When William Tecumseh’s Ford F-150 plowed through her living room window, Agnes Dufrein did not move from her chair. The chrome grill spat its greasy heat into her face and one of the eighteen inch tires crushed her left foot, but the sensations couldn’t reach her brain. Her house was full of dirty plates and half-empty glasses of water—no one would have called them half-full. Not in a house filled with the smell of Grumpus, seven years old and bundled up with blankets in the basement freezer. The answering machine was full of blinking messages.
Each one came from Final Pastures. They were ready to cremate all eighty eight pounds and three ounces of Grumpus. They were ready to put him in a little urn and bury him in a special plot beside so many other dogs. The victims of car accidents, chocolate poisonings and desperate encounters with rabid raccoons—this would be their final resting place. There were seventeen messages on the machine. Agnes had not listened to any of them. She had winced whenever the doorbell rang. The truck came by each day to pick up the body and left empty. The driver always left a note. Let us know when you are ready.
William Tecumseh was not ready. He was not ready for the letter he received in the mail that morning, transferring the ownership of his house to Linda. Linda, fucking Linda and her fucking brat. William knew that it was the brat’s idea. The one who called him Bill and swallowed the rings at their ceremony just to spite him. She had said let it go. He was only three. He was only a baby, he was scared and afraid and it was a real condition, Bill. Fuck that. William Tecumseh had no sympathy for Linda’s boy and his strange habit of swallowing change and tinfoil and the torn up insides of cooler bags. He had no patience for all the time he had spent in the hospital watching doctor’s pump his stepson’s stomach for dimes and nickels and car keys. Towards the end of their marriage, William Tecumseh had taken to soaking his keys in lemon sanitizer every night. The brat hated the taste of anything clean. He hated William Tecumseh, who showered twice a day and always ironed his pants and only drank on weekends with the boys from Consolidated Data. William often caught the boy licking the front fender of his truck and began to sanitize that too. Part of him knew he’d only bought the giant vehicle to harass the boy—here was a giant, glowing, shiny bauble far too big for him to swallow. It was a taunt.
The chrome fender was now dangling in Agnes Dufrein’s face. William climbed down out of the cab and realized he had drunk much more than he thought. He could smell the rye on his breath and the blood dripping down his lips. It smelt like pennies and old urine. The sun highlighted the scattered glass and the large shards embedded in Agnes face. Agnes shuddered slightly and then William saw the tire and her leg beneath it—what was left of the leg—and he puked. Rye and frozen burritos poured out over the floor and Agnes didn’t move. Her eyes were still open and Bill had to find a phone. He had to help her. The floor was wet beneath him.
Agnes had hid all the phones when Final Pastures started to list their financing options and detail all their finest services for your beloved pet. Eternal leashes could be purchased in titanium, stone, or even white gold. Tungsten was also an option. There were three different levels of caskets, and of course, most customers preferred the premium option. The details rolled on and on, but Agnes hadn’t been able to listen. She had waited too long. She had put it off. The vet was just another expense on a fixed income. Her pension wasn’t growing. Grumpus was always in moods. Eating small birds in the backyard. Forgetting to pee outside. Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary and then it was all gone. Just like Richard and Jeanie. Agnes was eighty three years old and was tired of burying her children. Grumpus was her final dependent.
He had been bitten by some mosquitoes and then six months later, he was dead. And they wanted to take him away from her. Everyone was always taking things. Sometimes they didn’t even ask. William could not find a phone. Someone had ripped it straight out of the wall in the kitchen. He stumbled down the halls, looking for another cord or a charging station. Pictures of Agnes’ family crumpled to the floor as William tried to steady himself in the hallway. The world swirled and he could taste his own blood in his mouth. He fell down to the floor trying to focus on what had caused him to drive up onto Agnes Dufrein’s front lawn and destroy her three pink flamingos, front window, and tiny television in one violent burst of rage and acceleration. There had been the letter he opened that morning and a phone call to work calling in sick. There had been one bottle he threw at the television and another he drank while hiding in the garage. There were only blurs after that, pink blurs on the lawn and all the shining wind chimes in her goddamn window and that’s what it fucking was. More stuff for Linda’s brat to swallow. He had heard the wind chimes before he saw them and they struck his eyes. The brat would have loved to swallow them whole and it was then that William knew his task was to destroy them. Destroy all the shiny things that bastard magpie stuffed into his crooked little maw. Linda never could admit it was a real condition, she heard it was just a phase. It was William who had to go to the hospital and watch the brat have his stomach pumped. It was William she found choking the boy in their bedroom after he had swallowed her Christmas present. The judge granted her full custody after the incident and she went right after the house. And the car. And the cottage up in Midland.
There was another smell in this house though. Not just leaking oil or liquor or blood. There was another smell and it was an old smell. It was something that had found a home, something that had grown cozy with its surroundings and expanded until it permeated the walls. William tried not to think about the wind chimes he’d run down only a few minutes before and tried to follow the smell. There were no phones in this house. Linda would not be able to find him here. She wouldn’t be able to take any more from him.
