Leftovers Ch. 05byLatrani©
This time, I was floating in quiet water, staring up at a moonless night. The stars were brilliant and endless, more beautiful than I had ever imagined they would be. I couldn't feel my arms and legs at all. My body seemed almost formless, save for the gentle splashes against my cheeks. My submerged hair, oh so long, twirled and danced about my face and neck. It was a night that could never end. The sky was forever.
I heard the clink of metal echo through the lake waters. Felt it in my chest. I leaned forward, raising my head, but saw nothing. There were only the stars, the waters, the woods and wild rocks on the shore. Then something touched me, pushed up between my legs. I grasped at it, and found fur and chains coiled together.
The hound rose from the lake, and I rode upon it.
It was the size of a small horse, hard and strong under its slick, soaking pelt. The beast rose from the water, gliding towards shore as I clung to its back. When its feet found purchase, it lifted me effortlessly and wound its way towards the dark wall of the wood beyond the shoreline. The excess water fell away from us both as we emerged; we were wet, but not dripping.
I was sure this time that I dreamt. I did not look about us, but kept my eyes pointed in the direction that the hound stalked, wanting to miss nothing. The woods, already silent, attained a painfully held hush as we crossed over into them. My senses were aligned with those of the hound; it caught no sound or smell of other creatures. The beasts knew better than to be in this place.
I felt a great chill now that we were away from the lake, and leaned forward, hugging the hound for warmth. It was so very hot, even through its damp fur and cool, trailing chains. We trekked through the woods of the old Black Hound of Manannan, now called the Trash Hound for reasons living women and men did not truly understand. Sometimes we sniffed at the ancient trails, and later the remains of stone walls in clearings, used long ago to mark the meadow borders.
The hound was after a newer trail, though. Some years before, men and women had come again, and they owed him (us) a tithe. Dugrann was gone, even its foundations stolen to build other structures, but a new, nameless place had cropped up near to it, along the old tracks of the hound's home. The folk there all belonged to us, still sheep in essence if not in fact.
We growled, thinking of the old hunts. Had the father changed, his face growing old while his beard became that of a young man? Or was he still the same, still ruling the waters with a laugh that brought no joy to others? We did not know, could not know. Uncountable time and trying had only gotten us as far as the lakes; the seas were denied to us, would drive us out, the tide a wall of fire to our touch, the waves throwing us back to shore like a bit of flotsam. The sea foam that those fearful men and women had drunk lingered in their bodies, and when we took them as prey, it had cursed us as well. Surely he had not intended to leave us behind.
But it was done, and there was a tithe to take. We continued.
Miles later, and we saw the first dim lights. The town was of guarded wood, each home a high fortress. These folk knew us, knew that we could jump a gate with ease, so they barricaded themselves between walls on such nights. The bars on their doors might hold; we had never tested them. Torches lit our way, which was laughable. Did they think we came on a dark night because we could not see?
We passed by some of the braver men, who watched us from a porch encrusted with iron spikes. They glared over cups of courage as we padded by. They were armed; I could smell the shapes of their steel. But it scarcely concerned me. My father could make animals come back from the dead, even from bare bones. I myself had done so, even without his presence and power.
That made me start. I remembered the fire coming from my hand, the bullets striking the Black Dog, and how he had smiled. I started to push up and slide away from the hound underneath, to wake up and get away from the beast. It turned its head only a little, and caught me with one gleaming yellow eye. Then its chains caught me as well.
As before, they slithered around my hips, glinting in the starlight as they welded me to the Trash Hound (he calls himself that because the tithes are unwanted by men, and he cleans them away. Or so he says). They trapped my calves and ankles, forged new connections around my limbs. And then I felt the chill metal in other places.
Without warning, the tips of chains slid into my flesh, cutting through my legs and sides without harm. Then came the heat, from the hound and from me, and the piercing of the cold chains was a brilliant, sparkling counterpoint, an exquisite pain. Link by link they passed into me with impossible speed, weighing me down magnificently, tying us together to a degree I would have thought impossible. The beast twitched an ear as if to say, you look so soft and tender.
