If I have any kind of hookup for anything I immediately tell people. Not because I want to help or coordinate an introduction but because I want it to be known that I have a hookup. It makes me feel cool and helpful at the same time.
So when I’m reheating my dinner and Cory (my wife) says she wants a dog I projectile vomit the fact that I know a Labrador breeder back in Pikeville. Now I’m praying that Hunter won’t pick up. Cory alternates clicking through shows on Hulu and watching me call him.
I could’ve held the phone to my ear for six seconds and been like “Oh well. I tried.” Or lied and said I couldn’t find his number. But I didn’t. I can’t lie to Cory.
Cory hunches over her computer.
“What’s the name?” she asks.
“Trust me you won’t find her.”
“Right. But what’s the name of her business?”
“I don’t know.” I say “They’re just Annie J’s dogs. It’s Danny’s mom.”
If you lived in Wayne County and wanted a dog (a good one) you go to Annie Joyner. Word of mouth always trumps yelp reviews and getting something from someone “just up the road” will never die as long as “yuns” are still “up over yonder”.
I’ve been free of reasons to go back and it now seems I’ve given myself one.
I clamp the phone with the side of my face and shoulder while carrying piping hot pork fried rice to the living room coffee table. An explosion of happiness occurs inside myself when the phone tells me it’s sorry but the mailbox of the number I’ve dialed is full.
I tell Cory and try to make my disappointment seem genuine. Then ask what episode of Grey’s Anatomy we’re on. Who are all these new people? Another bomb? What kind of hospital is this?
Chopsticks halfway in my mouth and my phone chimes. Keeps chiming. It’s a phone call.
The vibration quakes through my entire being. Cory’s looking at me so I have to answer.
I hear myself trying to match Hunter’s washed-in-the-blood accent. If I spoke the way I do now with clear articulate English he may not recognize me or (worse) think me pretentious. But truthfully I think the way I talk to anyone is fake. It’s insane that making sure not to say “You knoaf Annie J still breedin pubs?” is still such a Herculean task for me. Accents are like neural pathways in the brain that act like dry riverbeds begging for rain. Ready to slide right back.
I tell him I’m in Durham now. And immediately feel the odd distance of time. When the words leave my mouth I look at Cory and realize how much has happened in eight short years.
That thing where people say they don’t even know their old selves that’s horseshit. They absolutely know their old selves because there is no such thing as an old self. Your past is more permanent than a tattoo. Painful in the present uncomfortable while it’s healing and hopefully not embarrassing at any point in the future. Cory loves my tattoos even if I don’t.
And because of that fact alone it is my solemn duty to procure a puppy of supreme pedigree. It’s the least I can do. I’m a shit husband other wise. Along with my financial debt I brought my propensity for back luck.
“Ho man. Wait. You say Durm?” Hunter says in the phone “I…Yeah. I remember uh…”
I’ve already started blushing.
I make a hand visor over my eyes in shame.
“Doesn’t Durham have a lot a crime though?” Hunter asks.
Saying things this way sublimating fears in covert is taught at a very young age as “being polite”. But I have to say although misguided his lack of self-awareness is something to be desired. As I blush I wonder Would Cory even know the difference if she heard him?
I say “Hey do you know if Annie J still breeds dogs?”
“Why?” he sounds like he’s mad I asked.
Then his tone swings up sweet. “You lookin for a pup?”
I get too comfy and it slips from my mouth.
I say “Trine.”
And Cory looks over from her computer like I’m a stranger. I smile at Cory sarcastically and I say into the phone that I’m married now.
“Shit. You’re married? Damn that’s crazy.” he says in the way someone would say when they’re on the phone while driving giving the minimum.
Hunter says after I go to Annie J’s we should get food at Mitch’s Diner. Take it back to the old days.
To my left I see Cory looking at me with her eyebrows up asking if we have a green light.
I mouth: Working on it.
