She was the first to fall. As she walked the dog one night, it saw something off to the side and bolted.
A couple is concerned when their dog behaves increasingly bizarrely: first to their chagrin, and, eventually, to their alarm. . . in Jonathan Carroll's Mama Bruise, a Tor.com Original short story.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Jonathan Carroll's novel The Wooden Sea was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2001. He is the author of such acclaimed novels as White Apples, The Land of Laughs, The Marriage of Sticks, and Bones of the Moon. He lives in Vienna, Austria.
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She was the first to fall. As she walked the dog one night, it saw something off to the side and bolted. The strength of the big animal's lunge on the leash spun her violently around and she lost her balance. Falling into that awful moment we've all known, the "I can't stop this" moment, her only thought was: Not my head. Not my head — But the drop was brutal and when she went down her head hit the curbstone. Luckily she wore a thick woolen cap, so the blow was softened. But her body took a full hit. She stayed down on the pavement long moments — breathless, shaken, and heart-poundingly disoriented. The dog stood calm nearby, staring at her.
When she got back to the apartment her stricken face said it all. Doing the dishes at the kitchen sink he looked up, saw her, and hurried over. "What's wrong? What happened?" He made her sit down and drink a cup of tea. Unsteadily, she recounted the trauma. Talking it over with him helped a little to lessen the aftershocks but not enough. A fall like that always reminds us how, in a second, life can skid off the road straight into our very own black hole. Down deep we know sooner or later it will, God forbid. A trip, a bad stumble, stagger, and fall shouts the ugly fact we're never really in charge or control of our steps, our days, our lives. No, not really.
As soon as she woke the next morning, she walked naked into the bathroom to look at her body in the full-length mirror there.
He stayed in bed as long as he could stand it, waiting for her to come out and tell him what she saw. But the anticipation was too great and he had to get up and go see.
She stood in front of the mirror, twisting from side to side, hands on her hips. The livid black bruise on her thigh was about ten inches long and spelled out in perfectly shaped block letters: MAMA BRUISE.
He winced when he saw it. "Jesus!"
"Where is he?" she asked quietly, still looking in the mirror.
"I guess in the kitchen in his bed."
She looked at him. "Are you sure?"
"No. Do you know what you did? What might have caused it?"
She shook her head. "No, nothing — I did everything as I always do. Gave him the same amount of food, took him out when he likes to go ... but then this. It's getting worse. You know that — it's getting worse."
"What can we do? We've tried everything but nothing works. He just seems to get angrier. It's almost every day there's something that bothers him."
It had begun weeks before, on the night they went to the opera. In the excitement of preparing for the special night out, they'd forgotten to feed the dog. During intermission, the man went to the refreshment stand to buy two glasses of champagne. Taking his wallet out of his pocket, he saw written in what looked like thick, purple magic marker on the back of his right hand the word LADDIE. He stood there, scowling. When and why the hell did he write that there? He had absolutely no idea. It was just weird. Wetting his left thumb, he tried to wipe the word off but to no avail. Days later, it was still there, although it had just recently slowly begun to fade.
That night, after they returned home late from the opera, the man was opening a can of the dog's food and half-consciously noticed the name on the label: LADDIE.
A week later it was the cookies. For his birthday, she baked a dozen of his favorite chocolate chip cookies and left a plate of them fresh out of the oven on a corner of the kitchen table to surprise him when he came in from work.
When he entered the living room she raised her eyebrows in anticipation. "Did you go in the kitchen?"
"Didn't you see what was on the table in there?"
He looked puzzled. "No — there was nothing."
"What?" She got up from the couch and crossed the room to enter the kitchen. The table was empty. No cookies, no green plate. She looked quickly around, then down at the ground just in case. For a moment she questioned whether or not ... Damn it, of course she did! She'd baked the cookies half an hour ago and put a plate of them out on the table for him when he got home. Happy birthday. The room even still smelled of baking. So where the hell were they? The dog lay on its bed at the far end of the room, watching them. She looked its way, wondering for a second if maybe it had eaten them. But if that were so, where was the plate?
"This is nuts! Where did they go?"
He stood behind her. "Where did what go?"
"Cookies! I made cookies for your birthday and — Wait a minute." She went to a cabinet over the sink and opened it. Inside on a shelf was a plate with the rest of the cookies. That didn't calm her. She pointed to them and made a face. "There you go — that's the rest. But where are the damned ones I put on the table?" He had to fight to keep from smiling. She was getting pretty wrought up over ... uh ... cookies.
"Oh, anyway ..." She moved over to the broom closet and, opening the door, took out a big, gray, nondescript box with a red bow tied around it. "Happy birthday, sweetheart. I hope you like it."
