Oh I love the concept for horror. A stray cat. A stray human. Imagine the possibilities. I’m continuing my highlight of some of the best authors I’ve ever worked with. The Animal delves into the dark side that we all have – that one moment we WILL do something out of the ordinary and its all about the evil nestled deep inside of us. I’ve loved putting this collection together. Think about that very moment when you snap – when you can no longer take the crappy hand you’ve been dealt.
I’m proud to present an author I respect and hope to work with again. Enjoy the tasty treats of Duncan Ralston.
Max awoke from an uncomfortable dream, vaguely aware of a wet, prickly thing sliming the palm of his left hand. He tore the hand away, shrinking back against the seat, clutching the duffel bag handle in his right hand.
A dog—a husky or malamute, Max couldn’t tell which, and the breed didn’t matter so much as the fact of its presence here at all—looked up at him with sad ice-blue eyes, peeling its lips back in a yawn or a snarl. Max couldn’t decide which, and again, didn’t care.
Looking up and down the car, hoping to find its owner, he found no one. The dog was on its own. Max was alone with it.
“Go on,” he said, anxious. “Get out of here.”
The animal didn’t move, only panted, staring.
The dog whimpered, shrinking back, then sat on its haunches in front of the doors with a jingle—a sound signifying ownership, though Max saw no collar around its thick neck. Instead, a small loop of bathtub chain and silvery tags peeked out from its fur, reminiscent of another kind of dog tag. Its big pink tongue came out to lick its chops as it eyeballed him with that I-know-something look.
Could it smell the rising fear in his sweat? Could it hear the increase in his heartbeat?
What was it doing on the train, anyway? Was it a stray?
Max had read an article once about abandoned dogs in Moscow that had learned to take the Metro into the city. Street dogs worked in packs there, using the smallest and cutest to beg for food and share amongst them. They stood behind people and barked, startling feckless humans into dropping their food so the dogs could eat it from the ground. The pack leaders were not the biggest and strongest, as in other species, but the smartest. The dogs with the most cunning abilities.
What had occurred to Max from reading the article (and further research, including several videos) was that dogs, as a species, were growing smarter. But were they evolving, he’d wondered, or was it just a natural response to their environment, a “societal” change? Being a History major, Max wasn’t scientifically inclined enough to say one way or the other, but history told him to be wary. And it was history—History class, in fact—that had put him on the train so early this morning, long before the other commuters. He’d needed to get to school before his fellow teachers, before Principal Anders, and before Don McTavish, the security officer. The janitors, who arrived early, would let him in without trouble, but Anders and the others would wonder what he was doing at school, and what, exactly, he had in his duffel bag.
“…Clauberg told the women he’d artificially inseminated them with animal sperm, and while it’s unclear whether this is true or not, it’s just another example of the Nazi’s employing torture under the guise of scientific advancement.”
Silence drew out in the small classroom. A few students fiddled with their cell phones, one or two girls twisted their hair around pencils or chewed it. Others doodled. The kids in the front row wore looks of disgust, which had been his intent. He’d wanted to shock them out of their apathy; what he hadn’t known at the time was that this lesson would get him a six-week suspension. The school board would go on to cite some of his extra-curricular activities as being “red flags,” in particular the small bit of enjoyment he got from playing General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn reenactments; they had wondered why he would “celebrate” such an atrocious period in America’s history, acting as if he flew the Confederate flag and wore white sheets in the night. Even his brief tour of duty in the Iraq Conflict had raised suspicions at West Brinkley High; the fact that his left arm was barely functional due to shrapnel from an IED had been the subject of much speculation during his three years teaching History to students who, for the most part, couldn’t remember beyond their last keg party.
One of the football players in the back shot up his hand. Max held his right hand palm-up toward him, as Principal Anders had deemed pointing “too confrontational.”
“So, like, all that stuff happened a long time ago?”
“During the Second World War,” Max said, nodding genially, though he suspected Michael had something tricky up his sleeve.
A handful of others nodded, muttering their agreement.
“Well, Michael, a wise person once wrote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'”
“And was that wise man you, Mr. Ellis?” Michael inquired with a shrewd smirk, garnering a few chuckles.
“No, Michael, it was George Santayana.” He smiled as Michael’s grin faded. “So what do you think it means?”
“The phrase, Michael. Let me put it another way. When Churchill misquoted it, he said, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ What do you think that means?”
Michael stared blankly for a moment, his mouth open, his shaggy hair hanging in his face. “Like… you’re gonna fail me if I can’t answer the question?”
“No, Michael. You’ll fail life. History is the most important subject.”
“Not for me. I’m gonna go pro.” Michael flashed his straight white teeth. “Gotta get paid,” he said, and held his hand out so his friends could slap it.
“I’m going to be an entrepreneur,” a girl in one of the middle seats said. “Why do I need to know all this gross stuff?”
Emphatic agreement met this. Even the burnouts perked up to join in.
These kids don’t want to be teachers, or thinkers, or cure disease, Max despaired. They all want to be Kardashians.
