This is the first harbinger of the hells to come: Fur, on your favorite chair. Your slippers now resemble a half-pound of freshly used Big League Chew, scraped off the underside of an Illegal Party Toilet. Your child screams in their bedroom, horrified to discover their homework reduced to damp confetti. Your bacon lies in an uncooked pile on the kitchen floor, defiled.
On their own, there is nothing unusual about these trivialities. They befall any home lucky enough to have a family living inside. But, when taken as part of a constellation of similar ills befalling your neighborhood, they begin to outline the shape of a terrible evil.
Was it an army of gophers who dug up Phyllis's tulips last week? What phantasmal teeth tore off the rear bumper of Postman Joe's mail truck? Who bit the tips off of every garden gnome hat, in every garden in Orange County? The weatherman refuses to mention the curious rain of hair reported around your neighborhood. Has he turned his back on you, knowing what comes next?
Your family prays to idols for deliverance, but you take precautions. Circles of salt under your children's bed. Wormwood left unburnt in the fireplace, inscribed with bone-runes. A bowl of warm gravy left on the back porch. Lamb's blood on the door. The old ways have as many wards against it as names for this thing bearing down upon you; Fangmaster, the Marchand of Darkness, Big Red, Mother of Dukes, the whispered monogram M-D-, you know them.
The Large, Inconvenient Dog. The ur-beast from which all uncontrollable canines take their form. Marmaduke, Clifford, Cujo, Wishbone, Beethoven, all these beasts emerge from the same subconscious archetype of a huge dog whose refusal to come to heel renders your family a laughingstock. Though the nature of the hex changes from manifestation to manifestation, the Large, Inconvenient Dog is an inverted Godhead, each beast just an aspect of the same perverse human need for debasement.
You clean your house as best you can. You compose yourself before stepping outside, praying that it will settle with some other family if it finds you an unsatisfying target, only to discover your lawn torn to shreds, pockmarked with holes like the pimply visage of an avid Redditor.
A semicircle of elders have gathered at the end of your driveway. They regard you in grim silence. "Gophers, am I right?" You chuckle. "God damned gophers." Their lips tighten over large, white teeth.
During the drive into town, your family is silent. No one makes eye contact. There is no music on the radio, just static and distant voices hollering about the End Times. You become aware of the thick layer of fur covering the dashboard, as red as a clown's wig. The phantom outline of nose prints fogs up the inside of the glass, which you wipe away furiously at every intersection.
The sign is visible from the parking lot: SERVICE ANIMALS ONLY. You check your palms for leashes, just to be sure.
The basket is filled with shelf-stable provisions. Your children are silent and beg for nothing. Your partner whispers this will pass, we will laugh when it is over and holds your arm close. The cashier takes a single look at you and shakes his head, points for the door. You leave without paying. A group of truants scream-laugh and run away from your car, which now bears a thousand tiny SW's drawn in the dust.
You drive home in a blind panic. News travels inconveniently fast in a town like this. There is already a prayer circle on your yard. It is slightly lopsided, to account for the lumpfucked terrain.
"They've marked us. We've been given over!" Your partner is inconsolable. You usher the children inside while they hyperventilate in the car.
You calmly place your goods on the kitchen table, counting your breaths and trying to will yourself back to normal. Snacks in the cupboard, cereal on the shelf. You think of the liquor atop the fridge as your tongue swells and your mouth dries up. Your son calls to you from his room, and you run, tossing the bright plastic basket to the side. He holds up a rock, with a note attached. "Papa, what's a 'Sacrificial Winslow'?"
You kneel on his Roadways Toy Car Play Rug, the broken glass somehow less painful than legos. "Kiddo," you rub his shoulders and tousle his hair, "sometimes, when a community does a bad thing, a special kind of dog comes to visit. In order to protect themselves, everyone gets together and chooses just one-"
"Cowards!" Your partner screams from the yard, throwing terracotta flowerpots at the assembled. "Leave us to It, then! Go on! Fuck off! We'll deal with the Marmaduke! You soup-beard old sons of bitches live in safety while we suffer!"
You gather your children in the den, where the sound of your partner assaulting a deacon cannot disrupt what you have to tell them.
"Our lives are going to change. We have a new member of our fam. . . Of the family." You feel like you are going to throw up. You remember fondly the liquor atop the refrigerator. "We're each going to take turns being responsible, so it won't be a lot of work. In fact, it'll be a lot of fun! You kids like dogs, right?" You children regard you blankly. "Haven't you always wanted a dog? Think of all the cool viral content you'll be able to make with your Large, Inconvenient Dog!"
"But, if he's so cool, why don't the other families want him?" Your daughter asks.
"Well-" Your mind floods with images of hapless stooges dragged through the mud, over gravel, shackled by the wrist to hell's worst impulses made manifest in 200 pounds of horny muscle. "The dog doesn't always do what you tell it to. It's not a bad dog, it just. . ." You struggle to avoid terms the children will not understand, terms like judge of the unworthy, sin-eating flesh-excoriator, DharmaDuke. "The dog has a mind of its own, just like we do, kids. It's normal for you two not to listen to your loving parents-" you boop your son's nose, but he does not giggle "-so why would it be any different for the dog? It's a member of the family now, and we're going to get through it together because we're a family, and that's what family does."
Your children stare at you, unmoved. You try explaining that this will eventually become artistic fodder for an excellent New Yorker article, despite knowing that there has never been an excellent New Yorker article. You tousle their hair and leave before making things worse.
As you close the door, there is a clap of thunder. The house goes dark. Through the windows, you see the sun shrink behind a stormwall. You hear the clink and splash of a whiskey on the rocks being made in the den. Your den.
Heading downstairs, you find your partner has wreathed the den in scented candles, reeking so thick it coats the air as viscous as the floor in Elon Musk's cologne pit. Something sits in your recliner, your drink in its hand. You step closer, you see it wears your khakis, your sweater-vest. You call out for your partner, though you know they will not come.
The beast moves, and as it moves you catch a glimpse of candy-apple red fur, like a fire truck from Hell. It pulls something off its neck and throws it at you. You flinch as it lands at your feet, a thick woven strip of leather complete with shiny silver buckle. A collar. Your collar, now.
Welcome to Pet Ownership.
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