away so many of them.” She rubbed her eyes.

“Are you okay?” He heard her sobbing.

“My husband.”

“He hurts you. Why?”

“He wants to control me. I got a job in the metro system, instead of staying at home and serving him. He becomes angry, and hurts me.” She looked down.

“I’m sorry. Did you tell anyone?”

“He works for the government. Nobody would believe me, and Moscow has no help available for abused women. They don’t care what the men do to us and I came from an orphanage while he came from a good family.”

“How did you meet him?”

“He saw me on the streets while he used the metro, and we fell in love. I thought we did anyway. Everyone loved how he saved the street girl.”

“But he did it to have a slave.”

“It turned out that way.”

The silence lingered until a dog howled.

“You knew the dogs from the street. Did you teach them to ride the metro? I saw them do it.”

“Yes, there is more food in the city centre, but it is harder to live there. I taught them to count the stops, and when to get off and on.”

“That’s amazing. You should work with animals.”

“Like you?”

“No, I’m sorry about that. I once was attacked by a dog when walking with a girlfriend. I ran while she stayed.” He paused, and shuffled his feet. “My father called me a coward. Nobody talked to me for a long time, and we even had to move. I blamed the dogs.” He looked at her.

“I’m sorry, but like people there are some bad dogs. Still, I trust them more than most people.”

She lifted up the terrier, and kissed its head. She held it out to him. With a shaking hand he rubbed its soft fur. It sent sparks through him, and his eyes filled up. The girl smiled.

“I’m Zoya by the way.”

“Petya,” he said. She put the dog down.

“I have to go back.”

“Why? He may hurt you worse,” he said.

“It’s still my home. I have nowhere else to live.”

“I only have a small apartment.”

“That’s better than where I live if it’s safe.”

She turned and hurried away. She stopped once, and he saw a sliver of a smile when she waved. He waved back but she disappeared. The dogs all grouped together for warmth, and he walked by them with his hands at his side.

The next day, he searched the subway for Zoya, but only saw a blonde girl in the glass-enclosed booth. After waiting in line, he tapped on the glass, startling the girl.

“What do you want?”

“Zoya,” he asked.

She narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

“I’m a friend,” he said, gulping air. The words were unfamiliar.

“She’s in the hospital,” she said.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“I don’t know, but I have to cover her shift. Tell her to come back soon. I have kids at home, and unlike her I need the money because I didn’t marry a rich husband.”

Petya walked away, and despite carrying the gun, he walked past the dogs on the street. The house looked empty, and he waited until a car approached. Before they could see him, he ducked behind bushes alongside the house. The car stopped, and he saw Zoya’s husband get out with a woman with red boots, and a short skirt. She looked familiar, and he remembered the night looking for a prostitute. The man kissed the girl, and they stumbled like they were drunk. He must have put Zoya in the hospital. When they reached the front door, he took out his gun, and loaded a dart into it. The man saw him, and pointed a finger in his direction.

“What do you want?”

“For you to stop hurting Zoya.”

“I didn’t do anything to my wife. Did she tell you that I did?”

He shook his head. “No, I just know you’re a jerk.”

The woman leaned against the door adjusting her hair. “Let’s go,” she said.

“Get out of here before I call the police,” the man said, and turned toward the house.

Petya took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. The dart penetrated the man’s rear end.

“Damn it,” he yelled, and collapsed to one knee. “Call the police!” he said.

“Not me,” the girl said. Petya ran down the street, and tossed the gun into a waste bin that he passed.

A pack of dogs walked down the steps into the metro station, until they reached the area where people boarded departing trains. Petya followed, and saw a light coming toward them from the end of the tunnel. The dogs stood among the other passengers waiting on the platform until the train screeched to a stop, and the passengers entered the train. They waited until everyone else got on, before they stepped forward just before the door closed. Petya leaped on when the train started moving, and fell onto a bench. The terrier from the junkyard was curled up in a ball next to him. It was the same one that Zoya had held out to him. When he reached out his hand the dog sniffed it, and put its head down, allowing him to pet it. Petya looked at the map, searching for the stop closest to the hospital; the thought of Zoya, and the feel of the dog’s fur, spread warmth through him as the train headed into the darkness.[/private]

William Falo’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Delinquent, Delivered, Mississippi Crow, Bottom of the World, Cantaraville, 34th Parallel, Skyline Review, First Edition, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Oak Bend Review, The Linnet’s Wings, The View From Here, Open Wide Magazine, and many others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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