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1st Place in the Dystopian Short Story Contest
I stay in my house and I stare. First thing I did when buying this house was to tear the hairy brown vines off the windows. The place has a bad roof and blistered paint but good bones. It’s been four days since I’ve spoken to anyone, including at work – I gesture, nod, and grunt at customers – but I know everything going on in this neighborhood.
The houses on either side of mine have no permanent occupants. The children use them for fires and exploring and teenies screw in them. Newspapers cover the windows except for the front den to the left where a basketball backboard with no hoop hangs out through busted glass like a snoopy neighbor. A drifter squats upstairs. Just now I catch his dark face fluttering between the Sports and TV sections.
Two down, my old friend Jasmine lives with her husband Nekou and their two children. We don’t talk anymore. Jasmine invites another man over every Thursday night while Nekou gives presentations to zoning boards about new drilling projects. They bleed money. Nekou gambles. Just now, their children run into the squatter’s house, little girl in a white tutu and boy waving a sharpened stick for digging mice out of the walls. The mice’s feet pattering in the vents scares his sister. They don’t know about the squatter.
Two up, Mister Wicker sits in his living room wearing the same hat folded at the bill and the same jeans I sold him eight years ago with the big pocket worn in the shape of a chew tin. Just now, he sneaks outside to drink from the garden hose, mouth babbling along an endless story, belt sagging with the shotgun he points at his front door all day long. His eyes flick between corners, fearing a cruel teenie or addict.
Lonely families, narrow lives. None so narrow as mine.
And Nate has moved in across the road with his pregnant girlfriend. This is frightening, because of what he could unleash. Who does he blame for his suffering? When he began unloading the U-Haul, I angled several large shards of mirror to reflect the window so I could watch him from the bed, the kitchen, the couch. Just now he rises from his bowed porch. Limps across the street. Knocks. I open the door. He has a sharp jaw and slithering black hair. His left hand opens and closes like a butterfly, still fluttering. I think about kissing him, if his lips would feel the same.
“Hey, hmm, thought I saw your name on the mailbox,” he says to me. “Told Bea and she remembers you too, from school. Bea is my girlfriend. Bea Ellis? Seen her, six months pregnant? Thought I’d stop by, say hello. Been awhile? Hmm. Have you seen a stray dog round here? White and slim as bone?”
“Your dog?” I wheeze. I cough. My throat has atrophied.
“Not mine, but I have an interest. Anyhow. Let me know if you spot it.”
His bad hand wilts while his good hand waves and he goes back across the street. Out my window, I see Bea embrace him, see them kiss in their foyer, imagine her pulling him into bed. Jasmine’s children dash into the backyard of the foreclosed house to my left, girl now wearing a cape made from a strip of insulation, boy rotating his palm for a beetle he caught inside. The squatter emerges behind them like a shadow, holding a club, but before I can scream he tosses it to the boy. The kid forgot his mouse-digger inside.
I first see the dog while I cut through the patch of woods on my way to work. It’s cream colored, tall and leggy, with flapping jowls and pitted eyes, bobbing as it lopes between reeds and brambles. Beautiful. When it notices me chasing, which I do subconsciously even as thorns tear my sweater, it turns and vanishes into grass like smoke, skittering back to the hunger and solitude it knows rather than risking my hands.
I puff to a halt. This leg of forest backs up the shuttered chemical plant. It left behind a soupy pit once called a duck pond and clusters of barrels in the woods teenies use for fires because they turn the flames green. I see the mutt duck through a hole in a boarded door. It lives inside. There’s a horse died of thirst not far from here. Five days a week I come stare at it. It’s mostly bones now but still has a tuft of hair down its snout and a shiny black nose. Sure enough the dog has picked it over, scattered the ribs and gnawed that nose right off.
Lining clothes on racks at work, I roll the sleeves between my fingers for texture. Polyester, cotton, rayon, denim. I hook and unhook with my eyes closed. Customers ask me questions about sizes and cuts and donations and I smile and point and think about the dog and how my job could be replaced by a line of code in some machine. In the parking lot men lean into one another’s pickup trucks and touch fists. I’ve noticed that men nod up to men they know and nod down to men they don’t. A breakthrough.
