“Animals” by Morgan Pile

Adam had procured from the crowded kitchen two Tervis Tumblers and a full bladder of wine––that is, box wine without the box. He held it up like an anesthesiologist preparing an IV. Jane held out the cups for him to administer the pour.

“Remind me again why we’re here,” she said.

“Really? You want to see him more than I do. You practically dragged me.”

Well. She wanted to see him. She couldn’t deny that she wanted to see him. She’d taken her father’s car from the garage without permission, then silenced her phone against his calls just to be there, infractions she’d committed knowing full well what they would cost in terms of basic freedom. She’d viewed the inevitable punishment as a necessary trade-off for her happiness. But the current scene was enough to erode her confidence in the exchange. Summer kids in freshly pressed khakis, sundresses and whale pants had taken over Lucas’s mother’s living room.  Lucas was nowhere to be found.

Adam cleared his throat at two Lacoste t-shirts edging into his space. It was a big season for Lacoste, you could already tell.

“I don’t like these kids,” he said.

“You don’t know them,” Jane said, though she secretly shared the sentiment.

“Oh, I know enough.  I know what they’ve done. They’re animals.”

It was already happening. The resentful edge Adam got each summer, which swelled and shrank with the population. All islanders had it to some degree. Jane had it. But Adam’s was deep in his bones, passed down from generations.

“Urban legends,” Jane said.

“Ha.” Drops of wine flew from Adam’s mouth, narrowly avoiding Jane’s sandals. “Mrs. Allen’s cat.”

Jane stepped away. “That was an accident.”

“Oh, it’s accident she wandered into the neighbor’s microwave? It was accident her guts exploded from the inside?”

“Stop it. Seriously. I’ll puke.”

Adam sipped his drink moodily and assessed the room. After a minute, he pointed to the corner where a group of boys were pouring beer into a funnel. One of them was down on his knees with his head bent backwards in preparation.  But Adam was pointing behind them, to the place where a portrait of Lucas once lived on that wall—the one where he sported a bowl cut and sailor’s outfit and a buck-tooth grin. It was missing. In its place hung a seascape, a generic rocky coast from anywhere.

“What happened to little Lucas?”

He was laughing. Jane thought about it. Lucas stashing that portrait somewhere before someone who never knew him then could see it, give him shit. She understood why it was funny, nodded at it, but couldn’t bring herself to laugh.

Instead, she looked around again, checking every face in the room. Many she recognized as kids from the docks, who’d taken out their parents’ boats, not so much to use them as to tan their bodies on the decks. Or the beaches, where they laid out their great displays: umbrellas and blankets, picnics and volleyball nets. She knew them as you know a celebrity, almost had the impulse to greet them until she remembered it was one-sided. Embarrassing. Townies blended into the atmosphere. They wouldn’t know her from a dent in the wall.

She needed some air. They had to fight through bodies to get around back. On the porch, people were lined up shoulder to shoulder, looking in on two large tables brought up from the basement, covered with cups, turned over cans and shiny slicks of spilled beer. The soil from toppled plants had met the alcohol drippings and coated the decking with the corrugated patterns of footprints.

“I don’t get it,” Adam said when they made it to the railing. “Lucas used to hate these people.”

Jane took the bag of wine still gripped in his hand and topped off her drink. A couple was making out in the center of everyone. No one paid them any attention.

“How does this even happen?” he said.

“They’re summer people. They’ll show up to anything.”

“No. How does Lucas become this guy? Throws house party for rich kids. Doesn’t even call his friends.”

“Maybe you should give him a break.”

They drank their wine.

“You can’t tell me it didn’t piss you off. First he leaves in the middle of everything. Then when he comes back he does this.”

Jane shrugged. He hadn’t wanted to leave, she wanted to say. They couldn’t blame him for that. Adam knew as well as she did, it was his mother who sent him away once the insurance money came through, not two months after Mr. Holmes threw himself in the wake of a cargo barge passing through. Now, the first time he comes home it’s back to an empty house. Who wouldn’t act out a bit? Perhaps throw a raging party to broadcast his anger? The only real regret Jane felt was how she’d heard about it: from a piece of soiled paper that had stuck to the bottom of Adam’s shoe. Apparently, to advertise, Lucas had left flyers on car windows all over town, flyers that read “LucaPALOOZA: One Night Only, Back From the Dead.”

