Robert walked his bike along a bumpy, dirty path into the woods behind his house, where the forest encroached on the shaggy grass. He had told his mom he wanted to go into nature and pray to God.
“How long will you be gone?” she had asked.
Robert shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes when I’m out in the woods, I can feel his presence, hear his voice. I lose track of time, like I’m already with him in eternity.”
She tilted her head with trepidation, but smirked with a reluctant pride.
“I’ll be home before dark,” Robert said. “Maybe an hour.”
White eucalyptus trees jutted from the hard, dry ground. They were void of life, just broken limbs and scarred trunks. Not even the birds perched on their dying branches.
Fallen twigs snapped under Robert. With each step he took, he imagined a field of bones. A field of his own collection. A place where the snapping of brittle bones proved his power.
Brown leaves sat atop brown branches which rested on brown dirt. Black ants and black beetles and black spiders scurried away from him, as if he were a giant of incomprehensible size, and they were people running for their lives.
The pathway led to an overgrown thicket. He ducked into the foliage, leaving his bicycle behind.
No one walked these parts. Kids were too busy playing their latest video game. Adults were getting home from work and settling down.
Out here, Robert was free. He was a part of the landscape: a dying, decaying, brittle creature void of life.
A ragged, orange tent was propped up in a clearing behind the thicket. Bones hung from twine tied to the dead branches, and they rattled together like wind chimes in the light breeze.
Cages filled with small animals were propped beside the tent. Birds, rodents, rabbits. Most were alive. Their capsized bodies lifted with slow, excruciating breaths, occasionally twitching with mesmerizing rapidity. Some were dead. A squirrel’s body had hardened and started to rot. Its tongue lolled from its mouth. Ants crawled over its glassy, open eyes.
Robert shouldered off his backpack and rummaged for a notebook. He opened it to a page with the simple heading Squirrel. He wrote seventeen days. Then he closed the notebook and opened the animal’s cage. The creature already stank of rot, but Robert didn’t mind the stench. In fact, his throbbing nose barely detected the odors.
Odor is a part of the process of improvement. Athletes deal with musky sweat to improve. Doctors are indoctrinated into their practice with cadavers and formaldehyde.
Robert’s path to perfection smelled like dead, rotting roadkill.
He placed the squirrel on a smooth, red-stained stump, then disappeared into the tent. When he returned, he carried a large hunting knife.
He sawed off the dead creature’s limbs. Noxious gas exploded from the open animal. The blood had clotted. It was like cutting into a stuffed animal.
When he finished the dismemberment, he hung the limbs from the surrounding tree branches and watched them swirl around in the autumn breeze.
After a few seconds of admiring his new decoration, he walked over to Daisy’s crate. She lay in a ball in the back. Her dark eyes wide and desperate.
“Hey, Daisy,” he said. “Did you miss me?”
Her tail beat against the plastic walls of her small home. She whined.
Robert reached into his back pocket, then unfolded a piece of paper. “Who’s this,” he asked, holding up one of QP’s missing dog flyers.
After getting punched by Tyler, Robert and QP had spent their afternoon taping flyers to telephone poles and storefronts.
Daisy stared at the black and white image of herself.
“He misses you. Do you miss him?”
Her tail thumped against the crate.
“If he wasn’t such dick, then maybe I never would’ve grabbed you. But he doesn’t shut up. He doesn’t know where the line is, and he’s so unaware when he crosses it. I needed to teach him a lesson. Now what do I do?”
He glanced at the dead animals that dangled from the tree branches above him.
“I killed someone last night. It was accident. I mean, I wanted to kill him. Him and QP, again, went way too far. Then he said something to Sava, and Evan started in on him. Got him good. But I was already upset. I didn’t even plan it out. I just wanted to hurt him like he had hurt me and Sava and Evan.”
Daisy cocked her head. Her left ear twitched. Drool dangled from her snout.
“It’s not how I wanted it to be, you know? I’ve been out here practicing for something great. And what happens? I bash his head with a beer can. Clumsy. Impulsive. Idiotic.”
He paused. A twig had snapped behind the thick of dead trees. A bird jumped from a broken branch. The outskirts were heavy with shadows, more so than usual. Or maybe last night had affected Robert more than he wanted to believe.
“It felt anticlimactic.”
The dog continued to stare at him and wag her tail. She poked out her tongue and panted.
Robert, feeling vulnerable under the trees and the gray sky, climbed into the tent and lay on a blanket and stared at the orange glow of the fabric.
He thought of his mom.
What would she think of his experiments? Would she proud of him? Or embarrassed?
Much like he noted how much suffering and pain a rodent could take, she had perfected torturing him. Had she not? She accused him of being a sinner, of needing to atone. She preached that suffering and pain created strength. That fear equated to respect which evolved into love.
Robert squinted at the tent’s bright orange fabric and he psychoanalyzed himself.
Why did he torture the animals? For control and power? Yes. He had no control over his own life and he used this practice as an outlet. His mother dictated every aspect of his being. When he woke up. What he wore. What he ate. Where he went. What he did. He couldn’t breathe unless she commanded it.
