It had happened so suddenly-so unexpectedly-that for the few horrible seconds following the muted snap, young Rolan Drakis was still shouting. Then he realized the dog was dead.
It wasn't yet spring, but the weather had been deceivingly hot for early March. He could remember listening to the forecasts earlier that week, watching the weather forecast in the parlor with papa sending wisps of pipe smoke to the cracked plaster ceiling. There would be warm weather coming, and they had said that the mercury could climb as high as seventy-a new record.
Papa had scoffed, and motioned to the bay window, where gusts of ice-cold winter air snapped at the glass like a dry bed-sheet. "When we switch weather with hell," he had said. He waved mama off impatiently when she came around the corner with a wooden spoon and her usual word of warning against using that kind of language in the house. Kepi stood diligently against mama's legs, hoping some of the goodness that stuck to the wooden spoon would lose its fight with gravity. It didn't, but the dog's soft brown eyes never seemed to lose hope.
That had been four days earlier. Now those eyes were dead; glazed and staring.
Rolan's yelling had cut off. He looked at his thick hand, which still bore the two small holes where the puppy's needle-like teeth punctured his skin. It was still curled into a fist. He opened it, clenched it again, and was still unable to comprehend the merciless speed in which he had acted. When it finally sank in, he knelt down and picked up the limp bundle of fur with tears streaming down his pudgy cheeks.
Papa had been wrong about the weather, but the forecasts weren't exact, either. The mercury had shot up close to eighty, and warm beams of sunlight quickly disintegrated the patches of ice and snow that were left over from a previous flurry. The Drakis backyard was moist with the big melt, and by the time Rolan had made it to the back door, his sneakers were caked with mud. Papa was at work, and mama was sitting in the parlor rocking chair. She was rising, about to shout at Rolan for tracking filth all over the floor, when she noticed her son's sobbing and the cooling bundle he carried, whose head was lolling unnaturally askew.
. . .
Dr. Rolan Drakis was thinking about that day as he headed for his car in the parking lot of Banner Chemical Company thirty years later.
He reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief and wiped the back of his neck. Christ, it was a hot one. The technicians in his lab group had been shouting Global Warming, and for fun one of his college trainees had set up a carbon-dioxide sensor from the supply room. Rolan had laughed-it helped to clear his mind-then told his troops to get back to work.
He looked up, squinting. The sun had unusual qualities, sending heat that sank into skin and bone. It was the quality of the weather, he knew, that had set his nerves on edge, causing his mind to flash between present and past like badly edited film. It was lucky he had so many assistants. With the way his concentration darted around, even simple menial tasks proved impossible. After lunch and many unsuccessful attempts at being constructive, he gave lab work to his technicians and busied himself with the one thing he hated: administrative paperwork. It was hell, but it got him through the day.
He maneuvered his large frame into the car and turned the ignition. The old Chevy coughed, sputtered, then reluctantly turned over. He had promised Dalia a new car when his promotion to Senior Scientist finally went through, but she refused. The Chevy worked fine for now, and every penny was to go to The Dream House-a nonexistent residence located only in Dr. and Mrs. Drakis's imagination, and away from their current apartment in the heart of a crime-ridden city.
"Besides," she said, "If we find something closer to your work, you wouldn't have to drive."
He had laughed. Of course they would need a car regardless of where they moved, but he humored her. He knew how worried she was while he was on the road, which made them even. He was terrified about her while she was home alone. Especially now.
The heat felt alien in the scenery of the company grounds, which was lined with the stripped skeletons of dogwood trees and weeping willows. It had come so fast that not all of the mountainous snowdrifts had completely melted. They withered, bleeding water down the sewers in gushes.
Rolan loosened his tie, and again mopped his face with the handkerchief. It had to be eighty, he thought as he steered the car away from the research building parking lot. Maybe it was Global Warming after all-who knew? His foot pressed a bit harder on the accelerator when the memories once again started picking around the scab in his brain. He tried to concentrate on the road-almost succeeded-but a rock struck the back of the car with a small crack, and all at once the vision of Kepi lying motionless in his arms came back to him in all its glory.
. . .
Papa had come home early, alerted by mama's frantic phone call. She was talking fast in her native Greek-a sure indication that she was herself tottering dangerously on the edge of panic. When he finally came in, rushing so fast his tie flapped at his back in the breeze he created, he stopped short at the scene in the parlor, surveyed it, and understood.
