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As I said before, I had problems with kids my age when I was young. I pretty much didn't know how to make friends and couldn't keep the ones I did. I was willful, tactless and too smart for my own good. This led to getting into fights virtually every day—it was rare I didn't at least argue with someone waiting for class to start—and not only did it sully my reputation with the other kids, but most of the faculty. A couple of teachers and even the assistant principal took a shine to me and did what they could to transition my attitudes to those more socially acceptable, but progress was slow and I was less interested in making personal changes than simply being left alone.
At times I wondered if it wasn't at least partly to blame, but the fact of the matter was I was an asshole before my encounters with the snoopy dog.
Damon was my age and of similar disposition, but where I was primarily reactionary, he was a congenital instigator. He even had that look about him: like he wanted to make trouble. This was well before I understood family dynamics or abusive households, but when you're six, your worries tend to be a bit less complex. In those days, there wasn't yet a word invented to describe our relationship, but frenemy comes to mind. Damon desperately wanted to be liked, but seemed to derive even greater pleasure from causing grief and ratting out friends.
Worse, he brought out something in me I’d prefer never saw the light of day. When we were together, I found myself wanting to be bad, whereas the rest of the time I felt I at least made an effort to follow the rules. Later I would come to realize Damon was just the first in a long series of poisonous relationships I’d take part in, but at the time, it felt safer for me to be on his good side, treacherous as that was, than what I could only imagine was a waking nightmare on the bad.
One morning, after what had become typical classroom horseplay, Damon and I were instructed to stay inside and sit during recess as punishment for our antics. We were seated such that we could see everyone else outside through the window and that made Damon mad. There was a collection of ten-inch storybook records nearby and Damon, cursing under his breath, grabbed one from the shelf, pulled the record from its sleeve, and snapped it in half.
“Make me sit inside, fuckin bitch. Here.”
He handed me the one with Wonder Woman on the cover and took another from the shelf, snapped it, and put the pieces back in the sleeve. I removed the record, but hesitated. I stared at it while Damon broke two more.
“Whatsa matter? Chickenshit?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nothin to know. Just do it.”
“Don’t want to.”
“I already broke, what, four of these fuckin things? You’re not leaving until you do at least one.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“You know why.”
“Ask the snoopy.”
“Shut up or I’ll tell Mrs Switt you broke all these too.”
I stalled until recess ended and we were instructed to return to class. I never did break one of the records, but after a teacher discovered Damon’s handiwork, I was deemed complicit and I shared the blame through proximity, association and Damon's uncoaxed confession. After that day, I tried to distance myself from Damon and he, for whatever reason, seemed fine with it.
I eventually forgot about the thing with the storybook records, but I never forgot what he said to me about the snoopy dog. Up to that point, I told no one of the snoopy dog or any of the other, more terrifying things that happened. I guess I should have found someone to tell, but my reputation being what it was, and other factors, I felt there was no one who would believe me nor could do anything even if they did.
Over the next couple of months, I saw less and less of Damon, which was just as well. Another boy my age, Chaz, was a big soccer player and someone I only kind of knew; we played every recess we had to spend in the gymnasium, and it was quickly becoming my favorite sport. He wasn’t the best at it, but he had a strong kick and a fearlessness I admired. By comparison, I was the worse player; I wasn’t very big for my age, nor fast, so I spent a lot of time protecting the goal. Through that common interest, we became friends.
He played a lot of games and liked the same cartoons, toys and shows I did and was the one who got me into Dungeons and Dragons. I was already into mythology and liked reading about monsters, so he let me borrow some of his handbooks. Soon we were hanging out virtually every day and he became my first best friend.
Chaz was, unsurprisingly, a bit of a nerd. He, like myself, wasn’t one of the cool kids, but he didn’t really seem to give a shit, and when you’re six, at least for me, the only thing more important than being cool was giving a shit about being cool. I was both bewildered and fascinated by his seeming inability to give two fucks about what people thought about him or his interests, and in being his friend, it gave me confidence.
