by Paul Allison
It all started when my son, Tommy, got it in his head that he wanted a dog. He took to panting at the table. He barked in circles, chasing a piece of rope stuck down the seat of his pants. He curled up on the throw rug in front of the door off the kitchen. In his less theatrical moments, he tied a jump-rope leash around his remote control SUV and pretended that it was a dog, snapping “Heel!” “Speak!” “Roll over!”
“I never had a dog,” I told him, but he stared at me with a look that seemed to say, I rest my case. My wife, Linda, shook her head as she worked on her lesson plans for her future fourth-graders, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer.
Tommy’s birthday was August tenth. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” Linda said, “to take Tommy to the animal shelter and let him pick out a dog for his birthday? Those poor animals have no homes. It’s a win-win situation.” I told her the dog would probably bite Tommy and give him rabies. I described a rabies shot: the injection given through the abdomen, the screams of agony. Linda covered her head with her pillow and hummed as I described Tommy in the final stages of the disease—frothing at the mouth, convulsing, yellow-eyed, insane. She said we’d get the dog its shots; she was certain that rabies was not a possibility. But Linda is naturally optimistic. She believes her fourth-graders are potential astronauts, brain surgeons, and senators.
“I will never keep an animal in this house,” I said.
A week before his birthday, the three of us drove to the animal shelter. Linda wanted it to be a big surprise. I watched Tommy in the rearview mirror, looking out the window and humming to himself. He had a high, clear voice. “Maybe he should take voice lessons,” I said to Linda. “He’d probably be a natural at the piano.” I had a vision: Tommy, dressed in a tuxedo, sat at a baby grand in our living room, entertaining guests at our annual Christmas party. He played and sang perfectly, delighting everyone with his rendition of Silver Bells. I would place a crystal goblet on the piano, and he could play requests for tips.
The animal shelter was on the outskirts of town, deserted except for a white Volkswagen parked by the entrance. It was the kind of place you’d see on the news as a location for a meth lab or a prostitution ring or an apocalyptic cult. When I turned the ignition off, I could hear the faint barking of the dogs inside. Tommy was jumping up and down in ecstasy, just this side of a fit.
I was afraid to get out of the car. The stifling air smelled like dogs. I breathed shallow breaths through my nose, wishing that I had brought a handkerchief to hold against my mouth. I walked quickly toward the entrance, expecting any moment for a Doberman or a German shepherd to come bounding around a corner of the building and leap for my throat.
The lobby inside was bright. The walls were white, the tile floor was white—a feeble attempt at sterility. A woman in a white smock sat behind a white L-shaped counter and smiled at us when we approached. Her name-tag read Mary Ellen with two tiny paws in the lower right-hand corner. She was an extremely thin woman with dark straight hair. She had bad teeth, but when she smiled with her lips, she was rather attractive.
She came close to us, and I breathed deeply through my nose. She smiled at me. “My son wants a puppy,” I said. Tommy grinned and hugged my waist. I patted his head. I do love my son. We followed her down the hallway where the barking and whining rolled over us, wave after wave.
Kennels lined either side of the room, forming a narrow pathway down the center. Each waist-high cage held a single dog, except for one. It contained a water bottle, a dish, and a rubber chew toy—as if the dog had simply vanished. The thin metal bars on the floors of the cages looked painful when the dogs stood, but most of them were lying down. The place smelled terrible–moist, pungent, a virtual petri-dish of disease.
Tommy zig-zagged through the corridor. He peered into the cages, he whistled to the dogs, and he let them lick his fingers. I was afraid for him. I was afraid the rabies germs would jump from their tongues onto his hands, burrowing deep beneath his fingernails and into his blood stream. “Be careful, Tommy,” I said. But he wasn’t listening to me.
“This is where we keep the puppies,” Mary Ellen said, rounding a corner. She spread her arms wide to indicate the abundance, though there were only four. The puppies whimpered and yelped and scratched at their cages. Tommy was drawn to one of the larger puppies next to a sleepy-eyed beagle. It was black with a diamond of white on its forehead and chest, and one white paw. Tommy stroked the white paw through the thin silver bars of the cage. He pressed his face to the bars so the dog could lick his cheek and ear.
“Move back,” I murmured. I imagined the dog whispering into Tommy’s ear, Choose me, you little snot. You stupid, grinning piece of raw meat, pick me.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Linda said. How can you fight that?
