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Examining his brothers with a watchful silver gaze, his stomach let loose a startling grumble. He swayed lazily in his spot a moment, then rose up on his massive paws and stretched his rear up high. He lumbered slowly forward, holding his head high and keeping his gaze cold and steady. The rabble, that insatiable frenzy continued as he came to a stop, observing the scene again. They paid him no mind, until a low growl undulated in his throat—and then they were melting away, ears flattening, bloody jowls frowning irritably.
He pushed his nose through the tangled meat and bone. With one paw he pressed down on the ribcage until it collapsed with a crunch! One of the others growled his protest, but only fidgeted in place.
As he tore the red and pink from the slender, fractured bones, he felt but ignored the hungry eyes that surrounded awaiting their opportunity to slink into the muck again. He wasn’t bothered—they wouldn’t dare—and he had his fill, steadily, so as not to upset the stomach. Unlike most of these juveniles, he knew better than to gorge himself sick. He knew the value of patience, for Master had taught him well—better, in fact, than any of the others.
When he was satisfied, he strode meaningfully away and settled near the front porch to lick his paws and clean his jowls. The others flew inward like flies and immediately resumed their snapping and tearing and growling. He was still observing them when the door banged open and Master and his brothers came out.
Taller than the others, Master was holding the cold wetness in his calloused hand. He loved it when Master gave him a few drops: it made him warm and playful.
“You’d think you was raising pigs, not pups,” said one of Master’s brothers.
“They ain’t pups, they hounds,” said Master, crouching beside him and scratching his ears. “But they ain’t hounds like Killer, is they, boy?”
He perked up and dragged his big pink tongue over the ruddy face. Master had a drawn, deeply burned face whose misty eyes always looked a little beyond Killer’s. Master’s breath was always fouler than the others’, too, which was why he was so fond of Master: he was more his brother than the squabbling monsters in the dark. One of Master’s brothers crouched on his other side and tried patting his back, but he bristled and leaned away. He would snap if it happened again. This one smelled bad, too, but not bad like Master—bad like the fools Killer called brothers.
“He don’t like you, Hank. Never has.”
“Keep thinkin’ maybe he’ll warm up.”
“Forget it. Killer’s my good boy, aintcha, pal?” He recognized his name and licked Master’s face again. “Fuckin’ slob,” Master said happily.
He watched his brothers begin slinking away from the mangled carcass. He put his jowls down on his paws and heaved a sigh. He’d been the one to catch it, he dimly recalled. An uneasy rage made tremors in his chest and he suppressed a growl. They’d torn into it so freely. He sighed again.
“Jesus, McAllister, your dog got a hard life or what?”
“He’s prob’ly just thinkin’ about stuff, Joe. More’n any of us can say for your sorry ass.”
“Thinkin’? The hell’s a hound got to think about?”
“Maybe he’s mad those jackasses et his catch. Shoulda seen ‘im run that deer down. One-man team, my Killer is. He’ll teach these young bloods a thing or two ‘fore his time’s up, I tell ya.”
He dozed. Besides Killer and eat and heel and catch, he rarely understood the noises Master made with his brothers; he barely understood the noises his own brothers made. Always whimpering and moaning and yowling in the fence. Never came to any good (and now his eyes were drifting shut), and even on a day out, when they were supposed to hold their tongues until they were certain they’d cornered the kill (he yawned wide and long), they’d run wild and fight each other for their prize, but he’d shown them how to do it, though…
He was running. It was glorious running, and he was all alone! His brothers were not there to slow him, to obstruct his way, and it was a long and endless way, a field supported on either side by dense trees. He ran to his heart’s content, and in this world his hip did not ache after an hour like it did in the other, and in this world he was little more than a pup (though he felt like a hound), but the earth still rose and fell all the same, at his command, and with the air rushing through his fur—
He jolted awake, ears pricking up. At the end of the road, very far away and invisible in the purpling night, a rumbler was turning in. The rumbler approached slowly, haltingly, jolting sometimes on the rugged dirt road. His brothers heard it a minute after him, and immediately commenced howling and baying and standing up on the picket fence that divided them and the world.
The lights spilled over the lot and the little house and the rumbler ground to a standstill. Master and his brothers rose, knees popping; he heard Master’s knees popping. When he went to the gate and pushed it open, the others bounded forward excitedly. Master spun, pointing a finger toward the kennels, and whistled sharply. Then he hollered at one of his own brothers, who ushered the pups back to the kennels and locked them up inside.
“Killer,” said Master, “with me.” His heart swelling with pride, he rose, yawned, stretched, made sure the others were watching from their cell, then strode to Master’s side and passed through the gate with him. Master’s brothers followed, the last locking the gate securely.
Another of Master’s brothers—how many he had!—was leaning against the rumbler, dirty and reeking of its blood. He had a burning thing between his lips and he sent shimmers of unease through Killer, who stayed close near Master’s shins, taller than his popping knees.
“You look smarmier than usual, Jacobs,” said one of Master’s brothers.
“That’s cause I just got some damn wild news,” said the other. His boots kicked absently through the pebbles and dirt. He made no more sounds, and Master’s other brothers became quickly agitated. They frowned and leered through the dark and stirred up an irritable frenzy.
“Jus’ tell us, Jacobs. None of your goddamn guessing games.”
Killer sensed the others dislike for this brother in a dull raging way. They shifted in their places and made threatening looks, but none advanced on him. Eventually, he bowed his head and chuckled and said, “They found that goddamn thief from Brighton, the one who’d been stealin’ from all them groceries and breakin’ into houses and whatnot.”
