The desk was mahogany and varnished to the point where I could see the outline of my head. It had clearly come from some factory or other, probably in China. You could always tell when something came from someone, rather than something. You could run your fingers along the little ridges and divots, and it was almost like touching the weathered face of the man who made it. Touching his calloused hands, the hands of a real man. When you put your face real close to the wood, there was sawdust, and the sweat and the cigarettes on his breath. Smelling this desk, all I got was Clorox.
“I asked you a question, Mr. Holland.” I glanced up at the perfectly manicured man. One hand was clasped around his middle and the other fiddled with his tie. He had the sort of high voice and perfect grammar that a kid ought to get beat up for. “Your honor, his plea requires that he answer any and all questions we ask.”
“Answer the question, sir,” the judged boomed, looking down his spectacles.
“What was the question again?”
The Brooks-Brothers-bastard’s eye twitched and he cleared his throat. “You’re certainly not helping your case, sir. A little respect goes a long way.” Like he knew anything about respect. He could respect the tip of my rifle. I relaxed the hand that had been forming into a fist. “We all know you’re guilty, Mr. Holland. The defense has failed to prove otherwise. The question I asked, which you so dutifully ignored, was why? Why did you do it, Mr. Holland?”
I swallowed and said just about the only thing that still was true. “All dogs go to heaven.”
“Are you calling your wife a bitch, sir?”
A chuckle escaped my mouth and, once it had, another followed, and soon I couldn’t control any of it. Obviously, it wasn’t doing me any good, but I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t help it because it was funny. I couldn’t help it, because it was funny, because a month ago I had called Barbara a bitch.
“I mean, sometimes I feel like she’s trying to act like a little bitch. Just to piss me off, you know,” I’d said, or something to that effect. But first I’d said, “She won’t go near me anymore. Says I smell or something. I think it’s menopause.” So, it wasn’t, you know, as if I’d just called her that out of the blue. And I hadn’t said it to her face.
Bill had merely grunted and tensed his index finger on the trigger of his Vanguard Series 2. The rabbit was only a few feet away from us, but must not have seen us in the bushes because it hadn’t gotten spooked.
I’d told Bill he could have this one, but at this point I was tired of his posturing and aiming and taking his sweet time. With a glance at him, I raised my own Marlin 336C: sleek, rugged, and full of more personality than Bill’s Vanguard.
The rabbit was still poking around stupidly in the grass, unaware that my scope was trained on him. I smiled. One flick of the trigger and he was on the ground and bleeding with a perfect hole through his skull.
“Aw dammit, Sam! You said I could have this one!” Bill lowered his rifle and scowled.
“Don’t get all bowed up — The early bird gets the rabbit. You coulda had it if you’d quit pussy-footing around. Tell you what, I’ll let you take this one home, and you can feed it to Linda and even tell her you shot it. Maybe she’ll respect you then.”
“Oy, Linda’s not the one who won’t go near my dingle.”
“Nobody wants to go near your dingle, Bill.”
“I mean, I ain’t the one who’s just said his wife’s not interested in him.”
“That ain’t me though. That’s her. She’s going through some sort of weird hormone thing. I don’t know. Said she’s been feeling nauseous a bunch lately and it puts her off. Frankly, I’ve been nauseous too. Must be something going around.”
“You know, women say they’re nauseous when they don’t want to boink.”
“I’ve half a mind to shut you up.” I shook my rifle in his general direction.
Bill snorted and then began to laugh properly, clutching his cushiony belly as his wide, gap-toothed smile crinkled his sun-tanned skin. Bill’s laugh was something else — sort of a Goofy style hyuck. I couldn’t help myself and laughed along.
“Shall I go pick up the rabbit,” Bill asked at last, still grinning.
“Let Buddy get it. I’m fixing to make him a proper hunter.” I whistled and yelled, “BUDDY! Come here, old boy!” A beagle came bounding out from who-knows-where and leapt onto my lap, licking my face vigorously. I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Buddy, go get the rabbit, boy! Go get it!”
Buddy jumped out of my lap and padded over to the corpse. He clamped his jaw around it, crunching a bit on the bones, and looked back at me, smiling in the way that only dogs can. The rabbit’s blood dripped down his jowls and soaked into his fur. “Good boy,” I cooed.
“Well now we – I – have got to clean him up,” Barb had said, when I came home triumphantly. “Thanks for the extra hassle, Sam.”
“No problem,” I said, and walked past her into the kitchen. She waddled after me. The years had not treated Barb well; they’d given her more than a few extra pounds, gray hairs, and frown lines. Her nose had begun to sag a bit, the way my mom’s always used to. “Have you made dinner yet,” I asked, heaving myself into a rocking chair.
“Turkey and gravy. And green beans.”
