Tuesday, November 24, 2020

New Tough Associates!

Please welcome them with open arms. You can see their bios on the Masthead page.

For those curious, we'll be working over the next month to train and practice protocols with the new staff. The sooner I'm comfortable, the sooner we'll reopen for submissions, but certianly no later than 1/1/21. I think that answers the burrning question on everyone's mind, but if you have another question feel free to ask it here or if you have to, on Twitter.

Thanks.

Rusty

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Felon, fiction by Gabriel Heller

The manager conducting the interview folded his hands on his desk and said, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony, son?" He could look down at the application in front of him and see I'd already answered that question, but of course, he had to ask me.

"Yes, I have," I said.

"I appreciate that. Honesty's always the best policy." He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. He had small, grayish-blue eyes.

On the top of a gray filing cabinet were four dusty surveillance monitors; indistinct black and gray figures were coming and going into the frames.

"Why don't you tell me about it?"

"About what, sir?"

He looked at me.

His eyes were pressed into that shapeless doughy face like raisins. "The crime, Mr. Benzilov. What kind of name is that anyway?"

I shook my head. I'd let myself believe that today I'd be hired. He'd sounded enthusiastic on the phone. I told myself it wouldn't be so terrible working in a grocery store, not terrible at all. Now I felt a sinking feeling. Why was I even wasting my breath?

But then I heard myself answering the question, telling him the truth. "It happened fifteen years ago when I was nineteen years old. I was drunk with two friends. We'd ended up inside a stranger's house in the middle of the night."

"What were you thinking?" he asked.

"I don't think we were thinking much of anything. We were just stupid kids."

"Did you steal anything?"

"No."

He paused, angling his head to the side. "Nothing?"

"If we were going to, we didn't get a chance to."

"How much time did you get?"

"Sixteen months."

"What was it like?"

"Excuse me?"

His face betrayed no warmth or kindness for me. "How was the time in prison?"

I could close my eyes and still see the light coming down through the bars, the smoke hanging in the dayroom, the colored plastic chairs all cracked and wobbly around the television. I could hear the echo of voices on the tier, the television showing Wheel of Fortune or Jerry Springer, always the same shows, the crackle of the cheap, transparent radios they let you have.

I could smell the fear and frustration and rage that hung in the air and made your head hurt all the time, the smell of ammonia from the old man's mop, the smell of food. You want white milk or brown milk with your food, the server would ask, with your baked chicken food, your beef stew food, your white bread food, your white rice food, your Jell-O food, your macaroni salad food, your fish sticks food, your bologna sandwich food, whatever we were having that day. Say the word food a hundred times real slow, and what we eat is what the word comes to mean.

In a dispute over the telephone, three other prisoners beat me till I blacked out. I was in the infirmary for three weeks. After they took my stitches out, they transferred me to the bing, "for your own protection," they had said. The man in the bed next to me, who'd been cut with a razor blade, on both sides of his face from temple to chin, more than two hundred stitches in his face, told me,You can't even get no pussy books in the bing. You gonna have to beat your dick to memories. And that had made me laugh.

I remembered the bing very clearly, never having to leave your cell, never having to see anybody, except for an hour a day if you felt like walking laps or doing pull-ups.

Time went funny in the bing. The light in my cell never went out until it burned out, and then for many days, it never went on. I was in complete darkness, save the line of light under the door where they pushed my food in, and there were no windows except for the one on the door, which was covered by a steel flap, so the C.O. could open it and look in and watch me whenever he felt like it. The cell was six feet by eight feet. There was a bed and a toilet and a sink.

People talked about going crazy in the bing, but I didn't mind being alone. I healed up in there, and then I was back on a different tier with different people around, and the sound of the old man, who mopped the floor, crying in his cell at night in the darkness when we were all just human and full of loneliness and just afraid.

"It was a lot of fun," I said. "Best year and a half of my life."

"You're being facetious now."

I cracked my knuckles, one finger at a time, realizing that for him it was just a game. He scribbled a note on a piece of paper and looked at his watch.

Although my father had a bad temper and wouldn't hesitate to show me the belt or the back of his hand, I had never thought of myself as an angry person. I had always been easy-going and mellow—even-tempered. I was the guy in the corner at the party, cracking stupid jokes, making people laugh.

On the security televisions behind his head, flickering people came into the frame and then drifted away forever. They were hardly even human from this vantage point. I watched a woman pause with a baby in a stroller, pick a box off the shelf and begin to read the ingredients.

"Nothing but chemicals," I said. "Don't buy it, ma'am."

