Dark Matter

 

Ethan Brightbill has a BFA in creative writing from Penn State Erie and lives in Iowa City. By day he smites the unworthy as a freelance editor, while by night he reads for Revolution House and Literary Orphans. His fiction has appeared in Transcendence Magazine.

 

 

Dark Matter

The dog was dead. Tom was very much aware of this fact. He had never seen something so dead before. The only way it could be more dead, he mused, would be if someone blew it up. Scattered all the bits of doggy decay up into the stratosphere. Then with even the molecular bonds holding its form together destroyed, it would truly be dead. Gone. Erased.

Even as he thought it, he knew that was wrong. Blowing up the dog would make the dog less dead, in fact. It would make the dog cease to have ever existed, and that would take away from the entire point, the entire horror of death, that something that was once a dog was now definitely not a dog. When Tom heard the word dog, he pictured a golden retriever bounding across a field of almost painfully bright green grass. The sky was blue, the clouds were white, and in all probability there were angels flying just outside the frame of his mind’s eye, basking in the sheer clichéd perfection of the scene. The dog did not snarl, and it most certainly was not beheaded. And yet here Tom was, standing over the body of a mutilated dog with a small child clutching his pants on either side.

The day had started simply enough. He woke up of his own accord after a blessed nine hours of sleep, ate a bowl of cereal while reading the Sunday paper, complained to his wife about the local representative, and then got changed and took Gary and Fenton to the park. He had been so close to completing his weekend routine with everything in its place, everything good, everything right as rain, and now there was a severed dog head not six feet from where he stood.

Things started to go wrong when the boys interrupted his reading. They never interrupted his reading at the playground. The moment they were in sight of the place, Gary and Fenton would launch from his sides like heat-seeking missiles, and he wouldn’t see them again until an hour later when he would have to crawl into whatever plastic tunnel or slide they’d jammed themselves into. As long as he remembered to look up every once in a while to make sure they weren’t trying to walk on top of the monkey bars again, he could just sit back and enjoy the summer air and some John Grisham. But instead Gary was squeezing his leg. “Daddy,” he said, “I want to leave.”

Fenton also had an arm on Tom’s leg, but the grip was light, and his head was turned back. “It’s over there,” he said with an outstretched finger. “Right there.” Tom stood and looked where he was pointing, his hand raised over his eyes to block out the sun. Just the swings the boys always played on dangling in the breeze, and beyond them a meadow dotted with wildflowers. It spread out for a good mile before sloping up into golden hills where ranchers sometimes grazed their cattle.

“It isn’t a mountain lion, is it, boys?” He hadn’t lived here long enough to know if they were in this part of California, but now all he could imagine were child-devouring cats.

“No,” said Gary and Fenton in unison.

“Then what is it?”

Gary stared at the ground, but Fenton matched Tom’s gaze. The noonday sun made the color in his eyes shift through shades of brown like muddy river water disturbed by the passing of some foreign object. “It’s dead.” He paused as his forehead crinkled in thought. “You’re an adult,” he said finally. “You need to see.”

He smelled it before he saw it. Even before the boys found him, he’d smelled it: a raw, earthy scent like freshly turned soil or manure. With cows nearby he had assumed it was the latter, but as he approached he realized it was something else. It was a stench, not an aroma, and it was closer to human feces than anything produced by a domesticated animal, but that wasn’t it either.

As they walked past the swing set, Tom noticed a dry creek bed running through the grass. From the park it had been concealed, but now he could see that it ran off a fair distance in either direction. Part of it was probably even near his home, he realized. He imagined it running behind the houses on Pasadena Drive and wondered how he could have failed to notice it.

“You boys shouldn’t have wandered past the playground,” Tom scolded, but he didn’t wait for a response. He could see a dark bundle lying near the base of the creek. It looked like an old coat. “Is that it?”

Gary and Fenton nodded. He noticed they fell back a few steps as they approached, but when he finally came to a stop in front of the dog’s corpse, they ran forward and latched onto his jeans like magnets.

The head was separated from the body, but that wasn’t what drew Tom’s eye; it was the dog’s expression. A snarl. Perhaps it was just the desiccation, but the lips of the animal were pulled back to the point of disappearing, and the teeth looked as if they were too large to have ever fit inside a living canine head. Tom wondered how it could have closed its mouth without cutting itself.

The cause of death was less of a mystery. A machete or hatchet had hacked into the neck several times right above the blue cloth collar the dog wore. The wound itself was surprisingly easy to look at. There was almost no blood—it had rained the night before, Tom recalled—so it just looked like so much ground beef that a clumsy butcher had cut into. What was disturbing was that there was a collar on the dog at all. It—he or she—had been a pet. It had been named Fido or Spot or Buddy, and it had belonged to someone. It had been a cog in the social structure of some household in the area, maybe even a family with a son who went to the park with his dad and his best friend, and now the cog had stopped. It had rusted, cracked, broken.

