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Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Shambles -- excerpt from a work in progress

Here's a bit of a teaser -- the first chapter of The Shambles, my latest work-in-progress.  Enjoy!

********************************

Officer Dean Williamson’s first thought when he saw the shoplifter was, “What the hell is that?”
The guy wasn’t making any particular effort to be sneaky about the food he was stealing.  This was odd because Williamson was right there at the counter, in uniform, paying for a cup of coffee.  The 7-11 clerk, a chunky young woman with bleached-blonde hair and a tattoo of a snake on the side of her neck, said quietly, “Hey.  Look at that.”
Williamson turned, and saw a gangling man with a shock of unruly coal-black hair standing in the middle of an aisle, in plain view, putting a package of beef jerky into his coat pocket.  Once that was tucked away, he frowned as if considering what to take next, then selected a package of corn chips.
Into the pocket that went, too.
The man’s behavior wasn’t the oddest thing about him, however.  Even by the standards of downtown Fall City, he was peculiarly dressed.  He had on a pair of torn jeans that were far too short to cover his long legs.  His socks were mismatched.  One was a white athletic sock with blue stripes, the other heavy gray wool.  His shoes were even more strangely paired—on his right foot he had an old black leather dress shoe with a sprung sole, and on the left a bright red Keds sneaker with a long rip down the side.
His Styx t-shirt must have been thirty years old, from the degree to which the “Rockin’ the Paradise” logo had faded, and it was several sizes too large for his narrow shoulders and chest.  His jacket was khaki canvas, much patched and sewn, and was also too big for him.  The effect was accentuated by the fact that he now had jerky, chips, a box of Hostess Ho-Hos, and a bag of LifeSavers distending the pockets.
Williamson stared at him.  He couldn’t arrest the man until he left the premises.  If he did, the dude could claim that he was just stowing the stuff in his pockets to bring it up to the counter, and fully intended to pay for everything.  And maybe that was it, after all; he looked right at Williamson, a pair of intense dark eyes locking on the officer’s for several seconds before he turned back to pull a can of peanuts from the shelf and tuck it under his arm.
But then he strode toward the door, skinny legs swinging, free hand reaching out to shove the door open.
“Hey!” Williamson shouted.  “Hey, you!  Stop where you are!”
Without pausing, the man slammed his way through the door, and sprinted off across the parking lot.
“Sheeeit,” Williamson said under his breath, smacked his coffee down on the counter, and gave pursuit.
It was 11 PM, and the lot was nearly empty, although there was still plenty of traffic on Pentland Street South.  Was he headed for a car?  That'd make a bad situation worse, unless Williamson could stop him before he put it in drive.  But the shoplifter didn’t run toward any of the three cars in the store parking lot.  Long shanks pumping, mismatched shoes pounding on the asphalt, he sprinted off toward the rough field that stood between the 7-11 and Carlson’s Car Wash.
Williamson was a marathon runner, cyclist, and general gym rat, and it had served him well in the past.  It did once again.  The shoplifter was slowing, hindered by the uneven ground, his odd footwear, and the packages of food bouncing around in his pockets.  After only a short pursuit, Williamson was gaining on him.
“Stop!” he shouted again.  “Don’t make me tackle your ass, ‘cuz I will if I have to.”
The shoplifter gave a quick glance over his shoulder.  He was wearing a silly grin.  Is he a nutcase? Williamson thought.  Wonder if he escaped from the psych ward.  Certainly looks the part.  But the man didn’t stop, and in ten more strides, Williamson was able to grab him by the waistband of his jeans, yanked hard, and the two of them tumbled in a heap to the rocky ground.
The man fought back, for all the good it did.  Williamson’s upper arms were as big as the man’s thighs.  In seconds, the shoplifter was pinned to the ground, his right arm twisted behind him.  He used his left to pitch the can of peanuts at Williamson’s head, missing by several inches, and there was a hollow bonk as it landed somewhere behind them in the darkness.
“You are under arrest,” Williamson said, panting a little.  “Shoplifting.  You have the right to remain silent…”
The man burst out laughing, a high, wild sound.  Yup.  He’s a crazy, all right.  At least he doesn’t look like one of the violent ones.  He was, however, continuing to struggle, rocking from side to side, pulling at his pinioned arm, kicking his legs against the ground.  There was a crunching noise as the corn chips inside his jacket were ground to dust.
“… Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.  Do you understand the rights I have just told you?”
The man cackled again, and didn’t answer.
“Dude, you really need to chill out,” Williamson said.  He pulled out handcuffs and cuffed his thin wrists, then hauled him to his feet.
The man looked the officer up and down.  “You run faster than I would have thought.”  Those were first words he’d spoken.  His voice was light, musical, intelligent.  He sounded completely unconcerned.
“Yeah.  Remember next time that when a cop tells you to stop, you stop.  Otherwise you get your face rubbed in the dirt.”  He took the man’s bony elbow and propelled him back toward the 7-11 parking lot and the waiting police cruiser.
Williamson had driven halfway back to the station before he remembered that he’d left his coffee on the store counter.  This did not improve his mood, and he considered returning for it. 
“Stone cold by now, anyway,” he muttered to himself.
“What?” the man in the back said, in a cheerful voice.
“Shut up.”
***
Williamson escorted the shoplifter into the Fall City Police Station, where he was booked, and offered the opportunity to pay $500 in bail to be released that night.  He identified himself as Cyprian James Grove, but he had no identification on him to verify that.  When he was asked his address, he laughed and said, “Nowhere near here.”
And about the bail money, he said, “Unless you’ll take a box of smashed Hostess Ho-Hos as collateral for a loan, I’ve got no cash.”  He was searched, and there was nothing found in his pockets but the food he’d stolen, so that was removed and he was hustled off to a holding cell.
“One strange mofo for sure,” Rosa Lamperez, the officer who had booked Grove and fingerprinted him, said to Williamson a little later.  He’d gotten a cup of coffee to replace the one he’d left at the 7-11 and was sipping it slowly while delaying returning to the beat as long as he could manage.
“Dude was standing there in the middle of the aisle, loading up his pockets.  Looked right at me and the cashier, and kept on doing it, then walked to the door like we were gonna wave goodbye and tell him to have a nice night.  Even when I caught him and pinned him, he was laughing like it was a big joke.  And the clothes.  I dunno.”
“College kid who lost a bet?” Rosa said.
“Looks too old to be a college kid.  I’d put him at 25 or so.  Did he give a birthdate?”
“No.  Told me it was none of my damned business how old he was, and to figure it out myself.”
“Huh.  I thought I knew most of the weirdos that hang around downtown on sight, but I’ve never seen this guy before.”
“New in town?”
“If so, he walked here.  He didn’t have a car.  I thought he might have escaped from the psych ward up at Fall City Regional.”
“I don’t know, Dean.  But wherever he came from,  he’ll be stuck here a while if he can’t make bail.  Wonder if he’ll try to call someone tomorrow.  Family, or a lawyer, or something.”
“Could be.  That’d at least tell us more about him.”  Williamson drained the last of his coffee.  “I’m back out.  Shift ends at four.  See you, Rosa.”
“Later.”
***
At a little after two AM, Officer Khalil Mansour passed the cell where Cyprian Grove was being held, and gave a glance inside.  Rosa Lamperez had told Mansour about the shoplifter's odd outfit—"He looks like he got dressed in the dark from the dumpster behind the Salvation Army" were her exact words—and Mansour, who had just gotten off shift and was ready to clock out, was curious enough to take a look.
Grove was in the middle of the cell, on all fours, head down.
Is he puking? Mansour thought.  But the guy didn't seem to be sick.  He was moving his hand along the floor, backing up a little at a time, his nose inches from the cement, frowning in intense concentration.  Between his fingers he held a piece of chalk.  He was drawing a line on the floor, every so often turning his head to sight down it, checking it for straightness.
It was while his face was almost resting on the dirty cement that he noticed Mansour looking at him.  He broke out in an impish grin.
"Got to make sure it's as straight as I can manage," he said, in a conversational tone, still in the odd position with his cheek near the cold concrete surface and his butt in the air.  "Hope you don't mind my drawing on the floor, though.  I'm not usually a graffiti artist."
"You need to stop," Mansour said.  "You need to give the chalk to me."
"Nope," Grove said amiably.  "When they frisked me and emptied my pockets, they missed this.  Fortunately.  I always carry it in case of an emergency."
"An emergency?" the officer said, at the same time thinking, Why are you letting this guy draw you into a conversation?  Rosa was right.  He's a wacko.  Just go in there and take the chalk.
The cell was operated by a card key, allowing any on-duty officer to get in quickly in case of an emergency.  Mansour reached out to swipe the key in the reader, and Grove chuckled.
"Oh, no, you don't.  Getting tackled once in a night is enough."  He continued his line on the floor all the way to the back wall, then stood.  "Hope it's straight enough," he said, looking Mansour right in the eyes.  "It'll have to do."
The light turned green.  Mansour pulled the cell door open.  At the same moment Grove, wearing a goofy grin, said, "Ta-ta, now, Officer.  Give my regards to the musclebound guy who arrested me, and the cutie who took my fingerprints."  He wiggled his fingers.
Then Cyprian Grove stomped on the chalk line with the foot wearing the dress shoe.  It made a resounding smack.
Then he wasn't there any more.
Mansour ran through the door.  "What the…"  He stopped, looking around the cell as if he expected Grove to reappear like a stage magician, sitting cross-legged on the bed, holding a white rabbit in one hand.
The cell was empty.
***
Police Captain Sarah Persinger leaned back in her chair, and gave the three cops who were seated in her office a not-very-friendly glare.
"Okay, Mansour," she said, "you're telling me Cyprian Grove vanished.  Stomped his foot, and went through the floor like jail cells come equipped with some kind of fucking trap door."
"Captain, you saw the CCTV camera footage…" Mansour began.
"What I saw," Persinger said, "was that as soon as you opened the cell door, he dropped down on all fours, and after that mostly what I saw was your backside."
"That's because he was gone."
Her eyes narrowed.  "Don't give me that bullshit.  People can't go through cement floors, but they can crawl.  And the only way he got out of that cell is past you."
"Then where did he go, Captain?" Lamperez said.  "If he got out past Mansour, or behind him or whatever, the guy would still have had to get through the locked door at the end of the hallway.  The CCTV down there doesn't show anything."
Persinger gave her a sour look.  "I wasn't the one who was there.  I also wasn't the one who opened the cell door immediately before a prisoner escaped."
"He was drawing a line on the floor with a piece of chalk," Mansour said.
"I don't care if he was writing out one of Shakespeare's fucking sonnets.  You had no reason to open the cell door."
"Grove didn't get out through the door, Captain."  Mansour's face was set in a stubborn expression.
"Well, I can tell you he didn't turn himself sideways and go through a chalk line on the floor."  Persinger turned toward Williamson, who had been sitting in silence the entire time, his eyes distant.  "What about you, Williamson?  What can you tell us about our magical disappearing man?"
Williamson looked up at the captain, and shook his head.  "There's something wrong with him.  Wrong in the head, you know?  He was shoplifting all of this food, looking me right in the face as he did it.  When I took him down, he laughed, like it was no big deal."  He met Persinger's eyes steadily.  "Like he knew he didn't have anything to worry about.  Like he knew he could get away if he needed to."
Persinger snorted.  "So you believe Mansour's story, that this man fell through a crack in the jail cell floor?"
No one spoke.
She gave a piece of paper on her desk an exasperated shove.  "We need to find this guy and get him back into custody.  Because right now, all four of us are looking like incompetents who can't even keep an unarmed shoplifter locked up for the night.  I'm gonna have to file a report on this, and when the Chief of Police sees it, which he will, it's gonna make the whole lot of us look like the Keystone Kops.  Internal Affairs is gonna investigate this thing from top to bottom no matter what, but we need to do whatever we can to stop this from blowing up in our faces.  I want Grove found, I want him brought back in, and I want it done before the Chief of Police hands me my ass on a platter.  Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," all three said.
As they were leaving, Williamson turned to Mansour and said, "I believe you, K.  There was something weird about that guy.  He wasn't no ordinary shoplifter, that's for damn sure."
Mansour shook his head.  "I saw it, Dean.  I saw it with my own eyes.  He was drawing a line on the floor with this little stub of chalk.  And he said something about always carrying it with him, because it could come in handy in an emergency.  Then he stepped on the line, and went right through it."  He held out one hand, palm upward.  "I can't explain it any better than you can.  But I'm as sure of it as I am that I'm standing here right now.  Persinger can threaten me all she wants, but I'm not going to lie."
"So maybe she's right about one thing.  Maybe we need to find Cyprian Grove and see if we can figure out what the hell is going on here."  His expression was grim.  "But if we do catch that crazy sumbitch again, I'm gonna check his pockets for chalk."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Deep Places