Cory has asked to see where I’m from since we were dating. She wants to “learn more about me”. Now that we’re married I guess she can’t leave me if someone does or says something offensive. Well she can. I’m just saying I have faith that our love will endure through even this stupid vicious storm.
There’s a four-way stop where Lancaster Road and Big Daddy’s Road intersect. Each of its four quadrants flatten out into perfect squares of tobacco fields with far-off treelined walls. And there’s one bright red light hovering in the center that blinks all day and all night. Cory looks out with palms on the passenger window like we’re on a God damn safari.
“So, you grew up near here?” she asks the window.
I’m not the type to point out things and draw up memories and tell funny stories. That disgusting way people show off where they were as kids. As if it’s more interesting than other places where other people were kids. It always makes me uncomfortable when other people do that. Mostly because I’m scared I won’t be able to perform when it’s my turn. My hindsight doesn’t (clearly) tell me if the isolation of my youth was self-inflicted or a side-effect. So my default is to hate where I’m from. My bias filter only lasts as long as I’m there which is why I come as infrequently as possible.
I say “Yep.”
In the tobacco fields there’s dilapidated sheds. Every field has at least one rotted leaning shack used as a farmer’s garage-sized junk drawer for defunct and outdated machinery. Some seem to stand on the brink of collapse that our driving by will be the final wolf-huff. They’re not livable they’re just there because no one alive can remember a time when those sheds weren’t there.
“How old are they?” she asks.
“I don’t know probably from before the Civil War.” That’s my go-to for questions about dates. Plus the historical plug might throw enough shade on the place to taint Cory’s outlook as well.
Then we won’t ever have to do this again.
“So why keep them if nothing works?”
I’m so thrown off by the question I almost forget to stop at the blinking red light at the 4-way stop. I push my bottom lip up shake my head and shrug.
I turned my blinker at the sight of a paint-chipped sign poking out of the trees that says Annie J’s Dogs.
The wet grass in the yard is above my ankles. The Joyner’s craftsman home is accented with a separated garage with one big door on the front and one normal door on the side. Usually when it’s this hot they leave the big one cracked for the dogs. It’s quieter out here than I remember. I can hear more bird than dogs. Actually I don’t hear any dogs at all.
On the porch I don’t see any lights on inside.
I knock softly at first.
Listen for footsteps.
Then knock harder.
“I don’t hear any dogs.” Cory says leaning back to see around the corner of the house. I knock again gently. I whisper-bark at her not to but Cory leans past me and presses the doorbell. I don’t hear any noise. Curious now I press it too and still no ring. I turn around and realize I didn’t see the truck coming in. Now that I think of it she could have moved in the last decade. Power’s off.
Then the door’s seam cracks open.
As the door falls back I think about leaning over into Cory’s ear. To tell her about how this will go. But it’s too late.
Through the crack you could see there were no lights on in her house but it was Annie’s voice. Not sweetened with sugar but infused with honey she says “Do I know you?”
“Hey Miss Joyner.” I say “It’s me. Rex. I used to be a friend of Danny’s.”
Her eyelids sputtered like something was rebooting in her brain. Her voice shakes “You talk to…Daniel? Recently?”
“We haven’t spoke since I graduated.”
She pauses and looks down thinking then opens the door “Sure, I remember you.”
Annie does a reverse nod inviting us inside.
When we were fourteen Danny told everyone his dad died. But everyone knows him and his mom got ditched. I didn’t get why he lied about it but now I kind of do. Didn’t make a difference to us. But that’s where I think Danny’s spiral started. With Annie taking care of the dogs alone left Danny unsupervised. Yet with all of Danny’s destructive interactions with anything his mom never saw it. Or chose not to. As soon as his foot crossed the threshold Danny became Daniel. He was Pikeville’s most lovable pillhead washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. A good boy.
My eyes catch a picture with Danny in elementary school holding up a certificate and Annie squatting beside him. It almost made sense it was just the two of them.
Annie takes a few steps into the kitchen then turns back around with her arms folded. Leans against the sink.
