Dad was in front of the mirror on the closet door tying his tie. He was wearing a dark colored suit which was something I pretty much never saw him in. He usually wore tee shirts and jeans, worn-in ones, with holes in them. He had a pair of jeans he liked to wear with one back pocket that had a hole as big as my fist and the other had an embroidered patch Mom sewed on it-- presumably to cover a similar hole-- that looked like a giant cheeseburger with layers of meat and cheese and lettuce and tomato and covered the entire thing. I called them burger pants or sometimes sandwich pants and when he wore them he usually wore old leather sandals that looked like they were about to fall apart.
He used to wear his hair long and wild and his beard big and bushy. The day he shaved it all off I cried because I didn’t know who he was. Thinking about that now, I guess I was a pretty dumb kid. I thought he somehow changed into a different person without it, but in a way, stupid as it was, it was also kind of true. Ever since that day he seemed a little less like Dad, even though I still called him that, and more like an adult who lived in the same house as me and Mom and only acted like Dad. I once saw a movie with a man dad’s age, except he had an afro, who was chased by copies of the people he knew-- they were aliens or whatever-- and eventually everyone in the city where he lived was one and it ended with him being one too. Sometimes I wondered if that’s what happened to Dad when he shaved. I guess you could say I had an overactive imagination.
Dad always carried a handkerchief, usually a red one, but sometimes blue, and had a short stack of them in his top dresser drawer. I always thought it was gross, basically a reusable tissue, and I pretty much swore to myself I’d never use one. At some point, Dad stopped using a handkerchief, but that was years later, probably after he retired. I never asked him why, and come to think of it, I don’t believe I noticed until well after he stopped. In a way similar to when he shaved his beard, he became a different person to me without that handkerchief; not as much that he changed, but I grew up.
Mom was putting on earrings on the other side of the bedroom. She had on makeup and her hair was done and she was wearing a dark colored dress with similarly colored flat heeled shoes. Unlike Dad, it was less ritual than routine. Mom always dressed in a fashion befitting someone twice her age, a vintage, layered look, that was as acclaimed by people her own age as reviled by those closer to mine. A lot of the clothes she wore she made herself, and many of the ones she didn’t she picked up from thrift stores. She had a definite sense of fashion, of style, but perhaps best suited for the generation before her own.
Dad left Mom alone in the bedroom and she sat on the bed, staring out the window. When he returned, he stood outside the door, hand on the knob.
“We should get going.”
They got in the car, Mom first, and started to go the way she normally drove me to school. It was sunny, but there were enough clouds it wasn’t too bright, and it was warm but not so warm you couldn’t wear a coat or a jacket. The wind blew hard enough to rustle what leaves were still on the trees. They were close to the edge of town, where the suburbs turned to farms, and when they passed Grace Avenue, Dad drove another half mile before the car slowed and turned into the main entrance at Oakland Cemetery.
They drove all the way to the back where the close cut grass abutted a farmer's field and the highway beyond and a handful farmhouses could be seen in the distance. It was the new part of the cemetery and the trees were still relatively small compared to those in the old section. Most of the graves here were new as well, no mausoleums, but modest headstones from equally modest families, with names like Shook, Baker and Frehley. Dad pulled the car over into the grass and we got out slowly, standing there, waiting for the wind to die. He went first, taking Mom's hand, and leading her to one of the staked oak trees, roughly three inches in diameter, where they veered right and stopped at a pair of granite grave markers. The one on the right still had the slightest lump of turned earth, only partially covered with grass and Mom crouched down, pulling weeds away and straightening a tiny wreath at the one on the left. Dad stood behind her, a couple of feet away, hands in his pockets. He sniffed.
"Hard to believe it's been almost a year."
"Close to four."
"No, I meant--"
"I know what you meant."
"I think-- we should start coming here. More often."
Mom was tearing up anything that even looked remotely like vegetation.
"I don't see what good that would do."
"Don’t you think we should?"
"Isn't it enough they're gone?"