“You shouldn’t see this,” said Tom, although he already knew it was too late.

* * *

Since yesterday, Gary spoke only when spoken to, and Layna spent almost every moment staring at her son and biting her lip. When he’d told her what happened and how he’d let the boys out of sight, she’d been furious. He didn’t understand. He should have paid more attention, sure, but it was a small thing, an accidental thing, a thing that should have blown over quickly. Now whenever they were together there was a silence that limited conversation to vague pleasantries. It was as if they were all suddenly strangers.

“No one’s claimed it yet,” Tom said. Even as he spoke the words, Tom knew he should have stayed quiet. Layna’s shoulders tensed and her eyes darted from him to Gary.

“What did you say?”

Tom sighed. “I called the police again. No one’s claimed the dog, so it might be a stray.” He saw no point in telling Layna about the collar.

Gary rolled a green bean off his plate. “Does that mean Wallie is safe?” he asked. Wallie was their beagle. He was sitting under the table, his world too small for random acts of violence, for anything more than the hope of some of Tom’s breakfast.

“Of course he is,” Layna leaned over to kiss him on the forehead as she spoke, but her eyes were on her husband, daring him to say something.

Tom dropped a piece of sausage for Wallie and averted his eyes. She was obviously lying, but there was another part of him that knew she was right. He realized then with eerie certainty that Wallie would be okay. All the dogs in Lakeport would be fine, and Gary and the other children and even the adults would be safe, too. That wasn’t to say that other dogs and maybe even people wouldn’t die elsewhere—Tom was equally certain that the lunatic would strike again—but not here, not in his life. This was not a horror story, after all. Gary might have nightmares for years about finding beheaded animals in his closet or on the patio or in his bed like that horse in The Godfather, but he would be okay. The killer would fade into a background hum of anxiety, nothing more than a memory, yet somehow for Tom that was worse than if he had killed Wallie.

“You have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow,” she said as she stood up and put her plate in the sink. Tom tried to think of something he could say to make things normal again, to rationalize away everything that had happened and let Layna know that they would be okay, but the words collapsed in his mind before he could speak them.

* * *

Work at the lab was a welcome reprieve. The protocols for sharing data, the established chain of command, and even the dry, formulaic reports his assistant fed him throughout the day all made up a language of precision that he could speak more fluently than he would ever be able to converse in the ambiguities of marriage. There were challenges, certainly; physics was full of them, and no matter how hard he or anyone worked at them, there would always be one more mystery to solve. But that was acceptable, even preferable. There was a certain rhythm to the entire process, a dance of stepping forward to make a discovery and stepping back to be reminded again of the fallibility of science when an old theory proved untrue. On the rare occasions when they made progress, he and the rest of the lab team would celebrate, reveling in the order they had revealed in the universe, and when they failed, there was always the promise of the next experiment, the next theory. For even when their hypotheses failed, there was still the knowledge that there was some structure to it all, some pattern underlying the grand architecture of the universe.

For the past few months, Tom and his coworkers had been searching through data from a space telescope for any sign of weakly interacting massive particles. It was slow work. The particles were still theoretical, and even if they did exist, they would only be detectable through the influence of gravity and weak forces. It was the kind of work that might someday result in a Nobel Prize for some lucky study but that required hours and hours of unacknowledged drudgery on the part of physicists like him. He might never live to see the actual discovery. Even so, he and the others were on the verge of the next step toward it.

And there was more than that. Only four percent of the universe was made from conventional matter. Mathematics suggested there had to be more than that, but no one was certain about what the rest of it was, and that was downright criminal in Tom’s mind. To form a concrete, inescapable truth out of the maddening chaos of the universe was not just about knowledge, but justice.

“Hey,” said Tony, the head of his department. “I’m afraid I’ve got nine new reports for you. Hopefully they won’t bog you down for long.”

They did not.

* * *

“Your father called,” Layna told Tom when he came home. She didn’t look him in the eye, and Tom knew better than to ask what his father had said. Instead he spun the wheel on their archaic landline and lifted the receiver to his ear.

“Good to hear from you, son,” Gordon said. “I just wanted to make sure you and the family still planned on coming up this weekend.”

“Yeah, we’ll be there.”

There was silence on the line, and Tom wondered what his father was doing right now. Gordon had retired from the police force years ago, and he’d never found something else to do with his time. He pictured his father in his house, the same one Tom had grown up in, now dark and empty with only the flickering light of the evening news to illuminate his face.

“Tom,” his father said finally. “I talked to Layna. She’s pretty freaked out about this dog thing.”

