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Understand, it had far more neurological matter (you’d call it “brain tissue”) than a whale, a dolphin, a pig, or a human, but that material was put together in a very different way from yours, mine, a dog’s, an arthropod’s, arachnid’s, mouse’s, elephant’s, peregrine’s, or snake’s. It was aware of the world around it—through the sense we call touch: the interface of pressure and heat, moisture and dryness, cold and direction. What it lacked was a sense of itself apart from that world, which for the past years had been a world largely buried in soil, mud, and roots, along with numerous bacteria, organic material, or nematodes that might have killed it but which it had been programmed to analyze and avoid, kill, or learn from.

If you were walking the woods on a damp dawn, you might see fog moving through birch trees, behind oaks, or in front of sycamore saplings. If you were hiking the forests sloping over Mount Minsi, you might even pause near a spot where fog poured from the ground, and if you stayed to watch anytime in the last fifty years, that spot might move as much as fifteen, even twenty feet, in an hour. If, a century on, you’d noticed a puff of yellowish fog in with the blowing blue-gray, you’d have known immediately what authorities to contact—what to warn them of. But in the warm winters of the post-corona years, how would anyone alive have known a wyrm moved, eyeless and earless, deep in the dirt, the crumbled quartz, the mud?

This, however, was the first time it had happened on this continental plate since the age of the dinosaurs, with whom, some billions of years back, it had been connected. As [44] gave way to [45], and eventually [46], then [47] took over (her second term heralded for the sweeping scientific advances in neurological communication on one end of things, and the molecular inertial control that suddenly allowed progress toward the reversal of climate change unthought of even a decade before on the other), the wyrm, a nematode-like lifeform whose spore had come to this mountainous stretch in a meteor shower almost 770 years ago, underwent the second of three metamorphoses that had been programmed into its cellular development on an entirely different landscape and in a far more violent biosphere—which is only to say that anything that happens in this world happens 770 years after something.

Not every neotenous life form goes through a change, however, as radical as that between maggot and horsefly, caterpillar and chrysalis, pupa and hornet (and no one has counted the several who go through more than one), but it had learned—if that’s the proper term—a great deal about the landscape it found all around it and the biome of which it was a far more malevolent part than any cancer cell.

The wyrm knew an interested indifference—and it knew rage more total that any creature on earth.

It crawled—partway—from the earth, the mulch, and mud, of which it knew no more than we might have when we had been on it less than a thousand years, broke from its crystal-and-silica eye cases that had just erupted from its more sensitive end (“Undecided as to whether,” remarked a poet who watched the process decades later, “it wanted to be a plant or an animal,” now and then to fly into a rage at either possibility, which was actually a pretty exact observation, though one had to survive near it long enough to see). For the first time, as the sun rose behind the green peaks of Minsi, those “eyes” (far closer to those of an arthropod’s than a mammal’s) responded to light for the first time, which the wyrm—this particular wyrm—had never experienced, since three days before it hadn’t had them.

All the animals mentioned in contrast or comparison knew pain and fear. The wyrm did not. It knew an interested indifference—and it knew rage more total than any creature on earth. Nor could it explain why it went from one to the other or back.

Which is to say, during its several rages in the hours since it had entered and completed its transformation, no one had been near enough to observe, yet far enough away to survive, that terrifying state.

Those yellowish acidic gasses it had released and from whose interactions with the world as their detritus had fallen back to the earth and soaked into the mud of its home it had learned and adjusted to for so long was now over with—and which future scientists would largely opine, after which, it was much better to vacate the immediate vicinity than to fight it: if you knew what those gasses meant, likely you knew too that it had passed into a stage that, for practical purposes, made it invincible till it underwent the next change.

 

1.

Big Jake (a black lab) and Little Jake McCray (a precocious adolescent, Shag and Sophie McCray’s boy), that’s how they started out. Naming a six-week-old puppy after a seven-year-old does something first to the boy, then to the dog over the next six years, and, finally, does something to the whole farm and pretty much everyone who lives on it.

