Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
It’s hard for them, you know. For the animals. The buildup, the push. The ever-expanding girth and guts of the city gushing, contorting, bursting, spilling outwards. More and more, they lose themselves. Disappear in the chaos. Slip into the cracks. Good thing I wasn’t an animal. Instead I decided to be a man that evening (higher forms being out of my price range), and take a stroll in the neighborhood I had been living in at that period of my life. It was chilly and the dark smoke of clouds above suggested that no one could watch me neither for spying nor protection while I made my usual rounds up my street and into the northern hills. I never usually saw anyone, this late an hour.
Freed from the trappings of society, at least for the night, I navigated the glistening pavement with a carefree monotony underneath the oppressive swirling vortex of gaseous water particles above me and the harsh orange laser stabbings of the street lights under that. Though my memory of that evening remains vague (tip of the tongue?), I recall that I did not bring my headphones as I normally did, as I have the distinct memory of leaving them on my pillow, fearing that they were warping my ear flaps into new, fantastic shapes. One can never be too careful. I had been lying on my bed for hours, and reckoned to take leave of my room before my senses had taken leave of me.
My roommate was sound asleep in his room, and I endeavored to force my body out of inertia and into rolling motion again, the weight of my thoughts shoving me ever deeper into the mud. Nevertheless, I mustered one part courage and nineteen parts desperation and got the body moving. Satisfied, I humbled myself. I had a mission. My mission was to simply disperse the loaded gun of foul tempers and rotten humors that swirled about my addled mind and find some way to pass the night. My sleep, wracked with indifference, had led me to all manner of bedtimes and wakeups. I worked from home writing scathing criticisms of audiobook narrations, which, contrary to popular belief, proved somewhat lucrative. Consequently, my deadlines were of a monthly nature, that is, I slept when I so desired.
It was silent yet not quiet when I emerged from my burrow and started north. Although I didn’t take notice of it at the time, I seem to recall that there were not the usual noises as I trudged ever onward. No howl or siren or accursed news helicopter perilously searching (in vain) for THE LATEST STORY. I didn’t even hear so much as a single bird chirp, though they had become quite common late at night. It’s the streetlights, I think. Too harsh. Keeps them awake. Bad for the animals.
My feet slopped against wet cement, which didn’t quite make sense to me as it hadn’t yet rained, though I reasoned the cement had simply sucked the moisture from the clouds above. Perhaps it had sucked it from me as well. I felt a lot of things were at that point in my life. Sucking me dry. Certainly, it was a wet night.
My body and mind adjusted quickly from the lack of intense stimuli of screen or sound, and I smugly told myself that I was unlike the other men and women of my age, that I was above such base desires for the screen. In truth, I had forgotten my phone.
Bite, bite, it bites at my neck. Can you feel your teeth?
Lost in thought, I only barely noticed the silhouette of a man standing outside his house. His expressionless face was illuminated by the entrancing blue glow of a cellular telephone, his mind transfixed on some new manufactured outrage. He failed to notice me and I barely regarded him as I continued down my path.
It was Fall, I recall now, as the leaves of the trees had given way, revealing the venous twisting twigs and branches, their arms stretched out, contorted, mothers grieving for lost children.
It hadn’t occurred to me until that point that packs of coyotes were known to roam around this time of night. Being a youthful man in my prime, I did not fear. But my attention did turn briefly to the man in the bathrobe I had passed. Did he have a dog with him? It must have been small if he did. And they are the prey.
I never did like small dogs. Loud. Belligerent. Small mouths but sharp teeth.
Feel your teeth. Use your tongue.
Are they sharp?
I heard no howls, I saw no creeping, I could only assume the scavengers had been sated by something that night, because I saw no prowlers looking for meat. Not yet.
A wind had started to stir, blowing through the grieving mothers, their arms quietly moaning as the gust guided them.
Further I fought, deeper I delved. The flat, orderly side-streets were long gone, replaced by writhing, twisting paths that tore up through the hills and into the cosmos, leading travelers to unknowable fates. I ignored them and stayed the path. It would do no good to lose myself here.
No, I was walking to the edge of the street, the edge of the world, where the asphalt ended and was replaced by dirt. I would then turn around and head home. I had no business in the wooded hills. Nasty stuff, that.