They had slipped so easily into his life at first. Quietly and swiftly, wrapping themselves up in each successive layer of his existence. It had started with toothbrushes and weekends and then it was Tuesday spaghetti nights and visits to the office. Soon Alex and Gerry knew all about Linda and the brat. They bought her a drink on her birthday and then William was painting a bedroom with a sailboat theme and repeating his name to the brat while Linda had cooked spaghetti and her store-bought meatballs in the kitchen. It was William. Not Bill. It was so fucking simple. Two syllables. Linda said it was actually three.
The smell was coming from the basement. Agnes had stored Grumpus down there after he wouldn’t wake up. There were spots of blood on the dog bed, littering the bone and fire hydrant pattern. Agnes didn’t drive so she had called the vet. Herman Fuller had told her it looked like heartworms to him. A quiet killer, but preventable. With the right check-ups and medication, Grumpus could have survived. While the tiny, threadlike worms had clogged up the greater arteries in his chest, Grumpus had gone about his daily routine unaware of the fibrous creatures strangling his insides. Had Agnes noticed any coughing, any wheezing? Had the dog seemed more lethargic than usual? He was slightly overweight for a Labrador, but that was common for the breed. Herman asked if she was going to have him collected, or if he could take him now. Agnes could only stare at her veterinarian in his torn blazer and shake her head. Herman left her a card for Final Pastures and told her to call them soon. He had honked when he pulled out of the driveway and Agnes waited until she couldn’t see his taillights before she began to cry.
William stumbled down the basement stairs searching for the smell. There were no shiny things down these stairs, only dust and old blankets tossed over musty furniture. Small rays of light shone through the windows. The smell was stronger down here; it was like mold and grease and the remains of compost in William’s own backyard. He tried to remember where he had found Linda and the brat, but he couldn’t place her face in his crowded past. He could only find her in the hallway while he had choked that kid because the fucking necklace was three thousand dollars and it was for her and now it was going to have to come out one way or another—bile or shit. Those were the options the brat had brought into his orderly, lemon scented life. Bile or shit.
Those were the poisons he brought with him like soggy luggage, and Linda wouldn’t listen.
It wasn’t just a condition—it was a disease, a sickness. The doctor had said it was called pica and had to swat the boy away from his stethoscope as he consulted his charts. And now the rye was bubbling in William’s veins. He couldn’t feel the massive cut that had split his forehead into two flaps of flayed skin. He remembered he was looking for a phone. He had to call someone, somebody to help him. His lawyer was useless, his friends were ghosts, and he had been on the news all week. The childchoker. The evil step-father. The pervert.
Nobody would answer.
Upstairs, Agnes was fading. She could see the massive grill of the truck sitting an inch from her face, but she couldn’t feel her legs. Agnes could not feel much at all. The dog’s old medication worked quietly. It followed her bloodstream and spread through her limbs until all the pain began to coalesce into spots of light that littered her vision and the corners of her brain.
Her kidneys were failing and the other organs flailed about trying to handle the excess waste. This only increased the spots of light. Agnes knew she was glowing from the inside out; she was glowing and soon she would be with Grumpus and there would be no eternal leashes. There would be the dog park where Mr. Hooper used to drive her before he moved away. There would be Jeanie and Richard. They would still be children, they would still call her Mom, and they would answer all her phone calls. Her answering machines would be full of children’s voices and she would call everyone back. She would call both her children back and warn them not to go on any cruises, not to fly in any planes, and to never, ever drink behind the wheel and drive into someone’s living room. Agnes’ smiled and swore to keep all her veterinary appointments once she got there. Herman Fuller with his stupid horn and shabby blazer would not see her up there in the light or wherever she was going. He would die and be buried in Final Pastures. He would die and be buried with all those soulless dogs who weren’t named Grumpus.
The smell was coming from the freezer. It was unplugged from the wall. The light caught the electrical prongs and William Tecumseh remembered that it was the brat who’d spotted his watch shining outside the coffee shop. The little hand reaching for his wrist and the woman who had chased after the boy. She had found her way into him and settled down there in his heart, building something he didn’t even know was there. She had filtered into his daily speech, into his conversations at Consolidated Data. She and the brat had filled so many corners of his life, and now they were all he could find inside, choking off his blood supply, swelling to strangle his veins with booze and his cells with so much hate, pulsing through him each time he took a breath. They were feeding off that hate and he didn’t know where it came from. He didn’t know how to remove the fibrous little bits of bile clinging to his insides, sprouting deeper inside of him every time he read a notice from his lawyer or found more shit-stained coins in the ravine behind his house—and it was Linda’s house now. Everything was hers.
This same basement smell was out there behind his house, her house, whatever—the smell of raccoons and what the coyotes killed but refused to eat. William Tecumseh pried open the freezer door and found half of Grumpus’ face staring back at him. The white dog’s features had begun to slough and slump away like wet dough, revealing long brown teeth. William didn’t puke or scramble away from the putrid freezer. His legs held fast and so did his stomach.
William Tecumseh held the dog’s head and stared into its lifeless brown eyes. He then began to laugh. They looked so much alike. There was something in the distended pupils—something growing even as they shrivelled.
Grumpus just stared back and grinned.