“I remember you now.” she lights a cigarette in her kitchen. Something I forgot that some people still do. “So…Rex.” She points her bony finger while biting the cigarette with her teeth and says “You seeing your folks or something?”
I say “No, they don’t live no. Anyhere. Nowmore…uh nope.”
What a pathetic attempt to not say “Here no more.” in earshot of Cory.
I say “They moved back home after I left for school to take care of my grandparents.”
Annie exhales oily purple smoke slowly and it melted into the air until the kitchen became uniformly hazy.
“Lucky them.” she said.
While all this is happening Cory is eyeballing the house. Strolling the hallway with her arms behind her back. Taking in every little trinket and anecdote. She’s from LA. She loves accents and finds all country shit charming.
I tell Annie that we’re looking to get a dog and knew only one place to get one hoping the subtle compliment would cheer up her gloomy disposition.
“Late.” she says.
Then it was quiet for an uncomfortable pause
Annie breaks the silence and says “Shoulda been here last Friday, I gave away the last of the litter.”
Cory turns toward the kitchen in disbelief and tell her I’m sorry with my eyes.
Her head drops and says “It’s fine.”
I know she wanted one today and honestly on the drive here I was looking forward to having another passenger on the ride out. She’d be so happy with a new friend in her lap.
“Yep. All of em. Except Queen.” Annie pointed a thumb behind her. “That’s my baby.”
Out the kitchen window a black lab lays prone in the back yard alone. Queen is older than I am. As permanent as the old sheds in the fields.
“She getting old?” I ask in a rhetoric tone but am expecting an answer. Almost like setting her up for a joke.
“Maybe.” Annie says to the window. “Don’t know. She’s been quiet like that for a couple weeks. She’s lonely.”
Annie exhales with eyes in a fugue state looking out at her fifteen acres.
“Who knows.” Annie says “Maybe it’s age.”
She steps into the light from the kitchen window and it emphasizes her sunken eyes. Her hair tells me she hasn’t showered in days. She’s paler than I remember.
I asked her why she got rid of the dogs and she says “Getting old. Can’t handle em no more.” dried flakes on her lips rake as she rubs them together and says “Hard to keep em safe.”
Her eyes drift over to the stovetop and fixate. The cigarette is finished and she tries to drag from it anyway. Frustrated by her failure to suck in anything but charred air she flicks the butt in the sink and folds her arms. She taps her right index finger on her left bicep rapidly. Her head bobs.
“If you see him — ” she notices how loud her voice is so she pauses before continuing “If you see Daniel. You tell him something for me.”
I do my best impression of someone who cares.
She says “Tell him…that I’m tellin’.”
“Whadya mean?” I ask. At this point the mood has shifted enough for Cory to shuffle beside me.
Annie lifts her boney yellow musty finger and says “I’m tellin. You best believe. You best believe I’m tellin.”
“Telling who?” Cory says.
“What are you saying?” I ask Miss Annie.
“You wait baby. You wait and see. Imma tell. I’m tellin.”
And then Cory does it. The thing I feared.
Cory says “Do you need help?”
Immediately I feel my mouth dry up and my cheeks seer like flank steak.
It’s what I wanted to tell Cory before the door opened. There’s a way that she’s not privy to on how to be polite with people here. To ask for help is out of the question so you just hope it’s offered. And when it is you must refuse at least once before very reluctantly accepting. Receiving kindness must be against your will.
Annie’s head whips back from the window with eyebrows dipped in the middle. She articulates her consonants like a needle that bites “With what?”
“You just…you look — ” Cory fails to recover and I feel like it’s my fault.
Annie snaps “I just look what?”
I step in and translate for Cory. I say “What’s going on, Miss Annie? Is everything alright?”
And like a magic spell Annie’s shoulders lowers and the weight fell into her folded arms.
She wipes her eyes before teardrops slip down her face.
Head titled toward the ceiling she says “I’ve been doing this all my life…you know?”
I say “Yeah.”