He knelt beside Kepi, and he put his large hand in front of the dog's nose. No warmth was afforded him, and he lifted his hand to fall on his son's thick shoulder.
"Roly, tell me what happened."
But Rolan was still crying hard, and couldn't speak. With lightning sureness, Brem Drakis smacked his son's face hard enough to make Rolan's head rock sideways. The sobbing stopped, and a red welt began to blush on his cheek. His father's right hand was still on his shoulder, now giving a reassuring squeeze.
"Roly," he said, now more emphatically. "You tell me. Now."
"Kepi bited me, papa," he said, and he held up his hand to display the red circles, center-pointed with darker drops of blood. Rolan's eyes still leaked tears, but he was careful not to start crying again.
His father took his hand in his, and inspected the small wound. Then he kissed the bite gingerly, and laid it gently on Rolan's lap. "And because Kepi bit you, he is like this?" and Mr. Drakis waved his hand along the length of the dog's body.
"No, papa." His voice quavered, and another small river of tears rolled over the slope of his reddened cheek.
"What happened, then?"
Now Rolan was sobbing, but he kept his voice as steady as he could. "I panked him, papa," he said, his voice gradually easing out of control boundaries. "I panked him to stop biting me."
Brem Drakis waited for his son's sobs to subside, then took the glasses from his nose and looked at Rolan with condescending naked eyes. "But you are such a big boy-almost eight-and he was such a little puppy. Do you think Kepi deserved this for giving you this scratch?"
Rolan shook his head, altering the course of tears down his face.
His father nodded. "I didn't think you did." Then he did an odd thing. He reached down, and pinched off a bit of Kepi's yellow fur between his thumb and index finger. He spun the small bundle until it became a yellow noodle, then he put the small tuft in Rolan's hand. "You are a big boy, Roly. Too big for your age. When your mama and I bought you a doggy, this was one of the things we feared."
Rolan was doing his best to keep his sobs silent. Fresh tears rolled down the tracks left by older, drier ones. From the corner of his eye, he saw his mother, arms folded at her bosom, nodding at papa's words.
His father sighed, and plopped his glasses back on the ramp of his nose. "You took Kepi, and Rolan, mark what I say: some of what you take, you always keep with you. You will keep that," and he motioned to the fur cupped in Rolan's hand. "To remember Kepi, and to remember to control your temper. You understand, yes?"
Rolan nodded, again crying softly. "Yes, papa."
"Good," his father said, then he smiled and leaned forward to kiss Rolan on the cheek. "Go upstairs. Wash your face and put that in a safe place so you won't lose it."
Rolan rose with his father, and both man and boy looked down at the family dog. When his father spoke next, it was with a tremor that was filled with a fear that Rolan knew was for his sake.
"We will bury Kepi now."
. . .
Dr. Drakis shivered despite the heat that made it necessary to lower the Chevy's windows. The air-conditioning hadn't worked for a year, because the repair bill that would have it running was far more agonizing than the summer heat. When he was in the suburbia of his workplace neighborhood, speed allowed him the comfort of the air. Once he hit the city, the stop-and-go crawl of cars would offer no such luxury. And now Rolan watched with distaste as the boundaries of grass and tree gave way to more concrete and thicker traffic.
Rolan's father had died when he was twenty-five, during Rolan's doctoral work at MIT. Even though he and his mother had been expecting it for some time, it still hit hard. His father was an honorable man who always told his son that working hard and giving no excuses guaranteed success, and he proved it. Despite the racist attitudes most immigrants faced, Brem Drakis owned a successful fabric company only five years after he arrived in America. He sold the company when he wanted to retire, and even doing nothing had earned enough from investments to send Rolan through college. Rolan's mother still lived in the big house in White Plains, New York. She still-thank God-was doing well.
And through most of his upbringing, Rolan held Kepi's fur.
Since the day it was given to him that sultry March day, he had put it in a small cloth pouch that he kept in his pocket and, for the first week after Kepi's death, wore it around his neck along with the guilt that kept him sullen for nearly a month. The Drakis' bought another dog-this one a female Cocker Spaniel which Rolan had named Maya. She had lived ten years, and died a more natural death than her predecessor.
When Rolan married, he had surprised his mother by producing the small pouch, now weathered and stained. Both of them had watched with tears in their eyes as Rolan dropped the cloth pouch in a hall garbage can.
"It's time I let it go, mama," he said. "I have other things to carry with me now. Papa would have understood." And so had he began his wedlock to Dalia Skoufis-as a man completely free of the guilt of his past.
