Note: This story will appear in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and that’s why I’m posting this teaser.  However, it has already been published in “Kindle” format, and there is a link to that below, in case you cannot wait for The Cabinet to be published.

Free Range Meat cover


            It was unusually hot and bright that day, and as Brian approached the parking lot, he almost regretted his decision to walk to the shopping plaza where his nearest Whole Foods was located.  Though his backpack was currently empty, he was already sweating heavily beneath it, his tee-shirt sticking to his back.  The front of his shirt also, though less sopped than the rear, bore visible sweat marks.  Brian had decided already that, as soon as he got home, he was going to take another shower.  He hated to waste the water, but even his conservational idealism had its limits; many hours remained before bedtime, and he really didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon stinking of stale sweat.

            The sky was barely dotted with occasional small clouds, but the air was noticeably humid, and the temperature was well into the upper eighties even though it was only early May.  Brian shook his head, tossing his mid-length, straight hair—also damp with sweat—from side to side as he went.  He wondered, given such unusual warmth, how anyone could possibly doubt that climate change was real, that the world was getting warmer thanks to the unrestrained use of fossil fuels and the ridiculous output of all the cattle humans raised just so they could eat steak and burgers, wasting countless acres of land that could have grown food for people to eat directly, without nearly so much impact on the environment.

            He had to remind himself that one unseasonably hot day was no more proof of global warming than a particularly cold winter day was evidence against it.  Still, the emotional weight was hard to resist.  He didn’t think he was mistaken in believing that his childhood summers had not been as severe, nor as early, as they were now.  That was memory, though, surely colored by the fact that a child’s body was more resilient than an adult’s—though Brian was lean and muscular from regular workouts, a regimen he’d undertaken more to fight against his moderate scoliosis than for trying to look good.  Indeed, at forty-four, Brian had often been assured that he looked easily ten years younger.  The tee-shirts and shorts he habitually wore helped this impression, but even in a suit and tie, which he wore when meeting with certain clients, Brian could easily pass for a young, upwardly mobile professional rather than a man approaching middle age.  Even his simple, wire-framed glasses made him look young and intelligent.

            Brian took no special pride in the fact that he looked good for his age, except to think to himself that this was what clean living did for a person.  And though, just as with the weather on any given day, he knew that his individual attributes couldn’t honestly be used as evidence of a general trend, he was nonetheless convinced that his health and appearance were due more to lifestyle than to genetics.  Perhaps his genes could be credited with the fact that he was smart enough to recognize better ways to live and had the will to act on that recognition.

            All this was why, even on an unseasonably hot day, Brian walked the mile and a fraction to Whole Foods rather than doing what most others would do, which was to get in a car, crank up the AC, and use that wasteful conveyance to go a distance that could easily be covered in twenty minutes on foot.  By using their cars, most people not only hurt the ecosystem, they hurt their own internal environment—accumulating fat and cholesterol, allowing muscles to atrophy, making their lungs less efficient—shortening their lives in countless ways, and guaranteeing that the ends of those lives would be ordeals of misery for themselves and their loved ones.

            It would be easy to feel disdain, even to hate such people.  Brian had acquaintances who did in fact hate them—habitual high-horse riders with attitudes toward polluters and meat-eaters that would have suited Gestapo officers.

            Brian did his best to resist such feelings, though they claimed him from time to time.  The sympathy he felt for factory-farmed animals—and for wild animals that were losing habitat or otherwise suffering from human activity—was also given to most humans.  They too, after all, were animals, and were the products of various cultural traditions.  Not many people had the resources to pursue a healthy lifestyle, not in modern America, where it was far more expensive to live as a vegetarian or vegan than it was to live as a blatant consumer of McDonalds and Frito Lays washed down with high-fructose corn syrup.  Humans hadn’t evolved to live in the modern world, and Brian knew that most people were as clueless and confused as they were miserable.  They deserved pity, not hatred.  More importantly, they deserved to be educated in the most non-confrontational ways possible, since shouting people down and shaming them rarely produced significant, positive change.  If the world was to be saved and made into the most humane place it could be, then people would need to be trained just as judiciously and lovingly as any dog.

            Of course, to be honest, it was harder to train people.

            Brian was a near-vegan, the “near” part referring to the fact that he ate roughly one egg a day, nominally for the B-12 and similar vitamins.  He also liked eggs and felt that free-range eggs were as nearly harmless as an animal product could be—provided, of course, that the chickens really were free-range.  Brian only bought eggs from one or two companies, which he had researched thoroughly and mercilessly before being convinced that they were as ethical as it was possible for purveyors of animal products to be.

