The Day the Leash Gave Way
Sam was surprised twice over when he pulled into the driveway of the Kelly residence. First of all there was an old car parked out front that would have been better off compacted into a cube. A leash was attached to the rear bumper, old and weathered and ready to fall to pieces and with what had once been a dog tucked in the loop of it.
Mostly bone now, part of the dog's skull and one of the front legs was covered in light blue paint, like the skeleton had been painting a swimming pool locker room. Sam half expected to see a cigarette in the pooch's jaws but what he saw instead was a boy, somewhere between eight and ten, with his teeth clamped down on one of the animal's back legs.
From time to time the boy grunted as though he might be a reincarnation of the dog, shaking and wiggling and refusing to let go, yet not willing to pull that bone free, which he most certainly could have done. Sam wondered if the leg came free if that boy would have anything to do at all, 'cause other than a dead dog, a dead car and some garbage, the place didn't seem to have much going for it in the way of entertainment.
Sam stopped the car and climbed out, watched the boy a minute then said, "Afternoon, son. Your mom or daddy home?" Sam had always kind of wanted a boy of his own, but knew it would never happen. Not the way his life had gone.
The boy quit struggling and with that leg still in his mouth looked at Sam, who saw that the boy had real sweet eyes. There were little cuts all over his face, too, as though he'd been dragged from the back of a car.
After a moment's contemplation, the boy went back to the dead dog and at the same time Sam heard the front door of the house open. A man came out with a shotgun in his hands and a half-smoked cigar in his mouth. Sam could see from where he was that the stogy was getting a lot of use as a human chew-toy. The man held the shotgun casually aimed at Sam, relaxed enough but ready to shoot if Sam so much as breathed wrong.
"What business you got on my property?" the man asked, the cigar bouncing from one side of his mouth to the other with each word.
Adjusting the collar of his sport coat, a passing thought zipped through Sam's mind about how he wished he could be wearing a sundress, it being such a lovely day. But how Mr. Franzheim and Mr. Beckett and all the rest would frown seriously upon something like cross-dressing, especially in a business-like situation. He cleared his throat and ran a hand through his hair. "I'm looking for a Mister Kelly," he said. "Dirk Kelly?" When the man didn't respond, Sam asked, "You him?"
"Maybe, maybe not," the man said, and tightened his grip on the shotgun. "Who wants to know?"
"My name's Sam McKenna. I'm from…" Sam lost track of his words when the boy slid down his dirty pants and peed on the ground. Not just a little, like a boy that age would give off, but like a garden hose turned on high.
"Pay my boy no mind," the man said. "Etchy's just got character and any boy of mine can feel free to go where he wants." He raised the gun. "Now you was saying about yourself?"
Sam couldn't help watching the yellow flood that was finding its way towards his shoes. Mostly he was unsettled, but he couldn't deny that there was something intriguing about it. He never would have admitted it but he kind of hoped some of the boy's pee would touch his shoes. "My name's Sam McKenna. I'm from Arkham and Ketcher." He reached into his pocket and withdrew an envelope. "Six months ago you filled out a..."
"Now wait just a minute." The man raised the gun. "You come here to sell me something? Cause if you did, I'm telling you to get right back in that car of yours and pull on outta here before that head you got on your shoulders explodes and blows up into more pieces than you can count."
Sam quickly raised his hands. "No, sir, no, I'm not here to sell you anything. I'm here because you filled out an entry form sponsored by Arkham and Ketcher, to win your choice of a brand new Subaru Outback or twenty thousand dollars cash."
"Yeah. So what if I did?"
The boy's pee had now touched upon the toe of Sam's right shoe and a tingle of excitement oscillated through him. "Mister Kelly, I'm here because I'm pleased to say that you won the drawing. It says here, where you were asked to choose which prize, you preferred the cash, so with me I have a check for twenty thousand dollars and zero cents, made out to a Mister Dirk Kelly. So, sir, if you are indeed Dirk Kelly, then…"
Kelly extended the shotgun up into the heavens and fired at the clouds. "You mean to tell me I won? I won twenty thousand dollars, all for writing my name down on a piece of paper?"
Sam laughed a tad, sensing he was moving out of harm's way, even though the man had just fired the gun. "Yes, Mister Kelly, that's just what I mean."