You won't find answers until you dive in.

***************************************

There was a storm coming.  The seawater had turned a steely gray, a dangerous color.  The runnels of foam dragged at Lee’s bare feet, tugging him toward the surf.  He turned and looked outward, toward the horizon, as a violent wave dashed itself to pieces, and he tasted salt.

This was where it had happened, a year ago.  Whatever it was that actually had happened.  All Lee knew was that Jane had vanished, without a word to him, no clue as to why.  She was there one day, missing the next.  Her clothes were found, neatly folded on a piece of driftwood, as if she’d stripped and just… swam away.

Nothing in her actions during the weeks preceding her disappearance had seemed odd.  Her wry smile, her habit of brushing back a lock of dark hair from her forehead, her kind touch, all were as usual.  Even in the days that followed, when mourning spouses think thoughts of “If only I’d paid more attention at the time…”, there were no clues to be found in memory.  Lee puzzled over everything, what she had said and done, places she’d gone, overheard scraps of telephone conversations.  There was nothing, not the least hint of what was to come.  Her disappearance was a subtraction; she simply wasn’t there any more.  

The police suspected foul play, of course, but nothing about that made sense.  Why would a murderer strip his victim and leave the clothes behind in a trim stack?  The Coast Guard was called in, divers searched likely spots in the bay, but no trace of her was found except for the t-shirt, shorts, and underwear, placed on a log beyond the reach of the waves, as if she had thought, I won’t need these any more, but no sense ruining them.  Lee realized with dull surprise that the police were probably investigating him, seeing if there was any reason why he’d wanted Jane dead.  But when no body turned up, and it became clear that he was what he seemed to be – a spouse devastated by his wife’s presumed death – they gave up and moved on to more straightforward cases.

Five weeks after Jane’s disappearance, the dreams started.

Lee had gone to Colorado, far away from the ocean, to get away from the hateful, incessant pounding of the waves.  Deprived of their reality, they invaded his sleep, and he woke up tasting salt and still feeling the water coursing over his body, seeing Jane swimming, her naked body, so familiar, now subtly… changed.  He awoke desperately, terrifyingly aroused, needing her, but full wakefulness just brought him back to the empty bed in a motel in the Colorado Rockies, the bedsheets tangled around his bare legs.

So he had come back.  His return felt inevitable.  And now he stood there, the storm coming in, the seawater curling around his ankles.  The wind ruffled his hair; thunder growled in the distance.  He pulled his shirt off, tossed it to the sand; no neat folding for him.  He unsnapped his shorts, pulled them and his boxers off together, threw them aside, and strode forward into the water.  He remembered what she’d said to him, in the dream: it will feel cold at first, but not for long.

Lee plunged headfirst in, and the ocean received him like a lover.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Bad Blood

Don't piss off Melba Crane's ex-husband.

*********************************************


Melba Crane looked up as Dr. Carlisle entered the room.  She smiled, revealing a row of white and undoubtedly false teeth, and said, “Hello, doctor!  I don’t think we’ve met yet.  How are you today?”

Dorian Carlisle looked at his new patient.  She was tiny, frail-looking, with carefully-styled curly hair of a pure snowy white, and eyes that were the color of faded cornflowers.  “I’m fine, Mrs. Crane,” he said.   “I’m Dr. Carlisle – I’m looking after Dr. Kelly’s patients while he’s on vacation.”