"What?"

"I'm talking to the woman behind your head," I said, pointing at the screen.

I could make it a game too. I could make a joke out of it. The silence was long and awkward, but really I didn't care. He continued to stare at me. I didn't look away.

"Anything else you want me to know?" he asked finally.

"I'm a good worker. I work hard and I'm motivated. I'm good with people," I said, surprised by the sound of my own voice, ashamed of the pleading note I heard in it.

"And you like to joke around."

"Yes."

He pushed his chair back, stood up, and extended his hand. "Thanks for coming in, Frank. We'll give you a call."

*

As I pushed through the black, swinging doors into the brightness of the store, I felt the ashy taste of failure in my mouth. What was I doing wrong? I had spent a while on my resume. My wife had helped me make it better. Maybe my desperation was starting to show through.

Maybe I should have worn a tie. But for an interview in a grocery store, a tie might have looked stupid. It was hard to know exactly.

As a carpenter and house painter, I had made a decent living for almost ten years. But now we were living on credit, on borrowed money.Every day I'd get in my truck with a stack of resumes on the passenger seat, and I'd drive around from town to town, looking for some place that might hire me. But nothing had panned out so far.

One thing was clear, they all wanted to talk about my felony. I messed up, I wanted to say. Haven't you ever? It was like a certain disease I had caught, that I carried around with me wherever I went.It stuck to me like a stain. I'd check the NO box on the application only to have them run a background check and call me a liar. I wasn't a liar.

*

Cleve, a contractor I'd worked for in the old days, was at the bar when I came in. He was in a worse boat than me. He was more than twenty years older and in poor health—diabetes, obesity, heart problems.He'd died twice, once back in the nineties, and another time in 2005 or 2006. Both times they'd brought him back—the paramedics.

He put down his newspaper and greeted me with a fist bump.

"Haven't seen you here in a while," I said.

"I'm celebrating," he said. "It's my daughter's birthday today."

"Congrats."

"You want to see her?"

He took a photograph out of the breast pocket of his shirt. It was of a young girl, six or seven years old, perched on a rock, clasping her arms around her knees, smiling very brightly.

Everything about her was brightness. Behind her was a waterfall and three pine trees, through which the sun filtered.

"That was fourteen-fifteen years ago. She hates me now." He put the picture back in his pocket. "That's life," he said. "They love you one day, hate you the next."

I ordered us each a scotch on the rocks.

A drunk in a blue hard hat got off his stool and came over and stood beside me. "You got a problem with me?" the drunk asked.

I realized he must have been drawn to my crisp white shirt, my interview shirt, which I was still wearing. I must have reminded him of the man who had given him the axe.

"Go sit down," I said.

"Coward," he hissed.

I imagined the hard hat rolling on the floor, the crunch of his skull, like a box of crackers, under my foot. His sunken cheeks and loose, flabby neck were covered in gray stubble, and his lips were wine-stained.

Cleve got up and stepped between us.

"Eh, coot?" Cleve said

"What, fucker?" the old drunk said.

"Hey now, what's your trip, coot?"

"Don't fucking call me that."

"Why all the aggression? We're all in the same situation here." Cleve raised his glass.

The old drunk stared at me and drew his finger slowly across his throat, and for a moment, I felt a chill spreading through my body, moving up and down along my spine, and then he turned and went back to his stool. We laughed. It was either laugh or scream or break something. I watched him put his head down on the bar. He was a sad, old drunk, wearing a hard hat in a bar. I had no desire to fight him. Cleve lit a cigarette, which looked very small between his fingers.

"Things'll get better for us," he said after some time.

"How do you know?"

"It takes some time to find a job," he explained. "You've got to let the dust settle."

"I'm getting to that place where I'm starting not to imagine another way.

Like the memory of actually having a job is fading."

Cleve laughed. "You got Alzheimer's or something? It hasn't been that long."

"It feels like a long time."

I hadn't worked in any steady way since the New Year. It was already June.

"Have some faith," he said.

"That's what's so hard," I said.

"You got faith you're sitting here having a conversation. You got faith you're talking to me. You're not dreaming. You're not in Japan. You don't know these things in any particular way, but you have faith they're so.

Faith is faith. Just extend it some. Stretch it out. It expands."

He held his thumb and forefinger together in front of my face and then slowly brought them apart.

*

"Just stretch it out," I repeated to myself, over and over, as I walked out of there, back up under the highway, past the boarded up stores, the abandoned houses. But what was happening here? This didn't feel like America. We were getting a taste of the third world; I couldn't even get a job stocking shelves at a grocery store.

