“I didn’t know that Joe had a dog.”
It was the man who said it. He hung back in the farmhouse doorway, one hand hovering over the girl’s thin shoulderblade, poised to yank her back into the barren yard at the first sign of trouble. The dog, however, did not move. It stood with a front paw raised, like a warped mirror image of the man, soundless and aloof.
“I’m telling you, Emily,” the man said, emphatically. “It don’t make sense. How long was Joey travelling around on his Jack Kerouac bullshit before anybody figured out that he was gone? Two months? Three? Weren’t none of us coming by to feed some canine, that’s for sure.”
“Thing that size could feed itself, easy” said the girl, her voice flat, factual. “Damn thing’s nearly as tall as me.”
As if it had understood her the dog twitched its head, its eyes blinking slowly. The animal was a good five feet high and as broad as a barn door, nothing like the rangy wolf hybrids the girl had seen lounging behind chainlink fences in the neighbours’ yards. There was hard muscle under its black and brown dappled coat, and each vast paw was easily the size of a newborn child. It was hard to imagine how the dog had grown to such a scale without being shot by some terrified farmer, and yet here it was, massive and undeniable in Joseph DeSaul’s hallway.
“I swear he didn’t say one word about no dog,” the man insisted.
He worried at the fact as if wringing it dry would produce a different reality to the one before them.
“When does Joe ever say anything about nothing?” said Em. “That’s just the way he is. Always has been.”
The man grunted uneasily.
“Something ain’t right. That phonecall I got in August, when Joey was hiking in some German mountains- it has me thinking something bad happened up there. He was rambling on about eating some plant that made him sick. Lord knows whether he ate some poison berries on the road, or took bad drugs, or what-“
“Both, most like,” Em interjected wryly. “You know he ain’t got no sense of what’s good for him.”
“Either way, he just said he was coming home, that was all. Nothin’ more, nothin’ less. Nothin’-
“I know, Uncle Frank. I get it. Nothin’ about no bow-wow.”
Em spoke through her teeth, avoiding even the slightest movement that might break the tension between them and the dog.
“Maybe it’s Joe’s, maybe it ain’t,” she said. “And maybe it’s tame, maybe it ain’t. I ain’t got a gun on me and I know you ain’t brought yours- if we’re going anywhere near this house we’ve gotta keep on its good side.”
The hand that had been hovering over Em’s shoulder clapped down and squeezed tight. Em didn’t respond, only gazed at the dog, into its strange, indifferent stare. Its eyes were the amber-brown of the moon in a polluted sky, unusual for wolf dogs, which tended towards blue. Its huge tail frisked the wall, brushing loose flakes of paint onto the floor.
“Em,” Frank whined.
“It’s alright,” said Em, and slowly lowered herself into a crouch.
Drawing a lip back from its teeth the dog growled softly, the sound so slight that Em almost didn’t hear it over the whining of cicadas and the faraway hum of traffic.
“Hey. Hey, now,” she said. “We don’t mean you no harm. You gonna settle and let us come check up on my big brother? You gonna sit?”
The growl deepened, rippling with threat.
“Jesus Christ,” Frank said, under his breath.
Ignoring him, Em kept her eyes trained on the dog, her voice low, sing-song, persuasive.
“Come on, now. Just you sit for me, boy. Sit.”
The dog shook its jowls, the snap of its teeth making Em flinch. Then at long, painstaking last the animal dropped to its haunches, the change in position barely making a dent in its height.
“There you have it,” said Em. “It is Joe’s, after all.”
“Never would have credited him with it,” said Frank, swiping sweat from his brow. “He ain’t the type. Remember those sea monkeys he used to keep in a plastic tank? They all died in a day or so, as I recall it. Never had it in him to look out for anyone but himself.”
“Yet here we are, looking out for him,” said Em. “Just like old times.”
Although the dog remained seated Em didn’t move any further into the house, only dithered, picking at her fingernails.
“After you, Ma’am,” said Frank, with a mock bow.
When Em didn’t answer he touched her shoulder and said, “You alright? You ain’t been back here much since your Papa died, have you?”