“Good,” I said. And it was. Later that night, with a stomach full of turkey and gravy and no green beans, I fell asleep almost instantly.
Then I found myself somewhere else entirely.
They must have been redwood trees, because they towered over me like nobody’s business. It was dark — so dark — but I couldn’t see the moon or any stars, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the thick fog that boiled around my feet or because there were no stars. I had a terrible twisting, sour feeling in my gut, like I’d eaten roadkill without washing it properly.
Aruf. Grrr. Grar. The growls turned my heart all white and fuzzy and made my throat harden. “Buddy?” But it wasn’t Buddy. Some dogs were all bark and no bite, but Buddy was no bark and no bite, and I was certain these dogs were all bark and all bite. Another vicious growl ripped through my ears. I squinted into the void, but I couldn’t see past a foot and a half before the darkness swallowed the distance.
A chorus of growls. I was surrounded — that much I knew. I couldn’t see the bloodthirsty bastards though, and that just made it worse. The barking was coming from all around me and it seemed there was no way to go. Except… up? I eyed the tree closest to me. There was no way around it — I wasn’t a small guy. I was well built and burly, not some squirrelly sucker-stick. Even if I were able to lift myself up the tree I couldn’t bank on it staying upright. Besides, the trunk was blackened, dead, rotting. I didn’t trust it.
So, essentially, I was about as safe as a turkey on Thanksgiving.
I swallowed hard and steeled myself for it. If it was gonna go this way I was gonna go down fighting, dammit. Just as I was ready to kick some canine ass, something tall, fat, and sweaty slammed me into the tree, which groaned a bit under our combined weight.
“Oy – Bill? What in God’s green earth…”
Bill straightened up and took a step back. “You’ve finally made it.”
“What is going on? I just turned up here, and the dogs, and where is this?”
“We’re in the other place, Samael.”
“Oh, don’t be such a buckshot, Bill. Every place is an ‘other place.’ And it’s Sam. It ain’t short for anything. We’ve been friends for, what, 15 years? And you don’t know that?”
Bill smiled. “Been waiting for you, Samael.”
“Would you quit calling me that? You ain’t making a lick of sense. Would you just start with where we are?”
“There are a hell of a lot of names for where we are, and none of them accurate. No pun intended.”
“Obviously you’re gonna keep talking in circles. Here’s a straight one for you: What’s with the fucking dogs?”
“All dogs go to heaven.”
“Is that where we are, heaven?”
“You could say that. Ain’t totally right, but you could say it.”
“Sure don’t feel like heaven to me.” I stiffened. “Am I dead, Bill?”
“You’re just about the most alive person I know.”
I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. “I didn’t realize there was a competition.”
“I mean it. You’re the only one who can do it, Samael. Save us.”
I gripped the tree trunk and looked into his eyes, which were gray and wobbling and yet insistent. “Don’t play me.”
“This world is crumbling. That’s why you’re here. Stop it from exploding.”
“You’re full of hot air.” I turned around. To where, I didn’t know. Wasn’t like I had anywhere to go.
A hand gripped my shoulder. “Listen, there’s not much time. You can’t do this alone, but others can’t cross over like you can.”
“Well, I’ve got you, haven’t I? You can help me… do whatever it is you mean me to do.”
Bill’s eyes were dark. “I’m only your guide. I can’t be helping you. I don’t properly exist in this world, or the other one.”
“Bill, please –” Before the words were out of my mouth he’d already torn past me and into the void.
The growling, which I’d almost forgotten about, intensified. I could swear it was closer than before. “Lord have mercy on my soul,” I breathed. This was it. I was going to die — if you could even die in heaven. Maybe I’d just suffer eternal torment or something. Still, whatever it was, it wasn’t good, and it was about to happen right now.
Then I hit the ground.
“Sam, what in holy hell?” A shrill voice echoed above me. It was so bright it hurt, but then my eyes adjusted and Barb was leaning down to me from the bed. “I nearly shat myself. What happened?”
I rubbed my stinging knees. “I think I fell out of bed.”
“Well, I can see that much.”
“Well, you didn’t need to ask then.”
Barb rolled her eyes and laid back in bed. I heaved myself up and dusted off my long underwear. Then I lumbered back into bed beside her. I wasn’t about to tell her why I was so shook up — I left the dreaming to the women. Still, my heart was beating a thousand miles an hour and a part of me just wanted it off my chest. “Barb –“
“Were you going to come with me tomorrow?”
“Come with you where?”
“Sam, I say, do you even listen to me? I’m visiting Michael tomorrow. I’ve been talking bout it all week.”
“I always thought Mike had more dollars than sense, even before he got locked up. You’re wasting your time with him.”
“He’s my brother, Sam. What’s family for, if not to waste your time?”