“If you don’t know this ‘gross stuff,’ you won’t see the signs of it happening again under your nose, Larissa. Just as it’s our responsibility to leave the environment in a good state for our children’s children, we’re also responsible for the state of society. We have to be wary, and speak up against what we feel is wrong, no matter the consequences. And when they come to silence you, when they force you into the shadows, remember what Edmund Burke said… ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'”
This drew blank looks from almost half the class. The others appeared to ruminate on it, even the class entrepreneur, and even a few of the burnouts.
Perhaps there’s hope for the world after all, Max thought.
But someone had reported the lesson to their parents, and the parents had informed Principal Anders. Within a week, Max was out on his ass, his pleas for sanity unanswered. And during those first few weeks, sitting alone in his apartment, pondering his place in the world, he wondered if he’d been wrong about there being any hope at all.
He began to think about the contents of his duffel bag.
He’d planned it all out so carefully in the following weeks, allowing for several possible contingencies. Not even the greatest military strategists—Carl von Clausewitz, Hannibal Barca, Julian Corbett—could have foreseen the dog.
Max watched as it splayed its legs and began licking its genitals, dispelling any myth of higher intelligence.
How many times did it do that before licking my hand, he wondered, letting himself relax against the seat back. Releasing the handle of his duffel bag from his white-knuckle grip, the zipper tab clinked against its metallic teeth. It was a comforting sound, like the tinkle of wind chimes he remembered from summer nights at his parents’ farmhouse when he was a kid, drinking lemonade on the porch after a long day’s work, as cicadas droned in the fields.
The doors opened with a discordant chime, sounding like an elevator arriving at the basement of Hell. A woman in a sharp business suit made to enter, looking up from her Blackberry just in time to see the dog. She leaped back, startled, then composed herself and scowled at Max, as if he owned the dog. When the doors closed, she was still glowering at him.
In the blink of an eye, the dog darted forward and bit his hand.
Pain splintered up Max’s arm in hot waves. Crying out in surprise, he grasped his hand at the wrist, blood oozing from the jagged gash along the second and third knuckles, splashing against his work boots. Slashes of brilliant white bone peeked through the wounds on his numbing fingers. As he clenched his hand into a fist, tendons pulled taut in the exposed meat.
“Bit me!” he bellowed, incredulous. “You bit me!”
The dog reared back and bared its teeth, pink with blood. Max tucked into a quick roll as the dog charged again, slamming its full weight against the seatback he’d vacated. It staggered back, legs spread out to stop itself from slip ‘n sliding across the slick tiles, then shook its head vigorously, spittle flying from its lips.
Max yanked the duffel bag off the seat and pulled it to his chest, using it as a shield as the dog attacked again, its powerful jaws tearing off a ragged swatch of oiled canvas.
With his left hand, Max tore at the zipper, shooting pain up his muscles from his old combat injury. The zipper slid easily partway, then caught. Momentarily fazed, he watched the dog spit out the grimy fabric, hacking at the taste. Grinning, Max reached into the bag and rummaged with his left hand. Pushing aside the Colt 1911—he’d trained himself to know each weapon by feel and weight, even with the backs of his fingers—he found the FN Five-SeveN easily, the same weapon used by Mexican drug cartels and the Fort Hood shooter. He jerked it free with a quick draw that would have made Cherokee Bill proud.
The dog registered almost human surprise as Max racked back the slide with the wrist of his injured hand, the hand itself still oozing crimson, and aimed with his left.
The dog bounded at him, snarling.
A deafening report filled in the cramped car. The Five-SeveN fired as smooth as—well, there really were no comparisons, in Max’s mind, and if he’d done the firing with his right hand, it would have hit its mark. Instead, the bullet struck one of the safety glass windows and blew it outward. Hot morning wind blasted in, the sound of the elevated tracks clickety-clacking suddenly as loud as the gunshot.
The dog startled. Max fired a second shot, striking the dog in the leg, flipping the feral beast back with an arcing sprinkler spray of blood, Technicolor red under florescent lights. It rolled and slid all the way to the doors, where it slumped, eyes closed, bleeding on the shiny tiles.
Max stayed put, pressed against the seat, using the duffel in his lap to keep his aim steady. He wasn’t stupid enough to think the thing was dead, to fall for that horror movie trick. Nor was he about to get up and check, like a kid approaching a firecracker that had fizzled out just before the explosion.
The dog shook its head, the chain around its muscular neck jingling. It lurched to its feet, eyeing him with its head lowered, and moved shakily toward him. A flap of grisly meat hung from its left hind leg, though the shot had merely grazed the flesh.
Max pulled the trigger, the kill shot, but the train began its herky-jerky entrance to the station, and the small-caliber hollow-point went wild, carving a fist-sized hole in the ceiling that whistled as the train slowed to a jerky stop.
His right hand was scorched earth, the crotch of his jeans and the front of his plaid shirt black and gleaming with his blood. He could smell it, that acrid copper smell, and if he could smell his own blood, chances were pretty high the dog could, too.
Gravy Train makes real meat gravy, he thought humorlessly as the train stopped.
Such delicious concepts.
Kisses, slaughter and thoughts of evil doings…