By Zachary Toombs
Like a wailing, impaled animal, whose shriek pierced the night.
But it wasn’t an animal. Someone was calling someone’s name, desperately cutting into the speedy wind. From my drawn curtain I observed. Tracked the person’s steps up and down the sidewalk as they called and made clicking noises with their tongue.
Must’ve been a pet.
I returned to my work. Had to get this finished soon, otherwise Todd would have my head in a grocery bag. This had only been the second gig that I’d landed for the month, and this one was by far the most demanding.
But that call from outside ignored my window’s glass. Disregarded the curtains. That name they called…
Was it Paul?
The fastest way to end this, without being a total jackass, was to help. After all, typing—and knowing all this work was for that asshole—made me want to abort, regardless of whoever’s dog went missing. So, the voice pulled me through the front door like a pair of hands at my collar.
I locked the door behind me. Meandered over to the voice.
“Are you looking for someone?”
It was a woman—slim, in her thirties—that turned to me and gave that obligatory smile. “Yes,” she said. “Well, it’s actually my cat. She slipped out when I was cooking and had the door open.” She chuckled, half-heartedly. “You know, I was bagging my garbage outside and then the pot started to boil over.”
“I see.” I looked above her head—seeing as she was at least a head shorter—and surveyed the stretch of filled parking spaces. The fronts of apartments. “What’s the cat’s name?”
I’d never had a fish, let alone a cat, even as a kid. But… “Maul?”
“Yes,” she affirmed. She turned around—as if my unfiltered disbelief didn’t compute—and pointed. “I’ve been meaning to get to that part over there, near that Mustang. The people that live there feed the strays.”
I narrowed my eyes and commenced at rather languid pace.
“Hey,” she said as I passed her.
“What is it?”
I blinked. That panic in her demeanor had fallen away. “Roy.”
Over toward the Mustang I knelt beside the sleek, blackly painted vehicle. I lowered myself even more, flattening myself against the pavement. And visible to my searching eye was not only the underside of this car, but the many parked beside it.
All else, however, surrounded—and accentuated—the sight of that object before me. Small, even smaller than the length of my pinky, was a bone, stained with specks of red. I reached out with clasping fingers and brought it close.
Dry. Like it had been left to bake in the Georgia heat for days.
Like the first time I heard the woman’s voice, I was sent into a panic. I shot up, pin-straight, rubbing the tiny bone with my thumb.
Jenn had jogged over, and she huffed only a little when tucking a tendril of hair behind her ear. “It’s okay.”
I curled my brow. Narrowed my eyes.
“She found her way back.” Jenn offered a chuckle. “Turns out Maul was just meowing at the door, clawing to get back in.”
I tucked the bone in my pocket.
Jenn narrowed her eyes, as if struck with opposite news. “What’ve you got there?”
“Oh, nothing.” I smiled. “Glad she made it home.”
She hesitated, looking toward my pocket then at my face. Stared. “I wanted to ask you something.” Jenn smiled again.
“Since you helped me tonight, I wanted to know if I could make you some dinner tomorrow night. Of course, you don’t have to, but I’d enjoy your company.”
No, was what assaulted my mind immediately. But before I could get that into words—again, without being a jackass—the thought of Todd arrived, too. Having dinner with this woman—with any woman, really—trumped working for a pretentious asshole.
I settled on, “Why not?”
A man answered the door. He was pudgy, sported a balding head that donned a sheen of silver if the light hit it right, and had these big, red hands. Once I stepped inside, he consumed my hand with one of them.
“Roy is it?” he asked with a gentle, soft timbre. “I’m Killian. I appreciate you helping us find the little rascal.”
“Of course.” I nodded slightly. “Thank you for inviting me over.”
The apartment, though laid out the same as mine, looked much larger. Much more vacant. The floor was arranged with rugs, neatly collaged along the vinyl like pieces of a puzzle. The coffee table—white and shimmering—hosted a bubbling, topless fish tank with a lone betta swimming about. The walls dangled many framed paintings, and below them were towering geodes of amethyst and obsidian.
I felt like I was in a cavern, or a king’s cryptic study.
However, despite all the sorcerous imagery, it seemed that no person could escape having a dining room table. And on it were three settings, with black, glistening plates.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Killian said. “I think we may have made too much.”
We settled on the couch, sipping on a bottle of red wine that had no label. And while I personally found no satiation in the wine’s taste, the others dubbed it as their favorite.
“Are you more of a white sort of drinker? Beer, even?”
“I don’t drink often,” I admitted. “Though, this tastes good. Where’d you get it?”
They looked at each other, Killian smiling as he placed his hand on Jenn’s knee. “A friend,” she said. “We have lots of wine-drinking friends around here.”
Dinner came soon enough, and it began with Jenn and I sitting beside one another. I remember having both feet planted flatly on the floor, and my hands folded in my lap. My glass of wine was still one-quarter full.
From the kitchen, with a large, steaming platter, came Killian. His hands were sheathed in oven mitts, and when he placed it on the table—between all of us—the food on top of it shifted just a little. “Hope it’s cooked enough,” he said.
“How does it look, Roy?” Jenn asked, barely heeding Killian’s presence. “It’s our very own recipe.”
My first thought was rabbit legs. And, yes, I was still trying to identify the meal. They never told me what we were having before now. But responding to Jenn’s question with “What is it?” would surely not be polite.
“It looks delicious.”
Killian, who had sat down, stood up again and tonged three of the legs onto my plate. Their sauce—whatever it may have been—glistened in the light, much like the plates below. And once it felt socially acceptable, I tore a clump of sinews away from my first leg. Steaming, the meat meandered into my mouth.
“It’s really good.”
They both smiled as they ate, looking at each other with glee and once I finished, eating one bite after another, all that remained was a trio of bones. The exact size of the one in my pocket.
Zachary Toombs is a published author and artist with work in Against the Grain, Fine Lines, Freedom Fiction, Mad Swirl, and various other venues. Look for his upcoming novel, Night's Grasp, coming soon.