It was only after passing the yellow house did I see my altered trajectory for the evening, though I didn’t know it. Driving down the road, you trust the app to lead you. It tells you where to go. But who tells the app?
Turn left here.
On the other side of the street, across the yellow house, I saw a man standing on the corner. Enveloped in a small circle of streetlight, his form shone into the night. He was a portly sort, average height I would say. His features were hard to discern, but he evidently wore some kind of black suit. His shoes shined, reflecting the descending luminescence. He stood motionless.
Then he waved.
I stopped. Was he waving to me? I looked around idiotically. Not a soul in sight! He must be waving to me. “Dear boy!” He exclaimed, startling me. I hadn’t heard a voice all night. “Dear boy! Come over a moment, won’t you?” Lacking other purpose (the end of the road would still be there despite this brief detour), I crossed the street and approached him.
Coming close, his rather deep voice boomed. “My dear boy! What a stroke of luck. You’re just the kind of good buddy I need!” He outstretched his arms, as if to embrace me, but made no motion after that. His person was clear to me now, his well-fed frame and pale skin. His very neat jet-black hair combed to one side and his equally jet suit, which as it turned out was a tuxedo, red rose and all. His shiny shoes glistened, though they bore the spots of a spilled drink.
But I think the mask was most striking. Strapped to his meaty head, clinging to the oily rolls of his neck, was what appeared to be a plastic party mask. It was transparent, but the outline of the eyes, mouth and mustache were done in as some sort of parody of heavy makeup. The eyes were blue, his lips bright red, the mustache curly. Jovial.
The mask stuck to his skin and through the clear plastic I could see his moist flesh pressed against it, begging to be released.
What does your mouth taste like? Lick your lips.
“Me?” I asked, showcasing my intellectual disabilities. “Why yes, you, my good fellow! Of course you. Always you. You’re just the good buddy I need.” He put his beefy hand to my shoulder. I could feel his perspiration through my jacket.
“How would you like to party?” His lips curled beneath his mask. Some would call it a smile.
I did like to party.
“What kind a’ party?” I asked cautiously. Father always told me to avoid sweaty men.
“Oh, a soirée most grand!” He leaned in to whisper, “You’ll love it. But we must make haste, we don’t want to miss any more festivities!” I did like festivities.
He motioned to me to follow, and I did. My path would still be there when I returned.
We took a route off the main road, up into a crevice of the hill I had never seen before. His frame was heavy but he made great pace, his shiny shoes small in comparison to the large chunks of his thighs and oval center. They clipped and clomped on the cement as dress shoes do, his movement was unimpaired by the tight threads. It was only after he turned his back to me to lead me up the winding trail did I notice the fishy coattails that hung beneath his back. Retro.
Such speed his tiny feet made. He moved with zeal. Drive. Fanaticism. I began to huff and puff as the realization broke the waves of my mind: I was out of shape. Concealing my shortness of breath, I attempted to make conversation. “So where is this party?” I smiled, hoping he would hear it. “Hm, just ahead. Yes, ah, just ahead.” He didn’t look back. We both continued to trudge.
“And who are you? Are you the host?” I hoarsed, attempting to be casual. “Oh, myself? Goodness gracious, my dear boy! You flatter me. Hm, ah, I am but a humble guest. As you will be.” We kept pace. I forced myself to exhale something of a laugh. “I’m the kind of man who likes to know who’s buyin’ his drinks,” I said, quoting a movie I watched. “So do you have a name?” Abruptly he stopped. He turned to face me, his tiny teeth shimmering in the moonlight. “No.”
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.
We trudged on by the black houses and their blackened windows. “Then would you like to know my name?” I asked, feeling less inclined to follow than before. “You, my dear boy? Hm, I already know who you are! Ah, yes. You are an animal.”
It wasn’t what he said, it was how he said it. I opened my mouth to protest but was cut short. “Hm! Ah, yes. We are here!”
In truth, I didn’t know where we were. I didn’t know how far we had come. I didn’t know how long we had been walking. Where were we? The clouds were bearing down now. Almost trembling. I surveyed the area. Black road, black rocks, black trees, black grass. A lawn you could set your watch to. Wherever we were, this was a well-manicured neck of the woods.
Neck. Neck. Nape of the neck. Breath on the neck. Hair raising on the nape of your neck.
