One Boy and His Dog (Part One)
When he thinks about his life, Mark pictures his job as a giant grey toad. A toad with mottled, warty skin that squats in the middle of his life, crushing all the joy and creativity from it and leaving him feeling flat and slimy.
Although Mark is rather proud of that metaphor he prefers to avoid thinking about his life at all. Not only is such contemplation a rich source of depression, but second-guessing the series of decisions that led to his current circumstances drives him half-crazy.
As a child Mark couldn’t decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. There were too many amazing careers out there for him to settle on just one! He wanted to be a ventriloquist, a palaeontologist, a doctor!
Does any boy dream of being an insurance broker when he grows up?
Mark wouldn’t mind the job as much if it didn’t leave him feeling so drained at the end of the day; if he didn’t find it so impossible to write now. He’s always loved writing and used to have a head full of ideas. When he wrote the words flowed easily, thousands of them a night, and he often felt like a conduit rather than a creator.
Now, a few years into the job, Mark can barely string a hundred words together in an evening before his mind goes blank and he starts to fall asleep at his computer. Ideas are few and far between and have to be coaxed from his mind like splinters embedded deep under the skin.
It’s Saturday today and Mark went to bed early last night, determined to get a fresh start today on the novel that’s been sitting on his hard drive for about two years. So far he’s been averaging a finished chapter a year.
Mark woke feeling tired and fusty-headed despite the long sleep, and spent the first few hours of his morning having breakfast and checking his social networking sites. Now it’s past noon and he finally opens his word processor. He reads back to the beginning of the chapter to remind himself where he left off and winces at the clunky sentence construction in a few places; he begins editing.
It’s two in the afternoon and Mark is finally satisfied with his editing. He is determined to add at least a thousand words to his story before the end of the day. He starts to write but the sun pours bright warmth through his window and the heat is making him feel sleepy.
The second time Mark catches himself nodding off at his computer (“The moon was full and bright, a shiny silver coooooooooooooooooooooooo” is the last thing he wrote) he sighs and gets up to make a cup of coffee. He drinks it sweet, black and too fast and then returns to his labour with a burnt tongue.
It’s four in the afternoon and Mark has managed to write about 500 words of new content today. He is hungry and spaced out and feels a headache coming on. He needs to eat but he doesn’t feel like cooking, as usual. He dithers for a while between getting takeaway and going out to eat; ultimately he decides he should leave the house for at least a little while today and get some fresh air.
He changes from his slumming-about-the-house clothes into something more presentable, grabs his wallet and keys and heads into town. It’s a nice day, still bright, so he decides to go the long way through his local park. It’s idyllic at this time of year; verdant and bright with summer flowers in bloom. Mark slows his pace and lingers in the park, drinking in the sights, sounds and smells. Quite a few people are also out enjoying the weather; they snuggle together on blankets, lounge shirtless and sunburned, play with footballs and Frisbees. There is something timeless and perfect about the place and Mark imagines the park as a piece of endless summer; contained during the winter by walls and locked gates.
Halfway through the park Mark hears a less pleasant sound than the twitter of birdsong and laughter. To the east of the park is an ugly fence that leads into an area of weed-strewn scrub about a quarter the size of the park itself. It’s supposed to be shut away but the gate hangs open. From somewhere back there Mark can hear the yelping of a dog and cruel, childish laughter. His arms prickle with goosebumps and he stops in his tracks, looks around to see if anyone else has noticed the animal’s distress. They haven’t, or at least nobody is moving to do anything.
The dog screams and Mark clenches his fists, revulsion and anger unsticking his feet and sending him charging towards the noise. A few seconds later he rounds an overgrown shrub and sees a huddle of three boys. They are shoulder to shoulder and taking it in turns to kick a yelping bundle of fur between them. A fourth boy, smaller than the others, kneels off to one side clutching his nose; the grass beneath him is splashed with crimson.