“No,” said Em. “Weren’t much worth coming back to.”
She meant it. Her and Joe’s mother had moved away across state to flee her grief, and Joe himself had never been home much even before taking off on his inexplicable adventure. The house had long ceased feeling like home; Em was estranged from it, and it from her.
Em stepped into the hallway, trying not to recoil as the dog stood up again and sauntered into one of the adjoining rooms. It shocked her how quietly the creature moved, the only sound it made being the whisper of its thick hair brushing the wall.
Turning a corner Em stopped abruptly, sucking a whoop of air into her lungs. Behind her Frank cursed, stepping on the backs of her sneakers.
“Uncle,” said Em. “The smell. That smell.”
They inhaled deep and looked at each other, exchanging a thought.
“The kitchen,” said Em, and pushed in the direction the dog had gone.
Upon entering the room Em’s eyes immediately began streaming, her stomach knotted like a string of sausages in a butchershop window. A buck deer had been dragged up onto the kitchen countertop and cut from chin to tail, torn innards coiled and heaving with blue bottles across the floor. Wet footprints crisscrossed haphazardly over the chequered tiles, some heading in or out of the back door, which swung on its hinges in the wind, and others traipsing lunatic circles, like the leavings of some nightmare dance.
Very few of the prints seemed to belong to the dog: the rest were human, the toes and soles clearly defined.
“What the hell happened here?” Frank croaked, coughing into the sleeve of his denim jacket. “Is that thing fresh?”
“Few hours old at most, I’d say,” said Emily. “Saw a cow killed by dogs on the farm, once. Looked about the same, only…”
She stepped around the piled flesh congealing on the floor and peered out across the backyard, gesturing to a streak of crimson in the yellow grass.
“Somebody dragged this thing all the way in out of the woods. Clearly the dog didn’t do that- big as it is, it don’t have the dexterity. You seen the footprints, anyhow.”
“You’re saying Joe did this?” said Frank, gaping.
Emily shrugged, wiping her still-watering eyes on the back of her hand.
“Who else? Joe said he was sick. Whether it’s the drugs again or he’s just crazy, I don’t know. But he needs help, either way.”
“Think we ought to call the cops?” asked Frank, sounding suddenly small and uncertain.
“Christ, no. What do you think they’ll do to a deer-killing kid off his fucking nut? He’s got no chance if we don’t try to manage this on our own.”
The dog, which had been lying unnoticed under the kitchen table, rose like a hulking shadow and pressed itself against Em’s shoulder. She jolted, spooked by the sudden contact, by the hugeness of the animal beside her. Cautiously she tugged a hand through the thick fur at the back of its neck. Heat rose up against her palm, and she recoiled, not quite knowing why.
“I just don’t know about this, Emily,” said Frank. “We ain’t qualified to handle this level of sick.”
“He’s my brother,” said Emily, trying not to look at the glistening, half-masticated organs leaking across the room, the flat, grey dark of the buck’s vacant eyes. “And he’s your nephew. We gotta do what we can.”
They briefly checked the rest of the house in case Joe was holed somewhere in a drugged stupor, but every room lay cool and empty, feeling unlived in. The dog padded behind them, making them both uneasy. It seemed uninterested in the house, only in them, its huge head slowly moving to follow them as they moved from room to room.
As they finished up and walked out of the house towards the parked-up truck Frank said, “What are we gonna do with that thing if Joe don’t come back?”
Em looked at the dog, and it gazed back without expression.
“Take it home, I guess,” she said. “If it’ll come.”
She gestured for Frank to open up the back of the truck and jerked her head at the dog.
This time there was no hesitation; the dog jumped up into the back in a long, fluid motion, oddly graceful considering the hugeness of it. Frank scratched his head and whistled.
“Can’t take the farm out of the girl, huh? Never knew you had such a way with dogs.”
“I don’t,” said Emily, watching the beast close its eyes. “Just this one, apparently.”