Annie’s right hand holds up an invisible waitress tray then drops and slaps her thigh “And, and, you know, I didn’t want to stop.”
Without consent I pat her shoulder. She allows it. I affectionately say “Yeah.”
And I say “Yeah.”
Cory says “It’s not a bad thing. You just look like you need some help.”
I smush and massage my eyelids as Annie kindly assumes that it must be around the time we need to get going.
We were already back at my apartment when Hunter texted me four hours later. Asking if we’re still getting dinner. I should have just told him we never went. There’s no proof that we did. But I did that knee-jerk response thing that got me texting him in the first place and messaged him back saying we already came and went.
He texts me back “We?”
Cory doesn’t know about my call history I’ve deleted every day since we went to Pikeville. My phone doesn’t recognize the number but I know it’s Miss Annie. I knew before we left that she was going to go back inside and realize that she hasn’t had anyone to talk to about what’s going on and after a bottle or so of something red she’d turn me into her shoulder to cry on. I just let it ring. Hoping she’ll stop.
Cory saw me deleting my call history. Contemporary porcelain from designer Aaron Probyn shatters on the kitchen wall. Cory is trying to kill me. She thinks I’m deleting correspondence with another woman.
Which prompts me to laugh and say “Ah shit.”
“Shit what? Shit like you mean shit I’m cheating on my wife?!”
“No I mean. It’s not like that — ”
After she annihilated our entire coffee mug set from Crate & Barrel I screamed that it’s about the dogs. Cory slid into her seat. Her resolve returned. It was over quicker than snapping your fingers. It may sound weird but there’s something endearing about the threat of assault from someone because they love you so much. It’s so erotic.
Hunter and I have been texting. For the most part I don’t respond apart from acknowledgements like “Yeah” or “Totally”.
He says he’s going to check on Annie. Other people are asking him if they’ve seen her. He says he’s not blaming us for anything but he didn’t want us talking about her to spur something weird in Danny’s fried brain and make him go over and break something of hers.
We have an agreement now. Anything about Annie I have to tell Cory for the sake of our plate and bowl sets we got as wedding gifts.
As I’m sipping coffee from a glass whiskey tumbler I tell Cory what Hunter has been saying.
Cory volunteers us to go with him.
“If she’s upset it’s our fault. It’s only an hour away.” she says “I want to go with you.”
I don’t like how she reminds me how close we are to Pikeville. Years ago when I moved out West I made statements about never returning that I would later eat for financial reasons. I’m destined to be a cultural free-agent bouncing from one progressive city to another until I arrive at one early enough in it’s gentrification to be able to afford the real estate then pretend I’ve been there forever. And that will be my identity.
I’d love to give a speech to Cory explaining that this isn’t one of those TV moments where we need to “do the right thing” and “help those in need” because it’s going to magically resolve my issues with the place. But it’s hard to explain that there is actually no issue. Those people simply aren’t worth the trouble to me.
“What about Annie?” Cory asked like she didn’t know me.
“I don’t know how to make this more clear to you.” I say “Not. My. Problem.”
“So if something happens to her? What if-if that, uh Danny, Daniel — whatever, your friend — goes on some rampage and hurts his mom? Are you going to be able to live with yourself?”
Instead of trying to explain that it’s an act of almighty God that Danny or Hunter or I weren’t killed in any DUI accidents like some of our classmates. Or that places like Pikeville are strangely common all over this country. Cursed gas station towns where circumstance drives everything. Instead of telling her it’s only a matter of time before Danny gets himself killed and that’s just the way it is.
I say “Yes. I absolutely will.”
And there’s a strange uncomfortable staring contest between us. She does not concede which tells me I’m wrong somehow. One of the things I love and hate about my wife: very rarely does she not have an angle on an argument that I did not see coming.
She says “Well I won’t.”
