Authors: Brian Martinez
“Would you want a dog,” Mary asks Kevin over a black garbage bag.
“In the future?”
“In the far, distant future.”
She asks, “Is this afternoon distant enough?”
Excited, laughing like nervous third graders, they walk around the adoption center looking into the eyes of hounds, shaking paws with poodles and scratching between the itchy shoulder blades of retrievers. What they're looking for is a connection, like meeting oneself in dog version. As much as they like a few of the dogs, there's nothing that says This Is The One, and after forty-five minutes they decide to leave. Adoption is serious, they agree, and the last thing they should do is get one to get one.
That's when they see him.
In the corner, in a stack of cages just wheeled in by one of the young workers, a scrappy-looking mutt with wiry, gray fur quietly watches them. He has big, open eyes and a look of deep thought, and as they approach him he simply moves toward the front of the cage to greet them. He's neither scared nor overly excited by their presence. When they ask to play with him in one of the gated areas, it takes him less than three minutes to fall asleep in Mary's lap.
On the way home they name him Felix.
At the doorway, nose working intently, Felix gives the air a full analysis before putting a paw over the threshold. His little breadbox body is so perfectly still, Mary can't help but be reminded of the way Kevin stared into the trees out back.
Like meeting oneself in dog version.
Felix tentatively moves into the house, doing a full sweep with his wet, black nose as Kevin and Mary set up his food bowl in the kitchen. They watch him while discussing the possibility that he might not sleep tonight, the way animals often don't in new surroundings.
“I know how it feels,” Kevin says.
“Why didn't you tell me you're having trouble sleeping?”
“I didn't want to turn it into an actual thing.”
Kevin makes light of it. He asks Mary if she can bring home some drugs from her job, but Mary doesn't find it funny. She says, no joke, they fired someone just last month for gassing themselves on their lunch break.
“There's nothing like a nitrous nap,” she adds, “except maybe gainful employment.”
The first sign of trouble, when Mary starts to have her doubts about Kevin, is the day of the face.
On a quiet Sunday, Kevin looks outside and notes how beautiful the weather is- clear skies, with a soft breeze moving through the trees. With Mary still in bed, he puts on an old pair of sneakers and a light coat and grabs Felix's leash. The little guy's tail wags with such fury, it looks like a blur above his butt.
Kevin attaches the leash to the dog's collar and takes him for a walk through the neighborhood. It's the kind of day even the birds appreciate, filling the sky with sweet songs, and Kevin marvels at how peaceful the morning can be, even with a few neighbors staring suspiciously from their living room windows.
On the way home, Kevin realizes he didn't take his wallet. He'd like to surprise Mary with something nice for breakfast, so what he'll do, he decides, is take Felix home, grab his wallet and run back out to Mary's favorite bakery for croissants.
As he rounds the corner to their property, Kevin sees that, to his disappointment, Mary is awake and watching him from the spare bedroom window. She's just barely visible from this distance, and he can't make out the details of her face, but unmistakeably he sees the outline of a head at the window. He's happy to see her, but he had been hoping to surprise her in bed with a paper bag of warm pastries. Tell her, "Wake up, sleepy. Breakfast is here."
Felix pulls on the leash, eager to get home, and he pulls so hard that Kevin chuckles and quickens his pace. He's surprised by how much power the little dog has, and he remarks for the thousandth time how happy he is they adopted him. Any dog, anyone at all this excited to come home, is a welcome addition to their life.
But Kevin also notices a touch of desperation to the dog, an anxiousness in his movement. Closer to the house now, he looks up to see if Mary notices Felix's odd behavior or if it's his over-active imagination. What he sees, though, makes him go cold.
The face in the spare bedroom window isn't Mary's- it has the unmistakable features of a man.
Kevin stops and stares at the man looking back at him. Felix pulls harder on the leash. Kevin strains to identify the man in the window, but before he can make out the face, the strange man disappears from sight.
Kevin launches himself toward the house. He runs faster than he ever has in his life. He lets go of the leash and Felix bolts ahead of him, the lead swaying and jumping over the grass behind him.
Every footstep feels like thunder slowed down; a shock-wave of sound and fear. His bones jolt in their bed of skin and bone, his eyes on fire as he pictures the stranger in his home walking down the hallway to the master bedroom where Mary lies in bed, unaware of the intruder. Asleep to the creeping doom. Ahead of him, Felix barks and claws at the door with savage intent. In this, man and beast are attuned to the same, ancient frequency: an enemy behind the gates is the greatest danger of all.
Kevin reaches the door and in one, swift motion jams the key into the handle, unlocks the door and pushes through it at riot force. His shoulder slams the wooden frame but he feels no pain, no impact, only the flash of anger that comes with being slowed down even a fraction, and he runs through the house as fast as he can, unblinking eyes scanning for movement, for shape, for anything that shouldn't be, through the living room and past the kitchen down the hallway to the bedroom at the end.
The sight of the empty bed, sheets wrinkled and thrown open, is enough to send him the rest of the way into panic. His pulse throbs so hard it wells up in his neck and chokes him. He's a man lost and confused, his world collapsing at his sides.
Mary stands at the bathroom sink in her red pajamas, toothbrush clutched between her teeth. Her expression is a mixture of amusement and confusion, though when she sees the look on Kevin's face, the amusement quickly fades.
Without a word Kevin grabs her by the arm and yanks her out of the bathroom. He leads her back up the hallway and outside. They're a hundred feet from the house before he notices Mary's cries.
"What happened," she asks, "tell me what happened!"
