“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–”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.