KING OF DOGS
DOG DAYS AND WOLF NIGHTS
I’ve never named a country before, or a street, or even a baby. But it couldn’t have been as hard as it was to name my dog. If a country gets a stupid name it can always have a revolution, streets can be named after numbers, and babies can always grow up to become someone so notorious everyone dreads to speak their name and instead come up with a dozen different euphemisms.
She didn’t care if I named her Elvis, Lady Devanheim the III or Troll Spit, all of which I’d considered. There were only three names I wouldn’t ever name my dog. The first was Fluffy – aside from being my mom's suggestion, I'd just graduated sixth grade with my Y chromosome still intact. Second was Rover because half of all dogs are named that; I didn’t want to call for my dog and end up stampeded by a full garrison. And lastly – Rex.
No-one named their dog Rex since Rex F. Murphy became Little Jordan Lake’s official dogwalker. I suppose he was good at his job - after a walk with Rex even the most metabolized Jack Russell would collapse into a puddle of exhaustion incapable of yapping any earlier than noon. Only he had strange methods. Sometimes the dogs wouldn’t be returned until dawn. They often had wounds Rex explained away with mumbles about a feral cat or a fire hydrant with sharp edges, which was ridiculous as there are less cats in Little Jordan Lake than winged elephants. The population went into a steep decline that started, no doubt, on the day Rex Murphy showed up on the town’s doorstep with a list of recommendations (with phone numbers all beginning in 555) in one hand and a leash in the other. The feline community wasn’t the only one to suffer losses: there were the disappearances of the town’s sole vagrant, London John, and a recluse who’d stopped coming down from the mountain to buy milk. Easy to explain away. But then there were the sounds that came from the forest at night. The howls. And the screaming. A Cockney accent can be so heavy you can hear it in a scream.
There was no doubt in my mind that Rex F. Murphy shouldn’t be trusted with a root vegetable on a rope, let alone my new puppy. But from behind their respective economic newspaper and tasteful home living magazine, my parents declared that once school started my new dog was going to need more exercise than I could provide. They’d already engaged the cheap and universally recognized services of that capable Mr. Murphy, so could I get along with that name? It wouldn’t do if he had nothing to call your dog by, should she misbehave and make us look like poor masters.
My puppy had eyes that were as gooey and persuasive as chocolate and a tail that thumped the ground so hard when she wagged it should measure on the Richter scale. Hardly a description of royalty. Reine didn’t really suit her and she probably didn’t give a cat’s ass if its root word was in the French for queen or the Japanese for buttocks boils, but she came when I called her, which was what a name was for, anyway.
Rex Murphy came to our house one night. I was surprised to see he fit my mental image of him perfectly. He sported gelled white hair that could’ve debunked the theory of gravity, and his tattered jacket was smeared with band names like ‘The Worm-Eaters’, ‘Devil’s Twelfth Horn‘ and ‘Galactic Super Flies from Beyond Andromeda’. Even more eye-catching than the logos for ‘Gagbreath’ and ‘Death to Ugly Women’ was the nightmare in enamel that hovered vaguely between his nose and chin, as if it were not sure it was the right place for a smile to find itself. A dentist would have opted for a career change if Rex Murphy booked an appointment. No-one, no matter how many years of university they’d taken to do so, would have willingly stuck their hand into Rex Murphy’s mouth. Fingers in my ears, I waited for my parents to blow.
Mom turned a page of The Household Goddess and dad grunted from behind The Daily Dough. The conversation was barely a sentence long. Rex smiled a wider smile, seeming to know only me and my disregarded opinion could see his unusual quantity of teeth. Hungrily, he studied Reine with eyes that weren’t quite brown . She whined.
“Don’t worry, girl. I wouldn’t let him take you for a walk to the mailbox and back.” I reassured her.
But when I got home from school the next day, Rex F. Murphy was waiting for me, unfastening Reine from a leash. Yelping, she flung herself into my arms, where she quivered and cried.
“What did you do to her!?” I demanded.
Rex scratched behind his multi-pierced ear and plucked out a tick. He popped it in his mouth as he said “ Just some obedience training. Once she’s disciplined, we won’t even need a leash.”
