He didn’t hear Adam’s footsteps, only his sigh. Charlie looked up. Adam was in the doorway, a handful of pale green printer paper in his hand, a grim expression on his face. Charlie tried to smile. Tried to wave hello. His body wouldn’t comply.
“Rough day,” Adam said. It wasn’t a question.
Charlie felt a tear on his cheek. He hadn’t realized he was weeping.
“I can’t do this,” he said. His voice was weak. Adam squatted down next to him, carefully not touching.
“Any of it.”
“Feels like that some times, doesn’t it?”
“How am, how am, how am I supposed to just ignore it? How am I supposed to pretend it didn’t happen?”
“Or that it won’t happen again,” Adam agreed. “That was the worst part for me.”
Charlie looked into Adam’s waiting eyes. The other man’s smile was sorrowful. Adam put down the handful of paper, pale green spreading on the floor, leaned forward, and took the bottom of his shirt in his hands, pulling the cloth up until the bare skin of his belly and side were exposed. The scars were white and ropey, and they pulled at the healthy skin around them, puckering it. Charlie couldn’t imagine the wounds that had created them, and then, for a second, he could.
“I was a kid,” Adam said. “Ten years old. We had a Rottweiler-cross who had honest to God never given any signs until one night, I was brushing my teeth before bed.”
“Same thing that always does,” Adam said. “It’s just the details that change, right?”
“Right,” Charlie said. “Right.”
“It’s not just us, either. The guy that delivers the bottled water? Him. The new receptionist? The one with the big necklace? Her. Start asking around, and everyone knows someone who’s been mauled. We don’t talk about it, because what’s the point? You can’t fix it, and if you talk about it too much people start thinking you’re weird or shrill or something. But it’s everywhere.”
Adam let the hem of his shirt fall. In the silence, the distant sounds of the office — voices, the hum of the air conditioner, the groan of a printer — could have come from a different world. Adam shifted the fallen pages with his toe, the paper scraping against the floor with a sound like dry leaves rattling down a gutter. The smell of overbrewed coffee slipped in from the breakroom, familiar and foreign at the same time.
“I was thinking,” Charlie said tentatively “about taking a class. Karate or something.”
“It’s a good idea. Get back some confidence in your body. Some exercise.”
“But dogs are always going to be faster than us. They’re always going to bite harder, have sharper teeth. And they hunt in packs which, y’know, poses problems.” Adam’s shrug hardly moved a millimeter. “I carried a gun for a while.”
“Sure. But I don’t do that anymore. I couldn’t go to restaurants or go get my kid from school. Couldn’t ride the bus. Go to the movies. Eventually, it just got to be too much of hassle.”
“I miss Dickens,” Charlie said. Saying it felt like confession. “He was a good dog.”
“He was,” Adam said. “But he was someone else’s. He was the old Charlie’s dog. Things change, and the old stuff just doesn’t fit anymore. No one’s to blame. Not really.”
“It doesn’t feel right, coming home and there’s no dog there. But I tried to, and I can’t. I can’t get one. I don’t think I could sleep, because what if I got a bad one. I know most dogs are good, but what if I got a bad one and I didn’t know it until it was too late?”
“Preaching to the choir here,” Adam said.
“So how’d you do it? How did you get to where you aren’t scared all the freaking time?”
Adam’s smile drooped a little, tired with the effort.
“I didn’t,” he said. “I just got used to being scared. I get up in the morning, I do the things I need to do, I go to bed at night. Most of the the time, it doesn’t even cross my mind, and then some days are bad. I used to be angry at the fear, you know? Angry that I was scared in the first place. Like it was some kind of emotional problem.”
“No, man. It’s being aware of the risks. And hang in there. It’ll get easier.”
“Just not better,” Charlie said.
“Just not better.”
So on the one hand, I hate it when there’s a big break working on a project like this because I can lose focus and momentum. The thing where it’s really cooking along really is the fun part. On the other hand, I’ve got a lot of stuff going right now, and scheduling happens.
I’m 99% sure that Adam’s going to be Audrina in the next pass. Seriously, every scene those two are in together looks better when it’s mixed gender. If this were a sermon instead of a story — and really a lot of the best stories are sermons — this would be the wrap-up where all the previous bits came together. It gets easier, but the situation doesn’t change. Some dogs are still predators. The dangers are still real and ever-present. Live with the fear, because what else are you going to do? Die? That’s why it’s a horror story.
Walter Jon Williams told me one time that haunted house stories are all about the sense of enclosure. This is kind of a haunted world story. I want Charlie feeling trapped in it.
The thing I’m worried about at this point is that I’m being generally too preachy, and that the whole thing comes across as too on-the-nose. But oh boy is there no way to tell whether that’s accurate or my own paranoia talking at this stage. For one thing, *I* know what all the parallels are supposed to be (and you do too since you’re hanging out here), but a new reader may genuinely just not see it. Or not so clearly that they’re sure. Or, hell, they may think it’s all about vote fraud. Some readers are odd.
So this is it. Only one scene left, and we’re at what another good friend of mine, Carrie Vaughn, calls the Zeroth Draft.
Speaking of Carrie, if any of y’all happen to be in Portales, New Mexico on the 29th and 30th, Carrie and I will be the guests of honor at the annual Williamson Lectureship, named after and before his passing universally attended by Jack Williamson.