On a Monday night early in November Gaddis dumped his motorcycle in the ditch turning onto his road, and Hal drove out to haul the bike up. It was snowing and the roads were unplowed, would not be plowed for days. It was the wet, icy snow. When Hal made the rise before Gaddis’s road he felt the wheels spinning. Gaddis was standing there in the wash of the headlights with his arms crossed. He’d walked to the bar a mile away and used the phone to call Hal, but when Hal said he’d pick him up there Gaddis told him no, meet at the turnout.

Hal set the brake and left the engine running. He sat there a moment watching Gaddis and stretching his fingers. The truck’s heater wasn’t working. His fingers ached with cold and he didn’t know what Gaddis was doing on a motorcycle in this weather anyway. When he’d left the apartment the digital sign in front of the credit union said minus four degrees and Hal figured that out here in the valley between the hills it was at least ten degrees colder. But that was Gaddis. He stood out there with ice in his beard. Hal pulled his hat down to cover his ears and got out of the truck.

Gaddis’s motorcycle lay on its side in the ditch, a layer of snow covering it already. Gaddis nodded at him and Hal saw that Gaddis’s arms weren’t crossed but that he was holding his shoulder as if it had been injured.

“You all right,” Hal said.

Gaddis nodded back into the darkness where the headlights didn’t reach. “Come and look at this,” he said.

“I found it in the ditch.”

Hal followed Gaddis into the dark tunnel of the road. Gaddis kneeled beside a small black duffel. Then he was unzipping the bag and looking up at Hal, saying, “Look at this goddamn travesty.”

Hal knelt beside him. The cold came up through the knee of his pants, through the double layer of long-johns and denim. It felt like he was bare-kneed in the snow. Hal frowned into the bag. With the dark and the snow cutting down it was hard to see. He angled his body to gain the truck’s faint light, leaned in closer. What he saw was a mound of small, furry shapes. Gaddis lifted one out and held it in his palm. Now Hal could see the closed eyes, the small slips of ears, the thin coat of brown and white. “Husky?” Hal said.

Gaddis nodded. He hefted the pup in his hand before setting it back in the bag and zipping it closed.

“They dead?” Hal said.

“Looks like it,” Gaddis said.

*

Hal sat on the floor in front of Gaddis’s woodstove, relacing his boots. The cabin was still cold enough to see your breath but Gaddis was already down to his long-johns. His pants hung drying from a nail in the rafters. He stood across the cabin’s single room, leaning over the kitchen table. One by one he removed the dead pups from the bag and set them onto a placemat. Hal’s fingers were stiff with cold and the ends of the bootlaces had frayed loose. “Goddamn,” he said.

“Found ’em fair,” said Gaddis.

Hal had said they should leave the bag where they found it but Gaddis put the bag on the front seat of Hal’s truck and closed the door. He stared at Hal unblinking for so long that finally Hal went and got the towstrap from the truckbed and rigged the bike’s handlebars in the ditch. He pulled the bike free while Gaddis guided it. Then Gaddis got onto the motorcycle and Hal hauled him the rest of the way up the dome, two-plus miles to Gaddis’s cabin. Hal watched him in the rearview as well as he could, Gaddis hunched over against the snow and one-armed, his right lying across the saddle. The snow was still falling and as they climbed the wind grew stronger.

“What were you doing on your bike anyway?” Hal said now. He did not really want to know but he wanted to say something.

“Woman in Two Rivers,” Gaddis said. “She likes it. Thinks it’s dangerous. Husband drives a wagon.”

Hal studied his boots. “Whose you think they are?” he said.

Gaddis lifted the last pup from the bag and set it down atop its littermates. He dropped the bag onto the floor. Then with a single finger he smoothed the fur on the final pup’s back. “They’re ours,” he said.

“End of story,” Hal said.

“That’s right,” Gaddis said.

Hal didn’t know what Gaddis wanted with a sack of dead pups. But what he said was, “How about some Irish?”