The weight reached my belly, and wore at me until at last I was forced to lean forward and rest upon the hound's shoulders. My face was pressed against the side of his head, my arms hugged his neck for support and warmth, my damp hair mixed with his dark fur. And there I stayed.
The Trash Hound seemed to wink, and thus satisfied, it resumed its course. We scented a male, a boy still, waiting for us ahead. He was so tender. Chained to the hound, I felt every motion of its muscles as if they were my own. And I felt the beast's only passion as it sniffed the air, as it savored the first whiff of its tithe. The hound enjoyed the chill tang of the moment just before it met one of its own kind.
The tithe waited for us in an emptied shed on a long, low seat, his feet tied to a post. He had been beaten into acquiescence, this boy. The bruises on his face and neck nearly matched the purple birthmark that cut across his right cheek and nose.
These people might not have cared for him, might have thought him a more fitting offering than their prettier, luckier children or precious herds. We found him beautiful, and made certain to tell him so with our teeth.
* * *
How much of this am I imagining?
I yawned and walked into the kitchen to rummage through my cooler. No sign of Matador, not for days; I had left the door open one morning as I came in to sleep, and he was gone when I woke up. He stank of fear and dogshit, so I didn't really miss him. I had gone out to look for him anyway, though, and that's when I noticed the lights.
My search had gone into the evening hours. It was so dark out, though I could see so well that I didn't notice at first. All the streetlights were broken, all of them, and nearly every fluorescent sign as well. It wasn't hard to guess who was responsible; only the why escaped me. "I guess he's just trying to be considerate," I commented to a bewildered stranger with an elaborate, sarcastic shrug. "He is a sensitive guy." Eventually I gave up on finding the mutt, and went to go find some entertainment.
There were fewer people out now also, but that might have been my fault as much as the Dog's. I had gotten tired of seeing and smelling the small monsters that wandered the cold streets at the same times that I liked to be out: equally filthy whores and johns, shooters and dopers and muggers (oh my!); walking dead who were trying to feed in their various cannibalistic ways. Every one I slashed had to go to the hospital, and not one of them had come back for another round. For now, the streets were empty again. I sniffed around for another mark anyway while fingering my folded blade. They were full of warm, damp places. Just full of them. I hadn't even seen the good parts yet.
Four hours later, I tossed an empty money clip into a dumpster, and went to buy some essentials with its meager contents. I wasn't worried about bills, but I still had to eat now and then, no matter how nasty that business usually was. I wandered supermarket aisles, pushing a cart and glaring at any night shift stocker who looked like he might come too close. My feet felt unpleasantly gritty. The sidewalk immediately outside had been salted to melt the ice, and the grains clung to my boots. I could feel them even through the leather soles, just like the Princess and the Pea.
The offerings on the shelves made me blanch at a distance. Preservatives as far as the nose could smell. How could anyone eat this trash? It made munching on innocent bus drivers seem like a reasonable alternative. I stalked the place carnivorously, snatching up boxes and dropping them on the floor after I read their contents and nosed at them.
After I had put a few of the least offensive items in my buggy, I went to get some plastic wrap, hoping that I could use it to keep the smell out of my food a little longer. I picked up a long box of the stuff, sniffed it... and on a hunch, tossed two more boxes into the cart. I sauntered out of that section, grimaced at the meat counter, and then studied the signs above each aisle, wondering if I was forgetting anything.
* * *
I sat motionlessly and gazed out my bedroom window. On the street below, the wind was skimming thin flurries of ice from the tops of snowdrifts and the edges of windowsills. It lifted the ice high into the air before dashing it against cars and buildings. I felt like that. Rising up, seeming to fly, but really only gliding on illusionary wings.
The magic was gone, just like that. No more pixie dust.
I was no less sensitive than before, but something had changed. I felt it, like a noiseless snap inside my head. It had woken me up from another dream, and the change was so sudden that I shook with fear on my bed, eyes darting across the ceiling above me, too filled with dread to risk moving my head to glance about the room. It was the last step, the last little thing that had to change in me to make me perfect for the Black Dog. I had lost something, and I couldn't even tell what it was. All I knew for sure was that I was out of time.
