by Nicholas Ozment
Under certain circumstances, in a certain season, a man’s sins may manifest as a feral dog, which will hound him, until either he repents or else succumbs to the jaws of his self-conjured folly.
"God Christ Almighty!" His knuckles turned white squeezing the steering wheel; his foot pumped the brake. He'd conditioned himself not to swerve for animals in the road--he knew better than to risk crashing into a ditch to save a raccoon or somebody's cat.
He was still going 40 when the jarring thump came. The dog stood as tall as they come, and the low front-end of the Prius caught it in the upward arc of its loping run, flipping it up onto the hood. The dog's body came rolling at him, slamming into the windshield directly in front of his face.
Joel instinctively threw up his arms and the car lurched to the left. The tires caught gravel and pulled the car off into the shallow ditch. The car shuddered violently as it bottomed out, then careened onto a rough, grassy field. The dog rolled off just in time for Joel to see the pine tree, its trunk almost as thick as a telephone pole, a second before he rammed into it and his whole vision was filled with a white burst.
For a split second Joel blacked out. Then his eyes fluttered open. Little pin-points danced around in front of them, gradually floating to his peripheral vision. He stared, dazed, at the tree through a big spider-web crack in the blood-splattered glass.
He puffed up his cheeks and heaved out a long sigh. "Jeeeesus Christ." He rotated his neck. Felt okay. No whiplash. His face felt burnt--fabric burn from the detonation of the airbag. He pushed the creaking car door open, waited a few seconds more for his racing heart to stop pounding against his ribcage, then laboriously heaved himself up out of the crumpled car.
"Shit," he mumbled. The front-end was folded up like an accordion, but the bulb of the right-side headlight still miraculously shed light; between it and the three-quarter moon hanging low where field and horizon met he was able to survey the dark shape of the wreck. The front bumper of his Toyota was locked in a bear hug with the tree trunk. Fortunately, the tree was only a couple feet in circumference and had given way some. Now it leaned away from the car at a precarious angle, making it look like the car was the only thing keeping it from uprooting and toppling over.
Joel told himself one thing was for damn sure: with the insurance money he was going to get something bigger, screw fuel economy. He couldn't believe a dog had done this. Where was that friggin' dog? Maybe the owner can be held liable for this damage, Joel thought irrationally.
He squeezed back into the car and pulled a pocket flashlight out of the glove box. He trained the small beam onto the ground behind the car and began to trace the ruts back to the ditch. There it was, a black mound about twenty yards back. He aimed the flashlight at it.
The dog was dead. It had the build and snout of a German shepherd, but longer hair. He walked closer and stood over it, peering down morbidly. Curly brown and white hair, tangled and matted, filled with burrs, like it spent most of its time outdoors chasing through brambles. Joel breathed a sigh of relief. No tags. No feeling responsible to call a number and report it. Just a wild stray, or a neglected farm dog.
Joel crossed the ditch and started walking down the road. He had about two miles to trudge to get home, but it was pretty flat most of the way. Nothing out here but cornfields, a few farmhouses, not much traffic at night. He turned and took one last look at the shadowy hulk of the car, the bulb fading with the last juice of its life seeping away, and remembered anew the scene earlier that night with Vicki. The memory felt like someone socking him in the pit of the stomach.
Vicki had gotten out of training and into the cubicle opposite his seven months earlier. March 15 to be exact, a day he would not forget. He could tell she was the adventurous sort from the start--defying the company's policy of no more than two personal photographs per cubicle. The wall above her terminal, which was the other side of his wall, sported at least a dozen pictures mostly of her with friends posing in exotic locales like Hawaii and the Caribbean Islands. Joel noticed right away the ones in which she wore a red bikini--which was only a shade darker than her glorious sun-tanned body. He later discovered, to his pleasure, that the tan did not stop at any tan-line. She lay naked several hours each week in a tanning booth to make sure of that, so that even when she was not in the Bahamas she could look like she had just been. She was not a natural blonde--Joel didn't know what her natural hair color was--but she was the sort of girl who would be whatever she wanted to be.
At first they had started taking lunch breaks together, their conversation laced with cautiously flirtatious poking and prodding. Then one night when Joel's wife was visiting her folks with the kids, Vicki invited him over to her apartment.
First she got him a beer from the fridge, then she lit up a Misty Light Menthol and they sat on her white leather sofa while she showed him photo albums--pages and pages of insignificant nameless faces. Family. Too much family--he already had more than enough with all of Emily's siblings and snot-nosed nieces and nephews. Cousins and aunts and uncles, total strangers to him that he was nonetheless obligated to put up, them and all their brood, for a night or two when they happened to be passing through town.
