Jingling. The sound cuts through the air and freezes my blood.
It starts and stops in violent intervals, chanting metallic nonsense. Three nights ago the bell refused to ring, shaken until my wrist ached and my shoulder made dull popping noises; tonight it seems to go on forever.
I clutch the covers with sweating hands.
Again, and again: like the snapping of silver teeth.
The Sundust Lodge was Nebraska's finest hotel and dining establishment for fifty miles around. It was also a one-story shack with mud on the porch, which made the advertisement technically honest unless you felt at home sleeping on dirt and catching lizards.
I set down my bag and seized the old-fashioned door knocker. Three sharp raps.
Nothing. I backed down the stairs and re-checked the flip sign: it read VACANCY.
The porch was mostly white and wooden, and at one point it had probably all been both. The paint was chipped everywhere from the floorboards to the dinky metal mailbox. I looked down to find several warped planks half-hollowed by termites, and others spongy and rotten. Charming.
Maybe the place closed down already. Or maybe-
Muted clacking burst from the door as the locks slid back. The door swung open and suddenly I found furious eyes boring into me.
They belonged to a middle-aged man. He answered the door in shorts and a filthy T-shirt that hung off his terribly bony frame like old skin. His eyes were hard and brown, and sunken in his face like riverbed stones.
“What,” he said curtly.
It took me a moment to find my voice. “Oh. Uh- hi, I'm looking for a place to stay for tonight. The sign said you have an open room . . . ?”
My question trailed off into impotent silence. Seconds passed, but I waited uncomfortably as the proprietor looked me over.
Finally he turned and padded off into the house in socked feet, leaving the door open. Apparently this was my welcome; I grabbed my bag and hoisted it past the threshold. Green bottles and empty food tins littered the floor. It became abruptly clear why Iggy Pop had let me in despite his foul temper; the half-sweet chemical stench of stale smoke and alcohol hit me like a sour blanket.
I pinched my nose and sucked air, trying to remember how to breathe through my mouth. I was about to jump back outside for a fresh lungful, but stopped short.
A series of deep scratches lined the bottom of the door. I wondered why I hadn't noticed them.
Well, it wasn't as if the rest of the Sundust was in great condition. I steeled my nerves, held my breath and followed the owner into the hall.
He was there as I turned the corner. The clear anger from before had dissipated. Now he just looked incredibly tired – like a man who just lost a marathon, and knows he still has to bike home. He wiped grease from his graying mustache and nodded me into a side room.
“Have a seat in the office,” he said. “I've got all the paperwork in here.”
I gingerly entered the tiny space, expecting to land in a heap of empties or an open manhole. Instead it was soft carpet, with none of the mess of the living room. There was a small desk, two chairs, and a can of pens – no computer. I took a seat as the man shuffled to a file cabinet full to groaning and flipped through documentation.
The opposite wall of the study housed a bookshelf. There were a number of thick texts in it – what I could see of the titles, in faded legalese. The top shelf held a crucifix of a sort I'd never seen before: a six-inch bronze Jesus gazed solemnly down from his perch. The cross was painted to resemble wood, but it stood on a base carved from the genuine article. It looked well-made and sturdy. Cruelly, I wondered how this bridge troll had afforded it.
The slam of the file drawer snapped me back to attention. He laid a few forms on the desk and clicked a pen with a boozy sigh.
“Well, you can call me Gavin, and if you'd just fill these out I can get you your room key. The rate's forty-five a night."
Gavin droned on, reciting his terms. I glanced around the room again. My eye fell on the crucifix.
"Break anything, I have to charge you for it. You can use the washer if . . ."
The harder I looked, the more the craftsmanship seemed flawed. Jesus' face sagged, and his fingers were posed too rigidly, as if grasping for something.
". . . without any problems. I don't want loud music or any shit like that keeping me up, so keep it . . ."
Shoddy. Ostentatious. It really was an ugly piece of work. I didn't want to look at it any longer.
". . . Can't offer you breakfast, but there's stuff to eat in the kitchen. That's it. You got it?”
I nodded. “Do you keep any pets?”
Gavin stopped writing. He clicked the pen twice. “No. No pets. Why?”
Why? “Well- I saw-”
Something whispered to me not to finish that sentence. I cleared my throat.
“Nothing. Just curious.”
It was a horrible cover. Providentially, Gavin let it go. We signed off the paperwork in silence and trudged to my room across the hall. He said no more until I asked where the bathroom was, and then quietly disappeared back into his office. I never saw him again.
The room was extraordinarily simple. It was as if someone had folded up the sides of a cardboard box and dropped a cotton square inside for bedding. The only other feature was a closet; and if it belonged to Gavin, I didn't care to use it.
