The Changed Dog

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“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.

“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”

“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.

James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.

“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”

Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.

Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.

Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.

As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.

“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”

“No.”

“He’s going to be crushed.”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

*

The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.

“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.

“Billy!”

He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?

“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.

“Thomas?”

The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.

“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”

“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”

“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.

“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”

“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”

That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.

“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.

“What? Who?”

“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.

“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.

Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.

“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”

“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”

Susan did not match his smug smile.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”

“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”

The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.

“What?!” he said in awe.

The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.

“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.

“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“

“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”

The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.

“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.

Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.

“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.

Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.

Nothing.

He clicked it two times once more.

Nothing.

“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”

“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”

“I suppose.”

“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”

James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.

“You’ll see,” he repeated.

But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.

Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.

“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”

“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”

“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”

But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.

“Can I have the leash, Mom?”

“Better not.”

“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”

“No, you’re too little.”

“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”

“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”

James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.

“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”

James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.

“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”

“But he used to respect me.”

“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”

Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.

“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.

“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”

Another growl, another slap, another yelp.

“Again.”

This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.

“Good. Now pet him.”

“But he’ll–“

“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”

Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.

“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”

Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.

“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”

Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.

“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”

“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”

“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.

“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”

“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”

“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”

“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”

“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”

Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.

“What? That was actual progress!”

*

The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.

“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”

Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.

“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”

A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.

“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”

They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.

“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.

“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”

A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.

And that was that.

*

James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.

“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”

They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.

“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.

“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.

On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.

And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.

But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.

Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.

I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.

Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.

Instructions Not Included: Part One

brown cardboard close up corrugated
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“But where did you find them?” Gavin asked again.

“They were just sitting in the alley in a box. Someone must have been throwing them out.”

“How do you know? Maybe they were just keeping them there for safekeeping?”

Curtis shook his head. “I doubt that. But if you’re so worried, then you don’t have to be a part of it.”

“Well I wasn’t saying that…”

“Good. Help me get these sorted then.”

The two brothers worked side-by-side at the bedroom desk. The old box was tattered and warped on one side where the rain had fallen on it. It was dotted with black mold spots and smelled quite musty. But for how decrepit and trashy the box appeared, its contents were anything but.

Inside the box were two stacks of white…somethings. They were sturdy, very precisely shaped, and looked expensive. It was hard to say exactly what they were made of, plastic or painted metal it seemed to be at first glance. They were hard, heavy, and cold to the touch…or at least, cold at first. That was why the exact material was hard to guess, because the longer one touched the items’ surfaces the warmer the material got…warmer and warmer until it became uncomfortably hot and one had to draw their hand away! What sort of material behaved like that? And that wasn’t all. There was a strange tingle on the fingertip when touching them as well. Not like electricity, but almost as if it was sending microscopic waves through the skin.

One stack of the items was round, thin, disc-like. They were not quite perfect circles, each one of them had many notches and grooves cut into them. They were clean and precise excisions, with no stray fibers or detritus. The other stack was more rod-like in shape. Some were round, some were long, rectangular prisms, some were curved on one or two sides, and the opposite on the other ones. They were of inequal lengths, and some ended with a flat plane while others had slanted angles. Across all of the piece in both stacks there were intricate patterns of lines etched here and there. They were straight, with sudden right-turns like the traces on a circuit board.

Last of all, there was a single note included with the equipment, a small piece of paper on which someone had written “Some Assembly Required.”

The two boys had all of the equipment out of the box now, and handled one piece after the other, turning them over and over, trying to make sense of it all.

“What do you think it’s for?” Gavin asked.

“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like I’ve anything I’ve seen.”

“Some of the pieces fit together,” Gavin observed, slotting one of the rods into a disc’s hole.

“Yeah, so I guess you build something. Only…it’s weird.”

“Why?”

“There’s no screws or anything to keep it together. If we start stacking them together then pretty soon they’ll just fall apart.”

To demonstrate he flicked at Gavin’s rod, but to their surprise it didn’t topple over. He hit it harder with the back of his knuckles, still it didn’t fall.

“Hey, let me see that,” Gavin said, gripping the rod and trying to pull it out of its perch. It slid out easily.

“How did you do that?”

“I don’t know…it just came out.”