Suddenly – it feels sudden – Bern swings through the door. Hated man, man from my past, man I would like to nod down to. Haven’t seen him in town since high school. It’s too much, for Nate to return and now his older brother Bern. I assumed he had fled the sprawl’s sprawl to chase oblivion in the fields. He leans onto the checkout clerk’s desk and his bald spot reflects the fluorescent tube light in the shape of a banana. I swallow my panic, duck behind a shaking wall of pants. He leans close to our thin young clerk and talks to her for a while, horking in her pretty young scent, then leaves.
When I clock out I break my streak of silence to ask what he said.
“He’s looking for his pooch,” she tells me. I frown, not making the connection. “No reward or nothing. How about that. If he wants his dog he should give out a reward. Right? Just asked if I’d seen it and left. No deal.”
“Careful. He’s trying to get the pole in the hole,” I manage. Knowing him. Even if it meant stalking his little brother’s naïve friend.
“Yeah, yes, probably, old creep. But he didn’t ask me to dinner or anything. If he wants me he should treat me. Right? No deal.”
I ask if she wants me to wait and walk her to her car but she says no, she’ll be fine, so I crunch over bleached squares of grass for home. MISSING BITCH: BREEDER print-outs quiver through jabbed thumbtacks on telephone poles with a grainy photo of the stray un-centered, skewed to the right beside Bern’s phone number. There’s even one stuck to the power pylon in the woods. I don’t leave the house for days.
I next see the dog rushing behind my house carrying a contraband Barbie in her jaws. Contraband because of the little tutu girl pursuing in stumbles, pointing out the thief to her brother. The mutt disappears into the pines with her new toy, casting one wide-eyed glance behind her as she does.
I tell Nate about it the next time he visits my porch. He shuffles over now and then and I anticipate his hunched shape from the window or mirror shards. The draft of my door swinging wide shakes the upturned spider curled in the corner of my ceiling. Then we sit and my tongue gets a workout.
“How do you take to living alone?” he asks. “Never thought I’d have a kid before you, hmm. Ha-ha. You’ve always been pretty, is all I mean. Figured you’d get married.”
It comes spilling out of my mouth: I’m unsure how the hell I manage. I tried Sudoku, cooking, cleaning. I read the newspaper like an exercise regimen. I bought a couch, a red upholstered chair. Arranged the books on the shelf by color. Height. Thickness. Everything but the alphabet. Nothing fills the time.
He chuckles, flannel swaying. “Been there. Hospital thought my brain liquefied. Why did you stay? Always thought you’d move to the handsome side of town. Not so handsome anymore, hmm. But a step up.” One crook of his mouth hardly moves when he talks as if it’s painted on. We watch some teenie goons kick in the roof of the next door’s garage so pipes and pine beams spear out like tusks. They wave and Mister Wicker flees his yard in fear.
“Saw your stray,” I say, real careful. “What do you want with her?”
“Good looking dog.”
I nod, try to think up a good segue, fail. “Still in touch with Bern?”
He eyes me, hand fluttering.
“Don’t tell him about me. Please. I know it’s his dog.”
His face slackens. “I won’t,” he murmurs. “We don’t speak, hmm. I don’t know what happened while I was in the hospital. But he got me shot in the head, hmm, and I don’t forget, bullet hole or no, brother or no. He has a set of fawn heads on his mantle, no lie. Sick. Hmm.”
We wander into the yard and kick up tufts of crabgrass. The decisions made by a dog play out in my mind. Licking moisture from rusty walls in a skeleton factory of a dead town, chewing gristle off good bones in the woods for a bite, all to avoid someone.
I first notice the change in me while I’m asking Mister Wicker for a stick of butter. I stand under the spotty awning and he gapes up at me. His lips work vigorously on his tale:
“City boys knew what they were doing! Turtles went belly-up in the pond.”