And I looked and behold, the destination in question. An enormous manor, blacker than midnight under a rock. At least, that’s what I saw. Its windows flickered like gold doubloons, calling a sailor into the depths. My fat fellow traveler turned to me. “Ah, but we are on time! Not a moment too soon.” I saw movement inside.
Walking down the wide path that led to wider doors, his shiny dress shoes clipping and clomping all the while. Fancy place. Maybe I could make some connections.
We stopped at the threshold. He raised his hand to grab the gilded ring that hung on its front. He smiled at me. I felt a sudden churning in my gut. A zap, a pang of urgency. The body knows things. I suppressed it. He clanged the large ring against the door. We waited.
Moments passed. Minutes. Hours. Eons. Eternities. But I noticed something. There wasn’t a sound. Not a bird, nor cricket, nor wind nor anything. After the initial clattering of the ring, there was nothing. I felt I was standing in a soundproof studio. The silence was deafening. I could hear my heart beating. Then, I could hear my chaperone. I could hear him breathing. His gasps were short. Rapid. Excited. Like a dog’s nose seeking a juicy meal. And for the first time, I noticed his smell.
It was so mild, I hadn’t detected it once during our expedition. But it was there. Had it always been? What did it smell like? The scent was faint. It almost reminded me of-
And the door opened. There was no creak. The two doors slid apart like curtains before a show. Silent. Deafening. And a man answered.
Well, “man” was a termed used loosely. He was humanoid. But his face was that of a hound. A cheap plastic party mask of a brown dog clung to his head. Its red tongue hanging stupidly from its eager mouth. “Yes?” He asked, his weathered voice betraying his age. My fat companion quickly responded, “Ah, but I have returned, my good friend! And what’s this, I’ve brought someone with me! Look at this dear boy. Quite the candidate, wouldn’t you say so?”
The dog looked me up and down. “Yes. Yes, indeed. I would say so.”
We were let in. I would regale you with tales of the manor’s illustrious interior but in truth I cannot recall anything about it. Ever see a rich man’s house in a movie? There you have it. Fancy. Gold. Huge. Hollow. I thought the shades of topaz that glimmered throughout would have warmed me up from the cold darkness outside. I was wrong. The yellow glistened like a conman’s smile.
Before I walked further inward, dog stopped me. He revealed he was holding a large silver platter, and resting on it were six cheap plastic party masks. All of them were animals.
“The price of admission, my good sir.” He waited. I turned to fatty and he gestured kindly toward the masks. I picked the monkey. We walked through the foyer. “But why aren’t you an animal?” I asked, gesturing to his own mask, a grotesque parody of a human face.
“Ah, hm,” he chuckled, “But my dear boy, I am an animal.”
All around us, they swarmed and buzzed. All wearing masks, all being animals. Lions, tigers bears, oh my. Birds and fish and hippos and insects. Revelers. Merrymakers. They stuffed their faces, drowned their drinks. Hooting. Hollering. I turned to my date for the evening. He smiled beneath the plastic. “Well, go on my dear boy! Enjoy yourself! The night is yours. Carpe noctem!” I was filled with unease. He lowered his voice in my ear as he gripped my arm. “But don’t let your mask slip. Even for a moment.” He released, and smiled again.
I forced myself to mingle.
The horse brayed and brayed, the wolf howled and pawed. The tiger boasted of conquests, the lion merely guffawed.
“Better not monkey around,” I thought to myself, first amused, then annoyed.
I brought myself over to one of the tables, which seemed to stretch on for miles. I was a tad famished. I scanned the white tablecloth and its silver allies. But I was appalled. The table was a mess. Half-eaten food, decaying comestibles. Some looked chewed, others looked thrown up! The stench pierced my nostrils, but forced a realization: There had been something else. The whole house seemingly possessed of it. It was the same odor clung to the round fellow who had brought me in. Now I know where he had gotten it. But what was fomenting it? I couldn’t place my nose on it. I smirked to myself.
I was beginning to tire of my surroundings. These men…these animals were behaving appropriately. I began to navigate for the door when a I felt a familiar pressure clutch my shoulder yet again. “Leaving so soon, my dear boy?” He was smiling.
It seemed he was always smiling.
I resisted the urge to tell him how I really felt, and instead responded in a gentile manner. “It’s not really my thing. But thank you for inviting me.” His pink fingers continued to grip. They did not let up.
