Flecks of foam covered the dog's muzzle as it worried and gnawed at the length of electrical cord binding it to the fence. After a few minutes it ceased and lay back, panting. The dog whined softly and licked its side in a desultory manner where open sores covered its mangy flanks. A mongrel of dubious parentage, it showed the signs of a hard life, eking out a wretched existence on the periphery of man's domain. Now it had come to this, starving, tied to a fence without food or water.
A boy lay unseen in the grass nearby watching the dog. A tear crept slowly down one cheek and his lips trembled. His brown, wavy hair fell forward over his eyes and he brushed it back with one hand. He looked away, clenching his fists, taking in deep breaths and exhaling noisily.
The dog fell silent; ears pricked forward, facing the stand of long grass. It whined and its tail flicked twice. As the boy stood and made his way slowly toward the dog it uttered a short bark and crept forward on its belly until the cord restrained it, cutting into its neck. It whined again and the tail signaled its hope.
Boy approached slowly and hunkered down just out of reach of the dog. He licked his lips. "Good dog." He held out one hand tentatively; ready to snatch it back if the dog tried to bite him. Dog barked softly and its tail increased its tempo. "I'm sorry. I should've come back sooner." He leaned forward and patted the dog awkwardly on the head. "I've got something for you."
Boy drew his hand back and reaching into his pocket, taking out a paper-covered package and carefully unwrapping it to reveal a peanut butter sandwich. He pulled it in two and tossed one part close to the dog. The mongrel sniffed it, hesitated, and then gulped it down, its tail falling into a steady rhythm, transmitting its energy to the dog's flanks. It wriggled with gratitude and anticipation.
Boy carefully put the other part of the sandwich just out of reach of the dog then shifted himself closer. He sat down on the grass and petted the dog. Dog licked his hand then returned its attention to the food lying so tantalizingly close. Boy looked up at the clouds and his eyes unfocused. "My mummy died last year. I miss her but daddy says she has gone to Heaven to be with the angels."
Dog barked and strained at the cord. Boy looked down at the dog's head. "In a moment, boy." He stroked its sides, unmindful of the debris and pus that stuck to his fingers. "They wouldn't let me see her, even after she died. Daddy said her soul had gone and I must remember her as she was before she got ill." He looked up again, his face screwing up in misery. Brushing tears aside with his other hand, he sobbed, and then fell silent.
After a few minutes he sighed and resumed his stroking. "I can't remember her, boy. I prayed to God to let her come and see me but she didn't...or He wouldn't let her. Maybe God didn't tell her I wanted her. So I've made a plan. Do you want to hear it?"
Dog whined again, straining toward the sandwich curling in the sun. "Yes, in a moment." Leaning forward, the boy tried to hold eye contact with the dog. "I read a book where a man was killed, his head was chopped off I think." He thought for a moment, and then shook his head. "Anyway, the book said his soul rose from his dead body like a white bird and went to heaven. That's where my mummy is, remember? So I thought if I could get someone to tell my mummy I want her, then she'd come and see me." He smiled at the thought and dug into his other pocket, taking out a long knife. He removed a cork covering the tip and pushed the knife gently against his thumb. "I want you to find my mummy and tell her I want her to come and visit me. Yes, I know," he nodded his head impatiently, "you can't talk. At least not now. But you will be able to in Heaven. All sorts of miracles can happen there."
Boy looked around at the vacant field of grass rippling in the breeze. He hesitated before bending down and whispering a name and a few words close to the dog's ears. He straightened. "Remember that, boy. Remember her name and my message."
Taking the knife firmly in his right hand, he picked up the remains of the sandwich and held it out to the dog. It snatched the morsel from his hand and bit it in two, gulping down the pieces and sniffing in the grass for crumbs. "Find my mummy, boy, find her and tell her to come see me." He took a deep breath and rammed the knife into the dog's chest. The animal screamed and leapt back then collapsed. It made a faint mewling noise, its legs scrabbling weakly at the grass.