Mary Ellen’s heels clicking sharply against the tile floor as she walked over to them. Ah, I thought, she beats them. And I was suddenly grateful that she was there. She said to Tommy, “Would you like to hold him?” Tommy backed away, bobbing his head idiotically. Mary Ellen lifted the dog out of the cage and handed it to Tommy. He looked at me and laughed as the puppy strained to lick his nose. The little beast was like no dog I’d ever seen—glossy black, with large intelligent eyes, short erect ears, and a long shaggy tail. It twitched in Tommy’s arms like a thick, black snake. When Tommy let it lick his lips, I swear I saw something jump from mouth to mouth like lice.
I swallowed the bile in my throat. “Has it had all its shots?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Mary Ellen. She ruffled its ears playfully. Tommy put it down on the floor. I tried. I bent down and let it sniff my hand. It licked my thumb. “Cute.” It ran between my legs, circled me, then ran back to Tommy’s feet and tugged at his shoelaces.
“I guess this is the one,” Linda said.
“Great,” I said. “Wonderful.”
Mary Ellen shut the cage and led us back through the bank of dogs. Tommy carried the puppy, and the dogs went into frenzies as we passed their kennels; they barked furiously, showing their teeth, tongues lapping, eyes rolling white with rage. One Labrador retriever thrust its muzzle through the bars so hard that it yelped in pain. A few of the dogs howled, then the others joined in: a nightmare, the hounds of hell.
In the office, Mary Ellen gave us some forms to fill out. “For the license,” she said. There was a display case full of dog dishes and collars, dog whistles, little rubber cats, and newspapers. There was a special meat-flavored shoe for ten dollars. Tommy especially wanted the rubber hand that looked as if it had just been bitten off an arm; painted blood and plastic veins stuck out the wrist. “That’s not even funny,” I said. I needed some air.
Mary Ellen studied me as I made out a check. “It’s always good to see an animal taken by a nice family,” she said. Linda smiled at me and said, “My husband wasn’t too thrilled about the idea, but Tommy wanted a dog in such a bad way.”
“Dogs aren’t for everyone,” Mary Ellen said. Our eyes met. We had a moment.
Tommy had already put the new red leash on his dog. He wanted to take it outside, but before he could open the door, the dog had lifted its leg and guiltily sprayed the wall.
“Hurry, Tommy!” Linda cried. “Take him out!” The puppy bounded out the door, dragging Tommy toward the small field beside the parking lot.
“This happens all the time,” Mary Ellen said. From a closet behind the counter she produced a bucket and a mop. The muscles in her thin pale arms tightened as she worked the mop back and forth. She tossed her hair over her shoulder with a wave of her head. She had the kind of face that made you think she was capable of outlandish things. As she wrung the mop, I noticed a deep, jagged scar on her forearm.
“Have you ever been bitten,” I asked softly, “by the dogs here?”
Linda looked at me fiercely.
“All the time,” she laughed. “But they don’t mean it.” She put the bucket and mop back into the closet. She noticed me staring at the scar. “Oh, you mean this?” she said. She lifted her arm. Close up, you could see the ferocity of the bite. It was a tortuous, painful, savage scar.
“Oh! Did a dog do that?” Linda asked. Now she was nervous.
Mary Ellen smiled. “Yes,” she said, “but it happened when I was a little girl.” She touched the scar with her other hand, tapping with her fingertips the areas where the skin was even whiter than her pale arm. “I don’t remember it,” she said, “but one of the neighbor kids tried to put me on the back of an Irish setter while it was eating. I guess it didn’t like the idea.”
Linda’s eyes were wide. It was hard to tell with Linda when she was acting and when she was genuinely moved. “How can you work in a place like this?” she asked.
“Oh,” Mary Ellen said, “I’ve got the upper hand now.” She laughed.
On the way home, Linda and Tommy tried to come up with a name for the dog.
“Cujo?” I offered.
“Stop it,” Linda said. “How about Black Beauty?”
“Black Death?” I offered.
Linda slapped my arm.
“What about Dracula?” Tommy asked.
Dracula was pure evil, a supernatural being who would bite you in your sleep and make you a member of the undead for all eternity. “Perfect,” I said.
Tommy thanked us a thousand times, petting and patting “Drac” all the way home.
The certificate said: age—six weeks; color—black; breed—mixed. The last detail didn’t bother me until Drac began to grow. Mary Ellen told us that the puppy’s mother was a Labrador mix, but the father was unknown.