“Ah, but my dear boy, I did not yet show you the main attraction! The very reason for your visit! Come, my dear boy. You simply must witness it. An experience for the ages. For the animals.”
Do you ever bite your tongue in your mouth? Do you keep biting it? Chew.
Against my better judgment, I followed. I was no hulking brute but I was no pushover either. I could take what could come. I followed him to the left, then to the right. I followed him down the hall, then down another hall. To the right again, to the left again. Down the stairs. Down down down the stairs. The carpet muffled his clippity-clomps. But did he move with purpose.
“And where are you taking me now?” I forced small snicker. “Ah, but I wouldn’t want to spoil a surprise for you, my dear boy!” He looked to me. There was his smile. Wide. Painfully wide.
The further we went, the fewer the guests. No merry men here. No animals. Well, two. Actually one. I was no animal. We continued on down the basement path. Paintings and portraits, statues and busts galore. “And who are these bad boys?” I asked, trying to walk beside him. “Ah, but you must know that already. My dear animal.” I shuddered.
Down the red hall, across the red rug. Deep in the bowels of the earth, we came before the feature presentation. A red curtain. I looked at my swollen compatriot. He delicately pulled the gold string with the sausages of his hands. The curtain drew back. Revealed, I saw a red room.
The room was small, banal, frankly uninteresting. Save for the small hole in the wall. And the sign above it. The hole was black, bearing the look of a gash bashed into the wall that now possessed it. The edges were chipped and tattered, the wood and stone splintered and cracked.
Above the hole read a rotting wooden sign:
FOR THE ANIMALS
It finally occurred to me where the stench had been coming from. It was nearly overwhelming. I tried to play it cool. I tried to laugh it off. “Is this what you wanted to show me?” I queried with a smile of my own. “Amateur archaeologist, are you? Do-it-your-self excavations?”
His smile never faltered. “Not quite, my dear boy.” The edges of his mouth had pulled back. Wide. Terribly wide. Painfully wide. Excruciating. Hooks prying his lips apart.
His needle teeth shined.
“Then what is it? I suppressed a reflex to swallow the saliva. “Oh, a most fortunate place. A wonderland where all your dreams can come true. Where all your dreams will come true. A paradise, friend. A heaven. The answer to all your desires. The response to all your prayers.”
I stared at the hole. He crept behind me. “Now go in there. Just take a step. I know it’s cold. But go on.”
There was the slightest hint of desperation in his voice.
“I know it’s what you want. I know it will be better this way.” He placed his frigid hand on my shoulder once more. “Go on, my dear boy.” I turned to look at him.
His face had changed. He wore the mask of a pig.
“Be an animal.”
With all my might I swerved my fist into his bulging gut. He fell to the floor, seizing his stomach. I ran.
I ran back up the hall, back up the twisting stairs. Up the right, up the left. I scurried through the red halls ready to smash any reveler that got in my way. I made it to the entrance.
There was no one. The rotting food remained, the refuse strewn about, but not a body in sight. I sped across the blood-red rug to the vast doors that stood between freedom and myself. I did not even entertain the idea that they would be locked. I violently refused. I yanked.
The door pulled back. The cool wind gripped my face. I tossed aside my mask. I stood ready to flee, but I turned around.
I saw the dog, standing alone at the top of the staircase. His tuxedo was slimy, his aura profane.
He said nothing. He cocked his head, and stared.
I ran and ran, flying wildly back through the path which I could only hope led back to my home. I did not stop. I did not look back. I dashed through the night, past the black houses. Past the moaning trees, past the bathrobe man who was no longer there. I did not stop until I burst through my front door, securing it best I could.
The next day I awoke. My head throbbed. My legs ached. My chest was filled only with fire.
It couldn’t have been a dream. It couldn’t have.
I never did find my way back to the black house, with its black trees and black grass. I never did find the winding path which led to that gaping hole in the civilized world. I never again saw that portly pig.
I kept my walks in the daylight from then on. Calmer that way. It had finally begun to rain when I passed the yellow house one afternoon, the kindly old woman tending her garden with a sweet pooch beside her. She smiled warmly.
“I do so love the rain,” she conveyed to me gently.
“I do too,” I replied with a smile. Good for the plants.” I indicated her poinsettias.
“That it is.” She looked at her dog. “And for the animals.”
Credit : Oliver Alvarez
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