I backed towards the house. “Darn right she won’t, because she won’t ever be within a leash length of you again!”
“Your parents will be disappointed to hear that. Not as disappointed as when they hear I don’t do refunds. I’ve taken a liking to your lovely lady, and I plan to go about my hired labours, although I’m concerned as to what lengths you’ve gone to stop me from walking that poor sweet puppy.”
“What lengths?” I scowled.
“Going so far as to injure the dog – it’s a shame I didn’t show up soon enough to stop it.”
“What are you –“ I felt a trickle on the hand petting Reine. I held it up to my face and watched the blood drip to the asphalt. “Reine…you’re – you’re hurt! You BASTARD!” I choked.
“You better think of a good reason why I found your dog in such a state. I, of course, as a well-known lover of dogs, would be perfectly willing to adopt Reine if your parents deem you too unstable for a pet.”
I ran into the house, leaving a trail of stains behind us in some hideous parody of the Family Circus. I cleaned the wound best I could, though it wouldn’t stop bleeding and Reine yelped when I touched it.
“Reine…” I said slowly, gaping at the wound. “This looks like…well, not a dog bite, exactly…sort of like…did…did Rex bite you?” The mark was slightly larger than a human mouth, but just the memory of that distorted grin was enough to convince me of its origin. “That SON OF A BITCH BIT YOU!”
The injustice and sheer powerlessness made me want to smash the mirror behind me, along with the useless boy in it who couldn’t even stop some freak from biting his dog.
No matter how I hid her, Rex Murphy would somehow track her down and take her for a stroll everyday, returning a moaning wreck of a puppy in a few hours. But as time went by, Reine started to change. Instead of running to cower under my bed the moment Rex let her off the leash, she tried to bite him, savaging him from wrist to bicep. I was pleased to hear him howl in an octave most men would be ashamed of. She grew at an alarming rate, gobbling up more kibble than my allowance could handle. I tried to take her for walks afterschool or on the weekends, but she bounded far ahead of me and seemed disappointed that I couldn’t keep up. Once I caught up to her at the scene of an accident - a Cadillac had rear-ended an SUV.
The driver of he Cadillac was babbling “I don’t know, man – I just stopped, even though I’d floored the gas – and then it was like something let me go!”
I noticed that the back bumper of the Cadillac had a set of markings in its middle that looked suspiciously like - but no. Then again, Cadillac was her favourite flavour of car.
I decided to confront Rex Murphy, and go on one of these ‘walks’ for myself. At six o’clock sharp (all the more so for his teeth), Rex sauntered up to the porch. I told him I was coming with them. His responding laugh stank like a butcher’s shop on a hot day.
“As long as we’re not doing anything Olympic, I think I can handle a walk.” I choked back defiantly.
Rex shrugged and pulled out a cigarette. He shoved it into his too-wide smile, eyes on the sunset. “Y’know, I used to be like you. A good kid. Lived somewhere a lot like this.” He stroked Reine, almost gently. “Had a shit dad, though. Never the same person for very long, but each new guy was just as useless a father as the others - that’s how I recognized him. He didn’t want to be my father, so he pretended to be other people. Dad hated change. But he hated not changing even more. That’s why he hated me. I was the biggest change of all, a change that meant an end to changing. He had about a thousand different names and faces, but he never changed inside after I was born.”
I blinked. “Uh…”
Rex waved a hand at the rising moon. “Doesn’t that just look so delicious? Don’t you want to pluck it from the sky and pop it into your mouth like a mint? Of course, I’d prefer it if mints struggled a little, bled a lot, and screamed towards the end. I don’t really like mints.” he admitted. “Anyway, dad’s in prison now. I learned his lesson, though. Change often and only kill people no one cares about. Kill the moon, not the sun. The world ends either way.” he turned to look at me with eyes that might’ve been crimson in reflection of the sky. Or might not’ve been. “And you, kid? Will anyone miss you except your mutt? I’ll bet your parents don’t even know you’re blonde.” he stood abruptly. “It’s a long walk to end of the world. I could use some company. Tell your parents you weren’t ready for the responsibility of a puppy but that your old pal Rex is taking good care of her.”