Mrs. Crane nodded.  “My, you look so young,” she said.  “It’s hard to believe you’re a doctor.”  She laughed a little.  “I’m sorry, that was rude of me.”

“Not at all,” Dr. Carlisle said, lifting one of Mrs. Crane’s delicate wrists and feeling gently for a pulse.  “I take it as a compliment.”

“It will be even more of a compliment when you’re my age,” Mrs. Crane said.  “I just turned 87 three weeks ago.”

“Well, happy belated birthday,” Dr. Carlisle said.  “I hear you had kind of a rough night last night.”

Mrs. Crane gave a little tsk and a dismissive gesture of her hand.  “Just a few palpitations, that’s all,” she said.  “Nothing this old heart of mine hasn’t seen a hundred times before.”

“Still, let’s give a listen,” Dr. Carlisle said, and pressed his stethoscope to her chest.  Other than a slight heart murmur, the beat sounded steady and strong – remarkable for someone her age.

“How long will Dr. Kelly be away?” Mrs. Crane asked, as Dr. Carlisle continued his examination.

“Two weeks.  He and his family went to Hawaii.”

“Oh, Hawaii, how lovely,” Mrs. Crane said.  “Such a nice man, and with a beautiful wife and two nice children.  He’s shown me pictures.”

Dr. Carlisle nodded.  “They’re nice folks.”  He pointed to a small framed photograph of a somewhat younger Mrs. Crane with a tall, well-built man, who appeared to be about thirty.  The man was darkly good looking, with a short, clipped beard and angular features.  He wore a confident smile, and stood behind Mrs. Crane, who was seated, her legs primly crossed at the ankle.  The man had his hand on her shoulder.

“Your son?” Dr. Carlisle asked.

Mrs. Crane nodded, and smiled fondly.  “Yes, that’s Derek,” she said.  “My only son.”

“Do you get to see him often?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “He visits me every day, especially now that I’m here in the nursing home.”  She paused, and sighed a little.  “His father was Satan, you know.”

Dr. Carlisle froze, and he just stared at her.  She didn’t react, just maintained her gentle little smile, her blue eyes regarding him with grandmotherly fondness.  He thought, I just misheard her.  What did she say?  His father was a saint.  His father liked satin.  His father was named Stan.  His father looked like Santa.  But each of those collided with his memory, which stubbornly clung to what it had first heard.  Finally, he just said, “I beg your pardon?”

“Satan,” Mrs. Crane said, her voice still mild and bland.  “That’s Derek’s father.  Lucifer.  He used to visit, too, quite often, when Derek was little, but I expect he has other concerns these days.”  She giggled a little, and said, “And I’m sure he’s had dalliances with other ladies since my time.  Quite a charmer, you know, whatever else you might say about him.”

“Oh,” Dr. Carlisle said, a little thinly.  “That’s interesting.”

“Well, of course,” Mrs. Crane continued, “you couldn’t ask him to be faithful.  He isn’t that type.  I did have to put up with a great deal of disapproval from people who thought it was immoral that I had a child out of wedlock.  But after all,” she said, and gave a little titter, “what else could they have expected?  He’s Satan, after all.”

He cleared his throat.  “Yes, well, Mrs. Crane, I have to finish my examination of you, and see a couple of other patients this morning, so…”  He trailed off.

Mrs. Crane gave her little wave of the hand again.  “Oh, of course, doctor.  I’m just being a garrulous old woman, going on like that.  I’m sorry I’ve kept you.”

“It’s no problem, really,” Dr. Carlisle said, giving her a smile that was a little forced.  “And I wouldn’t worry about the palpitations – usually they’re not an indication of anything serious, especially if they don’t last long, as in your case.  Your blood pressure is fine, and your last blood work was normal, so I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“I tried to tell the nurse that,” she said.  “But she insisted that I see the doctor this morning.  I’m sorry I’m keeping you away from patients who need your help more than I do.”

“No worries, Mrs. Crane,” he said, hanging his stethoscope around his neck.  “Take care, and have a nice day.”

“You too, doctor,” Mrs. Crane said.  “It’s been lovely talking to you.”

Dr. Carlisle opened the door, and exited into the hall, feeling a bit dazed.

He stood for a moment, frowning slightly, and then seemed to come to a decision.  He walked off down the hall toward the nurses’ station, and set his clipboard on the counter, and leaned against it.

“Excuse me, nurse…?” he said, smiling.  “I’m covering for Dr. Kelly this week and next.  I’m Dr. Carlisle – my office is up at Colville General.”

The nurse, a slim, middle-aged woman with gold-rimmed glasses and short salt-and-pepper hair, gave him a hand.  “I’m glad to meet you,” she said.  “Dana Treadwell.  If there’s anything I can do…”

“Well, actually,” Dr. Carlisle said, “I do have a question.  About Mrs. Crane, in 214.”

Dana smiled.  “She’s an interesting case,” she said.

Dr. Carlisle nodded.  “That’s my impression.  She’s here because of advanced osteoporosis, but is there anything else that you can tell me that might be helpful?”

“Has periodic mild cardiac arrhythmia,” Dana said.  “She had a full cardio workup about six months ago, showed nothing serious of note.  Some tendency to elevated blood pressure, but medication keeps it in check.”  She paused, gave Dr. Carlisle a speculative look.  “Some signs of mild dementia.”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about.  Is she… delusional?”

“That depends on what you mean,” Dana said.  “Mentally, I hope I’m as with it when I’m 87.  But she is prone to… flights of fancy.  Particularly about her past.”

Dr. Carlisle didn’t answer for a moment.  Should I mention the whole Satan thing? he thought, and decided against it.  “She does seem to like telling stories,” he finally said.

“That she does,” Dana said.


The following day, Dr. Carlisle was making his rounds, and passed Mrs. Crane’s room, and heard a male voice.  Curiosity did battle with reluctance to talk to her again, and curiosity won.  He stepped into the room.

Mrs. Crane looked up from a conversation she was having with a man who was seated at the edge of the bed, gently holding her hand.  When the man turned toward him, Dr. Carlisle immediately recognized him as the man in the photograph – noticeably older, perhaps in his mid to late fifties, but clearly the same person.  He still had the same carefully-maintained short beard, the same dark handsomeness, the same sense of strength, energy, presence.

“Oh, doctor, I’m so glad you’ve stopped by!” Mrs. Crane said.  “This is my son, Derek.”

“Dorian Carlisle.  Nice to meet you.  I’m going to be your mother’s doctor for the next two weeks, until Dr. Kelly returns.”

Derek got up and extended a hand.  “Derek Crane,” he said, and they clasped hands.  Derek’s hand jerked a little, and a quick flinch crossed his face.

“Sorry,” Dr. Carlisle said, almost reflexively.

“It’s nothing,” Derek said.  “Three weeks ago, I hurt my hand doing some home renovations.  I guess it’s still not completely healed.”

“I didn’t mean to…” Dr. Carlisle started, but Derek cut him off.

“It’s nothing,” he said.  “Mom has been telling me about your visit yesterday.  It sounds like she talked your ear off.”

Dr. Carlisle smiled.  “Not at all.  It was a pleasure.  I’d much rather chat with my patients and get to know them a little – otherwise, all too easily this job starts being about symptoms and treatments, and stops being about people.”

Mrs. Crane beamed at them.  “Well, it’s so nice of you to take time from your busy schedule to stop in,” she said.  “I haven’t had any more palpitations.”

“That’s good,” Dr. Carlisle said.  “I just wanted to see how you were doing.  Nice to meet you, Derek.”

“Likewise,” Derek said, and smiled a little. 

Was there something – tense? speculative? about the smile?  Don’t be ridiculous, Dr. Carlisle thought.  His mother just primed me to be wary of him because she’s delusional.

Dr. Carlisle exited the room, and then stopped suddenly, his face registering shock.  He looked down at his hands.  On his right ring finger he wore his high school class ring, from St. Thomas More Catholic Academy.  He raised the ring to his eye, and saw, on each side of the blue stone in the setting, a tiny engraved cross.


That night, Dr. Carlisle told his girlfriend about Mrs. Crane over dinner.