At first, Big Jake began as a joke for Little Jake. He was Little Jake’s responsibility to feed and take care of and carry out his dish of Pedigree and dinner scraps to the barn and unfurl the green hose and fill the water trough. They played secret games and followed each other around and explored the ledges and land around the farm both separately and together.

Alley was the twenty-two-year-old guy Jake’s pop had hired in the winter five months before he had a heart attack or seizure or stroke or whatever occurred in the south field that killed him (it was supposed to be appendicitis; that’s what they guessed when they got him to the medical center at Slateford Falls, and if they’d had actual time to do a responsible autopsy, they’d have found it was a ruptured gut rotten with colon cancer) and left him lying in the field beside the harrow where he’d fallen, till finally the fire department came to take him to the Slateford morgue. Eventually Shag was interred in a green burial, which is what he had asked for.

All of them—Alley and Sophie in the front of the Subaru, Big Jake and Little Jake in the back, the dog leash wrapped around his forearm—drove over to the cemetery. It was, indeed, green. Keeping Big Jake on the leash was not that easy—he was a farm dog, not a city pet. So after the visit, they ended it rather sooner than intended.

Alley volunteered to drive them home, and on the way back, Jake realized that while he was a good mechanic, Alley was not anyone’s real driver. Sitting in the back with her son, Sophie found herself recalling: black-haired but somewhat baby-faced, Shag couldn’t have looked less like someone with that name when she first heard about him, before they actually met; then, surprisingly a year and a half later, they were married. Oddly, the only thing Jake had inherited from his dad was the hair color. Eyes, features, pretty much everything about the boy had come from her—except perhaps his personality. They crawled back to the farm and, even so, about seventy yards from the turn-off, almost veered into the ditch. It made Jake that much more eager to get back to school and his driver’s ed class, where he was doing pretty well.

Alley couldn’t read and had some blankets in the loft he slept in and came in to eat what Sophie fixed for them; with his chestnut beard and his way with animals and farm tools, in many ways he seemed closer to one of the stolid farm stock himself and had lived in the barn since his father had asked if he could help out at the McCray farm when Jake was eight. Most folks were more likely to call Alley retarded than precocious, though there were some areas, having to do with cars, animals, and computers that, if you got close enough to him, well, you might think he was pretty smart—though once he let slip that he’d never been in school after seven, but that was when he was in another state—and the confusion of his upbringing was one Jake by then felt Alley himself wasn’t even sure of.

During Little Jake’s thirteenth summer, once he’d gotten out of school over at Garner (with its combination grocery store/drug store and a school population that still hadn’t gotten over the notion of “social distancing”), he was in the barn and had climbed up into the loft to frustrate Big Jake’s inquisitive barking when he saw for the first time—or perhaps made a different kind of sense out of what he saw—Alley up there, with his back to the edge of the loft, sitting way toward the wall . . . with, well, his jeans that were pretty ragged anyway, open, and down around one leg. (Jake had already figured out when he watched Alley take a leak behind the once red planks behind the barn, Alley maybe had some underpants when he come, but these days he didn’t wear none no more.) As his head came over the edge, he saw Alley was back in his nest there, lying down, with his shirt open and his pants wide, with a handful of himself and grunting—in a way that, to Little Jake, sounded familiar, though up till now he thought it was something Alley did when he was sleeping, sometimes. This time, though, Jake asked him: “What you doin’?”

From the nest of blankets, Alley said, “Same thing you was . . . when I come in here, yesterday . . . afternoon.” Breathing hard, he kept doing it, without looking forward.

Jake heard Big Jake pawing at the lower ladder rungs and looked down. The dog had his paws on the ladder and looked as if he wanted to climb up. “Dog looks like he wants to come up here, too.”

“Yeah,” Alley said, not stopping and not looking. “He do. He can smell anything goin’ on up here. Sometimes I bring ’im up. If you wasn’t here, I’d bring him on up now.” He chuckled. “Boys and dogs—boys and dogs. Jerk ’em off an’ they both be your friend for life—” Alley took another breath. “Come on up, if you want.” The breathing got heavier, and his hand moved faster.