Dad's voice faded out like turning down the volume on the radio and I went to stand next to him, but he felt really cold so I moved closer to the markers. They were both light gray, new, like the grounds.
The one on the left said, "Our Beloved Daughter: Haley White."
It was starting to make sense why Mom was so upset; Haley was the oldest and her favorite.
I wandered toward the other marker, which was completely gray and without color. A couple of dandelions curled around its edges with empty stalks like the eyes of a slug.
I read the inscription.
Whisker White: ...a burden too heavy to bear. Psalms 38:4.
A little boy who stole and lied.
I looked to my left and Mom and Dad were gone. The air was completely still, but I still felt cold.
Fucked his teachers 'til he died.
The wreath at Haley's marker toppled over.
I walked closer, staring at the ground, which was moving, little by little, until a finger, then two fingers, then a whole fist popped through and pulled some of the grass and dirt down with it.
Then he jumped into his grave.
I stood over the hole, roughly the size of a bowling ball, and peered into it. I could see someone in there, hiding, hair mussed, face smudged with filth. It was a face I recognized.
And snoopy dog made him his slave.
The tunnel was narrow and smelled bad and Haley showed me where to put my hands and my feet so I wouldn’t fall. We climbed for forever and I was sweaty and dirty and just wanted to go home, but Haley said I couldn’t go home anymore; not to my old home. I had a new home now.
We came out on our hands and knees through a hole in the back of a doghouse, busted out from the inside, that sat just far enough from the brick retaining wall to allow us to squeeze through. I dusted myself off out of habit. Haley just grabbed my wrist, dragging me along, and I stumbled the first couple of steps like a half strung marionette. For some reason I couldn’t get a good look at her, but when I turned my head back to the doghouse I saw the front was nailed up with boards. Then I tripped over something.
And fell to my knees.
“Get up. We have to hurry.”
“You know who.”
“Huhh, don’t argue. Just come on.”
“Well come faster.”
We were running through a yard and about halfway across I realized it was my own. Dad’s car was parked in its spot and the garage door was down. Someone left the hose uncoiled on the driveway and a small stream of water trickled into the street. Dad never washed his car-- it was old and he just let the rain do it-- and only the side of the house was wet. The hose water smelled like it was fluoridated even though the police man at school said it wouldn’t change the smell or taste. I could always smell it.
We ran for the front door, Haley pulling it before she disengaged the latch and wrenched it open with a BANG that made my teeth ache.
“Come on, come on.”
We charged through the door and I swung it weakly, hoping it would shut. The front door always swelled when it was warm and humid and I could tell by the trailed off hiss I’d failed.
This wasn’t the living room.
The room was dark, all wood paneling and a hardwood floor, with a pool table and a bar and animal heads on the walls. The hallway beyond was a solid rectangle of black, impenetrable, and I set back on my heels. Haley was yanking my arm, but I wouldn’t budge.
“Where are we?”
“We can’t stand here and argue. We have to hide.”
“There isn’t time to be.”
There was a crash from another room, breaking glass, and I knew something came through the window; the one over the sink.
This wasn’t my house.
Haley pinched the soft part between my thumb and forefinger and hauled me forward into the hallway.
We cowered together under an end table, me in her lap, like before, like always, and I squeezed my eyes shut, finding comfort in the light my brain shined through my eyes onto my eyelids where there was only darkness and more darkness when they were open. We could hear it pacing the kitchen floor; scratching, snuffling, growling. I could feel Haley's breath in my ear; sweaty, clammy skin against my own. It was warm, but she was shivering. I ground my teeth together in frustration, breathing out a hiss.
It stopped. And then I heard it galloping through the kitchen, a PLOK, PLOK, PLOK, PLOK, PLOK like its legs were made of broom handles, and it galloped through the short hallway where the attic door was and through the den.
This wasn't my house.
The distance from the den to the archway into the front room was a matter of feet, with area rugs that covered the majority of the worn hardwood, and its strides alternated PLOKs and THUMPs as it passed over wood and fabric. It was coming around the end table and wing chair, past the grandmother clock and the Hi-Fi and around toward the coffee table. It was so close I could hear its breath rustling like dead leaves blowing down a late October street curb.
