We’re close to the end of the first week of our COVID-19 inspired free flash fiction giveaway. Tuesday, it was my good friend, Joe Courtemanche, with his story “That’s the Name of the Game.” Yesterday, another good friend, Jamie Greening, lit up the day with his short story, “Patient Zero.”
We have added a fourth to our mix, another writer who is as down with the sickness as the rest of us. Kathy Kexel will share one of her stories tomorrow, and next week we’ll start all over again.
I originally planned to share a short story I wrote almost twenty years ago but then, after having spent most of the last two weeks at home with everyone, I had another idea. So, today, I bring you.
BARK – By Joseph E Shaw
That dog. That damn DOG is barking again. Can you hear it?
I get it. I know. We’re all on lock down. We’re all on quarantine. We’re trapped in our houses with nothing to do but bounce off the walls and each other. We need to be patient, respectful, civilized – with ourselves and our neighbors – if we’re going to get through.
I get it. I do. But that dog. That DOG!
Here, friend. Step into my house. Let’s get away from the noise. I can hardly hear you with all the barking.
I’m a patient man. I can withstand all manner of offenses. I have five kids, remember? Five, rambunctious kids with boundless energy and a penchant for destruction. My whole world consists of regular offenses that would horrify a normal man. I’m used to it.
But that dog. That DOG! It just won’t STOP. Can’t you hear it? You HAVE to hear it. Doesn’t it drive you insane?
What? No, he’s always been that way. Ever since the Hopkins family and their raucous teenagers moved out last Fall. Sharon and I were glad to see them go, and were just as excited to see a quiet, older couple move in next door.
The Hansens moving in seemed like a dream. No more wild, late night parties in the backyard pool. No cars parked on the lawn. No garbage music blaring at full volume all hours of the night. Just peaceful, quiet, suburban life. As God intended.
But then: the dog. The DOG. Captain Sparkles, they called it. Have you ever heard such a stupid name? Right out the gate, he barked nonstop. I could hardly hear our new neighbors speak because of it.
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” they said. “He’ll adjust in a few days. Then he’ll calm down.”
They put it in the back yard that first night and it barked and barked and barked till the sun came up.
Bark Bark Bark. Bark Bark Bark.
A week passed. Two weeks. A month. The dog still barked. All night, all day, all the time. I hardly was able to sleep. The cruel thing was it would occasionally stop just long enough for me to start to fall asleep. Then, it would start again, and I’d be up for the day.
That stupid mutt. It never shut up. Never.
What? Yes, of course, I tried talking to The Hansens. I am a patient man, I told you. Respectful and civilized. Neighborly, even. I went next door. I begged. I PLEADED. They told me they kept it in a kennel in the basement at night, so there was no way I could hear him.
How could they not hear it? How could they not KNOW? HOW?
Sharon said she didn’t notice the barking, either. She said I was making it all up. And the kids! They actually played with the stupid mutt. The Hansens, my wife, my kids. They all seemed to like each other, and they absolutely LOVED that horrible dog.
So I made up my mind to let it go. I’m a patient man, after all. Respectful. I set my mind to ignore, to endure. That is what you do when you live with idiots. You endure. You act respectably. Civilized. It’s the only way. The RIGHT way.
Speaking of being respectful, where are my manners? Would you like a glass of water? Perhaps a cookie?
Here. Let me take your coat. It’s been so long since we’ve seen people. This quarantine has really made it hard to stay Don’t worry. I will keep a safe, social distance. I promise!
Where was I? Oh, yes: the mutt.
They told us to work from home once the virus started spreading, so I set up my desk in the back room where the kids screaming and my wife nagging could not bother me.
It’s right down that hallway, there. To the left. Come, have a look!
The only problem is the back room is close to the Hansen’s side of the house and, rather than keeping their stupid dog inside like other, more respectable people, those morons left him out all day.
It barked all day long. Without ceasing. A car passes? Bark Bark Bark. The mailman delivers a package? Bark. Bark. Bark. The wind blows a little stronger than usual or a far off car screeches is brakes? Bark Bark Bark. Barkm Bark Bark.
That dog. That DAMN STUPID DOG.
It drove me mad. I had to constantly apologize for it in work meetings and phone calls. My boss said he couldn’t hear anything, but he was just being polite. Just being respectful and civilized. But I knew the truth. Oh, yes, I KNEW. They all heard it. ALL OF THEM. They heard it and they were plotting against me because of it.
Look, I was fine enduring when it was just me. I could be respectful when that stupid hound only got on MY nerves. But this was my job, my livelihood! The lifeblood for my family. The economy was collapsing around us because of the quarantine and the Corona virus. Our lives were on the line! I couldn’t risk my job, let my family go hungry because of their stupid dog and its infernal, incessant barking!
