Forthcoming in speculative fiction journal, SQ Mag.
The road climbs up as the cold wind moans. I’ve been here before. I know I’ve been here before….
I pass a half-fallen street sign, pointing up the road like a bent finger. Tutwiler Ln. The name rings a bell, a rusty bell that has to shake off dust in order to ring, and it’s a hollow sound, anyway. Then I see a black dog bounding down the road towards me, a German shepherd with bared teeth. I want to turn and run, but now he’s gotten me, his arms on my shoulders–– and he’s licking my face expectantly. I can’t believe it. It’s Scratch.
“What are you doing here, boy?” I say. “Why aren’t you home? Why aren’t I home?” He wags his tail and circles around me, flicking the air and nipping my feet. “You mangy dog,” I say, kneeling down and scratching him behind the ears. “Hold on, now, we’ll have to find Mildred and sort this out. How did you get here, huh?”
Then I see her walking down the street–– Mildred, with black hair pulled back in a bun, one gold tooth glinting in the front of her mouth. She’s walking quickly, and it scares me. “Mildred!” I say. “You’re here, too? I just found Scratch running down the hill. Is everybody okay? Where are we?”
She sighs and her grey eyes harden. She walks up and clasps my shoulder, gripping it tight. “What’d you go and run off for this time, Dad?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I want to go home.”
She points up the road towards a chilly gray house, one that stirs a vague memory. “There you are. Home.”
“Thank you, Mildred,” I say. Scratch bounds up the road. I stand and stumble after him.
Silverware and plates clatter pleasantly. For a moment I feel like I’m home, but when I look around, I recognize nothing.
“Can you pass the salt?” Mildred asks. I hand it to her. We’re sitting at the dinner table with Anne and John, eating ham and biscuits. Old Scratch barks beside me.
“So, what did you do today?” I say to John. He’s sitting across the table from me, playing with his food.
“I had a baseball game,” he says uncertainly. There’s a long pause, and then John looks to Mildred for help. She is too busy staring at me to notice. He speaks back up. “But weren’t you there, Granddad?”
“Yes,” I say automatically. I hear the crack of a bat somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, then it fizzles out. Scratch barks.
“Dad,” Mildred prompts. I look over, and her eyes are still boring into me. “The salt.”
I look down at my right hand. I’m holding a tub of butter. I put it down shamefully, and Mildred snatches a shaker from in front of my plate.
The world is gone. My body is gone too. I’m flying through the void on the wings of a hawk, black as a starless night.
Then, suddenly, I’m in a bed. The room is dark, but there’s something stirring. Something sinister….
I try to sit up but I can’t move. I force my eyes downward and there, I see it, standing in the corner of the room. It’s back again–– the Shadow. It comes to me sometimes in the night after Mildred gives me my pills, pills that relax my muscles more than my mind. It’s a dark figure with no face, wrapped in a black cloak, brooding over my motionless body. The wrinkles in the cloth suck the courage out of me like I missed a step on the stairs, like I missed all thirteen steps and I’m falling down forever. I try to scream but my lips are too heavy, and nothing comes out.
For a while the cloaked figure watches me while I lie in the bed. Then all of my limbs start flailing at once and I gargle. “Help,” I scream. “Help!”
Another cloaked ghoul rushes in, and the first one disappears, just as the feeling returns to my fingers and a light floods the room. I look back towards the door–– it’s only Mildred, gold tooth glinting through a scowl, nightgown wrapped around crooked shoulders.
“Nightmares again?” she says.
“The Shadow was back,” I say.
“It’s your imagination,” she snaps. “I’ve told you, there’s nothing to be afraid of here. Now go back to bed.”
“I want to go home,” I say. “I want to go home….”
Mildred falls down as Scratch bounds into the room, sweeping her feet off the floor. He launches into my bed and covers me up, as if to protect me. Mildred pulls herself up furiously, then shuts off the light and stalks back to bed.
