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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Once Bitten

A story about a dog bite and a full moon.

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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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Waves

This short story was inspired by something that my son and a friend saw while walking along the Delaware River while they were students at Salem College in Carney's Point, New Jersey.  The description of what they saw is pretty much as it happened and was related to me.

The explanation, however, and what happened afterwards, is pure fiction.

I hope.

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

Waves


October gloom hung low over the Delaware River, wisps of mist rising from the murky, oil-slicked water to vanish into the uniform gray of the clouds.  Nick Dominique and Brady Elkano tramped silently through the knee-high grass, boots making squelching noises in the muddy ground that sloped at an imperceptible angle down toward the river’s shore.
“Whose stupid fucking idea was it to come down here today?” Brady said, pulling his scuffed khaki jacket around him and shivering.
“Yours,” Nick said.
“Well, I’m freezing my ass off.”
“It’s not that bad.”  Nick was tall and lanky, his bony limbs never quite covered by shirts and pants that always seemed too wide in the waist and too short in the arms and legs.  He ran fingers through unkempt curly brown hair.  “Better than playing computer games in the apartment all afternoon.”
“At least the apartment has heat,” Brady said.  Brady was compact and sturdy and dark, and turned a wry eye on his friend.  “There’s nothing down here but trash anyway.”
“I dunno.  There’s the stuff from the military depot.  Jake Warshawski said he found some kind of old air pump.  It was half-buried in the mud, but he took it out and cleaned it up and he said it needed a few parts but looked like he could get it working.”
“What do you want with an air pump?”
Nick laughed.  “Dude,” he said.  “You know what I mean.  There’s not gonna be another air pump.  I just mean, you never know what we might find.”
Brady shivered again.  “You should drop out of college and be a junk collector.”
By this time, they were at the river’s edge.  On the other side they could see the skyline of Wilmington, Delaware, vague and fogged and surreal, its perpetual noise and bustle and traffic deadened by distance and still air.  The water flowed smoothly, silently, only a few eddies showing turbulence as it flowed over unseen obstructions.  Nick picked up a rock from the mud and sent it skittering across the surface, leaving a trail of circular waves before disappearing with a plunk.
“I think my boots are leaking,” Brady said.  Nick ignored him, and picked up a stick to poke around in the ragged, brown stalks of dying grass.
“What are you looking for?” Brady said, after watching him for five minutes.
“I’ll know when I find it.”
Brady swore under his breath.  “My boots are leaking.”
“Take ‘em off.”
“You are ridiculous.”  But both boys wandered along the shore, kicking at washed up garbage and branches, every once in a while leaning over to fish something interesting out of the saturated soil.  Nick found a gear wheel missing two teeth, rinsed the grime off of it in the river, and shook it dry.
“What’re you gonna do with that?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Upstream they came on a long concrete jetty, sticking out into the river like a finger.  On the upstream side the mud was thicker, and there were pieces of net, a chunk of a Styrofoam cooler, and an old wooden sign that had the words “Keep Out” painted on it in stenciled black letters.  Brady stepped up onto the jetty and walked the thirty or so feet until it began to look crumbled and unsafe, and stood there, looking out over the river.  Nick stayed nearer to shore, poking around in the mud, still looking for interesting finds that the current might have washed his way.
That was when he noticed something shiny.
It was a mere pinpoint, like a speck of glitter on the surface of the black, smelly ooze.  He was still holding a stick he’d found earlier, and he pushed at it, and it didn’t move.  He could feel that the speck was just the top bit of something large and solid, so he lay down on his belly on the rough cement surface of the jetty and reached his long fingers down into the frigid mud.
Whatever it was had a smooth surface, and it was stuck more firmly than he expected.  He pulled on it, and felt it give a little.  Then with a thick slurping sound, it came loose, and sat, dripping sulfur-smelling goo, in the palms of both hands.
He swiveled around and dunked it in the comparatively cleaner water on the other side of the jetty.  Now the whole thing showed itself to be a gleaming metal ring, about two inches wide and perhaps five across.  It was heavy, gold in color, and had an inscription around it that said: 