“Now I want to meet this lady,” Nicole said, grinning.

“Can’t do that,” he said.  “I can’t even tell you her name.  Privacy laws, and all that.  I probably shouldn’t have even told you as much as I did.”

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to go and tell anyone,” she replied.  “And I have to hear about your job.  It’s a big part of your life.”

He took a sip of wine.  “And this one was just so out of left field.  I’ve dealt with people with dementia before; but they always show some kind of across-the-board disturbance in their behavior.  This was like, one thing.  In other respects, she seems so normal.”

“You didn’t talk to her that long,” Nicole said.

“No,” he admitted.  “But you learn to recognize dementia when you see it.  There was something about the way she looked at you – you could tell that her brain was just fine.”

Nicole raised an eyebrow.  “So, you think she really did have a fling with Satan?”

He scowled.  “No, of course not.  But I think she believes it.  But then…” he trailed off.

“But then what?”

“Her son jumped when I shook his hand, like he’d been shocked, or something.  Then he made some excuse about how he’d hurt his hand a couple of weeks ago.  But I noticed afterwards – I was wearing my high school ring.  It’s got crosses engraved on it.  And it was probably blessed by the bishop.”

“You’re kidding me, right?  I thought you’d given up all of that religious stuff when you moved out of your parents’ house.”

“I did.”

“Maybe you didn’t,” she said.

“All I’m saying is that it was weird.”

“And you’re acting pretty weird, yourself.”

“I just wonder if it might not be possible to test it.  See if maybe she’s telling the truth.”

“You do believe her!  Dorian, you’re losing it.  Satan?  You think she screwed Satan?”

He sat back in his chair.  “I dunno,” he finally said.  “All I can say is, she believes it enough that it made me wonder.”


The next day, other than a quick walk down the hall in the early morning hours, Dr. Carlisle avoided that wing of the nursing home until after lunch.  When he finally went down the hallway toward room 214, he found that his heart was pounding.  But he was stopped in the hall before he got to Mrs. Crane’s room by the nurse he’d spoken to two days earlier, Dana Treadwell.

“You missed some excitement,” Dana said.

“What happened?”

“A bad spill.  Broken leg, possible fractured pelvis.”

Dr. Carlisle swallowed.  “Which one of the patients?”

“Not a patient,” Dana said.  “Mrs. Crane’s son.  Slipped on wet tile right outside his mother’s room, and fell.  Hard to believe you could be so badly hurt from a fall.  They brought him to the Colville General – I heard he’s still in surgery.”

“That’s too bad,” he said, trying to keep his voice level.

“Mrs. Crane was really upset.”

“I’m sure,” Dr. Carlisle said.

Dana seemed to pick up the odd tone in his voice.  She raised one eyebrow, and said, “Yeah.  She was completely distraught.”

“Really?”

Dana nodded.  “Especially after her ex-husband came by.  We finally had to give her a sedative.”

Dr. Carlisle tried to think of something to say, and finally just choked out, “That’s too bad,” and turned away, hoping that Dana wouldn’t notice the ghastly expression on his face.  He stuck his hand in his lab jacket pocket, and fingered the small glass bottle, now empty, that he’d filled early that morning at the font in the nursing home’s chapel.

“Oh, and Dr. Carlisle?” Dana said, and he turned.

“You might want to know that before we finally got her to go to sleep, your name came up.”

“Me?” Dr. Carlisle squeaked.  “What did she say?”


“Something about your ‘needing an ocean of holy water.’  You might want to let Dr. Bennett handle her case from now on.”  She smiled.  “Just a suggestion.”

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Last Bus Stop

A chance meeting, a strange conversation, and a metaphor.