Mitch’s Diner hadn’t been updated aside from a fresh coat of Carolina Blue paint on the walls. The floor was still sticky the booths were where they always were. In high school upperclassmen could eat lunch off campus and Mitch’s was the spot that you could afford to go to financially but not socially if you didn’t play baseball or smoke weed. I don’t think what they did in those days by today’s standards would be considered bullying but making anyone outside of the normal attendees feel unwelcome by wondering (and sometimes outright asking) why they were there was common practice. Most of the time I slipped under the radar by being Danny’s friend.
By Sophomore year Danny held court of the entire diner and didn’t have to pay for his meals because he’d dap up Sonny (Mitch’s grandson (the cook)). A dime bag would cover his tab for a week. Which mathematically doesn’t make sense but free weed held a different kind of weight back then.
He also remembered birthdays. That is one thing he never forgot. He always had a meal and milkshake ready. And for a guy unreliable as Danny it wasn’t a good idea to count on him for anything yet every year I was surprised.
When the dime bags turned to his grandma’s pain killers and Xannies a change happened. Firstly Danny had the newest Jordan’s for the rest of his time in high school. That being until halfway through Senior year when he was expelled for saying he had a bomb in his locker. When in fact he was saying he had a bong but nevertheless they got the combination from his homeroom teacher and searched it. Coach Kornegay said it looked like a medicine cabinet.
No one could connect Danny with the bad ecstasy that killed Sonny but his dad Ted threatened to kill him when he showed up at the funeral fucked up.
After that there was a shadow or indelible mark for having associated with Danny. Hunter and I were outcast everywhere except Mitch’s since we were the ones who threw him out. Anywhere else we went we were served but it was clear we weren’t welcome. That’s when I knew I had received my curse my unremitting bad luck.
I hold the door open for Cory but walk closely behind her to the point that she turns around and looks at me. I recognized Hunter by his iconic red hair.
He’d traded his black North Face pullover for an oversized black pullover hoodie. His Clarks Wallabee chukkas for cheap leather boots caked with mud. He reeked of cigarettes and body odor when he hugged me.
He wrapped around my arms at the elbows in a way where I could only lift my forearms to pat his back. He kept looking me up and down a little bouncy smiling.
I say “This is my wife Cory.”
And I can feel my mind trying to tell my face to smile but it’s not happening.
I do not want to be here.
I do not want to answer questions.
I do not want to catch up or reminisce.
I only want to appear civil in front of my partner and leave.
He shakes her hand and says “Hunner. Nice to meech-uh.” then he rubs his hands together playfully and says “Ya’ll ready to eat?” I see his teeth are darker near the gums.
I say “Sure.”
At the counter some change spills onto the floor as Hunter pulls out a wad of fives and ones. Cory and I pretend not to notice.
She leans into my ear and asks what she should get.
“Mitch’s Loaded BBQ Tray.” Hunter and I say in stereo.
He turns back smiling in the way that says just like old times. And inside I think we are not the same.
Dropped before the three of us are red plastic baskets each the size of bisected footballs lined with wax paper and the greasiest hushpuppies you have ever seen.
Hunter chews with his mouth open and says “Thanks for comin. Annie’s been textin me and callin me for like days, man. I was wundrin what you did.” He pointed a finger dripping with pork grease at me smiling.
I didn’t respond. I ate like he hadn’t said anything.
“Not cusin you uh-nothin.” he had stopped eating and looked up.
I continued to eat. I’m not in the mood to be playful. Or maybe I’m just denying my want to.
About three seconds of silent tension and he resumed his meal and I wonder if I missed an important opportunity for growth through openness my therapist is always talking about.
I could see Hunter looking up from the top of my vision but I didn’t respond until he quickly shot his head down like he was dodging a projectile. I looked up from my food and saw his eyes beading from his jeans to me.
I heard a familiar sound. Hunter’s nervous tick. Grabbing a piece of his pants and rubbing it between his fingers for a soothing effect.
I look behind me and there’s a person in the parking lot with short black hair that’s matted down and shiny wearing a poorly sewn jacket that looks like it was made from a collection of cheap multicolored cow hides with no lining. The person had no shirt underneath and decent wobble. Danny caught eyes with me. Locked his head in place while doing a snake dance trying to keep balance. Made a visor with his hand and leaned on the glass.