I’m in a sterile room, sitting on a rubber mattress. Mildred is standing across from me, her arms folded, dark circles under her eyes. There’s a skeleton in the corner with his arm out, as though he’s going to shake my hand, and he’s grinning.
“Where’s Scratch?” I say.
“He’s not here.”
The door opens and the Doctor walks in. He’s got sharp blue eyes and a gold wristwatch on. “Good afternoon. How are we doing today?” He gives me such a genuine smile that it makes me feel better, then he turns to Mildred. “How are things going at home? Still getting along with the children?”
“Of course,” Mildred says stiffly. “They love their grandfather.”
He turns to me and smiles again. “We haven’t been running off, have we?”
“I want to go home.”
Mildred looks uncomfortable, and the Doctor turns back to her. “Well, Doctor,” she tells him, “he’s run off twice in the past three weeks.”
The Doctor pats my knee. “Where is it that he says he’s going?”
“Home,” she says, biting the word ferociously. “He doesn’t remember that he and Scratch live with me now.”
“Scratch?” I say. Mildred ignores me.
“You need to think about putting him in a home,” the Doctor says gently. “Somewhere he can be taken care of. It’s hard enough for you with Anne and John, raising two kids on your own, let alone worry about your father––”
“And how much would that cost me?” she says.
“Two thousand dollars a––”
“No, thank you,” Mildred snaps. “We’re doing fine. Now, if you’ll just refill his prescription, that will be all for today, doctor….”
“Come on now, gather round, children…stop staring, John, it isn’t polite…Anne, go give your grandfather a kiss….”
I force my eyes open. I’m sitting in an armchair in front of a grainy television. My head is full of rubber, but I can’t seem to make anything out of it. A Christmas tree blinks in the corner of the room.
Scratch comes up and puts his head in my lap. He pants and closes his eyes. He acts like he still knows me, and I pat his head gratefully.
A tiny girl peeks over a pile of wrapping paper. She looks at me then back to Mildred, and her face turns red.
“Go on, now,” Mildred scolds. “It might be his last Christmas.”
I try to smile at the runt, but her face freezes, and she scurries backward until she’s crouching behind Mildred’s leg. “Merry Christmas,” I say, but my mouth says something else–– I don’t know what.
“No, Dad, it’s Christmas,” Mildred snaps. She turns to the girl. “He’s just confused, Anne, he’s been saying that all day. Go give him a kiss so we can get on with the presents.”
“Merry Christmas,” I insist, but the child just stares at me blankly.
My heart starts to flutter and there’s a blinding pain behind my eyes. My mouth slacks open and I slide down in the chair. Scratch barks and turns to Mildred in a panic, then back to me, biting my arms to stop them from convulsing. “Merry Christmas,” I scream. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.” All I can hear is a screeching cacophony of gargling. Then the room goes dark and cold.
The Shadow is back. It’s pacing at the foot of the bed that I’m in now, though I’m not quite sure how I got here. I whimper inside, but I can’t move a muscle.
Suddenly a door bursts open and the Shadow is gone. A man and a woman come in, arguing with one another. The man has sharp blue eyes and he’s gesturing angrily, a gold watch dangling from his wrist. The other has her hair drawn back in a bun and she’s standing between the Watch Man and me.
“There’s simply no way he can stay here,” the Watch Man insists. “He must be put in a home. It would cost you two thousand dollars a month, but there’s just no way he gets good care here–– I’m tired of being called out here every other week for an emergency––”
“And how would you define care?” the woman snarls. She turns and broods over me, and her nostrils flare dangerously. A gold tooth glints in her mouth. “I care for him plenty, and I don’t have two thousand dollars a month.”
“What about his retirement fund?” pleads the Watch Man. “Surely he has some of his own money saved up?”
The Gold-Toothed Woman turns her back to me. “I’ve got the power of attorney,” she says. “You can’t tell me how to spend that money. The kids have to eat.”
A black dog bounds into the room, howling. “Damn dog,” the woman snaps. “He’s been like that ever since he got bit. I’ve got to give him five pills just to shut him up at night.”