“Do what you want. I don’t want no part of it.” To show I wasn’t mad, I rolled on my side and cast one arm over her pillowy middle. Even after all these years, it still made my heart warm to do that.
Barb twisted her head to face me and planted a peck on my cheek. “Good night, Sam.”
“Mr. Holland, sir, I only mean, the toxicology reports.” Mr. Robertson blinked stupidly. He rubbed his knob-like chin that met rounded, boyish cheeks sporting some half-assed stubble. “The toxicology reports, sir.”
“Speak English, boy,” I barked. I reclined in my chair and gazed out the window. For a big shot lawyer, Robertson had a small office.
“Erm, well, statistically – I mean legally speaking, your best shot is an insanity plea. The toxicology reports –“
“You calling me a fucking nutter, boy?”
The kid recoiled and shakily drew a handkerchief out of his suit pocket. “Of course not. It’s legal terminology sir. It’s your best option.”
“I ain’t doing it. I ain’t doing it. I ain’t going in there and calling myself a nutter.”
“You could be facing life in prison, sir. How exactly are you going to plead, then?”
“We simply don’t have the evidence for that, sir. Your wife, quite frankly-“
“Not against my wife, you fuck!”
The morning after that first dream started out normal. Barb had already gone before I woke up, and she hadn’t left me any breakfast, so I set about making it myself. I eyed the apples and oranges she’d laid out on the counter, and then went into the freezer for some bacon. Ten minutes later it was sitting on my plate and quite a bit blacker than it had started out.
As I choked down my breakfast, I looked out the kitchen window at Bill’s house. He was sitting on his porch and drinking his typical black roast. Going over to talk to him would be a bad idea, I knew. A dream was a dream, and of course he wouldn’t remember. Still, the what-ifs itched at me. I wouldn’t even have to say anything really. Just go over and see if he brought it up.
I tossed my plate in the sink and whistled. “Buddy! Come here, boy.” No sound of happy puppy paws. “Still sleeping, the lazy sack of shit.” I chuckled. I’d ruffle his fur later, then. All the more sign it was time to see Bill.
“Oy, Bill,” I hollered as I left the house.
He saw me and his eyes lit up and a smile wrinkled his leathery face. “Sam, my man. How ya been? Sleep well?”
“Good, good,” I muttered, dropping into the rocking chair beside him. It was one of those summer mornings where the air was cool and fresh, but you could tell it intended to be hot later. “How’d you sleep, Bill?”
“Like a rock. Linda fixed me up some eggs this morning and I’m feeling good.” He patted his broad stomach. His eyes were clear and unperturbed. Guess I was crazy then.
Ruff. Ruff. GrrRRAr. I stiffened. Ruff. I let out my breath. “Buddy, is that you?”
Then, the screeching of car tires and a thud and a high whine. I jumped up. “BUDDY!”
There he was, on the dirt road behind Bill’s house. Bleeding out. Red streamed down his jowls and soaked into his fur and into the dust under him. “Buddy, NO! Goddamn it, Barbara must’ve let him out. Oh Buddy, no…”
Bill came up behind me, holding his shotgun. He laid the other hand on my shoulder and said, as if to comfort, “All dogs go to heaven. You gotta put him out of his misery.” I stared at him. It seemed like there was more understanding in his eyes now than before. Did this mean, was it real? He remembered, then?
I took the shotgun from Bill, swallowed hard, and aimed it at the whining fluffy bloodstain. Bang, bang, bang and he wasn’t whining no more. I turned away. “Let’s get you a cup of something strong,” Bill said.
I laid in bed for hours that night. Barbara had long since fallen asleep, but I couldn’t help fearing what lay beyond my closed eyelids. Bill — what he’d said — did he know? Did that make it real? And Buddy, dead. I swallowed. Had to bite the bullet sometime.
I closed my eyes and let sleep overtake me.
Dark, starless sky. Redwoods. Fog. And of course, the snarling. I was back. I took a deep shaky breath and did what I’d been contemplating for the past hour. I whistled. “Buddy!”
A moment of silence and stillness.
Then, a fluffy beagle bounded out from the darkness and leapt onto me. I bent down and beamed and he licked my face and I scratched his scruff. I felt a prickling at my eyes. “I missed you, boy.”
The growling started up again, louder and sharper. Buddy hopped out of my arms and growled back at the hounds. They went posturing back and forth for a bit, but the hellhounds got less and less confident each time until they stopped entirely. I beamed. “Lead the way, Buddy.”
He looked at me as if he understood, and took off into the darkness, with me right behind. I didn’t know where I was going, but Buddy seemed to. Bill’d said I was meant to save the world, and I sure wasn’t doing that standing there.