“Oh shit.” the girl behind the counter said “Ted. Ted. He’s back again.”
As Danny opened the door he got about as far as “You gotta be shittin me.” before Ted stepped from out of nowhere and pointed at the door and barked “Out!”
“Is that your friend? The one you were talking about?” Cory asked.
Her voice brought me back to the present tense.
My negative feelings are so intense it almost transports me back to high school and entraps me in a form of anti-nostalgia I can only describe as revulsion.
All this for a dog.
Ted stormed and barricaded the front door with his body and the entrance bell rang multiple times as Danny struggled and fell back. Lurching his shoulders to his ears showing his empty palms and pressing his wrists together while incoherently making his case pointing at us. Probably pleading a case telling him that we want to see him like he has to so many mothers of his former friends.
After a minute the front door to the diner shut and stayed shut. Danny rapt his knuckles on the glass. Cory looks at me. I look at my basket. Hunter looks at the window.
Danny says “I’ll see you later.” like he’s underwater.
When we get out of the car Annie’s front door is open. Her truck still isn’t there.
“I’ll check the garage.” Hunter whispers. The grass chews under his boots.
I tell Cory to stay outside. Then I say “Please.”
At the top of the front porch stairs I duck my head. My shoulders tense for anything as I cross the threshold. Down the hallway through the kitchen doorframe there are a pair of ankles touching the floor.
I hear Cory behind me. There’s a brief moment when I consider trying to turn her around and push her out the front door. She’s the one who wants to know more about me. What I come from.
People think they know how they’ll react to these situations but you’d be surprise how much composure you can keep in the moment. Cory throws her hands over her mouth. “Is she?”
“Yes.” I say “Don’t touch anything.”
Annie was face down with Queen panting beside her. Both helpless to help each other.
Queen’s fur is shiny from blood like oil on a black cloth. Her breathing sounded as if a backpack was being dragged across the sidewalk. And when her chest depressed it squeaked sounds of a dusty accordion with an elusive pin-sized hole hidden somewhere.
Hunter comes in the back porch door and steps over the dog without hesitation. Reaches over and lifts a piece of Annie’s gold hair to show the red distressed coloration around her neck.
Hunter’s eyes tighten into slits. He steps back. Looks at the dog and watches it struggle to breathe in its pitiful way for as long as he can. Says there’s a gun somewhere in Danny’s room. And if not he’s got his Remington in his truck back at the diner.
When I agree with him Cory’s mouth opens enough for her chin to jut out and growl “She needs a doctor.”
Hunter looks to Cory then me with an expression of genuine confusion. “You’re gonna bother a doctor about a dog?”
Cory’s eyebrows see-saw at his stupidity. She kneels beside Queen. Her face softens. She pets the bloody coat.
Cory’s voice is tired as her face. “So what, shoot her?”
Hunter waves his hands saying how he didn’t mean nothing by it.
I silently signal him to not. He’ll only make it worse.
She wraps her arms around Queen. Tries to heave and the dog squeaks in pain with a sharp whistle that made me turn away and close my eyes. She gently sets Queen back down and apologizes rapidly in her whispers.
Cory sits up. There’s little black hairs and blood on her beige shirt. She looks up at Hunter and I and says “Help me.”
Hunter’s in the front seat of my SUV. Cory’s in the back with Queen. And I’m ripping down Lancaster Road.
From my peripheral I see another car coming to the 4-way stop. Hunter points ahead to the stop sign and the blinking red light. “Rex.” Hunter’s voice grew in volume and panic. He flicked his eyes to me then back at the road. “Rex. You gotta stop. There’s another car you’ve gotta stop, dude.”
I speed up.
Hunter got quiet and pressed his shoulders to the back of his chair.
