February

The New Dog, a shortstory cover

A break-in? A robbery? Or something much worse? Sometimes, a criminal comes face to face with his worse nightmare: A man’s best friend.

The New Dog

Somewhere beyond the dull fluorescent light—away from the cold finger-smudged tiles and bitter odors—a dog barked. Far away, but she could hear. She could always hear.

Sara flinched. Her head twinged when the doctor flashed the tiny light into her eye. Intense and blue-white, the beam seemed to pierce all the way into her brain, like a laser or light saber. And the doctor was in no hurry to sheath the tool-turned-weapon. He blinked slowly, his lids hovering over watery gray orbs, moving the otoscope in a circular motion while he made that sound —

“Hmm…”

Sara clinched the metal edge of the hospital bed and suppressed an urge to scream at the man. She hated that contemplative rumble of aitches and ems. What did it mean, anyway? He knows something but only he’s allowed to know but he wants me to know that he knows so he makes that damned irritating noise. And he’s hurting me.

She flinched again as the doctor casually swung the light to the other eye. And back. He did it three more times, back and forth, her headache deepening with each pass. The light, so very bright…

***

Stingy sunlight through her kitchen window that morning didn’t create the cheery day she needed to come full awake. Rain from the previous night had left behind a chilled mist, and droplets lingered on the shivering limbs of the elm standing just beyond the driveway. The gate to the backyard jerked to and fro on the breeze, the push and shove of the wind not strong enough to force the latch. Sara stood at the sink and finished her coffee, her mind lost somewhere in the tasks yet to be done, the gate’s squeaking hinge part of the white noise she failed to process.

She wasn’t processing many things. That was the problem with a dingy day. Her mind tended to cloud over with the sky, slowing her wit and reason, dampening her ability to understand, recognize, or anticipate.

Like the lack of sugar in her coffee.

She didn’t like the taste of the dark liquid, but she wasn’t up to wondering why her coffee was just–wrong.

Sara, sipping the bitter coffee, padded out of the kitchen and across the hall to the small room she used as her office. Something was… wrong. Frowning, she stopped, the cup halfway to her lips.

Just wrong.

She sat the cup down on the end of her pine-top desk, wisps of steam rising off the coffee in the cool room.

Really wrong.

Her eyes squeezed shut, perspiration formed on her upper lip. Her thoughts swam, sluggish, in a morass of fatigue. She clenched jaw and fists.

What’s wrong?

Finally, her tired brain caught up with what her eyes had seen. Sara stepped backward into the hall and stared down the corridor, through the dark center of the house, where a door stood ajar, light spilling out from the bedroom.

Her brain, her thinking, ticked up. The yellow light spilling out across the hallway’s tan carpet should not have been there. No one had been in the room since breakfast. She had made the bed after her husband left for work, turned off all the lights and closed the door before going back down to the kitchen. The house was old, drafty. It was warmer when she closed the bedroom doors.

The light should have been off.

The door should have been closed.

Adrenaline shook her brain into full awareness. Her nose wrinkled and twitched. There was an odd, unusual scent in the house. Sweat. Bad cologne. McDonald’s food.

*

The swish of her sweatpants proclaimed her journey down the hall, yet he had not run. She would wonder later why she hadn’t run, why they both just stood there and stared at each other for so long. She would wonder, time and again, why she attacked him.

*

The man was young, though not as young as she would have expected. This was a poor neighborhood, and young thieves with too much time on their hands and not enough money in their pockets were not unusual. But this wasn’t a teenager, not a boy. He was a man, his face darkened by an 8am five o’clock shadow.

He should have been at work.

It was a working neighborhood and most adults were away during the day. She was the exception, working from home. Usually the open blinds and loud music told the thieves to stay away, that the house wasn’t empty. This morning, she’d been too busy to turn on the music, but the blinds were open.

Maybe he didn’t see.

Or maybe he didn’t care.

