Stubby, by Lee Franklin
Lee Franklin, writer of this short story, has been an avid reader from a young age and discovered a penchant for the dark. She is fascinated by the horrors both in film and books. She considers her horror gauge is broken and is rarely spooked or grossed out. Lee, is also a developing writer with a novel and, several short stories published by the likes of Hellbound Books and KJ Kennedy to name names.
Facebook: Lee Franklin
http://mybook.to/berserker a link to Lee's 5* novel Berserker on Amazon.
https://mates4mates.org/ a charity for ex service people.
Paralysed with fear, I scream that silent scream while bodies press against me, rich with death; distended jaws of agony, pale skin bruised with violence. They burn into me with blank unseeing eyes. Eyes that were devoid of life, yet glazed with hatred and blame. I choke on the fetid stench of decay until their crushing weight squeezes the last breath from me.
A shrieking cry stabs through the edge of my consciousness. The dead weight moves until a face sits over mine. I breathe, my stomach recoiling at the meaty stench. The face is framed with coarse, curly hair, black as midnight if not for the peppering of sand and grit. Warm, golden eyes reach into my soul, melting my icy core of fear. The wiry hair of his beard scratches into my cheek as he presses closer.
“Wake up, wake up,” he whispers with meaty breath, breath so hot and so close it leaves a slimy residue upon my cheek.
My eyes slam open, I’m not sure if I am awake, but I cannot move. Weight ripples across my torso, poking at me, and I grunt with the pain of it. A slobbery tongue slithers across my face. I moan as the realization hits me.
“Stubby, you mangy mutt. C’mon, get off,” I groan, pushing him away.
I untangle myself from damp sheets that have coiled themselves around my body and peel off my sweat-soaked t-shirt.
Stubby half-barks, half-whines, pawing my arm. His soulful, amber eyes glare at me with an intensity I find almost uncomfortable. I allow my hands to run through his coat; it’s not smooth and silky like my ex’s Bichon. Instead, it is dense and wiry — it feels real, tangible, something to grip onto. My heart settles into a regular rhythm as the warmth of his little body snuggles against me.
Stubby was a gift from the Army. 3RAR to be precise, after we returned from Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, discharged on medical grounds. They handed me this little quivering bundle of fur as a retirement present. A malnourished little runt, I could hold him in my hand like a stubby of beer, hence his name.
They probably dug him out of a dumpster somewhere, but he is mine. He is my shadow - he helps more then he knows.
My ex didn’t like him one bit. Couldn’t adjust to him — or to me — and ran off back to her parents’ with her fluffy lil’ Bichon, Lulu.
A sigh purges itself from my body. It has been a good week. I’m getting better, I’m sure. Ok, so I hadn’t had to leave the house. Did I really need to do this? Put myself through it all? I know they think we are all just snowflakes that need a good dose of ‘Harden-The-Fuck-Up’.
I sigh and remind myself why. Why? Because I had promised Laney’s wife. Because Laney’s missus had said that this wasn’t living, and I was pissing all over what Laney would’ve wanted. I sigh again. Today is going to be a big day.
I ease myself out of bed, leaving Stubby to his rumbling snores. He’s such a lazy bugger. Sleeping, always sleeping.
I shower and wash away the stink of the nightmares that have permeated my skin. I never really remember my dreams, but the sense of dread, guilt and terror always stays with me. I toy with the idea of taking Stubby with me today; cold fear ripples in my stomach at the idea of him not being by my side. Surely they will understand?
My clammy hand slips as I try to grab my front door handle. I can already sense the damp of my armpits and I haven’t even left the house. The sun glares through the window and promises a clear, bright blue sky. I hate sunny, blue skies like others hate the rain. Death and destruction can be painted so clearly against a pale blue sky. I know, I have seen it.
My throat is dry. Stubby cocks his head and barks sharply, his brow furrowed.
“Yeah, I know, mate. I gotta do this. How about a little Dutch courage before we go?”
His hackles rise as he barks and snaps at the air. The front door stands before me, over me, threatening me. The Bundaberg rum rests within arm’s length; the warm memory of its taste tickles my throat.