So I made a decision. To be even more respectful. Even more civilized. I was never nicer – to either the Hansens or my own family – the entire day before I killed the stupid mutt.
I was patient – so very, very patient – waiting for the exact right moment to set my plans in motion. Having made up one’s mind to take action against such injustices relieves you of associated pressures. I had never felt so free. So powerful! So ready.
On the right day, when they least expected it, I struck. I sent Sharon to the local Publix grocery store to pick up some steaks and a few other side dishes. The children went with her. The lines were long. They would be gone quite a while. This gave me time to do the deed.
“I have a big project to finish,” I told her when she protested. “When I’m done, we’ll have a nice dinner, maybe invite the Hansens over. I’ll do all the cleanup.”
“Fine,” she said, and stormed out.
It was time. To avoid suspicion, I walked next door, full of joy and good humor. I rang the doorbell and, with a wide smile and ebullient gesticulations, invited the Hansens over for dinner.
“Uh … No, thank you,” Mr Hansen said. “We’re social distancing. Remember?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, friend. We can keep a safe distance from each other and still enjoy a neighborly meal together. A respectful meal. A CIVILIZED meal. What do you say?”
“No. We like your wife and your kids. You’re a jerk.”
They shut the door. Disrespectful to the core, that family.
“No matter,” I told myself. It was all a ruse anyway. I returned to my house as jauntily as I had come, and snuck into the back yard with a shovel. The Hansen’s mutt greeted me from across the fence with his usual, maniacal outbursts.
Bark Bark Bark. Bark Bark Bark.
The wood planks in the fence separating our yard from theirs had loosened near the back. Come! See! Right back there in the corner. Don’t mind the mess here in the family room. I will ask the kids to clean these later. Those last two panels. See them? Yes!
Sharon has been nagging me to fix these panels for years. Thank God for my tendency toward procrastination, for it gave me an opportunity to silence the creature.
I removed the nails at the top and bottom of the two most remote panels, swung them open, and whistled. “Here boy! Come here!” The mutt happily obliged.
Bark Bark Bark. Bark Bark Bark.
The moment it was in our yard, I released the open panels, gently replacing them so as not to startle the dog or draw the attention of the Hansens. It was trapped. With my family gone and my neighbors safely ensconced in their home, I had all the time in the world. I could not be caught!
The dog, unaware of his impending fate, stood at my feet, head cocked sideways, as if questioning my existence. I stared back a moment, then raised the shovel high above my head and twisted my shoulders so as to gain momentum. The dog moved, suddenly realizing my intentions and tried to bark out a warning. I swung with all the force I could muster, striking the mongrel on the side of its head, caving it in. He fell to the ground, his head caved in at the side.
The dog fell silent. The barking stopped. Silence. Peace. As God intended.
I suddenly grew afraid. What if The Hansens had seen? What if my family came home earlier than expected and saw me? All would be lost!
I had to work fast. I used the shovel to dig a hole near the garden in the back, wrapped the dog’s body in plastic, and buried it next to the brick wall separating our yard from the street behind, not far from the wood planks that so recently spelled its doom.
Then, careful as I could and, under the pretense of watering the garden, washed away the blood on the grass and the instrument of death. I even nailed the two loose panels into place. Sharon would have no more reason to nag. I was so careful, so meticulous in my execution. You would have marveled to see! I am, after all a responsible and respectful citizen. We need more civilized people like me in these dark times. People who take care of the world’s problems when no one else will.
Sharon and the kids returned a few minutes later, and were surprised to find me in such high spirits.
“The Hansens will not be joining us,” I told them.
“Great,” Sharon said, tossing the food on the counter. “So I went to the store and bought all those steaks for no reason.” Some people just can’t be happy, no matter the circumstance.
We grilled the steaks anyway and were halfway through a family game of after-dinner Monopoly when the doorbell rang. It was the Hansens. They were worried.
“Have you seen Captain Sparkles?” they asked. “He seems to have got out of the yard. We’re so scared. We hope he’s okay.”
“Oh, no!” I said. “He’s not here, but we’ll let you know if we see him. I’m so so sorry.”
If only they knew the truth. They would be shocked at my cunning, my intelligence. They would marvel at how calmly I remained respectful and civilize even as they came begging to me for help after having called me such a vile name earlier.
They city announced a shelter-in-place quarantine, lasting indefinitely. Sharon and I went to bed early that night. I was full of lightness and joy. The dog was gone! The barking had stopped! The weight had been lifted! I would sleep a long and well-deserved sleep for the first time in months.
Bark Bark Bark. Bark Bark Bark.
The infernal sound of that cursed dog woke me in the middle of the night once again. Was this a dream? Was I imagining it? Or had the dog crawled out of its grave and returned to its master’s yard to torture me further?
Bark Bark Bark. Bark Bark Bark.