Jake pulled himself up over the edge. “Who told you that?” In his jeans, his own cock was hard—and his whole belly was tight.

“Th’ nigger what took care of me when my own mama died an’ what first showed me how to do this here.”

“Wow . . . !” which was more of a whisper.

“Yeah, we used to do it together a lot.”

Jake asked Alley—because his mama, Sophie, had given him a computer when he was a tyke and there hadn’t been any restrictions on it since his birthday: “Can I . . . help?”

“I’ll tell you the same thing that nigger told me: I ain’t gonna make you do nothin’. But if you wanna, I ain’t gonna stop you neither.”

There was something different about the day.

“Oh!” Jake crawled across the straw and under roof boards that Alley and his dad had just put new tar paper over three months before his death but which was already leaking down the far wall. “What do you do with it, when you’re finished?” Now he could see not only Alley with his gaping shirt and ragged jean, but also that black outdated tablet that lay half against his hip, with some of kind color clip playing on it.

“Me?” Alley asked. “I eat that shit when it shoots out. That way you don’t leave no mess what’ll let your mama know you been doin’ it. Same reason you come out here in the firs’ place, ’cause you know I don’t give a fuck. ’Sides, it’s suppose’ to make you strong an’ grow them muscles.”

“You . . . eat it,” Jake asked, “too?”

Alley chuckled. “Hey, there’s two kinds of stuff that comes out. Some of it’s salty, like you nose pickin’s and piss—and some of it stinks so you leave that alone, is all. So some of that goes back in, but only with the niggers you close to. Come on, now—get over here now. Since you in here, I don’ wanna waste you either.”

So Little Jake crawled over, and Alley’s arm caught him up and pulled himdown against him where the shaking body was reassuring and raised his head. (If you’d asked him, after giving it some thought, Jake would have probably said that his father had let up the patter: the house was where civilized things went on, which had a lot to do with isolation; the barn was a place where the transgressions that brought life and pleasure both occurred that you could see on line—and the greater world was one of mysteries in excess of them all.) Alley raised his bearded and, at twenty-two, unevenly toothed head and looked over Jake’s. “Hey, our buddy done got up the ladder—”

 

2.

It was a little later, when all of them were finished. Jake said, “Momma says I ain’t suppose to call nobody nigger.”

“Then don’t say it around her.” Alley shifted. “It just means somebody who works for somebody else, I guess. Or maybe somebody what really likes touchin’ other people—I was never too sure on that. I guess they don’t like to be reminded of that—’cause maybe that why your mama still lets me come in and eat with y’all. My nigger had to do all our cookin’ and shit and made sure I knew how to do it, too. He was the one showed me how to fix cars and stuff, I just don’t like drivin’ ’em ’cause I can’t keep the pedals straight.”

“Jesus, dogs do it a lot, I mean touch each other . . . so much.” Big Jake had run off and gone exploring a few minutes before. “I never seen that before.”

“Yeah,” Alley said. “Animals do a lot of that. We’re suppose to do it, too—to keep each other warm. A few years ago, they had some place where you watch that, too, on the in’ernet. But they took that off . . . Hey, I won’er where he got off to?”

“He didn’t jump, did he?” Jake raised his own head from Alleys comforting smell. It occurred it would be fun to sleep out here like this with Alley—but he wasn’t sure how he’d go about asking for that.

“Naw—he uses the boxes and shit over there to get down. I don’t know why he don’t come up that way. Sometimes I believe that nigger thinks he’s a people, I guess.”

It had never occurred to Jake that either his dog or the hire man was a nigger. He wondered if that had anything to do with Negroes . . .?

Was it something, he wondered, that he could ever be . . .?

A fine writer on the topic claimed shortly before 1934 that landscapes fostering rabbits also fostered dogs. She reminds us that “Spaniels” were probably “rabbit dogs” and possibly originated in “Spain,” which also might have once meant “rabbit land.” Dark as a bit of storm cloud broke off and streaked through the woods, whether Big Jake had an ounce of spaniel or was mostly wolf, he was sensitive to rabbits—abundant on the Minsi slopes—and could tell them from rats and squirrels (flying or bark-bound with cheeks full of nuts or acorns). Jake’s eyes were certainly full, but not goggled, [1] though, as that writer certainly realized, he could tell shapes and movements, dogs from cats—she might not have known he was red-green color blind—though she knew dogs lived far more through their muzzles and ears and noses.