“Just a drop mate. You know, to take the edge off.”
Stubby responds with an ear-piercing bark and a withering glare of disapproval. He sits and scratches his ear.
Five neat shots later, amidst Stubby’s sulking, the world swims as I step out of the door, the mid-morning sun burning my retinas. The bright blue sky an echo of something I do not want to remember. The memory, like the sky, hangs over my head like a guillotine. I know it’s going to drop, it always does. I should move somewhere with less sunshine — Tasmania, maybe? My brain sloshes in my head as Stubby shoots through my legs and into the fresh air. Sulk forgotten, he races around the garden, barking furiously, determined to put any birds to flight. Then he lifts his leg, and with great satisfaction, relieves himself on the letterbox post before jumping over the small fence and heading down the footpath.
We amble towards the bus station. Stubby takes the lead, chasing insects or random imaginings and marking out his territory as we advance. Sure, he isn’t as cute as some dogs; he is all disproportionate: long body with stumpy little legs. That, and the tufts of thick, black, curly hair that stick out in random and wild directions. I don’t care — he’s my best mate. And with the rum singing in my blood, I believe that together we will get through today and, I hope, lay some ghosts to rest.
My hope is short-lived. Behind me the tuk-tuk-tuk of a runner’s footsteps make my heart pound and my throat run dry. I grab onto a railing to steady myself. Fear and guilt twist my guts, turning the rum into acidic bile as I desperately try to cling onto reality.
A hand grips my shoulder with ferocious strength, and drags me down the path as US Bunker Busters ram into the earth around me, throwing it up like confetti. The shockwaves come like a donkey kick to the guts. ‘Friendly Fire, Friendly Fire’ screams through my brain until a sharp frenzy of barking breaks through the madness.
I look up dazed, taking short ragged breaths as my heart hammers in my chest and the world spins around me. Stubby barks and snars at the confused runner. I find myself kneeling on the footpath, clutching onto the fence, my knees damp and muddy in my freshly-pressed pants. It is as if my sanity has slipped through my fingers like quicksand; for something so simple to affect me like this is terrifying. My pursuer, some fifty-year-old pen-pusher playing at being a runner in his lycra pants, looks at me with concern.
“Hey, buddy, are you alright?”
My mouth is dry and coated with rum; I can almost feel the desert sand crunching between my teeth. My shame turns to guilt and then to anger. This man is a mockery of everything Laney stood for. I am a mockery of what Laney stood and died for. Laney was a real runner. Laney deserved to be here, running through these tranquil streets, enjoying the feeling of the road peeling away under his feet.
Feet? Hell. Laney didn’t even get to die with his legs. I often wonder if he had been re-united with them in death. One minute he was dragging me, the next, a flash and a bang and he somersaulted into the air. There was a splash of red in that bright blue sky. I didn’t even know who it was until I rolled him over. He seemed to be okay, his chest rising and falling. Then, I noticed the broken, shredded lumps of flesh bleeding out into the desert sand. His chest jerked in spasms as a bubble of bright red blood popped on his lips.
Stubby is still barking and snarling at the runner.
“Yeah that’s it, mate, tell this poser to fuck off!” I mumble under my breath, not quite sure if I’m talking to the runner or to myself. Guilt is a ravenous, demanding beast.
“What did you say, buddy?” the runner asks, his look of concern soon swallowed by his disgust. His nose wrinkles as he smells the alcohol leaching through my sweat.
“I said fuck off, man,” I shout, as I pull myself to my feet and lurch towards him. Anger is more palatable than guilt, and rum beats them all.
“Fine, but get yourself together, man. Put that shit of yours on a leash. You bloody drunken bums don’t belong here” he adds, before jogging off.
Damn straight I don’t belong here. I’m a fucking coward, and Laney, the fastest runner in our entire Company, saved me. What the hell for? I ask myself for the millionth time. Stubby squirms his way in between my knees and licks the tears that soak my cheeks. My heartbeat eventually settles, and I pull myself up onto jellied legs. I am the only one left. I do it for Laney.