A few more minutes of experimentation and they determined that once two pieces locked together they could only be pulled apart at the exact angle they had slid together at. Any variation from that degree and they would feel like they were welded together instead. Thus they could be freely handled as one piece without fear of their falling apart.

“It isn’t magnets doing that,” Gavin said in bewilderment.

“No, never seen anything like it. Let’s see what other pieces we can fit together.”

After a quarter hour they had all of the most obvious connections sorted out. Rods had been slotted into about all of the holes that ran through the middle of the discs. Each of them connected at the rod’s end, so that it stood upright with the disc at its base. All of the notches along the edges of the discs were unfilled, though, and these were proving to be more difficult to solve.

“This notch looks like it should fit,” Curtis said, holding a rod against the edge of a disc. “But it isn’t locking in place like before.” He pulled his hand away and the rod clattered noisily to the table.

“Hmm,” Gavin said, picking the rod up. “Well, that notch is only encasing two of its sides. I’ll bet it goes between two discs, each covering half of it, and you need to put all three pieces together at once before anything will lock.”

“That’s a fascinating theory,” Curtis said with a yawn. “No, actually it is. But I think my curiosity’s run out on this.”

“What? You don’t want to keep playing with it?”

“What’s the point? It’s clearly not coming together into anything cool. It’s just some abstract art piece or something. No wonder it got thrown out!”

Gavin looked the pieces over. It was true that there was still no rhyme or reason to what they might be forming. They had just gone from random piles of discs and rods to a random pile of flagpoles. It clearly wasn’t going to come together into something cool like a toy or a radio…yet still…

“I want to keep working on it,” he declared.

“Great…over on your desk, I need this space for homework now. And you better get that ratty cardboard box out of here before Mom sees it.”

“Sure, sure.” Gavin knew Curtis felt pleased for having pawned all the junk off on his brother to take care of, but that didn’t matter. He dutifully moved all the pieces over to his side of the room, smuggled the box into the outside garbage bin, and then came back to work on the pieces.

He thought that finding the third piece for the rod and disc would have been simple. He systematically went around each disc, testing any groove that remotely matched the exposed edges of the rod. None of them were a perfect fit. He went through them all a second time just to be sure. No dice.

He shook his head in confusion, then decided to leave that particular rod for the time being. Instead he started finding all of the other partial fits that were possible. Fifteen minutes went by and the mystery thickened. Nearly all of the edge grooves had been accounted for: 47 out of 61. All 47 had a different rod that connected to them, meaning there weren’t enough remaining grooves to complete the fits.

“Great…there’s parts missing.”

He could hear his mother calling for dinner, so Gavin rubbed his eyes, flicked off the desk lamp, and left the room.

With homework and school the next day it wasn’t until the next afternoon that he sat back down at his desk and was reminded of the pieces. He frowned at them as his disappointment resurfaced. He really had been curious to see what they made, even if it was nothing more than some weird, abstract art-piece.

His mind wandered absently as he picked up on piece after another, feeling their weight and running his fingers along their lengths. For a moment he was lost in the sensations they made against his skin: the rippling, the heat. When he tapped them they made so muted a noise it was almost inaudible. That was strange, too. Sometimes they caught the light in a strange way, shimmering so brightly it seemed almost as if the illumination was being amplified.

He leaned in and looked at them even closer. It started to dawn on him how remarkably smooth they were. The rippling sensations on his skin had made it seem like they were textured but they weren’t. Not even a little bit. Smooth as glass, yet not made of glass. Even the lines etched into the sides were unbelievably uniform and straight. Not a single ding in any of them. The grooves which ran the full length of some of the discs never varied in depth or breadth. They just–

Gavin started with a shock. There were grooves cut down the middle of the discs! He had already seen them, of course, but had just dismissed them as just yet another oddity that couldn’t be accounted for. Now though he realized that they were the right length to hold a rod…when it was laid sideways.

Trembling with excitement he found the partially-enclosed rod he had been experimenting with the night before. One-by-one he fit it length-wise into the grooves running across the surfaces of the discs. As he did so he held the first disc firmly against the already-matched sides of the rod. He made it through eleven discs without finding a perfect horizontal fit. And then…

Click!

