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Jul/Aug 2008 Fiction

Cats and Dogs

by Darby Larson


"Didn't even go in the gate," is what my brother says to me at the bar where we'd agreed to meet. His fingers seem barely attached to his palms, his ears barely attached to his cheeks. Blood all over him and the counter. He drinks a shot of something he ordered, I can't remember what. Glass bottom up, down, and asks for another.

"Why'd you go over there?" I ask, watching bubbles rise in the mug of beer I got.

"This is what she does, she sics her dog."

"Why'd you go over there?"

"I didn't go. I was outside the gate, and this is what she does, she sics her dog. She lets the dog loose, and it jumps over the goddamn fence. Next thing I know we're running down the street, all the time she's barking and I'm like fuck, and then she's on my face"—the bartender brings a shot, and he downs it with a shaky hand and asks for another—"she's ripping my face off. Look at my face. It's all ripped off. And then I hear Shelly whistling her back from somewhere, she must have been running behind us or something, and the dog is gone, suddenly, and I'm here, suddenly. Didn't even go in the gate."

His left ear plops onto the counter, and I start laughing. And he starts laughing, either at the ear or at my laughing at the ear. People around us have looks of horror on their faces.

Later, I gulp the last of my beer and we go outside, and in the sky is the biggest moon I've ever seen. James howls as loud as he can, and so do some other people on the street, and maybe somewhere some dogs do, too.

Mom and Dad's house is all bricks and dainty crochet and the smell of rosemary and burnt coffee. Even though we have jobs and James has a wife (Shelly) and kid (Samantha), we stay at Mom and Dad's house as often as we can. It's dark when we go in because it's 3am and no one's up at 3am except people on the other side of the world and us. James is quickly in the kitchen, drinking from a gallon jug of water. It's dripping onto his hairy, bloody chest. Somewhere he'd lost his shirt. I look down at my shirt, and it's gone, too.

"Where's our shirts?" I ask him.

"Shit, we threw them on the roof, remember?"

I remembered.

I'm envious of my brother's physique. He works harder than I do. He labors. He mows lawns and works in a junkyard. He does two things. I sit at a desk and get fat and make twice as much money. What do we need muscles for, anyway? We're not animals killing other animals with our bare teeth for food. We're people. We kill animals with rifles so their heads can hang on our walls. We only need muscles in our trigger fingers. As I'm thinking all this, I'm remembering our hunting trip coming up. I look back at James in the kitchen, drinking, veins in his fingers bulging, a long bloodstain from where his ear used to be to where the collar of his shirt used to be.

And now Mom's awake and in the kitchen. And now all the lights are on. And now she's saying something about where's the bloody fire and where's your shirts and where in god's name is James's ear, etc.? We're shooed out of the kitchen and into the bedroom we've shared since forever, the bunk bed we share, myself on top, the ticking of our watches, the humongous moon out the open window, the cats and dogs out there doing their thing. The breeze smells familiar: gasoline, exhaust fumes, my sweat, James's breath... and I'm asleep.

In the morning, in the kitchen, James is explaining to Mom and Dad and Julie (that's our little sister) and Samantha and me just how he lost his ear. "...didn't even go in the gate," and so on. Julie and Samantha, although aunt and niece respectively, are the same age. Seven. Samantha is staying here until things cool down between James and Shelly. Finally James stops talking long enough for Dad to ask him, "Well, do you need to go to the hospital or something?" and James says, "What?" and we all get a good laugh out of that, except Samantha, who's still crying.

At breakfast, the talk dies down and we all eat quietly. Dad looks at Mom because she's acting suspicious. She's been fucking around. We all know it, even Julie. Dad's waiting for the right time to confront her. I ignore them and eat and think about the last few things we need to pick up for the hunting trip next week: MRE's, ammo, etc. Julie's concentrating on her glass of milk like it's about to explode. Samantha keeps looking down at the cat on the floor who, just a couple of days ago, gave birth to a litter of seven kittens. One disappeared. Six are in a box in the garage.

"I read a thing in the paper," James says.

"A thing," Mom says.

"A thing about the Army."

"The Army," Dad says.

"Nevermind," James says.

I turn my head toward the chair in the living room, imagine myself sitting in it.

"No, tell us," Mom says.

I imagine myself miniaturized, curled up and sleeping in the giant chair in the living room.

"They won't take you, idiot," Dad says. "You got no ear."

 

The next night, the three of us, me and James and Shelly, are on the couch over at Shelly's place drinking some kind of Russian vodka that comes in little blue bottles. Samantha is at Mom and Dad's for the night. Sometimes Shelly lets James in the house as long as I'm there to hold his leash.