We make it to the bus stop and I slump on the bench, my legs weak and burning with the memory of their being swallowed and regurgitated by the desert sand. A middle-aged woman looks at Stubby and curls her lip in distaste before she lifts her nosey, gawping child onto her lap and slides down the bench to the farthest end. Stuck up cow, I don’t want her looking at my Stubby boy anyway. Stubby doesn’t care; he curls up in my lap and promptly falls asleep.
The woman reminds me of my mother. Ten years ago when I signed up to join the military. I thought it might make my old man proud, but his pride didn’t eclipse my mother’s distress. Australia hadn’t seen any action in over thirty years; I thought I was in for a clean run. Get a trade, cash up and get out. Then the shitstorm happened and I got swept up in it. I admit, I only ever planned at playing soldier, and I loved it, but life and politics had different plans. Next thing you know I’m being pushed into the infantry and sent to war. Playing soldier, and being a soldier are two different things.
Damn — I wish I’d brought the rum.
Nobody tells you about war, how it really is. The endless waiting. Monotonous routines which crush your spirit to the point where you pray for it to end, that something will happen. And, when it finally does happen, it’s an explosion of blood and shit and you would sell your soul for the monotony and boredom of before.
Everybody wills you to survive. Yet in truth, nobody survives. Bodies maybe, but not minds.
The bus pulls up to the curb, the swooshing and screeching heralding the plume of fumes that gush out of its exhaust pipe. It takes me a moment to pull my head out of the sands of Afghanistan and re-orientate myself. The bus driver looks me up and down, his eyes narrowing at Stubby tucked under my arm.
“I shouldn’t be letting you on, in this state,” he says, counting out my coins. Blood rushes to my face; he’s figured me out. He sees, he knows I am a sham. I don’t belong here. I shouldn’t be here.
“It’s alright, lad,” he says, his voice soft. “I know that look in your eyes. My young Michael had that same look. He’s a soldier, too,” he says, as I feel his eyes wander over my collar.
I lift my hand and shove my dog tags back under my shirt, the metal cool against my chest. He eyes Stubby warily as he hands me my ticket.
“But what you gotta do is pull yourself up and move on with your life. You should put that burden down. You don’t need to carry it around with you.”
With a white-hot flash of anger, I snatch the ticket out of his hand and shuffle to the back of the bus. I’ve spent the last year convincing myself life’s worth living, let alone getting on with it. He doesn’t understand, none of them ever bloody understand. They look at the medals and see a man of honour. Not a coward, alive by sheer dumb luck. If they knew, they would swap me out for any other bloke in my section that died that day. I couldn’t even hold a job, or a girlfriend, and I’m barely hanging on to my flat. Some fucking hero.
I sit Stubby next to me on the bus and scratch those little folded ears, his honey-brown eyes closing in pleasure. What did I ever do to deserve a dog like him? How many times had that little face pulled the cold metallic rifle muzzle out of my mouth? What would happen to Stubby if I die? Who would take care of him? Would he go to a good family that love him as much as I do, or end up as bait in some dog fighting ring? Who am I to presume I’ve given him the best life he could have?
The truth is, I hang onto him out of selfishness. I could guarantee ninety-nine percent of homes would ace it over what I can offer him.
Exhaustion overwhelms me and I’m not even a quarter of the way through my day. The buzz of the rum has long since passed; chewed up by the adrenalin of my earlier panic attack. It’s left my tongue thick and gluey and my head heavy. I close my eyes for a bit and lose myself to the discordant jerks and rumbles of the bus. White office buildings close in on me as we wind through the streets. Bone-white they reflect the glare of the morning sun as they thrust into that blue sky like cliffs, looming over me and pressing close in accusation. Pockmarked and shredded by US firepower, the smoke clogs the senses and stings the eyes.
I saw the dolls pinned to the cliffs, like butterflies in a glass case, their shimmering kameez rippling in the breeze. They were broken, limbs folded at unnatural angles or torn right off, their faces streaked with ash and tears. Blooms of blood-like flowers stained their tunics; pink ribbons of glistening entrails fell from their waists. Their lifeless black eyes followed me, screaming at me in silent accusation.