I walked for a long time. On the edge of town, I stopped next to a field, in which some cows were grazing, chewing on the long grass, swishing their tails, looking up every now and then, blinking their glassy eyes.

"It expands," I said.

"Just stretch it out."

But I couldn't.

I walked back to my car and sat in the front seat with the keys in my hand, smoking a cigarette, thinking, I'll just drive home now, but knowing I wouldn't. I believed in fidelity and honor, I really did, but everything in me was twisted up. I was letting myself go.

*

In the middle of the room was a stage bathed in neon light, on which three women were dancing and taking off their clothes. One of them was Ani, and she winked at me when she saw me come in. The bartender came over and asked me what I'd drink. I said I'd think about it. I had four dollars in my pocket. There I was in the mirror behind the liquor bottles, not looking so good. Big bags under my eyes, my beard untrimmed, in need of a haircut. Ani was behind me on the stage, dark red in the light. She looked very alone while she danced. She covered her breasts with her arms, hugging herself. A man with a well-trimmed beard put bill after bill between her feet, moving his head up and down as she danced. Immediately, of course, I despised him.

When the song was finished, she put on her dress, went around the stage, and said a few words to the man who'd tipped her so well. Then she came over and sat down on the stool next to me.

"What's going on?" Ani asked. "You look like shit."

"I had an interview."

"That doesn't quite explain it."

She took one of my cigarettes and lit it, and exhaled the smoke through her nose and mouth.She had dyed red hair now and very light brown eyes.

"I hate dancing when I have my period," she said.

"Thanks for sharing," I said.

She smiled. On the other side of the small stage, the man with the well-trimmed beard was watching us.

"Who's the guy?" I asked.

"Just a customer."

"A big fan."

"What's wrong with that?"

"I'm just saying. He keeps looking over here."

"Don't worry about him," she said.

"I'm not worried."

"You know what happened to me earlier?" she asked. "Come on, don't look over there. Look over here. Look at me.So, you wanna hear the story of what happened to me?"

"Go ahead," I said.

"This cripple came in earlier, and he liked me a lot. I'd seen him before, and he always tips me a lot. But this time, he was tippinga lota lot. He wanted a lap dance, so I'm like fine. I gave it to him at his table. Then he wanted to go into the backroom, so I'm like fine, so I took him and wheeled him back in his wheelchair. When we were alone, he said he'd give me four hundred dollars to suck his dick. Now I sucked a lot a dick, but I never sucked no dick at the club, and I never sucked no cripple's dick before period, but I was like fine four hundred bucks what the fuck.So then he unzips his pants and takes it out, and the shit's like the size of my forearm."

I laughed.

"It's not funny," she said.

"It is funny."

"It's traumatic."

"What did you do?"

"I didn't do shit. He was just sitting there with this fucking humongous dick, and it was like one of those moments when your whole life like flashes in front of your eyes, and you see everything real clear for a second."

I could see her biggest fan, in the mirror, rubbing his beard.

"Are you listening to me?" said Ani. "Quit looking at him. Just ignore him. He won't do nothing."

"So, what happened with the cripple?"

"I told him to put his dick away. We had to wait awhile before he could fit the fucking thing back in his pants.Then I wheeled him back. He called me a cold bitch. That's what he said. He said, 'you cold bitch,' as I was wheeling him. He said that I was prejudiced against cripples. That bothered me a lot. I don't think I'm prejudiced against cripples or cold or a bitch for that matter."

"No, you're real warm," I said.

"Fuck you. I am."

Just then, the song that had been playing ended, and the DJ came on the microphone and announced that Ani was the next dancer.

"Fuck, I can't believe this shit," she said. "A bitch can't even get a break around here."

She crushed out her cigarette. "I'll be back."

As I watched her dance, I felt myself leave my body, and for a moment, there was only pain—without form, without end. Then her biggest fan stood up and came around the stage, and I came back into myself with a vengeance.

My heart was pounding.

He sat down on the stool that Ani had been sitting in. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and put it between his teeth. He had big, perfect teeth.

"What happened, brother? You look like you got a problem," he said. His Zippo lighter made a pleasing, three-part sound when he opened it, lit the cigarette, then closed it. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," I said.

His tongue ran back and forth across his lower lip. "You keep looking over and staring at me? Do you know who I am?"

I didn't say anything.

"What happened, brother? Can't you talk? I asked you a question."

I turned and looked at him directly.

"Back up, or I'm going to kill you," I said.