"Well why didn't you say so right off?" The cigar dropped from his mouth but he didn't bother picking it up. "Come on in."
Sam watched the shotgun ease down. Once satisfied that it wasn't going to come up again he nodded and made his way to the house, glad things were turning in a friendly direction but a little disappointed that he wasn't going to get more of the boy's pee on his shoe. Kelly held open the front door for Sam. "Etchy, you quit playing with Jethro and come on in here like a good boy and get your daddy and his friend a beer."
The boy pulled up his boxers then pulled up his trousers, his teeth still steadfast to the dead dog's leg. After he buckled his belt he let go and stood up and ran inside, past Sam and into the kitchen.
Mr. Kelly came in and closed the door behind him, set his shotgun beside the door and led Sam out of the foyer and into the living room, where Sam saw Mrs. Kelly sitting on the couch. She didn't seem much interested in what was going on. In fact, she didn't seem to move at all.
"That's my cookie," said Mr. Kelly. "Don't you worry none about her. I got papers on her. She's all good and legal."
Sam didn't understand. He moved around to the front of the couch to introduce himself and to explain why he had come when he saw that her eyes were gone and her gaunt, wrinkled skin looked tough as leather.
"She ain't got no brains no more," Mr. Kelly said. "Nothing upstairs but saw dust." Then he straightened up proudly, as much as his hunched back would allow. "Did her myself. Didn't take too long neither." He motioned for Sam to sit in a chair across from the missus, and sat on the couch himself and put his arm around her.
"I know she ain't pretty to look at. Never was, truth be told. But a boy needs to have his mother around, and when she grabbed her chest that day and keeled over, I thought to myself, 'Oh boy, what's a kid to do without his dear old loving ma around?' So I went to the preacher and told him the story and asked him what I should do about it, on account that I have trouble as it is doing the daddy part and I sure as shit can't be his mama and his daddy both. Preacher told me that his mama would never truly leave him, even though she'd moved on up into heaven. Way I seen it, if she's in heaven then she sure as hell can't be here, so when you get down to it, she did leave Etchy and me both. I knew she was gone and, not to sound disrespectful, but in many ways I'm glad; but that boy there" -- he pointed towards the kitchen, where Etchy was still fetching two beers -- "he didn't know his mama was gone. He thought she was sleeping on the kitchen floor. So I send him out to go play down in the road while I pick her up and haul her into the bedroom, getting my last time with her and thinking what to do. And I remember my buddy Vince has this book on how to stuff dead animals, so I finish with what I'm doing and call Vince, who lends me the book. It was tough to read cause there were more words than pictures but I managed okay. Once I knew what it was I was supposed to do I called up the courthouse and asked to speak to Jed, who's the one they got in charge of mortal remains down there. We went to high school together and he'd always had a thing for Daria. So I explain it to him and he fixes it so we got this gravestone out in the cemetery with her name on it and all, but here she is with Etchy and me, and here it is she'll stay. Preacher said it was a good way to hold on to some otherwise lost family values."
Something tickled the back of Sam's throat. He swallowed it down then straightened in the chair, which was covered in cigar ash and smelled a little like spoiled meat. Even though Mrs. Kelly didn't have eyes Sam couldn't shake this feeling that she was watching him. He didn't dare say anything, but the fact was she made him downright uncomfortable.
The boy, Etchy, came into the room, a bottle of beer in each hand and a cracker in his mouth. He gave both beers to his daddy then disappeared. Mr. Kelly rose from the couch and passed a beer to Sam. The bottle was warm and the beer inside was hot. To be polite Sam took one sip then set it down on the floor beside the chair, hoping to never see it again.
"So you still got that envelope in your hand," Mr. Kelly said. "That my check?"
"It is," Sam said.
"Well, hand it on over." The man reached his hand out expectantly, his lower lip trembling and his right eyebrow twitching. It was sort of odd. Sam thought he looked more like a man going to the electric chair than he did a man who'd won a contest. In the time it took Sam to think this thought Mr. Kelly lost his patience. "Well c'mon, c'mon. Ain't got all day."
The envelope jittered against Sam's leg. "Yes, Mr. Kelly, well, you see…" Letting out a sigh he opened the envelope and removed the contents: a check made out to Dirk Kelly for twenty thousand dollars and zero cents, and two sheets of paper. Legalities. Sam worried about the legalities. It wasn't that there was anything underhanded or sneaky about them, but Sam knew a man like Dirk Kelly wasn't the type to want to cooperate, even with the simplest of procedures.