******************************

The Last Bus Stop

“I look okay, don’t I?” said the middle-aged guy sitting across from me on the bus.
I looked up from my newspaper.  We were the only two people on the bus, the 1 AM run from the university district over to Redmond.  There had been other people on, but in ones and pairs they’d gotten off at other stops, leaving only me and the bald, paunchy guy with wire-rimmed glasses in the seat next to mine.
“Yeah,” I said, tentatively, wondering if he was some kind of nut, figuring it’d be better to agree.  “You look fine.”
“Well, just goes to show,” he said.  “I’m dying.”
I stared at him for a moment.  “I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“It’s a bitch, ain’t it?  Just found out three days ago.  Cancer.  Pancreatic.  The bad kind.”
“That’s terrible.”  I shifted in my seat a little.  I’ve always hated awkward conversations, and this one was certainly starting that way.  Some people are okay about striking up conversations with strangers on buses; me, I was just wanting to read the newspaper in peace, and get home to my apartment and my girlfriend.  No such luck.  The guy didn’t seem at all put off by my terse answers.
“Yeah.  Terrible,” he said.  “Doctor sat me down, said, ‘well, Max, I have some bad news.  The prognosis isn’t good.’  I said to him, ‘How not good is it?’  He says, ‘I got to be honest with you, it’s stage four pancreatic, and the survival rate isn’t too high.’”
I set my newspaper down in my lap.  It looked like I was being drawn into the conversation, whether I wanted to or not.  “Are they doing chemo, or surgery, or whatever?”
He nodded his head.  “Yeah, they want to.  Me, I’m undecided.”
“Why wouldn’t you try?”
He shrugged.  “What difference?  I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.  What does it matter if it’s six months or two years?”
“That’s kind of a defeatist attitude.”
“Yeah, go down fighting, my doctor said.”  He gave me a crooked smile.  “That’s always supposed to be what you do, right?  Go down fighting.  So I been thinking, and I’m damned if I can figure out a good reason to do that.”
“Well, aren’t there things you’d like to get done before you…” I hesitated, not wanting to say “die” even though he had.  I thought it might be insensitive.
“Look, kid,” he said, “you can say ‘die’ to me.  Don’t pussyfoot around with that ‘pass away’ crap.”
“All right, then,” I said.  “Before you die, then.  Aren’t there things you’d like to do?  So if you had more time, you could do more of them?”
He shrugged again.  “I dunno.  Maybe.  Not really.  I mean, that’s what dying people are supposed to do, right?  Start thinking about taking that trip to China you’ve always wanted to take.”
“Yeah,” I said.  “Something like that.”
“Well, fuck that.  I hate Chinese food.”
I laughed a little, even though his face looked serious.  “Well, to Hawaii, then, or something,” I said.
“I dunno.  I haven’t led an exciting life, but it’s not like I’ve been sitting around saying, ‘boy, I can’t wait till I have the time and money to go climb Mount Everest,’ or anything.  After the doctor told me, mostly what I thought was, ‘this is weird.  Next year this time, I won’t be here.’  That sort of thing.”
“They’re sure of the diagnosis?  Maybe you should get a second opinion.”
He gave a little dismissive wave of the hand.  “They’re sure.  I had to twist his arm to get him to tell me how long, though.  ‘How long do I have?’ I asked him.  ‘Well, survival rates vary, and there’s always a chance that with chemo, you could go into remission,’ he said.  ‘Just tell me how long I have,’ I said.  And still, he’s dancing around it.  ‘I don’t want to give you the idea we know for sure,’ he said.  ‘Look,’ I said, ‘it’s not like I’m gonna come complaining to you either way, if you’re wrong.’  So he says, ‘Best estimate, six to nine months.  With chemo you might be able to extend it to a year and a half, unless a miracle occurs.’  So I tell him that I don’t believe in miracles, and he says, ‘Neither do I.’”
“Pretty grim,” I said.
“Yeah, well, it is what it is.  It’s not like I’m the only guy in the history of the world who’s ever died.  I guess we’re all terminal, right?  I just happen to know the expiration date.”
I looked out of the dark window, at the streetlights zooming past, the headlights and taillights of cars.
“Hey, kid,” he said, reaching over and touching my sleeve.  “Sorry if I’m upsetting you.”
I looked back at him.  “I’m not upset,” I said.  “It’s just something I never thought about much before, I guess.”
“Me neither.  Now that I have to, I’m not sure what to think.”  He shook his head.  “You know what bothers me most?  Wondering who’ll take care of my dog.  All of the rest of the stuff – who’ll take care of my stuff, clean out and sell my house, and so on – meh, it’ll happen one way or the other.  But my dog – you know?”
I nodded.  “You don’t have family who can take him?”
“I can ask.  But you know, it’s your dog.  It’s not like some microwave oven or something, they can keep it or sell it or trash it, no difference.”  He leaned back, looked away.  “I got this dog, I never thought he’d outlive me.  You never think of that kind of thing.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“Funny that’s what I thought of first.  You’d think it’d be, ‘oh my god, I’m gonna die!’ and all of a sudden wondering if you’re headed to heaven or hell.  You know, does god exist?  Where do you go when you die?  All that sorta stuff.  I thought about that, a little, I guess – but it didn’t really sink in like you’d think.  Tuesday night, after I found out, I’m lying in bed, thinking, ‘who’ll take care of Rocky?’ and I’m, like, crying about it, just lying there bawling my head off.  I think about myself, and I don’t cry.  I’m not even so much worried about the pain, and I’m a pansy about pain.  I even hate shots, you know?  But I think about my dog, and the waterworks start.”
“I can understand that,” I said.  “I’d probably feel the same way.”
“The whole thing don’t make much sense,” he said.  “Living, dying, why some people live to 102 and others die at 53.  That’s how old I am, you know that?  53.  I figured I’d have another 25 years, maybe 30 with luck.  And here I am, six to nine months.”
“Not very fair,” I said.
“Nope,” he said, but he said it flatly, as if it were some random fact, not the summation of his experience of being terminal.  “But I guess nothing really is, right?  That’s how I see it.  I don’t know why people even invented the word ‘fair.’  It’s meaningless.  We give, we get, we get stolen from, we fall in love, we get betrayed, we live, finally we die.  No fair anywhere.  Some good stuff, some bad stuff, and it’s all doled out randomly, far as I can tell.”
“There’s a guy wrote a book called Why Bad Things Happen To Good People,” I said.
“Must be the world’s shortest book,” he said.  “Page one: ‘Beats the shit outta me.’ The End.’”
I laughed.  “I’ve never read it, but I think I like your version better.”
He laughed, too.  “That’s another thing.  You know, you hear this sort of thing, you figure you’ll never laugh again.  I’m leaving the doctor’s office, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m scared and miserable and dying and who the hell’s gonna take care of my dog when I’m dead,’ and I’m thinking, ‘the last six to nine months are gonna be terrible, constant misery, never thinking about anything but the fact that you’re gonna die.’  But I don’t think our brains are built that way.  You get some bad news, you think the world’s gonna end, then your brain kinda shrugs and goes, ‘oh, well, okay, whatever,’ and you keep going.  You remember that old movie, Airplane?  It was on HBO last night.  I watched it, and I laughed like a sonofabitch.”
I smiled a little.  “‘We’ve got to get these people to a hospital,’” I quoted.  “‘What is it, doctor?’”
“‘It’s a big building, with patients in it,’” he responded, doing a passable impression of Leslie Nielsen as the doctor. “‘But that’s not important.’”
We both laughed together, and for a little while after, there was no sound on the bus but the constant roar of the engine, and the swoosh of traffic coming from the opposite direction, appearing from the darkness, headlights glaring, and then disappearing again into darkness as they passed us.
“I still don’t know what I’m gonna do till I get too sick,” he said.  “I gotta decide whether I want to keep working.  I feel okay right now, a bellyache every once in a while, and I gotta watch what I eat or I get sick to my stomach.  But no reason I can’t keep working.”
“But is there a reason to?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said.  “I told my boss yesterday, he said I could go on medical leave and keep my insurance, so I could stop working tomorrow if I wanted.”
“Maybe you should, then.  Relax and take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone’s telling me.  But why?  It won’t make a bit of difference to the outcome.  It’d be different if I hated my job.  I don’t.  I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it.  It’s just kind of what I do.  Why should I change what I do because I happen to have a pretty good idea when I’m gonna die, and it’s not that far in the future?”
I didn’t have a good answer to that, and I remained silent.
“Yeah,” he said.  “I couldn’t answer that one, either.  May as well keep on as long as I can.  That’s what we’re all doing, really.  Keeping on as best we can, and trying not to fuck up the time we have left.”
“Kind of a dismal view of life,” I said.
“Not really,” he said, and his eyebrows rose on his broad forehead, his voice becoming animated.  “Maybe we should give up trying to make it all have some kind of purpose, trying to make it make sense.  We live till we die, some is good, some is bad, and there you are.  You take care of the people who love you, and that’s that.”
“And the dogs,” I said.
He didn’t answer for a moment, and when he did, his voice was low and thick.  “Yeah,” he said, and looked away.  “And the dogs.”
The bus turned, and I saw in the distance the bus stop near my apartment complex.  I reached up and tugged on the cable above the window.  There was an electric ding, and the squeak as the bus driver began to brake and pull over.
“Look,” I said.  “I’m sorry, I got to go.  This is my stop.”
He looked up at me, and smiled a little.  “Don’t be sorry.  It’s your stop, you get off.”  His smile widened into a grin.  “Like life, right?  It’s one of them, what the hell do the English teachers call ‘em?”
“A metaphor,” I said.
“Yeah.  A metaphor.  Pretty deep and symbolic.”
I stood up as the bus came to a stop.
“Good luck,” I said.  It sounded stupid, but I couldn’t figure out what else to say to him.
“Yeah,” he said.  “I’ll be okay.  Good luck to you, too.”  He leaned back in his seat.  “Maybe we’ll see each other on the bus again, you think?”
“Could be.  You never know.”
“Yeah,” he said.  “You never know.”
I smiled at him, and he smiled back.  Then I tucked my newspaper under my arm, made my way down the bus aisle, down the steps, and walked out into the night.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Once Bitten

A story about a dog bite and a full moon.

********************************


Once Bitten


Ben Coleman’s already bad day took a serious downturn when a dog bit him on the ass as he was walking home from work.
He never saw the perpetrator.  It was pouring rain, he’d left his umbrella at home that morning when the sky was clear blue, and when it happened he was trying to see where he was going in the half light with rainwater dripping in his eyes and a gale-force wind gusting into his face.  He felt a sudden impact from behind, as a wet, hairy body collided with him, and felt two jaws clamp down on his left butt cheek.  Ben lost his balance, and in the process of trying to stay on his feet stepped off the curb into a large puddle, and finally came to rest in an untidy heap on the sidewalk.
He swore profusely, and stood up, massaging his posterior.  The seat of his pants was ripped, and he was pretty sure he was bleeding, although it was hard to tell with the general wet.  Of the dog who had done the deed, there was no sign.  The bastard must have pounced and run.
Good thing, Ben thought glumly, as he resumed his walk to his apartment.  I love dogs, but I’da kicked the crap out of this one if he’d stuck around long enough.
By the time he got home it was almost completely dark, and the rain had faded into intermittent drizzle, still being thrown against the windows by the wind.  He went into his bathroom, stripped off his wet clothes, and after drying himself off he looked over his shoulder at his reflection in the mirror.  Yup, there it was; a neat, serrate bite mark, right in the middle of the left side of his ass.
“Dammit,” he said.  It didn't look too serious, but there was blood on his skin and on his ripped boxers.  “What was with that stupid dog?”
Mostly, dogs loved Ben.  He had often thought that dogs liked him better than people did.  This was only partly true.  Ben had made it through twenty-four years without making any enemies, but he got the impression that most people thought of him as a hapless dork, the kind of guy who would never amount to much more than what he was, which was a stock clerk at Home Depot.  It sometimes galled him that no one seemed to take him seriously.  Even his mother had once said, “Ben is a sweet boy, but you know, you just can’t… do much with him.”
He was a fairly well-built 5’11’, but his clothes never seemed to fit right.  His unruly chestnut brown hair wouldn’t lay flat, even with applications of industrial-strength hair-gel, and finally he’d just given up and let it do what it wanted.  His entire social life could, he thought, be summed up in the overheard exchange between two of his coworkers:  “Oh, you know Ben,” one of them had said, and both had rolled their eyes and started laughing.
Yup, he thought, looking at his injured butt with a dejected air.  That’s about right.  I can’t even get a dignified injury.  Other people break an arm skiing; I get bitten on the ass by a stray dog.  He sighed heavily.
Well, I won’t be telling anyone about this, he thought, and padded into his bedroom.  I just won’t sit down at work until it stops hurting.  Last thing I need is to give everyone another reason to laugh at me.
He thought, a little wistfully, about his upstairs neighbor, Arianna.  This sort of thing would never happen to her, he thought.  And it would never happen to anyone who could ever be her boyfriend.  Arianna, he thought, was the pinnacle of all that was sweet and smart and elegant.  She was one of those people who could tie back her hair and put on a paint-stained sweatshirt and look stylish.  She had a quick smile, and a kind laugh, played the guitar, and she cultivated orchids.  No, Ben was certain—no one who cultivated orchids would ever be interested in him.
He gave his hair another cursory toweling, and glanced at the clock on his nightstand.  It said 9:17.  
What single guy goes to bed at 9:17 on a Friday? Ben thought.  And immediately his mind replied, I do.  And he got into bed (rolling over onto his right side), pulled the covers up, and was asleep within minutes.