The smell of roast pork leached through the char and ash, assaulting my senses as my stomach rejoiced, re-discovering a ravenous hunger long forgotten. My brain jolted with the realisation, yet my stomach refused to let go of the fantasy. I was sickened by myself. Husbands and wives watched us trundle past in our trucks, their jaws locked with grief and hatred as they buried their children, their broken dolls.
My vehicle convoy disappeared in a blast of sand, and I stood alone, surrounded by the jagged bone-white cliffs. Slowly at first and then with increasing speed, the torn and ravaged cliff faces started to bleed, bleed with people. They poured out of crevices and caves, their faces twisted with grief, beseeching Allah as they swarmed towards me. I tried to shout ‘it was an accident, it was an accident’ but my throat was scorched with bile and grit and a pathetic whimper passed my dry, shredded lips.
Then I heard the footfall of a runner and I saw Laney weaving through them, nonchalant, bounding across the ankle-twisting rocks like a god, his arms pumping vigorously, his ice blue eyes blinded with determination on some far-off prize. He didn’t see the flood of the people; he didn’t hear me as I screamed his name across the canyon. Running so close by I could feel the breeze he left in his wake until suddenly an explosion punched the air. Shock waves throwing him high like an acrobat; a splash of scarlet across that bright blue sky.
My heart sank so deep the pressure of darkness threatened to crush it, and I prayed that it would. Then, to my horror, Laney sat up, rolled himself over, and pulled himself back up onto those torn and jagged stumps, flesh flapping over broken bone. He started to run. He ran on those masticated limbs, away from me, a trail of scarlet left behind.
The stream of people crushed against me. Their melodic mumblings a balm to the ‘Friendly Fire’ that shrieked and scratched at my brain, but my tongue wouldn’t form words. They grabbed and tore at my uniform, their faces a blur as they embraced me with the weight of their anguish. A face loomed over mine, framed with coarse, curly hair, black as midnight, if not for the peppering of sand and grit.
His molten gold eyes gazed into mine. I knew this man. I don’t know how, but I knew him. Instinctively, I trusted him, this man was a friend. I sighed, it will be over soon. I will wake up, right…now.
Something was wrong, I was still dreaming. His golden eyes widened in surprise and he shouted something in my face. It sounded like ‘Wake up!’ but became lost in the clamor of bodies pressing close around us. My fingers wrapped themselves into his coarse robe as I struggled to remain standing. Unconsciously, he scratched and tugged on his ear and flicked me another glance before turning to face the oncoming swarm. The look of intensity that burned from those eyes was so familiar, the relaxed ease in which he tugged on his ear: Stubby! A chuckle almost spilled from my lips at the thought, yet the idea was branded into my subconscious before I could completely dismiss the ridiculousness of it.
The man was monstrously tall and solid, bare-footed, dressed in a flowing black robe. His lips curled back in a snarl as a growl rumbled from the depth of his belly. The rush of wind that followed him rippled outward, causing the beasts to stumble backwards. He unsheathed a massive sword from between his shoulder blades and it whistled through the air. The blade was brilliant in the sunlight, yet almost invisible against the sky. Frustrated, the people growled and hissed in a forgotten language before dissipating into smoke and shadows that pulsed and flickered on the edge of my peripheral.
“Wake up,” he shouted.
A shimmering silver haze enveloped me as the giant man in front of me roared a battle cry that snapped the air like thunder. The shadows skittered around and took their forms. Beasts with mottled red-and-black skin, their eyes burning flames as they charged towards us, claws outstretched. That great blade swung through the air like a scythe, the charging mutilated bodies dissolved into a puff of dust upon his blade.
He kicked out, parried, hacking at the onslaught of the creatures. After what felt like forever, but could have been seconds, they faltered, their forms rippling before my eyes. Sweat trickled down my protector’s face. He ran his fingers through his black, wiry mop, scratched his ear, and turned to me.
“Time to wake up,” he said. I nodded in response; no words would come.
“Hey Mister, Mister. I think you need to wake up,” a voice shouts in my ear, snapping me out of my daymare. Sandpaper-lined eyelids drag themselves back over my wretched eyeballs as the shadow of a man slides down the corridor of the bus. Stubby is panting on my lap, his butterfly of a heart fluttering under my hand. I can’t remember much of my dream other than the press of bodies, and the bright blue sky that haunts me every night. Yet, something is different.