"I see?" said Mr. Kelly. "I'll tell you what I see. A check in your hand with my name on it -- and there's a problem with that. It's got my name on it but it's in your hand. That don't make no sense to me." He extended his hand a little further, eyes narrow, foot tapping, breaths sucking up his nose and pushing out again with a little high-pitched whistle sound.
Sam looked over at Mrs. Kelly sitting there all dead and stuffed and with no eyes and it was just the thing to focus him back on the papers in his hand. "Yes, sir," Sam said. "Essentially this is just a release form. It merely states that you filled out the entry form, confirms your address and says you're responsible for the taxes."
Mr. Kelly thought on it a minute. Sam could tell the man thought he still had the cigar in his mouth by the way he moved his lips. After a moment he shook his head. "Dunno if I like the idea of signing nothing."
Sam wanted to tell him that was fine because he was actually required to sign something, but he let it go, crossed his right leg over his left and straightened the papers in his hand. Before he could say a word, Etchy burst into the room from out of nowhere, the cracker now gone from between his lips but still in his mouth all chewed up and caked on his tongue and teeth. He was crying and in his hands he held a bone that Sam immediately recognized was from the dog outside because of the teeth marks on it.
"Daddy! Daddy!" Etchy cried, dripping cracker from his mouth and tears from his eyes.
"Etchy, boy!" Mr. Kelly rose to his feet. "What in God's name…what happened? What'd you do to Jethro?"
Etchy sniffled and whined and tried to get himself under control. "Dare's a bad guys outside, an-uh, an-uh, one of them called me farts and pulled the leg off doggy." He erupted then, collapsed to his knees, that bone in his hands which he brought to his forehead. Weird as he thought it was, Sam couldn't help feeling sorry for the boy who, so far as Sam could see, other than biting a dead dog and peeing in the yard, hadn't done anything to anyone.
"What you talking, bad guys?" Mr. Kelly asked, straightening where he stood. Way the man was standing Sam was real glad not to be wearing a sundress.
"Two bad guys in black," the boy said. "Says they here to take mama away, an-uh, an-uh" -- he started losing it again and more wet cracker spewed from his mouth -- "they pulled leg off doggy!"
Mr. Kelly placed a hand on his boy's shoulder. "Now don't you worry, son. Jethro's got three more where that came from. Now go on into your room and play like a good boy. Go on now."
Etchy woefully climbed to his feet and slumped away, Jethro's leg in his hands. Sam thought about when Etchy's pee had touched the toe of his shoe; but before the thought could manifest into fantasy, Mr. Kelly adjusted himself, cleared his throat and told Sam to excuse him while he dealt with some business outside.
Sam looked at Mrs. Kelly there on the couch. He didn't like the idea of being left alone with her but told the man that was fine and watched him disappear into the foyer then listened to the front door open and close. A moment later he heard some muffled shouting but couldn't make anything out. All he could think about was dead Mrs. Kelly sitting across the way from him with no eyes, scrutinizing him, her hands at her sides. If she didn't have such a pretty sundress, Sam knew he would have been downright terrified. It sure was a pretty dress, no doubt about that and, most likely, no one would argue it. Looked about his size and would have fit well into the wardrobe he kept in the trunk under his bed -- but then he looked up and saw that face again. If he ever wore that sundress himself, he thought, it would have to go through the wash first. Sam wondered if she always wore the same dress or if Dirk and Etchy changed it each day.
The muffled shouting got louder. Sam heard what sounded like a cardboard box being dragged along cement, then the shotgun went off. There was silence for a moment, then came what Sam interpreted as someone being beaten. Sam wished he were home, in his back yard, basking in the sun with a Corona in his hand, wearing the J. Crew sundress with the daffodils on it he'd picked up on sale last fall. He had his dead father's wedding ring, which he put on when he bought such things, so people would think he was buying them for his wife that he didn't have.
He heard the boy grunt.