The clearing was covered with . . . dead animals, pieces of dead animals, insects, rodents, some field mice, two hares, and birds.

The bound from the barn began with a dog’s awareness that there was something different about the day. But as Big Jake looped along his usual trails that took him over an invisible property border he had lived and explored unaware of, there came a much more insistent awareness that what was different had something to do with rot, decay, even death—though Jake’s awareness of death was different from yours and mine. It had to do with meat, most of which tasted good and was nourishing, though some was tainted and clearly—by its smell—unfit for consumption.

In a city, Big Jake could get lost—but not in the woods. Just as he could track any animal, he could track his own trail back to the familiar lands of the barn and the farmhouse, where regularly he was fed, and there were no predators in these woods that you had to watch out for—at least none Jake had yet encountered. (He could have done it blind.) But as Jake walked another five or six steps through the strangely and badly scented woods—

Well, this is what you would have seen had you been with the forty-seven-pound, three-and-a-half-year-old dog: Jake stopped, because there was a clearing of some dozen feet across with only a scattering of twigs and leaves and a single tree decidedly off-center in the space, whose branches did not start until nine or ten feet up so that the whole space was in its mottled shade.

In the exact center (an idea that was foreign to dogs though available to anything with the brain and eyesight at least of a human) was something that might have been the four-or five-foot trunk of a . . . broken-off tree? Something man-made, like an eighteen-inch pipe thrusting from the forest floor but encrusted with mud and mulch enough that, if you weren’t paying attention, you might think it was something natural and black.

Big Jake moved side to side at the edge of the clearing, and exactly what it was he saw or smelled or sensed, one cannot know for sure. But what you or I would have seen was that the clearing was covered with . . . dead animals, pieces of dead animals, insects, rodents, some field mice, two hares, and birds, most of a torn-apart chipmunk, three different birds’ wings two or three feet apart and too muddy to tell the colors of their plumage, though one suggested a crow, and a smaller bird still with a head on it, eyes open and beak a-gaping, a curled-up bat, centering all of them not on the tree but on the dark stump of . . . whatever it was.

The dog growled, then something grabbed him, whipped him through the air, and smashed him into the thing in the center, which, if you had seen the incredibly quick occurrence, you would now, as you blinked and started to breathe again, have suspected might have had wings with claws as easily as multi-cupped tentacles. (It had happened fast enough so that you would probably be unsure if Jake had been hurt or instantaneously killed. Lord knows, he hadn’t gotten out a bark!) One of Jake’s legs and his jaw lay on the ground, ripped loose; the rest of him torn in half the long way in the same half second, the part with his tail hurled down not far from a fox to which something similar had happened an hour, a day, or even three days ago, and some—a quarter, if you actually picked up pieces and measured by weight—ingested into the wyrm, because only three of the legs were still visible . . .

 

3.

Sophie lifted the pot top off the rice and stepped back from the steam. Holding the top by the lid with the dish towel hanging down for the heat, with her other hand she stuck the long-handled fork in and turned it through fluffy grains, once, twice, three times, then replaced the cover. In the nonstick pan on the side burner, the mushroom soup and broccoli bubbled around the chicken. The fork went down on the ceramic holder on the stove, and she picked up the long-handled spoon to give it a stir. The window was open, and she pushed back one of the flowered curtains. “Jake! Alley! Dinner . . . !” Turning back to the sink, she twisted the spigot to run water in the bowl she’d used earlier for the cookie dough and realized, yes, even though for a moment she’d forgotten them behind the oven’s enameled door, their smell still filled the kitchen.

Half a minute later, when she heard Alley’s bare feet on the steps outside (and, a second later, her son’s sneakers), without realizing it, she sensed something slightly off; Jake had not come barging through the dog door, which her husband had cut, framed, and topped with a spring hinge. It had not creaked with Big Jake’s entrance, so that she said loudly, even before the door swung in. “Jake, where’s the dog?”