I could tell the dogs were following us, though, could hear their claws gnashing the earth. So, I was mighty pleased when I saw a log cabin loom out of the darkness. Buddy reached the door and then stopped and turned to look at me. Needing no encouragement, I pried the door open and rushed inside. I fastened the dead bolt. No dog was getting to me.
Buddy curled up on the dirt floor in front of the fireplace. I followed his lead and warmed my hands in front of the dancing flames. Normally this would make me think there was someone here, but I didn’t have that feeling, and didn’t think this world followed any sort of logic.
There was something behind the flames. Thought I was crazy for a second, but there it was. Some sort of black box, with a bunch of wires, ticking. I squinted. There were numbers on the box, ticking down. A bomb. This world was crumbling, he’d said. This was what he meant. Without thinking I reached for it, but recoiled as a jolt of pain hit my hand. Course I couldn’t put my hand in flames.
Buddy whined and batted his paw through the flames several times. I rushed to examine his paw but it was unsinged. “You ain’t alive, Buddy. You can’t get burned when you ain’t alive.” I smiled. “Get the bomb, boy! Get it.”
Buddy just stared at me with those glossy puppy eyes. He couldn’t get the box. It was too big for him to clamp his teeth around, and he didn’t have thumbs. There had to be another way.
You can’t do this alone, he’d said. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again I was in my bed. Barb was next to me. I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence.
I needed help. I needed someone who could reach through those flames and bring back the bomb. Once this was all over and the world was saved she’d be back, and Buddy too. I was sure of it. I just needed to borrow her.
I got out of bed. I picked up my pillow. I placed it over her face and I held it there for a good long time. When I took it off, I checked for a pulse and found none. I got back in bed and closed my eyes.
I was back in the cabin. Buddy was licking Barb’s feet. Her eyes were wide and wandering. “Sam, what is going on? Where are we?”
“No time to explain. Get the bomb out the fireplace, Barb.”
“I can’t very well put my hands in some flames.”
“Just do it, Barb. It won’t hurt, I promise.”
Eying me, she bent down and tentatively extended a finger into the flames. When it didn’t burn, she laughed and looked at me. I nodded encouragingly and she stuck both her hands in and pulled out the bomb.
The weight of it tugged her hands downward, so she relented and dropped it on the ground.
I knelt and examined the box. On the back was a red button that read “disengage.” Could it be this easy? I took a deep breath and pressed the button.
The ticking stopped. The air relaxed a little bit. The fireplace went out, and a chill stole across my back.
“We’re going to freeze,” said Barbara.
“No, we’re not.”
“We’re going to freeze. Going to freeze. Freeze.”
“FREEZE,” The policeman hollered, knocking down our bedroom door. My hands shot up and I sat up. “We are arresting you in connection with the murder of Barbara Holland. You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Four weeks later, Robertson stood up next to me. “Your honor, the defense calls Dr. Albert Gerand.” The judge nodded. A balding old man puttered up to the witness stand. Robertson cleared his throat. “Your honor I submit exhibit F.” He handed a paper to the judge and another copy to the old man. “Dr. Gerand, can you tell me what this is?”
“It is a report on the status of the defendant’s house at the time of arrest.”
“And do you see anything unusual about this, Dr.?”
“There is a high concentration of carbon monoxide. Probably from a leak in the furnace.”
“And with your medical expertise, what are the effects of carbon monoxide exposure?”
“Well, it can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and, and hallucinations.”
“So is it possible that the defendant was suffering delusions as a result of the poisoning?”
“Sure, it’s possible.”
“Is it possible that these hallucinations pushed him to kill the victim?”
“Objection, your honor, speculation, scope!” The Brooks-Brothers-bastard’s tie flapped as he stood up. “Mr. Holland is arguing self-defense. I don’t see the relevance.”
The judge nodded. Before I knew it, the jury had gone and come back and the judge asked for the verdict.
“We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of the second degree murder of Barbara Holland.”
That was it. My life was over.
Pretty soon they whisked me away to prison. The correctional officer patted me on the back and said, “You’re one of the lucky ones. We’ve put you with one of your own. One Michael Hubbard. I believe he’s your brother in law, accordin’ to records.”
Everything suddenly got a whole lot brighter and I couldn’t breathe properly. “Are you sure?”
“Yup,” said the C.O. “Here you are.” He gestured to my cell.
Sure enough, reclining on the bed was a burly man with curly, greying, blonde hair. Michael. Barb’s brother.
I turned back to get help, but the C.O. had already disappeared.
Michael slowly lifted himself up with his meaty arms. He spit on the ground.
“Listen, Mike, it’s not what you think. It really isn’t. Barb is okay, really, she is!”
“I don’t go by Michael here. Here they call me Kushiel.” He moved his thumb to reveal the glint of a shank. “Rot in hell.”