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Blood Dust by Max Booth III

Updated: Jul 5

Blood Dust (reprint)

by Max Booth III

@givemeyourteeth I. A wild pack of family dogs got in the trash last night. I could hear them from my bed, knocking over the cans and digging in. Mother had thrown out a half-eaten dish of casserole that had spoiled. They’d hit a goldmine. Everybody in the hills knew these dogs. They moved fast, like a shadow in your peripherals. Some thought they slept all day and only roamed the land during nightfall like bona fide vampires. But I’d seen them a few times when the sun was out. It was rare, but I’d seen them. They liked to frequent the junkyard. So did I. The junkyard was neutral ground for both boy and dog alike. Back in my bedroom, I remained quiet and still, listening to the dogs feast upon our leftovers. I imagined myself sneaking outside, on my hands and knees, facedown in the trash. I thought about the moon hanging over my naked body and gifting me with just enough light to see. No parents, no rules. Complete and total freedom. If I snuck outside, would the dogs welcome my presence? Or would they rip me to pieces? The front screen door swung open and Father ran outside, screaming and shooting his shotgun. The dogs barked and took off into the night. Father’s screams sounded farther away as he chased after them, following each yell with another buckshot. My own dog, Toad, was losing his mind in the backyard, where he was tied to a pole. He was probably watching the whole scene, desperately wanting to contribute. It was like this every night. Soon, Toad would break away from his pole and tear after them. I always wondered why the pack didn’t mess with him. They typically ignored his existence. What did my dog have that they didn’t? And the answer was that Toad had a master, and the pack of dogs did not. They answered to nobody. Humanity did not control their lives. The dogs controlled humanity. And that was the way everybody—man, dog, whoever—ought to have lived. Free. A half hour later, Father returned to the house, panting heavily as he got a glass of water from the kitchen. Mother was awake, too, and she was lecturing him about giving himself another heart attack. Father told her it was too early to listen to that kind of shit. He was tired and sore, and the last thing he wanted to hear was a bunch of nonsense about heart attacks. “Besides,” he said, “those goddamn dogs will be the death of me long before my ticker kamikazes.” II. That morning, during breakfast, Father drank his coffee one gulp after the other. My little sister, Mel, was sitting next to me at the table, smashing potatoes with the bottom of her fork. Father finished off his second cup of coffee and cleared his throat. He waited until me and Mel gave him our full attention. “Now, kids, I’m sure you both woke up last night from all the racket. As you know, those damn dogs have been getting in our trash every night, making a mess of things. I just wanted to tell y’all not to go messin’ about with these dogs. I know some of your friends like to play with ’em, but hear me right now, these dogs are dangerous. Some dogs you pet. These are not those types of dogs. They’re vicious and hungry. They got that ache in their stomachs.” Mel nodded. “I heard you shootin’ at ‘em.” “You heard correctly.” “Did you kill any of the doggies?” Father shook his head. “No. I wasn’t trying to kill them. I was shooting up, toward the sky, just to scare them.” “Oh,” Mel said. “I hope you didn’t hit the moon.” “The moon’s invincible, baby.” “Are you like the moon, Daddy?” “Yeah, baby, I’m like the moon.” III. After breakfast, me and Mel went down to the junkyard. We took Toad with us and we met up with Billy and Gunther next to the perimeter gate. At the sight of my sister, Gunther sighed and asked why I had to bring along a snot-nosed girl. “I ain’t snot-nosed,” Mel said. “Sure you are,” Gunther told her, and looked back at me, awaiting a response. I shrugged. “Mel’s all right. Don’t be so harsh.” “Just don’t let her get any snot on me.” “I’ll punch your face in, you call me snot-nosed one more time,” Mel said, making fists. And even though she was a few years younger than us all, Gunther still flinched and stepped back. “Besides,” I said, “Mel’s smaller than us. She can fit into places we can’t.” Gunther seemed to contemplate it, then nodded. “Good point.” One by one, we crawled through an opening in the gate where someone had split