Gaddis held his palm over the pile, the fingers spread wide. Hal watched him. He stayed that way for some time and then took his hand back and moved to the cabinets above the kitchen counter. He filled two jelly jars half full of whiskey and carried them across the cabin. Hal took the jar from Gaddis and held it out to cheers, but Gaddis was already turning away and downing his drink in one.

*

When his boots were relaced and he had a fresh glass of Irish Hal stepped onto Gaddis’s porch and lit a cigarette. He’d quit the first time, but when Carla lost that one he took it right back up. Thinking of it now he was a little ashamed that that had been his first real thought. Carla hunched over the kitchen table under a pile of blankets, her face raw and red, the television on the counter playing a gameshow too loud, and Hal standing there thinking As soon as she’s asleep I’m driving to the store. Now he’d have to give them up again.

He thought of the bag of huskies and how it was early to dump sled dogs. Usually it happened in the spring.

Hal flexed his fingers. Inside the cabin had warmed and this momentary cold was almost satisfying, a tolerable pain. Down in the valley the dogs called against their chains. They did not sound like dogs but like something truly wild. Their noise was high-pitched and keening. Their sound, Hal thought, was something a man might make brought to the very end of his rope.

The whiskey warmed his throat and worked its way to his stomach. He had not had the pain since Thursday. He wondered if it had passed for good. It had been happening for months now, since even before Carla got the most recent news. But Hal had not told her about them, hadn’t told anyone. Bright waves of pain like a tide. Something was coming. The last time, Thursday, he’d been mopping the floor of the number twelve bus. Then he was on his knees trying to catch a breath. Hal didn’t know how long it lasted, but his face was wet with tears all the way into his collar. Before he exited the bus he cleaned up with a rag, using the bus’s big rearview. Now Hal stopped his mind. He did not let himself dwell on it. As long as it did not have a name it might still be nothing.

Hal took one last drag on the cigarette and pitched it into the yard.

Gaddis sat on the floor before the open door of the woodstove. He’d fed more logs onto the fire and the flame was roaring. Gaddis leaned over something in his lap. Hal stood behind him and looked over his shoulder. One of the dogs was in his hands belly up. The small, almost hairless underside caught Hal’s throat. Gaddis’s thumbs moved up and down the body.

“This sonofabitch is still alive,” Gaddis said without looking up. “Heart’s beating. Get the milk out the refrigerator.”

Hal did so. He set the carton beside Gaddis, who was still working it with his thumbs, rubbing the dog back to life.

“You’re sure,” Hal said. “What happened?”

“It squeaked is what,” Gaddis said.

Hal tried to keep his mind calm but he paced back and forth from the woodstove to the kitchen. He picked up a potholder and set it on the floor in front of Gaddis. Then he dug through the kitchen drawers until he found the turkey baster.

“You’ll need this,” he said to Gaddis. Gaddis gave him a crazy look and Hal said, “For the milk. For feeding it.”

Then Gaddis laughed. “Okay,” he said. “Now we’re in business. Look at this goddamn scenario. Guys like us?”

Hal went into the kitchen and brought back the bottle of Irish.

*

“You know what?” Gaddis said from the kitchen.

Hal lay on the floor on his side. He felt the waves of heat from the woodstove. The pup lay lifeless-looking on the potholder right in front of the stove. Hal worried that a popping knot might catch it, but he didn’t say anything to Gaddis. They were both drunk.

“You know what?” Gaddis said again. Hal turned his head, saw Gaddis stepping into his dried pants.

“What,” Hal said.

“I just remembered,” Gaddis said. “Last night I dreamt I’d lost my dog. There were all these other dogs around and I lost him in the crowd. I woke in a bad mood for it. I don’t even own a goddamn dog.”

Gaddis laughed but Hal didn’t. He had the urge to lift Gaddis by the neck and shake him. He helped Gaddis out in situations like this mainly to get out of the house. More and more this was becoming true.

Nowadays all Carla did was cook and clean and read books and make demands of him. Tell me what’s wrong with the chicken paprika. You could at least say thank you once in your life. You’re fucking drunk again aren’t you. Carla wouldn’t even have a sip of beer. She was determined to do everything right this time and it scared Hal. He didn’t recognize her. When Gaddis called from the bar Hal was out the door before Carla could ask where he was going.