AQUA * VITAE * EST *VITA * SAPIENTIAE * AQUA * MORTIS * EST * MORS * SAPIENTIAE

He stared at it, frowning.  Nick had taken a couple of years of Latin in high school, and he recognized the word for “water,” but the rest of it didn’t make much sense.  He thought “vita” meant “road,” but something about that didn’t sound right.
Honestly, at the time he was taking Latin, he’d been far more interested in hiking and climbing trees and learning to shoot a bow and arrow than in memorizing conjugations and declensions.
He stood up, gripping the ring tightly, as if he were afraid it would escape from his hand.  “Hey!” he shouted.  “Brady!  You gotta see what I found.”
His friend turned, his expression unreadable in the gloom.  Nick walked down the jetty, his long stride closing the distance quickly.
“What is it?” Brady said as Nick approached.  His voice sounded ready to be unimpressed.  “Something else for your trash collection?”
“No,” Nick said.  “This is really cool.”
He held out the ring.  Brady’s dark eyebrows rose.  “Wow,” he said.
“Told you.”
Brady picked it up, and peered at the writing that encircled the outside.  “What does that mean?”
“Beats the hell out of me.”
“Well, it’s interesting.  You think it could be some kind of Indian artifact or something?”
“Could be,” Nick said, but he sounded doubtful.  “Did the Indians around here cast stuff in gold?”
“You think that’s gold?”
“It’s heavy enough to be.  But it's got a Latin inscription.  I don't think the Indians would have written in Latin.”
Brady frowned, and handed it back.  “I wonder if we should, like, contact a museum or something.”
“Maybe.”  Nick held it up in the thin, gray light.  “I wonder what it was for?  It’s too big to be a bracelet.”
Brady shrugged, and looked out over the river again.  Nick was staring at the metal ring again, which is why he didn’t see what was happening until he heard Brady’s voice saying, “Nick, what the fuck is that?”
Nick peered past his friend, and at first thought he was looking at some sort of optical illusion, a trick of the odd, attenuated light or the rank mist that hung low over the water.  But it was unmistakable.  The river water had bubbled up, like there was some sort of disturbance underneath it, as if a giant head was about to surface.  Waves rolled off of it, making soft slushy noises and proceeding outward in all directions.  The boys stood still, watching.  Already the first and smallest ones were rocking against the tip of the jetty, splitting and turning down the sides until they dissipated against the mud.
“We should get out of here,” Brady said.
For once, Nick didn’t argue.  Brady shoved past him, taking off at a jog down the cement wall, Nick following him at a fast walk.  They reached shore in a few seconds, and Nick turned over his shoulder to look out over the river.  The disturbance was still there, like a dark, wet hill, churning waves now slopping against the shore.  But nothing else was visible of whatever it was that was causing it.
Brady kept at his jog all the way across the grassy meadow, and up toward the road where Nick’s truck, an aging Toyota pickup, was parked.  When they scrambled up the embankment, both boys turned back toward the river, but the low scrubby trees along the road obscured their view.
It wasn’t until they were both in the truck, the engine coughing into life, that Nick spoke.  “That was creepy.”
“No shit.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I have no idea.”
“Maybe a big fish or something.”  He pulled the truck out onto the road, and accelerated back toward town.
Brady gave Nick a scowl.  “A fish?  How big a fish would it have to be?”
“I dunno.  You got a better suggestion?”
“No.”
“Okay, then.”
They made the rest of the drive in silence.  Even Nick was happy to step back into the warmth of the house where he and Brady rented rooms, both leaving their mud-caked shoes on the front porch.