Still, he wasn't inhuman. Just a reclusive slob. Maybe I'd interrupted him earlier.
I laid restless in bed for a while. Read part of a novel I don't know why I bought. Now and then I heard the dim babble of a television playing across the hall, and the roar of planes overhead.
Why would he use a guest closet, anyway? The thought popped into my head apropos of nothing.
He wouldn't. So what's in there? I hoisted myself out of bed – no large feat, it felt like sleeping in a matchbook – and tried it. I twisted the tarnished knob.
Inside there was a cardboard box sealed with layers of packing tape. THROW OUT, it said in marker on the side. So why hadn't he done it?
Sometimes I hate my curious streak.
I went back to my travel bag and retrieved a pair of nail clippers. These had a slim blade for cleaning, which sliced open the tape with a little pressure. The box flapped open. Atop the hillock of things inside was a framed photograph.
It showed a boy of about four or five, trying to hold the weight of a hefty puppy in his undeveloped arms. He had fine blond hair and a grim expression of total concentration – the one that children get when they believe that in their hands rests the weight of the world, instead of a floppy-eared canine. Around the dog's neck was a beautiful brown leather collar.
I put the picture down. Underneath it was a set of crude crayon maps of the house. An amateur cartography talent? Cute. Another picture: the boy playing in the rain, stomping about in tiny rubber boots. A small wooden box that slid open. Inside there was a little iron bell. I shook it lightly, but it was broken.
The possibility struck me that this kid had moved out, and I was in his room now. Kind of interesting. Beneath the box was a trove of boyhood miscellanea: found pennies, a set of jacks, playing cards, gnawed pencils . . .
I paused. Looked back at the bed.
It was very small. Did someone really sleep here until he was old enough to strike out on his own?
The image of black stubby nails, clawing madly at a door, flashed into my head.
A loud crash sounded from the hall.
Thumps continued to echo, vibrating savagely through the thin walls. Someone cried out. It was much closer than the TV had been.
I cracked the door open. “Uh – Gavin – ?”
I could hear him clearly now, through the office door; clapped a hand to my mouth as glass shattered.
“Come here . . . 'Mere. Hkk.”
His voice was guttural and half-muffled, either by the door or by total inebriation. Gasping followed a protracted wheeze. Then retching. “I mean it, putting him down,” he croaked wetly. “Bring 'im, bring that damn dog over here- huuuhn-”
Sounds of vomiting rose in awful waves, coming and going. I shot back into my room. Stuffed things into my travel bag. No time to worry about organization.
More crashing and the flutter of flapping pages as books fell. A haze of slurred words. Something about standing. Something about man.
I slung my possessions over one shoulder, heart pounding at a jackhammer pace. It was a long walk to the next stop. Just as it had been a long walk here. But I wasn't taking chances.
“Put him out,” whispered the voice behind the door. It took a note of horrible tenderness, rasping in my ear like sandpaper. “Put him out. He can't come in. He can't now. I love you. Now come here.”
I slipped out the front and started to run.
I headed east, just as I had been. Walking and walking. Where there was shade, I hid from the sun; when the sun went down, I munched on crackers and stepped gingerly over rocks, airing my crumbling shoes. Sleep was reluctant. It brought dreams filled with dry scratching and matted hair.
When I reached the crossroads, it was night on the third day. I felt watched, as if some magic hourglass was running low. The chilly air must have been close to thirty. Sweat rolled down my neck anyway.
This junction was unmarked; the path split crossways, north to south. Blocking a hail of windblown sand, I closed my eyes and struggled to remember the map. The south only led further into the exhausting dunes. But north – north would take me up to Hyannis. To people. My stomach ached for real food. My lips had broken, but I felt them part dryly at the thought. I forced strength into my legs and jogged for the T-section.
Suddenly, the wind died off. Dust settled to the earth. In my ear sounded soft jingling.
A small figure and a big one knelt among the dead brush.
The little one was dressed thickly: shirt and a too-big set of work pants, shiny black raincoat hanging halfheartedly off his small shoulders. His face was downturned. One hand toyed with something on the ground, while the other gripped a frayed rope leash. The dog at the end was large enough to overpower its owner several times over; but in all the time I watched, it never so much as tugged.
I didn't realize I had frozen until the wind picked up again, shooting unpleasant shivers through my spine. The boy seemed unperturbed. He continued to prod at the dirt.
How did he get out here?, something troubled whispered in the back of my mind.
My curiosity overtook me. I inched a step closer, eyes firmly on the big dog. Part mastiff, maybe. I got ready to move – if it bared teeth, I would back away. It glanced at me, uninterested, and lay down.