“He ain’t in here, ma’am?” which was Alley, not her son.

Behind him Jake said, “We thought he’d be in here. Hey, you made cookies—that smells good! Can I have one?”

After you eat your dinner. Come on, now. Sit down. Did you both wash your hands?”

To which Alley’s response was a laugh, “See, what did I tell ya?” and Jake’s: “Yes, we both washed our hands.” One and the other pulled out the chairs across the kitchen floor planks that Ed McCray had been planning to finish and never gotten to.

Moments later she bought the serving bowl, now filled with rice (“Serve yourselves,” she said unnecessarily), turned to the stove again and back a moment later with the pan and serving spoon. “Here you go.” Stepping around the table, she ladled chicken, broccoli, and sauce over the rice in the grey ceramic dishes with the wide blue and the narrow red circles round the rims (from Luisi, who used to live down near in Croton, one of her useful wedding presents that had survived Ed’s death). “Don’t wait for me,” she said, finally sitting at the seat where she could see the front window over Alley’s shoulder. She helped herself to rice. “I know you want to get to those cookies.”

Neither Alley (which was usual) nor Jake (which was different) had started. “Mama, can I get my computer, please!”

“You know we don’t use those at the table.” Which was her usual answer, though because of all the differences about the meal already, she said it with less force than she might have.

“He’s worried about the dog, ma’am.” He said it in such a way so as she heard a silent So am I with it.

She remembered that she was thirty-one, which made her officially an adult, so that, because, again she realized that she was, she said: “Well, I suppose . . .”

“We were tryin’ to find him with the app—an’ I said it look like the dam’ thing was broke. We was lookin’ on my tablet out in the barn.”

She knew there was a DogWatch app that Ed had decided was a safe way to go, back when he’d first gotten the puppy, named it, and built the door. (“Watch the dog,” she remembered him saying, just outside on the steps. “That’s clever, I suppose.” Why was that man dead half a dozen years still so present? She remembered how the puppy had tried to paw the collar off when they’d first put it on him, with the collar’s tongue sticking out, and how, after just a day, he’d gotten used to it, and after two years, the tongue was in the first hole.) “Go on, Jake. Get it.”

The boy was up and out the room, and his rubber soles went running up the steps.

Alley explained, “It keeps track of that thing in his collar—and, at least on my tablet out in the loft, it says it ain’t moved in half an hour.” He shrugged. “I’m supposed to have Wi-Fi out there but my in’ernet goes down all the time.”

A man shouted forty, fifty feet in: a weird shout whose end was . . . swallowed.

Sophie said, “He’s a good-looking dog. Somebody could ‘a found him an’ . . . cut his collar off.”

“Yeah, and maybe something happened to ’im, too.” Alley picked up his fork, the awkward way he always held it, and put his fist beside his plate without taking a bite.

“Maybe he was hit by a car or a train—I knew two dogs,” Sophie said, “when I was little what got killed by trains. That’s when they used to tell you if you wanted a dog you had to have some place fenced in where they could run.” Another thing Ed had never gotten to. “They didn’t even have those apps back then.”

“It shows where he is—or where the collar is—and it ain’t by no highway or no train track, either.”

“But out in the barn, it sure wasn’t runnin’ around.” Her son’s sneakers pell-melled back down the steps.

Sophie said, “People drive around on paths in the woods that don’t make it onto no real map,” and Jake came back in the room with the closed metal envelope under his arm and the cable in a bunch in his other hand. He threw himself down on the chair, put the computer on the table beside his plate, and bent down to push the white cube of the adapter into the near wall socket. “I was charging it upstairs,” he explained, sitting up again. (On the cover of his computer was a sticker showing Rufus Wainwright, a singer whose name she had heard but which brought no music to her mind.) “In my room . . .”

Sophie made herself not say, Are you sure you don’t want to eat your dinner first . . . because she was curious.