In a very short time, we were practically inseparable. We even started hanging out outside of school, spending time at each other’s houses and making plans for movie engagements and sleepovers. This was all new to me, and I tried to make it seem like it was routine, but inside I was tying myself in knots with apprehension.
I’d gone maybe three weeks without even thinking about the snoopy dog or any of the related strangeness at home when we decided to have a sleepover there. Well, he suggested we sleep over at my house, and wanting to go with the flow, I agreed. It wasn’t until I was home from school that day I realized I made a grave error in judgment. I called him to change plans.
"Do you, umm-- do you care if we sleep over at your house this time?"
"Sure. How come?"
"Well, it's-- you remember how I told you my dad was sick?"
"Not really, but ok."
"Yeah, he's been off work and now my mom's sick and you know."
"So can we stay at your house this time?"
"Lemme check. I'll let you know at school."
I really thought I'd dodged a bullet there, and while I wasn't happy I lied to a friend, I was all proud of myself for thinking I'd outsmarted it. Dad was changing his shirt in the bedroom and I stood in the doorway, talking to him, telling him about my day and the plans Chaz and I made. I could tell he wasn't interested, but I didn't care. I made a point to keep my eyes away from the dresser, but they kept darting to it, silently daring it to ruin my good mood. Dad walked past me out the door and down the hall. I stole another glance and saw the snoopy dog move. It pointed toward the back wall one moment and the next it was looking right at me. I ran after Dad and gave him a hug, trying to feel safe again. I kept watching the hallway, expecting it to bounce out the door, to see it glow malevolently, to smile that awful alligator smile. I watched all the way into the kitchen, following Dad as he sat down at the dining table and Mom put the last dish on the table for supper. Even though it was spaghetti, my favorite, and dad made the sauce special, I barely ate any of it.
I awoke with a gasp that night, sweating, heart bouncing like a medicine ball. Nightmares seemed par for the course, whether it was my mom's basement art studio full of stormtroopers or a maniacal doberman crashing through the kitchen window and tickling me until my stomach exploded, I usually chalked it up to drinking pop before bed and just assumed my desire for sugar had its consequences. That night it was different. The images were especially vivid and didn't smack of the absurd situations and sequences which comprised most, if not all, of my dreams.
It was dusk. I saw a late model full size Chevy van, with radial tires and moon windows, traveling down the highway. There was a family inside; dad, mom, a couple of kids. I couldn't make out specific features; it was like they kept changing so I could never pin them down. Whoever they were, they seemed happy. They were talking, laughing, not sullen or argumentative like so many of my own family car rides. I felt a pang of envy, wishing this was my family and I was one of those kids.
And then I was inside the van, sitting in a plush captain's chair with padded arm rests. They rotated so I could see everything inside. The rest of the family was there, all around me, but they felt miles away. The dad looked like he had facial hair and glasses. The mom was pretty, with Sheena Easton style permed and teased hair I could see over the top of her seat. They all talked and laughed and smiled, but I couldn't understand the words. Whatever they were saying, it was full of love.
The van changed lanes smoothly. I swiveled the chair to look out the back window and then we were air borne. Time slowed down. I tried to swivel back to face the front, but it was like I was at the bottom of a swimming pool.
They were all screaming.
My ears hurt, like they were pressurized and needed to pop. Glass shattered all around me as the first impact spun the world upside down. I held the arms of my chair, waiting for the roller coaster sensation to end. Everyone had their seatbelts on, but they still flopped and bounced around the cabin like dolls. The shriek of tearing metal joined the screams of the family and my vision swam. Something wet covered my face and when my eyes opened everything was red. I opened my mouth and my teeth shattered, spraying hard bits and blood all over my shirt. I could feel the raw nerves poking through the ruined gums, hardening, jabbing my tongue, the inside of my mouth.
I screamed with them.
