He was almost asleep. Just enough for the darkness and the dreams to creep in and that flimsy line between here and there wavered in the opalescent haze. His body had relaxed for what felt like the first time in years. He felt himself sink into his worn mattress. As the position and status of his own body began to fade from his consciousness and the peculiar lights of dreaming began to flicker in the corner of his mind's eye, it came:
Where are you?
At first he thought it was the dream. He thought he was lost and someone was trying to find him, but then he realized that it was his own voice. But not. It had the thin meekness of his mother's. There was also the self-assured gravel of his father's voice and then some element all together unfamiliar. It was a sea of voices mashed down into one chimeric tone that seemed lost itself in limbo.
Where are you?
Henry let his eyes open to prove that it was the dream. He opened them wide to let the faint moonlight fill his eyes and prove he was awake and put things back into perspective. He didn't dare move. The drowsy dreaminess had settled into his bones and he didn't want to ruin such a wonderful feeling. But then he heard the voice again.
He began to hum inexplicably. Nothing in particular. Just a noise of his own to chase the other away. The thought came to him that there was someone else in the room. A ghost. Some kind of monster. He hadn't thought that way in a long time. He was too old for that. He knew that. He knew monsters didn't exist hiding in the dark and whispering and waiting. He hummed a little louder. A nervous stream of half notes in a made-up scale, because to only breathe and listen and wait for that non-existant thing to come lurching out of the dark would have been too much.
Henry sat up in his bed, inching backward into the corner of the wall, holding himself and trying hard to see just what it was there in the darkness. A parade of shapes seemed to blend in the moonlight and shadow of his room. They danced and undulated in their impractical forms.
"Please," Henry mimicked.
They'll think your crazy, Willard had said. The words kept repeating in his head and behind them a whole avalanche of unspoken things, fears and images, and somehow his whole life to come was wrapped up in it all. Did it matter? Didn't they all think he was crazy already? Willard was the only person he felt like wasn't trying to manage him, to steer him or deal with him, and even he hinted that maybe Henry was crazy. Maybe he was. He had thought stopping his medication would make things easier, make him feel better, but so far they had just gotten worse. His mind jumped all around. He was confused with things that he seemed to remember being easy to understand, but still he couldn't be sure because his whole system of thought seemed to have been dissected by chemicals and emotions. He felt like his brain was repeatedly resetting, each day becoming questionable, possibly unreal.
They'll think you crazy.
Maybe he was. After all, he could have sworn the voice was coming from the jar.
Briar laid in bed until Dolly fell asleep. He tried to busy his mind with the sounds of the house, with memories and diversions, but it was no use. He heard Henry come back and decided to let him sleep. Instead he tried to imagine what he would say to the boy in the morning. How he would apologize and set the record straight and put his foot down. Eventually his thoughts turned back to Jim Young and his wife. He knew Dolly wasn't exactly telling him the truth about Jim. It got so bad that he couldn't stand to be lying in the bed with her.
Outside, the air was cool. There was a slight breeze that made the trees clatter softly. The full moon to the west made everything eerily bright in the deceiving darkness, long streaks of silver painting everything it touched. It made the neighborhood seem larger than it actually was, like some sort of desert valley. A shielded, observed place. Briar opened the truck door and the dome light cut through the dark. He squinted against the light and fumbled around half-blind for the little naugahyde loop that allowed him to pull down the arm rest. He reached into the squared alcove there and pulled out the whiskey bottle and took a drink and decided he would finish it off.
The neighborhood hadn't changed much. Except for the two other rentals Jim Young owned that always had people moving in and out, most people had lived on this street for years. Jim Harbrough and his wife, before she died. Enid McClusky. Grover Masters next door and Dub and Scorchy next to him. They were all good people. He trusted each and every one of them. It was a good neighborhood for a family. People visited on Sundays and if you ever needed anything, there was always someone you could call. Old Enid McClusky used to call nearly every day for Briar to come over and do something. Go to the store or change a lightbulb. It angered him to think of all the things he missed from living there. He took a shot of whiskey and that helped a little.
He pulled a shovel out of the truck bed and wandered down the driveway around the side of the house breathing in the cool night air. He kicked around the gravel and lit a cigarette and tried to keep his mind on good things. He tapped the spade head against the ground trying to loosen clumps of dirt that clung to the rusted surface. His steps were slow as a plan formulated in his mind. Maybe it was the whiskey, he thought, or maybe he was just sick of it all, but he was going to do something. He was going to make this his house again. This was his family. This was his neighborhood. The situation had proven that it was up to him to set things straight.