“I’m a mess, my friend. I’m a goddam mess. Something needs to change.”
Tears run down my face as I curl my fingers through his wiry coat. Stubby looks at me intently, his golden eyes filled with understanding. That look tugs on something in my mind, something familiar that I just can’t grasp. Then, snuggling into my lap, he curls up and goes back to sleep. Lazy bugger.
The bus reaches my stop and I disembark. It’s only a short walk to where I need to be, but it’s a long, agonising walk past the pub. My throat is gluey and burning, and I’m saved from looking at the sky in there. I am already late. Surely, they will understand. Have I travelled all this way only to stop at the threshold again? But I am a failure, so it’s kind of what I do. Are promises different? Can you fail on promises? I mean — whose stupid idea was it to hold a veterans’ support group near a pub?
Stubby saunters off ahead, straight past the pub and sits in the middle of the road, staring at me… Stupid mutt! I hear the screech of tyres as a car roars up the road, fast. Too fast. I run forward, the pub forgotten, and scoop up my scruffy black mutt. I have saved him.
The driver bangs on his horn and causes my heart to race even more. He gesticulates and curses, but his frustration rolls over me. I’m just so relieved Stubby is safe. I saved him; I did well. I walk on, my parched throat and the siren call of the pub forgotten.
“Hey, Mr Lewis? Mr Jason Lewis?” A tall redhead, peppered with grey, approaches.
“Yes, Sir,” I answer, as I curl my fingers so deep into Stubby’s coat that he wriggles in discomfort.
“No Sir here, mate. I’m Doyle, Dennis Doyle. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Yeah, sorry I’m… ummm… late.”
“That’s okay. You made it this week. You have made it further every week. But today you are here — as are we all,” he says, indicating the group of men and women around him. “We are all so happy you made it.”
I survey the small group: more men than women, all under fifty. A few look rougher than I feel, some seem completely normal, and some look like ghosts. But they all smile warm smiles and extend their hands.
“Ummm, can I… can I bring my dog in?” My belly is full of nerves.
“Mm-hmm. But you really need to do this on your own, Jason. Why don’t you just put him down and he can decide if he wants to hang out here with us or go outside with the other dogs.” The surprise is real, and pleasant.
“You all have dogs, too?”
“Not all of us, man. Most of us, though. A few of us are really weird and have cats. I’m not sure how that works, though.” He laughs and hands me a coffee. “Put him down, he’ll go where he needs to be. If he feels you’re safe with us, he’ll go and do his own thing for a bit. If not, he isn’t going to leave you, and he’s welcome to stay.”
I place Stubby on the floor, willing him to stay. He shakes himself out before sitting down and gazing at me. His eyes are a well of love, so deep I might drown. Those eyes, I recognise them from my dreams, but how can I reconcile this scrap of a dog with that magnificent warrior? I guess dreams manifest in the weirdest of ways. It would make a good story; maybe I could write a book. Once again, the sense of an idea flutters through my mind, but I’m too weak to grasp onto it and it slips through into the ether.
Stubby looks tired. It’s been a long day. He scratches his ear before standing up. Tall on his toes, he sniffs the air before barking and running off down the hallway.
“See, he’ll be fine,” Doyle says, gently taking my shoulder and leading me over to the chairs. “Now, the first time is always the hardest — and we all know and appreciate the battle you fought just to get here. You must be feeling pretty exhausted.”
I nod my head numbly. Now I am finally here and I have no idea what I’m expected to do, expected to say.
“You don’t have to speak tonight. We will only ask you to say where and who you served with,” Doyle continues.
Sweat prickles my forehead and I wipe my hands on my pants. The room is quiet but not expectant. I cough and clear my throat. I remember Laney’s sheer determination and see Stubby’s eyes pleading with me. The man, that guardian angel. They all brought me here for a reason.
“Ummm… my name is Lance Corporal Jason Lewis. Well, it was. Now I’m just Jason Lewis. I served in Afghanistan with 3RAR, 2nd Company, Bravo Platoon. I…”