Leftovers Ch. 04byLatrani©
My building stank. I caught acidic traces of urine on the front steps, mud congealed into the strips of carpet inside, more urine on the stairs. Sweat hung like a cloud in front of each door, even in the chill air.
The place was dead quiet tonight. Not a single television blaring, and usually somebody on every floor left theirs running all night. At first I had been glad that I didn't cross anyone's path because my pistol was in my hand; by the time I reached my door, I was just happy that I hadn't been forced to smell any of the other tenants at close range.
My entire body was tingling, buzzing, giving me little electric shivers at the slightest breeze or touch of my own hand. Was that what Black Dog meant by 'making the meat tender'? I thought I remembered a television show where they said that spiders didn't actually drink blood. Their venom was like saliva, and it softened up the prey, made it easier to drink down and digest.
It was a horrifying thought, but just then, for that little while, nothing could scare me. After all, just a short time earlier, I had shot a man in the head, been bitten deeply, supposedly fatally, by some kind of thing, and mopped up what seemed like gallons of his blood. What would qualify as worse?
There was still quite a bit of blood soaked into my clothing, mine and the Doog's, drying in stiff scabs across my chest and back and legs. My shredded garments carried a strong scent of both that fluid and what I could only call smooth fur. I didn't know any other word for that smell, but it surrounded me like a musk. Riding a constant line between dead calm and morbid hysteria, I imagined the smell, the aura of it, was the reason that the building was so hushed; that my neighbors were locked in their rooms, holding their breaths as they waited for me to pass by. That was pure fantasy, but still the mood held. It carried its own dangerous attraction, like being wrapped up in warm, strong, furred arms with glistening teeth just touching the back of my neck...
I came down from that flight of imagination just inside my apartment. God, the stench! I had no idea dogs smelled so badly. The place was thick with Matador's odor, even though he rarely pissed where he wasn't supposed to, and I bathed him every week. He had jumped up to meet me as I entered, but then stopped, sniffing the air as his thin tail stood flagpole-stiff. Then he bolted for my bedroom. I wasn't in a mood to care. I was engrossed in turning a strip of cloth into a kerchief to ward off the canine miasma in the place.
It wasn't even the worst part, I discovered as I walked through my apartment. The curtains reeked irritatingly of mildew; the bathroom was a sewer; the carpet worse than the mold at the bottom of a soggy pile of leaves. The odor in the kitchen was almost unbearably rancid, as if wet meat had fallen into every crack. I was certain I could smell the even fouler odors from the kitchen and bathroom in the apartment below me, where a family of five lived. I crouched down, pulled back the kerchief, and sniffed. They were clean people, as clean as possible given the building and their crowded home, but I thought that I could even smell their feet!
I replaced the strip of cloth and braved the kitchen long enough to get a drink and snack. I poured a glass of water, but it was too grimy to even force down my throat. The orange juice actually hurt my mouth and burned in my nostrils. Choosing a snack was like running a gauntlet. Everything was too spicy or salty, painfully bland, or had acquired a fuzzy aftertaste from my supposedly clean refrigerator. The plastic containers therein were the worst; the cold leftovers inside them were foul with age. Heating those would do no good.
Finally, though, I found a couple of peaches that didn't seem bad. After I got through the refrigerator-crisper odor that had seeped into the skin, they tasted incredible, like downy nectar. Shortly after finding them, I was deliriously happy and a little sticky, sucking on a pit and humming to myself.
That secure mood still clung to me as I started to unwind. I wasn't sleepy, but I was starting to be very, very relaxed. A tingling had begun in my mouth and throat and then slowly spread, unclenching my limbs and back, making the aches and fears of the evening fade into ghosts. I almost felt I was being given a massage as I lay back on the couch, heedless of my fouled clothes. I lolled my head back on the overstuffed armrest and was soon limp from the sheer pleasure of stretching my limbs. The couch stank as well, and it felt terribly rough under me, but some dim impression was overpowering my revulsion to the smells in the apartment.
It was some time before I recognized the source of that sensation. My makeshift mask was torn from a strip of my ruined shirt. It carried his smell. Strands of dark hair were on it, and it was somehow still a little damp from his mouth. I breathed it in again, and imagined Black Dog's lips. And teeth.