Gaddis knew that stuff, or he used to. Hal had said it before, some night Gaddis needed a tree hauled off his road or a cord of wood split or his propane tank filled. But Gaddis didn’t remember things. There he was talking dreams with no memory of Hal’s dream, the one Hal’s belly was full of worms and he had to dig them out with a boxcutter. Gaddis never remembered anything.

“Now you’ve got a sack full of them,” Hal said. It came out unkind but Gaddis grinned.

“And one risen as Lazarus,” Gaddis said.

One time Hal had seen Gaddis win three hundred dollars on a pull-tab. They were sitting at a bar in Goldstream and they were supposed to be celebrating Hal and Carla but Hal was the one buying all the drinks. He’d lost twenty dollars on empty tabs before Gaddis ponied up for one. Gaddis ripped a winner on his first try. That was the night Hal got into a fight with a man at the juke and was hit in the jaw with a bottle held by the man’s girlfriend. That was the night the police were already waiting in the parking lot. That was the night Carla took a taxi out to get them.

*

Hal stood in the kitchen looking down at the dead puppies laid neat in a stack. There were six of them left and they did not look like they were sleeping. They looked dead. This is what a pile of dead puppies looks like, Hal thought. The delicate fur of their bodies was so thin you could see their pale skin right through it.

“You’ve got to do something about this,” Hal said to Gaddis. He couldn’t look away from them.

From the floor before the fire Gaddis said, “I call somebody and then what. Law comes out. Questions. No thank you. I got him.”

Hal pulled his eyes away and turned, watched Gaddis lift the pup in both hands like a trophy. There still did not seem to be any life in the thing. They had not used the milk or the turkey baster. But Gaddis was certain. He’d said him.

“And then we go looking for the sonofabitch,” Hal said.

Gaddis laughed again. “Man big as you? Look out. But keep your shirt on. More mushers than not around here.”

*

“I’ve got a date with the outhouse,” Gaddis said. He pushed his hat down and pointed at the floor. “Watch him.”

Hal watched Gaddis leave. The open door breathed a cloud. Hal reached down then and picked up the pup. Hal held it in his hand and marveled at the thinness of its bones. This thing knew that trouble didn’t have to go looking for you. It just found you no matter where you were. He wanted to know it was alive. He wanted to be sure of it like Gaddis was. And he did feel it, the way the ribcage pulsed slowly in his hands. He lifted it close to his face and inhaled. It smelled like snow. His hand fit all the way around its tiny, delicate body. Beneath his fingers Hal could feel everything working inside it.

Then the pup squirmed and Hal let go. The pup landed on the floor and bounced once. He’d been holding it too tight, he knew. It was his fault. The pup wasn’t moving. It just lay there on the floor, stiff-looking and silent. Hal thought to put it back on the potholder but he didn’t dare touch it now. He slid back a ways and watched it. He waited for Gaddis to return. Gaddis took a long time.

*

After, Hal drove the truck back down the hill. It was late and colder. The snow had stopped. Through the rumble of the truck’s engine and the heater vents humming nothing but cold air Hal could hear the dogs. He wondered if they ever slept. It seemed to him that they were forever laying into it, baying like things possessed.

Before he reached the main road Hal steered the truck into a driveway and cut the headlights. The house before him was large and brown and dark. Hal cranked the window down and lit a cigarette. The noise of the dogs surrounded him. He thought then that this was what ghosts would sound like, if ghosts made sounds. A desperate, hungry sound. Need, that was it. That was what he was hearing.

Back at the cabin Gaddis sat before the stove rubbing the pup. He had taken Hal’s shirtfront and shaken him, and Hal had pushed him down. Hal had been right about Gaddis’s shoulder. There was something wrong with it. Hal saw that when Gaddis went crashing to the floor face first, as if he didn’t know how to fall.

