The downtown streets were thick with bodies, each one moving through its own peculiar path, its own life. Charlie hunched down into his clothes, hands in his pockets, and head bowed trying to seem like one of them. Trying to seem normal. And maybe he was. Maybe the thick-bellied man with the navy blue suit and gold tie was just as worried about seeming strange. Maybe the woman driving past in her minivan had the same sense of almost dream-like dislocation. The kid bent over the bicycle weaving through stopped cars at the intersection might be riding hard and fast so that no one would see the tears in his eyes or ask him to explain them. How would Charlie know? There weren’t any signs around their necks to say I’m frightened or I don’t want to go home if no one else is there or I’m broken and I’m afraid I will never be right. Even if there had been, people would have taken the signs off. Charlie would have.
A bus huffed by, throwing out a stinking wind of exhaust. The cars started moving again, following the autonomic signals of the stoplight. Charlie paused at the corner, waiting his own turn to cross. Across the street, the glowing red hand meant he had to wait. A little crowd gathered around him — an older man with skin the color of mahogany and close-cut hair the color and texture of snow clinging to stone, a woman in a tan business suit with the empty stare of boredom, a man Charlie’s age tapping at his smartphone and glancing up occasionally to make sure the world was still there.
A dog barked. The sound of pure threat.
Charlie’s heart raced. He turned his head. A white sedan idled at the curb, waiting for the same light to change. The woman behind the wheel had straight-cut hair and makeup that was starting to wear thin. In the back seat, the dog stood, teeth bared at the window. Its gaze was on Charlie, and with every bark, every snap of its jaw, it lunged toward the thin sheet of glass a little. Flecks of saliva dripped from its raw, wet lips, and its tail wagged with pleasure at the threat and anticipation of violence. There was an empty child’s car seat behind it, a clawed hind paw digging into the cloth upholstery. Charlie glanced away. The others were ignoring the dog; the older man looking out at the traffic light, the young one at his phone. The woman saw Charlie looking at her and pointedly didn’t look back. They were in some other world. Some different reality where a predator wasn’t an arm’s length from them, where the air wasn’t thick with menace. Charlie looked away, kept his head down. Dogs didn’t jump through car windows. They didn’t attack people on the street. They waited until you were alone.
The red didn’t turn. And it didn’t turn. And it didn’t turn. The dog shouted at him, wordless and unmistakable. It wasn’t just barking. It was barking at him. It knew him, knew his scent. It wanted him. The motion at the corner of Charlie’s vision drew him back. The car’s back window was smeared with something clear and viscous. The teeth snapped white, tearing at the air. Ripping it.
The light changed. The red palm became a pale walking figure, the light went green, and the sedan pulled away, dog still barking as it went. Charlie walked into the street, carried by the flow of bodies more than any impulse of his own. By the time he reached the far corner, the sedan vanished, woman and dog and booster seat. The thought came with a strange detachment: A child probably rode in that seat every day, to school and back from it, with that dog sitting at the far window. He wondered what the woman at the wheel would do if the kid ever started screaming.
But it was normal, wasn’t it? People put dogs and kid into cars. People walked dogs. People visited the dog park the way he had for years, and never thought twice about it. That was what normal looked like.
In the office, he sat at his desk, his glazed eyes on the monitor. There were words, projects, windows open that held all the information that was supposed to be his life. All he could see were teeth. After an hour, he got up and went to the back storage room where he could sit on a box of printer paper and wait for the dread to pass.
Well, I’m in the home stretch here. The way I’d originally imagined this scene, it was kind of like a woman getting catcalls as she walks down the street and it probably works for that. The next scene is the last conversation with Adam where we run through all the ways Charlie can work on lowering his anxiety and what all the burdens and trade-offs are, then the last scene at the bus stop, and we’re out. Right now, we’re at 6500 words, more or less, and we’ve got a little over 1500 to go, which drops the first draft in right at 9k, which is about where I wanted it.
I have lost all sense of what the story will read like when it’s not cracked into bits like this. Seriously, not a clue. It may build gracefully on itself, it may feel repetitious and dull, it may fall utterly flat. Who knows?
I do like some of the imagery here, though. The dog-marks on the car window particularly amuse me, because I’ve seen them so often and they’re so totally not an occasion of fear and dread that making them into that in this context feels like what I was aiming for.
It also occurs to me that I’m writing a story about PTSD. That’s right up against what I was intending, though it wasn’t explicitly in my mind until now.
I feel like I should have something smart or witty to say about this scene in particular and how it fits into the larger structure, but I don’t. This is the scene that seems to come naturally after the last bit and before the next one. I don’t think I’ll have any idea about how or if it works or how to change it so it does until the thing’s finished and I’ve had some time to step back from it.
It is probably past time to start lining up my first readers, though. I should have done that already, but I’ve been a little scattered. I’ll send out a few polite requests tonight or tomorrow…