* * *
I awoke on my couch, heart racing from a nightmare about a horse and a lake, my face smothered in torn cloth and my hands shoved between cushions. The day had wasted away. I had to smell of myself before getting up to shower. There was another scent on my clothing, a deep smell, the way some dark-edged clouds had looked when I was younger. Like being buried in the ocean and sky. I hated washing that smell off, hated that my clothes were too damaged to wear again. It seemed strange that I wanted to be reminded of the previous night. The fear certainly wasn't gone, but it seemed distant.
Taking Mattie outside was a chore. The poor mutt was still frightened of the scent on me, and I had to chase him down. Leaving him to relieve himself inside was not an option, not with the way my apartment already stank.
Thankfully the street didn't smell bad at all. The snow had abated, and everything was left nicely sealed under a clean white layer. Taking in deep breaths of that peaceful blanket, I couldn't worry about... anything, really. The only thought that raised my hackles was that of going back inside.
* * *
There was no sign of Black Dog on the bus that night, or the next, or the next. I stopped carrying my pistol after the first night, when I realized that it wasn't going to help me anyway. I just wandered through my route, my scarf riding high, nearly covering my mouth (and the strip of cloth hidden underneath that, the smell almost like having him at my neck), my window halfway down despite the chill. Even then, my passengers didn't complain or even glare. They really were zombies.
Come the third afternoon, two officers dropped by to ask me questions, and drove me to the precinct station. I looked at pictures, and truthfully told them that I didn't recognize the woman's face in them. Maybe they believed me. They seemed to be in a hurry to get me out of there. I didn't object. Every surface in that place crawled.
On the fourth night, I came to another realization. I wasn't scared of Black Dog at the moment because I had time. Back in high school, they made us read a book about a man who had made a deal with the Devil. For twenty years he was given the powers of a mighty wizard, or something like that, then the Devil would come to drag him away and take his soul.
The wizard spent all that time doing as he pleased, drinking, screwing, torturing people, and only in the last month did he start to realize how much time he had wasted. He got down to brass tacks then, praying, fasting, telling other people to repent, but it was already too late. The wizard tried to save a place for God beside him, but the seat was already taken.
Right now I was safe, until the Dog dropped by to peek into my warm, damp places. I had even made a deal with him, of sorts. If I let myself get ready for him, he would let me be a little while longer. And I was getting ready. Getting tender, even. I could feel that. Lights were brighter; fluorescents made my flesh itch and unshaded bulbs seemed to toast the air around my skin. Sounds became larger and closer. My clothes were steel wool on my skin now. And oh how things stank. No wonder the Dog walked around in the snow with almost no clothing. Outside didn't smell so bad, but returning to my apartment... that was difficult. Cleaning it didn't help much, and when I slept, I was usually out for more than ten hours, retreating from the stench and into the strangest and most vivid dreams of my life. The first was the field, and the horse of the lake. They seemed familiar somehow.
One night, early on, I dreamt of a thin, starving wolf that dipped down to drink from a quiet woodland pool. A small, svelte woman, a watery nymph, appeared from the water, translucent and flowing. She touched the wolf on the nose and blessed him with strength. In return, he snatched her arm in his jaws with his renewed might, tilted his head back, and drank her down whole. Afterward he lay on the bank, grinning, while his swollen belly wriggled.
I had jumped awake, thrashing my legs. My hands were holding a pillow against my face, as if I had been trying to suffocate myself. Not that I thought it would have worked. After all, Black Dog's bite hadn't left even a sore spot.
* * *
Another field, a sheep meadow this time, one among many that I could see stretching out and away through the hills, becoming tiny, mist-covered stamps in the distance. The nearby meadows were growing long and wild, as if whatever herds belonged there had vanished some time ago.
A man with an old beard and a young face stood beside me on a hill overlooking the field, a man of the waves and the western ocean, with a staff in his hand, a long blade at his belt, and a paternal, welcoming grin. Or so it seemed to me. I had an idea that the multitude of folk gathered before him at the base of the hill did not think his smile so pleasant.
He turned his head marginally and winked at me. I pushed thick, silky black hair from my eyes and returned a grin. The sun was setting behind us, casting our shadows down the hill. Coils of finely wrought chain lay at my feet, fetters that I had only just shed.