Tommy was fascinated by this bit of information. “Maybe it wasn’t a dog at all. Maybe it was a black panther, or a wolf, or some kind of mutant alien!” This was a side of him that I had never seen before. He seemed to relish in the macabre. When I mentioned this change in Tommy to Linda, she said, “It’s a phase. Besides, he’s always been interested in stuff like that.”
“Stuff like that?” I said. “Stuff like that!” I knew I didn’t make sense, but I was satisfied with the feeling it invoked.
Drac and Tommy were inseparable. The first night at home, I made a nice little bed for Drac in a box and chained him near the radiator in the kitchen. He howled as soon as he was left alone, like coyotes out west. Like wild dogs or wolves. I wondered if a black Labrador would mate with a wolf. The next day, I got a book on wolves from the library where I worked: The Order of Wolves, The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species.
Linda slept through the howling, of course. Three times that night, I went to the kitchen and picked up the little beast and held it until it went to sleep. In the dark, I listened to its stertorous breathing.
The second night, I gave in to Tommy’s pleas to let Drac sleep in his room. Linda didn’t think it would hurt. I was skeptical, but I didn’t want to go through another sleepless night, so I gave in. I set the box by Tommy’s bed and made sure the hot water bottle was there and the clock was beneath the blankets just like Mary Ellen had instructed.
“I want you to let him stay in his box,” I told Tommy before he went to bed.
“I know,” he said.
I knew that he would lift Drac onto his bed as soon as I shut the door. I wanted to tell him that during the eighteenth-century in France, rabid wolves were known to carry off babies. That in January 1914 in La Coquille in south west France, a farmer’s daughter was attacked and eaten by a wolf on her way home from school.
“Drac is an animal, he belongs on the floor—okay?” I even lifted Tommy’s chin with my finger to make him know that I was serious.
“Okay, okay,” he finally said.
It was late when I finally went to bed. As I climbed the stairs, I listened for sounds from Tommy’s room. Nothing. I went into the bathroom and took two pills to help me sleep. Before I went into my bedroom, I cracked Tommy’s door. I saw something move on his bed, and I thought that Tommy must be awake, so I opened the door a little wider to let the light fall across the bed.
Right there in the middle was Drac snuggled up against Tommy’s back, with its head up and eyes staring at me. Its eyes blazed like candles in the darkness, and when I approached Tommy’s bed, it growled at me. I broke into a cold sweat. I took another step toward the bed when it snarled—an ugly, wolfish, rabid snarl. I had to put Drac back into the box. I didn’t want it sleeping with Tommy, I didn’t want it close to him, touching him, licking him. But I couldn’t get any closer. Every time I moved, it would growl under its breath.
I stood there a while, letting my eyes adjust to the light. It seemed that the thing had grown a foot in a few hours. Wolf pups grow rapidly, I remembered reading. It sat there, lounging against Tommy, licking its paw. I blinked my eyes. Tommy’s little back was exposed. His face was turned away, but I could see the paleness of his neck and shoulders. He has a beautiful back, I think. The covers were pushed around his waist, down where the dog was leaning against him. I cringed to see the beast against his flesh. I peered closer. There was a shadow or something down his back, a thin line that began at his shoulder and curved down his back to the bed. The dog continued to lick its paw, then growled softly. It was licking blood. The wolf had bitten Tommy’s shoulder; the blood was trailing down his back to a puddle on the bed where the wolf was licking it up. The wolf seemed to sense that I was about to make my move because it started to growl more fiercely. I took a breath and bounded toward Tommy. I put my hand on his back where the blood had been. The dog stood up by then, yelped, then stretched and yawned.
What I thought was a trickle of blood was the red dog leash that Tommy still clasped in his sleep. Just as I began to feel foolish, the wolf bit me. It clamped its little mouth around my thumb and tugged and shook and snarled. A wolf’s jaw is like a trap; its canine and incisor teeth meet, tearing, ripping, and holding its prey. With my free hand, I wrapped the dog in the blanket. It let go of my thumb. I slapped it a few times, then threw it in the box. I carried the box out to the garage. I could hear it whining when I closed the door.
My thumb was bleeding. I washed it at the sink in the kitchen. I shuddered to think what it might do when it was full grown. And who knew how big it would get. A wolf in Europe called “The Beast of Gevaudan,” who killed sixty people between 1764 and 1767, weighed over 170 pounds.
I woke up Linda when I got into bed. I told her the wolf had bitten me. “Labradors are very protective,” she said. “The woman at the shelter told us that.” I looked at the ceiling. The headlights of passing cars trailed a crisscross of shadows along the wall and across the ceiling.
“So is a wolf,” I whispered.