Adam was distracted, peering out over the lawn. She followed to see where he was looking. At first, all she could make out was a narrow white tube: fog, lit up by the spotlight from the porch that didn’t reach the ground. But Adam was caught up in something else in the middle of the darkness. Orbs of brightness showing up in mid air. Fireflies.

“Hello friends.”

She felt the hand on her shoulder and someone wedging between them.

“The fuck have you been,” Adam said.

“Good to see you, too.”

There was a sudden grate on her nostrils from whiskey.

“Look at you,” he said. He meant Jane. He took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted her head. She looked down at his feet. The pants he was wearing were orange.

“Were you this pretty when I left?”

She glanced at Adam. This was new.

“Were you this much of an ass?” he said.

Lucas opened his mouth and then closed it, biting the air with odd aggression. Then he dropped Jane’s chin and moved into Adam, put his arm around him on one side and drew him close.  The corner of his eye had a raw redness to it that Jane hadn’t noticed straight on. And there were new lines of wrinkles going out to his temples when he smiled.

“Welcome home,” said Adam. “You’ve missed very, very little.”

“You want to meet some girls?” Lucas said, out of the blue.

“I haven’t seen any.”

“Oh they’re here. We’ll find Sally and her friends. Sally’s John’s sister. My roommate at St. Peter’s. You know, John.”

Jane had heard nothing about John. Neither had Adam, she knew. Still, the boys turned for the kitchen and she followed just the same.  Lucas used his shoulders to move his way through. Adam went the wide way. From across the room Jane watched Lucas stop and turn around slowly, sniffing the air. Jane was in clear view but his eyes reached past her to the place above her head. Then he turned back and kept walking.  She shouted after him but Lucas didn’t hear. He kept going, tearing his way through the crowd. Then a minute later, when she turned to check on Adam, Lucas had disappeared. The bobbing back of his head that she had used as a beacon had been wiped from the party skyline.

Jane and Adam went alone to the front steps.

“What the hell was that?” Adam said when they sat. His feelings were hurt. Jane could tell. “I think he’s lost his mind, I really do. Did you smell the booze on him? Christ. His poor mother. Wait ’til she sees the living room.”

Were it not for his talking, Jane could have nodded off right there. The party noises had plateaued to a consistent buzz, a kind of a nice white noise.

“Who does he thinks he is? Want to meet some girls? What girls? And who is this John kid that I never heard of? I’m telling you. Something’s into gotten to him, Janey. Did you see those pants? That popsicle-colored bullshit. Who even makes those? Asshole factories?”

He went on like this and Jane stopped listening. Finally, someone who had come in from the walkway, interrupted, said her name. Jane looked up and found Alex Walker standing above them at the top of the steps.

“Lucas around?”

She had to strain her neck to see him.

“Somewhere in there,” Adam said.

“When did he get home? Where’s his mom?”

“Down in Boston.”

He took a few steps back to line up his face with theirs and you could see it in his eyes, the worry.

“So, my Yorkshire. He’s this high, grey spots. Either of you seen him?”

“We know your dog,” Adam said.

“Well, have you seen him?”

Adam hocked a loogie on the ground.

“He wanders over here sometimes, you know, into the backyard. Mrs. Holmes doesn’t mind. Except usually he’s gone for an hour, maybe two.”

“How many’s it been?”

“Five.”

“He’s probably out chasing a rabbit,” Jane said.

“Does he hunt?” Adam said.

“What?” Alex said.

“Does he hunt?”

“He’s a Yorkie. Never hunted in his life.”

He looked at the ground and Adam looked at Jane. Jane put her drink down and got to her feet.

“Alright, come on then,” she said. “Let’s find him.”