But she already knew he would because he'd been talking about getting a really good cowboy hat for months. She thought they looked dorky on anybody except cowboys a hundred years ago. But he loved them so she kept her opinion to herself and bought him a genuine, top-of-the-line Stetson Silverbelly 10X Shasta Fur Felt Hat — the gold standard of cowboy hats.
Taking the box over to the table, he put it there and sat down in front of it, placing his hands on the red bow. He grinned and she was really excited to see how he would react when he saw what it was, although she kept thinking about those stupid cookies.
"What is it?"
"See for yourself, birthday boy."
"You always give great presents."
"Open it." She stood a few feet away from him, so at that angle she couldn't quite see into the box.
He pulled slowly on the red ribbon and it slid off. He took off the top of the box and looked inside, his expression all happy anticipation — for a few seconds. Then it changed. It torqued into a sort of quizzical smile, an "am I being tricked?" smile. An "I don't get it" smile.
She read the confusion immediately and came over to look. Inside the box was a green plate with five chocolate chip cookies on it.
The couple looked at each other skeptically, wondering if a trick was being played. Had he discovered her present and slipped the cookies into the box to give her a nasty little freak-out? From his perspective — was she playing some kind of not terribly funny prank on him on his birthday?
They'd been going through a rocky period lately, and at one point had only just brought their boat into shore before their emotional storms grew fierce enough to capsize them. Sometimes they still looked at each other warily, sadly, worriedly, both wondering if their marriage was strong enough to survive. In happier times they would have taken this moment to look slyly but delightedly at each other and assumed the best kind of joke was being played on them by their partner. But now, if this "what's in the box?" was a joke, their gut reactions were mixed.
"There's only five."
She pointed at the cookies. "There's only five there. One is missing. I put six cookies on that plate."
They looked around the kitchen, as if the missing cookie might have escaped the plate while it was being put inside the box.
"Did you do this? Did you know about the hat?"
"What hat?" he asked.
She needed a long silent moment to look at him, at his expression, to make sure he was telling the truth. In the old days, in their solid love days, she would never have needed that moment.
"The hat I bought for your birthday; the Stetson."
His face opened like a child's in wonder.
"What? You bought me a Stetson? Really? That's crazy!"
Instantly she took what he'd said the wrong way. "Why crazy?"
"Because it's great; because they're expensive and you didn't have to do that. What an amazing present!"
He could be so open, so full of joy and appreciation sometimes. It was one of his most lovable qualities. She didn't see it so often these days, but knew that was partly her fault.
Still grinning, he asked, "So where is it?"
"The hat, the Stetson — I can't wait to see it."
"It was in the box. This box — the one which is now filled with chocolate chip cookies. Abracadabra. What is going on?"
He held up a hand to slow her down. He knew when she got really wound up it was time to run for the hills. "Take it easy —"
"I don't want to take it easy — I want to find your hat and know why the stupid cookies are in there and not on the table where I put them."
"It's no big deal — we'll figure it out." He didn't know what else to say, and could tell from the rising tone of her voice that she was about to blow.
She stopped checking the kitchen for evidence and slid her eyes back to him. They were cold as Antarctica. "I know it's not a big deal, but the whole thing is very strange; no — actually, it's creepy, and I don't like creepy. Know what I mean? I had everything planned out for tonight: The cookies, the hat, a nice dinner with you on your birthday —"
"We can still do that! Where would you like to go?" But Now his voice started to rise. Not a good sign. Not good at all.
Maybe it was the tone of their voices. Dogs seem to know when the human voice goes grim, and what that often portends. Whatever the reason, it got up from its bed in a corner, stretched, and walked over to them. Standing next to the man, it wagged its tail slowly. It looked from one human to the other. The man felt its presence and looked down at his old friend. He knew the dog didn't like it when they raised their voices. Recently, when that happened, the animal had taken to slowly skulking out of the room as if it were to blame for their unhappiness with each other.
The man patted it twice lightly on the head, forgetting for a moment the article he'd read the other day that said dogs don't like to be patted on the head.
"I just want to find your damned hat right now."
The dog looked up at the man to see if he was going to answer. When he didn't, it walked out of the kitchen, across the living room, and into the bedroom. There it started to bark. And bark and bark. In the kitchen, the couple looked at each other quizzically, because it never barked.
"What the hell —" They left the kitchen to see what was going on. Following the barking to the bedroom, they saw the dog sitting by the side of the bed, facing the door, as if it were waiting for them to come in.
Placed on the middle of the man's pillow was a beige cowboy hat. On her pillow was a fat chocolate chip cookie.
He loved it. Turning to her, he said gleefully, "That is So brilliant, honey. Really! This whole setup — you had me so fooled."
"I didn't do this."
"Come on." Smirking at what she said, he walked to the bed, plucked the hat off the pillow, and plopped it on his head. He stepped to the wall mirror to check his reflection. "Damn!" Turning to face her, he pointed to the hat with both hands. "Come on — tell me I do not look gooood in this."