"The window. A face in the window," he gasps. His words come a few at a time between breaths.
"Whose face? What window?"
"Spare bedroom. Walking Felix. His face in the house. Inside the house."
Mary looks back at the house. She shares his fear now. "Oh my God. Oh my God, who is it? A burglar?"
He shakes his head, trying his hardest to catch his breath. "Not a burglar," he says. "It was the plumber."
Mary studies his face for a joke. "The plumber?"
"I wasn't sure at first. I couldn't get a good look at him, but the more I think about it..." The man's face as he backed away from the window, retreating into the house, flashes across his memory. The more he reviews the tape this way, plays back the loop in his mind, the more certain he is of the man's identity. Yet the way he seemed to float away like a balloon with the string cut, combined with the lack of expression, it all feels wrong. Somehow artificial.
Mary looks around the lawn. "Where's Felix?"
Kevin's heart drops. He remembers Felix ahead of him clawing at the front door, entering the house once it opened, then nothing. "He must still be in there," Kevin says, slightly numb. They both listen, trying to make out barks or growls, but they're only met with wind.
Mary tells him they have to call the police. "For what," Kevin snarls.
"Kevin, there's a man in our house who may or may not be the guy who disappeared in it."
"They'll never make it in time."
"To save Felix."
She takes a hard look at Kevin. "To save him," she echoes, but he's already walking toward the house. "Kevin! Don’t do this," she begs.
Kevin keeps his eyes on the house as he approaches, staring wide-eyed into the windows. He makes a wide approach around to the left side. Against the house he had left a shovel leaning against one of the garbage cans, and he takes the tool up in his hands, grips it until it becomes a weapon, and trudges slowly to the front door.
He puts his ear to the door's cool surface. No sounds come from inside, so he takes the handle, twists it, and enters.
The feel of the house has changed. Gone is the sense of home, of security, of family and privacy. Room by room Kevin sweats and prays his way through, hoping for one sound, one, single sign of life. He pushes away intrusive thoughts and disturbed images of what might have become of his dog. Were he to find any man, disappeared plumber or no, hurting his dog in the ways going through his mind, he’s not sure he could stop himself from doing reprehensible things to that man. He doesn’t know what he would be capable of, but the blood bubbling up inside his vision seems a strong indicator.
Kitchen: nothing. Living room: nothing. Bathrooms and closets and bedroom, both of them, even the spare room where he saw the phantom face through the glass: nothing. There’s one place left to check, and as if on cue a sudden barking starts from deep in the house, deep in the ground, and he knows, he dreads, the desperate nature of the cries. He squeezes the shovel, digs his heels in, and runs.
Through the hallway, through the kitchen, through the basement door and down the stairs three at a time. He lands on the concrete floor too hard and feels it in his knees, the bones want to push out, and he loses his balance. Tumbles. The shovel falls from his hand and bounces across the basement and still, through it all, Felix’s cries ring out. On his back, pain shooting up his side, Kevin sits up expecting the worst; a crazed killer wielding Kevin's own shovel against him.
Instead he sits up to find Felix. No deranged, would-be assassin, just the dog barking madly at a small drain in the ground.
Kevin gets to his feet, head swimming. "It's just a drain," he says, looking down at the rusty square no bigger than his hand, but the dog either doesn't hear him or ignores him. He continues the shrill barking, made worse by the basement's echo, lips curled back and teeth bared, transforming his placid expression into a beastly snarl. Kevin touches Felix on his side and the dog snaps at him. A moment later, Felix recognizes Kevin and his face changes completely. It's as if a spell is broken. His big, black eyes dilate and his teeth tuck back into his mouth. "What's got you like this, pal," Kevin asks, rubbing the dog's side. He looks again at the drain, and he wonders what’s so wrong that it could affect Felix this way.
The two of them turn and leave, wanting to get out of the basement quickly and quietly. They get to the bottom of the stairs when Kevin stops. If he doesn't check the drain now he won't be able to sleep tonight, not that he sleeps well these days to begin with.
"Sit," he commands Felix. "Stay." Felix does as told, waiting for Kevin to walk back to the drain, whimpering sadly, unhappy to spend a second more in this place.
Kevin feels the same way.
The shovel lays on the floor, up against the wall where it landed. He thinks about picking it up, but he realizes how ridiculous it would be to need a weapon against a drain. That picking up the shovel would be admitting to himself that he's scared of the floor. And so, despite his clenching fists, despite his licking lips, despite his feet and legs that ache and shout, he leaves the shovel where it is and goes to the drain.
Hesitantly, the way Felix came into the house that first day, Kevin inches over the drain until he's standing just over it, his line of sight aimed directly down into the darkness between its thin, metal bars.
He sighs. Only darkness, nothing more. Just like the house above him and the basement around, there's nothing to be afraid of. There's no strange man in his house, no enemy inside the gates, only a face he swears he saw in the window but even that, now, after so much proof otherwise, and even, as he noticed during his sweep of the house, the one exit other than the front door still locked from inside, he's starting to doubt he saw anything at all except a play of light coupled with imagination.
This moment, as Kevin turns to leave, is one he'll go over and over in his mind for some time to come, more than even the face in the window.
Just as his head turns, as his eyes move from the drain beneath him, he catches one, final image. One last glimpse which he will go between trying to remember and trying to forget as he lays in bed at night, in the dark, Mary snoring softly beside him, envious of her innocence, wanting to wake her up and talk through what he saw and at the same time let her sleep so he can enjoy her peace.