Blended into the sound of tires rolling over asphalt was Cory’s voice. Like gasoline fumes and water vapors joining. Infusing the bitter and the sweet until they coalesce. She was whispering to Queen as she stroked that spot in front of the ear with the side of her thumb. The dog’s cheek.
And in my rearview mirror I can’t help but feel my bad luck is responsible for all of this.
Dr. Palmer stroked Queen and listened to his stethoscope.
He looks up at Cory and says “Ma’am. Do you need to sit?”
She stares at Queen or past her. Nothing on Cory’s face moves except her pale lips. I remember the first time I saw a dead body.
“At the house.” Cory says.
Dr. Palmer says “I really need Annie here. I need to know how far long Queen is in her pregnancy.”
Instinctively I look at Hunter who says “You gotta phone Mr. Palmer?”
And Palmer points towards the Hallway. I barely hear the doctor talk distracted by Hunter’s hushed voice on the phone in the hallway.
“Yeah. She’s here. We got her. Yeah yeah, I know. I know. I got you. Look I’m sorry man. No, no, no! I did—hey…hello?”
He comes back down the hallway and says “Good news.”
Dr. Palmer tells Cory he needs her help to keep Queen calm and relaxed. She kneels beside the table and whispers to her again. Before he can get in the room I put a flat palm on Hunter’s chest and push him back into the hallway. I tell Cory that Hunter and I will be back in just a second as I close the exam room door behind me.
He has a nervous smile. “What are you doin?”
“Who’d you call?”
“W-what are you — ”
I pump both hands to his chest snake-bite style. Instant recoil and reload.
“What’s Danny doin?”
“Wasee doin Hunner?”
He slings over and strokes the floor to hold himself up.
And like a wish instantly granted Danny stumbles through the front door with his Walmart prepaid flip phone still in hand. His baby blue eyes look neon with the pink backdrop of veins coated with wax. He hasn’t slept in days. The cigarette in his hand was cold but he held it out with two fingers like it was his line of sight’s stabilizer. He buckled as he walked like a newborn calf.
Danny throws the cigarette on the floor and says “You back to get your teeth fucked up you fuckin snitch?” and dramatically takes off his raggedy ass jacket and throws it down between them. Then pulls up balled fists with the backs facing me for a good old fashioned donnybrook.
I bend over and look at the jacket. It’s folded too much to be leather. Up close the palms size panels of the hide are cut so irregular.
There’s blood on some of them.
And the colors…Chocolate. Black. Yellow.
“What the fuck.”
Hunter’s forehead shrink wrapped to confirm what I already assumed.
The exam room door behind me start to crack open. I lunge and shove my hand over Danny’s mouth so hard his feet kick up. While clamping his mouth I wrap my free hand around his neck and drag him out the door while consciously reminding myself to not suffocate him.
When you want to knock someone out clean you need to make all the sparks in their brain shoot at once. That’s why you see a flash when you get rocked right in the dome. He was able to get out “The fuck y— ” before I sent his head into the driver side mirror of his truck. I toss him and the mirror in the truck bed.
I tell Hunter to get in the truck as I check Danny’s pockets for keys.
No keys but I take his burner.
Hunter shakes his head.
“Hunner. Get. In….” I slam the driver’s side door closed and of course the keys are still in the ignition. I look at Hunter and point to where the driver-side mirror used to be. “…or I’ll throw you in.”
I sighed with relief when I saw the house was still untouched.
Front door still wide open.
I kill the engine and let my head fall back and relax my neck muscles for the first time in what feels like years.
What the fuck am I doing here?
I rub my hands on the leather steering wheel and keep my eyes on Annie J’s front door we accidently left open.
“Hunner.” I ask “What’s Danny doin?”
I taste the honey coming back to my voice.
Hunter scratches his elbows. His head bobs. He grabs a piece of his jeans. Pinches it and rolls it between his fingers.
“About a year ago, or something, he just got mad…at everyone man. He just got nasty. Mean as shit.” He keeps rolling the jeans between his fingers. Looks out the passenger window. His voice gets quiet “Where you gotta just, like steer clear — you know? It was like that.”