I stared at him. “What?...No...no, you can’t have Reine!” I sprang to my feet as the last sliver of day slipped below the horizon.
“Maybe under the sun. But the moon is my prey.” He burst into a blood-curdling howl, echoed by every dog of Little Jordan Lake. Including -
“Reine!” I said disbelievingly. She choked off at her name to shoot me a guilty look.
“God save the Queen, Reine - and I know a lot of gods!” Rex laughed. “He’ll damn you, Reine! You want to stay here and die? Stay here and grow old with a boy about as interesting as day-old bread? Huh?”
“No, Reine! Stay!” I ordered.
“Reine, little queen, come to your king!” growled Rex as Schnauzers, Shih-Tzus and spaniels slinked around him, saliva glinting in the fast-rising moon.
“Stay, Reine! Stay with me!” I begged.
It was too late – Rex Murphy’s howl had changed something inside her. Wrenching free of her collar, she tore off into the gloom with the other yowling curs and the cackling dogwalker. I tried to follow. Couldn’t. I wanted to say some bad words. Only there’s nothing to say when someone has taken from you the one friend who was supposed to love you no matter what, leaving only an empty collar with a shunned name.
The shame made it feel like my every organ just didn’t get the job satisfaction it used to. Reine had loved me. Reine had looked at me when everyone else’s gaze slid off to find something more worthy of their attention. Reine was my responsibility. And I’d failed her. I had to get her back.
Armed with a school camera, I decided to stake out the eponymous Lake of Little Jordan. I’d catch the psycho dogwalker running around howling in the middle of the night and everyone would realize what sort of a monster they’d entrusted their beloved canine pals to. He’d be run out of town and Reine run back into my arms. She’d have to come back to me if he was gone. She just had to.
I stayed downwind of the howls, and as extra insurance slathered myself with mud from the lake to hide my fluorescent flesh from the glare of the moon. Yips of relief echoed from further down the shores as the pack immersed itself. I peered through the camera’s viewfinder, searching for Rex.
My mouth went dry. Oh. I’d screwed up. These weren’t the dogs of the respectable Little Jordan Lake community. These were monsters straight out of a fairytale. Yellow eyes burned like tiny wildfires in the night. Slavering muzzles opened to reveal teeth as long as my fingers. The smallest would have made a station wagon cower in terror. I still thought I could keep my bladder in check – until the alpha slinked down to the water. His immense bulk seemed immune to moonlight. Only his bared canines had any definition. Rex Murphy had had a lot of teeth for a man. But this thing had a lot of teeth for a convention of dentists, a comb and brush store and the tooth fairy’s coffers combined.
The monster snapped at the reflection of the moon in the lake, shattering the silver disc with a ferocity that would suggest it could bleed. The lake’s water level dropped with every swallow as he drank. When he’d finished, he barked a command and a smaller, reddish wolf joined him. He snapped at the air above its head, nicking an ear. It responded with a savage chomp to the monster’s leg. Then they touched noses and nuzzled.
I raised the camera with trembling hands.
If only I’d remembered to turn off the flash.
For a moment, everything was illuminated. I saw their ears prick and their heads turn their hungry eyes to face me. The darkness dropped back down like a curtain. For a moment, it was still. Then they howled.
Coach Hepburn often brought his Rottweiler to PE class for extra encouragement. That was nothing compared to the motivation a pack of dire wolves can give your legs. I could feel their drool splattering the backs of my legs and their fetid breath on my neck. Some part of me hoped the creatures would vanish at the edges of enlightened civilization. My hopes were dashed with the sound of claws on pavement, as torturous as if it were blackboard. I turn left into a park. The park had a playground and up the playground’s ladder and across a log bridge was a look-out tower with a circular opening about the width of a plump fifth grader. I squeezed inside, praying the brightly-coloured plastic would hold. Infuriated, the wolves tried to force their overlarge heads inside, wailing and whining and splattering me with hungry drool. A commanding cough scattered them. A huge scarlet eye looked inside my refuge. The monster wolf’s black lips pulled up in a smirk of Himalaya proportions. He barked an order.