So close its dank, clotted breath was tar on my exposed skin.
At the last moment Haley let go, pushing me out from under the table and it was upon me: scratching for my sides, wet nose against my ear, as it pawed unceasing fits of tickles and jabs and I flopped around like a sunfish tossed ashore, without control, laughing until I cried, until I laughed, until my sides began to split.
It backed away and I heaved repeatedly. My chin and part of my neck were covered with spit, pants freshly pissed and bunching between my legs. I could hear it only a couple feet away, coughing.
This wasn't how the dream went.
Haley was next to me.
"There. Let me go home."
"It's too late for that."
Its teeth gleamed wet like icicles over a spotlight.
"Now get those pants off him or you're back in the doghouse."
Haley's hands were so rough I was glad I couldn't see her face.
I liked it when the sun was out and everything was bright but it wasn’t shining right in my face so I couldn’t see. The cicadas were buzzing, a dry, swelling sound that I always associated with the wind blowing through the trees. I was wearing shorts and an Izod polo shirt with the little alligator on the breast. My knee socks had one blue and one yellow stripe, and my Nikes had swishes that matched the sky. Haley was next to me while we stood at the edge of the yard where the town just poured concrete for a small section of the sidewalk out front. It was already settled, but still damp to the touch. She squatted next to it and put her palm flat, leaving a light, but distinctive print behind.
"Give me your hand."
I did and she put my print next to hers, using her finger to write "H" and "W" underneath them along with the year. She looked at me and smiled.
"Now we won't forget."
I smiled back when she ruffled my hair and I saw Mr. Craff across the street working on his motorcycle. He just moved in, maybe a month before, and he had daughters who were all around my age, two older and one younger. I'd never met them since we didn't go to the same school and Mr. and Mrs. Craff seemed to keep mostly to themselves. He saw me looking and waved. I raised my hand, but it wasn't much of a wave; I was too busy trying to figure out what he was doing. I took two steps forward to see better, and my foot caught on something in the yard, dropping to my knees. I got dirt and grass all over them and they were wet and sticky and I got up slowly, still preoccupied with across the street.
Mrs. Coldman, who lived next to the Craffs, came out the side door and went to her yard, inspecting the bushes out front. She was always friendly, and nice to me; atypical from most of the older people on my street who went solely by my reputation for neighborhood mischief. She was wearing a floral print dress with a dark colored shawl. I wondered how she wasn’t too warm in those clothes.
“Old people get cold easier.”
Haley was reading my mind again. I nodded to myself, committing it to memory.
“Grandma Roe used to wear a sweater in the Summer, but you’re too young to remember that.”
“Was Grandma Roe nice?”
“I used to spend weekends with her and we’d go to the park or pick apples in the Fall. She loved me very much. I miss her.”
“That sounds nice.”
“She would have liked you. But she liked girls better.”
“I wish I was a girl.”
“No you don’t.”
“No one hurts boys where they pee.”
“Aunt Ky did.”
“No she didn’t. She loved you.”
“What’s the difference?”
Haley stopped and looked at me square.
I watched Mr. Craff across the street and the youngest daughter-- Jaylee, I think her name was-- came up the driveway. She had something in her hand, some kind of tool, but I couldn’t quite see well enough to tell. Mr. Craff pointed to something on his motorcycle and Jaylee nodded. Then he stood up and started to walk across the yard toward Mrs. Coldman’s. He shouted something that I didn’t understand and the sun came out from behind the clouds enough I had to put my hand over my eyes to see. Mrs. Coldman looked to Mr. Craff, waved, and walked unsteadily toward him.
They met in the driveway, where Mr. Craff put his hands on his hips while they talked. Jaylee followed her dad, slowly, stopping every couple feet to look at something in the grass or swing the thing in her hand around like a toy. Mrs. Coldman pointed to her house and Mr. Craff nodded. They both laughed.