Boy had fallen back himself and now knelt, staring at the creature with wide eyes. A tear crossed his cheek. Weakening, the dog's limbs stilled, tremors rippling across its sides as bloody foam dribbled from its mouth and nostrils. The boy crept closer and bent his head to look into the eyes of the dying dog. He straightened its head and it whined softly, its tongue flicking out to rasp against his hand. Dog's tail twitched and it gasped, then shuddered and fell quiet. Boy watched as the life in the eyes faded and filmed. He sat back and watched expectantly.
The sun rose higher in the sky, clouds sweeping patterns across the grassy fields and the boy sitting beside a stiffening corpse. At last the boy rose to his feet, stared at the blood on his hands. Feeling nauseous, he wiped his hands against his shorts.
"Why didn't its soul go to Heaven? Or did it but I didn't see?" he muttered. He stood looking at the bundle of fur at his feet, shaking his head. "Maybe dogs don't have souls. What if only people do?"
Turning his back on the body, which had already attracted the attention of a bluebottle fly, the boy set off across the fields.
The bright lights and warmth of the store remained unchanging, providing a stable environment far removed from the vagaries of the southern Illinois weather. Crowds of shoppers, driven by the latest round of advertising, milled through the narrow aisles of the Maryville, Illinois Wal-Mart, looking for just one more gift, and one more tacky decoration for Thanksgiving. The chatter, the clatter of heels, the squeak of shopping carts and the wail and complaint of tired children almost drowned out the canned music and advertisements assaulting the senses.
A young woman in her mid-twenties, dressed conservatively in a pale blue polo shirt and navy blue slacks, leaned against a column in a deserted Housewares aisle, her blue Wal-Mart smock bunching up across her back. She closed her eyes and rubbed her right temple, willing the pain to recede. The Country and Western song drifting raucously from the ceiling speakers faded and died, to be replaced by a gabbled message.
"Loretta in Foods to the Candy aisle for customer assistance."
The young woman groaned and, opening her eyes, brushed her long brunette hair back over her shoulders. Straightening her smock, emblazoned with the customary 'How may I help you' slogan, she hurried off down the aisles toward the food section. Five minutes later she was back in the receiving area, searching through the boxes of candy in the food bins.
Another young woman pushed through the swing doors from the store floor, a shopping cart of empty cardboard boxes trundling in front of her. Similarly dressed, though in green and plaid rather than blue, but also sporting the blue Wal-Mart smock, the woman caught sight of Loretta and frowned. She pushed the cart to one side and hurried over.
"You all right, Loretta?" The woman rested a hand solicitously on Loretta's shoulder. "Still got your headache?"
Loretta turned a pale face to the other one and nodded. "Worse. I'm starting to feel like I want to throw up." She hesitated, swallowing hard. "Charlene, I've got to go home. Can you cover for me?"
Charlene nodded and flashed her friend a small smile. "Sure, but you'll need to check with the CSM and a manager first."
"Who's on tonight? Jason?"
Charlene nodded again. "Yes, and Matt."
Loretta's face screwed up in a look of distaste. "I'll find Jason. He understands these things. Matt would have me working if I was dying at his feet."
"Well, if he won't let you go, throw up on him. Maybe that'll persuade him you're sick."
Loretta forced a wan smile. "There's a thought." She pulled out a box and slit the tape on it with her box cutter. Taking out a bag of peanut butter cups, she pushed the box back into place. "Have to get these to a customer first." She turned and moved toward the warehouse swing doors.
Charlene pushed her cart of cardboard toward the baler then turned her head, brushing her long hair back from her eyes. "Loretta, how are you getting home?"
Loretta paused in the doorway, frowning. "Walk I suppose. Mom was going to pick me up, but she's at some church meeting, so I can't call her."
"You can't walk, it's raining outside and the forecast says thunderstorms." Charlene hesitated, and then dug in the pocket of her slacks. "Take my car. I'll wait and get a ride with your mom."
"Are you sure? I know how you love your car."
"Well, try not to let anything happen to it." Charlene smiled and handed the keys across. "What are friends and family for?"