Mark shouts as he runs; he’s breathless so it’s short and to the point. “YOU FUCKERS!”
The boys look up from their feet and see Mark bearing down on them, his arms pumping and his face red and pouring with sweat. One of them shouts in alarm, his voice cracking. and the three of them scatter before Mark gets close. As he skids to a halt the fourth boy is looking up at him and smiling nervously, his chin and upper lip wet with blood.
Mark nods to the boy and then crouches down next to the bundle of fur the boys were kicking. It’s a Labrador puppy of no more than a year or so old and it’s unconscious but breathing. There’s no blood and Mark hopes he got here in time to prevent too much damage. “Are you okay?” he asks, turning to the boy with the bloody noise.
“I think so,” he replies in a muffled, nasal voice. “I thought they was goin’ to kill my dog!” He cuffs his nose and spreads blood across his lips and cheek; it makes him looks like a vampire with no table manners. Compared to the blood his unruly mop of red hair seems faded, his face as white as milk.
The boy goes to his dog and kneels to gently stroke its head. Traces of blood stain its fur strawberry blond. “Who were those boys?” Mark asks, feeling shaky and a bit sick.
“Just boys. I dunno ‘em.” The boy shrugs and looks up at Mark, squinting into the sun as his hand absently continues to pet the dog. “They was already here when we arrived.”
Mark crouches next to boy and dog, his thighs aching from the running. “We should get him to a vet.”
The boy shakes his head. “Nah mister, I ain’t got any money. I reckon he’ll be okay though, right boy? You’re a tough one, ain’tcha?” The dog whimpers and opens its eyelids a little, only crescents of white showing under the long eyelashes.
“Look, it’s okay,” Mark says. “I’ll pay if that’s what it takes. I’d feel awful if I left the two of you on you own and your dog…” he catches himself and finishes lamely, “…if something happened.”
The boy looks back up at Mark and begins to speak, but then his mouth falls open with a gasp and his eyes widen in comical surprise. Mark turns to see what’s up even as a broad shadow lengthens to fall over all three of them, his own mouth unhinging as his brain tries to assimilate what he’s seeing. Above the screen of trees and shrubs between them and the park proper a staggeringly tall and muscular man is unfolding to his feet.
Mark cranes his head to look up into the giant’s face even as his thighs come into view, part of his mind repeating “This isn’t real!” over and over again. With the sun behind it Mark can’t make out any details but the giant’s head is no wider than its neck, and a pair of ball and stick… antennae… project from its top at a slight angle from each other. Where the sun laps around the giant’s sides its flesh appears grey-white and glistening.
The giant has now risen to its full height, around fourteen feet, and it steps deliberately over the greenery between it and Mark. Its foot is grey-brown, corrugated and lacks toes. Strands of thick, snot-like fluid dangle from the sole and droop thickly over the leaves beneath; when its foot settles on the ground there is a prolonged squelch.
As the giant strides towards him Mark finds himself frozen to the spot, fear and confusion combining to paralyse him utterly. His thoughts spin like a gyroscope trying to right itself as he tries to reconcile the existence of this slimy behemoth with everything he knows about the world. The boy is panicking and tugging on Mark’s arm as he yells to get his attention but it seems to be happening far away.
The giant leans forwards and pushes back with one foot; there’s a sticky noise and it commences a deceptively fast glide, skating on a thick layer of slime towards Mark and the boy. As the thing draws near Mark gets a better look at its face but wishes he had not.
He sees the face of a slug writ large; sensory tentacles writhe beside its rasp-filled maw; eye-stalks twitch and lead the charge. Massive hands with thick, slime-slicked fingers reach out as it approaches and grasp towards Mark on elongated arms.
Mark’s paralysis breaks and he turns to run but the giant is deceptively fast and it’s too little, too late. For a brief moment Mark entertains the fantasy that he might escape but then its hand closes around his head and his world fills with slime.
It’s almost a mercy when everything goes black.