Once upon a time Howie had a god. It lived in the kennel where Juniper the mongrel had stayed until he died the winter before. Howie's mom Sophie was of the opinion that a pet god represented better value for money. After all, it didn't wake you up barking whenever the postwoman came by. And you didn't have to have a license for one, either.
Howie was inconsolable when Juniper died. They'd grown up together, been playmates for all of Howie's twelve years, and though Howie never did learn to wag his tail – or Juniper to to do his sums – they understood one another perfectly. He sobbed and wailed and wept rivers when Juniper was run over, and sulked all March until Fred Phillips said to his wife, "Don't you think it's about time we got something to replace Juniper?"
Sophie Phillips rolled her eyes. "Pooper-scooper," she muttered; "flea powder, bath time, walks in the rain. Are you crazy?"
Do not be deceived; it wasn't that Sophie didn't like animals. She loved them; she'd been so crazy about Juniper that having to take him to the vet had broken her heart. It wasn't the worming and the whining that worried her, but the thought of going through the trauma of the accident again. Her husband realized this, and being who he was he waited impatiently until she pushed her reading glasses up the bridge of her nose with one finger, and – knowing that at such a moment she would be distracted enough to pay full attention – he asked the fateful question; "Yes, but why don't we get him something else? A god, for instance?"
Sophie looked at him questioningly, and in that moment of locked gazes they thought with one mind: and their thought was this. Hounds die on you, hounds need toilet training, hounds mean hassle; but household gods are trouble-free. What could go wrong with a minor deity?
She nodded significantly. "I think it's time we went for a little drive," she said, looking at Howie.
Howie's eyes were downcast as he dug his spoon into his shreddies with a desultory action perfected long ages ago in the salt mines; Fred cleared his throat loudly, and Howie looked up.
"Your mother was speaking to you," said Fred. "What do you say?"
"Aw ... what?" Howie spooned another mouthful of cereal, playing for time. Sophie smiled tenderly at him. Fred was of the opinion that she spoiled Howie silly but he kept his mouth shut. Sophie had a degree in child psychology and Fred was in awe of it.
"Your mother said something," he repeated.
Howie shifted his gaze from the direction of the demonic abyss – which lay somewhere below the floor of his cereal bowl and somewhere above the planes of Hades, according to the Dungeons and Dragons book he'd got for Christmas – and refocused on Mom's face. "Yo?" he asked, with all the charm and tact of a pre-teen bulldozer.
My, but they grow up fast these days, Mom thought admiringly, looking forward to adolescent sulks and no need to have to work at bringing him up any more. "We're going for a little drive," she said brightly, "your father and I agreed that it would be a good idea. It's about time, after all. Since Juniper ..."
"What?" Howie looked at her, spoon poised in mid air. A thin trickle of dirty milk dribbled back into his bowl as his hand sagged under the weight of his curiosity.
"It's time we took you to temple," said Mom. "We're going to buy you a God."
You sell pets through a pet shop, but for Gods you have to go to Temple. Temple was downtown, a sprawling great drive-in cathedral city that stank of incense and resounded with the noise of striking gongs, booming drums, chanting acolytes – recorded, of course – and human sacrifice.