But out here, he was in control. He was powerful. And she couldn’t take that away from him.
Still he worked on his craft. For that’s what this was, a craft. He started small and practiced and learned and improved for the real art.
Tyler lived in an artificial world of horror: books, television, movies. His life, compared to the rest of the group, was near perfect. His parents were present and supportive. They weren’t rich, but they managed. Robert believed Tyler disappeared into horror entertainment to feel discomfort. He had no other way to understand what fear and desperation felt like.
But Robert lived the reality. He lived in constant fear of his mother. If he spoke out of turn, if he so much as glanced at her the wrong way, even if he didn’t know it, she would lock him in a dark closet, starve him, burn him.
“This is only a taste of hell,” she would preach. “If you can’t handle this, how will handle an eternity of it?”
When he was younger, he had cried miserably every time she found an excuse to torture him. But recently, he had hardened his resolve. He had severed any emotional ties to humanity and this world.
Anymore, he felt alive only when he watched the animals taking their last, labored breaths. He only felt the warmth of his blood flowing through his body when the blood of something else flowed over his fingers.
And ultimately, he had concluded that in order to truly feel alive and liberated, his mother’s blood would have to warm his hands. Only then could he control his own life.
Until then, he needed to practice.
He let his mind climb and wander and explore, and the winding path led him to Daisy.
A dog would be good practice. If he fed her and watered her properly. Let her grow into a full sized animal.
That would be more educational than the rats he had accumulated. They were tough, but they were so small and delicate at times. They often bled out completely when he chopped off a limb, ruining his experiments.
Would a dog be able to withstand more pain?
At the thought of pain, he remember Daisy hadn’t had food or water in nearly twenty hours. He climbed out of his tent and back to the dog.
Robert reached to the side of her crate and grabbed an empty bowl, then he started to walk away from his campsite. He stopped. “You know what?” He turned back to the dog. He knelt before the crate and let her out.
She barked and nipped at his ankles.
“I thought you might like that. Come on. Let’s get you some water.”
They hiked through the dead trees and to a trickling creek. Daisy lapped up the scarce water. Robert shoved the lip of the dog bowl into the running stream and filled it as best he could.
He watched the dog run around. She sniffed the ground, tried to catch a lizard, but it ran up a tree. She yelped at it for awhile, then became distracted with a bee.
Curious, Robert watched to see if she’d catch the insect. See if it would sting her. But nothing of the sort happened.
Bored, he called her and headed back to the site.
He sat on a stone and petted her. “I wonder what QP would think if I sent him your paws? You think that would calm him down?” He lifted her feet and inspected the pads at her feet. Then he grabbed her snout. “Or your nose. What if I cut that off?”
Daisy’s tail continued to wag. She was happy for the attention.
Robert stood and riffled through a box, finding a hunting knife with a serrated blade. He held the flat of the blade to Daisy’s throat.
He had always imagined the first dead body he saw would send chills of pleasure and anticipation through his body. He thought of the great serial killers. How they had kept parts of their victims like trophies. Like valuable relics. How some even lay with the corpses because death had intrigued them more than life.
But for Robert, death had disappointed his deep, hungry curiosity. Had left him feeling empty. Void. Unsatisfied.
As he held the knife to the dog, he felt no urge, no desire to string out the guts of the innocent animal. In fact, if he was honest with himself, he had grown fond of Daisy in the short time he had her. Her wet eyes. Her high-pitched, needy whine. The softness of her fur.
Killing her wouldn’t be like killing the vermin and rodents that decorated the trees. Those had disgusted him. Their deaths were like pressing a red button to kill thousands of lives—impersonal. Not real.
But Daisy had a personality. He saw emotion in her face. If he ever wanted to live up to the greatest killers ever, she would serve as his initiation. He would have to sever her life from this world.
But could he?
He didn’t know.
Maybe he didn’t have to kill the dog. A new idea budded. What if he didn’t seek revenge on QP’s immature behavior? What if he didn’t try and teach him a lesson?
Instead, what if Robert returned Daisy? Said he found her wondering around the woods behind his house. QP would see him as a hero. He would stop making fun of him, and maybe, just maybe, Robert would develop some credibility within the group.
“That’s it.” Robert grabbed the dog’s face and lifted her snout into the air. “I’m going to take you, Daisy. I’m going to take you to your house.”
He just had to think of an appropriate time to return her. Now? No that was too soon. This evening? Maybe. This evening during their meeting, he decided. Give the group something to smile about.
Robert grabbed a stick, teased it in front of Daisy’s face, then tossed it a few yards away. She bounded after it, then brought it back, plopped before his feet, and began chewing on the wood.
The sky started to turn from gray to dark. A cloud-clothed moon bulged above the trees. The wind and the temperature went from chilly to frigid. Robert figured the time had come to go home.
He grabbed Daisy’s pink collar and dragged her back into the crate, leaving the stick and the bowl of water with her.