The jaw of the Watch Man slacks open. “Five pills?” he says weakly. “Why, my dog got bit by the same tick, and I’ve only ever given him one.”
“You’d give him five, too, if he made a racket like this one.” The dog skids across the floor and barks again, then he turns to me. He trots over and puts his head on my bed. His eyes are full of pity and sorrow.
“Scratch,” I say.
The others look concerned. “What did he say?” the Watch Man asks.
“Heaven knows,” says the Gold-Toothed Woman, but the black dog nods back at me sadly.
I’m in bed. This bed is all there is, all there ever has been, all there ever will be. Muscles atrophy beneath linen sheets, sinking hazily into a nightmarish stupor. The Gold-Toothed Woman doesn’t know I can think. Neither do the children who come into the room. The only one that knows is the Dog. We stay up at night and talk sometimes.
I sleep in a room with the Gold-Toothed Woman, and she changes my sheets and feeds me. The Dog sleeps here sometimes, too, but the Gold-Toothed Woman doesn’t like it. She gives the dog pills when he starts to act up. She says it’s because he got bit by a tick, and whenever he eats them, he’s too tired to bark.
One night, the Dog is so tired that he wobbles into the room and collapses onto the floor by my bed. The moon shines through the curtains, and I can see him look up at me with bloodshot eyes. I want to reach down and pet him, but I can’t move my arms. I clutch at the sheets and ball them up, pretending I’m scratching his ears.
“Good evening, Dog,” I say. “How are you doing tonight? I’m not so good myself. All I’ve eaten forever is mush, and I lie in bed the whole day and never get any rest. I want to go home.”
The Dog nods, but the Gold-Toothed Woman sits upright in bed. “What are you babbling about now?” she shrieks. “I can never get any sleep when you ramble like that.” Then she grabs a handful of pills and stalks to my bed and jams two into my mouth. “Drink,” she orders, and shoves a dirty glass full of water in my face. I gulp it down.
The room melts. I’m on the back of a hawk, sailing through the void. It carries me higher and burns me up. The world grows black as the moon hides its face, but I don’t mind. I try to say something to the Dog, but I can’t get a word through my lips. I try a few times, then forget.
I sink back into the room, slowly. I want to be sick, but I don’t have the strength. I hear the Dog crying beside me.
The Shadow is standing over me now. I know he’s just biding his time.
There’s two children in the room sobbing, and I’m in the corner, trapped in a bed. I don’t recognize them, and they don’t look at me. The girl shoves the boy and runs out.
“I’m telling Mommy! Mommy, John says you killed Scratch!”
A woman with a bun storms into the room, holding a frying pan aloft like a bat. She looks disturbed, the circles under her eyes almost purple. I don’t know her, but I feel sorry for her. “John,” she warns. “I didn’t kill Scratch. Scratch was a sick dog, and he took too much medicine. He wouldn’t stop howling. It’s nobody’s fault. These things happen.”
“Scratch,” I scream, but nobody looks at me. “Scratch.”
I’m invisible and shapeless. Something smolders in the charred remains of my memory–– the bark of a dog.
I try to roll over in bed but can’t move. I give it a go, twice, three times, but nothing seems to work. I start to scream, but all that comes out is a long, broken warble, one that grows louder and louder and fills the whole room. I jam my eyes shut to blot out the noise.
After a while, I open them up, and the Shadow is back, bending over me now. It’s strange to see the Shadow tonight, since I know I haven’t taken my pills. It has a grim face, full of pain. “Do you want to go home?” the Shadow asks.
I whimper, but suddenly I realize that this time, it isn’t the Shadow at all. The voice stirs a recollection in me, something buried deep within, just as the mouth glints in the moonlight. The Gold-Toothed Woman pulls six pills out of a jar and holds them up to my mouth, along with a dirty glass full of water.
“Don’t you want to go home, Dad?” Mildred asks again, with iron in her voice. I can’t move any muscle but my mouth, but I open and swallow. Then the room is a void, and I ride the black wings of a hawk through the night.