Around the back, the grass had turned muddy with the dew. The light had come back to the sky and the porch lights were working.

“Why are all these summer kids here?” Alex said, looking up to the porch. “Is that weird?”

“I think it is,” Alex said. “Janey here doesn’t appear to think anything.”

“Oh shut up,” Jane yelled. “I’m looking over here.”

She went to the bottom edge of the lawn. Adam and Alex walked ahead on the same line where the grass met the woods, one after another. Both of them were shouting the dog’s name, pouring all of their strength into their voices. But from a few yards back, Jane could barely hear them. The music and the yelling from the party on the porch got between them. She was yelling, too. But she knew they couldn’t hear her either and soon her voice was half gone and she was getting down from the futility of it.

So, when she came up to the place where she remembered there’d been a path, she ducked out and started down into the woods, fighting brambles, avoiding branches. She did that until she came to what she was looking for, an old sycamore, laid down long ago by a storm.

Wasn’t tall but must have been a hundred feet wide so that on its side it reached  as high as anything around. If you climbed to the top, you could see all the way out to the road. You could see the cars go by and, sometimes, on a clear day, the ocean. Something got into her seeing it again, the tree. She didn’t check to see if the base was rotted out or pull the branches to see if they’d dried through. She climbed anyway. And she climbed up high, remembering the old footholds and handholds and places she could scoot along. When she got to the top only a few branches had broken beneath her and she was out of breath and sweating. She took that last branch above her and held it across her chest for balance. From there, she got the view.

She hadn’t seen it for years. But Lucas had just a year ago, she knew, in the dead of winter, the day of his old man’s wake. Mrs. Holmes, a staunch Catholic, had insisted on an open casket at home. He’d sat there freezing for hours, waiting for the coroners, watching them come, watching them go.

What Jane saw now were the street and the house and the crowd on the porch. And Adam and Alex trailing each other on the far edge of the woods. Did they know she was gone? Were they shouting her name? The fact is, from where she was she couldn’t hear what they were yelling, if they were still yelling at all. Their voices, downwind from the house, were swallowed up in the party noises and shipped off with the breeze. And watching the scene now, the tiny figures shifting around in vague association with each other, what struck her most was how manageable it all seemed. How serene.

Then a commotion started from inside the house. From the front door, a mass exodus began. People ran, clawed their way past each other. The entire party, draining into the lawn. Jane shimmied down the tree fast as she could, skinned up her thighs, ran through the bramble, cut streaks across her legs. She ran up to the empty porch, straining her ears. Heard nothing. Stepped into the house.

The stench rose up immediately. The ghost of body order, mixed with leftover booze. Bottles and sweaters and tortilla chip cracklings booby-trapped the kitchen floor. An abandoned red army of plastic cups stood alert, half-full, as if awaiting her charge. She could hear the calls from outside, and cutting through them, what sounded like one of Lucas’s animal howls.

She took two steps to towards the doorway then stopped in her tracks. That’s when she saw him. What was left of him, anyhow. She looked away immediately, but the image remained: the scrawny counters of bone and muscle beneath matted down fur, among suds of soap and blood, all laid bare atop the open door of Mrs. Holmes’s top-of-the-line Kenmore machine.

She ran, futilely willing the image from the front of her brain. She ran until the end of the lawn until she saw Lucas, absconded in the bush beneath a neighbor’s pine, pale as winter. She shouted his name. He lifted his head in the vaguest indication of recognition. And they started towards each other. Jane basically running, Lucas walking as if dragging a corpse. He was soaked, it seemed, in his own sweat, saying something over and over that she only heard when he was close enough to touch her. He pulled her for a moment into his chest, which was damp against her cheek. Some part of him smelled metallic, rancid.

“Car keys.”

This is what he had been saying. She must have been stunned because automatically, she reached in her back pocket and handed them over. Without another word, Lucas turned and began sprinting towards the driveway a hundred yards away. Jane ran after, around the house and to the front lawn, where Alex and Adam, who had had been waiting among the crowd, also took off running.

