“You’re looking for a dog?”
The man behind the counter seemed amused, but Chartlie couldn’t guess why. Outside, the street traffic was thick. Cars and busses and pedestrians locked in the perpetual daily struggle of lunchtime at the edge of the business district. Inside the pet shop, birds shrieked and complained and puppies yapped. The display cages ran down the wall, little rooms the size of closets with stainless steel bowls for food and water, oversized cushions to rest on, and in each one at least one dog. The walls facing the shop’s main room were thick plexiglass, claw-scratched and pitted but clean.
“Thinking about it,” Charlie said.
The days since Dickens left had been much like the days before, only a sense of isolation had grown up where there had only been guilt before. He’d found himself looking at pet shops and animal rescues online like he was testing too see whether a wound had healed by pressing on it. More and more in the past week, he’d found himself daydreaming at work or at the office, thinking how he could have done things differently or telling himself that it was the change that had made the difference. A new dog would never know what kind of person he’d been before, and so wouldn’t be disappointed in who he was now.
“You thinking more companion or protection?” the man asked as he came out from behind the counter.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Charlie said.
“Had a dog before?”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Always. Since I was a kid.”
“Me too,” the man said. He was a few years older, with graying stubble and jowls. His eyes were dark brown approaching black, and he seemed almost dog-like himself. “My mother had a dog before she had me. There’s pictures of me when I couldn’t walk yet, dragging on old Hannibal’s ears.”
Charlie felt his gut tighten a little at the idea. A baby, soft-skinned and awkward, a dog standing over it, yellow teeth and black eyes.
“Must have been a sweet animal,” Charlie said.
“Hannibal? Hell yes. He was great. The whole time he was alive, no one broke into our house, it wasn’t a great neighborhood. But no one messed with our place.”
“I meant with you. When you were a kid.”
In the cell nearest them, a small terrier lifted his brown-and-tan head, looking at them with curiosity. The man chuckled.
“Oh, he kept me in line, all right,” the man said. “I pushed things too hard, he’s let me know. Didn’t take and crap, that dog.”
Charlie walked slowly along the wall, looking in at the dogs as he passed. An Australian shepherd with one pale blue eye barked and wagged and barked again. A bloodhound cross, eyed him with an expression of permanent sorrow built into its breed like a poker face. Charlie couldn’t guess what it was thinking. Or what it would do if it were free. The room was feeling oddly warm. Sweat dampened his neck.
“Nothing in this world will love you like a dog,” the man said with the air of repeating something everyone knew, everyone agreed on. “Loyal. Best protection there is. Better than a burglar alarm, you know that? And anyone messes with you, dog’ll be right there beside you.”
“Yup,” Charlie said. Unless, he thought.
But most dogs were good. Most never bit anyone. Most were everything that the salesman said. He counted the cells. Two, four, six up to fifteen. So if Adam was right, about three of them would be predators. A dozen good dogs and three predators.
“You feeling all right?” the man asked.
A bulldog sat by the plexiglass, looking out. It’s flat face with the loose, black lips and lolling red tongue looked insectile and obscene. In the corner of his eye, Charlie caught a sudden flash of motion, but when he turned, the animal was behind its glass wall. Thick-shouldered, wide-faced, its tail cutting through the air behind it in pleasure. For a moment, it was the hound with its permanent smile, and Chalie’s throat was tight.
“Seriously,” the man said again. “You all right? You’re looking kind of pale.”
“I’ve always had dogs,” Charlie said. “You know? Always.”
“Yeah,” the man said, but his voice was polite now, distant. He’d seen something in Charlie that he knew wasn’t right, even if he didn’t know what. Charlie pushed his hands deep in his pockets and nodded. In their cages, the dogs licked themselves and slept and barked. Twelve of them were probably fine. Good dogs. Most of them.
“Thanks,” Charlie said. “I’ve got to think about it. Talk to the landlord. Like that.”
“Sure,” the man said. “No trouble. We’ll always be here.”
We’ll always be here, Charlie thought as he stepped back into the reassuring press of human bodies of the sidewalk. He hadn’t meant it as a threat.
Well, we’re in the home stretch now. This was originally slated to be the scene of Charlie getting barked at in the street and no one noticing, but when it came time to do the thing, I felt like it made more sense this way. Go see about getting another dog, fail, get barked at ton the way back to the office, then the final talk with Adam about how there’s not an end, not a catharsis, just a survival day-by-day until you can get callused. And then that last scene — which is pretty clearly going to be when he’s waiting for the bus for the first time — and the closing image of fear going forward permanently and without end.
That’s really what makes this a horror story for me. If we killed Charlie at the end, it would almost be cleaner than just saying “and then he was always scared and alone forever.” And in that sense, it’s grimmer than the source it’s based from. Lots of folks get raped and go on to lead full, meaningful lives rich with love. And maybe someday Charlie will get there too. Just not in this story.
The thing I’ve been wrestling with is this: I’m wondering about present tense. There are a couple places in the project so far where I’ve reached for it. Present tense is really great for giving a story a sense of isolation and disconnectedness. (Normally people say it gives a sense of immediacy, but that’s crap.) On the one hand, I think it would fit well with the tone of the story. On the other hand, I’m not sure how it would work with the flashback structure we’ve got on the attack. I’m guessing the flashback will kill it, but it’s still floating around in my head as a possibility.
I’m also getting pretty near the point when I have to put upon some friends for a quick-and-dirty critique. I’ve only got three scenes to go. Probably it’s time to start figuring out who I can owe yet another one.