He crushed out his cigarette and laughed. He put his hands up and wiggled his fingers. "Back up, or I'm going to kill you," he repeated in a high-pitched, mocking voice.

"Okay, fine," I said, closing my eyes and shaking my head. "That's fine."I felt almost giddy as I stood up and reached over the bar, and grabbed the nearest bottle. I swung it, and he tried to duck away, but I caught him on the side of his head. He staggered and brought both hands up to the place where I'd hit him. I hit him again in the middle of the forehead, and the bottle broke. He was covered in gin. The music stopped, and I heard some screaming. I thrust the bottleneck hard, like a dagger, and got him once in the cheek and once in the eye, and he doubled over, holding his face, and I picked up the stool I'd been sitting on and hit him as hard as I could on the back of his head, and he went down, and I kicked him a few times in the ribs and rolled him over with my boot. He was half-conscious and bleeding badly. There were shards of glass glinting in the blood. I heard Ani yelling, "Get the fuck off him! Get the fuck off him!" Poor Ani. I bent down and stabbed him twice in the neck, and blood shot out in a thick hot jet.

Some hands grabbed at me, and I broke free of the hands and ran out through the front door.

I ran and ran and then when I saw nobody was following me I slowed and walked real fast. The rust-colored light was exploding in the windows above my head. Pigeons perched on rooftop edges, watching. The crisp sudden shadows of them as they moved over the street and across the bright red brick of the abandoned buildings. My own shadow falling on the sidewalk and bending up and falling on the brick. The violent, roaring shadows of trucks tearing over me as I went along next to the elevated highway. Everything seemed brilliantly alive.

When I reached my car, I realized I still had the bloody bottleneck in my hand, and I dropped it in the gutter. I was bleeding from a big mouth-like cut on my palm. I took off my interview shirt, wrapped it around the wound, found my keys, and drove off.

*

The front of our house was dark and empty, but the kitchen light was on. I parked at the end of the block. I let myself in as quietly as I could. I heard water running. My wife's white jacket was hanging on the back of a chair. There were a few long red hairs stuck to the collar. I went to the edge of the living room and peeked around the corner into the kitchen. I saw her hand holding a yellow sponge and washing the dishes.

"Is that you, Frank?" she said.

I moved back into the shadows and stood very still.

"Frank?"

"Yeah, it's me."

She turned the water off.

"Where have you been? I was getting worried."

"You know where I was."

"At your interview?"

"Of course."

"And then you went out to celebrate."

"Don't mock me, Annie. I can't do it."

"What are you talking about?" She came out and put her arms around me. "Mr. Berry called this evening."

"Mr. Berry?"

"He said he interviewed you today."

"Yeah, of course."

"He told me to tell you that he wants to hire you."

"What?"

She hugged me again, tighter. "I know it's not much, not the kind of work you really want, but it's something, it's a start. I'm just so happy," she said. And then she noticed my hand. "Jesus, what happened to you?"

"I cut my hand.Let me just go wash up. I'll come back down, and we'll celebrate."

"Jesus, you've got blood on you, Frank."

I tried to laugh.

"That's what happens when you cut your hand."

"But it's all over you."

"I'll tell you about it just as soon as I come down."

"Frank, what happened?"

"Let me just get this blood off me. Let me just put something on my hand. I cut it on some glass. I'll be down in a second."

I went upstairs and washed the man's blood off my face and arms, and I washed my hand as well as I could and got all the bits of glass out. I dried off and went in the bathroom and wrapped one of Annie's handkerchiefs around my hand.

Then I went into my son's room, quietly so as not to wake him. He was asleep in his crib. Whale sounds were coming from the sound machine.

I stood there looking down at him, watching him breathe. His tiny hand lay next to his face, which was turned to one side, illuminated by the blue light from the sound machine. Next month he would be one year old. I closed my eyes.

I wanted another chance to live.

Then—how much later? a minute? ten minutes?—there was a loud knock on the door. I kissed my hand and touched it to his wispy head. I couldn't believe it was happening like this and so fast. I tiptoed out of his room, shut the door behind me, and ran to our bedroom. The knock came again. "Police!" I heard. I opened the window, climbed out onto the ledge, and jumped into the tree that grew right outside it, banging my hurt hand, gritting my teeth against the pain.

I climbed down, hopped a fence, ran through our neighbor's yard, hopped another fence, and another, a terrible strength surging up inside me. I came out on the street adjacent to ours and went around the corner to where I parked the car.