***

The nurse was back, finishing up the bandage on her hand, taping down the wayward ends that didn’t want to stick. Sara tried to flex her fingers, but they were numb. The doctor said it might be months before the nerves in her palm healed enough that she could use her hand again. The guy’s knife had sliced deep, all the way to the bone. The doctor, his gray eyes shadowed despite his business-like demeanor, warned she might not recover the use of the damaged hand.

She made a living with her hands.

The unfinished projects, the commissions that would help with the bills, the personal pieces—two vases, one bowl, and an earthen tea set—Christmas gifts for the women in her husband’s family, were all waiting for her to get back to work. She needed both her hands to mold and shape the clay. Both.

Was that the reason she didn’t feel guilty for what had happened?

He could have run away, but instead, he drew his knife. Decided to hurt her. Decided. Made a choice, and he’d made it before he ever came into her house. He came to hurt her.

So, no, she didn’t feel guilty at all. She wasn’t glad he was dead; but she wasn’t sorry, either.

The nurse finished the bandaging and looked up into her eyes. “Are you cold? You’re trembling.”

Sara shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe a little.” Now she felt the tremors, a quivering in her spine.

“You’re in shock,” the doctor said from the doorway holding a tiny white paper cup. “I brought something to help you sleep.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” she said, drawing her shoulders up tighter. “I want to wait for my husband.”

“He’s on the way,” the nurse said.

Her eyes slammed shut, locking her fear inside, in the dark. “I’ll wait.”

They left her alone, but the nurse soon returned with a blanket. The woman clucked softly as she wrapped the blanket around Sara. She was trying to be reassuring, and Sara desperately needed to be reassured, but her, “thank you” didn’t come out as she wanted, and Nurse Bell, according to her name tag, nodded and left her in the cotton cocoon, balled up tight on the bed.

The blanket was fuzzy and warm around her shoulders. Sara’s mind burrowed into the soft cotton, seeking refuge from the assault and the cold memories of death.

She had lunged at him and he died.


***

The invader had not seemed surprised when she came around the corner or when she stepped into the room. That wasn’t the look on his face. It was more like, I’m not ready for you yet. Wait your turn. Maybe that’s why she became angry.

Sara knew, in that instant, what he was, why he had come, despite the open blinds. He didn’t just come for money, that was a bonus. He was going through the drawers now so he could take his time with her later.

She hated him on sight. One of us isn’t leaving this room.

***

The thought came back to her now and she shivered on the bed, drawing the blanket tighter around her body. The chill simultaneously slithered through her from the toes up and from the head down, meeting in her chest and shaking her until the bed rocked.

She had lunged at him.

***

The intruder was on the far side of the room, on the other side of the bed. He stared at her.

She stared at him.

Hate and glee played in his eyes like horrible children. A smile toyed at the corners of his mouth.

A swift shaft of terror twisted in her gut, turning the lock on her hatred and freeing her own horrible child. Something like a growl rushed up into her throat as the creature slammed through its barriers and into her mind, the creature that wanted to rip out his heart for invading her home, for thinking he could take what she would never give.

The man brought the knife up and waved it around. A dare.

She didn’t retreat.

For however long they stood there, they both had time to change their minds – for him to go back out the window, for her to run up the hall.

She lunged at him.

He raised the knife.

As he came around the end of the bed, he raised the knife’s tarnished blade high. She could smell the blood already on it. He’d used it before. That smell fueled her rage. She threw herself at him, arms forward, hands stretching, nails extending…

The blade sliced across her right hand, down across her wrist. The animal roared. She felt the heat and the cold as the tip of the knife scraped across bone. Her mouth was open, her hunger for his blood causing the saliva to spill from her mouth. His face was a blur. All she could see clearly was the large vein throbbing in his neck.

He screamed.

***

The salty, coppery taste was still in her mouth. She staggered over to the sink, dragging the blanket with her. The sight of her reflection made her gasp. Her black hair was a clotted red mess and matted against her skull. Strange black streaks slanted across her skin from the corners of her mouth to her ears. Her eyes were large and bright, the pupils huge –black holes – the home of the creature that had escaped for just a moment. Just long enough to save her life.