"Stick a fork in me," I told the glass pane. My reflection looked as thin as I felt.
Wanna get in the car and just drive, Jackie Baby? The beach might be nice. Lots of seafoam and flotsam.
We could always go get ourselves arrested. No way he'd reach us in the courthouse lockup. Three squares and a bunk. You could even get to see some Real Live Cops.
The weather was threatening to change. Sharp blasts of wind struck the apartment building, shook it, and those of us within, as a little boy might shake a cage full of hamsters. I could sense the zombies milling about the other apartments, blocking up tiny drafts and muttering to one another. To my ears, though, the wind sounded like a series of dying gasps. It was blustering, blowing harder in a vain attempt to keep itself going. It would accept fate soon enough.
Just like you, Little Jackie Dukes?
I jumped up and threw open the window, all the windows. The place was worse than a meat locker even before I finished. The wind howled in, smacked me around, made my cheeks scream from cold, then burn with heat.
"Where you at, Dog?" I asked the living room, then leaned out a window and screamed, "Where are you, you damn mutt?" I could barely hear myself over the rush of air. I listened to the wind for a few seconds, then ducked back in, flush with the fire from Black Dog's bite. My hair whipped about my face, threatening to tear away, so I tied it back and put my transit cap over it. I glanced in a mirror and grinned without joy, then fetched my spare uniform.
Cap, slacks, tie, gloves, uniform shirt, belt (minus one stun gun and holster), and a long coat, though I didn't need its protection. I fetched my revolver from the kitchen table, all loaded and wrapped up, and stuck it into my belt, against the small of my back, where my coat could hide it.
I found myself humming again, and muttered, "Whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you." The theme song made me curl my lip in disgust. "Enough of that noise," I announced to the wind, and snatched up my useless, tiny pistol from where it had lain beside the revolver. Striding into the living room, I chambered a round, assumed a stance, and put two shots each into the television and VCR. The crack of each shot was muted by the wind, but still I winced at the pain in my ears as I fired. I tossed the warm pistol aside. The wind spirited away the raw powder stench.
No need to save myself a place to stay, I thought. The Doog's already got us a seat. He has a pass and everything. He had said that I wouldn't run away. He said I wanted to see more. Black Dog was dead right; I had just thought of the perfect spot to find him, the place that he must already know I had to go, and I was going to go see more. A sweet shudder ran up my spine. I grabbed two Thermoses from the kitchen table, stuffed them in a shoulder bag, and walked over to the nearest window. The wind drowned all other noise, but I imagined that the building must be dead silent now, waiting to see if I was going to pass it by one more time.
I ducked and stepped out onto the fire escape. The metal frame throbbed under me like old bones in the cold. I started to climb down, then looked over the side. "What the hell," I drawled.
I woke up on a bed of trash and snow at the bottom. I had to wipe a smear of red out of my eyes, but I wasn't even sore. I sat up, looked around, and barked out a lonely laugh.
* * *
The bus lot was a field of slush piles and glinting chunks of salt. The wind screamed around my limbs, trying to drag me down the street, to take me anywhere but here. I had to fight to reach the gate.
The locks and intercom were bent and broken, and the ragged metal edges looked like handfuls of teeth. I again pictured the Dog chewing on the vitals of the night watchman inside the offices. I reached out and shoved open the gate just far enough to slide through, and looked about.
The lot wasn't completely dark; a few islands of light stood here and there under the posts. They outlined the night around them, made it deeper. The buses slumbered in a triple row, while dangerous shadows lurked between them. No sign of anyone, and the smoldering stench of fumes made it impossible to pick out any other odor.
My eyes watered as the wind battered my face. I wanted to whistle and laugh to prove that I wasn't afraid. Instead I swallowed and narrowed my vision, trying to see a little better. The small maintenance crew wouldn't be out for hours, for which I was grateful. I had no reason to expect that they would live through any unlikely attempts to help. I made my way to the Number Ten, watching my steps in the slick puddles between me and the bus. I spared a glance at the nearest security camera, but continued on. If it mattered, the big black Dog would take care of it.
