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About the Author
Tim Pratt is a fiction writer, poet, sometime teacher, occasional performance artist, and recent graduate of the Clarion Writer's Workshop. He has poetry upcoming in Asimov's and probably some other places. He lives for the time being in Santa Cruz, California.
The Dog Boys
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The day before Michael first saw the dog boys, Mr. Fraenkel ran over a basset hound with the school bus. The bus picked Michael up before anyone else each morning, and dropped him off last. Michael always sat behind the driver. Sitting deeper in the bus only invited attack from older, bigger boys, and while Mr. Fraenkel never tried to stop those torments, the boys wouldn't attack anyone so close to his seat of authority.
That morning, before the dog boys, a long-eared basset hound sniffed at the edge of the road, waiting with Buddha-like patience for the bus to go past. Michael looked at the dog, mostly for want of anything else to watch.
Mr. Fraenkel suddenly hauled the wheel to the left and the bus sped up. Michael, his face close to the window, cracked his forehead against the glass. A few fingers of black crept in at the edges of his vision, but he saw the hound start to move, too late, and disappear under the wheels. He felt a bump and imagined the cracking spine, the pop of a crushed body, and the last baying yelp. Mr. Fraenkel straightened the bus on the empty road.
Michael turned to look back, but through the filthy windows he could only see a dark spot that might been a shadow in the dirt, but must have been the dog's body.
"Why did you do that?" he said, turning to face the front.
Mr. Fraenkel didn't answer, only flickered his eyes to the wide mirror and looked at Michael's face. He rolled a toothpick between his lips, then looked back at the road.
A minute later they reached the next house. Mr. Fraenkel pushed the silver lever to open the doors. A girl with a new dress and black pigtails boarded the bus, ascending like a queen, and took a seat halfway back without saying a word.
Michael didn't speak, either.
* * *
The dog's body was gone that afternoon, claimed by an owner or dragged into the ditch by a passer-by. Michael watched the spot where it had died intently as the bus rolled by, but he could find no sense in the stained dirt.
Mr. Fraenkel stopped the bus at the end of Michael's road. Michael rose, red lunchbox in hand, bookbag on his shoulders. He walked past Mr. Fraenkel and down the steps, eyes on the floor. The doors didn't open. Michael stood dumbly for a moment, looking at the oak tree where he always waited for the bus. He looked back at the driver.
Mr. Fraenkel sat, watching him, his hand unmoving on the silver lever.
Michael turned back to the unopened door. Don't fight, he thought. Don't fight. After a moment, the doors squeaked open, but not all the way. Michael waited, and when nothing else happened, he went through the crack sideways, the black rubber around the door scraping his cheek and pulling at his bookbag. He stumbled free, almost falling down the steps, and walked quickly from the bus. It took longer than usual for Mr. Fraenkel to pull away.
* * *
The next morning Michael saw them, on the side of the road halfway between his house and bus stop. The three wore shorts and t-shirts despite the autumn chill. One had blond hair cut raggedly in a short coxcomb, and pointy, foxlike features. His whole posture spoke of tension, and he seemed on the edge of manic movement. The other two were twins, with dark hair and equally dark eyes. All three crouched around something in the road, Michael drew hesitantly closer to see.
The boys prodded at the body of a long-eared hound, its belly smashed and caked with guts, the same dog Mr. Fraenkel had run down the day before. Michael's stomach did a slow somersault.
They hadn't seen him yet, and he didn't recognize them. Michael knew every boy around, at least by sight. He should have known the twins, at least. Identical twins achieve a certain degree of fame by virtue of their rarity.
Suddenly all three boys plunged their faces into the dog's corpse, like hyenas in a nature video. They snapped their heads back, dirty day-old flesh caught in their teeth. Michael stumbled back with a little, inaudible cry. The twins chewed mechanically, the blond with gusto and obvious pleasure. He took one of the dog's rear legs and wrenched, pulling and grunting as it tore free. Gristle and bits of fur dangled from the haunch. Michael stood frozen, sick and fascinated, twenty feet away. The twins saw him and stared like watchful felines. The blond turned his head, still crouching, and whirled sudden as a striking snake. He cocked his head at Michael.
The blond boy stood and took a step forward, grinning, his teeth white, his chin smeared with blood and tissue. Smile wide, eyes twinkling, he extended the dog's leg toward Michael, as though offering a gift.
Michael ran past them on the far side of the road, feet pounding on the dirt and heart pounding against his ribs, but they didn't follow. Dog boys, he thought, and they were named.
* * *
The day he first saw the dog boys, Michael sat against the fence at recess, a few feet from a fat boy in a green t-shirt. The fat boy stared intently at his own floppy gut. One of the older boys swooped by, grinning, and caught sight of the fat boy. With a quick glance for teachers (there weren't any, there never were), he approached casually, then reached down and grabbed his arm, jerking him up. The fat boy pulled away, pressing against the fence, but another yank brought him to his feet. He never lifted his eyes. The older boy made a fist and punched him hard in the shoulder. The fat boy pulled back and whimpered.
"That's it," the older boy said. "You get two for flinching." He punched again, and again, and didn't stop at two.
A blond child, younger than Michael, sat on the jungle gym, legs swinging. He laughed and clapped his hands as the fat boy took his beating. He was almost beautiful, his hair shining in the sun.
Michael saw it all without seeming to see, and sank back against the fence, silent.
* * *
Michael came in quiet from school and started to clean the kitchen. He had to finish the housework before he could do his homework or read his unwieldy library books, hardback and stamped all over with the school's name.
Once his father had stood swaying in the kitchen doorway, a beer in his hand. He was on vacation from work then, and spent his days watching television and drinking, the way he always spent his nights. He grunted and said "Hey, little Michael, we should've named you Michelle, huh?" Michael dried dishes at the sink, giving no sign he'd heard. Inspiration struck his father. "If you're doing woman's work, don't you think you should dress the part, Michelle?"
Michael's father went to the back of the kitchen and took down the pink-frilled apron that had belonged to his wife, that had hung covered in dust and undisturbed since her death. He threw it at Michael and said, in a voice that brooked no argument, "Put that on, little girl."
Michael didn't argue. He picked up the apron and hung it around his neck. He was just tying the strings when his father stopped him. "Take it off," he said gruffly. "Hang it back up. I don't want you touching that again."
Michael did as he said, and his father disappeared into the den. Michael had never known there were some things even his father couldn't bear to do. It provided small comfort.
The day Michael first saw the dog boys, his father came home dressed in heavy work boots and a flannel coat. He looked over the sparkling kitchen, grunted, and stomped into the den, where he would sit in his armchair and watch the TV, already tuned by Michael's diligence to the right channel.
With his eyes closed, sitting in the faded light from the window at the kitchen table, Michael waited the appropriate interval. Then he went to the faintly humming refrigerator, covered with magnets shaped like all fifty states, his mother's collection. He tugged at the door and took his father the first beer of the evening.
* * *
Michael listened to the country night noises for a long time before he slept. There were crickets, and an owl hunting shivering mice, but he didn't hear the howl of a single dog.[an error occurred while processing this directive]