The drive home was a silent one, Frank concentrating on the road, Emily trying not to glance over her shoulder at the hulking shape in the back of the truck. There was something un-dog like about it, the lack of brash scratching and licking or drool making it seem unnaturally still, conscious. Its only movements until they arrived at Em’s house were to twitch flies from its ears or, occasionally, to open its eyes, meeting Em’s in the rear view mirror.
As they pulled up on the driveway Frank kissed Em’s cheek, making her crack a small, surprised smile.
“I’ll get someone by Joey’s place to clear up that damn deer,” he said. “You tell me if you hear anything from him, alright?”
“You, too,” said Emily, and turned, sensing the dog leaping, unbidden, from the back of the to follow at her heels.
The animal looked near-prehistoric amidst the modern trappings of her small living room, the contrast almost making Em giggle. Instead she yawned, the weight of the day suddenly catching up with her.
“What’s this all about, huh?” she said, softly. “I bet you know. I bet you seen a lot of things back at that house, ain’t you?”
Ignoring her, the dog spread itself flat on the carpet, its head crushing its front paws.
Em avoided it as best she could until dinnertime, putting meat down on a plate for it to pick at. Despite the largeness of its jaws the dog ate delicately, tearing the steak into strips, piece by piece.
“You sure eat cleaner than your daddy,” said Em, thinking of the buck with its torn entrails, the utter lack of blood on the dog’s muzzle to suggest that it had partaken in the feast.
Em wondered how quickly a person got sick after eating raw meat; she’d heard about a tribe that had developed some kind of psychosis after devouring brain matter, but she wasn’t sure that was quite the same thing. Besides, Joe had started to go strange long ago, and eating meat had very little to do with it.
Before going to bed she let the dog out to do its business, observing as it padded away across the yard and disappeared behind a scrub of trees. Em hadn’t kept an animal since the days of helping her father on the farm, but this was something altogether different from raising dumb bovine or chickens. It felt intrusive, somehow, like letting a mute stranger squat in the house.
Hell, Em thought. I should be used to that.
Eventually the dog padded back across the yard, like a dappled shadow in the dark. Shutting the backdoor behind it Em said, “You’re gonna stay down here tonight, okay?”
It stared with intense yet inexpressive eyes as she went upstairs to bed. An hour or so later Em was awoken by the sounds of scratching on her bedroom door, accompanied by a monotonous banging, as if someone was knocking on it with a bowling ball. Still bleary she lay, fearful, wondering what kind of demon had run loose in the house. Then she remembered the dog and sat up, thumbing the sleep from her eyes.
“I told you to stay downstairs. Go on away.”
If anything the scratching only increased until Em began worrying about the state of the paintwork. Sighing, she got up and opened the door. Again Em found herself taken aback by the dog’s size, putting her in mind of a sleek young bear. It shook its fur and panted, the first vocal sound it had made since growling back at the farmhouse.
“You just lie down and be quiet, now,” said Em, scowling.
She wasn’t particularly keen on the dog hanging around her while she slept, but between that and being kept awake she didn’t have much of a choice. As Em lay back down and closed her eyes she was keenly aware of the dog pacing the room, occasionally stopping to stand and stare at a wall, or down at her face on the pillow. It took several hours for her to fall asleep again, and when she stirred the following morning she felt the weight of the bed sunken down at the end by the dog lying across her legs, her calves and feet gone numb.
“So this is how it’s gonna be,” Emily muttered. “You just doing whatever you please.”
Still, she felt almost touched that the odd creature was so clingy despite being otherwise aloof. When Em left for work she wondered how it would get on alone without her, then laughed a little; the dog had lasted just fine before she’d taken it in, after all.
As she pulled up the driveway on her way back Em saw the dog with its paws up on the living room windowsill, the silhouette so uncannily like a man’s that she stalled the car and sat there a moment, feeling cold.
Eventually she got up, unlocked the front door and stuck her head into the house.
“You scare me like that again and I swear I’ll need a heart bypass. Wanna come for a ride?”