When Vicki had come to some pictures from her trips it got a little more interesting--the exotic locales added to her allure, her mystique, her gypsy charm. He kept looking at the side of her tan neck, the pearl-drop earring dangling from her lobe. She glanced up and her eyes locked with his. He was hot and bothered and she could see it, and she said, "I am getting really horny," a phrase he hated but liked for what it promised. That was the first time they kissed. That was the first night for a lot of things, the first of many.
Their secret liaisons were easily orchestrated and covered by the standard "had to work late at the office" excuses. He dreamt of spending a vacation with Vicki in the Bahamas or some other tropical setting. But he could not--much as he daydreamed about it--think of any way he could get away that long from Emily and the kids.
The little circle of light bobbing on the asphalt two feet in front of him began to dim. "Damn," he hissed under his breath. If it would just hold out another mile, there'd be streetlights. He could see well enough to stay on the road, but with the light his steps were a little surer; he didn't have to worry about tripping over the carcass of a skunk or a possum or some other roadkill that he always saw along this stretch of road.
Black shapes of trees began to grow thicker on either side of the road as he entered a stretch of woodland. He glanced up at the stars shining down from a clear sky, a greater multitude than he'd ever seen. "Didn't know there were that many of them--Christ," he mumbled, and the flashlight winked out, leaving him to make his way shuffling his loafers on the asphalt.
He couldn't think of an exact point when Emily started getting suspicious. She's just so damn jealous, he thought resentfully, it's pathetic. He knew she'd be giving him crap even if he weren’t seeing somebody else. But it got to be a little too much pressure at home, too much jawing, defending himself after late nights when he just wanted to go to bed.
So he'd gone to the park with Vicki, and said to her, basically: "Listen, my wife's beginning to suspect something. I think we'd better cool it for a while. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean totally pretend we don't exist; it's not like I don't ever want to see you again. But I don't want any Fatal Attraction kinda bullshit." She just laughed at him. She never took him seriously. That evening they did it in the back of her camper. Afterwards he stopped at a bar for a couple shots of JD, a few drops of which he intentionally spilled on his shirt. He'd rather take grief about staying out at the bar than have to explain the perfume. God, why did Vic have to wear that crap in the first place? Just one more complication.
A rustling in the woods to his left made him stop in his tracks. His eyes strained against the shadows, trying to penetrate the dark. He saw a pair of eyes catch the reflection of the moon, staring back at him. They glowed under the trees not thirty yards away for just a second more; then they were gone.
Maybe it was just a dog. Wolves were scarce around here, and he wasn't worried about coyotes. Wolves and coyotes had the fear of man. He hoped to god it wasn't a bear--bears were more unpredictable. And a cougar had been spotted in this area last year, passing through. If it were a cougar stalking him...Not good.
Vicki had cooled down on the affectionate overtures in public, and he'd taken it a little personally about how easily she turned down the heat. One day he asked her why she'd been giving him the cold shoulder. She looked at him funny and said, "I thought that's what you wanted." Her incredulous look turned into a big grin. "You big lunk, what were you thinking?" He'd shrugged and had to admit that was true. Still, he said, it’s not like they were strangers.
She wanted to keep it. Hadn't she been on the pill? Yes, she'd been on the pill all along. But she'd gotten pregnant anyway--birth control wasn't 100%. Obviously. "Look," she said, "it made it past the chemical mine-fields. It obviously wants to live. And I want it to."
He couldn't understand it. As much as she loved her independence, her ability to travel, why the hell would she want to saddle herself with a kid? Yes, she had tried to explain, she liked to try everything life had to offer. She'd had adventures. Now she wanted to know what it was like to be a mother.
She was ready, she said. Her voice took on a firm resolve as she delivered the ultimatum: she didn't need him to help raise the kid. Just a little financial help since he was the biological father; that was the least he could do.
Well, he didn't have to stand there and take abuse. Obviously the conversation had degenerated into an emotional outburst of name-calling and absolutely nothing constructive could come of that. He reined in his own temper, which she was perilously close to provoking into a full blow-up, collected his thoughts and--in his best level-headed, matter-of-fact tone--said he was leaving. Maybe they could talk again when she’d had some time to calm herself down.
