Tyler was watching a sitcom in the trailer’s breakfast nook, petting the purring furnace that was Skritches in his lap, when the power went out for good. Tyler sat for a time, rubbing his cheeks, which were sore from laughing, wondering if they’d hurt when the Smiler virus took him.
He gave Skritches the last of the kibble, and her usual mealtime grooming, then grabbed his backpack and rode to Jack-in-the-Box. He could drive, but his bike had been the better option for a few weeks now. He hopped a curb to skirt a five-car accident and nearly hit a grinning woman who was shuffling along, dragging a leash behind her. The collar sparkled as it skipped along the sidewalk. Hopefully the dog, wherever it was, was doing okay. Better to be outside, Tyler figured, than left inside, or in a crate. He’d installed a little door in the trailer last week so Skritches could come and go as she pleased. He was making sure she’d be set for a long while.
Shelly, his manager, had closed the Jack-in-the-Box weeks ago, back when the news was still on and everyone thought the quarantines were working. She’d given him a key with his promotion to assistant manager after graduation. Now, the place smelled like congealed grease. It was quiet except for a regular tapping on the drive-thru window. An older man leaned out of his pickup, his thick fingernail clicking on the glass. His smile was so wide that his cheeks pushed back in stubbled folds against his ears. This deep into the pandemic, Tyler should have known better than to look.
He thought he’d find Shelly smiling over her beloved spreadsheets, but her office was empty. He was relieved, not because he was stealing food—at this point no one cared—but because her absence meant she had something more important in her life than her job. Tyler wasn’t sure what he’d do when he went Smiler. He wanted to be with Skritches.
The walk-in freezer was dark and musty, quiet as a tomb. Tyler stuffed his backpack with frozen patties and got out as fast as he could.
On the way home, he coasted past the mall parking lot. It was packed. He imagined how awful it must be inside, quiet and hot and full of milling smilers. He was glad he hadn’t taken the job at the smoothie shop.
He rode through Sycamore Heights, where he’d played as a kid, climbing the towering trees, playing tag football on the broad lawns, splashing in pools behind gigantic homes. Skritches would be in heaven here, stalking rabbits in the waist-high grass. There wasn’t much grass around Hidden Acres.
He stopped in the shade in front of a house where he used to play. Jason’s house. They weren’t really friends anymore. They’d hung out through middle school, but that ended sometime during freshman year. Jason had entered the Naval Academy last fall; Tyler had gone to full-time at Jack-in-the-Box.
Someone in an oversized tan shirt and a broad-brimmed hat knelt in a plant bed by the house. He—or she, Tyler couldn’t tell—rocked back and forth, stabbing at the dirt with a spade. Jason’s mom, maybe. Tyler wasn’t going to check; he didn’t want to see her face.
The world had slowed down so fast. He didn’t miss the frantic talking and texting and driving and rushing everywhere, not exactly, but the silent gardener, the bird calls, the wind through the trees, the swaying of the overgrown lawn, all made him feel a little sad. A little lonely.
Eventually Tyler pedaled south across the highway, past the discount stores and auto dealerships, around the industrial park, past the faded plywood sign and the mailboxes. Skritches came out from under the trailer to greet him.
“Miss me?” he said, scooping her up. More likely she smelled the meat. “You know I brought you a treat, don’t you?” Tyler tucked his nose into her neck and breathed in her soft, musky smell.
He grilled the burgers, piling them in an enormous mound. While Skritches ate, he drew his fingers slowly along her spine, over and over.
He left her to eat in peace and hit the bathroom. His mom was still there, standing in front of the mirror smearing powder across one cheek. He’d gotten used to using the toilet with her there. Funny how he’d never seen her look at herself in a mirror before the virus. She hadn’t smiled much before then, either.
Skritches was still eating when Tyler came back outside. He settled in a lawn chair and watched. The meat on the plate probably still outweighed her. When she’d had enough, Skritches settled in his lap, kneading his sweatpants to get comfortable. Soon enough she purred beneath his slow strokes.
When Skritches hopped down to finish off the burgers a few hours later, Tyler’s hand kept rubbing his thigh as though she hadn’t moved. She didn’t notice his smile.
For several weeks, Skritches hunted around the trailer, napping frequently in Tyler’s lap. She grew lean and fast. When the winds came, and then the rain, she sheltered behind Tyler’s legs. When he and the chair were whipped into the howling sky, Skritches scurried under the trailer. When the trailer shook and groaned and twisted and began pulling apart, she ran.
In the aftermath of the storm, Skritches followed Tyler’s scent to the splintered crook of a tall tree. She found his wadded sweatpants there, along with an abundance of raw meat. Night after night, long after she’d finished the meat, Skritches curled up in Tyler’s sweatpants and dreamed he was petting her, his voice softly vibrating through his hand and his warm, warm lap.
Meat for Skritches first appeared May 2020 in
Weird Dream Society: An Anthology of the Possible & Unsubstantiated in Support of RAICES