What is the Dogs Project?
[NOTE FROM THE MANAGEMENT: The scene following this is part of a horror story. It's violent, unpleasant, and possibly triggering. You have my permission to skip it.]
It had happened on the walk from his apartment to the bus stop. The morning air was clean and crisp. The leaves of the trees still held the rich green of summer, but the morning chill was autumn clearing its throat. Running late, Charlie trotted along the familiar streets the way he did every morning. Past the corner deli with its hand-drawn signs, past the dog park where he’d take Dickens to run on the weekends, past the little strip mall with the head shop that never seemed to be open and the laundromat that always was. There was a meeting scheduled for ten o’clock and the quarterly reports needed to have the numbers crunched. Charlie’s mind ran ahead of him, preparing for the day ahead.
The dogs started following him at the park, and at first, he saw them but didn’t particularly take note. There were three: a buff-colored hound with long, loose ears and a joyful canine smile; a dane cross, broad-jawed and tall; and a bull terrier whose white fur was so short that the pink of its skin showed through. They were facts of the landscape, like the grass pushing up from cracks in the sidewalk and the smell of garbage from the dumpster.
As Charlie cut across the parking lot, one barked, a high, happy sound. The dane ran in front of Charlie, blocking his way. When he tried to walk around it, the big dog shifted into his path again and growled, and Charlie thought it was being playful. Running claws tapped against the pavement behind him.
Even when the first bite tore into his leg, the pain blaring and sudden, Charlie didn’t understand. He reached for his calf, thinking that something had gone wrong, that there’d been some sort of accident. The bull terrier leaped away from him. Blood reddened its muzzle, and its tail wagged. Charlie tried to walk, but his foot wouldn’t support him, the tendon cut. Bitten through. The fear came on him like he was waking up from a dream. The parking lot seemed too real and suddenly unfamiliar.
“Hey,” he said, and the smiling hound lunged at him, yellow teeth snapping at the air as Charlie danced back, lost his balance, fell. A white minivan drove by, not pausing. The bull terrier jumped forward, and Charlie tried to pull his foot away from it. The dane cross stepped over to him, bent down, and fastened its teeth around his throat. The thick saliva dripped down the sides of Charlie’s neck, and for a moment, all four of them were still. When Charlie lifted his hand toward the dane’s muzzle, it growled once, faintly — almost conversationally — and the jaw tightened. You live if I let you live. Charlie put his hand back down.
The attack began in earnest, but he didn’t get to see it happen. The only thing in his field of vision was the side of the dane’s head, its sharp-cropped ear, the curve of its eye, and beyond that, the clear blue of the sky. Teeth dug into Charlie’s leg, into his arm. One of the dogs stood on his chest, its weight pressing down on him, bit deep into the softness of his belly, and then shook its head back and forth. The pain was intense, but also distant, implausible. Intimate, and happening to somebody else. It seemed to go on forever.
The dane growled again, shifting its grip on Charlie’s neck. Its breath warmed Charlie’s ear. The smell of its mouth filled his nostrils. The voices of hound and terrier mixed, growls and yips and barks. Violence and threat and pleasure. Something bit into this foot, and he felt the teeth scraping against the small bones of his toe. A pigeon flew overhead, landed on a power line. Another bite to his belly, and then something deep and internal slipped and tugged. The dogs had chewed through the muscle and were pulling out his intestine.
I’m going to die, Charlie thought.
And then it was over. The grip on his throat eased, the assaulting teeth went away. Charlie looked down at the slaughterhouse floor that his body had become, the ruins of his blood-soaked clothes, the pink loop of gut spilling out onto the asphalt. The hound with its friendly face and permanent goofy smile trotted to his head and hitched up its hind leg. Its testicles seemed huge, its red, exposed pizzle obscene. Urine spattered Charlie’s face, thick and rank.
Then they were gone, pelting down the street away from him. They barked to each other, their voices growing softer with distance until they were just part of the background of the city. Charlie listened to his own breath, half expecting it to stop. It didn’t. Another car drove by, slowed, and then sped away. He felt a vague obligation to scream or weep. Something. The pigeon launched itself from the wire above him and flew away, black against the bright sky.
Some time later, he thought to pull the cell phone from his pocket and call 911. The blood made dialing hard.
It would be really cool if there was a way to know that this story was working. Usually, it’s a pretty good sign when I start having some kind of somatic reaction while I’m writing something. This one, I was aiming for that, and I got there. Not full on nausea, but a little lump at the base of my tongue. That’s happened before when I was writing things. I’ve also made myself cry and laugh. I’ve got a weird job that way.
I had to make a real effort on this one not to take the language over the top. It’s really tempting to start throwing in a bunch of abstract adjectives like horrible and terrible, but they don’t mean much. Instead I tried for a lot of concrete, specific images and evoking as many direct sensory experiences as I could. The dane’s breath against Charlie’s ear, ferinstance. I hadn’t planned to have the cars going by at the beginning and end of the attack, or the pigeon. I think the sense of help being nearby but not helping worked out pretty well. For some reason, the pause after the dane gets Charlie’s neck — when Charlie puts his hand back down — is important to me. Not sure why that’s true, but it is. Also, I got to put in the dog park that comes up later in the story, so that’s already established. I am starting to wonder what Charlie does at the office. Clearly, he’s white collar, but beyond that, I got no clue yet. If it’s important, I’ll put it in, but my guess is it doesn’t matter.
One of the weirdest pieces of advice writers get when they start learning is “Write what you know.” I’ve been doing this for decades now, and I literally don’t know what that phrase is supposed to mean. I am one of the 90% of men who hasn’t been on the bleak end of sexual violence. I’ve also never been mauled by dogs — nipped on the ass by a doberman when I was maybe eight, and that’s it. Clearly I don’t know from experience anything important in this scene. Does that mean I shouldn’t have written it? I have books set in fantasy lands that never existed and in futures that won’t be like that if we ever get there. Are those somehow immoral writing, because these days, they buy my groceries.
My best guess is it’s an admonition to limit your imagination to things you’ve experienced because otherwise you get the details wrong, and God forbid that ever happen. More useful advice would be do your best and understand sometimes you’ll get some details wrong. Imagination’s a muscle. Gets stronger if you use it.
But back to the scene. My job with that one was to make it awful enough that the rest of the story makes sense. I honestly don’t have any idea whether it works for that. I’m in the middle of the project, and I have no perspective. And I didn’t expect to. I’ll take a look at it when the whole thing’s together and I’ve had some cooling off time. Until then, I’m withholding judgment, except that I’m glad that scene’s done.
CONTINUE TO SCENE 3