“Everything’s fine, Dad. Gary’s a bit shaken up, but he’ll get over it. He’s a strong kid.”

“She’s not worried about him. Well, she is concerned. But she’s more worried about you. She says you’ve been acting strangely. She’ll say your name and you won’t hear it, that kind of thing.”

“What?” Tom didn’t remember that happening at all.

Gordon sighed. “Remember how you’d get a new book as a kid and get lost in it? You’d stay in your room all day reading, and when you finally came down, all you’d talk about was relativity or whatever it was. That kind of focus is great at work, but in the real world you’ve got to learn to let things go. Bad things happen all the time, but the world goes on. Do you get what I’m saying?”

Tom thought he did. He was having an understandably emotional reaction, but he had to keep things in perspective. The world goes on. He could take some comfort in that, couldn’t he?

They talked about the rain in Oregon and who Gary’s teachers would be next year until Gordon said he had to go. “And don’t worry about this dog business. You’ll feel better after a trip up here.”

“I’ll see you soon, Dad,” Tom said. He hung up the phone.

* * *

Tom went to see the proctologist the next day. He wasn’t even forty yet, but because of his family history, he had to have one early. “It’s for your own good,” his general practitioner had said when Tom objected. “You know it is. Everything is probably fine, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You’re a smart guy, so I shouldn’t have to convince you.”

Tom had gritted his teeth at that, but he’d let the nurse make his appointment and walked out of the building with the proctologist’s address in hand. He really was a smart guy, and he would be damned if he’d let another trip to the doctor’s slow him down. So what if it was uncomfortable, even embarrassing? It was the logical thing to do. Besides, by doing it he’d be safeguarding his future. It was like a ritual of protection, but unlike some old lady carrying around a metal coin printed with the Virgin Mary’s face, science backed it all up.

But that was before. Now that he was in the proctologist’s office, all he could think of was the dog. He’d gone through the usual motions that morning—he hugged Gary goodbye, checked his mirrors before pulling out of the driveway, and turned on the radio to the same station he always listened to—but the routine couldn’t calm him now. He’d messed up the ritual, messed it up since that day in the park, and now he had no idea what to expect.

“Mr. Moyer? Tom? Dr. Lang is ready to see you now.”

* * *

They took the train out of the airport after they landed in Portland. Tom’s father lived in Gresham outside the city, and they hadn’t felt like renting a car. When they finally got off, Gordon was standing on the platform, a black umbrella in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Every time Tom saw him he was struck by the meandering lines across his face, the liver spots, the cords of silver hair. For the first few minutes of each of these visits, he would be able to focus on nothing except how his father had aged, how he had become a relic of some distant age, but then something would inevitably distract him and the years would fall away to reveal his father again. It would take a concentrated effort after that to notice his age. The years became background radiation that barely registered, ever present yet never visible, not truly there.

“Hey, you,” said Gordon, one finger pointed at Gary. Get over here and give your grandfather a hug.”

Gary walked over and laughed when his grandfather picked him up and tossed him in the air. “Oof,” grunted Gordon. “You’re so tall and heavy. You can’t be my grandson. He’s light as a feather and small as a mouse, not a big kid like you. What have you done with him, hmm?”

Tom smiled and forgot about his father’s age once more. This was his dad. Everything would be alright. “You can interrogate him when we get back to the house, officer. Let’s get out of here.”

* * *

Tom woke the next day in his old bedroom. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Most of his toys and belongings were long since gone, but the bed was still the same, and the creaky wooden desk that had likely been salvaged from some library’s basement in the fifties still stood alone in one corner. It was comforting. Everything here was comforting.

Taking care not to wake Layna, he crept out of bed and downstairs to the kitchen. The lights were off and the curtains were drawn as they always were since Gordon’s wife had died. Tom figured it was his father’s way of trying to shut the world out, but something about the darkness lent the house a depth it should not have had, like he was walking into a vast cavern instead of the living room he’d grown up in. The good feeling he’d felt upon waking wavered.

A slurping sound came from the kitchen. Tom walked in to find his father devouring a microwave dinner. There was tomato sauce on the table and his chin.

“What?” Gordon growled when he saw where his son was looking. “I’m old and alone. I can do what I want. Besides, it’s not like food changes in nutrition depending on the time of the day.”

“What would Mom think?”

“She’d understand. Grab yourself something and let’s eat on the porch. The kitchen’s too crowded with more than one person here.

* * *

Outside the sun had finally returned. Tom ate a granola bar while Gordon sat in his worn rocking chair, his eyes scanning back and forth across the empty street. “Expecting someone, Dad?” asked Tom.

“No.”

“What are you looking for?”