I sat in the driver's seat, getting my breath. I could see the lights silently turning red and blue against the trees and houses down at the other end of the block. There were four or five police cars in front of our house.

With the headlights off and my motor running, I watched from the end of the block.

"You morons," I said. "I'm right here."

I lit a cigarette. Two policemen came out of my house, and one of them shook his head. Then my wife came out. She was bathed in the police lights, alone in the middle of our yellow lawn.Such a beautiful, tired woman, who had always tried real hard to see the good in me and always claimed she could.

Don't think for a second that I didn't understand what I was losing. I crushed my cigarette out in the ashtray, backed the car around the corner, and drove towards the highway.


Gabriel Heller's work has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Crazyhorse, Electric Literature, The Gettysburg Review, Witness, and War, Literature & the Arts, among other venues. He teaches writing at New York University.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Eddie Loves Animals, fiction by John Rector

I’m sitting outside my trailer, smoking a joint, and watching Mrs. Henderson water her tulips next door when Eddie calls back. His voice sounds different this time, and I can tell the situation has gotten worse.

“Are you even listening to me?” Eddie asks.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Say anything, man. What should I do?”

Next door, Mrs. Henderson bends over to examine one of her flowers, and I watch the way her lime-green polyester pants stretch tight over her bones like a second skin. I hold my breath until my lungs ache, then whisper, “Good Lord.”

“Come on, Mike. This is serious.”

I take another hit off the joint and say breathlessly, “Don’t you think you’re overreacting? It can’t be that bad.”

“You haven’t heard her,” Eddie says. “She’s calling and leaving these messages, telling me she knows where I live. She’s out of her mind.”

Eddie keeps talking, and I do my best to stay focused on what he’s saying, but then Mrs. Henderson looks over and waves. I lift my hand and wave back, trying to be smooth, but I end up jerking my arm from side to side in a spasmodic gesture that goes on for a beat too long.

Slowly, Mrs. Henderson lowers her hand and turns away.

I curse myself under my breath, and I miss everything Eddie is saying until he yells my name, snapping me back.

“Yeah,” I say. “Sure, whatever, man.”

“You mean it?” He brightens. “Thanks, Mike. I knew you’d help.”

“Wait, what?” I sit up and hit the joint one last time; then I crush the roach between my fingers. “Help with what?”

“You didn’t hear anything I said, did you?”

“Sorry, my neighbor is outside and–”

“Mrs. Henderson?”

“She’s watering her flowers.”

Eddie makes a dismissive sound and says, “Jesus Christ, Mike, she’s got to be at least seventy years old. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“She’s not seventy.” But even as I say the words, I wonder. “I mean, I don’t think she’s–”

“Fine, whatever.” Eddie cuts me off. “Listen, all I need you to do is watch him for a little while, just in case this crazy bitch really does know where I live.”

It takes a minute for the pieces to fall into place. Once they do, I say, “Oh, no, no. Don’t bring me into your shit, Eddie. I have enough to deal with right now.”

We’re both quiet because we both know I’m lying. I try to think of a better reason to say no before it’s too late, but my brain is numb and nothing comes to me.

Eventually, I give up and ask, “What kind of dog is it?”

“It’s a poodle.”

“Oh, fuck me.”

“I know,” he says. “But it’s just for the night. Couple days at most.”

“A couple days?” I fish a cigarette from my shirt pocket, straighten it, and put it to my lips. “One night. One.”

“One night might not be enough time. Come on, I really need your help. If she–”

“One night, Eddie. I’m serious.” Next door, Mrs. Henderson turns off the water and begins looping the hose into a tight coil on the ground beside her trailer. “And I’ll tell you right now, if it pisses me off, I’m going to throw it outside, and it can take its chances in the woods with the coyotes, you got it?”

“I got it,” Eddie says. “Thanks, Mike. I’ll be over in fifteen minutes.”

Mrs. Henderson finishes coiling her hose then turns and looks over at me, smiling that smile.

I light my cigarette and say, “Make it an hour.”

Then I hang up.

***


Fifteen minutes later, Eddie shows up.

His backpack is growling.

“I told you an hour.”

“Couldn’t wait,” he says. “I saw one of those Mary Kay cars driving up and down my street, going really slow. I think it might’ve been her.”

“One of the pink ones?”

Eddie’s eyes go wide. “Have you seen it?”

“No.” I shake my head. “Not today.”

For a kidnapper, Eddie is unusually lucky. He’s never been caught or even suspected. Granted, he only kidnaps pets, but his ability to avoid even the slightest trace of suspicion is impressive.