The Chevy shot past the last of suburbia, and now an occasional ghost of paper or aluminum can toppled from the gutter into the roadway. Already the buildings were changing…growing darker and older, turning from stately to sodden as the city began to smother the pleasant scenery. Despite the afternoon hour, the stop for a red light brought the heat back in unbearable force as the comforting waft of breeze died with the car's velocity. The temperature in the car began to climb mercilessly.
It was a rare hot one, and when warm weather struck unexpectedly, the memories for Rolan Drakis would begin. It would always start with the same feeling; an uncomfortable wildness brought on by the smell of spring in the air and the sounds of birdsong. It was this feeling that had him romping with Kepi that day, running and playing recklessly, until play turned bad and the dog had bit him. Roly, who at eight weighed close to one-hundred pounds and stood over four feet, whipped off with his left hand to punish the dog. He hadn't even been angry…he only thought he was teaching a lesson, as papa had done with him several times. It was that wildness which had made him hit hard enough to kill.
When the feeling went away, so did the memories-as now, waiting at the traffic light, where the smell of false spring yielded to the foul stench of gasoline as other cars gathered around his. Drops of sweat spread under his suit, slowly drenching it. And just when Rolan thought he would die in the heat, the light changed and a slow but most welcome breeze again blew from the open window. Outside, more paper blew on wind swells to circulate in the street, some of them being crushed by the menacing stampede of traffic.
It never ceased to amaze Rolan how fast people could turn beauty to rot. In the fifteen short miles from Banner Chemical to his apartment, birdsong turned to blaring horns; trees turned to lamp posts, and the blue sky poisoned by factory smoke seemed to be impaled by the mountainous tenement buildings lining the street. An occasional boy swinging on a tire in the yard of a suburban home yielded to his city's version of youth: hoods donning leather jackets and grim faces that shot shark-eyed looks at the passing cars like vultures waiting for something to die. Rolan hated it, and he silently promised Dalia that soon they would leave the city forever.
He had made that same promise countless times before.
The Magellan Building was one of the oldest buildings in the city. Formerly red brick had weathered time by absorbing minuscule fragments of smoke it its pores, making the face and sides of the building black. Yellow bomb-shelter signs, left over from the second World War, hung tenaciously to the ground-level facing. This is where Rolan Drakis lived for the past ten years. He had brought Dalia here after their honeymoon. Living as a couple, they had never known any other home.
After parking on the crowded street and using his entrance key, Rolan as usual found himself trotting to the elevators. He had always been in a rush to see his wife, to quench the fear that had built up in him during the day. He hated leaving her here, even going so far as to suggest that she get a full-time job. But she refused, saying her job was at home, and it was where she was most happy. There was no point in arguing.
Rolan could barely conceal his relief when he saw Dalia was there and his fears again proved unwarranted.
She opened the door, a brimming smile creasing the bottom-half of a thin, olive-skinned face, and she hugged him. Like always, her slender arms only managed to ring his waist in an unfinished band. She laughed and poked his belly, which slung over his beltline like a bag of water. "So when do my hands get to meet each other at your back?"
"When you become less of a cook," he snapped back playfully, and he kissed her cheek. Then he looked at her more seriously. "I didn't hear you unchain the door. Was it unhinged all day?"
Her smile kinked. "I stepped out for a moment. You just came in not two minutes after I got back."
Rolan shut the door behind him, and took his wife's hand. "You know I worry about you enough as it is-"
"I'm not a baby," she said flatly. "I don't need you to worry. I took self-defense, if you remember. And besides, I usually chain the door."
Rolan nodded, but it took more effort this time to smile. "Yes. You are right. Do you want me to help you with dinner?"
Dalia was off her guard, her beautiful smile again in full-bloom. "You can set the table, fat man!"
Rolan laughed and kissed Dalia's right eyebrow, where a thin white scar broke the hairline and coursed its way up her forehead. "I may be fat, but you are impossible!"
When dinner was over, Rolan helped clear and clean the dishes. The sun had died out completely, leaving an even rarer warm evening. Even through the city, Rolan could feel the hot night air slink under the crack in the kitchen window, bringing with it a hint of spring. The adrenaline was already on the move; it circulated through his chest, making his palms sweat and fingertips tingle.
At bed, Dalia smiled as she got under the covers. "It was a beautiful day today, no?"
"Mmmm?" Rolan asked. He was already tucked in, absently leafing through a copy of Science Digest.