The reddish wolf approached the entrance. I was struck first by how huge it was. Then by how it wasn’t huge enough. It thrust its whole head through the opening, snapping and clawing its way inside inch by inch. The smooth plastic of the tower had turned from haven to prison. I banged my fist on the Plexiglas window, yelling as loud as I could.
“Mommy! Daddy! Rex! Anyone!! Save me! SAVE ME!” The red wolf had scraped itself within a foot of necessary chomping distance. The lookout tower would turn from prison to tomb.“REINE!” I screamed. “HELP ME, REINE!”
Fur and stench surrounded me as the wolf lunged. Jaws grasped the arm I’d flung over my face. But they didn’t close. A huge nose touched my head and sniffled, tousling my hair. The creature eyed me with huge globules I might’ve compared to chocolate, had it not been the furthest thing from my mind.
I said the name as a question. “Reine?”
She whined piteously. The same whine as the time she’d been bitten by Rex Murphy. A suspicion crept across my mind.
“That…thing isn’t…it can’t be Rex…”
Speaking of the devil was enough to draw a thunderous bark from outside. Reine instantly curled her lips back into a snarl.
“No, Reine!” I squealed. “You’re my girl, not his!” I pulled out her collar from my coat pocket and showed her the tags. In all caps was the name that was sweeter on my tongue than all the chocolate of her eyes. “See? You’re Reine, not some monster who eats people just because some crazy punk who likes rock bands with names like Death-on-a-stick tells you to.” I babbled as her mouth split open to reveal a python-like tongue. With a lick that left me as drenched as if I’d taken a plunge into Lake Jordan, her loyalties were decided.
Her tail knocked me sideways as she turned to thrust her head outside the entrance and snap a challenge. The wolves snarled back and recommenced their attack.
I recognized our next-door neighbor Belinda Buffletuft’s Timothy in a slobbering brute chewing its way through the monkey bars. I heard Derek Drent’s annoying beagle in a fiend that was trying to bark the tower into submission. My math teacher Mr. Peabody often proclaimed his Rodney as a natural model for dog’s fashion. When he wasn’t torturing us with exponents and derivative functions he shamelessly abused the school's projectors to put on a slideshow of Rodney in everything from parkas to lingerie. A monstrosity wearing the remnants of a knitted cardigan (somehow evoking both my extreme terror and a strange Pavlovian tedium) chewed at the entrance, ripping out chunks in an attempt to widen it.
Reine bayed a long, grating howl. The wolves fell still. She turned her brown eyes to meet the glowing scarlet of the shadowy beast. For a moment the world was still. Rex inclined his head. Reine stepped away from the entrance to the tower and down to meet him.
They circled each other as if considering asking the other to dance. Then Reine sprang, a fury of tooth and claw, shrieking death as her teeth turned towards Rex’s throat. He opened his own mouth and caught her, worrying her body side to side, spilling hot blood across the playground before flinging her against the log bridge. She scrambled back up, and leapt unto his back, chomping at the thick fur around his neck. With an irritated jerk he flung her off and placed a paw on her chest. Yowling, she tried to bite at the toes. Rex stepped down harder and howled in victory.
I knew what he was going to do. That terrible grin would close around Reine’s head and rip it clean off. Before common sense could make a coward of me, I was sliding down the fireman pole and running to her side. I threw myself at the massive paw, straining to lift it before beating at it with my fists when I realized I couldn’t. A choking sound came from Rex. I realized he was laughing. His evil gaze held me still. Appetizers first.
With a mighty bark, Reine stood, forcing Rex’s paw aside and sinking her teeth into his lowered ear. White blood splattered my face. With a final wrench, she tore loose and spat out an earring. Rex roared, clutching his paw to his ear in almost human agony. The amusement had left the twin hells Rex used as eyes. Reine tensed as he started to charge.
The sun peeked over the top of the nearest bungalow. The wolves gave a warning woof – an old-fashioned doggy woof. Rex stumbled, still trying to reach us. But he and the wolves were changing. His joints started to swivel and he fell, a mess of flesh and fur. With a final snarl, he turned and joined the absconding dogs, switching from four-footed flight to two in the distance.