            Whole Foods carried those eggs, of course, but they were not what Brian had come to buy.  He’d awakened late that morning, and while debugging a system for one of his clients, he’d developed a craving for tofurkey.  He knew a lot of people who made fun of the stuff, but he remembered the first time he’d eaten it, years ago, at a Thanksgiving dinner attended by one of the first vegetarians he’d ever met.  She was the girlfriend of an older cousin, and she’d been both pretty and very sweet.  She’d encouraged Brian, then in his early teens, to try the meat-alternative, and under the influence of a bit of adolescent infatuation, he’d gladly complied.  Who could say how much his surprised love for the stuff had been influenced by attraction to a forbidden, older woman?  Whatever the case, that had been Brian’s first step down the road to a lifestyle of health and conscience, and he’d not regretted a bit of the journey.  So, when he’d found himself wanting tofurkey, he’d finished his debugging and then had donned his backpack and headed out into the bright afternoon sun.

            As he approached the shopping plaza—which, in addition to the Whole Foods at the near end housed a CVS, a Nordstrom Rack, a Barnes & Noble, and a Cold Stone Creamery—Brian noted that there were fewer cars than he might have expected for a Sunday afternoon.  Maybe most people were taking advantage of the warm weather by enjoying outdoor activities rather than shopping in what amounted to a high-end strip mall.  Brian guessed that anyone who really dreaded the heat was more likely to go to a true mall than a place like this, near the outskirts of town, adjacent to a broad stretch of undeveloped land.  Brian knew from dolorous experience that on Saturdays the parking area in front of the Whole Foods was inundated, with vehicles packed into parking spaces almost as tightly as pigs in a factory farm.  The painful irony of this was never lost on him, and he tended to avoid the store at such times, as well as near rush hour on weekdays, when it was likewise ridiculously crowded.

            Crossing the grassy berm and entering the lot at the very farthest corner of the plaza’s parking area, Brian was surprised to see one of his least favorite forms of transportation, parked well away from the stores, and a good ten or more spaces from its nearest neighbor.  It was a huge, black Range Rover with deeply tinted windows.  Brian had no idea what the different models of such vehicles might be.  They all looked the same to him:  ridiculously gigantic, unnecessarily high-wheeled, gas-guzzling monstrosities of “off-road” SUVs, most of them owned by people who would die within a few hours if they found themselves stranded in a real wilderness.  He couldn’t grasp why city dwellers bought such ruinous, patently unnecessary vehicles.  Though status-seeking surely played a large part in the decision, he really couldn’t comprehend why such things were considered high-status.  He supposed cost had something to do with it; they were absurdly expensive, so they represented a kind of peacock’s tail for the affluent.  He’d heard excuses that the main reason for buying them was that their roominess and reliability made them great for families, but he’d never bought that argument.  If those were one’s criteria, then a minivan would have been a much better choice.  No, the only reason—if it could be dignified with that term—for such vehicles was surely the inescapable urge of the social primate to try to enhance one’s place in the tribal hierarchy.  Not that anyone who owned one would consciously recognize or admit to such a motive.

            Brian shook his head as he walked at an angle to the Range Rover.  He had to give credit to its owner for one thing:  they had chosen to park at the far end of the lot, presumably to give themselves a bit of exercise.  It wasn’t much, but since most people put themselves through considerable stress jockeying and scrambling for the closest possible parking space they could win, it was a sign of good things.  Whoever it was had, after all, come to Whole Foods, and though that was also sometimes a status matter, they were at least trying to live in a sensible, conscious fashion.  If only they could be made to realize that their choice of vehicle was practically genocidal in its wastefulness.

            Brian looked away from the Range Rover and toward Whole Foods.  He was almost past the huge SUV when he was brought up short by a noise.

            He stopped, turned to look at the vehicle, and cocked his head.  Had he heard what he thought he had heard?

            The noise repeated itself.  It was a half-bark, half-whimper, coming only too clearly from within the Range Rover.  Brian’s mouth dropped open in surprise and instant outrage.  Someone had left their dog locked in that big, black SUV on the hottest and brightest day of the year so far!

            Brian listened closely, trying to discern if the vehicle was running.  Maybe someone was sitting within, waiting for a parent or a spouse to return, running the air conditioner and keeping the dog company.  He knew as soon as the idea entered his head that it wasn’t so, though.  He would have heard the engine humming as he approached, since there was much less traffic in the direction in which he lived than there was at the opposite end of the plaza.  Even a modern, high-end engine, such as a Range Rover surely had, would make obvious noise.

            No, the engine was off.  And a repeated bark/whine convinced Brian that there was indeed a dog in the vehicle.

            He stared at the windshield of the SUV—it was backed into its parking space, so Brian was looking it in its figurative face—but he could make out nothing within.  It was too bright out, and the window too tinted.

            He looked up at the sky.  It wasn’t mid-day anymore, but the sun was still high enough that even a passing glance caused Brian to squint in pain.  As he’d earlier thought, this day’s weather was outdoor play weather.  It was beach weather.  It was no kind of weather to be leaving a dog locked in a Range Rover.