And the next month passed, much the same as the previous ones had.  The bite healed with remarkable swiftness, and the private indignity of having been bitten on the ass by a stray dog faded.  Ben found, over the following weeks, that he was feeling unusually good.  He got out of bed with energy, instead of needing his usual two cups of coffee even to be coherent, and his daily duties of heaving around boxes and bins didn’t leave him as exhausted as before.  There was also this sudden, rather overwhelming upswing in his sex drive, which had previously been kept at a dull roar by the sad knowledge of his having no girlfriend.  Now, he found, the sight of a cute customer in tight shorts was enough to leave him no choice but a quick visit to the men’s room.
But nothing unpleasant, and nothing really weird, until the night of August 3.
He’d been feeling itchy all day.  That’s the only way to say it—it was like an internal itch.  It wasn’t exactly painful, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant, and he was glad that his shift was over at six.  He felt like he needed to stretch, or lift weights, or maybe do about a hundred jumping jacks.
He got home at six thirty, ate a light meal more from habit than from hunger, and then sat down in front of the television and tried to get involved in some stupid game show.  It wasn’t working, but he was able to at least sit still until seven fifteen, at which point he got up and began to pace around the room.
At seven thirty, he began to run in place.
At eight o’clock, he simply was standing in the center of his living room, his whole body trembling.  He reached up with convulsive hands, and pulled his shirt over his head, and then unbuttoned his pants and tried to unzip them.
His hands were so slick with sweat that it took three tries.  But by 8:01, he was standing in the middle of his living room, stark naked, shivering as if he had a fever, with his clothes in piles around him.
And that was when he felt his insides began to shift.
It was like two giant, invisible hands were reaching into him, pulling his organs around, twisting some, compressing others, bending, pushing, pulling.  He fell over forward, only catching himself from a painful face plant at the last minute. The whole thing was simultaneously painless and excruciating.  He looked wildly around him, but there were no mirrors in his living room, and part of him was glad there weren’t.  
Then it was over, as quickly as it had begun.  The itching was gone, but he felt disoriented and a little sick.  He went into his bathroom, panting heavily.
I’m not moving right, was his first thought.  Maybe I had a stroke.
Then he realized that he was in his bathroom, but he couldn’t see the mirror because it was too high.  He tried to stretch up to reach it, lost his balance, and fell over onto his side, but sprang back up again with remarkable alacrity.
His bedroom closet had a full length mirror, so he trotted into his bedroom.
Trotted? his addled brain cried out, but soon that thought was swamped.  There was no room in his brain for anything other than the image he saw in the mirror.
Because it wasn’t him.  Or, more accurately, maybe it was him, but it wasn’t his usual concept of himself.  In the mirror he saw a dog.  The dog was smaller than your typical lab but larger than your typical poodle, and looked a little like he was built from spare parts.  He had a curled tail like a husky, the short, square muzzle of a boxer, and the coat color of a German shepherd.  He gave the dog an incredulous look.  The dog, for his part, perked his rather ridiculous-looking floppy ears, furrowed his broad brow, and cocked his head at Ben.
Then he knew; he knew what had happened.
What the hell, he thought.  Other people get to be werewolves – I’m a weremongrel?  Well, that’s pretty unimpressive.  It figures.
But of course, there was no doubt.  Mirrors don’t lie.  
But he still had to check.  He lifted his left hand.  The dog in the mirror lifted his left front paw.
Shit! Ben shouted.
The dog gave a surprised bark.
Okay, Ben thought.  This is seriously bad.  I’m a dog.
It must have been that dog bite a month ago, he thought.  That’s how it always starts, doesn’t it?  A bite.  And then the next full moon – whammo.
He walked tentatively out into the living room, and glanced around him at the familiar surroundings – his couch, television, kitchen.  It all looked the same, although a little dim and hazy and colorless, and a bit odd given the different angle.  The smells, though… he recognized hundreds of odors, from the Chinese food he’d brought home three days previous (the empty boxes were still in the trash), the beer bottles by the sink waiting to be brought down to the returnables counter at the grocery store, even the smell of his shampoo from the bathroom.  It was like a giant, multicolored tapestry of odors, each telling a story, each demanding his attention. 
He ran around the room, looking and smelling and wagging his tail.  Tail? Ben thought, and immediately realized that there wasn’t anything he could do to stop it from wagging, so he stopped thinking about it.  He jumped on the couch.  
No dogs on the couch! said his dad’s voice, from his childhood.  Ben’s brain responded, yeah, but you’re not here, are you, dad?  I can do whatever I want when you’re not here!  The night sky was sparkling invitingly, with a brilliant full moon hanging in the blackness.  He looked toward the window, and reached out a tentative paw.
The screen was never too secure; the frame was bent.  Ben (the human Ben) had mentioned it to his landlady, but it hadn’t been high on either of their priorities lists.  Ben’s human side remembered the loose screen; Ben’s dog side said, Woo hoo!  Freedom!  He pushed the screen with both paws, and it fell outward, landing on the ground outside with a thunk.  Ben the dog followed suit within less than a second.  A hedge broke his fall, but he rolled free and scrambled back to his feet, and galloped out into the night.

Being a dog, Ben found, had its advantages.  There was an essentially infinite amount of fun to be had.  A cat or a squirrel was like a gift from the gods.  Best still, there was a significant portion of the world that simply didn’t matter.  Ben hadn’t realized how much of his discontent in life had come from being forced to pay attention to things that he just didn’t care about.  Now, as a dog, if you couldn’t eat it, chase it, roll in it, pee on it, sniff it, or hump it, you could safely ignore it.
The night was spent in a most agreeable fashion, and he only thought of returning home when he saw the light in the sky.
He arrived back at his house at a little before six, not that he knew or cared much what exact time it was.  All he knew was that the dog part of his brain, which had been getting progressively stronger as the night wore on, was demanding that he return.  When he got to the front of the house, he looked up at it.  It looked a lot bigger than he remembered.  He saw the screen, bent even worse than before, lying on its side on the dew-covered grass.  His living room window was a rectangular hole, lit from within,  because of course he had neither thought of, nor been capable of, turning out the lights before leaving.
That was when he recognized that he had a problem.
The base of the window was five feet off the ground, and there was a large hedge beneath it.  It might be possible for a dog to jump down from it safely, but to jump up into it wasn’t unsafe, it was impossible for a dog his size.
He trotted up the stairs onto the front porch, trying to quell a rising sense of panic.  From here, the jump toward the window was even more difficult; there was a railing in the way.
He went back down the stairs onto the sidewalk, and sat down, cocking his head to the side and looking up at his familiar house, which now looked like an impregnable fortress.
Now I get the deal about opposable thumbs, Ben thought.  He looked down at his paws, and then back up at the window.
Dogs in distress don’t have a lot of options.  They don’t have available to them the usual range of articulations that humans have.  Faced with a sudden, urgent need to be inside the house, and no way to get there, Ben the dog did what every dog in the history of the dog/human relationship has done in a similar circumstance; he gave a pitiful whine.
In the upper window – Arianna’s apartment – there was a hint of a movement.  He cocked his head, ears perked.  The curtain twitched aside a little, but the hoped-for sound of a window sliding up and a blessed voice saying, “What is it, fella?  Do you want to come inside?” never came.
By this time, the sky was shot through with pearl, and there was a bright spot on the edge of the horizon.  Ben felt a sudden and overwhelming fatigue; it covered his panic like a soft blanket.  He crawled through the hedge, considered once more trying to jump up into his open window.
No way.  It was impossible.  He lay down, resting his head on his front paws, and gave a heartfelt sigh.
Moments later, his consciousness had drifted away, and his eyes closed.