The next morning, I called in sick at work and went to the animal shelter. Mary Ellen was at the desk. She was working over some ledger books and talking on the phone. She didn’t see me until I was right up to the counter, and then she smiled and waved. She wore her hair up, which made her neck look longer. She finished her phone call and came over to the counter.
“How’s the puppy?” she asked.
I unbandaged my thumb and practically stuck it into her face. She held my hand and examined it carefully. “The skin is barely broken,” she said. She got some ointment from a drawer and smoothed it onto my thumb. “Is it very sore?” she asked as she bandaged it again.
“No,” I said, though it throbbed painfully. I was sure it was infected. “Should I see a doctor?”
She looked puzzled. “Whatever for?” she said. “It’s just a little bite.”
“Rabies,” I whispered.
She laughed. When she realized I was serious, she cleared her throat. “All the dogs here are routinely vaccinated. I gave you a little card with all the information regarding shots: what shots we have given, and what shots they still need to get.”
“But you can’t give a rabies shot until the dog is six months old,” I said. I watched her. She raised her thin eyebrows, surprised.
“You’ve done your research.” She stroked her hair. “Your dog is perfectly healthy. He was brought here as a pup. If it had rabies, it would have shown symptoms by now.” She searched my face.
“Of course,” I said. Anyway, Linda had never shown me the little card.
“Is your son enjoying the puppy?” she asked.
“What did he name it?”
“Sounds ominous,” she said. She smiled her crooked smile. “Did you come here for anything in particular?”
I stared at her and sighed. The dogs barked, giving me a headache. “Do you have any aspirin?” I asked.
She frowned, then went into the little room behind her and took a bottle out of her purse. I waved away the cup she offered and swallowed them without water, then remembered with horror that the first symptom of rabies was an aversion to water. I choked. I grasped the cup and gulped the water.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Why don’t you sit down?” She pointed to a chair by the window.
I was tired. I sat down in the chair and stretched my legs in front of me. I could have fallen asleep, but I felt her looking at me. For a moment I suspected that she had drugged me. “What breed is the dog you sold us?” I asked.
“Black Lab,” she said. She looked down. She knew.
“I don’t know for sure,” she said. “I told you when you bought it. Probably a big dog, possibly a German shepherd mix.” She paced and looked at me oddly. A wisp of hair hung down and curled beside her jaw. When she came near me, I reached up and tucked it behind her ear.
“What are you doing?” she asked, softly. Her eyes were watery.
“I think it’s a wolf,” I whispered.
“I never had a dog,” I said.
She walked back behind the counter. “There’s always a time of adjustment,” she said. “It’s all right, you know, to dislike dogs. A lot of people do.”
“Do you?” I asked. I wanted her to say yes. I wanted her to say that she hated them, that she hated to feed them, to water them, to clean up after them. That she hated the infernal barking, the way they wagged their tails, the way they demanded attention and affection. I wanted her to tell me that she had hated dogs ever since that Irish setter bit her arm. Instead, she gave me a book on dog training and told me to call her if I had any more trouble.
Linda was frantic getting everything ready for Tommy’s birthday party. The theme was Tommy’s idea, and Linda enthusiastically agreed. The table would be spread with newspapers, the children would eat out of dog dishes, wear their names on paper dog collars, and dine on a gigantic bone-shaped cake. They would play pin the tail on the “doggie,” and blind man’s “ruff,” and she would hand out doggie bags full of treats and toys to take home.
I didn’t like the idea of a party with a wolf in the house. I didn’t like the way Tommy was acting towards me. I had read the entire book on dog training. It contained pictures of a German shepherd and its master. The dog in the book looked nothing like Drac; it was friendly-looking and seemed so eager to do whatever its master commanded. I tried to get Tommy to read the book, but he insisted that Drac was learning fine. But the dog still led Tommy around on that leash. I cringed when I watched Tommy being dragged down the sidewalk by that animal.
I’d tried to tell him, I’d shown him, how to wrap the leash around your hand until the dog is right beside you, and to make the dog keep pace with you. Of course, the wolf began to whine and Tommy screamed that I was choking it, that it couldn’t breathe, that I was killing it, and Linda came outside, saw Tommy crying and told me I should be ashamed of myself.
“It’s just a little puppy, for God’s sake!” she said. The dog coughed a few times, then ran to Tommy. Tommy picked it up and carried it into the house, giving me a mournful look, the red leash dragging behind him.