Eddie works part-time at the Douglas County Animal Hospital down by the river. He’s the guy who turns your beloved family pet into a box of ashes after they wander out onto the highway or lap up spilled anti-freeze from the garage floor. The hospital also handles the overflow of the unloved from the Omaha Humane Society, so he stays busy.

He says it isn’t the best job, but it keeps his side business afloat, and that’s all he really cares about. To Eddie, the morgue at the Animal Hospital is just an endless storage warehouse of spare parts.

“As long as you get the color and size right,” he told me once, “one dog’s ear looks pretty much the same as another.”

He says it warms his soul to see how people react when they open their mailbox to find a sickeningly familiar foot or tail stuffed into a packing box. Most of the time, they practically trip over themselves in their rush to send him money, and once they do, Eddie tells them where they can find their pets. He always chooses a quiet park in a good area where he can tie them to a tree or a bench and keep an eye on them. He’ll stay close by just to make sure that they’re safe and that everything goes smoothly.

You see, Eddie loves animals.

He says the joy these owners feel when they realize their pet is safe and still in one piece is well worth the money they paid to get them back, and that in the end, everyone walks away happy.

At least, that’s how he sees it.

“Here you go.” Eddie hands me the backpack. “I owe you one, Mike.”

The backpack squirms and growls when I take it. I hold it at arm’s length and say, “You sure this is a poodle?”

Eddie ignores the question, frowns, and points at my face. “What the hell happened to you?”

I reach up and touch my cheek. It still stings, but it’s getting better. “No idea,” I say. “Sunburn, probably.”

“It looks like a hand print.”

“Does it?” I move to the mirror hanging beside the door, turning my cheek toward the light. “I guess it does, a little. That’s weird.”

“Did someone slap you?"

“What? No.” I laugh, but it sounds fake, even to me. “Of course not.”

“Because it really looks like a handprint.” He squints, leans closer. “You can even see the fingers. One, two, thr–”

“It’s not a handprint.”

Eddie almost smiles. “If you say so.”

“Maybe you want to find someone else to watch your God damn–”

“No, no.” He holds up his hands, stopping me. “You’re right, it’s not a handprint. Must be the light in here.”

“Must be.” I set the backpack on the couch and change the subject. “So, why don’t you just give the dog back? Chalk this one up as a loss?”

“Oh, we’re way past that.” Eddie looks down and spins the emerald pinky ring on his finger, a habit of his when he’s nervous. “You should hear the messages this woman’s been leaving. They’re pure evil. I’m talking exorcist shit, saying she’s going to…” He pauses, and his voice drops to a whisper. “Rip my tallywags off with her teeth.”

“Your what?”

“I have no idea.” He shakes his head. “I think she means my testicles, but I don’t know, man. Nothing she says makes any sense.”

“Tallywags?”

“She said she’s going to fry them in butter and feed them to…” He motions to the backpack. “Mr. McDoodle.”

I let the silence grow heavy then say, “What?”

All the muscles in Eddie’s face seem to sag, and for a moment, I think he’s going to break down and cry, but all he does is nod.

“Mr. McDoodle… the poodle?”

“I know.” Eddie’s voice breaks. “It’s horrible, Mike. She’s not even human.”

I look over at the backpack on the couch. “Just take him back to where you found him and lay low for a few days. Once she has him, this’ll all blow over.”

“I don’t think so,” he says, spinning the emerald ring on his pinky. “Not this time. She wants blood. My blood.”

I sit on the edge of the couch, away from the backpack, and open the wooden box of joints I keep on my coffee table. I take one out, light it, and hand it to Eddie.

He waves it off.

“Since when?”

“I can’t,” he says. “I have to keep my head clear.”

“You’re serious about all of this.”

“Of course I’m serious,” he says. “I think the only thing keeping me safe is that God damn dog. As long as I have it, I’m okay, but the second I give him back…” He runs his thumb across his throat. “Party over, man.”

“You think she might go to the cops?”

“At this point, I almost wish she would.”

Outside, a car passes along the road. Eddie moves to the window and splits the blinds with two fingers, just enough to look out. He stays at the window, watching until the car is out of sight. When he turns back, his face is moonlight pale.

“Just hold on to him until I call, please.”

“One night,” I say.

“Maybe two.” Eddie opens the door and backs down the steps to the yard. “I’ll call as soon as it’s safe, I promise.”

***


The backpack doesn’t move or make a sound for almost an hour, and I start to worry that the thing suffocated in there. I grab a pen from the coffee table and use it to poke the side.