Em drove up to the backwoods behind Joe’s house and parked in a small clearing. The dog, which had been lying quietly across the entirety of the back seat, showed no recognition of the area, slipping out of the car and loitering, unleashed, beside Emily, as if it had done so all its life. She’d hoped that the animal might pick up Joe’s scent and follow it, as dogs did in books and movies, but as usual the creature was indifferent to everything except its instinct to follow her. Briefly Em considering looping a rope around its neck in case another dog walker came by and spooked it. Then it occurred to her how easily the dog could take her arm from its socket it if broke into a run and she merely bid it to her heel.
Em wasn’t sure what she’d expected to find out here amongst the trees- a tent, a stubbed-out roach, another animal corpse -but there was nothing to the woods that didn’t feel part of them. They were so obviously unpeopled that the isolated quiet became disquieting. Whistling softly to the dog Em upped her pace until they passed the tree line and wandered out into the fields behind the farmhouse.
Being there without Frank’s loud presence felt different, more personal, as if something had woken up in the house and was watching her. Em rubbed the back of her neck, thinking of an article she’d once read about hikers being able to sense a stalking bear or cayote long before they saw it. Yet retracing her steps from room to room Em found them all equally empty, the kitchen, though still stinking faintly of meat, scrubbed back to the off-white it had been before. Still, there was an odd static tension in the air, so much so that upon reaching out absently to touch the dog’s back as it sidled past her a shock bristled across Em’s palm.
“Weird,” she whispered, withdrawing her hand as quickly as she’d held it out.
Em found herself drawn back upstairs again, first to her own childhood bedroom, which had been stripped long ago of boy band posters and forgotten stuffed animals to be converted into a guestroom, then to the room that had been Joe’s. Still was, from the looks of it, or had been, until he went away.
Years of secret joint smoking had streaked the white walls off-yellow, and the floor was awash with junk: filled ashtrays, torn religious pamphlets, dirty clothes, old records and unfinished writings, never more than a few lines here or there. Em turned a page over with the toe of her shoe, an almost superstitious feeling keeping her from touching it with her bare skin.
‘A month of peace,’ it read. ‘A night of hell.’
It could have been a song lyric, an angry diary entry, five years old or only written yesterday- no way to tell, in here, where everything felt like a time capsule of Joe’s tumultuous adolescence. Em sat down on the unmade bed, floored by a sudden memory she’d forgotten-
not forgotten, only pushed away
-a memory of slamming upstairs after a rare argument with her parents and throwing Joe’s bedroom door open on a whim, staring in at him in a strange, helpless fit of anger. They’d never had the kind of relationship where they talked about things; Joe was four years older than Em and sullen, unreachable, barely looking her in the eye across the dinner table, let alone offering advice.
But that day had been different. He glanced up at her, nodded curtly and said, “Oh yeah, they’ve started in on you too now, Golden-child? Get in, if you’re coming in. Put that towel back against the door.”
Em remembered dithering, torn between her objection to being mocked and her desire to escape the righteous nagging of the old folks downstairs. But eventually she’d sidled in, pretending not to be shocked by the funk of cannabis or the empty beer bottles in the corner.
They’d shared a few smokes, listened to the ugly industrial music Em had only ever before heard muffled through the walls, and watched a few horror movies Joe had on videotape- videotape, Hell, that made Em feel old. Although they didn’t talk much it was the start of an infrequent and slightly uncomfortable alliance, one that Em sensed Joe needed as much as she did.
Every few weeks she’d spend the night holed up with him, feeling dull and stupid and clean in comparison to the boy-man rolling cigarette papers with his tongue at the other end of the bed. He knew it, too; he’d glance at her, and grin, his hard face cracking with mischief.
“Whatcha looking at, Golden-child?”
If he’d been anyone other than her brother she might have crushed on him, and looking back Em supposed that she had in a non-romantic sense of the word. Back then she hadn’t noticed the black under his eyes, the long, erratic phonecalls, the strange people he had over, all thinner and twitchier than even Joe was. Well, she had, but Em knew how Joe felt about being interrogated, so any questions were left well alone.
She didn’t want to lose those nights with him; he was just about the only friend Em really had.