The front door slammed open. In the time Sam could have counted to three Mr. Kelly entered the living room with a shiner and a busted nose and his shirt torn somewhere it hadn't been before. Protruding from his back was the shotgun. Then as he stepped further into the room Sam saw that it wasn't sticking out of his back, but rather it was pressed into it, and attached to the trigger end was a man in a cheap black suit. Behind this man came another in a cheaper black suit. He was balding and about forty pounds overweight and sweating like a pig. Both men wore sunglasses.
Sam rose to his feet solely out of reaction. The chubby man told him to sit back down, which he did, worried that the one with the shotgun might take it upon himself to start shooting at anything that moved. At least Mrs. Kelly would be all right, he thought.
The chubby man came around and looked at Mrs. Kelly there on the couch. He placed his hands on his hips and sighed. "Sorry, Dirk," he said, "but you know keeping a woman six months in the grave outta her grave ain't right."
"I told you I got papers on her," Mr. Kelly insisted, holding back tears, trying to stop the gush of blood pouring from his nose.
"According to those papers," said Chubby, "she's snug as a bug in a rug six feet underground in Sweet Home cemetery. But here she is in the middle of your living room without a bug on her. And y'know, I bet'cha there ain't any inside her neither." With that the man bent over and lifted the woman's skirt, stuck his hand up between her legs and felt around a moment. Once satisfied, he removed his hand, studied his finger and said, "Nope. That's where they'd be, and nary a bug could I detect. Least you're keeping her clean."
Sam saw that Mr. Kelly was raging inside. Had that shotgun not been pressed against his back, things likely would have been working differently. But as it was, Mr. Kelly looked down at his shoes and said, "Please, Garth, don't take her. Don't take her away from Etchy and me. She's all we got. How's I supposed to explain it to the boy when he comes in here and realizes his ma ain't no longer sitting on the couch? Just what the hell am I supposed to tell him?"
"You can tell the little fart that playing with dead things is bad for his health, and if he really loves his mother then he'd let her rest in peace, for crying out loud, and stop humiliating her corpse and treating her like she were the deer I got over my mantle. That's what you can tell him, Dirk. You can tell him that creatures should have been squirming in her months ago."
Still studying his shoes, Mr. Kelly said, "You're still jealous."
"Huh?" said Garth. He brought his hand to his ear and leaned over. "What was that?"
Mr. Kelly shook his head. "Nothing."
The man with the shotgun, who hadn't so much as breathed loud, poked the barrel hard against Mr. Kelly's back. "Answer him," he said.
"Yeah," said Garth. "You was brave enough to say it once, you can say it again."
Mr. Kelly looked up from his shoes, glanced briefly at Sam, then looked Garth right in the eye. "You're still pissed on account that she took me over you in the end." The blood had stopped running from his nose and even though he hadn't put anything up there, it looked like he had two blood soaked tissues shoved way up inside. "You're mad because I got the woman you had, and the woman you always wanted. You can't just let things be, Garth -- you never could. Even after the woman's dead you still gotta keep chasin' after her. She ain't causing no trouble here. Hell, Preacher thought it was healthy for Etchy to have his ma around."
Garth scratched his thin-haired head then wiped a large rinse of sweat from his brow. "You got it all wrong there, Mister Dirk Kelly. I'm here on account that Jed gets himself caught down by the river with his twelve-year old cousin and we haul him in, and while me and Smitty here's interrogating him, he confesses both to stealing Dilbert McClinton's old Ford and driving it into the lake, as well as fudging certain papers down in his office so your wife could appear to be with the worms, when in fact she's here on the couch with a Reader's Digest at her side and no eyes in her head." He made a tsk-tsk sound. "You wanna get mad at someone, get mad at Jed. He's the one blew your cover."
Sam could tell by the look on Mr. Kelly's face that he thought it only partially true. Mr. Kelly tightened his hands into fists and trembled, closed his eyes and said, "Then you're gonna take her back to your place and fuck her dead sawdust brains out."
Garth sighed, then nodded to Smitty. Smitty tilted the shotgun up to the back of Mr. Kelly's head and pulled the trigger. There was a loud, echoing boom and Smitty jolted back as Mr. Kelly's head disappeared into an explosion of blood, brains and skull fragments. They sprayed against the wall and some got onto the ceiling.
Sam recalled this being the first threat Mr. Kelly had made to him, to blow his head off with that very same shotgun that had now done him in. A moment later his knees buckled and he dropped down, collapsed forward onto the floor behind Mrs. Kelly and the couch.