“That guy’s raped and killed four women,” the policeman had said. “You’re a lucky woman.”

Was she?

She dropped the blanket and turned on the tap. She used soap from the hand dispenser – it didn’t matter – and scrubbed her face. It would take another day for the furrows to disappear. The skin never liked stretching like that. But she’d get the blood off. She wouldn’t smell like a slaughterhouse when her husband came for her. She wouldn’t have him see her like this… again. Never again.

The water turned red as she scrubbed. It fled down the drain.

She had told the police her dog had done it – that he’d protected her, been stabbed, and then ran away. Her hero dog.

***

“Your dog – a shepherd, right?” the big detective asked. He bent down over the body. He was a tall man, and he seemed to fold himself into three pieces when he squatted. “Yeah, look at that throat. I’ve seen that before. German Shepherds – they’ll rip your throat out if you go after someone they love.”

He gazed over at her where she sat in the corner, shaking. His eyes filled with compassion. “I’m sorry this happened to you. I hope your dog comes back. He saved your life.”

The man’s blood still seeped into the carpet, working its way in a squiggly line toward her feet. Pointing to his killer.

***

She smelled of disinfecting soap and Betadine when her husband rushed in. She’d used her fingers to pull her hair toward her face, trying to disguise the remnants of the animal. Her eyes were almost back to normal, or at least enough that their strangeness could be attributed to shock and trauma. Most of the blood was gone from her hair.

He joined her on the bed and took Sara into his arms and held her. The feel of him destroyed her defenses and she began to cry.

“I know,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“But it saved your life,” her husband whispered into her ear. He pulled her tighter into his arms. “I spoke to the police. The guy was a rapist, a murderer.”

“But I promised.”

“It’s alright.” He squeezed her even tighter, the way he did when he was afraid for her, the way he did when he was trying to tell her how much he loved her. She always felt he was trying to pull her inside of him. She settled into his chest, into his warmth, and let the beating of his heart chase the creature back into the depths.

When the blood pounding in her ears slowed and the heat in her veins diminished; when the pain in her gums stopped and the pressure in her mandible eased, she pushed away from him and stared up into her husband’s eyes. “I’ll never do it again. Do we have to move?”

 He pushed her damp hair back from her face, then leaned down and kissed her eyes. “No, we’re fine. The police believed the story about the dog, even offered to help us find it. They couldn’t find a blood trail outside, but the officer I spoke to didn’t think that was too unusual. He says animals often go away to die.”

“Will I?”

“I’ll never let you go,” he said. “You’re never going to die.” He pulled her back into his arms. “Do you want to go home? The doctor said you can. If you don’t want to go back to the house, we –”

“No. That house, it’s our home now. I’ll scrub the walls. We can replace the carpet. I always wanted…”

She was herself again. On the way home, they talked about paint and bedding and new drapes for the bedroom. Maybe even new furniture. “What do you think about blue?”

The elm tree arched high across the face of the full moon as they entered the house. The hallway stretched endlessly before her, but her husband held her hand. They walked down the hall, slow and deliberate; and when she got to the end, the master bedroom light was still on. Her husband reached around the corner and flipped the light switch.

She took a deep breath and closed the bedroom door.

They slept in the guestroom that night.

Moonlight streamed in through the light curtains, and she stared at the shadows moving across the walls. After a while, her bandaged hand stopped itching and she didn’t smell blood any more. She flexed her hand, wiggled her fingers, and removed the gauze wrappings. The tiny sutures stood up like dark hairs from her skin. She plucked them out, feeling the little holes close as she did so. Her husband’s heart thumped against her palm when she placed it on his chest. He loved her, and that love would keep the beast away forever. She smiled, snuggled against him, and went off to sleep.

The next day, her husband brought home a yellow doghouse, a shiny new bowl, and a Beware of Dog sign for the fence.