At 5am she’d stand up and stretch her legs and regret, knowing that she’d be tending the animals without a wink of sleep to tide her over. Joe would smirk, for although he was the oldest, the male, the Inheritor, their parents had long given up trying to make him get involved with the family business. The pattern carried on until they developed a new closeness, in-jokes and teasing that made their mother frown, as if it was something forbidden.
Then suddenly the visits to Joe’s room had stopped- or rather, Joe wouldn’t open the door anymore.
Em would stand, knocking, calling, able to hear him grinding leaves or muttering over the phone, but he always ignored her. She was angry, at first, then saddened at the stupid little thing they’d lost. They grew apart, and it was only when Em moved out that she saw him again, always at night, turning up wanting a place to stay, to borrow fifty dollars that she’d never get back-
A bark shocked Em out of her thoughts. The dog was standing in Joe’s bedroom doorway, hackles raised, its lips rolled back across teeth as white as broken china. It was the first time Em had heard it bark, and it frightened her, like an unexpected slap to the face. Standing up abruptly Em realised that she was crying, dark spots soaking into her jeans, and scrubbed at them until they blended in.
“I’m fucking stupid,” she said, softly. “Stupid. Golden-child, my ass.”
She clicked her tongue at the dog and it quieted.
“He ain’t here, is he? So let’s go.”
It became their routine, hers and the dogs, a cycle of food, work, walking to Joe’s, then sleeping together in a bed that was really too small for the pair of them. There was never any indication that Joe had been back to the house, and Em wasn’t exactly sure what she’d do if there ever was. Each time she walked into his bedroom the more that sense of discomfort gathered, and Em began to accept that there were parts of those long ago visits that still remained unturned, like dirt under a covering of autumn leaves. But still she kept going back, as if out of duty, although nobody had asked it of her.
Partway through the third week Uncle Frank called to ask how she was holding up, his tone somewhat gentler than usual. For all his bumbling he was an intuitive man, and Em felt a fierce rush of love towards him for it. Towards the end of the conversation Frank said, abruptly, “You still got that big ol’ dog with you, huh? You thought of a name for it yet?”
The question threw Em a little; until then it simply hadn’t occured to her to do so.
“Don’t seem right, somehow,” she said, with a brittle laugh. “Been treating it like a visitor, even talking to it like one. It’d feel fucking weird to start calling the thing Bruno or Bonzo or something. I guess Joey probably give it a name already, anyway, even if he didn’t do nothing else.”
When the call ended she found herself looking at the dog, questioning for the hundredth time where it had come from. Perhaps Joe had wrangled it back from Germany, somehow, a keepsake from the mountains. Em had been considering taking it to the vet, partly to have it scanned for a chip and partly because all day the dog had been acting strange, pacing the house and breathing heavily, drool stringing from its tongue.
Perhaps it was anxious due to the incoming storm that had turned the clouds outside the yellow of tobacco stains. Maybe it was just sick. Em only knew that the dog’s incessant patrolling of the house was giving her secondhand anxiety, making her skin itch with anticipation for something other than the storm.
That night she had strange dreams, dreams of a blue wolf bounding through the rain, dreams that she was eating flowers, dreams of Joe standing on her back porch with track marks on his inner arms and the webs of his fingers that trickled silvery moonlight. She dreamt that she put her mouth to the holes and tried to draw the light out like sucking poison from a wound, that Joe had filled the backyard with silver spoons and that she was angry, so angry that when Joe pulled her into an embrace it felt like she was suffocating…
It was only when Em tried to sit up that she realised the last part wasn’t just a dream, not completely. The dog was lying on top of her, its chest crushing her face with its dead weight. She felt its body heave with panting, and as Em pushed frantically at its belly in an effort to shift the animal off the bed she inhaled a mouthful of downy hair and panicked even more. Arching her back against the bed Em gave a desperate shove and the hot, shivering mass was off her and bounding lithely to the floor, as if it weighed nothing at all.
Em sat up, sucking in air through lungs that felt as small as nickels, and gestured to the door, her pointing hand quivering with anger.
“Get the fuck out of here,” she said. “I mean it.”