I crouched down onto my haunches, took up a handful of earth and grass and put it to my nose. It was moist from the spring showers, and its odor glowed for me. But it lacked the scent I wanted, the scent that had been driven from these lands. The warm, damp waft of a fat, well-tended ewe or an incautious, arrogant ram. I braced my lean, long fingered hands on my knees and regarded my arms, imagining them in swift motion once again. They were corded and strong, but lean as the rest of me, made for running. I did not kill with my limbs, and had not developed the rippling muscles of a man who has grown up with a pick or shovel or heavy weapon in his hand. I only sported a woolen vest and kilt, a leather girdle, and short boots made to slide on easily. It was easier that way. I was very young, and despite being the size of a man, I barely knew the art of hanging clothing on my body.
The folk below us murmured from anxiety, hunger and disgust all at once. They had each brought drinking cups from their homes, and taken turns dipping from a tub of still-foaming seawater. Sipping it was their part of the bargain. They crinkled their faces, the men spilling as much of it on their beards as in their mouths, the women not faring much better. At last all of them had taken a pull from the tub, and their leaders stepped to the forefront to face the man with the grey beard of a wizened elder and the sharp, dark look of a rascally youth.
The man, my father, so I believed, addressed the folk before us. His words were rough and thick, and I did not really understand the language, only the sense of it. These folk had asked him for succor from the depredations to their flocks, from the hound that stole from them and stalked through their village. The man had promised them that sheep would return to the meadows, and that the great hound would no longer stalk the men and women of Dugrann. And now he was to fulfill his part of the bargain, to keep good faith with these people even though they had spurned his aid and cursed at him in the past. And he gave me another sidelong wink.
The sun sank lower, and my father's shadow stretched out towards the folk of Dugrann, longer than it should have. He raised his arms, and the shadow touched the first men, the town leaders and elders, and they fell first to their knees, clutching their bellies, and then onto their sides, kicking their legs and making the most curious... most enticing sounds. The shadow grew longer yet, and its arms swept across all the folk, who likewise fell. Their cries caused my mouth to water.
My father spoke again, repeating his part of the bargain and laughing cheerfully, and laid a hand on my shoulder. He spoke something that sounded like doov coo mannain, and it meant me, Mannanan's Black Hound. He told me to tend my flock gently. I shrugged off my vest. The girdle and the rest fell from my narrow hips. I stepped out of boots that were now ill-fitted for my feet.
I raced down the hill as the flock worked to escape their clothing. Bleats of fear escaped them as the knowledge of my approach passed from the throat of one sheep to the twitching ear of the next. They fled as one, each trying to be in the center of the flock. I paced them on great black paws, snapping at their flanks before I chose a small, limping one to sate me that first night. She was still wearing a simple necklace and woolen bonnet when I caught her, and my bite was gentle.
* * *
Everything left in my refrigerator smelled filthy. I needed to shop, to get away from the apartment and the dreams for a while. My clothes were strewn all over the bedroom. They felt like sandpaper. I had spent the last several days pacing or sleeping deeply, calling in sick at intervals, only going outside long enough to let the dog do his business. There didn't seem to be any point in subjecting myself to the torture of another evening at that job.
By the end of the week, it was finally too much. I had unplugged every appliance. They were just too loud, to hell with the refrigerator and its contents. I couldn't even tell what time it was, because I had disabled the thunderous ticks of my wristwatch with a phonebook. I itched and squirmed. Between the carpet, general dust and who knew what else, I felt as if bugs were always scampering across my body.
At last I gave up and went outside. I was dressed only in a sleeveless cotton top and tap pants, with a thin robe thrown over my shoulders. I looked more than a little like a paroled mental patient.
The world was buried underneath me. The snow between my toes was cool, pure, glorious. The chance of stepping on broken glass, or worse, never entered my thoughts. I walked down my block and beyond, covered in goosebumps and beaming. Absolutely no one was out. Someone had thoughtfully broken most of the nearby streetlights, and my eyes were grateful. I could see just fine anyway.