Drac was getting big. In just a matter of days it seemed to have doubled in size. Its hair had lightened a little, but stayed short. It looked nothing like a Labrador. I wondered if Mary Ellen had lied to us even about that. Maybe she didn’t want to tell us the truth. Maybe she had been afraid of it too.
Tommy had openly defied me by letting the dog in his room, but when I tried to punish him, Linda told me how ridiculous I was acting, that I was being unreasonable. The way she held her mouth when she said that made me want to slap her. But there was nothing I could do. Tommy ignored me. Everything was about the wolf: he and Drac this and he and Drac that. Sometimes when I caught his eye, I thought Tommy was secretly mocking me.
There were six children invited to Tommy’s birthday party: three boys and three girls. They all made quite a fuss over Drac. I wanted to tell them to be careful, that wolves liked to eat children, but I said nothing. I just sat in my chair, watching, holding my breath when their little fingers got close to its mouth. I kept my thumb in a visible position on the arm of the chair so they could see what might happen.
Tommy showed the children some of Drac’s tricks. I must say I was impressed. He got the wolf to sit, speak, roll over, and fetch. I didn’t realize that wolves could be so easily trained. I was even beginning to think that I might be wrong about the whole thing when Drac suddenly snapped at Lucy Collins. She wore long blonde braids, and Drac had gotten hold of one and started to tug, pulling her long hair until she squealed with fright. Tommy got him to let go, and Linda comforted the girl with another piece of bone-cake, but I told Tommy I’d have to put the wolf into the garage until they were done eating. Linda looked at me with a clenched jaw, but assented. She could hardly argue with what had happened. What if it had gone for her jugular? Certainly we would be liable.
Tommy followed me to the garage. He whined when I tied Drac to the water spigot. He wanted it to stay with him since it was a birthday present and belonged at the birthday party. I told him to be quiet. He knelt beside the dog. He hugged it and kissed it and said that I hated Drac, that I was just being mean because I didn’t like dogs. I told him to stop acting like a baby. I tried to explain that the parents wouldn’t like it if we let a vicious animal bite their children’s fingers off. Tommy started to cry and said that Drac was not vicious; he let the wolf lick his face as proof.
I told him to go back to the party. He refused. He said he wouldn’t go back without Drac. I took him by the arm and yanked him to his feet. The wolf growled at me and strained at its leash. I gave Tommy a hard slap on the seat of his pants. It was the first time I’d ever had to spank him, and he was stunned. The wolf barked. Tommy looked at me with fire in his eyes. I swatted him again. The wolf barked again. I wanted to wipe that look off his face. After every swat, the wolf barked, and I found myself looking into the wolf’s eyes, matching every bark with a spank. I forgot what I was hitting; it was as if I were under a spell: barking, spanking, barking, spanking. I don’t remember exactly what happened after that, but by the time Linda came into the garage, Tommy had fallen to his knees. When Linda screamed, with the children peering from the doorway behind her, I let go of his arm, and Tommy wobbled awkwardly, then fell over sideways.
I tried to convince Linda that it was the wolf. I called her from the hotel every night for the first week. Tommy wouldn’t talk to me. Linda said she should have seen this coming and told me I needed help. I tried to convince her that they were the ones in danger—that the wolf had some kind of power, that it was evil. But she wouldn’t listen to me. I explained to her how wolves surround their prey, biting them bit by bit until they are weak, before they go for the kill. I asked her if she had checked Tommy for bites. She started to hang up when I called. Then she had the number changed.
I sent postcards with facts about wolves. I explained about the different species. I told her that wolves love the taste of blood, that if a wolf cuts its mouth, it will go into a blood frenzy and eventually bite itself to death. I suggested that she put razor blades into Drac’s food.
A few weeks ago I went to the animal shelter again. I must have looked pretty bad because Mary Ellen took me to her apartment. She lived just down the street from the animal shelter. She had two cats and an aquarium full of angel fish. She let me sleep on her bed. I told her I thought that I was dying, that I had rabies. I told her to stay away from me or I would bite her. I showed her my teeth so she’d know I was serious. I pointed to my bloodshot eyes, showed her how my body shook uncontrollably. She took me out of my clothes and sponged my forehead with cool water. Then she covered me with a heavy quilt and put on some soft music.
“You’re crazy, you know,” she said softly.
I nodded, relieved at last.
About Paul Allison
Paul Allison teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts university in Marion, Indiana. He has had work accepted in various publications including Scrivener, The Prairie Journal, Flying Island, and Penwood Review. His time is divided unevenly among his students, his four children, his writing projects, and his Boston terrier.