Your new neighborhood lacks sidewalks, but it has plenty of trucks, fast and menacing, hulking as armored tanks. It has narrow roads lined with ditches, swirling with murky water. Walking the dog in your new neighborhood requires a strategy, a battle plan. It requires dedication and courage. The dog acknowledges nothing. If he does not get his walk at 5:30 each day, he chews on the carpet. He pillages the garbage and hides chicken bones and moldy bread under the sofa.
Walking the dog in your new neighborhood requires a certain recklessness. Sidewalks do not exist. Insects burrow into the ground: cicada-killer wasps, tiger beetles, and others you cannot identify. Large and menacing, the insects appear in your house while you are working. Suddenly, you look up to see a red wasp floating in the living room. Suddenly, you notice a tree cockroach by the clock when you look up to check the time. In winter, the insects burrow into the ground, leaving only piles of frozen mud to mark their refuges. When you walk with the dog after dark, you can’t see the towers left by the insects, but you feel them crumble beneath your feet.
Because your new neighborhood lacks sidewalks, walking the dog requires trespassing. You stumble through flowerbeds and around dumpsters. You circle the church parking lot and the strip mall with the donut shop and nail salon. The dog pees on the church basketball court and on a statue of St. Peter. You pull him into a patch of forest and emerge by someone’s trampoline. Dogs bark behind fences as you pass. They snarl and paw at the chain-link, shove their heads under weathered wooden boards. The whole world is lined with dogs, one after another, a gauntlet of barking like a punishment.
At night, the dog rests, and you turn on your computer and play World of Warcraft. Your name changes at the login screen, and you become a night elf, tall with pointy ears and a wooden staff. You travel through realms filled with dwarves, gnomes, and dragons. Teldrassil, Tirisfal Glades, Dun Morogh, it doesn’t matter. Roads crisscross each landscape like spiderwebs: tree-lined, snow-covered, paved or gravel. You walk and fear nothing. Even the wolves and rabid bears are close to your level, and the owls don’t attack unless provoked. You quest and fight and improve your talent build, but you love the sidewalks the most, the feeling of walking without having to look behind you. Some days, while walking the dog, you think you will never walk without worrying again.
When spring comes, you put the dog in the car and drive him to the park, where a paved half-mile trail encircles a playground and a picnic pavilion. Other pilgrims join you, running around and around in their bright white sneakers. They walk their dogs and push their strollers. Evenings, the trail fills with people. It is a shopping mall of a sidewalk, a destination people seek out, an attraction advertised by word-of-mouth.
Most days, though, you walk up one side of the street and back down the other. Children aren’t allowed on the main road, so they play in your cul-de-sac. They ride their bikes and skateboards in a long oval past the same ten houses. Trapped, they experiment with locomotion, with pogo sticks and wave boards. They build go-carts out of wood in their garages, and on weekends, families pile into their trucks, drive with their contraptions to parking lots and tracks. Mostly, though, the kids ride in circles. They play baseball and football while wearing rollerblades. A boy practices backflips from the top of his mailbox. They dangle like monkeys from the trees.
On trash days, garbage sits in the street. The city does not permit garbage cans, so the bags wait on the concrete and leak their smells and liquids. At night, the animals come to scavenge, and in the morning the street is littered with ripped plastic bags, used paper towels, and frozen dinner trays. The things you’d hoped to forget are strewn across your lawn for everyone to see. On garbage days, trash fills the ditches and flowerbeds; soda cans and bottle caps sparkle in the mud. A box of sterilized latex gloves spills white hands like shed skin into the road. Newspapers left in the rain melt to sludge, and the photo of the mayor blends with the photo of a farmer, with a man wanted for child support, with a woman advertising Botox.
In World of Warcraft, the landscape offers flowers and bright fish you can catch with your pole, but it presents its own dangers as well. In the mines, Kobolds attack from behind rusted mining equipment, their fireballs bursting through warped, wooden beams. You cast spells and strike with your staff, and generally you kill them. A sparkle around a corpse indicates it has something to offer: copper, linen, leather armor you can put on to protect yourself. You are new, and often you die and wander the landscape as a ghost searching for your corpse.
In your new neighborhood, too, dogs roam the streets like monsters. They loll and chew their paws in the church flowerbeds and romp in the field by the trailer park. Generally, they are too busy to pay attention to you. Sometimes, though, the dogs barrel toward you, they bark and snarl so your dog tugs on his leash and his nails skitter over the asphalt. The stray dogs never have collars, and it is impossible to catch them. You learn to make yourself big, to stomp your feet and shout to make them leave.
Later you may find these dogs squashed on the road in a mass of blood and fur. All animals — dogs, cats, opossums, squirrels, snakes, frogs — end on the road in two-dimensions. Their bones bleach white among the grass and the trash. Flocks of buzzards settle in, circling the sky, sitting heavy and black in the trees. The dry grass crackles when they land to hop around a corpse. They crowd the road and line the ditches. They do not like to move when the trucks come, and often you see flattened birds next to the carrion. Their black wings stretch across the pavement, and flap sometimes in the wind.
One night, near your house, a man is killed while walking on the road. The newspapers accuse him of wearing dark clothing, of walking on the wrong side of the street in the night. The driver stopped when he heard the thud, but already the buzzards watched from the trees. Be wary of walking, the police advise, and parents make their children play inside; they wait at the bus stop to escort them home. The dog, though, does not understand advisories, does not understand that when it rains, drivers like to swerve their trucks into puddles to splash you. The dog does not understand why you flinch when the man down the street fires his gun from his porch. Two shots split the sky as you stand in your driveway. The man inspects his gun while cats slither away between cinder blocks. Finally, he disappears behind a warped wooden door.
The children grind the curbs with their skateboards, and occasionally you see the teenagers sneaking out of the cul-de-sac. They call to stray cats, and ride along the ditches on their bicycles. Perhaps, at night, you all play World of Warcraft together. Perhaps you do not recognize each other’s avatars. You stare into the screen that is like a window, slip into a world where you can travel empty, beautiful roads, and where the monsters have a number to tell you how dangerous they are. Perhaps the goblin with the sword is the boy with the basketball from down the block. Perhaps the gnome with the purple hair is the girl with the trumpet and the cheetah-print purse. Maybe you are all hearing the whistle of the train through your open windows, the rooster crowing in the dark, confused about the time.
Maybe tomorrow, for the first time, you will all notice the cedar trees in the church parking lot, and you will think about how they remind you of the beautiful Silverpine Forest. Maybe the flattened opossum by the fire hydrant will remind you of the ogres and raptors you’ve beaten, and you will remember feeling strong, remember surviving when you expected to be killed. Maybe the truck with mud flaps will seem less menacing; maybe you will look the driver in the eye, will wait an extra second before moving out of the way.
For now, though, in Teldrassil Forest, the stars are brilliant; you use the keyboard to angle your view to see them. You can sit on the grass beside a tree with purple flowers. You can tame the tarantulas and make them your pets. You can ride a tiger and leap through fields as through you weighed nothing. With every simulated breath, you can learn to love a world.