His swollen eyes leak it away; I see his jowls quiver when he looks at me. Robin and I spoon on the road. The grass would be softer, but you can’t afford to wake up damp from the frost. This is November.
Robin is my companion. I don’t call her friend and she shows no interest in me, not through touch or look or speech. She is warm and big. I suppose if I loved her I would love the ample quantity of her under cold night skies.
“Smell that?” asks Robin.
Yeah. It’s gas, says Little Dog.
“Who farted?” I mumble, pulling Robin’s arms tighter, tucking a hand under my breast to prevent her from pulling it back. She twitches but does not complain. We both know the warmth saves us, and maybe the companionship, too.
“I dunno if we should stay here,” says Robin.
She is often frustrated by how quickly I fall asleep. I suppose it is no fun being the big spoon, the bear exposed, with the little dreamer already gone and no one to keep you company but the whisper of frights sneaking through the mangy interstate grass.
“We’ll be fine.” I hold back yawning. “We can sleep an hour.”
We wake easy. You don’t linger on white shores sleeping on the road, smelling the approaching frights strong in your nostrils. Scarcely do I remember mornings of wake-after-wake, hitting snooze, post-REM bliss. Now, shivering and afraid, we are walking two minutes after our eyes open. Little Dog trots briskly. He has a wiry blue coat from when someone dyed him. We feed him crushed berries and crickets. He has no teeth.
Our noses say the fright is closer.
Robin has seen one. She only described it for me once, the most she’s ever spoken, describing it as a vacuum-snake, as having bolts and screws in dark organic tissue, and a gaping, sucking mouth. She only saw it in the moment before it struck. I have only smelled them: petroleum and blood. Once, I was close enough to hear one. Or not hear one. In close proximity to a fright, your ears fill with hot soup and cotton, all the world sucked out. The sound of a fright is the sound of your own heartbeat.
“Hurry up.” Robin taps me in the ribs with a foot.
I don’t want to hurry. I want to lie back down with Robin and have a conversation in the safety of her arms. Her mouth against my ear, all the words she could say – about her best friends in grade school, her favorite ice cream, books I doubt she read. I let her push me along. The smell worsens.
“Hurry more,” Robin snaps at me.
I stop and turn, into her deadened glare, her fists balled. “Little Dog has a secret.”
“What you mean?” asks Robin. She’s sniffing the air.
“Little Dog has a secret,” I repeat.
Bitch, snarls Little Dog.
Robin scoops him into her cracked hands. Holds him close to her ear. “Huh, lil’ dog?” Flips him upside down. “Got secrets?”
Little Dog squeals angrily. Let me down.
Robin holds him higher. With a violent squirm, Little Dog scampers down her arm onto the road, landing with a twinge. He glowers over a scabbed shoulder as he limps ahead. I don’t know that he’ll talk to us again anytime soon.
“He’s offended,” I say.
Robin nods blankly, checking over her shoulder. She doesn’t know what “offended” means, and I can’t give a definition. I don’t have those anymore. Just the remnant vocabulary, old relics of a previous intelligence. Maybe it’s the high stress lifestyle. Maybe the smell of frights dulls the brain, makes fossils of shit I used to know.
“Keep up,” says Robin, and she takes the lead.
Without the thump of cars going by there is only our shoes slapping the pavement, the trees ahead dripping water. I don’t remember the rain. Robin’s shirt is damp when I press my hand between her shoulder blades. She swats me away. The split ends of her hair are bejeweled with crystals fast melting in the frosty morning sun; she must have shielded me from the shower throughout the night. If I loved her, this would be a good reason why.
Gas and blood. The dark road ahead, under the lightening sky, is not carrying us from the fright-smell as quickly as we hoped. Little Dog circles back to us, nose twitching nervously. I extend a hand for him to nibble: a peace offering.
“What’s your secret, Little Dog?”
“Fuck up, will you?” says Robin, cracking her knuckles.
I know she meant to say, “Shut the fuck up,” but I don’t correct her. She only hit me once, the first time we met, and it was because she had just seen her father swallowed by a fright and was running all the night through, screaming, and me the first person standing in her way the next afternoon. “I had to hit something,” she said.
There’s no secret, dingbat, says Little Dog, goobery eyes darting.
I ask Robin, “You aren’t curious?”
“He a fucking dog he don’t have any secret.”
Maybe she’s just anxious because the fright’s on our tail. Maybe she’s always this pissed at me and I pretend it’s not there. What I know is Little Dog refuses to let me have my fun. We peeled the skin off a dead cat once. Maybe I’m remembering that now because my stomach is growling and Little Dog’s being a little shit. He hasn’t saved us any trouble, ever. And he still has a little paunch on him.
