Back home, Charlie sat at the little kitchen table for a long time, his hands on his thighs. His mind felt empty and raw. Sandblasted. Dickens didn’t come near, didn’t press his nose into Charlie’s lap. Instead, he curled up on the couch where he wasn’t supposed to be and looked away. The sun shifted, the angles of the shadows growing thinner, the light turning darker and red. Near sundown, Charlie became aware that his bladder was screamingly full, pulled himself up to standing, and made his way back to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet, head in his hands. Guilt and shame and a bone-deep exhaustion made the early evening feel like midnight. If it hadn’t been for the autonomic demands of his body, he’d have sat still as a stone until morning.
He took a shower, the hot water making his skin pinker, the pale scars white by comparison. When he got out, he stood in front of the mirror for a long time, his gaze tracing what damage could be seen. The bedroom clock told him it was just past seven, and he had to check his phone to convince himself it was true.
Dinner was a frozen serving of butter chicken run through the microwave until the apartment smelled rich with it, a glass of ice water. There were sitcoms on TV, so he sat there, letting other people’s laughter wash over him, and joining in by reflex. By the time the evening news came on, he felt almost like himself again. Still fragile, but himself. He cleaned the dishes, put on some music. He needed to get up a little early. He was going to take the bus, and he wanted to leave a little extra time to walk there.
Dickens hadn’t moved except to shift from time to time. Charlie knew he should have made the dog get down from the couch, but that little breaking of rules seemed important; an apology for the shortcomings of the afternoon. After all, if one pattern had changed, maybe they all had. Maybe everything was up for grabs. Charlie finished cleaning, put a bowl of food down for Dickens, and listened to the soft sounds of the dog eating. He wasn’t looking forward to the walk that would follow. It was cold outside now, and dark. When the little steel bowl was clean, Dickens walked over to the leash and looked up at him.
Charlie hadn’t meant to hesitate, but it was there. That little half-beat that marked the difference between enthusiasm and reluctance. Dickens sighed and went back to the couch.
“No, hey,” Charlie said. “Come on, guy. It’s walk time.”
Dickens hopped up, curling himself in toward the armrest with his tail tucked under him. Charlie picked up the leash.
“Come on. It’s okay. We’ll just go and —“
His fingertips touched the familiar fur of Dickens’ back. The little dogs whipped around, teeth snapping. Charlie took a fast step back, staring down at Dickens. The world seemed to go airless. The small tufted eyebrows showed resentment and guilt. Grief. Or maybe they didn’t and Charlie was seeing them there because he’d have seen them anywhere, everything in the world a sudden mirror.
“Okay,” Charlie said and put the leash back where it belonged. “All right, then.”
Dickens sighed and turned away again, muzzle to the armrest, back to the room. Charlie went to the bathroom in silence, brushed his teeth, changed into the old sweats he used for pajamas. He didn’t sleep for a long time, and when he did, it was a thin, restless kind of sleep. He woke in darkness to a dry sound. It came again. Claws, scratching at something. Once, and then a breath, and then again. It wasn’t the sound of any activity, just a message. He got up, walking out the front room. Dickens sat in front of the door, one forepaw lifted. As Charlie watched, he scratched again, then turned to look up, sorrowful. Charlie felt a thickness in his throat.
“Hey, guy,” he said, pretending not to understand. “What’s up?”
Dickens scratched the door.
The moment seemed to last forever until it was suddenly over. Charlie turned the deadbolt, pulled open the door. The street was blackness with occasional dull orange streetlights. It smelled like rain coming and the chill of autumn. Dickens licked the top of Charlie’s foot once, then trotted out, claws ticking against the pavement like hail. Charlie watched until Dickens went into the pool of light under one of the lamps and into the darkness on the far side, then closed the door and locked it again. He understood that Dickens wouldn’t be back in the morning, and that he wouldn’t look for him. There would be no Lost Dog flyers posted, no trips to the pound to look through cages for the familiar face. The world was broken, and he and Dickens had both been wrong to expect the old pieces would still fit.
In the morning, he called for a taxi.
At this point in the process, I’ve lost any sense of what the overall experience of reading it is likely to be. I’m pretty much going by the outline and a vague sense of what feels right coming next. I figure there will be plenty of time to look at the overall piece when it’s done. I notice that the taxi keeps showing up — probably too much, but that’s fine. I can find the right mention or two in the finished draft and kill off the others.
Looking at this scene, I was thinking a lot about flat and round characters. Specifically, Charlie’s a pretty flat character. He doesn’t do anything that particularly surprises us. What I’m expecting to see from him is pretty much what I see. Writers get a lot of encouragement to make round, fully-realized characters, and sometimes that is what’s called for, but I don’t think this is one of those times. There are also flat characters that are very popular and do exactly what they’re intended to do. Sherlock Holmes, ferinstance, is the king of all flat characters, and he’s been brilliantly successful.
Part of what makes a flat character useful, I think, is the invitation to the reader to fill in the blanks. I remember what Scott McCloud said in his analysis of comic books about simplified faces being what it feels like to have a face (and so easier to identify with) and realistic faces being what it’s like to look at someone else (and to easier to see as not-self). I wonder whether flat and round characters aren’t sort of like that. Charlie right now is pure in a way that I don’t think he would be if I filled in all his blanks — more relationships, what his job is, his background, what city he’s in, what color his hair is, what color his skin is, und so weiter.
I hadn’t planned it that way, but it’s how it’s working out. If it looks later like I’m wrong, I can do another draft with more concrete details and idiosyncratic, personalized behaviors and reactions.
I feel I should also note that this particular scene was written when I was really, really tired. I was up until almost 2 last night, and up again before 7 to start making coffee. I spent the day at a coffee shop while the Darling Child was doing a thing for President’s Day, and I did this and a bunch of work on the next Game of Thrones comic book script (I’m finishing up issue 12 of 24 right now). Tonight, I’m gong to try to get a few hundred words on a short story or one of the novels, but I’m thinking an early bed would also be good.