Stroking Reine’s sleek head, which was suddenly only at waist level, I told her what a good girl she was. I pulled out her collar and clipped her name about her neck again. We went home.
It had been twelve years since anyone had seen Rex Fenris Murphy. I’d finished college, which I’d paid for mostly by doing his old job during the summer. Most dogs had run away when he’d vanished, but Little Jordan Lake had soon found love amongst a smaller, more vogue population of Pekingese. Reine had stood a good three feet taller than all of them, and with a single bark shoved their yaps back down their throats and ordered them as neat as ducks. Without her, I couldn’t have hoped to do the job. I tried to think about that and laugh, but my mind kept sliding back to this morning, when I’d tried to wake her for her walk. To how small she was now. It was afternoon, but all I’d done was sit outside on the porch. Waiting for something. Or someone.
A pick-up truck with a pack of bloodhounds in the back parked by my mailbox. A foot opened the passenger-side door and kicked it wide. Silently, I gathered up Reine in her favourite blanket and got inside.
He hadn’t aged at all. The only things that had changed were the bands on his torn jacket – (Niflheim 5 and Give Me a Kill Sometime seemed to have gained his approval) and the chunk torn out of his right ear.
We didn’t speak. When we were on the interstate he turned up the radio and blasted Niflheim 5 for the next 100 miles, the dogs in the back moaning along. He bought me a coffee for dinner. We drove late into the night, pulling off a dusty road to trundle across desert for another half hour before parking. I looked around. White sand spread as far as the darkness would let me see. The only light came from the stars.
“Where are we?” I finally asked, voice cracking from lack of use.
“The moon.” grunted Rex F. Murphy. He pulled a shovel from the back of the truck and threw it to me. “This is where all good dogs are buried.”
It was difficult to dig a grave in the sand, but somehow we managed it. I gently lay Reine inside. Rex lit a cigarette for himself, then one for me. I didn’t put it to my lips, but held it between two fingers and watched it burn.
“Would she have lived longer if I’d just let you take her?” I finally managed.
Rex pulled at one of his remaining earrings. “Someone told me that life is a test. If you’re good enough you get to go someplace better. Dogs don’t need to live as long as people to prove how good they are, so they die sooner.” He spat. “Damn near bit that someone’s head off. You don’t die ‘cause you’re so good. You die because the world is bad and it can’t stand to let good things last. That’s why I’m immortal. That’s why I’ll die alone.” Solemnly, he dropped an unlit cigarette into the grave. “I used to think she’d be there with me at the end of the world, stealing a bite of the moon from under me.”
I took up the shovel again. Rex used his paws.
When we were done, the bloodhounds raised their heads and moaned at the moon. Somewhere in that booming dirge I cried. Rex’s howls were magnificent, even when they broke and warbled. I raised my voice in a flimsy imitation of their howls, screaming blame at the moon and grief to the vast coldness of space. Then I made the mistake of saying her name. A name is for calling you home. Otherwise it dies on the lips and you loose that too.
When the sun rose, it was nearly impossible to tell where the grave was.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
Rex shrugged. “Eat the moon. End the world. Eventually. I’m going to take my time - dear old dad will be waiting for me at the Ragnarok, and I can’t say I’ll be happy to see him.”
I tried to remember my parents’ faces, but all I could picture were different magazine covers. I think one of them might have had a mustache, though which or both I could not say. All the love I’d ever felt for anyone had died with my dog. If only I could bury my name next to Reine’s, I could be someone who didn’t hurt so much.
“I’m not a good person. Reine was the best part of me and now…I think I’m bad enough to live forever.” Everywhere Reine had been felt empty. “How filling is moon, anyway?” I wondered. “How does it taste?”
Nearly-red eyes fixed themselves to me. “It’s a long walk to the end of the world to find out.”
I stared out at the desert around us. “I’ve got nowhere else to go. No-one else to be.”
The grin my nightmares were fond of wearing split Rex’s face.
His crown is in his smile, I realized. I stared into the darkness inside his mouth: at the shreds of moon stuck between his teeth.