I notice it right in the middle of my sentence: Does he have an extra stick of butter? Huh. I’m socializing with Mister Wicker. Then I offer to bring him a slice of the pie.
Mister Wicker gobbles and shunts down his hallway, passes his recliner aimed at the front door, and disappears into what must be his kitchen. I glance behind me, embarrassed. Jasmine’s kids are lugging a stack of boards into the trees.
“Where’re you going?” I call out, surprising myself.
The boy’s shiny eyes swivel but he does not reply, only redoubles his efforts to drag the planks over the curb. “Factory!” squeals his sister, flipping her asbestos cape. Mister Wicker returns and presses a wad of butter into my palm. It’s warm and squishes in my hand.
“Not everyone moved away,” he chatters. “Some of them got rare cancers. Should’ve seen their eyes! Pupils jagged like saw teeth.”
As I’m leaving I nearly trip as a corner of his concrete step calves off in chunks.
I notice the change too while I’m with Nate. We meet on my porch daily and he brings treats. Today it’s a cup of lemon Italian ice with a flat wooden spoon stuck in the lid. I open up, I pry, I scrape for crystalline details. I’m hungry to know about him. He shows me the entrance scar under his jaw – a white jellyfish – and the exit behind his ear, pink and puckered, reconstructed underneath with metal plates.
I want to show him my own scars and reconstruction, to lift my shirt and share the fat stolen from my thighs and rearranged on my chest, but I think of Bea, imagine her glaring out the window at me in countless shattered mirrors, and opt instead to tell him about the lump, a small-caliber bullet lodged in its own right.
He sighs. “Lotta folks on our side of town got sick, hmm, on account of that chemical building. My parents worked there till it closed. Mister Wicker two doors down – you met him? – he says they burned off toxins at night. It’d glow green as grass up in those towers, hmm, but only at night, he says. Like the northern lights.”
The dog becomes my obsession. She flashes in my mirrors, whips through thickets. I set dogfood in tupperwares by the sewer, the crunchy grass behind my house, luring her closer. Teenies report her location to me between huffing whippets. When I track her to the factory, she whines mournfully from inside, her keen echoing through a tower so tall indoor wind blows under the ceiling. I wait but she refuses to come out. I want to deliver her to Nate more than I’ve wanted anything in a long while.
The children haul more lumber to the chemical plant. Fence posts and plywood planks lean around the building like spokes on a wheel. I should see it coming but I don’t, not even when girl clutches a glistening new Barbie to her side like a handgun, not even as boy pulls mouse after mouse from the crawlspaces of the squatter house with his stick and crushes them with his heel on the cracked asphalt out back. All for his sister. Their busted bodies pile up then disappear, nabbed by scavengers, maybe our stray.
It ends with three knocks. I rush to the door thinking it’s Nate but it’s not. The stray hangs upside down, legs trussed by zip-ties, lugged by Mister Wicker. The dog’s head lolls at a strange angle. “Got’er for you, neighbor,” he hollers. “Saw your signs up and your dogfood out. Trick is, grind sleeping pills into meat. Here you go.”
He loads the unconscious animal into my arms. Fear strikes my body before I remember Mister Wicker has no phone with which to call the number on the flyer. I thank him but he’s already waddling away. I look down. The stray’s silver fur swallows my fingers. I lay her on a porch pillow and Nate appears, helps cut her binds. Her eyes slide open but she doesn’t run, seems to relax. I lose myself so intently on petting the dog I miss the first green licks against the horizon.
“Keep her,” Nate says. “Bea loves dogs. You could bring her over, get to know?”
His earnest face lights up with his idea and actual light, as it catches the emerald tendrils nuzzling over the trees behind him, orange spires hissing with the sound of a thousand sizzling splinters. Two children jump and hoot in the street, celebrating their victory. Girl raises her Barbie triumphantly. Boy shouts splenetic curses at the collapsing frame of the tower. Even Mister Wicker salutes. The factory burns with flares of turquoise and scarlet and Nate gathers me in the crook of his elbow, gazing up at the show. When he places his bad hand on my neck I can feel its ache at last.