            Brian had heard and read, and had taken to heart, many public service warnings about not leaving dogs or children in cars when the sun was out.  He didn’t know for sure, but he thought that even in cool weather, a sunny day could turn a closed vehicle into a death trap.  On hot, brilliant days like that Sunday…well, he thought he remembered reading something about the internal temperature of such vehicles rising past a hundred and twenty degrees within minutes and being able in short order to reach levels that could literally cook food.  Whether dog or a human, anyone inside such a vehicle could die quickly.

            But, of course, humans could get out of parked cars, unless they were very young or very old.  Also, humans could sweat, and this provided them a modicum of protection.  Dogs, on the other hand, could neither work a car door handle, nor cool themselves effectively.

            Brian listened to another whimpering bark.  The animal didn’t sound in too much distress, though he wasn’t completely certain.  He’d had dogs of his own, and he’d loved them dearly, but he’d never put them into circumstances in which he needed to gauge their suffering by sound.

            And now, he was looking at one of his least favorite vehicles—a pitch black one at that—sitting at the far end of a parking lot on a brilliantly sunny, hot day in late spring, with a dog shut inside.  There were no serious trees within fifty yards of the SUV.  Suddenly, the vehicle’s owner’s deliberate choice to park far from the stores—which had seemed so positive before—struck Brian as supremely selfish.

            He took a step closer to the Range Rover.  The dog within, which had clearly started making noise because Brian had passed nearby, increased the frequency of its yelps.  Brian listened closely.  It didn’t sound like it was in grave danger, at least not yet.  There was good energy in those barks, and though there was urgency to them, they were not the sounds of an animal on the verge of death.  On the other hand, they were clearly not the noises of a dog declaring its territory, nor simply a greeting from one that wanted attention.  Brian had noticed that there was a whimpering tone to the sounds—not yet a cry, but certainly a request for help.

            Brian’s anger rose, and he now walked closer to the SUV, looking in its windshield.  The surface no longer reflected the sunlight so directly into his face, but it was still remarkably opaque, showing only a slightly dimmed reflection of the sky.  Brian could discern nothing inside.

            He looked back toward the store to see if anyone was headed his way.  Maybe the dog’s owner had just sprinted in to pick up something quickly, had parked so far away out of habit, and would be jogging back now, mortified that someone had seen how he had stupidly left his dog in the car.  Brian fantasized about the man—he assumed it was a man—showing real remorse, perhaps making weak excuses, and swearing to Brian that he was never going to be so careless, so idiotic, again.  He even fantasized about this fictional person looking at his own car and admitting that he’d been doing senseless things ever since he’d gotten caught up in the toxic lifestyle that had led him to buy the hulking monstrosity, and that this was the last straw.  He was going to sell the Range Rover and buy a Prius, or something similar.  Hell, if he wanted status, he could get a Tesla, and be at least a little more environmentally responsible.

            Of course, the fantasy was unrealized.  Brian saw no one who even remotely appeared to be heading toward him.

            He gave a concession to the appearance of benevolence in that he approached the passenger side of the Range Rover rather than the driver’s side.  He noted in passing that, whatever else could be said about such an automobile, it was strikingly clean.  There was barely even any dirt on the tires, let alone on the body of the SUV.  It gleamed with pristine blackness, looking more liquid than solid.

            As he approached, Brian heard movement within the car—or perhaps “truck” would be a better term—as the dog tried to meet him.  Its barks sped up and became more enthusiastic, or more desperate.  Yes, Brian decided, the dog was desperate, hopeful that this newcomer would let it out of its mobile torture cell.

            Brian heard the scramble of paws near the door, perhaps touching the window, and he fully expected to be able at least to have visual contact with the poor canine.  As he got closer to the window, however, he was astonished to find that he could see nothing—absolutely nothing—within the car.  He heard the whimpering noise of the dog, knew that it was a mere few feet from him, but he could not see anything but the door and a black, slightly reflective window.

            He touched the fender of the SUV as he approached the passenger side door, secretly glad to be leaving a possible mark.  It wasn’t hot enough to make him jerk his hand back, but it was very hot, nevertheless.  If he’d laid his full palm on the surface, he couldn’t have left it there more than a second or two without a serious effort of will.

            He squinted.  The window might have been painted on, for all he could see through it.

            Frustrated by the darkness of the window, Brian said, “Hey, pup.  Are you really in there?”  All dogs were “pup” or “puppy” to Brian.  He’d never met a canine—even the most muscular rottweiler or pit bull—that he did not think of as a puppy.

            In response to his question, the dog’s barking and scrambling increased in intensity.  It got a little louder and more enthusiastic.  The pitch of its barks didn’t seem quite low enough for a really huge dog, but it was clearly no cocker spaniel, either.  Perhaps it was a lab or a golden retriever.

            Its vocalizations sounded slightly coarse to Brian, slightly rough.  He’d never heard a dog’s bark quite like it before, but he thought he’d heard something like it.

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