“I’m hitting the shower,” Nick said, pulling off his jacket and throwing it on the couch in the living room.
“Let me know when you’re done,” Brady said, plopping down in a rocking chair and turning on the television with a remote.  “I’m next.”
Nick trotted up the stairs, his sock-clad feet making little noise on the wooden steps, and went into the bathroom.  He shucked his damp, dirt-splotched clothes and turned on the shower, giving it a minute for the antiquated water heater to pump some warm water up to the second floor, then he stepped in.
The heat felt delicious on his skin, but he noticed something else almost immediately.  At first, he thought he was overhearing Brady downstairs listening to the television, but he quickly realized it couldn’t be that—there was no way it would be audible from this far away, not with the door closed and the water running.
But he heard a voice.  Thin, low, but clearly audible.
Where did you put it?  I can’t see it.  I can’t.  Where is it?  Where did you put it?
Over and over, a monotonous drone, repeating the same words over and over.  The voice had a strange, rolling accent, but he couldn’t place what sort.  It sounded antiquated and stilted and vaguely British, the sort of accent you might expect from a second-string actor in a Shakespearean play.
Nick stood there, the water cascading over his skin, his shower forgotten for a moment.  He frowned, listening, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from, but it seemed not to be localizable.
He turned the water off, hoping to hear it more clearly.
As soon as he did, the voice stopped.
Nick stood there in the shower, naked and dripping wet, his face a study in confusion.  After a moment, he turned the faucet on again.
The voice started again, as soon as the hot water hit his skin.
He hurried through the rest of his shower, then dried off and cinched the towel around his waist.  He picked up his filthy clothes and walked back to his room, pitching them into the hamper.  There was a loud clunk as the pocket of his trousers hit the side of the hamper, and he reached in and pulled them out again, extracting the gleaming metal ring.
He stared at it for a moment, then set it on his dresser, and got out dry clothes and began to dress.
Where did you put it?  I can’t see it.
When he was fully dressed, he picked up the ring again, looked at the inscription, and then sat down at his computer.
Twenty minutes of messing about with Google Translate later, he had scrawled on a piece of scrap paper the words “Water Life Is Life Wisdom Water Death Is Death Wisdom.”  Vita evidently meant “life,” not “road.”  But he was no closer to figuring out what the mysterious words meant.
He went to the window, where gray light was filtering in through the grimy glass pane, and turned the ring over in his hand.  Bits of river mud still clung to the surface, now drying to a gray-brown, fouling the inside of the ring where there were other, fainter engravings.  Nick went back into the bathroom.  From the upstairs landing, he could hear Brady’s television show still playing.  Either his roommate had forgotten about showering, or (more likely) had fallen asleep in front of the television.  Nick pulled a couple of pieces of paper towel from a roll hanging on the wall, turned on the tap, and put the ring under the stream.
And immediately the voice was back, but with a more sinister tone.  There it is.  Who are you?  What are you doing with it?  Give it back.
Nick jerked his hand out of the water as if he’d been stung.  There was water dripping from the ring into the sink, and in rhythm with the water drops, he heard clipped bits of words.  it… give… where… you?... NOW.
He retreated into his room, drying the ring on the edge of his shirt, listening for the voice and hearing nothing but silence.
