The owner had been dead three weeks when the dog vanished.
The house left behind, half shuttered and gaunt, had been abandoned to the entropy of decay. In time, boxy trucks arrived, black smoke belching particulates into the air as three white men took what little remained inside the owner’s house. A mattress, no sheets. A television, no antenna. A short rack’s worth of soiled shirts. A bathtub’s volume of bleach.
On the last day of removal, a woman, the dog’s trainer, stopped by. Payments had ceased, along with any communication from the owner. The trainer asked one of the moving men if anyone had seen a white German Shepherd.
The trainer walked the neighborhood in circles for hours that day, whistling at first, then calling the dog’s name. Her shouts attracted a trio of children that trailed behind her shouting the dog’s name in small bursts of sound, howling on occasion, laughing at first, then becoming quite serious. Daylight faded quickly with the onset of autumn. The trainer made her way back to her parked car in front of the abandoned home before noticing that the clatter of footsteps behind her had disappeared. She turned around in the middle of the street, looking. At the sidewalk corner, on the opposite end of the road, the three children stood. One of them, a girl whose dark skin shone like fluorescent jaundice under the streetlamps, shouted a question.
Is that your car? It is.
In front of the bleach house? The what?
The girl never repeated her question and, after some muffled deliberation with her two friends, disappeared around the corner with them. The bleach house.
Lights flashed briefly before a blaring honk made the trainer scream. A car waited behind her, the driver’s side window beginning to roll down. Sorry. The trainer ducked into her sedan, where her phone sat in the cupholder. Several missed calls from other clients. A text from her partner. Sponsored email ads. The bleach house. The trainer shook her head, started the car, redialed the first caller she had missed.
Off somewhere in the darkness, at the children’s vacated corner where shadows coalesced, the dog waited.
Its glistening black nose shifted and pulled at the air, its ears angling and batting for the sound of footsteps. During the day, the trainer used to be summoned to show the owner basic commands and listening skills. In the evening, the owner would beat the dog to remember a different set of objectives, always along the thickest coats of fur, perverting the lessons the dog had been shown through care earlier before. The owner’s objectives were tactical, felt like a rush of blood at the sight of wounded game. There was an infection in the neighborhood that needed to be eradicated.
In the shadows, the dog recognized the cadence of rubber shoe creaks as a body approached its corner, the last body it had been taught to remember and to crave. It searched the air for that tall patch of halting human movement, so different from how it looked during the daytime through grimy windows. It sniffed eagerly for the wetting scent of burnt meat, chunks of raw rewarding flesh that its owner used to hide throughout the house, for practice; mush and tear, and again, every day, counting footsteps, an alchemy of scent and sound and sight. The dog listened closely, waiting for the command that was supposed to come but never would again, the one that blurred “boy” and “attack”, “good” and “black”.
The dog’s eyes glowed yellow. A breeze passed, carrying the odor of onion sweat into its nostrils. The dark body came into view, two dimensions of shadow stark against the lamplight above. The owner had been dead three weeks and yet its commands lived on. The dog lunged.
– – –
Too much had been asked of Marcus in the emergency room following the attack. He couldn’t tell any of the attendees what he knew, what he thought he knew. He couldn’t tell them that, though it seemed improbable, children had always avoided the house at the entrance to the neighborhood because they feared they would never make it home if they came too close. He couldn’t tell them about the birthmark on his right side that wasn’t a birthmark but the aftermath of chemical burns, bleach that seeped into his skin years ago because he himself had gotten too close to the house. Marcus couldn’t tell them about the beast behind it all.
At the end of the week, after his discharge, their paths crossed once again.
Arm in sling, step staggered, Marcus walked home, one hand a bandaged trophy, the other carrying a sagging brown paper bag. Tiny peaks of dried blood arced along one half of the sidewalk where he had collapsed. Just then, that infernal barking began again, a scratching of nails along the undulating wall beside him, tapping restlessly until a black snout twitched into view. After the attack, the dog had returned to its pen in the abandoned yard, its owner by now long since packaged into the ground. The children in the neighborhood were nowhere to be found, their curiosity at the owner’s absence quelled by the excuse of cold weather. Marcus noted the silence, picked up his pace.
In his head, he knew that the difference between a beast and a man was a line drawn clumsily with haste. He understood what lived beyond the reach of death, the constriction of a grudge, the throat-lump that bobbed fearfully beneath. Even as he remembered how the dog had sunk its maw onto his hand like a finger dipping into cake, one sharp tooth popping between his metacarpals. Even as he had fallen backwards kicking and gasping, the skin of his palm rubbed away by the ground. Even as the small black teardrop at the corner of the dog’s eye had drawn closer into focus, then further away with each tug, every hinging of its jaw.
Marcus knew this difference when he looked up at the wall, the darkening of the sky shrouding that furry head into that of a wild shaking demon. He stopped walking, turning to face it, and stared. In between the sweeping of cars passing behind, he could hear the rumble of a growl. Beast and man. Beast and man. Which one had died in that house, he wondered.
The traffic light nearby turned red before a line of cars. Paper bag dropped, Marcus stepped forward, the wall barely visible in the twilight. He shrugged out of his sling, unclipped the metal fastenings on his bandages, unrolling and unrolling like boxers after the fight is over. The final cocoon of gauze caught painfully on spots of yellowish ooze and brown blood. The scabs held and Marcus began to tug in earnest, never breaking the gaze he held with the shadow above the wall.
Soon, the wet tearing of flesh finally came. Fresh blood trickled along his heartline, but what Marcus wanted was the dam of white healing pulp beneath. He raised his exposed, raw hand high above his head, the broken back side facing that twitching snout.
Large patches of fair, wounded skin glistened and the dog sniffed anxiously. Marcus flexed his fingers, dark skin stretching at the edges of healing pale skin. The dog whined and growled, its yellow eyes rolling back and forth between two planes embedded on the same body. Marcus seized the dog’s mouth and pulled. The wondering would not stop, even after the owner’s death: beast or man. The white dog trembled beneath his grip and Marcus thought he might know which of the two he was looking at.
Something had become of the owner after all those years, a listless entity whose dissatisfaction with the changing makeup of the neighborhood deepened into unspeakable hatred. The kind that stared too long after the conversation was over, gauging your fitness, your belonging. The kind that said “boy”, that crackled with the television static of knowing things were better once when everyone had known their place.
Marcus released the dog’s snout and watched it disappear behind the wall. What would come next, unclear. As he loosely rewrapped his wounded hand and retrieved the brown paper bag, Marcus remembered the entity of that house. He remembered the bleach and the shouting, the red rage and the barking underneath it all. He remembered the burning, sizzling acid and the fear of the uncured skin to come. Marcus continued on home, flexing his fingers in the growing darkness, praying silently. He gave it up to the items he hoped would protect him. Three gallons of brown paint, a box of rat poison, some clippers, the promise of winter without a white coat.