I fall asleep to Letterman and wake up to a jackrabbit jumping around in the snow, some nature show on PBS. I look over at James and Shelly, then drown what's left of the bottle in my hand.

I fall asleep again, and this time I wake to the sound of breaking glass. The TV is still on. Two giant beetles are fucking. Another glass crashes nearby. Then I see Shelly from the kitchen heaving something at me. I leap off the couch to dodge it, land on all fours on the carpet, and say, "Whoa!" Then I crawl across the room and end up under the oak dining room table. From there, I watch James overhand-throw a bottle at Shelly from the other side of the room.

Later, after James and Shelly make up and fuck in the bedroom, we clean up the blue glass from the broken bottles and pour it into the trash compactor in the kitchen. After compaction, the garbage cubes have tiny blue shards jutting out of them, so we use oven mitts to carry them to the table because they're kind of pretty and we want to get a better look at them. Then Shelly all of sudden picks one up with her bare hand and throws it across the room. It explodes against the wall. I look over at Shelly, her face toward the ceiling, her hand bleeding, dripping on the table.

 

So here we go, in dusty seats in a jeep on a bumpy road in the middle of Tanzania. We're heading toward the place we rented, out near the border of the Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara Park, away from all the ridiculous tourist camps. Our driver knows how to get there, I'm pretty sure. It's the same wooden cabin we used when we came out a few years ago. James knows the guy who owns it.

Our driver is a little man wearing pressed khaki slacks and no shirt, and he has a name I don't know how to say. The sun is setting, and we're trying to get there before nightfall. I look off to our right where, in front of the half sun, three giraffe silhouettes pull leaves from an acacia. Besides them and us, no other animals are visible. "Us" is no longer just James and I (and the driver). Samantha is here, too. Long story. We get to the cabin right about when the most impatient stars begin to shine. We unload everything, and the driver waves and drives away. He'll be back day after tomorrow.

And it isn't long before James is filling his flask with the bourbon he brought. And it isn't long before I'm doing the same. And it isn't long before we're on the balcony, laughing in the dark with the insects. Samantha is already dead asleep on the couch, just like we'll be soon. Jet lag.

Jet lag. So it goes without saying that we sleep in until 3pm the next day, which is probably like some normal time in the morning back home. By the time we're up and ready and make the hike out to the site and are finally sitting in the tree, locked and loaded, it's already sundown again.

James has rigged Samantha with her own gear, a little Remington with the butt sawed short, and I'm impressed by her sense of prowess already. She's got her dad's fuel, her mom's trigger finger, and maybe something of her uncle's, too.

Ask me how we're seeing anything tonight when there's no moon in the sky. Night vision goggles is how. We're like three birds sitting next to each other on a branch, if bird's legs dangled. A heavy pride of lions are about a hundred yards in front of us, though I could be wrong because our depth perception is screwy through these things. There's even a litter of cubs jumping around near them. They're all laying in the grass doing their territorial roaring before leaving to hopefully go find the three zebras I see way off to the left. Lions do most of their hunting at night, then sleep all day, which is what I also prefer. There may be a small pack of hyenas way out there, like three hundred yards, but I'm not sure.

"So what are we going for?" James asks before taking a swig from his flask. I'm a little surprised he's only just now thought about what we're doing out here. His disrespect for the game makes me cringe. He's out here to just kill anything, uncalculated. "I could take one of those lions right now. Would shut them the fuck up at least."

"We're going for zebra. Right over there." I'm pointing. "The lions'll go for them pretty soon, take one of them down, and the other two will scatter and end up, I'm hoping, over here somewhere."

"Should I kill the kid zebra, then?" Samantha asks.

I look again, and one of the zebras does look a little smaller, but it's hard to tell how young any of them are.

"No. The ones that have lived full lives. Those are the prizes."

"I thought because I'm a kid, I kill the kid animals. You're the adults, so you kill the adult animals."

"Right," James says. "Like pick on someone your own size."

"No, Sam. Just go for the biggest one you can."

"If the lions even go for them," James says.

"If we can just get one zebra this trip, it'll make my year," I say.

"What?" James says.

"Nothing."

An hour later and it's still mostly peaceful. The lions, though they've stopped growling, still haven't moved, but they're definitely getting more restless. They could move any second.

The new thing I'm worried about is the hyenas have moved in a little and are now closer to the zebras than the lions. The hyenas should scatter once the lions start to move, but they'd better do it soon, or else the hyenas may just try to take the zebras. There's enough hyenas now. Their pack has tripled in size since we first saw them.