Fifteen minutes later, Loretta, bundled in her coat with her handbag over her shoulder, hesitated at the front doors of the store. She stared out into the night, as gusts of wind threw freshets of rain against the outer glass doors. A shopper pushed past her and hurried out into the car park, running to one of the cars. The lights, on their tall poles, cast a bright glare over the slick asphalt, almost drowning out the faint flickers of lightning.
"Going home already? I thought you were on till close."
Loretta turned and smiled briefly at Bob the door greeter. "Headache. Jason let me off early."
Bob nodded and turned away as a customer entered the store, flicking water from his coat over the already sodden carpet.
Loretta walked through the automatic doors, clutching her coat firmly around her. She hesitated outside, sheltering against the light rain thrown about by the gusting wind. Thunder reverberated from somewhere behind the building as she set out across the car park to the last line of vehicles where the staff cars sat like a row of dejected sparrows.
Charlene's old Ford Taurus lay concealed in the shadows on the last row, hidden from the store entrance behind a large and battered pickup. Loretta fumbled for the car key in her coat pocket before fishing it out and inserting it into the lock. Sliding into the driver's seat she quickly shut the door and locked it before peering into the darkness of the back seat. Satisfied there was no rapist or mugger there waiting to leap out on her, she fastened her seat belt and reached forward to start the car. The key turned with a barely audible click but otherwise, nothing.
Loretta stared uncomprehendingly at the dashboard, and then turned the key again. The car rocked slightly as another gust of wind howled across the car park, splattering the windshield with large ragged drops of water torn from the branches of the poplars lining the asphalted area.
"Shit," she muttered under her breath. She waggled the key in the ignition a few more times with no greater success before pulling it out and staring into the night. "Shit." Louder this time and with feeling.
Loretta glanced up and flicked on the overhead light before looking at her watch. Twenty after nine. She got out of the car and locked the door before heading back toward the friendly lights of the store. Halfway back across the rain-slicked car park she hesitated then altered course toward the mall and the Schnuck's Superstore. Between the Wal-Mart building and the mall lay a dark service alley. Loretta peered into the darkness of the alley, then back toward the lighted fronts of the stores, where a few late shoppers still hurried. It really would be quicker to cut through the alley, she thought. I go this way all the time. The gap between the buildings, opening out onto grass and farmland behind, loomed in the dark. Dumpsters, squat and overflowing, flickered briefly into existence in the lightning flashes. It looks different in the daytime.
She took a few steps down the alley before losing her nerve and turning back to the lights of the car park. Perhaps I should just go back to Wal-Mart and wait for mom. Her headache flared as if in answer and she stopped, lifting a hand to her head.
"Thought you could avoid me forever, did you?" rasped a voice from behind.
Loretta turned and gasped as a figure moved forward and slammed her back into the concrete block wall of the alley. She screamed weakly with what air remained in her lungs and pushed away from the wall. The man closed with her, pushing her back, his forearm across her throat. An object, thin and metallic, gleamed in the weak light from the car park as he waved it in front of her eyes.
"Keep quiet, you bitch." Loretta froze; her eyes wide. "That's better," the man said. "Now, you can explain to me why you thought you could just walk out of a relationship with me." He eased up the pressure of his forearm to let her speak.
Loretta gulped and fought her panic down. "I...I didn't...I don't know..." She blinked back tears and stared at the shadowy figure of the man in front of her, smelling the sour odour of stale booze and cigarettes. "Who are you?" she whispered.
"What the fuck do you...?" The man shifted, gripping Loretta's upper arm firmly and pressed the metallic object into the young woman's throat. He pulled her stumbling toward the wash of light from the car park. He stopped, still several feet into the alley and turned his victim's face toward the entrance. "Jesus Christ!" His voice rose in a scream as his hands fell away and Loretta staggered, her lungs drawing breath for another scream.
The man leapt after her and grabbed her raincoat, pulling her back off her feet and throwing her to the ground. Her scream died abruptly and was lost amid the reverberations of a fresh peal of thunder. Loretta tried to rise, pushing up onto her knees. The man took a firm grip on the collar of her coat and dragged her back into the darkness, behind the dumpsters.