Jake had the darkest hair of the three of them at the table. It was his dad’s—with none of her family’s oaks, ginger locks, or even cinnamon accents. Sitting back up, he opened the top far back enough not to be able to read the stickers anymore and began to type. In the middle, he grabbed up his fork and shoved some rice and chicken into his mouth.

“Jake—!”

“Something could have happened to him,” Jake said, making a feeling in the two adults’ minds that neither or one of them had wanted to say. “Or he’s . . . well, hurt, maybe. We should go look for him. Maybe he’s hurt.”

Alley said, “Maybe we’ll go out there, looking for him, and find just the collar. He ain’t more than three-quarters of a mile to the northwest, ’cause you got the same thing on your computer as I had on my tablet in the barn.”

“I hope he isn’t hurt,” Sophie said, doubtfully.

“Probably the collar jus’ come off him, an’ is lyin’ in the woods somewhere.” Alley ate two, three spoons full of chicken and rice very quickly. Then he said, “We should get out there and see, though.” He took a big breath, pushed his chair back. “You mind if—”

Sophie interrupted. “Yes, you should.”

And Jake and Alley were both up and moving toward the door.

Going down the steps outside, Jake asked, “You gonna take your gun?”

“Yup.”

“Mama say she don’t even like them in the house.”

They were halfway back to the barn. “That’s why you don’t bring ’em in the house.”

At the barn, they walked through the large front door that stood mostly open, on its rollers along the top. “Might as well put my shoes on, too.” Alley stepped over to an old bench, sat, reached down between his feet and pulled out from under it a pair of worn, high-topped work shoes—one of which had a new lace in it that Jake remembered watching him put in about a week back when the old one had broken for the third or fourth time. The other seemed to be holding. He pulled on some thick blue socks and slid his feet in the shoes.

Jake watched him—noting, once again, that Alley picked his wide toenails back as badly as he did the nails on his fingers. The hired man stood, walked back to the wall, and stepped behind the boards and reached up. A moment later he stepped out with the pump action Winchester .38. “Le’s go!” and he strode back toward the barn door.

Jake came on, looking down and poking at his cell phone, where the pale green rectangle in his palm had replaced the ranked app icons, crossed with some darker lines and contour indications, standing for the woods and greenery around them, without recognizable paths or roadways. A white dot in the upper left was himself and Alley; the red dot pulsing down in the right corner stood for Big Jake—or, at any rate, Jake’s collar.

He almost tripped on a root and looked up at the forest and fields: a mass of Queen Anne’s lace, off to the left, grew before some sumac. Carrying the rifle, butt up and barrel down, Alley glanced back. He ran a few steps to close the space between, by some maples and a gnarled crab apple tree.

“Boy, let’s get out of here before somebody starts askin’ us questions!”

Ahead, Alley climbed up on an old log and moved three steps along it under the shadows, and then off and down through the leaves and a declivity Jake thought might have carried water in a wetter season. Another few steps, and they were both on a double rutted road that angled off to the right.

Walking through full woods where no one has gone for twenty or thirty years can take as much as an hour for a quarter mile. On a path some car has driven over even half a dozen times—which is what they found themselves on now—you can walk it in no time, “and the gun don’t get caught in no bushes,” as Alley’d been grumbling and cussing to himself. Shoved in the back of his jeans was a second clip.

Jake looked up from his phone. “We’re goin’ straight for ’im.”

Alley asked, “You still got that?” He looked over and chuckled. “I thought I heard you throw that fucker away.” In the roar of bushes and snapping twigs from dead undergrowth, Jake wondered how he could have heard anything.

By comparison, where they walked now was near-silent.

On Jake’s side, it could have been a path going off at right angles—or a path with a puddle on one side with a pinecone laying in it. Looking over Jake’s shoulder at the phone, Alley said: “Probably this is where we wanna go—”

—when somewhere along in there, a gun fired. Alley looked up at Jake, a third of the way into a frown. Then a man shouted forty, fifty feet in: a weird shout whose end was . . . swallowed.