I crawled out of bed, still gasping, and went into the bathroom for a drink of water. My mouth tasted funny and I took several gulps before it subsided. The night light next to the sink cast weird shadows as I leaned forward and studied my reflection. What I saw sluiced ice water down my spine.
The tip of my tongue poked through the gap where one of my front teeth used to be.
That morning Mom teased me at breakfast, grinning while I swirled honey into my bowl of cream of wheat.
"The teachers will think we beat you."
"Can't wait for that phone call."
"Maybe the police will show up. Take me away. Wouldn't that be a hoot?"
"Jesus, just-- I'M TRYING TO EAT."
"Did you find it?"
"Did you LOOK?"
"Maybe it fell between the mattress and the wall."
"I'll find it when I clean your room. Can't let a tooth just lay on the floor; it'll attract ants."
"Hurry up and eat. I don't want to run late."
I put on my school clothes and got my backpack in order. I thought I heard Dad in the bedroom and wondered what he was still doing home; he worked first shift and usually left well before I did. I saw the door was mostly closed and stopped outside, putting my hand on the edge near the doorknob. I could hear something strange; a wet, smacking noise coming from inside. I nudged the door open and saw Dad, shirtless, crouched on the floor in front of the dresser. The end of the bed blocked my view, but I could tell it was him by his hair. The wet sound was louder.
"I thought you went to work already."
I could only see his head from the top of his ear up, his face blocked by the bed covers pushed to the end, as it shook rapidly back and forth, like a wet dog drying itself. I heard something crunch.
He turned his head toward me, and I noticed the front of his hair was wet, slicked down against his forehead. I heard a grunt, like an animal, and he backed up a step. The bottom drawer of the dresser was open and I could see something red and black and glistening spilling out over the edge.
Dad stood, turning toward me. He was completely naked, his lower face, chest, stomach and groin smeared with blood and bits of dark gray and black—stuff. He smiled at me, showing an empty mouth with withered, black gums and thin, coiled needles where his teeth used to be. His eyes were dead looking, glassy, like marbles; his voice phlegmy, congested.
"You need to eat more meat, son."
My eyes snapped to the top of the dresser and I saw the snoopy dog shuddering in place. It was smeared with blood.
Like Dad had been holding it.
I screamed and ran into my room, slamming the door and jumping into bed. I pulled the covers over my head and lay there, shivering.
Mom was yelling from the kitchen.
"WHISKER. Are you ready?"
I didn't budge.
I could hear her come out of the kitchen, through the den and into the hallway outside my room.
"Get your butt out here. It's time to go."
She opened the door and came in, pulling the covers away.
"What the hell are you doing? Are you feeling ok?"
"What is it? Your stomach? Let me feel your forehead."
"I'm not sick."
"What then? Quit messing around."
"In the bedroom."
"What's in the bedroom."
"What? He left for work an hour ago. Don't lie to me."
"I-- thought I saw him."
"I don't see how. Now come on."
I moved slowly, and, fed up with me, Mom grabbed my arm and pulled me out of bed.
"Let me fix your hair."
I kept looking over her shoulder, expecting to see Not Dad shamble through the doorway.
"I almost forgot to tell you there's a message from one of your friends. I wrote it down."
She straightened my shirt, running her fingers through my tangled hair and made sure my pants were all the way up and buttoned. Then she handed me a piece of paper.
'This is Chaz. My mom said it was cool if you--'
That was it.
"Where's the rest?"
"That's all he said."
"Which friend is this?"
"Oh, right. Well, I hope he's not some sociopath like that-- Darren kid."
"Are you sure this is all he said?"
I folded up the piece of paper and put it in my back pocket. The image of my dad's naked form smeared with gore made it hard to think about anything else.
"You two doing something?"
"Well let me talk to his mother before you start making plans."
She put her hand on my shoulder.
Mom's hand tightened, to the point where it started to hurt.
"Stay out of our bedroom."