From the floor Gaddis stared up at Hal and grasped his shoulder. “Get the hell home already,” he said.
Hal didn’t say anything back. He got his coat from the hook and pulled his hat on. Gaddis had raised himself to sitting and held the pup in his lap again. He worked the pup one-handed now. As Hal watched, one of the hind legs began to move. The leg was shorter than one of Gaddis’s fingers but it was moving. Hal counted the ticks of the leg until a sound came from the dog’s mouth. It sounded to Hal like a little bird. Then Hal pulled the door open and stepped out.

Now Hal dropped the cigarette out the truck’s window. The big dark house loomed before him. No more snow was falling and in the morning they’d find his tracks, the cigarette. It was a kind of message, Hal thought. It wasn’t much but it was something.

Inside the house a man slept through the sound of thirty howling dogs. He slept despite the weight of seven pups zipped in a bag and thrown in a ditch to freeze. Beside him his wife lay peaceful and dreaming. She didn’t know that she didn’t know the man in the bed with her.

The window was still open but he could not feel the cold. The sound of the dogs rose in pitch and Hal raised his voice to match theirs.

*

He got the truck up to sixty-five on the straightaway before the Eight Mile Creek bridge. He prayed for a moose. At that speed there was nothing a person could do. The snow spun out in a cloud behind the truck, obliterating everything.

Way off in the distance the last few houselights winked through the spruce trees and Hal wondered who they belonged to, what kind of person was still awake at this hour.

Before the bridge he slowed for the long curve unfolding through the windshield and then there was something hunched in the road. It was big and black and Hal stepped hard on the brake. The truck’s wheels locked, the back of the truck swinging wide and finding the heavy snow along the shoulder. He knew to steer into the spin but he couldn’t. His hands were numb. His hands were like blocks of wood not attached to the rest of him. He held the wheel tight. He felt the truck go around once and then again. Then a hollow freefall as the back tires left the road. Hal’s stomach lurched upwards and he was thrown against the door.

The truck came to a stop parked sideways on the road, the back end half in the ditch. Hal looked back down the road, blinked to clear his drunken eyes. He got out of the truck and nearly fell. His legs were jittery and loose. Up ahead he saw the black form lying in the road. As he approached he saw a boot tipped over in the snow, a pair of snowpants beside it. But all it was was a garbage bag. He’d avoided hitting someone’s discarded clothing. The brimming, torn bag lay on its side in the snow. Hal sat down in the road. He put his face in his hands and waited for his heart to calm.

The truck was stalled but it started and that was something, a minor blessing. Hal forced the stick down, engaging all four wheels, and slowly straightened back onto the road. It was two o’clock in the morning.

*

The light above the kitchen table still burned, though the room was empty. The apartment was quiet but Hal could hear the building’s low hum. At his place on the kitchen table Hal saw a slip of yellow paper with Carla’s writing on it. He read the words We need and then he put his hand down, covering the note as he steadied himself. The pain shot through him, then another. Hal gritted his teeth and waited for them to pass. Each one dug at his belly like a blade going in. They came in waves. When they finally quit he wiped his eyes and took a couple deep breaths. He touched his stomach, then stood waiting to see if they’d return. His head was beginning to ache from the whiskey but his stomach was quiet.

The kitchen light illuminated the hallway and a triangle of bedroom carpet. Hal pushed the door farther and looked at Carla tangled in the bedsheets. Her face was shining and appeared for a moment like something made of wax. This is my wife, Hal forced himself to think.

He crossed the room and gathered the quilt from the floor. Carla’s mouth hung open. Hal was glad she was sleeping. The nights seemed fewer and fewer. He lowered a hand down to her, just to feel the heat coming off her skin.

But it was not that sort of gentle caress, mindless and therefore pure, that a man offered a wife. Hal saw that when Carla came awake, sitting up like she’d been rigged with wires, her eyes big and full of alarm. Hal’s touch was rough and deliberate. It was the kind you gave to wake someone, to warn them, to prepare them for what was coming.

 
Photo by Nieve44/Luz

Kyle Mellen

KYLE MELLEN grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. His recent stories appear in Epoch, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Mid-American Review. In 2012 he received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, and in 2011 his book manuscript was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award.

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