Mr. Kelly wasn't ever going to get to enjoy his twenty thousand dollars and zero cents, and now that boy no longer had a mother or a father. And these two guys, they were going to do him in just as they'd done Mr. Kelly, fire a big hole in his chest or blow up his head. He couldn't help finding it odd that he'd be getting paid the moment he died -- at least he'd be getting another eight dollars and fifty cents when that shotgun blew him to pieces.
Sadly, it wasn't much comfort. All he'd wanted was to deliver the check, shake the man's hand and maybe have Etchy take a picture of the two of them. But that wasn't going to happen. Even if the two men let Sam and the boy live, the photograph wouldn't hold much appeal to Arkham and Ketcher customers when the man who'd won the drawing didn't have a goddamn head to smile with and no eyes to light up in shock and excitement.
Smitty, with a side-of-the-mouth smile, pumped the shotgun.
Garth took three steps over to Sam and leaned close. "Now, I know you wouldn't say nothing about what happened here. I'm right, am I not?"
Sam heaved but nothing came out.
"That's what I thought," said Garth. "But we can't have any witnesses, even though I believe you. And I want you to know I do. I really do believe you. I think you'd keep a secret. Bet you got plenty of secrets of your own. I remember my daddy slipping it to me when I was a kid and I kept that a secret for a long time; but I digress -- what's your name anyway?"
Sam tried to speak but all that came out was a long string of stuttering. "S-s-s-suh-suh-muh-muh…suh-muck-uck-uck…"
"That's an interesting name," said Garth. "Almost sounds nigger but it might also be Polish. And given that you're paper white and don't speak the name with rhythm, I'm gonna go with the latter." He straightened up and wiped his brow, then turned to Smitty. "That reminds me, Smitty -- why did the Polak cross the road?"
"He couldn't get his dick out of the chicken."
Sam was not about to say he wasn't Polish.
"Y'know, Smitty, even dead, Daria's still one lovely lady."
Smitty didn't say anything.
Sam heaved again. Mr. Kelly's blood and bits of his brain and skull slid down the wall like chunky red drops of rain on a window. Sam studied the vomit in his lap as Kelly had studied his shoes, felt shivers ripple up and down his back as tears danced at the edges of his eyes, which he closed; but even with them closed he still saw Mr. Kelly's head splattered against the wall.
Lifting the sleeve of his cheap black coat Garth looked at his watch then wiped sweat from the back of his neck. "Think we're wasting our time here now, Smitty. We've got other things to do." He adjusted his belt. "Let's get this over with and get the hell outta here."
Sam's heart jumped in his chest. He watched Smitty snicker, then bring the gun around and aim it right at his face. About to scream like an eight-year old girl on a roller coaster ride, Sam saw a large hairless dog sweep into the room and attach its jaws to Smitty's leg. Smitty swayed backwards with a horrible scream and the gun went off, shooting Garth square in the chest and the report knocking the off-balanced Smitty down to the floor. It all happened in a flash -- Garth's back jumping out and taking most of his torso with it while Smitty dropped to the floor and the dog jumped on top of him and started tearing at his throat.
Blinking twice, Sam saw that it wasn't a dog. It was Kelly's boy, Etchy, growling and grunting like a dog, biting like a dog, but nothing like a dog at all when it came to physical features. No muzzle and no fur other than what he had on top of his head. The pants and T-shirt should have given it away immediately but everything was happening so fast that Sam wasn't entirely sure his head hadn't blown up and was in the process of scattering around Dirk Kelly's living room.
Smitty kicked the boy off him, got enough of a breather to pump the shotgun but was once again pounced upon, at which time the gun went off, this time dissolving Mrs. Kelly from the breasts up and ruining her dress.
The boy tore into Smitty again. Blood washed over both of their faces. Smitty tried crying out but Etchy's teeth had shred his vocal cords and all that came out were high-pitched squeaks that made Sam think briefly of mice on fire.
Just when he thought things couldn't get any worse, Sam wet his pants. At first it was warm but after a minute it got colder and less comfortable. Had he been wearing a dress, he thought, it would have been easier to dry because he could have fanned it out, but that was beside the point and something he just had to deal with.