Ben awoke to the sound of a car driving by.  It may have been only minutes later.  He had slept so soundly that it was impossible to tell.
The first thing he noticed upon opening his eyes was how much more colorful everything looked.  The second was that his nose seemed unfortunately impaired—nothing smelled like much of anything.
The third was that he was back in human form, and was lying on his stomach, behind the hedge, stark naked.
As this novel realization struck him, the memory of the events of the previous night came flooding back into his brain.  And then he recognized another advantage dogs have; they don’t care if anyone sees them naked.  In fact, the concept of nakedness isn’t even part of their mental set.  
It is, however, part of the human mental set, and Ben’s stomach clenched with anxiety as he peered out from between the shrubs.  He didn’t live on a busy street – but still.  It would just figure, ending a night that had actually been brilliant fun with being arrested for indecent exposure.
He wriggled his way forward on the scratchy bed of leaves and bark mulch, and poked his head out.  No one much seemed to be out – it was early, and fortunately, a Sunday morning.  He had only to time it right, and perhaps he could make a dash for the door without being seen.
A car passed, and then there was silence, and Ben scrambled out from behind the hedge, and ran up the stairs.  After a momentary pause in which he had to remember how to turn a doorknob, he yanked the front door open, ran across the foyer, and then flung open his apartment door.
He closed the door behind him, and (for some reason he never could figure out afterwards) threw the deadbolt, and then just stood there, chest heaving, heart pounding.

He had gotten himself mostly calmed down by the time the knock on the door came at ten o’clock sharp.  He opened the door.
“Hi,” Arianna said, smiling fetchingly.  There she stood, resplendent in ragged shorts and a faded t-shirt that said “This T-Shirt and I Climbed Mt. Washington.” Her wavy black hair was held back by a clip, and her brown eyes regarded him with friendly interest.  Ben felt his brain melt into sludge.
“Hi,” he said, lamely.
“I’m Arianna, your neighbor upstairs,” she said.
“I know,” Ben said, and immediately thought, You are SUCH a loser.  You can’t think of a better response than “I know?”
“I just was wondering if that was your doggy I saw outside, early this morning?” Arianna said.  “He sounded like he wanted to come in, and I was worried…”
“Yes, he’s mine,” Ben said quickly.
“I heard him whining.  I thought about letting him in, but I wasn’t sure he was yours.  Is he okay?”
“Yes, he’s fine.”  Ben looked over his shoulder, and said, not very convincingly, “I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”
Arianna broke into a smile of relief.  “Oh, good, I was worried.  What’s his name?”
Ben stared at her, trying to will his brain to come up with something clever.  Finally he gulped out, “I just got him.  I haven’t named him yet.”
“Oh!” she said, brightening.  “That’s so cool!  He’s such a cutie!”
Ben blushed, and hoped she wouldn’t notice.  “Yeah,” he said.  “He’s a good dog.”
“Listen,” she said, and looked a little ill at ease for the first time.  “I like to cook.  I got some stuff to make pad thai – you want to come up for dinner tonight?  Maybe we can talk about dog names.”
Ben goggled a little, and had to resist physically the impulse to wag a tail he no longer had.  “Sure,” he said.  “That’d be great.”
“You can bring your dog if you want to.”
“Okay,” he said, and his mind shouted at him, yeah, you’ll be bringing your dog, all right!
“I’ll see you at six?”
“That sounds great.”
And Ben went back into his apartment, and closed the door, feeling torn between elation and the sensation of having been beaned with a brick.

The pad thai was excellent, and although sauvignon blanc was not something Ben had ever had before (his tastes ran more to beer), he had to admit it was nice.  Of course, given the company, he’d probably have been happy with some stale triscuits and a glass of lukewarm tap water.
If Ben’s image of Arianna was inaccurate, it was only in degree.  She was kind, funny, smart, and talented.  She worked for a design firm, doing layout for brochures, posters, and advertisements, and Ben had to fight down the self-defeating question of why on earth anyone like her would be interested in anyone like him.
“Where’d you get your doggy?” she asked him, interrupting his musings.  “I’m sorry you didn’t bring him tonight.”
“Oh, he rolled in something disgusting,” Ben said.  He’d anticipated this comment, and had come up with the answer that afternoon.  “You know dogs.  And he was a stray.  I got him at the SPCA.”
“Awww,” Arianna said.  “I love that.  There are so many pets that need a home.”  She smiled at him.  “You know, I wonder if you picked him out because you look alike.”
“We look alike?”
“You didn’t notice? You two are really well suited.”
Ben smiled.
“What are you going to name him?”
“I don’t know.  I’m lousy at names.  I suppose something will come to me.”
Arianna looked thoughtful.  “You know what I thought of?  Grendel.  You know, like from Beowulf.”
“Wasn’t he the monster?”
“Well, yes and no,” Arianna said.  “He was Beowulf’s enemy.  But he was only a monster because he wasn’t one thing or the other – he wasn’t a man, wasn’t an animal, wasn’t good, wasn’t evil.  You get the idea in the story that he didn’t want to do bad things, but he just sort of couldn’t help it.”  She grinned.  “Like rolling in nasty-smelling stuff.”
Ben laughed.  “That’s a good name.”
“Well, he’s your dog, so you get the honors.”
Ben looked at her, and seized by a sudden impulse, he said, “You want to go for a walk?  It’s a pretty evening.”
Arianna smiled.  “I’d love to.”
And Ben thought:  Maybe I’m not as hopeless at this as I thought I was.

  They walked for two hours, ambling here and there, talking about nothing, and spent a sweet twenty minutes sitting on a bench in the park watching the sunset.  When they stood, Arianna took his hand, and he hoped she didn’t notice his sudden, surprised smile.
When they got back to the house, they stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes, reluctant to end the evening.
“Well,” she finally said, “I’m so glad I got up my nerve to ask you to dinner.  It’s been a wonderful evening.”  She rose up on her tiptoes and gave him a light kiss on the mouth that sent an electric tingle all the way down to the soles of his feet.  “I bet your doggy misses you.”
“Grendel,” Ben said.
“Grendel,” she said.
“Can we do this again?  Soon?”
“Sure.”  She grinned.  “You know where I live.”

He lay there in bed that evening, staring at the ceiling, waiting for sleep that wouldn’t come.  Thoughts chased themselves across his brain like leaves flying on a high wind.
She is amazing.  I think I’m in love.
Oh, yeah?  Wait till she finds out you’re a part-time dog.
Maybe she doesn’t need to know.
You want a relationship with this woman, and she doesn’t need to know you turn into a dog when the moon is full?
It only happened once.  Maybe it won’t happen again.
Sure.  Because that’s the way it always happens in the stories.  Face it, bub, you’re screwed.
She’ll think I’m a nut if I tell her.
Oh, so you want to wait until you’re making out with her on the couch, and the full moon rises, and she suddenly finds she’s getting hot and heavy with Fido?
I just won’t see her when the moon is full.
Oh, and she won’t notice you don’t actually have a dog?  What’ll you say when she comes down to your apartment – your dog is vacationing in the Keys?  Your dog is away at his high school reunion?  This girl is smart.  You’ve got to tell her.
I can’t.
You have to.
At that point, the argument seemed to be over, but it was still another two hours before he finally fell asleep.