Nick looked at the inside of the ring.  There were shallow grooves running the circumference of the ring, but they were difficult to see.  The metal was polished smooth, whether through artifice or through long use was impossible to tell, and it had all but eradicated the markings.  He squinted at them, and thought he could make out the rippling contour of a long body.  At first, he thought it was a snake, but after some turning of the ring this way and that, he could make out the impressions of jointed legs ending in claws.
A dragon, perhaps.
Still holding the ring, he trotted downstairs to the living room.  His roommate, as expected, was lying sprawled in the recliner, eyes closed, a game show of some kind playing unheeded on the television.
“Hey, Brady,” Nick said.
Brady opened one eye, blinked, and said, in a slurred voice, “You done with the shower?”
“Yeah.  But that’s not why I woke you up.  Take a look at this.”  He handed the ring to his friend, who peered at it, then looked up and shrugged.
“Yeah?”
“I think this ring is…”  He had started to say cursed but stopped in time; it sounded ridiculous, even to him.  “Weird,” he finished.
“Weird how?”  Brady was giving him a wry eye.  “Some kind of artifact, maybe.”
“Look, dude, just get up, I need to show you something.”
Brady gave a groan and stood up.  Nick lead him into the kitchen, then put his hand out for the metal ring.  Nick turned the faucet with a squeak, and the water began to flow over the ring.  Immediately the monotonous droning voice began again, in the middle of a sentence, as if it had been speaking, unheard, the whole time.
yours.  Give it back.  Now.  It must come back to me.  I will find you.  You must not keep it.
Brady jumped, and said, under his breath, “Holy shit.”
Nick shut the tap off, and once again, the voice broke up into fragments.
I will find you.  You must not… ring… Give… I… find… keep…
And then it stopped.
"You heard it, too."  It was not a question.
Brady looked at his friend with wide eyes.  "Yes."
"This has to do with the thing we saw in the river."
"All we saw was a bunch of waves."
"Yeah, but something was causing them.  There was something under there."
Brady didn't have an answer to that.
"What should we do?" Nick asked.
"I dunno.  Give it back?"
"Throw it into the river?"
"That's what I'm thinking," Brady said, his voice shaking a little.
"What if it's valuable?  And besides, suppose there is some kind of, um, thing, there in the river.  How could it get it back?  There's no way it could know where we are."
"You didn't notice how the voice broke up when the water stopped?"
"Yes."
"And there were pieces of it whenever a drip hit the sink."
"Okay," Nick said.  "I see where you're going.  Whenever the water makes a connection, it can talk to us.  But that doesn't mean it knows where we are."
"All water connects.  The water goes down the sink, into the sewer, then to some kind of treatment plant, then out to the river.  It's linked all the way.  If it can talk to us, it can find out where we are."
"When I was in the shower, I heard the voice, but all it did was ask questions about the ring.  When I put the ring itself under water, it said, 'There it is.'"
"There you go," Brady said.  "There's no reason to think that it doesn't know where we are."
"Not if the ring is away from the water."
"You need to throw it back, dude."
"I dunno."  Nick seemed dubious.  "If it's worth something, we should try to find a museum to buy it from us.  I'd split the money with you."  He smiled, even though it looked a little shaky.  "Even though I'm the one that found it."
"Okay, I guess.  But I don't think it's a good idea.  This is freaky."
There was no arguing with that.  But Nick looked at the gold ring, with its strange, archaic words, and thought, Not yet.  It can wait until I've thought more about this.