No movement.

“Oh, shit.”

The last thing I need is a dead poodle in a backpack, so I inch over and slowly slide the zipper open. I only move it a few inches when the entire thing erupts in a high pitched roar, and the unzipped space fills with tiny sharp teeth, snapping and growling, closing on my finger.

I make a sudden, squealing noise, like air leaking from a balloon, and I jerk my finger from its jaws and jump up off the couch. I cradle my hand against my chest as I kick the door open and run out of the trailer, half-stumbling down the steps to the yard.

“What the shit!”

My heart is beating fast, and I dance around in circles, shaking my hand in front of me until the pain begins to fade, then I slam the trailer door closed and sit outside on my lawn chair, rocking back and forth, examining the wound.

There’s a small puncture on my middle finger.

I put it in my mouth, taste blood, and try not to think about rabies.

Eventually, my pulse slows, and I take my finger out of my mouth. The bleeding has stopped, but my hand is throbbing. The shock of the attack cleared my head a little, but all I can think about are needles in the stomach, several of them, one after the other.

If I have rabies, I’m going to kill Eddie.

I get up and pace my yard, trying to decide what I should do. Then I think of Mrs. Henderson next door, and I look over at her trailer.

She was a mom, once upon a time. She’ll know.

I feel a rush of excitement when I think about her taking care of me, and I’m about to head over to see her when I hear the phone ringing inside my trailer.

It’s Eddie.

I don’t know how I know, but I know.

I throw open the front door and run inside, diving for the phone, answering it on the fourth ring.

“Eddie, you dick. Get your ass back here and take this–”

“Mike?” I was right, it is Eddie, but something’s wrong. His voice, normally flat and whiney, now sounds flat, whiney, and weak. “Help me, please. Help me, Mike.”

I don’t know what he’s trying to pull, but I’m not buying it.

“That beast you brought over here fucking bit me, so no, I’m not going to help you. I’m done helping you.”

On the line, Eddie begins to cry, but I don’t care.

I’m far from finished.

“You need to get over here now and take it back,” I say. “And if I have fucking rabies, Eddie, I swear to God I’m going to–”

There’s a shuffling on the line, and Eddie’s crying fades into the background as someone else takes the phone. Then there’s a new voice, this one higher, softer, female.

“You have Mr. McDoodle.”

Her voice is almost nice, and I try to imagine what she might look like.

“Give him back to me,” the voice says. “Give him back now.”

“You want him back?” I laugh. “You can have him back. Take him. I never wanted him in the first place. Your dog is vicious, lady, and he better not have rabies.”

The woman doesn’t say anything.

I hear Eddie crying in the background, and I remember what he told me about her, that she was evil. If that’s true, I can’t help but wonder what terrible things she might’ve done to him? Part of me wants to ask her, more out of curiosity than actual concern, but then I feel my hand start to ache all over again, and I realize I don’t really care.

Eddie made his bed.

“You have a pen?” I give the voice my address and then start to ask if Mr. McDoodle is current with all his shots, but she hangs up before I get the words out. I take the phone from my ear and stare at it. “Real nice, lady.”

As I go to hang up, I hear a light thump followed by the tiny click of claws scuttling over linoleum. I turn just in time to see a small blackish-gray shape scurry through the open front door and out into the night.

For a moment, the world is silent.

I stand there, staring at the now empty backpack on the couch, then over at the front door that I must’ve left open in my rush to answer the phone, then back to the couch and the empty backpack.

Slowly, my brain connects the dots.

“Oh, no, no, no. . . ”

I drop the phone and run outside, scanning the yard. I don’t see the dog, so I move to the edge of the road and look out toward the woods. That’s when I see him, moving fast. The tiny puffs of fur on his feet blurring under him, carrying him toward the treeline.

“No, no, no, no!”

I take off after him, and I make it halfway to the woods before my head starts spinning, and I can’t breathe. I stop, lean forward, hands-on knees, but by the time I catch my breath, it’s too late.

Mr. McDoodle is gone.

It takes a minute for this new development to sink in.

Once it does, I begin to laugh.

The sound surprises me, and that makes me laugh even harder. I don’t even try to hold back. Instead, I drop to the ground, sitting in the middle of the road, and let it all out. I laugh until my sides hurt and tears roll down my cheeks. I laugh until another thought occurs to me, this one not at all funny.

She’s coming.

Slowly, I push myself to my feet and half-jog back to my trailer.