Then Mr. Craff made a fist and smashed her in the nose and Mrs. Coldman dropped cold, her glasses spinning off into the grass. He motioned to Jaylee, beckoning with his hand, and she half-skipped over, looking at Mrs. Coldman, then her dad, and then she got down on one knee and started smashing Mrs. Coldman’s face with the thing in her hand.
It was a hammer.
Mr. Craff laughed and Jaylee was giggling like she was feeding goats at the petting zoo. Haley held my hand tight and I just stood there watching. I could hear them talking.
They were telling jokes.
Mr. Craff answered in a parody of Mrs. Coldman’s sweet voice.
“THE INTERRUPTING HAMMER.”
“THE INTERRUPTING HAMMER W--”
Kaylee smashed her face again and her dad was clutching his stomach, doubled over, howling.
Haley tugged my arm.
“What always happens.”
“Why are they laughing? They’re--”
“Hurting Mrs. Coldman?”
“This is how it is here.”
“People hurt each other?”
“There are no secrets.”
“But I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
She dragged me toward Dad’s car in the driveway.
Haley opened the passenger door and told me to get in. Then she walked around to the driver’s side and got behind the wheel. I started to put my seatbelt on, but she stopped me.
“We’re not going anywhere.”
She rubbed the side of her face and it came away skin colored; what was left beneath was the clammy, bluish hue I remembered from the mall and when she came to visit me and sing the little dog song. I thought it meant she’d be home for good, but she only stayed long enough to tell me things; things I was pretty sure weren’t true.
I hoped they weren’t.
“Cover your eyes. Don’t peek.”
I did, but the two fingers over my right eye weren’t quite together and I could still see her, even if it was a little fuzzy. She put a thumb and forefinger in her mouth and pulled out one tooth, then another, and placed them on the dashboard above the radio. She took a deep breath and I watched as her hair went limp and hung in great greasy ropes.
“Open the glove compartment.”
Her voice was rough; like her hands.
“What’s in there?”
“Just open it.”
I put my hand forward, flipping the glove compartment door and it fell open, revealing maps and manuals and fast food napkins.
“Put your hand inside.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You have to.”
“It’s done with me.”
My hand inched closer, finger bent.
“I don’t have anything it wants anymore.”
The tips of my fingers were on the edges of the carefully folded maps of the city, county and state.
“It’s hungry for something else.”
My fingers brushed against something cold and wet.
Teeth clamped down on my hand and yanked me headfirst through the hole.
The Bad Dog bit me in places I didn’t know I had, and every one burned like tabasco. It continued this until I was on the verge of hyperventilating and then it would stop and lick my face until I could catch my breath. When the tongue touched my skin it electrified it, sending blood and pleasure in between my legs. It lasted for hours. Or days.
All I knew was I didn’t know if I wanted it to stop.
Haley sat there and watched, sometimes made to turn around so she could only hear me, and others to tell Bad Dog where to hurt me. There were never any wounds.
Not on the outside.
Mom and Dad came to me once and brought a cake with a dead cat baked into it. They smiled and gave me kisses and handed me presents. One was a bottle of chocolate sauce I was supposed to rub into my skin so I would taste better when Bad Dog bit me. There was a box full of kitten bones that squeaked and mewled until I put the lid back on it. The last was a photo album: all of Mrs. Greer in various states of undress, all with the Bad Dog hurting her.
Under every one was the same message:
“Read it aloud.”
The Bad Dog growled.
Licked its chops.
“I’m the only one who ever will.”
Mom and Dad and Haley were gone. I sat there, too warm, but still shivering.
“Is this Hell?”
The Bad Dog grinned a mouthful of barbed wire fence.
“Hell is in your head. In your heart.”
“Then what is it?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“You don’t listen.”
“You told her. You never tell.”
It looked into me, muzzle pressed against my nose.
“Now I have to hurt her too.”
“Please don’t. I--”
“You aren’t ready.”
“I want you to stop.”
“Then ask for it.”
“Ask for what?”
“I know what you want, boy, but that’s not enough.”
My bladder felt full, cramped, and I crossed my legs.
I spoke the words.
Each one a chocolate kiss.
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