“Yer shittin’ me.”
“I ain’t. Billings seen ‘im yesterday plowin’ the field at the old farm out on the border. Like as not that ol’ stump Johnson had no clue what kinda farmhand he was hirin’.”
Master got down on his haunches and began petting Killer, but his face was faraway and looking past the dirt and into the dark.
Someone said, “Musta been someone else, Jacobs.”
“I’m tellin’ ya he recognized ‘im from them flyers.” The dirty one threw up a hand and looked darkly at the others. “Don’t believe me if ya want, ain’t no difference to me. You’ll be sore when that boy makes off with Mrs. Johnson’s jewelry in the middle of the night and you ain’t been there ‘cause you was skeptics.”
“We gotta do somethin’,” said someone.
“Anyone called Johnson? Told ‘im he’s housin’ a criminal, payin’ ‘im and all?”
“I just come from work. I guess Billings tried the Johnson phone earlier but no one answered. Them old coots sleep with the sun.”
The voices rose all at once, and Killer let them pass over and through him with a sigh. It was all confusion to him. Master and his brothers often went on forever making noises at and over each other—except now, Master made no noises, only keeps looking at the ground the way Killer often looked into his empty water bowl.
The others were yelling, arguing the way Killer did with his own brothers when they stole from him his meat. He’d been overwhelmed by them once before, that monstrous hungry frenzy, and he’d snapped off one of their ears before they’d left him alone.
Master’s stare broke. He raised his voice higher than all the others’ and he raised himself, too, towering over them and bearing down on them with his clear and dusty eyes. They fell immediately silent, half-turned from their squabble.
Beside Master, Killer stretched and lazily stood. Something exciting would happen now. Master had made a decision, and the pack would obey.
“We’re gettin’ that goddamn criminal tonight,” he boomed. “Ain’t no old folks got to be dealin’ with that. We gettin’ him for them, and we takin’ him to the sheriff. And if he fights, we kill ‘im.”
“If he runs?”
Master offered his hand to Killer, who licked it. Then he jerked his thumb at the dog kennels, where they could be heard grumbling and roughing each other up. “Finest hunters in the county, right there.”
And then the rabble again—Killer paced the fence, watching Master and his brothers free the pups and attach them to their chains. They fought their captors, gnashing the chains with hard white chomps and drooling long tendrils of slime on their brothers’ faces as their untamed eyes darted hotly around each other.
Master’s brothers went into the towering barn and retrieved long arms of fire which they raised above their heads as they hollered and raged about one another. Many of them reeked of the cold wetness that always warmed Killer. All this he observed with consigned, impassioned eyes, his head and ears held high.
When all the pups were chained and all the brothers prepared, Master whistled for Killer to lead the way. Proudly the hound trotted down the ever-darkening drive at a pace that would excite the pups, already inspired by their freedom, causing Master and his brothers to quicken their steps. Killer delighted in the cool night air that whistled through his fur, in the cacophony of cricket and birdsong and hurling twirling voices that filled his ears even above the howling whooshing wind.
Often Master hollered directions at Killer, and he’d barrel round a dirt road corner or a stump along a path and he’d never lose a beat. He was propelled by the sweet wild momentum of the moment, caring little for their destination or their goal. Distantly he recognized the yapping and howling of his brothers. They bayed longingly for his freedom, and he reveled in his privilege. He was Killer—the only Killer—and none of those pups could be like Killer.
In time the stretching field came into view and so too did a massive stretching light that blazed gray-white and sent a surge of confused fear through Killer’s chest. He heard the men quickening, sprinting now, dragged helplessly along by the pups, who’d also seen the blaze and, fallen victim to such an overwhelming excitement that they hurled forward at full speed, all memory and existence of their masters wiped away.
A figure darted across the field. Killer saw it now, smelled like a storm the hot blood on its hands. Something else was with it, too—a shape similar but somehow separate, difficult to look at for very long. Master was screaming his name, but he knew already what to do—kill.
Broken free of their chains, the pups quickly gained on Killer in his pursuit. The pack surged across the field and let loose an orchestra of howls so monumental it filled the valleys and sent crows alighting from the treetops. The figure disappeared into the woods.
As Killer broke through the bramble, one of the others finally hit him head-on, sending him tumbling through the bushes and ferns. He regained his foot as the others flew past on either side, in the dark. He resumed running—and he was angry now. He smelled blood and fire smoke everywhere, and he frothed at the mouth with an enraged hunger he’d never experienced. Twigs and leaves snapped beneath his paws as they slammed the soil. His brothers’ howls drowned his mind and he wanted only to tear their throats out, rip the meat from their bones…
Roaring, rushing water faded to life ahead. He saw where the trees opened suddenly on a bank, and he saw his brothers approaching the bank. As they met the treelike there was another burst of light, smaller and filling the shore. It silhouetted their cowering forms, blazing; Killer kept running, frothing, and seeing them briefly vulnerable by that light he barely noticed, he lunged.
With all his will and all his strength he pushed himself off the moving earth and bounded through the air. He soared over their heads and heard—as if from very far away, lost in a dream—the voice of Master, a voice that screamed:
He was weightless. Below him, the human was crossing the river. But now he looked over his shoulders with wide and terrified eyes. Killer sunk his teeth into meat and tasted hot blood as together they tumbled into the raging bottomless depths.