He leaned against the gate and smoked and took another draw from the bottle. He looked out into the darkness of the backyard and tried to see the dog. He clucked his tongue and whistled and after a second heard scuffling under the shed. He clucked again and the dog came trotting toward him, tongue hanging and eyes gleaming. It came right up to the fence and looked at Briar with that perfectly doggish, questioning look. Briar stared and blew smoke. He saw the dog and thought of Jim Young and he thought of Dolly. Their lies. Their betrayal. He took a sip of whiskey and then dipped the bottle over the fence just slightly so that a thin trickle began to pour. The dog felt the trickle hit it's nose and began to lap at it until it got a taste of it and backed away. Briar stopped pouring and laughed.
"Hey girl," he said to bring it back.
The dog stepped cautiously back to the fence and Briar kissed at it like old ladies kiss babies. It jumped up and held itself against the fence by it's front paws. It lapped at the air, trying to get at Briar's mouth. The moonlight glinted in the wet sores that decorated it's matted fur and Briar drew back in disgust.
"Nasty bitch," Briar hissed and slapped at the dog's muzzle with the back of his hand so that the night was filled with a wet, vicious thump.
Henry's eyes drifted open slowly. The voice was just a sound, anonymous, echoing in the dark between his dream and the light of day, dingy and suffering the barrier of the blinds. But the knocking was like an electric charge in his spine. It ran out on the craggy beam of thoughts right up his arm and he reached out for the jar, murky and still, and he was going to tell it to be quiet, then he realized it was Briar and he was at the door, so he pulled it under his pillow.
He spoke, but there wasn't a sound more than an airy, garbled moan.
"Henry? I'm comin in."
Henry sat up and wiped at his eyes as his father came in the room. His hair was still disheveled from his pillow and he was sucking at the sweaters on his teeth. He pulled his cigarettes and lighter from his pocket before he sat at Henry's feet. Henry hated the way his father smelled in the morning.
"You an me gonna have a talk," he said and sat. "Things is gonna hafta change round here, boy."
Henry had heard this sort of thing a lot and knew better than to say anything.
"Yr maw told me whatcha done t'her TV, an y'hit her too."
It occurred to Henry all the times he had seen his father hit his mother or broke something in a rage.
"Whatcha gotta say about that?"
Henry shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his bare knee sticking out from under the dirty sheet that covered his naked body.
"Now y'gonna talk t'me, son," Briar said. His voice dipped down into his own version of sincerity and lenience. "Don't think yr gonna sit here an stare at th'wall an stick yr lip out and not say nothin.
"I'm sorry 'bout hittin you. That's not how I wanted it t'go, but I can't abide y'hittin me, or yr momma. You frgive me an I'll frgive you an we can just start over."
"I don't know what t'say. I's mad."
"Yr onna real kick, boy. Y'pull that shit at th'lantern, got kicked outta school, then ya come home an pull that shit with yr ma, breakin shit ain nobody got th'money t'fix. Whatta y'think we was gonna do about it? Just take it? Not do nothin?"
"I don't know, pa. I's mad, an-"
"Bein mad ain no goddamn excuse, boy," he shouted, and jumped up from the bed.
He paced a few steps back and forth and ran his hands through his hair trying to calm down and think. Henry watched him, his eyes trailing back and forth.
"I don't care about yr excuses," he said, settling back down on the bed. "They's gonna be some changes around here. Yr gonna straighten up an I aim t'make sure it happens."
"So yr movin back in?"
"Don't git smart with me, boy."
Briar stopped and looked down at his feet. His hands were crossed in his lap and he had a look on his face Henry had never seen before. Thoughtful. Almost gentle.
"I done tried t'raise y'into a man, Henry. Guess I didn do a good job, but I tried th'best I could."
Henry felt the heat of his anger in his face and it made his hands tremble a bit. The words were on his tongue ready to explode and cover this old man in fire, but they stayed. They were hammered down by self-preservation.
"Ever since you's born I tried t'do th'best thing t'make y'tough an right. Me an yr maw couldn git along, so I hadda go on fr a while, but I's still tryin."
He took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one. Th'room filled up with the smell of burning Marlboros and lighter fluid.
"But," Briar continued through a cloud of smoke, "looks like I ain done good enough. Looks like you ain no more a man then any them dimwits y'go t'school with."
He stood and walked across the room again. The old whiskey stench came up again when he moved. The nostalgic sadness Henry felt when he smelled the cigarette smoke and the fuel had faded back into anger when Briar started to talk again. The words made him mad. The smell of stale beer and whiskey disgusted him. Every second of him being there made Henry feel a different way, different degrees of hate and misery and wishing things could be different.