I need to leave, to run away, find a place to hide before she shows up. I don’t know if I can believe Eddie about her being evil, but I’m not taking any chances. If it’s true, I definitely don’t want to be the one to tell her that her dog is gone.

At least, not face to face.

I go into my trailer and look around for something to write on. There’s a Chinese take-out menu on the counter, and I pick it up. Then I grab a pen from the coffee table and begin to write.

Dear lady.

Mr. McDoodle ran away.


I read it over and frown.

It seems a little thin, and I tap the pen against my cheek as I try to think of something else to say that might help soften the blow.

I add the word: ‘Sorry,’ then grab my box of joints from the coffee table and walk out, closing the door behind me. I slide the Chinese menu note into the doorjamb and turn away, heading for the road.

When I get to the edge of my yard, I stare out at the woods and the highway beyond. It dawns on me that I don’t have anyplace to go, and that’s a problem. She could be here at any moment, and I have to be gone before she shows up.

There’s a soft light coming through the window of Mrs. Henderson’s place, and after considering all my options, I decide to take a chance. I cross to her trailer, adjust the box in my arms, then climb the steps and knock before stepping back down to the yard.

I hear movement behind the door, followed by a long pause, then Mrs. Henderson says, “What do you want, Michael?”

“To apologize,” I say. “I brought a peace offering.”

The door opens slowly, and Mrs. Henderson looks out, frowning. She glances at me and then at the wooden box in my hands. “What do you have there?”

I open the lid, revealing the line of flawlessly rolled joints.

She smiles, briefly, and her eyes meet mine.

“I won’t tolerate any more of your tomfoolery, Michael.”

“No, ma’am,” I say. “I promise to behave myself.”

She studies me, still unsure.

I have to think fast.

“You don’t have any more of those delicious lemon bars in there, do you?”

A smile blooms behind her eyes.

“Well, I’ll have to check,” she says. “My grandkids ate most of them when they were here the other day, but there might be a few left.”

“They certainly were good.”

Mrs. Henderson considers me, then, slowly, she steps to the side, inviting me in.

That night we sit on her plastic-covered couch, eating week old lemon bars and watching Three’s Company re-runs on TV. The air between us is filled with smoke and laughter, and for a time, I forget all about Eddie and Mr. McDoodle, and I never even notice the pink Mary Kay car pull up and stop outside my trailer.

I never see the woman who, I imagine, after reading the note I left, opens the door to my trailer and goes inside only to come back out a few minutes later, wiping tears from her cheeks, and cradling an empty backpack close to her heart as she walks slowly back to her car and drives away, fading into the night.

***


The packages begin arriving a few days later.

The first, a gray fold of cartilage and blackening skin that might’ve once been an ear, arrives without a note. It’s hard to tell what it is, and I end up throwing it out with some leftover Chinese food.

The second package comes three days later, cocooned in bubble wrap.

This one is easier to identify, but only because of the emerald pinky ring. I know who the ring belongs to, but I can’t be sure about the finger. It might be Eddie’s, but I know how this game works, and without any real proof, or even a note, I’m not playing along.

Besides, I have more important things on my mind.

Like, Mrs. Henderson.

We’re seeing more of each other these days, and as time goes by, I wonder if love might be in the air. It is spring, after all. The robins are nesting, the trees are flowering, and Mrs. Henderson’s tulips are in full bloom.

Everywhere, a new beginning.

The truth is, I hardly ever think about Eddie anymore or the woman in the pink Mary Kay car. As far as I’m concerned, what happened between them can stay between them. I was only a bit player in their little drama anyway, and that’s fine with me.

But, I do often think about Mr. McDoodle.

Sometimes, late at night, while I’m lying in bed, listening to the steady rumble of Mrs. Henderson snoring beside me, I’ll hear the coyotes howling in the woods, and I’ll imagine him out there with them in the darkness.

If I close my eyes, I can almost see him running among the trees, his pack by his side, the tiny tuft of fur on his head blowing majestically in the wind, free at last from the choking leashes of our world.

On those gentle nights, I’ll fall asleep with hope in my heart and a smile on my face, dreaming of a world without loneliness, sorrow, or pain–a world of beauty and light, where all of God’s creatures, great and small, are welcomed and loved.

On other nights, I figure the coyotes probably ate him.


John Rector
is the bestselling author of THE GROVE, THE COLD KISS, ALREADY GONE, OUT OF THE BLACK, RUTHLESS, THE RIDGE, and BROKEN. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and won several awards including the International Thriller Award for his novella LOST THINGS.

He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

https://www.amazon.com/John-Rector/e/B002GO3J9W