My friend and I were driving down US 12, dark woods on either side.
On the way to return a tent he’d borrowed from one of his coworkers.
‘I can never remember which one it is,’ he said, slowing down to check the occasional, mostly unmarked, entrance.
Mouths to long driveways that went deep into the woods.
Couple of no trespassing signs.
‘Think it’s this one,’ he said.
We turned in.
Drove slowly, until the headlights touched a shed.
‘Hope we don’t get shot,’ he said, turning off the car.
It was totally silent.
I mean nothing.
And then a light came on as a screen door opened, hundreds of bugs hovering above it.
‘Wuddup guys!’ yelled my friend’s coworker. Then he yelled, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ to the dogs and waved us toward the house.
Inside, the dog pack greeted us—a medium, overweight, sausage-like dog with a gray muzzle, a smaller dog, and a dog so small I thought it was a chipmunk at first.
They barked, then wagged their tails, ears going down.
My friend and I set the tent down against the wall.
The house looked like a tornado hit it.
Or like the contractor gave up about 65 percent of the way.
Bare plywood and nails all over.
Aquariums filled with garbage.
A gigantic tree branch—as in, still part of a living tree—went through the middle of the house.
I sat in an office chair and my friend sat on a milk crate.
‘Sorry the place is fucked. I’m barely here anymore. Heh oops.’
The overweight dog came up to me and put his greasy head in my lap—eyes red and watery, goop in the corners.
‘Hey buddy,’ I said, rubbing his head.
‘Oh man, that’s Dragon,’ said the host, pulling the tent into a corner. ‘Old Dragon . . . he’s such a dumbass, but that’s my guy.’
Dragon’s eyes were closing, head heavy in my lap.
‘Man, it’s a miracle he can even walk. That motherfu’er was paralyzed for four months heh. Couldn’t move at all from the neck down.’
‘What?’ said my friend. ‘For real?’
‘Yuuup. He used to love to kill raccoons. But one time, one a them fuggers got him good n’heh. And it had some disease or some shit. He got spinal meningitis heh. This motherfu’er couldn’t move for four months. We had to baby him.’
‘Dragon, is that true!?’ I said.
But Dragon was dead to the world as I worked his jowls.
‘Alls he could do was lie there all day. When he barked, his entire body shook, but he couldn’t move.’
‘Innat that right, Dragon?’ said his owner, as he walked toward me.
He scooped Dragon up, one arm underneath the butt/back legs, and one around the chest.
‘He’d bark, and just be lying there, spasming on the floor n’heh.’
He kissed Dragon on the head.
Dragon looked reluctant about—but ultimately resigned to—being carried around.
‘Dude, it was nuts. We had to carry his ass outside like this for him to shit. It was a race of getting him outside, hoping he didn’t shit on your arm.’
He lowered Dragon and lifted him back up a few times.
I was laughing.
With little clicking sounds, the very small dog approached my friend.
‘Oh hey there!’ said my friend, as the dog wagged its tail at his feet.
‘Ohp, now you did it. That’s Lady. Give her any attention and she won’t leave you alone heh.’
My friend picked Lady up and put her in his lap.
She lay down immediately, wagging her tail and resting her chin on his arm.
Then she breathed out, looking off into the distance with strangely sad eyes.
Eyes that said, ‘Why, mi amor?’
‘Well look at that,’ I said.
Everyone watched as my friend petted the tiny dog.
And it seemed strange to me.
That this thing trusted my friend.
Knowing nothing of his intentions.
In a world of cruelty.
This little helpless thing sought security in a stranger.
Like every thing was just a smaller thing looking for a bigger thing to take care of it.
Paralyzed and helpless and needing to shit, looking to be scooped up and relieved.
‘Aw I hate to do this, Lady, but we gotta get going,’ said my friend.
He set her down and as soon as her tiny legs touched the ground and she ran up to the third dog, who’d gone to sleep.
Lady bit at the sleeping dog’s ears and its eyes popped open, lips curling back.
‘Awesome, thanks for coming by, fellas!’ said my friend’s coworker, setting Dragon down.
Dragon huffed over to police.
We said goodbye and left.
The screen door whapped shut.
Back out into the darkness.
Sound of a distant motorcycle.
We walked back down the driveway to the car and backed out slowly.
Through the darkness.
Down the long driveway.
‘I have a feeling we’re gonna crash,’ said my friend, as we stopped by the main intersecting road, host to many fatalities.
‘I do too.’
I’d been thinking about it the whole way there.
And for a second, right then, I felt it.
Like a peach thrown against the wall.
I looked down the road.
On one side, only a thin bit of moonlight on the curve where the road disappeared over a hill.
On the other side just darkness.
‘What a way to die,’ said my friend. ‘Just T-boned right here.’
And we backed out into the middle of the road—stopped—and began driving again.
Spared by the bigger thing, once more, maybe.
Copyright © 2020 by Sam Pink, from The Ice Cream Man & Other Stories. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.