You know the truth as well as I do, friend. The Hansens were at fault. They did it to taunt me! They had given me a decoy when I first approached them about dinner. They knew my plans even before I did and were attempting to mock me. Did they think me stupid? Did they think me insane?
I would not fall for it, friend! They would pay the price for their lack of civility! For testing my patience! The world needs more people like ME; not the Hansens with their happy life and monster of a dog. In these sad days, where thousands are dying from unknown sicknesses, where businesses are shutting down, where people are losing their jobs and lives are being ruined, the world needs people who know how to handle problems, who can take care of disrespectful, moronic people who seek to ruin the lives of those around them and bring their communities, their entire WORLD down.
I grabbed my shovel, snuck out of the house, and headed next door.
The moment I was outside, the barking resumed; only now it was louder than before. MUCH MUCH louder. It beat into my head like a drum, pulsing against my eardrums, embedding itself in my brain. Can you imagine it! Can you FEEL it! OH, it was TORTURE. But I persisted. I am a patient man, a respectful man, a CIVILIZED man. There was word to do and, by God, I would do it!
Why do you back away, friend? You are safe here. You have no worries! I have taken care of the dog. It cannot hurt you. Please, take a seat on my back porch. Let us continue our conversation.
The Hansens left their front door unlocked, so I entered through the foyer, much like you entered in through my foyer a few moments ago, and made my way upstairs.
It was louder still! It emanated from the walls. The universe shouted at me in the voice of Captain Sparkles, willing me onward to silence the voices that had caused this mess we are all now caught in. I ran to the Hansen’s bedroom.
They were asleep, both of them. But the dog. The DOG. The Infernal hound sat between them at the head, barking its maddening bark, head cocked sideways, questioning my existence, my soul, everything. I HAD to silence it. I raised my shovel, twisted my shoulders to gain extra momentum, and brought it down again and again and again and again.
The barking stopped. The dog, along with its masters, had been silenced. The world was at peace. I breathed a sigh of relief.
It took me several hours to move the corpses of Mr. and Mrs. Hansen to our back yard garden. I worked tirelessly, silently through the darkness, digging another hole next the one I had dug earlier that day.
Right out there by the brick wall. Do you see it? Do you see the elevated earth in the corner? Right there. By God, isn’t it beautiful? So elegant. You would never know I had buried the bodies there if I hadn’t told you. It took me a long time to do, but I got it done. I am a patient man. A civilized man. A respectful man.
Am I not? Tell me, friend. I wish to know!
Sharon and the kids were dismayed to learn that, not only had The Hansens not found Captain Sparkles, they had decided to leave our little community to visit their children in North Carolina. Or so I told them. Sometimes, lying to your family is the only way to keep things civilized.
They pestered me all day long to organize a search parties for the mutt. I ranted and raved. I screamed and gesticulated wildly. I lectured them about the quarantine, how we could not leave even if wanted to, how the Hansens were morons to leave the state and DESERVED whatever they got, whatever the universe had given them, whatever tragedy might have befallen their stupid, flea-ridden mutt of theirs.
The kids hid from my outburst. Sharon grew wary of me, would not stay in a room with me by herself. It’s possible my uncharacteristic screaming had frightened them, especially in juxtaposition with the previous night’s joviality. But I knew the truth. Of course I knew.
I am no moron. I am no fool.
The answer was obvious. They had seen me burying the Hansens in our back garden the previous night. They had been in league with the Hansens all along! They were part of an international conspiracy to spread this cursed virus even further. They had killed thousands and would likely kill millions more if they were not stopped, and I would be the one to stop them.
It was the only way to protect our society. To keep us respectful and civilized. You know this is true, friend. You know.
That evening, as my family slept, the barking started again. Louder than before. So very much louder. I visited them, one by one, with my shovel, and buried their corpses in the back garden next to all the rest. It pained me to do it, but I HAD to do it. Lives were at stake. The fate of humanity hung in the balance. The dog. THAT DAMNED DOG taught me as much. It’s barking is an impetus for societal cleansing, for rebirth. It is a path to the future! The only path to the future! Once this quarantine is over, we will take our crusade to the ends of the Earth!
Why are you afraid, friend? Why do you tremble? Worry not. The dog has started barking again! Can you hear it! Can you feel it! Civilization is soon to return. A respectful, peaceful social order will one day be ours yet again because the work I have done. Because of the work I now do.
And you get to be a part of that. Rejoice! The dog is barking! Can you not see! He has chosen YOU to make the sacrifice! He has chosen YOU to bring forth a new world order.
Rejoice friend. I have my shovel at the ready. There is no one to hear you scream. There is nowhere to run. You will soon join the rest. Close your eyes! Accept the gift that has been given you.
Stop screaming. Close your eyes and rejoice as I raise the shovel high above my head and swing!
Bark Bark Bark. Bark Bark Bark.