She thought he looked ridiculous. But he was so happy, so proud and pleased with himself. How could she say no? She gave a wan smile, a tilt of her head to the side she hoped would tell him, You're right — you're the man! without her actually having to say anything.
"But really — I didn't do this. I didn't switch these things."
"I heard you."
"No, but you've got to believe me — somebody else or something did."
He took the hat off his head and held it tightly in two hands in front of him. She wasn't joking — that much was clear by the tone of her voice. But what was he supposed to say, or ask? Half sarcastically, he asked, "Well, who do you think did it, him?"
Standing a little off to one side, the dog watched and listened as the man pointed at it.
* * *
They didn't put the strange incident behind them, but were able to shift it to a corner of their lives — for a while. Secretly, she continued to wonder if he had moved the cookies and the hat as a dumb joke. But if he did, why keep denying it? There was nothing funny about it, and he knew things like that kind of unexplained chaos, however small, disturbed her.
In college she had been diagnosed with a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and no one knew better than he how it affected her. How many times had they returned to their apartment just one more time for her to check again to see if she had turned off the stove? It was imperative to her that certain matters and details be arranged just so — silverware in specific drawers, daily schedules, clothes lined up just so in the closet, the order in which she ate her food, the way she thought the world should work. It didn't, of course, so she fretted about too many unknowns and unlikely possibilities, most of which never happened. Time and again, her husband told her she was too full of what ifs, and more times than he liked to admit, they screwed up the balance of their relationship. It was certainly part of the reason why they'd been so at odds with each other recently. Our quirks may define us, but they're not always endearing or attractive to those who love us, no matter how much they care.
She understood that and could sympathize with how her eccentricities (she preferred that term) burdened him. On the other hand, wasn't the wedding vow "for better or worse" what it was all about: Empathy, understanding, forgiveness?
And didn't she put up with his shortcomings? The soul-withering tight-fistedness with money, and his loutish, sometimes truly embarrassing behavior when they were with friends or at social gatherings (the crude jokes and comments told to absolutely the wrong people who more than once looked at her with pitying eyes). But the worst of all were his dreadful parents, who from day one had made it very clear they didn't like her and would be happy if she disappeared from their son's life altogether. How they openly mocked her, but her man never said anything to them in her defense. When she brought it up, and she did often, he dismissed their gibes, derision, and personal insults as if they were nothing, or his parents didn't really mean them, or they'd had too much to drink, or perhaps she was being a little oversensitive, thin-skinned ... She'd even gotten right up from meals on two occasions and walked out the door after his father said something so cruel and hurtful that momentarily she could not believe what she'd just heard. Both times, she'd turned to her husband and asked if he was going to say anything. But he only looked away from her volcanic glare, embarrassed but not about to stick up for her against "Pop." Well, bullshit on that.
The last time her father-in-law said awful, unnecessary things to her, thinly frosting the remarks with his brand of "humor," she told the old man to go to hell. He was a seventy-two-year-old asshole, and she'd had enough of him. Then she marched like a majorette out of the restaurant. Later, she told her husband that was the last straw. He could visit them whenever he wanted, but she was done with both his parents. "Pop" had finally crossed the line. No, he'd crossed it a long time ago, but tonight was the end.
"What do you mean, crossed the line? What line?" She patted her chest over her heart. "This one — this line. Remember it? For years, your father has said terrible things to me that hurt my heart, and you were there every time to hear him. But you never, ever told him to stop, or at least shut up. Fair enough — that was your right, because he's your dad. But he isn't mine, so I don't have to put up with him like you and your mom obviously do."
His mouth tightened. "What's the matter with my mother?" His voice was a growl.
She growled right back at him, "Besides the hundred mean Things she's said to me, only in a quieter voice? She enables him; in her own slinky way, she eggs him on. You've said it yourself. But I'm done with both of them now, and you know why. Please don't pretend you don't. Go see them whenever you want — I'll stay home with the dog."
* * *
The first time he did go for dinner alone with his parents, she ate hers standing up in the kitchen. As usual, the dog sat on its haunches, watching. She thought it wanted a piece of the large chicken leg she held, but no, there was something else there, some sort of different look in the hound's eyes that night as it stared at her.
"What? Do you want some of this?" She often spoke to the animal as if it were a person, and felt no shame or embarrassment doing it in private or when there were others around. She'd had dogs all her life and always considered them just another member of the family.
She was leaning with her back against the sink as she spoke, the dog directly in front of her. As soon as she finished speaking, there was a loud explosive shishhhh noise behind her. Shocked, she staggered forward then turned around to see what it was. The faucet was shooting water into the sink full blast, as if some invisible hands had turned on both hot and cold handles all the way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mama Bruise"
Copyright © 2019 Jonathan Carroll.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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