Man’s Best Friend by Jada Dean

My knees fall to the ground in a familiar grove of trees. I whistle lightly, hoping for my furry friend to join me. Golden fur reflects the sunlight. The golden retriever pants as he jogs to me. My hand reaches his head. I give his ears a little shake. “Hi, Leo,” I say. His fur is soft. His tail wags happily as I pet him. He rolls over and exposes his belly to me. I pet his tummy as he pants. “We need to be more careful, Leo. I keep finding your fur on me. No one has noticed, yet. I pick it off of me when I can. I need to take a hair roller to me after seeing you,” I rant. 

Many decades before I was born, it was decided that keeping pets was abuse. That they should live free from human intervention. What was known as PETA turned into the Authority as they inserted themselves in the government. They have a say in everything in the government now, but what they mostly care about is keeping animals away from humans… or moreso, keeping humans away from animals. They knew humans grew a dependence on pets, so they gave us virtual ones. Poorer people have them as apps on their phones while richer people actually have droid pets. 

I’ve heard stories about places of entertainment where many different types of animals were kept in a smaller version of their homeland. I think it was called a Zoo? None of those exist anymore, and even the past existence of Zoos were wiped from history. Now, it’s only known through word of mouth. Many historical documents including information about different animal species are now all gone. We don’t even know what kind of beasts are out there anymore. The only ones that are widely known are dogs, cats, birds, rodents, and other, smaller animals. We only know them through different presets on our pet applications and droids. 

Recently, someone got in trouble for being too friendly with a wild bird. The lady kept it in a cage and fed it seeds. She, and the bird, were taken in by the Authority, and I haven’t heard anything since. It’s said that her own husband reported her. I can’t trust anyone with Leo’s existence. His brown eyes stare at mine. When I first found him, hurt and alone, I felt a huge need to help him. I pat his back leg that was once torn open and bleeding. I’m so happy he understood I was helping him. He could’ve bit me and ran away if he really wanted to. 

I want nothing more than to stay out here with him, but I know I need to return. He sits up and looks at me. I pet his head. “I’m sorry, Leo. I have to go,” I say as I stand up. He stops panting and almost looks sad. I feel so bad. I wish I could talk to him and explain our situation. Even though humans aren’t allowed to take in pets, the Authority understands that pets were dependent on us, too. Certain reliable people are chosen by the Authority to go into the wilds and put food out for the animals that were once our pets. I happen to be one of them. I was assigned to the area that is mostly canines. That’s how I met Leo. 

We’re only allowed enough time to get from the entrance to the wilds, to the few feeding spots, and then back to the entrance. Even so, I’ve been able to sneak in a few minutes of bonding time with Leo. I sigh. I pat his head one more time before turning around and leaving the safety of the grove. This is the worst part, leaving him. There’s nothing I can do to protect him out there. He’s left to the mercy of other dogs and other animals. Everytime I come back out to put food out, I’m afraid he’s not going to show up. I walk the path back to the entrance as I search myself for stray golden hairs. 

“What’s up, Chris?” I hear, almost at the entrance. I turn to my right. 

“Hi, Isobel,” I say, “I thought felines weren’t due for feeding for a couple more hours.”

“I know. They made their feeding time earlier today for some reason,” she says. 

“That’s weird. Did you see any today?” I ask. 

“No, I never do,” she says, disappointed. We are trusted enough by the Authority to feed them and not touch them, but seeing them isn’t illegal. “Did you see any dogs?” My lips are zipped. 

“No, not today,” I say. 

“That sucks,” she says, “Being able to see animals is such a privilege, and yet, they never show up.” She sighs. I nod in agreement. We finally reached the entrance. We push the red button and a camera light turns on. We hold our ID cards up next to our face. The button turns green and the gate starts opening. The gate is the same height as the walls that surround our district. Maybe three stories tall? We walk through the gate. Four guards block our way as two people start searching us. They search for hairs and smaller animals in our pockets. A few minutes pass and then they give the all-clear for both of us. I’ve heard that a past Feeder almost brought a rat home until someone saw whiskers hanging out of his pocket. Ever since then, Feeders are required to be searched when they return. 

As a safety measure, Feeders are allowed to bring a pistol with them into the Wilds. Isobel and I turned in our pistols to the people that searched us. 

“Hey, Chris, do you want to hang out at my place tonight? I bought good wine,” Isobel coos. Her brown doll eyes pull me in. I’ve always seen her as attractive. I love how her red hair goes against her pale skin. She’s lovely. In fear of losing our friendship, I haven’t said anything about my feelings. 

“That sounds like a great time. I’d love to,” I say. 