Nothing had moved on the phone’s pale green (which did not show either the ruts they’d been walking or the rutless path they were about to turn off on). Jake started to move, but Alley blocked him with his forearm in its torn plaid sleeve. “You stay . . . I’ll be back.” One shoe in mud, one on forest flooring, he slogged off into the trees, moving down some slope you couldn’t even see.

It took him a minute to become invisible, and a minute and a half to become silent.

In seven, eight, nine minutes, Alley sounded—then appeared—back on the path. Jake had not closed his mouth entirely the whole time. He breathed like someone standing in the sea up to his chest, expecting to be covered by the next wave—but read each minute five or six times on the upper part of his cell phone’s face in white numbers over the picture of John Finley’s tattooed belly that, for the last three weeks, he’d been using as wallpaper on an outdated iPhone in its black Mophie case.

For all that time, Jake wasn’t sure if he was in the forest or in the phone—and wished to hell Alley had one too so that they could keep in contact, even if you couldn’t shoot a gun with one against your ear.

After nine minutes, Jake saw Alley coming back along the path—they had been the longest nine minutes in Jake’s life. “Did you see anything?”

“Yup.” Alley came another step closer. He still had his gun, nor had it gone off.

“Did you find anything?”

“Yup.” Alley’s other shoe went into the mud.

“Wha’ . . .? What’s goin’ on?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you see the guy with the gun?”

“Probably.”

“Who was it?”

“Police, I think.”

“Did he say anything?”

Alley shook his head. That’s when Jake realized that the familiar man before him had a sour smell to him that was unusual. “What about Big Jake?”

Alley reached behind himself with his free hand to pull something from his back pocket. It was red and long and broken—“This is his.”—and held it out to Jake, who blinked and stepped back. “Lemme keep this, so I can show it to you mama.” He put it behind him again to work it into his pocket.

“What happened to the policeman?”

“There was maybe three of ’em, to the best I could count an’—what happened to them? The same thing that happened to the dog and the rest. Boy, let’s get out of here before somebody starts askin’ us questions!” He gave the boy a turn and a push. “Come on, now. Let’s go!” It was a harsh whisper, but it was also imperative.

After a while, he said: “Only reason I got the collar back is ’cause I saw it lyin’ there in all that . . . mess, an’ I knew it had you name an’ address on it—as well as the damn chip, an’ I didn’t want them comin’ around botherin’ you and your mama about it.”

As they walked, Jake said, “There was three police?” He looked puzzled. “What are you talkin’ about?”

“You ever seen a meat truck what exploded?”

“Naw . . .?”

“Well, neither did I before today, but imagine one with three guys in it, all over the fuckin’ place—an’ the dog . . .” Alley took an uncomfortable breath, then swallowed as though he might have been gagging. He took another. “There was five eyes and most of three heads, all around that . . . thing, but I figure only one had chance to shout—or shoot.” They walked on up the road. “I figured if I’d seen that, probably I wouldn’t be here. All I saw was a tree.” The breeze rose and settled on the forest slope.

 

4.

When they came back into the farmhouse, Alley had already left his Winchester on its pegs in the barn and put the shells on their shelf. He had not taken off his shoes; the mud had dried on both.

Seeing them before she looked at his face, Sophie said, “Is everything okay . . .?”

“You got a glass of water?” Alley responded.

She got it, handed it to him, and again thought, as her eyes went up across his open shirt, How come I always forget that man is so hairy?

Alley took it and immediately went toward the john in the hall. Jake was still coming in the door. Now, she looked at her son. “What happened?” she asked again.

Jake swallowed. “The police was there. There wasn’t nothin’ I could do.”

From the john, both heard the commode flush. Alley came back in. He had the empty glass in his hand. “Thank you, ma’am,” he remembered to say. Two of his shirt buttons were buttoned. He held the glass out to her, and she gestured to the edge of the sink, where he set it down. “Thank you,” he repeated nervously, and, she thought, unnecessarily.

“You two want your dinner? It’s cold, but I can put it in the microwave?”