Smitty stopped struggling about this time. Once he was still Etchy backed away, called the dead man a fart and started crying. Both his mama and his daddy had blown up, and there was nothing left for him other than Jethro, who now lacked a leg and wasn't much with conversation to begin with.
Etchy kicked a dirty sneaker at Smitty and landed it square in his groin but the aftereffects of death had caused the man to lose mobility and reaction along with a lengthy string of other devices useful for the living. Even so, Etchy seemed to achieve a certain level of satisfaction. Not enough to settle the tears, but there was an unspoken assertion after that moment, and Sam almost clapped and giggled but managed to refrain.
Instead, he looked around the room at the gore and the chaos and the carnage. Garth with his chest gone and his tongue lolling out. He looked like he was still sweating. Sam looked away and over to where Etchy and Smitty were, Etchy standing there with blood all over him, crying and staring like a rabid dog. Even ravaged the way he was, Smitty looked cool with his sunglasses on, though he matched Etchy when it came to the blood part.
All he could see of Mr. Kelly were his shoes, save for his head which was on the wall. The rest of him was behind the couch.
A strange sort of sadness he hadn't yet experienced came over him when he looked at Mrs. Kelly. He was thankful that those eyeless sockets of hers were no longer watching him, but that had been a really pretty dress. And now it was destroyed. Couldn't even put it through the wash now. Still, he was thankful for the cessation of scrutiny.
Etchy turned to Sam and wiped the blood from his chin then the tears from his eyes, smearing blood along his brow. "Everybody," he said, whimpering, " -- everybody blowed up, an-uh, an-uh, now there's no mama an-uh no daddy." His lips curled back and displayed his crimson teeth as he cried.
Sam looked at the boy. Etchy was an odd kid, no doubt about that, but it didn't change the fact that Sam had always wanted one of his own. He beckoned the child over, felt a bit ashamed having thrown up on himself, not to mention he'd wet his pants, though Etchy didn't seem to mind or even take notice. There was plenty of other disconcerting stuff around the room that Sam's appearance was, by measure, small potatoes.
Not at all sure that it was wise, Sam couldn't shake this feeling that what he had in mind was right -- beneficial for both of them, if not additionally liberating for Sam himself. He reached out and messed up Etchy's hair and said, "Now don't worry, son. You're not alone." A tremor of arousal shuddered through him -- "Way I see it right now, you've lost your mom and daddy; and I'm real sorry about that. I really am. But I was thinking, well, I know you don't know me from Adam. All I did was bring your daddy a big check that he can no longer use. Hell, I think I even threw up on part of it. But back to what I was thinking. You see, I've always kind of wanted a boy, obtuse or simple or otherwise -- and if nothing else, I can promise you this: I've trained myself in the art of both masculine and womanly attributes."
Etchy looked at Sam with complete confusion.
"What that means, son, is I have the ability, or gift, rather, to be both your mama and your daddy all rolled into one. That's where you'd have it good, son -- two complete parents encapsulated into one body. You can come live with me in town where I got a modest house and you could have your own room and, hell, even Jethro could come along if you like, but he'd have to stay in the back yard." Sam straightened proudly in his seat and looked the boy in the eyes. "What'd you say?"
Etchy thought on it a minute, then crumpled his face and started to cry. Sam could not interpret the reasoning. If it was because his folks were dead, that was one thing; but if it was something else…
After a minute passed, Sam rose from his seat, stuffed Mr. Kelly's check for twenty thousand dollars and zero cents and the legalities into his pocket, then scooped the boy up into his arms and carried him outside, distressed at picking up a child while covered in his own vomit.
Etchy didn't fight, just kept on crying.
Sam walked past Jethro, the leg the boy had been chewing on earlier now gone. Opening the passenger door of his Chrysler he placed the boy gently inside, told him everything was going to be all right, then closed the door and went to the driver's side.
A moment later they pulled out of the driveway, got onto the road, then onto the highway, and made their way into town at a calm and leisurely pace.
Back at the Kelly's house, the rotted leash connecting the old car to the dead dog finally gave and fell into two pieces.
© 2002, 2005 by Trent Zelazny
Trent Zelazny was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (That's it, that's all he admits to. The rumors about the taxidermy hobby and being related to the late Roger Zelazny should not be taken seriously. (signed) The Editor.)
E-mail: Trent J. Zelazny
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