As I padded along, leaving barefoot tracks on the sidewalk, it slowly dawned on me that I was prime bait, a victim for any number of brutes that I knew to live in the neighborhood. I felt my robe. Old habit had put my knife in a pocket, but it wasn't a very big deterrent. Despite that, my world seemed secure, blissful even. Every gust of wind was like fingers under my scant clothing. I hummed tunelessly, stopping to grit my teeth and sigh when a really strong breeze caught me. The cold just made my body grow hotter, the way I had felt on the bus.
I stopped, suddenly wondering what I was doing. Not the walk; that was the most enjoyable hour I could recall. I wondered why I was staying cooped up all the time. I hadn't thought of one good way to protect myself. Even if I escaped, even if I wanted to, he might find me again. Probably would, in fact. I suspected Black Dog had found (hunted) people before. In my mind, there wasn't much to do other than to enjoy my time, and hope to get out alive at the end. Just like the wizard, and with about as much hope of success.
There was no use pretending that I was ever going back to work. Either the Black Dog would catch me, or I'd be fired for staying out. ("Sorry, I can't drive the Number Ten today," I could tell them. "I'm all warm and tender.") Only one thing to do then...
"I quit!" I yelled into the street, and gave out a whoop. The snow and wind muffled the sound, but it echoed minutely off of the nearest buildings. I paused, listening, then cried out again while kicking snow into the air.
No one screamed at me to shut up, as I might have expected. The entire neighborhood was so quiet. In the distance a dog barked, but that was all. I began skipping down the sidewalk, hollering and whooping at intervals, occasionally barking back at the lone, lonely dog. Things felt a little drunk, and very foolish. After a minute or two, I ran right out into the street. Not one vehicle had gone by me the entire time. My feet were freezing, but not in the least bit numb. There was a fire just under the skin, letting me feel the cold but not allowing it to harm me.
I yowped into the bright air. "Come get some, you Bastard!" I called out, and lamely added, "Dogs don't know I'm not bacon!" I felt safe as houses. Until the appointed day, or more likely, appointed night, I was like a condemned prisoner. What else could happen?
* * *
Snow angels in the park (it's so pretty under a white blanket, you can't even see the bums). Blowing my bank account on leather pants that don't quite fit me (with nothing underneath) and silk chemises that offer no protection against the weather. Getting laid that weekend (and silently hoping that Mr. Doog, Black Dog to his friends, was jealous).
"These are a few of my favorite things," I sang as I sashayed down the sidewalk. I had tried to get drunk, really I had, but everything tasted like piss. Enjoying my numbered days was hard work with the Dog's "gift". But the clothing was nice. The cold silk brushing my chest kept my skin goose-pimply, and the leather between my legs felt so good when I walked. The combination forced me to stop every so often; it actually made me dizzy. I trolled the streets, not looking for anything, just for the sake of walking and being outside. Few stenches there, apart from cars and trash bins, and the cold mitigated even that.
Having gone through the one line I knew of that particular song, I began humming randomly until something else entered my mind and throat. Then I stopped and laughed out the lyrics, "'...everywhere I go, somebody's wat-ching meee!'" I sang it badly, but the song deserved it. I hated that tune, so it had to be the one to pop into my head. I resumed crunching my way through the snow. My feet were bare again; my new boots were clutched in my right hand. Of course I slipped and fell.
I picked my head up and laughed again, then gave out a tiny moan and looked down. There was a red patch of snow under my left hand. I lifted it, and found my palm covered in blood. A greenish, curved sliver of glass jutted from it, glinting under the city lights like a miniature knife blade. Pure warmth pressed against the wound, then a rush of heat that made my hand tremble. I sat back and slowly, thoughtfully, pulled the glass from my flesh.
When the sliver came free of the cut, the heat rushed in full force, arcing from my hand to my heart and back again. I put my hand to my chest and covered it with the other, then closed my eyes and just basked in the fire. A car passed close to me, sideswiped a mound of hardened slush on the curb.
In a darkly impulsive moment days before, I had finally decided to test my flesh, see if I had imagined the bite vanishing from my shoulder. It became clear in seconds why the blonde girl had not tried to run. An open wound hurt, but they closed fast, and the sensation as they vanished came close to bliss. I could only compare it to a thousand hot tongues running under the skin. And when the Black Dog was nearby, there were a lot of wounds to close. He was the most cunning hunter imaginable. His prey didn't even try to get away once he touched it.