Minutes later at the ping-ping-ping, both Jake and Alley were at the table, and Sophie brought two of the plates over, then turned for the third, while, behind her, Alley said, “Actually, ma’am, would you mind if I had me one of them cookies and some milk? Truth is, my stomach’s a little off.” She turned back with the third plate in her hand and realized there was something very different about his face. His eyes were wider. He was swallowing.

“What happened?”

Jake said, “Somebody shot somebody. We heard it.”

“Oh, my God.” The realization formed that something extraordinary had happened. “What about the dog?”

Jake pushed back from the table and ran out the kitchen door. Sophie leaned forward but stopped before she called him. She sat back. “I wish he wouldn’t do that.”

“He just gone to the barn—”

—which was exactly what she meant.

Alley went on: “The dog’s dead. Ma’am, it was . . . a mess out there!”

She turned back with the third plate in her hand and realized there was something very different about his face. His eyes were wider.

Sophie said, “The cookies are over there.” The sheet sat on top of the icebox with enough of the aluminum sticking over to tell what it was. She nodded toward it. “Take as many as you want.” Her own voice, she could hear, sounded exhausted. “Pour yourself—” stopping, she stood, rinsed his glass at the sink, turned to the icebox, and took out a plastic half-gallon by one finger (they filled the recyclable trash so fast) and, beside the sink, filled his glass, and turned once more to hand it to him. Alley was standing behind her with an oatmeal cookie in a hand that was big enough to make it look half the size she remembered them. She glanced at his bearded face again and thought, But he’s not as tall as I am.

“I’ll go out and talk to him,” Alley said.

“If he isn’t there,” Sophie said, “you come get me, and we’ll both go out lookin’.”

“Yes’em.” Alley got the cookie and the glass in the same hand and, with the other, pulled down the handle on the screen door to go out.

When he went barefooted, Sophie thought, you didn’t hear him at all. With his work shoes on, he sounded like a damn elephant. The hempen hair visible through his misbuttoned shirt and all down his heavily veined wrists made him look like one of her own relatives, rather than the third-or-so cousin of Ed’s, which is why Ed had taken him on. She sat back at the table. The dog, she thought. Dead? Why had Ed even gotten one of those things? Naming it after the boy—how many times had she thought that was just asking for it? Her thoughts drifted to other things, then came back. Finally, from a low shelf, she picked up a copy of the Minsi Herald and started reading an article here (about the veterans’ drive) and another there (about a high school senior with a lab in her garage that had nothing to do with either opioids or meth) and at last settled on one about Judge Haufrecht, who, born in the area, had just returned and bought the Dempsey house near Slateford Falls. Hannah Haufrecht was the first judge to live in the neighborhood for some time and possibly the first woman judge ever to come from the area. Eventually, she realized she’d been sitting there more than twenty minutes, which meant Alley must be hanging out in the barn with Jake.

 

5.

In the barn, Alley and Jake were in the loft. Both were clothed. Both lay together, holding each other. Crickets sounded outside, and before the light through the leaves, things that years ago Jake’s father had told him were bats skimmed outside the loft’s hooded window.

Alley said, “You want a new dog.”

Jake wasn’t even sure it was a question. “Naw—I don’t think so, not for a while.”

“I’d like one, but . . . I’m glad you’re here.” Alley chuckled. “You’ll do.”

After a while, Jake said, pushing his head into Alley’s neck. “We’ll get one in a while. But he’s gotta be real . . . different.”

“He’s still gonna like . . . you know.”

After a while, Jake said, “Yeah, I know.”

And three-quarters of a mile away, the wyrm went into another metamorphosis that finally left it far less dangerous—and once more retreated beneath the surface.

 

—Philadelphia,
April 3, 2020

 


 

[1] In her descriptions in Flush, Virginia Woolf writes “his eyes were full but not gozzled,” which simply doesn’t make sense. (It would mean his eyes were not swallowed in the sense of guzzled or gargled.) It’s much more likely to be a printer’s mistake somewhere between her original manuscript and the typesetter for Harcourt Brace, who published the last American edition in 1933. As far as I can tell, it first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. The copyright page on the Gutenberg edition I checked is no more lavish with information than the Harcourt Brace paperback on my library shelf.