“That sounds great,” I say, “How about after we’re done changing?”

“Yup,” she agrees. We separate into our different changing rooms to get out of the Feeder gear. I’ve always disliked how much we have to carry with us. There’s some armored pieces, a gun, a thick helmet, some medical supplies, and a knife. I feel well protected while I’m in uniform, but taking it all off takes so much time. Isobel and I meet up after changing. She’s usually in jeans and a simple t-shirt, but now she’s in a cute sundress that looks very comfortable. 

“All ready?” she asks. 

“Of course,” I say. We start to walk in the direction of her apartment. 

“Do you think we’ll ever be rich enough to own a droid pet?” she asks. 

“I’m not sure,” I say, “If you started to actually save money instead of immediately spending it, I’m sure the chance would be more likely,” I tease. 

“Hey, like you should talk, Mister Vintage-Converse-All-Stars,” she laughs. 

“Don’t hate just because you’re jealous,” I say. She clicks her tongue as she rolls her eyes. I go a bit ahead of her and open the door to the apartment like a gentleman. 

“Thank you,” she says sweetly. I walk behind her as she leads me to the elevator. She taps a button and we head up to the second floor. Her apartment is homey and warm. “I’ll go open the wine, you make yourself at home,” she says before she leaves the room. I sit on one of the bean bag chairs she has on her living room floor. I enjoy looking around for a few minutes before she comes back with the wine and two cups. She pours me one, and then herself. She sits on the bean bag across from me. 

“This is nice,” she says, taking a sip of her drink. 

“I feel like I could take a nap,” I say. The wine is sweet, yet bitter, with a fruity taste. 

“Chris, do you feel like you belong?” she asks, suddenly.

“Well, I feel like your apartment has become a second home to me,” I say. 

“No, no. In society. Do you feel like you fit in with everyone else?” she asks. 

“Well… no,” I admit, “I don’t really like working for the Authority. As much as I love animals, I don’t think being seperated from them is the way to protect them. I feel honored that I got chosen, and I do love the money part, but I don’t know if I agree with their ways.” I trust Isobel. It feels good to finally get this off my chest. 

“I agree,” she says. She pauses. “So, tell me, were you lying when you said you haven’t seen any dogs?” She asks. I think about it. I’ve gone this far, I might as well. 

“Yeah. I saw a golden retriever. Uh, I’ve been seeing him. And petting him. I’ve named him Leo,” I say. Isobel jumps up and grabs my hand. I almost spilled my drink as she tugs me into a different room. 

“Prepare yourself,” she says before she flips the lightswitch. Light covers the room, exposing three kittens. They’re asleep on top of each other. 

“Aw,” I say. They’re so cute. I want nothing more than to hold them and protect them. Wait, where is their mother? I turn to Isobel with a questioning look. 

“Their mother was very sick. When I found her, she was extremely weak and could barely take care of her kittens. I knew I had to do something,” Isobel admits, “Three times I went out to feed them, I brought them home one at a time. There were five kittens. These are the only ones that made it. The others died with the mother cat.” We both look at the kittens sadly. 

“Chris, there’s a group I want to introduce to you,” She says. 

“A group?” I ask. 

“Yes,” she looks at me and hesitates, “There’s a group of people like us. They all believe that animals and humans shouldn’t be seperate anymore. They think animals should be protected and cared for by humans. I’m part of this group and I’d like to recruit you. We’re called the Bond. Our group spans all ten districts of the United Districts.”

“Wow…” this is so much to take in. There’s a group of people like me? I thought I was alone. 

“You’d be a superb asset to us, Chris. They need more Feeders on their side. We know more about the wilds and the Authority than regular citizens,” she explains. Would it be possible to change the government’s mind about animal abuse? Could we push the Authority back out? I could finally be able to protect Leo… 

“Chris, please say something,” Isobel pleads. 

“Yes. I’d love to help,” I say. 

“Thank you,” she looks relieved. She steps closer to me and wraps her arms around me in a hug. My arms find her back. I close my eyes in comfort. I’ve finally found people like me. I’m not alone. 

“I love you, Chris,” she says against me. Warmth blossoms in my chest. 

“I love you, too, Isobel,” I say. 

Years ago, a rebellion against the Authority finally let their presence known. Met with bullets and tear gas, the Bond decided to fight back with their own force. Most fought with home-made weapons while the rebellious Feeders fought back with their own guns. With many months of fighting and attacks, the Authority backed down and surrendered, for they were outnumbered. Now, the walls of the districts are dust. Pets are now in almost every home. The government returned to its Democratic-Republic stance, and the United Districts finally returned to being the United States.

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