The dog’s eyes rolled, and Emily recognised the look of fear from the animals on the farm when storms had passed over. But she didn’t care, couldn’t care while her heart was banging like a tin can and dry, hysterical tears were caught halfway up her throat.
“Move!” she shrieked, and swung her legs off the bed to give chase.
The animal edged about in grudging, halting steps, casting beseeching looks back over its shoulder at Em. She ushered it forward, kicking out from time to time when it didn’t descend the stairs fast enough. It hurt to be left with this inconvenience Joe had left behind and not Joe himself, the way it always was, and the grief made her cruel. She chased the dog to the back door and banged it open, pointing into the yard and the dehydrated brush beyond.
“Fuck off out of my house!” she snapped. “You wild fucking animal.”
Anxious drool dripped from the dog’s maw and for the first time the massive creature looked pitiful. But Em was still wild with the panic of it crushing her, and she shoved the hound out across the back porch, yelling as it stopped to gaze at her again with eyes that were mostly petrified white.
Overhead the night sky bellowed with dry thunder, and as Em watched a skein of lightning threaded the black clouds like silver cord.
“Go away!” she said, again.
Reaching into a nearby cupboard Em pulled out a ceramic mug and lobbed it across the yard, glancing the dog’s ear. It didn’t even flinch, only stared imploringly into her eyes. Another clap of thunder passed by and overhead the murky clouds parted, revealing a snippet of the yellow moon.
The dog raised its head and let out a howl unlike anything Em had ever heard before, more like a man’s agonised scream than anything canine. A pulse of coldness jolted her, and she felt a sudden, acute guilt, clenching the hand that had thrown the mug as if to conceal her shame.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” she said.
Already the dog was turning away, loping off into the trees at the back of the yard. Without bothering to put shoes or a coat on over the t-shirt she’d worn to bed Em followed, but the dog had already made a good distance away from the house and had picked up speed, its figure coarsing the horizon like a falling star.
Em turned back and went to fetch the car from the garage. She couldn’t lose the dog, even if she wasn’t fond of it; it was Joe’s creature, and it reminded her of him in a way far healthier than the stale farmhouse or any of her bitter memories. There was no sign of it in the streets or roads nearby the house, nor the scrubland beyond it. As Em drove further and further out she feared that it had been struck by a car or shot by a terrified civilian. Then when no body presented itself another possibility arose: perhaps the dog had wound its way back to Joe’s house, their house. Em couldn’t guess how it knew the way when they’d driven there each time, but animals were intelligent, intuitive, their sense of direction surely far superior to that of humans.
Em drove close to the speed limit, flinching as lightning lashed the road ahead. It was crazy being out in this weather, but Em couldn’t turn back, sensing that if she did she’d never see the dog again. This time she pulled up directly outside the farmhouse rather than by the backwoods. She knew even before she got out of the car that the dog was already here. The front door was open, slamming back and forth in the churning wind like a broken jaw. Em’s neck prickled.
She’d left the door shut last time she was here, having no spare key to lock up, but it was so stiff only someone who knew the trick to spring it open could do so. Joe was here, Em was sure of it. Even if lightning hadn’t been in the air she would have felt his presence in it like a live charge.
She crossed the yard in a lurching run, feeling suddenly ridiculous in her flapping nightdress, and entered the house, calling Joe’s name over the crashing thunder. From upstairs she heard a keening whine and immediately followed; of course the dog would find its master, would know where he was by scent alone. Furniture lay toppled in all directions, as if a drunk had stumbled a violent path through the top floor of the house.
The whining had deepened into a throttled growl, and Em stopped outside Joe’s bedroom, feeling a sudden, superstitious dread of what she’d see within. Maybe the storm had driven the dog mad and it was turning, maybe it hadn’t been Joe’s after all. Maybe-
Em pulled the door open and shouted, aghast, as she saw the dog rear upright on two legs, a massive black smear in a room bleached by lightning and full moonlight. Its mouth was open, open too wide for any dog, any animal at all, and as Em watched a white human hand wormed its way up the beast’s throat and seized empty air, as if in triumph.