"Ya caint be a troublemaker all yr life, Henry. Y'gotta straighten up fr it's too late."
Henry was in his own thoughts.
"Y'hearin me boy?"
Henry looked up quick and saw Briar was staring him down in that way.
"I don't try t'make trouble, pa."
"Y'sure do a good job of it."
"I try t'do good."
"Well, maybe yr maw an me ain done a good job, but I aim t'change it."
Briar stood and stubbed his cigarette out on the desk and slid the crumpled cigarette pack back in his pants. Henry looked up at him with wide eyes that said to Briar that all of it had just gone right over his head and Briar huffed and shook his head.
"Get on outta bed, boy. Y'got somethin t'do.
Henry stood at the fence of the backyard, just outside the sliding glass door, staring at the pile of fur back next to the shed. It was a hump of black and white on top of a brownish mess he could see even from that distance was more scab and blood than dog. Behind him, Briar stepped through the door and stopped on the stone step just under the doorway. He had a shovel in his hand. Henry looked up at him barely able to hold in his frightened tears.
"Don't look at me like that," Briar said never really looking at the kid but off at the hill of fur and blood. "I done th'hard part. You go bury'em."
"Why'd'ya kill'em, fr chrisake?"
"We caint feed'em an that ole bitch was too sick t'heal. Them pups woulda gotten it too. Done'em a favor."
Henry looked back out across the yard and he tried to take a step, but nothing moved. He was waiting, stalling. He was waiting for the big joke to be sprung. He was waiting for his mother to come out and put a stop to it all like she used to in the past. He was waiting for godjesusallmighty to poke a finger out of the clouds and touch old Briar Pupp down into hell or to lift him on up out of there, or both.
"Here ya go now."
Henry turned sharply and Briar was holding out the short-handled shovel and nodding toward the shed. He took it and held it close to his chest and stalled a bit more until he saw that twitch in Briar's eye that meant it was time to move. He went on through the fence looking back once and Briar was staring off into the sky offering no solace. His mother was nowhere to be seen. Henry walked slow and deliberate holding the shovel out like it was a snake and he couldn't take his eyes off the pile before him. The closer he got, the colder he got, the thinner his mind and the thicker his eyes. Then something in the pile moved. He stopped and dropped the shovel and spun around. Briar was watching him, still on the step and leaning against the jamb.
"One of'em ain dead," Henry yelled back, his face melting in fright.
"They's one movin. It ain dead!"
"It ain't dead," Henry shouted out slowly and deliberately.
"Well," Briar said with a certain subdued glee, "guess yr gonna hafta kill it, son. Put it outta it's misery."
Henry had the immediate feeling Briar had left one of the pups alive just for this purpose.
Henry turned back around and tried hard not to vomit. He picked up the shovel and held it up with both hands like a ball bat as if there was something that was going to jump out at him at any minute. He edged closer to the shed as if he was walking on ice. He heard the metallic snap of a thumbed zippo lid and the grating scrape of the flint strike and he stifled the impulse to curse the man. He took a few more cautious steps until he could see the one pup trying to crawl away. A few of them had slid off their mother's body and piled up on the ground and this one was trying to work it's way out from under them. It was mostly free, only one leg getting traction, and it moved mere centimeters at a time. Henry could hear it breathing thin and whining quietly as it worked at escaping the graveyard. Once it moved free of the rest, it still couldn't use but one paw. The back two moved a little, more like tiny convulsions than crawling, and the other front paw was just dead flesh dragging along.
"Git on it," Briar yelled from back at the house and in a convulsion of fear and nerves Henry screamed back, "Shut the fuck up, I'm doin it," and Briar was quiet.
He watched the pup crawl and whine and he tried to think of how he should do it. He didn't question whether he should or not at all now, only how. He wanted to do it quick, but he didn't think he would be able to stand to see any blood or guts and he wished the thing would just be quiet. He thought of ways not to do it, and then how he had to do it. Every thought in the world seemed to squirm around in his head while the crippled pup squirmed around on the ground and finally Henry raised the shovel up like a spear and brought it down into the back of its neck. There was a fan of dark, purplish blood that sprayed out from the head and the rest of the body ran up into the shovel like it was going to run right through it, then it fell back and the whole thing went limp. When he pulled the shovel out of the ground the head rolled off a half foot and that was where Henry dug the hole to bury them all. When he was done he walked back to the house where Briar was still waiting in the door. He tossed the bloody, dirt-clogged shovel against the side of the house and spit and slipped by Briar without saying a word. Briar told him he was proud of him.