After the second night of the same dream, the same terror, I silently began to agree with her. I was a basket case in school that day, and the day after that. The Miami breeze blew hot but I felt the frigid December air of New England on my arms instead. I saw Jude at my window when I closed my eyes. I thought of Rachel and Claire waiting for me. At the asylum. The asylum.
But with everything on my plate at Croyden, I needed, more than anything, to relax. And so it was that I focused on little details that Friday morning; the swirling column of gnats that I almost choked on when exiting Daniel’s car in the parking lot. The air swollen with humidity. Anything to avoid thinking about the new dream, memory, whatever, that had become a part of my nightly repertoire. I was glad Daniel had a dentist appointment this morning. I did not want to talk.
When I arrived at school, the parking lot was still empty. I’d overestimated the amount of time it would take to get there in traffic. Lightning flashed in distant purple clouds that spread over the sky like a dark quilt. It was going to rain, but I couldn’t sit still. I had to do something, to move, to shake off the memory that gnawed at my mind.
I threw open the car door and walked, passing more than a few empty, scraggly lots and some run-down houses. I don’t know how far I’d gone before I heard the whimper.
I stopped and listened for the sound again. A chain-link fence stood in front of me, punctuated by barbed wire. There was no grass, only light brown, tightly packed dirt and mud in places where the ground was wet with last night’s rain. Junk littered the space: machinery parts, pieces of cardboard, and some garbage. And a very large pile of lumber. Nails were scattered across the dirt.
I crept up to the barbed wire and tried to stand on my toes to see the entire expanse of the space. Nothing. I crouched, hoping to gain a different vantage point. My eyes panned over a cluster of car parts and moved across the scattered garbage to the lumber pile. The dog’s short, fawn-colored fur almost blended into the dust under the precariously stacked wood. She was emaciated, every bone in her spine protruding from her patchy coat. Curled up into a tiny ball, the dog trembled despite the oppressive heat. Her black muzzle had numerous scars, and her ears were torn, and almost invisible behind her head.
She was in really, really bad shape.
I looked for a way inside the yard but saw none. I crouched and called her to me in the kindest, highest voice I could muster. She crawled out of the pile and walked to the fence with halting, tentative steps, looking through the metal with liquid brown eyes.
I had never seen anything so pathetic in my life. I couldn’t leave her there, not like that. I would have to skip school and get her out.
That’s when I noticed the collar.
The leather collar was secured with a padlock, attached to a chain so heavy it was incredible the dog could even stand. It didn’t even need to be staked into the ground; she was going nowhere.
I petted her muzzle through the fence and tried to assess whether I could slip the collar over her large, bony head. I cooed to her, getting her to come closer so I could feel how tight it was, but just as I gained purchase under it, a nasal drawl interrupted the silence from just a few feet away.
“What the hell d’ya think you’re doin’ with my dog?”
I looked up. The man stood on my side of the fence, and he was close. Too close. It was not good that I didn’t hear him approach. He wore a stained wife-beater and torn jeans, and his long greasy hair receded into a skullet.
What do you say to someone whose dog you plan to steal?
“I asked what you’re doin’ with my dog.” He squinted at me with bloodshot, watery blue eyes.
I tried to swallow my desire to bludgeon him to death with a tree limb and stalled, leaving his question hanging in the air. My options, being a teenage girl and not knowing whether this asshole had a knife or gun in his pocket, were limited.
I used my best innocent-dumb-girl voice. “I was just on my way to school and saw your dog! She’s so sweet, what kind is she?” I hoped this would be enough to deter him from pillaging me for breakfast. I held my breath.
“She’s a pit bull, ain’t you never seen one before?” He ejected a wad of some foul substance from his mouth onto the dirt.
Not one that skinny. I’d never seen any dog, or any animal, that thin. “Nope. What a great dog! Does she eat much?” An obscenely stupid question. My lack of filter was going to get me killed one of these days. Maybe today.
“Whadda you care?”
Oh, well. Go big, or go home.
“She’s starving, and that chain around her neck is too heavy. She has bites on her ears and scars on her face. Is this really the best you can do for her?” I said, my voice growing shrill. “She doesn’t deserve this.” I was losing it.
His jaw clenched along with the muscles in his body. He walked right up to my face. I held my breath but didn’t move.
“Who the hell d’ya think you are?” he said, his voice a raspy hiss. “Get outta here. And if I see you ‘round here again, I ain’t gonna be this nice next time we meet.”
I inhaled without meaning to, and a noxious odor wafted in my direction. I looked down at the dog, cringing away from her owner. I didn’t want to leave her, but I couldn’t see how to get around the obstacles: the barbed wire, the padlocked collar and heavy chain. Her owner. So I tore my eyes away and began to leave.
Then I heard a scream.
When I whipped around, the dog cowered so low she hugged the ground. Her owner held the heavy chain. He must have jerked it.
The sick bastard smiled at me.
I swelled with loathing, brimmed with it. I’d never hated anyone as much as I hated him in that moment; my fingers itched with the violence they wanted to do but couldn’t. So I turned and ran, to give my trembling limbs some relief from the fury that boiled up from a dark place I didn’t know existed. My feet pounded the pavement, wishing they could trample the smile on that piece of filth’s face. And as the thought spiked through my brain, I saw it. The redneck’s skull caved in, leaving a gaping, pulpy hole in the side of his head. A thick cloud of flies clogging his mouth. Blood staining the sandy dirt by the lumber pile in a wide, darkening pool around his body.
He deserved to die.
SWEATY AND BREATHLESS, I ROUNDED THE parking lot by the school entrance and checked my watch. Seven minutes to spare before English. I grabbed my bag from the car, sprinted to class and made it a minute before the bell rang. Slick.