Em scrubbed at her eyes, wondering if it was some illusion of the light, but then another hand joined it, pushing at the dog’s lower jaw until it cracked in a geyser of steaming blood. It was like watching a maggot churn its way out of a corpse, pale flesh squeezing up the torn gullet until the dogs body was rent in half. Em could hear herself screaming as she squeezed herself flat against the wall, but she didn’t look away. She couldn’t. She saw as the ruined halves of the dog unseamed from each other, falling away from the blood-slicked form of a man beneath.
He stood amidst steaming flesh, his shoulders hunched, and slowly straightened, shaking blood and tissue matter from his hair as if it was pondwater. Em heard his spine pop as he finally uncoiled to his full height and turned, the face framed by red-soaked hair and beard achingly familar.
Em rubbed her hands over her face again, as if doing so would wash away this strange reality. But it was Joe staring at her, naked and filthy and shaking like a hankering addict. Joe whose skin under the gore was so pale that it was almost blue.
“Hey, Golden-child. You’ve been real good to me these past few weeks. I wish I could have told you it was me.”
Joe bent down to his bed, picking up a rumpled sheet, and with a sheepish glance at Em wrapped it around him in a makeshift cloak. Em took a hesitant step towards him, avoiding the dog skin on the floor.
“What… happened to you? I don’t understand. Was this what you were talking about, what happened to you in Germany? What made you sick…”
“No,” said Joe. “Not exactly. It’s made me better.”
He overturned his arms, showing Em his underarms. There were no fresh wounds, only the faint scars of injection sites from many months ago.
“You see? Clean as a whistle. Ain’t touched dope in a year. Can’t, being the way I was.”
“This… this makes no sense.”
Feeling suddenly weak Em sat down on the end of the bed. Joe turned to the window, his brown eyes almost yellow in the sickly light of the storm.
“I got so damn tired of everyone looking at me like I was a waste of space. Hell, I was. Mom and Dad never said a word about it, but I could smell it all over them. You, and Uncle Frank, too… I tried meetings, religion, rehab, self help shit, nothing. My brain is stubborn.”
He wiped blood from his face and licked it from the heel of his palm, absently, as if he’d forgotten that Em was watching.
“Then I found something on some messageboard about a plant growing on a mountain in the Bavarian mountains. A blue flower- monks started tending it out there a couple hundred years ago and now they just run wild. This post I found said that if you ate it you’d change, you could quit anything you wanted cold turkey. They just didn’t say what it’d do. How much it hurts…”
His head jerked, and Em heard his spine crackle in a dozen places. The cry that wisped from this throat was one as much of pleasure as suffering, and Em flinched, unsettled.
“Hurts so much sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing,” Joe muttered. “And that ain’t good, but it’s better than I was, ain’t it? Just one bad night a month instead of thirty.”
“But.. but Joey…”
Em ran her hands through her hair. She could have laughed at stupity at it, the awfulness, but she didn’t have the strength to.
“You saw how peaceful I was,” said Joe. “We got along. It’s… easy. I prefer life to be that way.”
“You prefer… not being human.”
This time Joe didn’t reply. He didn’t need to.
“Do what you need to do,” said Em. “I ain’t gonna hang around to see it, that’s all.”
She got up and headed for the door. Joe didn’t stop her, just stood staring with the same hopeless yearning she remembered from the porch, his eyes now the yellow of turned wounds, as if they’d never been brown at all.
Em went out to her car and sat in the driver’s seat, lacking the will to so much as start up the ignition. She sat thinking about the nights she’d spent in Joey’s room, nights she’d thought with their laughter and comraderie had come just shy of saving him. She thought of him kneeling to pick a blue flower on a mountain, tasting his future on the bloom.
The door of the house banged open and Joe loomed in the frame, looking on two feet somehow more of a wolf than the dog had ever done. He raised his head, staring at the moon as if it had spoken to him, and screamed. Screamed, or howled; what was the difference?
Then he dropped low and ran towards the woods, melding with the lightning-clad dark.