He exploded. "I have two children already to feed and clothe and pay their doctor bills--and you know what I make! Not a whole lot more than you!" But he was getting sucked back into the confrontation. He threw up his hands, waved her away with a gesture of finality, and stormed out of her apartment slamming the door shut behind him.
He zipped his jacket up against the now more noticeably brisk autumn breeze. Shuffling along, he came around a curve in the road and saw the first streetlight in the distance, and beyond that the lights of the small town where he lived for a substantially cheaper mortgage, in exchange for the 30-minute commute. He was still unable to see the road beneath his feet, but he picked up his pace. As he drew nearer the light, the darkness surrounding him began to feel oppressive.
He was about fifty yards away from that beckoning light when he heard another movement in the woods, off to his left again. There was a farm somewhere nearby. Most likely grazing cattle. He shook his head. Just like a kid again, spooked by the dark.
Not a moment too soon, he was welcoming the embrace of the pale, yellowish circle of light. He even let out a pent-up sigh of relief. He hadn’t realized just how tense he’d become, how oppressed he’d felt by not being able to see. Of course the light didn't give off any heat, but he felt warmer nonetheless in the bulb’s pale radiance.
He didn't slow down. He walked faster through the pool of light, slowing down only slightly when he’d crossed it and the road again became opaque. The next streetlight was another couple hundred yards off.
When he was back in the dark stretch between the lights, he heard something growl. He stopped and spun around. Back under the streetlamp he'd just passed, a dog sat on its haunches. Its low, menacing growl carried to him on the wind, the only sound in the still night, meant especially for him.
How could he ever keep it from Emily if he was forking out child support? He could pretend he'd taken up gambling, and every month claim he’d lost whatever the hell the monthly support payment would be. That would get old after about eight years, if not eight months.
Man, he was thinking crazy. Have to pull it together, get a grip. He came to the next streetlight. The first outbuildings on the edge of town--the car wash and Larry's Garage--were less than a quarter-mile away. He could see their square, dark shapes.
As he passed the next light-pole, he again heard the growl. This time it came from somewhere close. He kept walking at the same pace, trying to stay calm while he scanned the side of the road for a rock or a stick.
The dog padded slowly toward him on clicking claws, trailing blood. Its steps were jerky; its joints didn't move quite right, as if it were walking painlessly on broken legs. Though physically impeded, the dog did not seem to register its wounds inside its canine skull, which, as it drew nearer, Joel could clearly see was cracked.
In rising terror Joel realized nothing in that condition should be alive. He pivoted on weak legs, legs suddenly drained of energy, and willed them to move to run to get the hell away from that thing that had been following him for the last mile and a half.
He kept madly sprinting even after he could no longer see the road. He cast a glance back over his shoulder just in time to see the dog slip beyond the lamplight, plodding into the darkness after him. He feared that it would follow relentlessly, waiting for him to trip and sprain his ankle.
Breathless, calves aching, side throbbing, he ran up his driveway and yanked open his front door. He quickly shut it behind him, and stood huffing in the security of his home. He hadn't seen the mongrel since that first time he looked back; maybe it had turned away at the outskirts of town. Maybe it died trying to keep up with him. Amazingly stubborn son-of-a-bitch to hold on that long, he thought, as he began to rationalize the dog's survival in the bright, practical, white light that illuminated his entryway.
But he saw something in her eyes that told him he wouldn't have made it halfway, and that every moment he stood there his life was in danger. Not taking his eyes off her, he opened the door, backed out, and slammed the door so hard the frame shook.
"Fuck...me," Joel whispered, then nearly tripped over the azalea bushes in his dash to get away from the beast. It broke into a run after him, and he only made it to the edge of his yard before the weight of the mangled dog bore down on him.
Joel didn’t hear the door open as the huge hound lunged at him and drove him to the ground. He rolled to his back, raising his forearm in self-defense. The dog clamped down on it, tearing his shirtsleeve to shreds and sinking fangs deep into his flesh.
He pushed the limp body off and scrambled to his feet. It lay twitching on the grass, sprawled in its own gore, a gurgling noise rising and ebbing in its throat. With each rise, a gout of blood bubbled up from its foam-speckled jaws.
“I’m a dog.” He echoed his wife’s words beneath his breath, and giggled. His laughter kept pouring out, slipping beyond rational control--until he looked out at the yard again, and the laughter died in his throat. No carcass. The yard was empty.
Out of his peripheral vision, he thought he caught sight of movement down the road. A flicker of a shadow beneath a distant streetlamp, a rustling in a hedge of bushes. Then nothing. Whatever it was, it had gone.