Two weeks, seven dinners, and three visits to a local nightclub later, Ben decided that he had himself a girlfriend, and a serious problem.
First off, he worried that it was becoming obvious that he didn’t want to invite her down to his apartment.  The excuse of “it’s a mess” only worked for so long.  At some point, the question of, “so why the hell don’t you clean it up?” would certainly occur to her.  Every time she seemed to be hinting that she’d like to come down to his place, he veered off into a suggestion of plans to go out.  It didn’t seem to bother her, not yet.  She just looked a little amused, as if she found his shyness about her seeing his place charming.  But he wouldn’t be able to keep it up, he knew that.
Second, and it was a big second, was the fact that he still hadn’t told her about the once-a-month come-as-your-favorite-canine episodes.  This was clearly a much more pressing problem.
He let it go another week and a half.  The next full moon, September 1, was barreling toward him like a runaway truck.  He had the option of waiting, and seeing if it would actually happen again, but in his heart he knew that it would.  He could already feel the beginning of the internal itch, and the full moon was still two days away.  
Well, weren’t there options?  He could pretend to be sick, and when he turned into a dog just stay in his apartment and hope she didn’t come and knock on the door.
Dammit, no, he thought.  If I’m a weredog, I’m going to enjoy it.  Being a dog was fun.  I want to do it again, and I don’t want to waste my one night a month hiding under the bed.
So, he had to tell her, tonight at dinner.
Samuel’s was a nice little Italian place, only a few blocks’ walk away, and when Ben suggested it Arianna had waxed poetic about the best lasagna in town.  She was working until five, and said she’d meet him there, so at about twenty till he left his apartment.
This is the most ridiculous situation in the world, he thought.  It could only happen to a loser like me.
And his argumentative voice came back, but this time it surprised him.
Loser?  You have a beautiful girlfriend.  You just have a little problem.  She’ll understand.  Trust me.
Oh, yeah, he thought bitterly.  She’ll understand that I’m a loony.  I should just turn back now, tell her we need to break up, it’s not going to work out.
But he kept walking.

Dinner was wonderful, romantic, and sweet, and he didn’t enjoy it at all.  It was only after a second glass of Chianti that he felt he had fueled his courage enough to start.
“Arianna,” he began, and then stopped.
She looked up, suddenly apprehensive.  “What?” she said, keeping her voice light.
“We need to talk about something.”
She looked at him, her brown eyes shining in the candlelight.  She leaned back.
“You’re not about to break up with me, are you?” she said.
“I… no!” he said.  “God, no.  I’d be a moron.”  He didn’t mention that he’d actually considered it on the walk to the restaurant.
Her shoulders relaxed.  “Good.  Wow.  The way your voice changed, there, suddenly you had me worried.”  She took a little sip of wine.  “Because, you know…” She looked down.  “I was kind of hoping you’d spend the night with me tonight.”
Ben goggled at her, and then grinned.  “Really?  I mean, um…”
She laughed.  “I suppose that’s a yes?”
“Yes.  Yes, of course!”
“But you were going to say something, and I interrupted you.”
Ben took a deep breath.  The sudden bombshell of horniness that her suggestion had set off had scattered his thoughts like a mental hand grenade.
“Listen,” he finally said.  “I have to tell you something, something about me.  You may change your mind about spending the night with me after.  I understand if you do.”
“What is it?” she said.  “You’re not gay, are you?  Or unable to have sex for some reason?”
“No!” he said.  God, this was not going well.  “Neither.  I’m not gay, and I can… do it.  Just fine.  I think.  I mean, it’s hard to judge yourself in that way, so…”  He trailed off, and then smacked his forehead with the base of his palm.  “Look, can I just tell you?  This is hard enough without you speculating.”
“Okay, sorry,” she said, contritely.
“Well, I guess the best way to start is to tell you that I don’t own a dog.  The dog you saw…”
“Grendel,” she said.
“Grendel.  He’s not my dog.”
“Whose dog is he?”
“He’s not anybody’s dog.”  Ben paused.  “He’s me.”
Arianna stared at him.  “He’s you,” she finally said, flatly.
“Yes.  Two months ago, I got bitten by a stray dog.  Or, at least, I thought at the time it was a stray.  I guess it was… something else.  Because at the next full moon, I turned into a dog.”
“Grendel?”
“Grendel.”  He swallowed.
“You’re making this up,” Arianna said.
“No, I’m not.  I swear.”
Arianna stared at him some more.  
“You don’t have to believe me,” Ben said.  “I understand if you want to go home.  I can walk back.”
She shook her head.  “I don’t want to go home.  Yet.”  She looked deeply into his eyes.  “And we have plans for tonight, remember?”
“Are they still on?
She nodded.  “So far.  I’m just… well, it’s not every day someone tells you something like this.”
“I know,” Ben said.
“And you think that at the next full moon, this will happen again?”
Ben nodded.  “I can already feel it beginning.”
She raised one eyebrow.  “You don’t get…  you know, violent or anything?  You know, like the werewolf movies, where the werewolf tears his sweetheart to shreds and feels guilty forever after.”
Ben swallowed.  “No.  Nothing like that.  You know dogs.  All they want to do is have fun.”
“So it is fun?”
He nodded.  “It’s a blast.  It’s like being a kid again, but no parents, no teachers, nobody in charge.  All you want to do is play and just experience what’s out there.”  He added, a little wistfully, “I wish it lasted longer, that’s all.”
“All of that, from one bite?”
“I guess so.  Look, I know I can’t prove it to you…”
She looked up.  “Yes, you can.”
“I can?”
“I can be there and watch you when the next full moon rises.  Then, either you’ll turn into a dog, or you won’t.”
“I guess that’s true.  So, you don’t think I’m crazy?”
“Jury’s still out on that one.  But I know there are some weird things in the world.  Why shouldn’t this be one of them?”
Ben let out a long breath.  “You’re really understanding, you know that?”
She leaned back in her chair, and said, musingly, “So, my boyfriend turns into a dog once a month.  It could be worse.  My best friend’s boyfriend turns into an asshole at least three times a week.”

That night, as he was drifting off, Arianna’s cheek resting on his bare chest, she said, “I guess that’s why Grendel looked like you.”
He smiled.  “I guess.”  He paused, and his face became serious.  “Are you sure you want to be there, when… it happens?  I have a feeling that the transformation… it’s not pretty.”
“I can handle not pretty.”
“I’d be okay alone,” Ben said.  “I went through it alone once, and it was fine.  Weird, but fine.”
“No,” she said firmly, and her arm tightened around his middle.  “If this is part of your life, I want to be there when it happens.”
“Okay,” he said.  “Two nights from now.  We have a date.”  He laughed a little.  “Maybe after, we could go to the park and play fetch or something.”

September 1 dawned with showers and wind, and Ben couldn’t think about anything all day but the growing restive itchiness, and his anxiety over how Arianna would deal with his transformation.  Maybe she’ll get scared and stay home, he thought.  But at six PM, she was at his door, a bottle of wine under her arm, her expression serious.
“I came a little early, so I brought some wine,” she said.
“Maybe you should have brought dog biscuits,” he said, trying to be light, but his voice was trembling.
Arianna went and got two glasses and a corkscrew, and poured out the wine.  She handed him his glass, and held hers up.  “To an adventure,” she said, and they clinked their glasses together.
The wine helped to calm him a little, but by seven thirty, he was sweating profusely, and shaking violently.  He stood up.  “I think it’s starting,” he said.  “I need to get undressed.”
She stood up, went to him and kissed him gently.  “Do what you need to do.”
He had barely gotten his shirt off when he looked up, and noticed that Arianna was doing the same thing; she had her t-shirt off, and was working the button on her shorts.  In the whirlwind of sensations that accompanied the transformation, the puzzlement over this got lost in the physical torrent of pulling, pushing, sliding.  He fell forward onto the floor, felt his bones drawing together, fingers shrinking, the tickle of fur sprouting from the bare skin of his back and chest.
And then, like the night a month before, it was over.
He looked up, searching for Arianna’s kind face looking down on him, wondering what they’d do together, a human and her dog out for a night of play.

But Arianna wasn’t there.  Standing next to him was a sleek, black and white female border collie, with laughing brown eyes.  She trotted up to him, pressed her nose against his side and nuzzled him briefly.  She then gave him a nudge toward the door – which he only then noticed she had left a little ajar.