Sleep was restless that night.  There were no dreams, or at least none of note, but Nick tossed and turned, troubled by a vague anxiety that things weren't right.  Several times he found himself lying in bed, listening, hearing nothing, but all of his senses on alert.  Finally at around four o'clock he drifted off into a doze, but he got up at six feeling unrefreshed, hoping that a shower and coffee would wake him up.
He walked into the bathroom, and had turned on the tap before he remembered about his experience from the previous day.
He turned the water off, and got dressed.  He could skip a day's shower.
Nick put coffee on, being careful about getting his hands under the stream from the tap, and was standing listening to the comforting gurgle from the percolator when it registered that the ring was gone.
He'd left it on the counter, he was certain of that, after his demonstration to Brady that the voice in the water was real.  But the counter was empty, except for the dirty dishes from last night's dinner.  Frowning, he went up the stairs, his bare feet making little noise on the steps, and knocked on Brady's bedroom door.
No answer.
"Hey, Brady, wake up."
Still no answer.
"Dude, did you take the ring?  I hope you didn't get any smart ideas about throwing it back on your own.  'cuz I'll be pissed if you did."
Silence.
Nick opened the door.  
What struck him first was the damp chill in the air.  The window stood wide open, and a cold breeze was blowing in.
The next thing he saw was that Brady wasn't there.
Nick walked in, feeling an icy sensation that the winter air was insufficient to cause.  Brady's bedsheets were rumpled, as if he'd slept in it, but the blanket and bed surface were soaking wet.  From the mattress came the heavy smell of river water.  There was also a wet spot between the window and the bed, cool and slick under his feet.
"Brady?" he said, and it came out in a breathless whisper.
No answer, not that he expected one.
Nick ripped apart Brady's room, becoming more and more frantic, pitching aside sodden textbooks and piles of clothing, pulling boxes out of his closet, opening drawers in his desk.  He finally found the ring in Brady's sock drawer.
It couldn't see the ring, because it wasn't underwater.  But it found Brady.  It found him, and took him away.
Nick went to the bathroom, walking like a somnambulist, turned the tap on, and dunked the ring under the stream.  Instantly the voice started again, thin and whispery and evil.
There it is.  I knew he had it hidden.  Give it back.  It is not yours.  Give it back.
"What did you do with Brady?" Nick said, his breath coming in tight, painful whistles.
He is here with me.  You will be soon.  You will stay with me forever.
"Where are you?"
You know.  And I know where you are.  Give it back.  It is not yours.
A catch formed in his throat, an angry sob that wanted to exit, but Nick kept it behind clenched teeth.  "You killed him."
He will be here with me forever.  So will you, very soon.
"I'll give you your fucking ring back.  Why do you want it so much?  So much that you would kill?"
Because it is mine.  It has been mine since I came here.
"How long have you been here?"
Longer than I can remember.  As long as I can recall, I have been here.  I will be here when you are gone.  Unless I bring you here to be with me.  Then we will stay here together forever.
Nick turned off the water, and the voice was cut off.
Still holding the dripping gold ring in his hand, he went to the closet and grabbed his jacket, pulling it on as he walked outside and toward his truck.  He grabbed something else as he walked, from where it leaned against the wall of the garden shed, and tossed it into the bed of the truck before he got in.
He kept himself from thinking as he drove toward the Delaware River and the jetty where he'd found the ring the previous day.  If he let himself think, he'd fall apart.  There was time for falling apart later.  Now, he had a task to accomplish.
As he scrambled down the embankment into the wet field that bordered the river, he saw drag marks.  Something large had passed this way, very recently.  The dead grass was crushed and slimy with mud in a great swath between the river and the highway.  As he walked toward the jetty, his boots squelching in the ooze, he saw once again the bubble of water about twenty yards out, rising from the flat surface of the river.  There was something under there, something that sensed his approach and was coming to meet him.
Something that perhaps resembled the serpentine design on the inside of the ring.  But he didn't let himself think about that, either.
He walked out onto the jetty, reached the end, stood there, leaning out toward the oil-slicked water.
"You want your goddamn ring back?" Nick shouted.  "Here you go."
He set the ring down on the stone, and hefted the sledgehammer he'd brought from the garden shed.  There was a sloshing noise, and the disturbance began to move, accelerating toward shore.
Nick raised the steel head of the sledgehammer high, brought it down on the glittering surface of the ring.  It took three strikes, during which time the raised blob of water began to boil and churn.  White waves of turbulence streamed away from it, like the bow wave of a boat.  But on the third hit, the ring split in two, twisting and blackening, and there was a smell of sulfur, which quickly dissipated on the winter breeze.
The raised hemisphere of water collapsed.  A few small waves lapped the shore, and then the river flowed on smoothly, its surface flat and glassy and gray under the cloud cover.

A woman walking her dog found Brady Elkano's body washed up on a gravel spit downstream two days later.  An autopsy determined that he had drowned, although there were some unexplained gouges in the skin of his left leg.  Suicide was suspected, but given Brady's personality, it didn't seem plausible.  Nick argued against that explanation with particular vehemence, although he didn't have any better explanation for why his friend had apparently hiked down to the river in the middle of the night to go swimming wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.
Brady's parents came a week later to take his belongings, his father sternly silent, his mother weeping silently as they boxed his clothes and books and personal items.

By that time, his bed had dried out, although a year later, when Nick Dominique graduated from college and moved to Colorado, it still carried the faint stink of river mud.