apart the wiring. I held Toad’s leash tight, paranoid that he’d go running off and get lost in the depths of the junkyard. This place was a labyrinth of hidden paths and dead ends. Decomposing cars waited in the shadows to swallow us as soon as we let down our guard. We breathed through our mouths. The rot of the town’s leftovers invaded our senses and filled our lungs with vomit. To take our minds off the stench, me and Mel told the others about last night. “Yeah,” Billy said, “they got our house, too.” Gunther shook his head, amused. “One day all the dogs of the universe will eat us humans and rule the stars.” “My daddy says the moon is invincible,” Mel said. “Nothing’s invincible,” Gunther said. As we walked deeper into the junkyard, Toad grew agitated. Something up ahead gnawed at him, and when we rounded a corner, we understood. The dogs stood in a circle, feasting on an animal carcass. At the sound of our arrival, they stopped eating and lifted their heads up to stare at us. Billy muttered an obscenity and stepped back. “Don’t run,” I told him. “They’ll chase us if we show ’em our backs.” Toad growled at the pack, and the pack growled back. “This is gonna get bad,” I said. “What do we do?” Gunther asked, shaking. “It’s okay.” Mel stepped forward and waved her hands out at the dogs. “It’s okay, doggies. Don’t be mad. We’re not gonna hurt you.” “Your sister’s gonna get us killed!” Gunther said. I didn’t say nothing. Mel continued soothing the dogs, and after a minute, they stopped growling and returned to their carcass. “Let’s go,” I whispered. We slowly backed away, and once we were out of the dogs’ sight, we ran like hell. Once we’d made it to the other side of the fence, we collapsed in the grass, out of breath. “I told y’all,” Gunther said, “them dogs are gonna rule the stars.” IV. We went home for lunch. Mother already had some sandwiches prepared. Mel told Mother about the incident at the junkyard. “What did your father say about them dogs?” “We know,” I said. “We didn’t touch ’em or nothing. Once we saw ’em, we left right away. They didn’t really care about us, anyway.” “They was busy,” Mel said. “Doing what?” “They was eatin’ dead things, Momma.” Mother shook her head slowly. “You don’t go messin’ with them dogs.” “But we eat dead things, too, Momma,” Mel said. “We eat dead things just like the doggies.” “We aren’t dogs, honey.” V. The dogs came back that night. They weren’t as loud this time, and managed to eat our trash without being disturbed. Maybe they learned noise meant buckshot. When Father woke up in the morning, he raised all sorts of hell. He dragged me out of bed and instructed me to clean up the mess. “It’s your own damn fault,” he told me. “The trash cans are right by your window. You should’ve heard ’em and woke me up.” Outside, Toad was missing. His rope hung from the pole, but the end of the rope was chewed and torn. VI. Mel was heartbroken. During breakfast, she refused to touch her plate. Father and Mother told us Toad would come back when he got hungry. He was just out for a run, stretching his legs. Mel sat by Toad’s pole all day, crying. I asked her if she wanted to go play at the junkyard, and she shook her head, told me she wasn’t leaving the pole until Toad returned. So I left her there and met up with Billy and Gunther outside the junkyard. I told them about Toad. They all seemed to have their own theories. “Maybe aliens from outer space sucked him up into the sky,” Billy said. “That’s stupid,” Gunther said. “He probably just ran away. Hell, he might even be here.” We looked at the fence, then back at each other. Suddenly it felt like Toad could be no other place but the junkyard. We slid underneath the fence, running blindly through the alleys of trash. But all we found were animal carcasses, covered in flies and maggots and smelling so foul we had to go vomit our breakfasts. It was a ghost town and we were the ghosts. We walked around for a little while, throwing rusted cans at each other, but it just wasn’t as fun without Toad keeping us company. I returned home, mind racing with curiosities. Mel was still sitting by the pole, only now she wasn’t alone. The dogs stood around her, snarling. Toad stood in front of them all, and at that moment I realized he now belonged to the rest of the pack. Mel smiled at Toad, holding her hand out. But Toad wasn’t smiling. “Mel, no!” I screamed, and ran toward them. When I reached the backyard, the dogs were gone and so was my sister’s