I can hear Hunter talking. But I can’t break eye contact with that open front door.
If I watch him say it I know I’d stop him before he could finish.
“I don’t know how, but, he wrangled me into coming back to his house—which I never, never do. And look, I’ve seen him fucked up. But something was just gone man. Like he looked possessed. Danny wadn’t there no more. But this time like not fuckin kiddin.”
He pats the pinched denim down and rubs it over and over. Smooths it out.
His voice pops up like a daisy. “It’s Danny. I mean we known him since what? First grade?”
My throat is dry. It creaks like a frog song and I say “Kindergarten.”
Hunter said in Danny’s delusional rants he would have while waving a stiletto switchblade galivanting in long unbroken sentences about how he’s got this genius idea about a clothing company he wanted to start that nobody has ever thought of.
“He…Jesus…He had one of the dogs. One of the mamas. Chained it up in the kitchen.”
First the older dogs went missing. Which was fine cause they meander back. Then they found them in the woods skinned. Then they couldn’t find the puppies.
As Hunter describes what happened over past year my eyes move from the steering wheel to the open door and back and forth. Sitting still and quiet. Bound and gagged by images.
The body in the bed of the truck doesn’t belong to a man. He’s a fourteen-year-old trapped inside of a man’s body sealed in a tomb that very few escape from totally. I wonder how many times a day Danny thinks he’s already dead.
“Annie…I don’t know what she thought. She had to have known. But cops came round and she said it was her fault. She lost em.”
“His jacket?” I ask.
Hunter’s head falls back down. Pinches his jeans again. His bobbing head turns into a nod and he whispers “Yeah.”
My phone rings. It’s Cory. And I’m back in the present tense. Queen’s dead. There were five but she was kicked so hard and so many times only one of the litter survived. And I think about those cursed puppies in that cursed womb who are victim to circumstance.
I look at Hunter. The silence grows until he looks over at me staring at him.
“Where are you?” the phone asks.
I put the keys in the ignition and hold them in place. Then I change my mind.
I tell Cory I love her and I’m headed back. Then hang up and swap my phone for Danny’s burner. I step out of the truck and look to the gravel path toward the main road.
Hunter still beside the truck “Hey. What are we gonna do with him?”
I point to the phone at my ear.
I mouth: calling us a ride.
Then turn away and cover the receiver of the phone with my free hand as I mumble “Yes. I’d like to report a break-in. 728 Lancaster Road…Yeah, Annie J’s place.”
Hunter struggles to drag Danny’s unconscious body from the truck to the house. Hopefully the engine will be cool by the time they get here.
The phone says “Sir are you in a safe place?”
I don’t understand the question. I turn on my heel and walk backward away from the house then motion to Hunter to go inside without me.
I mouth: I’ll be right there.
The phone says “Sir. I asked if — ”
I snap the phone in half at it’s plastic hinges and toss it in the truck bed.
Ducking into the trees I’m parallel to Lancaster Road back towards the Animal Hospital. After about 200 feet of crouched running silent blue and red lights do a filtered pass past me. No sirens for situations in progress. I’d forgotten how those lights make everything feel unreal. The only light show that celebrates lives that are never the same. I never feel safe even to this day when I see red and blue. I just get worried.
Regret can be as instant as karma. All the questions blast through my head. Why did I tell him to go inside? Do I hate Hunter or were my fight-or-flight senses protecting me? Do I really have a say in what either of them deserve?
All I want to do is shout into the air at Hunter to run. Run away. And keep running until he hits the beach in Wilmington. But it’s years too late for that.
When I get to the crossroads with the blinking red light a distant array of pops ring out. The sound absorbed in the humidity across the desolate flat green openness. I hold my breath out of instinct and take a knee. Looking back the way I came. Listening for any echoed shouting but only hear my breathing. The animal hospital is a half-mile now. I try to keep myself distracted thinking of names for the one pup that (despite circumstances) was able to be saved.