Adam was faster. He caught up at the edge of the driveway, grabbed Lucas’s shoulder and pulled him to the ground. Jane showed up a few seconds later. Alex was pushing his chest down with one hand and trying for Jane’s keys with the other. Lucas was breathing hard.

“Where are you going?” Adam shouted.

Jane watched him for his answer. He was looking not at Adam or at Jane but straight up into the starless sky and his chest was rising and falling at a rate so rapid, it seemed he might faint, somehow, for lack of air. Adam saw this too and took away his hand. But just as soon as he did, Lucas was on his feet again and taking off in full sprint. Jane was the first to go after him. She stepped down hard on a rock and a current of pain shot through her body but she kept going. She could tell how far she was ahead by the volume of Adam’s obscenities raging behind her.

Lucas was already in the car by the time she caught up. She dumped herself into the passenger seat just as he fit the key in the ignition. Before he hit the gas, they heard a loud thump: the particular round sound of something heavy landing on the roof. It lit up panic in Jane, but Lucas paid it no mind, pulling straight backwards and then forwards into the street. Behind them, Alex was screaming something inaudible, watching them go. Jane screamed herself too, to find out where they were going. Lucas didn’t answer. Probably, he didn’t know either.

Jane yelled again but Lucas was already rolling down the window and then standing so his body was sticking half way out of the car. Jane, when she realized what he was doing, put her hand to steady the wheel.

She heard Lucas shout Adam’s name.

“What?” She yelled back loud as she could against the wind. Then it occurred to her. Adam was on the roof.

Twenty seconds went by with her steering and Lucas with his foot on the gas and his body halfway out of the car. When he came back, he was holding his cheek with one hand. He placed the other the wheel.

“He fucking punched me,” he said.

“Adam’s up there?”

No response. Jane felt unable to breath and rolled down the window. Then began to stand with the intentions of checking for herself. But before she could, Lucas accelerated, launching her body back into the seat. The lights from houses blurred through the fog. The wind from the windows smacked with cold. Then blue lights, out of nowhere, flashed ahead.

Lucas eased on the break. When it was slow enough, she rolled down the window and stood through. Her plan was to guide Adam’s feet and then body through the opening to safety. She grabbed the roof with both hands and pulled herself up. But when she got there, he was gone.

After that, Lucas pulled over right away. Jane opened the door and let out the contents of her stomach on the grass. When she came up, Lucas was staring at her, pale-faced, waiting to tell her that the cops had sped by; they didn’t even slow. Then he said Adam was fine. Probably saw the lights and jumped, he said. His voice was strange and far away.

Jane steadied herself from her nerves, clutched her right hand, which was shaking.

“Lucas,” it came out in a whisper. “Where are you going? What have you done?”

She waited for him to say something, anything. At least to shake off his blank stare and look at her, really. She waited an impossibly long time. The silence hung in the air like a lethal gas. She was determined to withstand it. Then, the light of a passing car lit up Lucas’s face in a deadening pale and it scared her.

She found Adam lying half a mile back, in the tall grass beside the road. He laughed what turned into a cough. Jane sat down beside him.

“That was a pointless thing to do,” she told him. “A moving car.”

“It wasn’t moving when I got on it,” he said.

His knee was scraped up and bleeding. He grimaced as she brushed the dirt away. With his eyes closed, his elbows bent in a diamond, his hands cradling his head, he looked completely content, as if there were nowhere in the world he’d rather be than banged up and abandoned on the side of the road.

“I found the dog,” he said after a while. “Everyone did. The cops must have gotten fifty calls.”

Jane was silent.

“Who would do that?”

She shook her head.

“Do you want to know what I think?”

He turned his body to see her.

“No,” she said. “For once in your life. Don’t tell me.”

—————————————————————————————————————————-

This has been “Animals” by Morgan Pile, Story One in Series One of Sleepless Stories.

Morgan Pile grew up in Boston, graduated from Bowdoin College and received her MFA from New School University in 2014. She has never killed a dog with a household appliance, or any other way. You can read more of her work at morganpile.com

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