Gordon paused for a long while. “People don’t notice a damn thing. Back in the force we used to joke about how stupid civilians could be, how they never expected anything bad to happen to them and would do stupid crap when something finally did. But there’s always something out there. Like the burglars who robbed the Musselmans, or that dog killer of yours. Is Layna still upset?”

“She’ll be fine.”

“Good.” He inhaled deeply. “Life’s too short for all this. What do you say we drive out to the coast today? Gary will like that.”

“Yeah.” This was too fast, Tom thought. He needed more than an afternoon at the beach. “About the dog…”

“What? You find out who did it?”

“No, no,” said Tom. “It’s just that the entire thing doesn’t make any sense, and everything’s been off since then. I don’t know—”

“Hey, hey,” Gordon interrupted. “It’s like I said, you can’t let it get to you. Try to make sense of the world and you’ll go crazy. You just need to let it go. We should wake up Layna and Gary if we’re gonna be heading it out—”

“I had to go to the proctologist’s this week. In case I have cancer like you did.”

Gordon let out a slow puff of smoke. “Son. I’m sorry. But you need to keep things together. You’ve gotta think of your kid.” He turned to walk back into the house. “A guy on TV said Rockaway Beach doesn’t have too many tourists. Let’s go there.”

Tom watched his father retreat inside. He wanted to think that Gordon had changed, that as a kid he would have listened to Tom and told him what he needed to hear. But as he searched his memory, all he could think of was the mornings when his father would slink into the house and up the stairs before school started, sweat and the scent of stale coffee clinging to his uniform. He remembered bragging to his friends that his dad was cop, but he also recalled tiptoeing around so as not to wake his father up and Thanksgivings spent with grownups who ignored him while his father laughed and drank beer. He walked back into the dark.

* * *

The rest of the trip was empty. It was not uneventful; Gary almost slipped and fell in the sea, and Layna drank too much wine and told a bawdy joke in front of Gary and Gordon. But even as he hugged Gary, even as he escorted Layna, there was a hollowness to the actions that kept him from feeling a part of them, a sense of detachment that came from waiting for an end that was somehow both unknowable and inevitable.

“I love you,” slurred Layna. Her body was heavy as he guided her down to the bed.

“I know,” said Tom. “I love you too.” He turned to go to the bathroom.

“It wasn’t just that you stopped watching Gary,” she said, and Tom froze. “I forgive you for that. But you keep going away. I can’t raise Gary like that. You keep going away…”

“Going  where?

Layna said nothing, her eyes somewhere past Tom. “It happens to couples. To everyone, I guess. But they never see it coming. I don’t want to wake up and find it coming. I don’t…”

“What? What’s coming?” But Layna was already asleep.

* * *

Tom returned to work that Tuesday. He slipped back into the routine of work with ease, but something was off. While his coworkers had not been energetic about their work when he left, they had possessed enthusiasm. Now they moved slowly, carelessly, like school children walking between classes.

“What’s up with everyone around here?” Tom asked Tony.

The supervisor sighed. “Apparently there was an error in the data from the Chandra Observatory. We’re still trying to figure it all out, but it looks like we’re back to square one. I sent out an email with all the details.”

When Tom reached his desk, a light was blinking on his phone. A message. “Hi, Mr. Moyer,” said the machine in an artificially cheerful receptionist’s voice. “Your test results are in. Please call us back at 707…”

Tom sat in his chair for a long time after that. He hadn’t turned on the light in the room, relying instead on the dim early morning sunlight to illuminate his desk, and everything was silent. The thought came to him that if he just stayed here with nothing changing, he might be safe. But no, that was unreasonable. He pounded in the number.

“Dr. Lang’s office, how can I help you?” said the same voice as before, this time from the receptionist herself.

“This is Tom Moyer. I was told to call.”

“One moment.”

The line clicked back a moment later, and Tom spoke without thinking. “Hi, Doctor Lang. I hope you have some good news for me.”

Tom waited for a response, but all that came through the line was a dry scratching sound followed by a muffled voice. Perhaps the doctor had picked up the phone but was talking to someone? “Dr. Lang?” Tom said again.

There was nothing. The silence became thicker, a miasma that surrounded him, permeated him. Then Tom heard someone beginning to inhale, the breath growing, growing, growing, becoming leviathan, and then the voice came and it spoke.

 

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3 Responses to “Dark Matter”

  1. Defenestrationism » Blog Archive » 2014 !Short Story Contest! Finalists Says:

    […] Announcing our FLASH SUITE Contest judging Dark Matter […]

  2. real estate books Says:

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  3. Jonne Warner Says:

    Hitchcock-like suspense, which is my favorite kind. Familiar surroundings, events, characters, & feelings with that brooding something is not quite right in Mayberry sensation. Very well done.

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