soul. VII. Nobody slept that night. Mother sat on the porch and cried. Cried ’til her eyes were raw and leaking blood dust. Father drank in the living room. I stayed in bed, looking through my window at the pole in the backyard. It was stained red. In the morning, I sat alone at the kitchen table. I fixed some toast and dragged the breakfast on for hours. Billy and Gunther stopped by my house later that afternoon. They wanted to know why I hadn’t met them at the junkyard. I told them what happened. Afterward, they both stared at me, then left without saying another word. Our young minds couldn’t contemplate these sorts of horrors. If given the choice to flee, one would flee. But I didn’t have that choice. I was stuck here in the house, the same house my sister used to run around in, laughing and playing with our dog. There had been a time when this kitchen was full and bright with love. Mel, Father, Mother had all once sat here with me, as a family, Toad under the table, searching for dropped food. Now it was just me. I was alone but still trapped in this miserable house. I wanted to run but my legs would not behave. When Father came home that night, he told me he quit his job. “If your mother comes home, tell her not to wake me up in the morning,” he said, and kissed the neck of a whiskey bottle. I watched him drink himself stupid on the couch, staring blankly ahead and losing his mind in the cracks of the wall. I wanted to know what he was thinking. I wanted to know what he was going to do about everything. Where was Mother? Where was Toad? What were we going to do with Mel? Who was gonna bury her body? But I couldn’t ask him that. He wasn’t himself, and I doubted he would be himself ever again. I’d lost more than just a sister. Father told me hadn’t quit his job. He’d been fired. He’d broken down at work and punched his boss. He couldn’t think straight anymore, he told me. Couldn’t see what was right in front of him. “Is Mother coming home?” I asked him. “Home is gone, boy. Home is gone.” VIII I sat in bed all night, leaning against the wall, my bedroom window wide open as an invitation to the ghosts. The dogs were somewhere outside, howling at the moon in search of dead things to eat. Toad was with them. I could hear his bark. It was the same bark I’d grown up listening to ever since I was a baby. These dogs were his new family. I tried to accept that, but couldn’t. I’d grown up with Toad. Toad was my best friend. My dog. My friend. I needed him. I prayed to God and promised that if Toad returned then he would never have to be tied to a pole again. I’d convince Father to let me keep him in my room so we could sleep together every night. And then after Toad was back, maybe somehow we could bring Mel back, too. Maybe we could reverse all these horrors, recycle these nightmares into pleasant dreams where happy endings weren’t fairy tales. If only I could just pray hard enough, I could make everything right. Mother would come back home. Father would quit drinking. Toad would still be our dog. Mel would still be alive. I sat in my bedroom a long time before eventually falling asleep. My mind raced and so did my heart. I did not know what tomorrow would bring but it was bound to be another round of depression. Another hour of blood, of tears. Tomorrow would be today, but it would never be yesterday. IX. Morning came and Mother still wasn’t home. Father was passed out in the living room, his whiskey bottle now empty. I kicked it across the room and winced as it shattered against the wall. But still, Father did not wake. I left the house and sat out by the pole. I leaned my back against the metal, against my sister’s dried blood. I stayed out there all day, just as Mel had before she died. I thought about running through the hills, wild and hungry. I thought about hunting and eating anything and everything. I thought about shedding my clothes and howling at the moon. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t supposed to be born human after all. Maybe someone, somewhere, had made a mistake. The dogs eventually returned. Toad led them past me and to the trash cans, only the cans were empty because nobody had thought to fill them. I tilted my head back and watched the clouds slowly fade from the sky like they were dissolving into coffee. They were going away, and so was I. The dogs may not have ruled the stars, but they did rule the hills. They were free.

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