“Hey, Robin,” I say.
You’re in for it, Little Dog warns me.
I ignore him. “Did you ever line up all your stuffed animals on the bed and pick which ones had babies together?”
Robin’s eyes are glassy, wet, red-rimmed. They are the pimentos of her olive skin, where a trail of sweat beads on her collar, even in this cold. I can’t tell if she is interested. I only know that she is angry because she always is.
“I want to know more about you,” I stammer.
Robin points at Little Dog. “He a fucking dog,” she says.
All I wanted was conversation, to hear from her mouth something other than primordial snarls. Robin lumbers ahead, Little Dog bouncing at her heel. What a little ass. My heart constricts like it does sometimes, the same sensation as being afraid except it’s impossible to be so afraid all the time. Eventually you go numb. Maybe Robin went numb to everything except her fear and her rage. If I were as numb as her, maybe I wouldn’t want the things I want, like conversation and somebody to touch me and also for Robin to look me in the eyes and say something I don’t already know.
The smell of gas intensifies and my jaw hangs loose, my brain feeling squish, if that makes sense. “Hey, Robin,” I say. “Hey…” My hand can’t reach her. The panic pokes my heart again. When did she get so far away?
I quicken. From behind, Robin is a boulder, her silence massive. I grab her arm, try to speak, but I flounder. An angry flick is enough to dislodge me.
“Stop touch me,” says Robin.
Little Dog sneezes. God you’re annoying.
“Don’t be mad, Robin,” I say, the smell of gas and the long road ahead of us, and her damp shirt, all of it rising up and overwhelming me. “Robin. Hey, Robin.”
My mouth fills with the taste of iron, but I didn’t bite my tongue. Robin looks back at me, and from a twitch in her puffy eyes I know she tastes it, too. White tissue paper crumples around the edges of my vision, in and in, concealing what’s in front of me. Robin extends a hand. I grab it tight. She guides us off the road to a naked cottonwood tree. Little Dog barks and barks at whatever approaches, his hair on end. Robin pulls me so forcefully I can’t reach back for him. The last thing I see are initials gouged in the trunk: P & M.
I’m turning my head round and round and all I can see is soft white tissue. It stuffs my ears, too, so I take a finger and try to dig it out. Robin pulls my hand away and stacks it with my other one. She has me shackled in her grip.
I wish there was a roaring, some kind of rattling noise to mark the passage of the fright. If it were a freight train charging across the plains we would at least know when it grew more distant.
Suddenly I feel something warm against my neck. Hot breath, I realize, hard to recognize when it’s disconnected from the sound of Robin breathing. Her lips brush my skin like moth wings. I wonder if this is some kind of nervous kiss until I understand that she is speaking. Robin’s lips move, and her hands hold me tighter. I can’t hear her voice but I know what I want her to be saying. These are my last seconds alive, and if there can be just one person in this cold who wants me here, I will fight to stay.
Robin keeps talking until the whiteness recedes and our ears unplug. We blink into the pale yellow of the sky, astonished at our good fortune.
What remains of Little Dog is essentially Little Dog pajamas, sliced open under the chin and down to the groin, the Little Dog innards carefully removed.
Robin looks down at the blue fur exoskeleton, her arms hanging loosely, her spine curved over him like she has been sucked into orbit. I try to read her expression. I always did think of him as her dog. She twists and punches me in the gut. “I told you hurry the fuck up!”
I land next to Little Dog and Robin steps over me without a backwards glance. The fright cleaned all the meat from our small companion’s shell and I’m in no mood to start a cooking fire. My head spins as I climb to my feet, stomach aching. I spit on what remains of Little Dog. He never knew how to play along. I leave him on the road. If Robin won’t bury him, I sure as hell won’t.
Silence on the road. My legs cannot keep up. Robin is deliberately outpacing me. She must blame me. She must’ve have loved that stupid little animal. This silence, widening between us, might be the same silence that poured in our ears while the fright slurped Little Dog right out of his fur – but Robin spoke to me in that silence. Maybe it was only the bleating of expletives, but it was my ear she turned to, my skin where she took shelter. I tell myself it’s not too late to catch up. I will try speaking to Robin again. Maybe she is also a shell, picked clean and sucked dry. But she is warm and big and she is all I have.
Jackie Krogmeier moved to the Cleveland area recently from Lafayette, Indiana where she graduated from Purdue University with degrees in creative writing and history. Her short stories have been published on Typishly, Cagibi, and Crossways magazines. She enjoys swimming in the lake, even as recently as October; exploring new breweries; and spending time with her boyfriend, Peter. She’s a much happier person than most of her writing would convey.