Loretta looked back at the receding alley entrance and thought she saw a shadow as someone hurried past. She looked down at her feet, knowing where they were but not seeing them. Water soaked into her slacks and her mind wandered for a moment. Mom's going to have a heart attack when she sees the state I'm in. Her attention snapped back to her predicament as the man threw her against one of the dumpsters. Lightning flickered again, lighting the man's face for an instant. Her eyes widened in recognition.
"You're...you're after Charlene?" Loretta quavered. "You thought I was her?"
"What the fuck were you doing in her car?" He slashed the air with his hand, glowering down at the young woman. "Never mind, it doesn't matter now."
"Why do you want her? She finished with you."
"Nobody walks out on me, you bitch. Now shut up, I have to think." He stood above Loretta, a dark vagueness in the black rain-swept alley as the thunder grumbled and echoed from the buildings. At last he nodded. "Okay. I can still get her another time, providing you don't say anything to her." He hunkered down beside her, one hand gripping her long sodden hair. "You gonna warn her?"
"No, no, I won't say anything." Loretta shook her head, her eyes wide and staring in the darkness.
"I don't believe you." The man dropped to one knee on the wet concrete and leaned closer, his voice dropping to a hoarse whisper. "Sorry, bitch. Nothing personal." His free hand swept forward and down, hard. Then again.
Loretta felt the blow to her midriff and gasped for breath. A moment later a lance of pain drove into her like an icy fire, spreading tendrils through her abdomen as she cringed backward, a weak cry escaping her lips. The blow was repeated and fresh pain erupted, mounting like a wave over her senses. She scrabbled at her abdomen with her hands, jerking and gasping as metal ripped across the back of her hands and into her spasming body. Hot blood pulsed, rapidly soaking her already wet clothing. Vaguely she felt her hair released and she gratefully lay back on the wet ground, squirming to find release from the agony spiking through her.
The man stood and stared down at the woman at his feet. He grunted and turned away when the body ceased its weak movements. "Gotta fix the car again," he muttered to himself. "Else that bitch'll suspect something." He walked rapidly out of the alley and across the parking lot toward Charlene's crippled Taurus.
Minutes after he left, the rain started in earnest, beating down on Loretta's upturned face, diluting the pool of blood around her body. Her eyelids fluttered and she groaned quietly. Struggling to sit upright she gave a fluttering scream and fell back, her hands clutching her wounded belly, curling herself into a ball. Her breath shuddered and she forced herself to uncurl. Rather than attempt to stand again, she started crawling, slowly and with great pain, toward the lights and sounds of life.
Minutes passed and the rain eased, the water washing down off the car park carrying a detritus of candy wrappers and cigarette butts to mix with the blood pooling around the young woman. Loretta forced her eyes open again and lifted her head slightly to peer into the darkness. One of the dumpsters loomed and she reached out a numbed hand toward the sheer metal side. I've got to warn Charlene, drifted across her mind. She dropped her hand to her abdomen, feeling the warmth, and then raised her hand to the metal once more.
Loretta lay back down in the water and stared up at the sky. Doesn't hurt much anymore, just feel...so...tired. She closed her eyes. I'll just rest a minute then I'll go home.
Footsteps splashed past the girl on the ground, hurrying deeper into the alley. A stifled exclamation followed; the footsteps drew nearer.
"Damn it, bitch, I thought you were dead." The figure dropped to one knee and lightly slapped Loretta's face. A cigarette lighter rasped and flared, held in a cupped hand as the man peered down at the bedraggled body. He grunted. "Just about." Looking over his shoulder toward the car park, he gripped the woman underneath her armpits and dragged her away from the dumpster, into the darker shadows on the other side of the alley.
Loretta felt the distant wash of pain stir once more and groaned softly, her eyelids flickering open. "Charlene?" she whispered. A light snapped on near her face then off again as quickly. Something thin and hard probed at the angle of her jaw, beneath her right ear. An instant later her universe ripped apart in a flash of formless light and incoherent sound as the metal lanced upward into her brain.