Living without a dog felt strange. It felt wrong. It felt better than living with one. Maybe later, Charlie told himself, it would get easier. But days passed and flesh knitted. The last stitches came out, and the low, grey skies of winter settled in. Thanksgiving came and went, and Christmas began its low, flat descent. He had nightmares sometimes, but less. He had moments of profound and crippling fear that came like bad weather and then moved on. His doctor put him on antidepressants, and they seemed to help some.
The morning he didn’t call a taxi was a Wednesday. He’d been online the night before, looking at his bank balance, and when he woke up, he just didn’t make the call. He drank his coffee. He ate his eggs. He walked out into the cold, biting air with a scarf wrapped around his neck. The dog park was empty, the grass brown and dead, the trees leafless. Walking across the parking lot where it had happened was like going back to an old elementary school; the place was so much smaller than he remembered it. It was like someone had come and taken the old place away, bringing in a scale model. The fear he’d expected didn’t overwhelm him. It was just asphalt and sidewalk. It didn’t mean anything. Or maybe everything it meant he carried with him anyway, so the location added nothing. He reached the bus stop with its green roof and advertising poster walls for the first time, pleased with the accomplishment, and spent the whole day at work exhausted an unable to concentrate. He wound up staying late to finish things he should have had done before his afternoon coffee break.
The streets were dim and empty, the daytime world of the downtown already closed down. A dull red between the skyscrapers to the west marked where the sun had been. The shopfront displays glittered and shone for nobody. Charlie pushed his hands in his pockets and scurried toward the bus stop, his mind already skipping ahead to a cup of hot chocolate liberally spiked with rum and an early bed. At the stop, he sat on the formed plastic bench and pressed his hands between his thighs. The city had put a programmable sign marking the time until the next bus, and he watched it count down to nothing and reset without any actual bus arriving. A few cars hissed by.
The dog came out from an alley to his left, its claws clicking on the pavement. The blackness of coat seemed to defy the light. It trotted down the street toward, moving in his direction with a distracted air. A mastiff. A Rottweiler crossed with something huge. No fat cushioned its skin, and the muscles working under the fur were as large as a man’s. Its breath steamed past stained teeth. Charlie pressed himself against the back of the bench, heart racing and the metal taste of fear in his mouth.
The dog angled toward him. The clicking of its claws was unnaturally loud, drowning out the sounds of traffic. At the curb, it sat, looking into the street as if it was waiting for the bus too. It turned to look at Charlie, its black eyes expressionless. For a single, horrible moment, Charlie imagined he saw blood on its muzzle. The dog chuffed once and bent down to lick itself, the unselfconscious intimacy threatening and obscene. Charlie could already feel its teeth on his neck, smell its piss in his face, even though it hadn’t so much as growled at him. It wasn’t the dog’s fault that it was there, that it was large, that its teeth were like a rough knife blade rising from blood-dark gums. It might not be a predator. Most weren’t. Four out of five, Adam said. Only two in ten ever bit anyone. Ever mauled anyone.
Charlie glanced down the street. Lights glowed white and red and green in the growing dark. Any moment now, the well-lit bus wold lumber around the corner. Safety would come. The lights changed and cars moved past, hurrying away on their own errands, oblivious and uncaring as birds. The dog stopped its obscene licking and looked up at him again. It’s probably a good dog, Charlie thought. It’s probably fine. The dog’s broad head bent forward a degree. The bus didn’t come. The dog grunted, not a bark, not a growl, just a sound low in its throat, and Charlie smiled at it, trying to act like he wasn’t scared, trying to imagine what someone who wasn’t scared would be. The seconds stretched out into years.
“Good doggie,” he said, his voice weak and thin as a wire. “Good doggie good doggie good doggie . . .”
And that, as they said, is that. There are a couple of things I’m particularly pleased with in this one. The “seconds stretched into years” line that’s second to last reaches toward exactly the point Adam made last scene — Charlie’s world never getting better. That’s the horror that the story’s based on. We have the cars hissing past “oblivious and uncaring as birds”, which is a call back to the assault scene.
The dog here is also the closest thing to a supernatural presence we have in the story. I like the way its very dog-like licking its own crotch becomes a little bit sexual and repulsive. Also, I got to specifically say its muscles were the size of a man’s , since dog as man is the metaphor that was underlying it.
So now it’s all done except that, of coure, it isn’t. The job of the first draft is to suck and be fixed. The question is how to do that, and I don’t have any perspective on that yet. So now it’s put the thing aside for a little bit, maybe get some fresh eyes on it. I’ve got requests out to a few folks who I might be able to hit up for a favor. Hopefully a couple of them will have a hole in their schedule that allows for a quick critique.
At this stage of the game, I’ve got no idea whether the story’s any good, or if the one I started off to tell was a good idea in the first place. It may be that I’ve started off with one concept and that I’ll need to ditch it in order to make a story that actually works. Or maybe I nailed it and it’s perfect as it stands, though that would be kind of a surprise. So as an exercise for the students at home, read over the story, think about what works and what doesn’t, and how you’d fix it. As soon as I have the comments back, I’ll show ’em to you. (I’ve already had one person say she’s up for casting eyes on it, so I’m pretty sure I’ll have *something* to share when the time comes.)