Shit. There they go. The lions. They're getting up slowly and moving, yep, moving toward the zebras. I say, "Shhh," to James and Sam. "There they go." The zebras are still just standing there, grazing in the night. But the hyenas are moving closer to the zebras, too. And the lions know it. They pause and listen. One of the hyenas takes off toward the zebras and James says, "Whoa!" and then all the hyenas are running toward the zebras. And then the lions are racing them to the zebras from the other direction. And the zebras are... what in the hell are the zebras doing? Okay, there they go, they're moving away from us. Okay, wrong way, guys. Okay, one of the lions has got one of the zebras, one of the big ones. Shit, there's too much dust. I can't see any hyenas anymore. All the lions are on the downed zebra. Holy shit, just like I said. "Holy shit, just like I said," I say. And the other two zebras are headed way out there. Fuck. No, there's the hyenas. Shit. They've got the other big one. Shit, the hyenas've got the other big one. Shit. And now the last, the littler zebra is headed straight for us.

I lift my rifle and aim. Sam does the same. I don't know what the fuck James is doing.

 

I run out to the downed zebra quickly and start getting its head off. The lions and the hyenas, spooked by all the gunshots, are now back to dining on their own prizes. I cut out a few steaks near the top of the hind thigh and wrap them up. I have a hell of a time getting the head strapped to my back, but I get it eventually and run back to the tree as cat-like as I can. Then the three of us head back to the house. I'm feeling good. I'm feeling it.

"We killed the kid zebra," Samantha says. She's walking behind me.

"We don't know how old it was," I say. "Don't worry about it."

"I don't know," James says. "Those hyenas got the bigger one. I think those hyenas bested us. It's better to hunt in a pack like that anyway. Better to be in an army."

Sam and James talk the rest of the way, and I ignore them as much as possible. At some point I ask James for a swig from his flask and he says it's empty.

 

It's got to be like four hours later now, and I'm seriously drifting. My belly's full of zebra and bourbon. James and Shelly, no I mean James and Sam are in the kitchen, I think. Yes, I hear them. I hear screaming. I hear a little girl screaming. Probably, that's Sam. And then James is saying: "Come here. Like father, like daughter."

When I get to the kitchen, James has got a knife to Sam's ear and Sam is screaming now, I mean like really screaming now, not a human scream, it's some kind of horrible animal-laugh mating-call kind of scream. I don't say anything because I've fallen to the floor and I can't seem to find a way back up.

 

The rest of the trip, James and I are at each other like you-know-what. The same thing happened last year. The second night, he'd chased me outside, barking military orders and shooting at me in the dark, and I spent the night in the tree watching a pack of elephants sleep.

Anyway, I got my zebra.

Relief finally comes when we say our goodbyes outside Mom and Dad's, where the taxi drops us off. I say to Sam, "Tell your Mom hi for me," and she says, "What?" and we all chuckle a little.

Sam and James head off down the sidewalk dragging all their luggage and gear behind them. I walk up the front entry-way outside Mom and Dad's house and stop at the front door. I hear voices inside. Dad's finally having it out with Mom. I leave all my stuff on the side of the house and take a walk down the alley.

Eventually I end up at the same bar I always seem to end up at and order a mug of beer. There's a guy talking to another guy a few seats down, and I can't do anything but look at my eyes in the mirror on the wall in front of me and listen.

"I mean this is what I'm saying you listening to this shit man you're not going to believe this I mean the dogs had that kitten in like what's that thing when two guys pull on a rope? A tug o war yeah a tug o war man no shit. And like Buddy you remember Buddy? and like Buddy had the kitten's head in his mouth and was like tugging and then fucking Girdy had this kitten's little hips in his mouth and they were trying to rip the fucker apart I'm telling you. I'm like Girdy! I'm like hey Girdy man put him down before I that's what I said before I get down and yeah you better. And then Girdy drops the kitten's hips out of his mouth and walks away but fucking Buddy man fucking Buddy is just sitting there now with this cat's head in his mouth with the rest of the cat just dangling from his mouth. And I don't know where this fucking cat came from probably Don over at John's old farm, you remember Don? Big burly guy? Anyway I'm like hey Buddy! I'm like hey Buddy what's wrong with you? And Buddy is still just sitting there like an idiot and the cat's little ass starts wiggling and he's trying to climb out of Buddy's mouth like trying to claw himself out of vice grips or some shit and I can hear the little kitten like meow meow and it's like a horrible sound this meow like muffled inside the dog's head and the dog is growling at the same time and I'm like Buddy, drop the fucking thing already! And I'm like stupid dog. I'm like Jesus Christ. Fine Buddy. I'm like fine. I'm like Buddy I'm like just eat the fucking thing for all I care."

 

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