"Never mind, corkhead," she said irritably. "What's the matter with you today? You seem very…distant."
Rolan smiled and put the magazine down. "If you haven't noticed, I'm right beside you." He reached down her silk nightgown to massage her tan thigh. He tried to concentrate on his palms coursing their way across her smooth skin, but the trace of spring air he caught in the kitchen had sent his mind to Kepi, and that final, savage snap of his neck.
But there were other memories. They glided past him like invisible banshees; whirling up and out like clouds of ash in a windstorm, dredging out the blackness hidden over five years earlier when-
. . .
Finally, he was home.
The applications for summer help would keep him plenty busy that night, but that was okay. He needed the massive paperwork to keep his mind off the weather. It was very warm for late February, and not even the city stench could keep the smell and sham promise of spring from wafting through the streets. He had been thinking about his dog and about papa all that day, the rot of childhood nightmare seeping in through the seemingly impervious superstructure of his adulthood.
But all that was going to end now, because Dalia would be waiting for him, where in her thin arms he could once again be a man. He tucked the day's mail under his left arm to free his right for knocking as he approached the end of the hallway.
And that had been when he saw the door to the apartment cracked open…
. . .
"Is there anything wrong?" she asked. He had stopped caressing her bare thigh, and now Rolan was staring blankly past her.
Rolan shook his head. "No. I'm just very tired."
Dalia suddenly smiled mischievously, and grabbed his hand. Slowly, she guided him up to her chest, where he soon felt her firm dark breasts pressed under his palm. "Too tired for these?"
He laughed and removed his hand from under her gown. "Woman, you are dirty."
Dalia nodded. "And you love it-and you know it."
They shared laughter as Rolan slowly shook his head. "Not tonight, sweetness. I have to be up tomorrow at five. If you tire me out-as you usually do-I won't make it to work at all."
"Could be the best thing for you," she spat back. "Must you work so hard?"
"Yes," he quickly countered. "For the Dream house."
She sighed. "For the Dream house. Okay. Good night, corkhead."
But she stopped there, because again her husband's face went blank as-
. . .
He dropped his briefcase in the hall and rushed into the apartment. Fear as cold as ice gripped his chest, and an oily sheen of sweat painted his face. Rooms passed by like windblown leaves as his eyes scanned the floor for what he prayed he wouldn't find. There was a grunting…a rhythmic pounding he thought was his heart. But when he stopped in the living room to survey a mass of overturned papers and smashed glass, the sound separated and became distinct. He ran to the bedroom.
What he saw there his brain would not allow him to recall in any detail. A wall had erected there, marking the boundary between consciousness and the dark hole of merciful forgetfulness. He could only remember what he had done next. He had shouted his wife's name.
The strange man leaped off Dalia, and Rolan could see blood oozing from her head. There was a metallic click, and a switchblade had been opened for business. The man ran towards Rolan, his erection bobbing stiffly with each stride…and suddenly, Rolan was not there. He was eight years old again, playing with Kepi in the warm sun, the feeling of being invincible brought on the spring air. It had been fun, but now things were different.
Because Kepi had been bad. Kepi bited him. And the sting of those teeth bit deeper than anyone knew. So he hit. And hit. And hit-
And when the vision of the yellow dog cleared from his vision, Rolan was holding a dead seventeen year-old boy in his arms, his head twisted completely around. The switchblade was lying a few feet away, it's blade snapped free of the hilt. Dr. Rolan Drakis, whose unconscious wife lay bleeding and naked on the bed, clenched the boy close to his chest, arced his head upward, and screamed-
. . .
"Huh?" He blinked.
"Are you okay, dammit!" Dalia was holding him by the shoulders. She was clearly shaken.
He gently pushed her hands free of him. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking of something for work."
She breathed, now more at ease, but her expression melted away the layer of fear to display anger. "Next weekend, you and I are going away. Enough with work. Understand?"
He stared at her and managed a smile. "You're the boss."
"Damn right. Now go to sleep."
He was still smiling when he reached over to shut off the light. In the darkness, he reached over and grabbed a Kleenex from the night stand to dry the droplets of sweat that sprung up on his brow.
Dalia had seen nothing that day. After she was released from the hospital, she had gone to therapy to help her cope. Strong woman that she was, it didn't take her long. Unlike Rolan, her demons were gone.
"…some of what you take, you always keep with you…"
There was a cloth pouch tucked away in a compartment of his briefcase. It held a small lock of curly-brown hair.