The Number Ten sat, content and a little grimy, a fat pimp waiting for my return. I had to stop and stare at it.
It had a hold on me that I had partially shrugged off, but the urge to go back to it wasn't gone, not by a long shot. The Number Ten almost had a will of its own, and I could feel it pulling at me to come inside, check my mirrors, and fire it up. Endless months of habit tugged at my fingertips, making them itch and clutch at an invisible wheel. I could almost hear it whisper, Time to go collect some zombies, little Jackie. That thing was as gluttonous as the Black Dog, and even worse in its own way.
I retched twice before I was able to approach it.
I could see myself faintly in the windshield as I walked up. I looked so small staring up at it, a little lost lamb in front of a wolf. That thought pissed me off. I straightened my coat, flexed my back and buttocks against the weight of the enormous revolver, and strode around to the front door of the bus. I shoved it open, and jumped up into the mouth of the thing.
The bus shook as the chill wind beat at its windows and whistled off its sides. The inside was swept and washed. I frowned, a little taken aback. Even more surprising were the red petals strewn on the steps and driver's seat. That was just sick. I almost laughed, imagining the Dog shelling out the cash for roses this time of year. I stepped up to the level of the seat, looked at it and the dark, empty aisle, and muttered, "I hope you're planning on buying me dinner, at least."
"Nope, little Jackie Dukes, I think this one's on you," came the voice. I really should have expected that. After all, in this wind at night, I couldn't have heard or smelled or seen him. Despite myself, I jumped and spun towards the back door. My heels caught on the rubber mat at the top of the steps, my hip bounced off of the door handle, and I toppled into the driver's seat.
My hat fell halfway over my eyes, and my coat, now pinned under my ass, dragged my shoulders down and back. I pushed up the hat and wriggled my buttcheeks until I was sitting more or less upright. So much for calm and collected.
Back in the driver's seat already, scolded the back of my mind in a superior tone, but I wasn't really listening to it. He was standing at the bottom of the steps.
Black Dog had traded his boots for bare skin, but was otherwise just as underdressed as I remembered. His bare torso was half-covered by his duster; pale skin made ruddy by the cold peeked out from underneath his chest hair. His dark hair clung to him hungrily. The Dog was grinning, like he always did. Always. He leaned forward into the bus, and his coat jingled with the motion. I trembled at that, just a little.
We looked at each other for a few seconds, until I found my voice. "Please find a seat, sir." It was all I could think of.
Black Dog's grin grew, and he stepped up towards me, with a slow strut that almost resembled a feminine sway. His duster fell back slightly, and I could see that he had left his leather pants (so much like mine, if more worn) only half zipped. Only his hips and their tight fit held them up. A strong patch of dark hair stood above the zipper, drawing my eyes. Even then, I could see his grin, floating at the top of my vision, and again I thought of the Cheshire. I had always hated that cat.
"Is this seat taken?" The Dog asked, his lip twitching in amusement. He angled his hips towards me another inch.
"Exact change, sir," I replied. Now I'm stuck in a porn flick. Some part of my mind was rolling its eyes.
He reached into his duster pocket and produced the bus pass, holding it up for me to see as he moved in closer. "Here you go, Jackie Dukes." He reached out towards me, and I wanted to put up my hands and defend my throat. I could smell him now: smooth fur and wet grass, dark, rich earth and a thick musk that made the mind grow dimmer. The previous weeks had given me opportunity to catch the scents of many people, and I could tell clearly now: he wasn't remotely like them. Like a human, that is.
While I took in his smell, Black Dog touched my chin with the pass, then moved down and tucked it into my shirt, slipping it between two buttons. My breaths were hurricane-loud as I watched his fingers. They were long and lean, pianist's hands.
"Please find a seat now, sir," I repeated. My lips felt moist and full, not dry and hard as they should have in this weather. Black Dog obliged with a slight shrug and a show of his open hands, stepping around the railing and sliding into the first row. I reached out and shut the door.