Now the two were almost within arm's reach, just a few feet away. The boy was scratching in the dirt with a small stick. Two rough parallel lines, and two right angles with a wide bar at the top. He was sketching the crossroads. I peered down and noticed he was wearing galoshes.
“A- are you lost?” The words slipped out before I could stop them.
There was a pause that lasted eons. The dog snapped its head directly at me. Something long, low and threatening sounded from within its chest. The boy dropped his drawing stick.
My gorge rose as he turned to face me. A stipple of sick cracks emitted from his neck.
Slowly, dreamily, the lightbulb in my head flickered on. From a distance he would have looked like a farmboy out for a stroll. He had a round-cut clump of honey-blond hair, and soft eyes that spread too far apart above a smattering of freckles. One was blind. It was the sort of face grandmothers love; his nose was lightly sunburned and red from rubbing. I knelt, ignoring the dog's sudden growl, and placed my hands steady on thin shoulders.
It was only a few millimeters, barely noticeable. Down his left temple and clear to the cheek, his face was quietly misshapen. The cheekbone was warped and damaged, drawing an eye pitifully out of alignment; a hairline scar, almost invisible, crawled up into his hair. I parted it gently. The roots were stiff with dried blood.
Something heavy and hard, no doubt. A bottle. Or an ugly little crucifix.
I stepped away and realized I was shaking uncontrollably. The dog whined and licked his master, who stroked it behind the ears absentmindedly. He shuffled his feet and looked up at me shyly. His expression filled me with pity and grief so thick I nearly choked.
Again the strange jingling rang out. The dog slowly padded towards me. Again I bent, no longer caring about the safety of my fingers, and touched his head where the skin was pulled thinnest. “Hey, now . . . good dog,” I murmured. “Best friend.”
It shook my hand away, but not roughly. Instead the big animal nipped at my sleeve urgently. I realized the metal sound was coming from somewhere under its neck.
The boy hopped over and grabbed my other sleeve, and together they led me back to the drawing in the dirt. The intersection map. He jabbed a dirty fingernail at it, tracing each path insistently. Maybe he didn't think I understood. But I did; and at that moment, it seemed like the most important duty I could ever take.
I pointed west. I pointed the way I had come.
For the first time, one of them spoke. The dog let out a bark and skipped back and forth between his master and the road I had indicated, whining expectantly. Again I was surprised that the boy wasn't simply bowled over, but he held firm. Instead he nodded shortly and seemed to go deep into thought.
After a moment, his ruined face opened in clear epiphany. With the hobbledy grace of youth, he dropped to his knees and began to fiddle with the dog's leather collar.
The air sang with muted jangling. Finally he came away with something in his hands and shoved it into mine. It was a small iron bell, smeared with dust.
But, strange. The clapper went dead silent as soon as it left him. I shook it experimentally; nothing.
“Ah – thanks, but why won't it . . .” My words trailed off pointlessly.
The two travelers were gone. I whipped around and squinted down the path. Vaguely, I could make out the back of a little raincoat and a short tail bobbing in the distance.
Then they disappeared in the swirling dust.
I stood in silence. I don't know for how long.
Suddenly the wind howled – indignant at being forgotten. I cringed and pulled my jacket tight, but it wasn't enough. The chill still bit fiercely. I turned north. The path stretched out invitingly before me, beckoning me to Hyannis. I needed to keep walking.
My journey had taken a brief stop.
But theirs was almost over.
That was three days ago.
After another half day of marching – for which I can't really say where I got the energy – the sun rose splendidly on the small Nebraska village I had aimed for. Hyannis has few high-tech amenities, but a warm stove and a clean bed are more than comfort enough. And a landlady who doesn't drink.
The rooms are cheap. I could probably afford to stay for a while, now that I have money in my pocket again.
But I won't. I can't.
Six days ago, I took a hunch and fled from the Sundust Lodge. Three days after that, I was there at the crossroads. Now I lie in my rented bed, clutching a pillow desperately to my ears. It won't block the noise. I wonder if I'm screaming.
The bell is shrieking now, rattling with mad glee. It peals and stops, only to break out in more ear-shattering clatters. It can't last forever. It has to stop eventually, I comfort myself. Maybe the people in the next room hear only the sound of an ordinary metal thing, refreshing and neutral, like a tumbler of cool water. But this is broken glass in my head.
They must have made it by now.
They must have found him as I left him, stinking of death and vomit, skinny bare legs tripping over themselves in blind panic.
Pleading, even as one soft eye stares back quietly, as powerful canine jaws lock around his throat.
I can't stand it.
Please make it stop.
Again, and again: like the snapping of silver teeth.