The three pieces locked into place. Two discs propped up at right angles to one another and the rod fusing them together at the corner. As with before, they stuck together as if welded. In fact undoing that weld was more difficult, because he couldn’t remove just one disc from the rod, he had to do both at the same time and still at just the right angles.

The epiphany made, it didn’t take him long to get all of the other partial-fits sorted out. Less than an hour later and he now had 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and 12 cobbled-together “islands.” Several of the islands had formed enclosed spaces, like square tubes that were open at two opposite ends. Well, usually square tubes, there were a couple where the discs did not actually meet up at exactly right-angles.

These new formations came with their own unique properties. When Gavin placed his ear by one of the openings he was able to make out a faint humming that emanated somehow from its center. Passing his hand into the disc-tunnels created even stronger skin-rippling sensations, powerful enough that he could see the skin rolling with little waves.

His next experiment was to hold a plastic toy soldier in his hand, reach to the center of the tube, and then let it go. The toy fell to the bottom, but it moved very slowly, and shook the whole way down like it was being buffeted by a silent wind.

Gavin looked around, trying to find something even lighter, something that might be able to float. He ripped off a small corner of notebook paper and it did indeed float lazily within the tube, never touching any of the surfaces, yet never coming to a rest either. It would follow a straight line, come close to a disc or rod, and then make a sudden hairpin turn away. Gavin tried to pick out a pattern to its movement, but it was much too complex.

What about…

Gavin grabbed Curtis’s hole puncher and emptied its contents into his hands. He dropped the whole pile in the middle of the tube all at once and watched as the cluster of paper pieces scattered in different directions. They tumbled around aimlessly for a moment, then slowly began to file into a line. Gavin could see now that their movement was not random, each paper’s turn was consistent with all the others. They made a sort of train, bouncing away from each surface at just the same angle, twisting and turning within the tube. Gavin fumbled through the supplies on his desk for a paper, pen, and ruler then he began to draw out the pattern he was seeing.

But the pattern never stopped. It just keep going and going, never repeating itself, until soon he had line-by-line drawn one massive dark splotch on his page.

A few more experiments followed, by which Gavin ascertained that each of his disc-tubes had distinct patterns from the others. Even the ones that weren’t fully enclosed would float the pieces of paper endlessly through their half-pipe or trench shapes. He also verified that he could lift up, rotate, and even shake the tube but the papers would continue unhindered. They wouldn’t even wiggle in their paths, as if all earthly forces such as gravity and air resistance simply did not apply within the tube.

Gavin made a note of these facts on a piece of paper.

The plastic soldier sunk to the bottom, he wrote, so I guess things have to be beneath a certain weight and then the tube takes them over entirely…

He paused and bit at the end of his pen.

What would happen if I were to step into a giant one of these tubes?

Would he be forever cut off from the rest of the world, unable to be pulled out by gravity or any another force? Well…he could still reach in his hand in and pull the pieces of paper out after they had been surrendered to the tube. And maybe that was because his hand was anchored to his arm which extended out of the tube. So as long as there was something that existed outside of the tube that could reach into it, it could alter things. But otherwise anything enclosed in the tube forever belonged to it. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought.

Unless…paper was dumb and it couldn’t move itself. What about something alive?

Gavin stood up from his desk and began scouring the room for the fly. When he couldn’t find one, he expanded his search to the whole house. Of course now when he actually needed a flay there was none to be found. So he went outside and found a few, but he knew he’d probably end up just squashing them if he tried to catch them. Instead he went back inside and looked up online how to make a simple fly trap with a mason jar. He modified the instructions a little. He didn’t add any dish soap to the sugar-water solution at the bottom of the jar so that the flies would avoid drowning. He needed them alive. His trap prepared, Gavin left the jar out on the porch and called it a night.

 

As I said on Monday, my intention with this story was to create a story that originated in an ordinary world, but which opened a gateway into the fantastic. One common element of stories like these is that they don’t need to spend a lot of time time in the ordinary world. Indeed, many of them enter into the new world within their very first chapter or two. All that really matters is that the reader have a familiar point of reference to begin with.

I’ve been having a lot of fun so far with this piece, but I do wish to give credit where it is due. This story of mine is written an homage to a highly skilled storyteller named Shane Carruth. This Monday I’ll explain a little bit more about him and his work, and then discuss how one can approach writing stories that are inspired by others. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!