Slipping the Leash
It is 1958, and Aloysius Proctor has survived a war, and survived the clap, and he is married to Delilah, with whom he has fathered two beautiful children, both of them sons, and he is the second-ranked salesman in the premier automobile showroom in town, and he should be happy with life, shouldn’t he, or at the very least content. He should have put this behind him; buried it deep with his friends from the Corps.
You’re thirty-five, for Chrissake! — what his daddy had told him. You’ve got to grow the hell up! You’ve got to be a good family man, just like I’ve done.
The belt-buckle scar tissue burns Louie’s torso, scorches his forearms, singes his back. The shrapnel scars too, on his upper right thigh. He tries not to laugh. He tries not to cry. Tries not to think that he should have stayed home, and spent time with his kids just to prove that he loves them. Shouldn’t be toting this battered black case, with the scratch-marks tattooed on the stainless steel clasps.
All of these rules, these enforced expectations, they bristle the hairs on the nape of his neck. They carry him back to patrols in the forest, with gunfire and mortars, and the bark of trees splintering close to his head. Ears always ringing. Nose always streaming with the cold and the fear. Teeth always chattering, chewing through cigarettes before they caught light. And he couldn’t re-spark the Zippo, because what about snipers? Couldn’t retreat or go AWOL, because what about Freedom and what about God? What about whatever his daddy would say?
His daddy knows nothing. Nobody does. They don’t understand that Louie can’t help it, that he cannot stop tracking the shape of the moon; all of the moons, a whole multiplicity. Nobody warned him there were so many out there, their gravities wrenching and leading astray.
There’s the one in the chrome of a Cadillac’s hubcap.
The three on the ’58 Thunderbird’s dash.
The button on the front of his seersucker jacket, which pulls ever tighter the further he walks. Against ingrained discipline, he moves to undo it, and then the top two on his white shirt as well. At first, he just loosens his tie to make room, but then he removes it, slipping the leash.
A trend of defiance that started with theft. There were souvenirs everywhere, even in churches — crosses they took for good fortune in combat, as they stood beneath angels that shimmered on glass. And sometimes they saved you and sometimes they didn’t. The ones left alive took from those who were dead. He had lifted the Zippo from a gut-shot lieutenant, and a watch from a sentry whose throat had been slit. Other men would pull teeth, which they studied like diamonds; they would claim a few fingers, which they planned upon rendering down to the bone. Would bear them around like the holiest relics, like pieces of saints in a pouch on their belt. Some even took skulls, so he’d heard, which stank to high heaven, and then worried which creatures the scent might attract.
He sniffs the street deeply and stares at the sky. Feels the noise building, his vocal cords taut. His trumpet case shivers. But it isn’t quite the right moment. Isn’t quite the right moon. None of them, anywhere, are the one he wants most.
And yet, they keep coming.
Turning away doesn’t stop them, and drawing the curtains can’t hold them at bay. Neither can trying to be a good family man, to relax on the sofa, or sat at the table, where the dark varnished oak’s like a fragment of space. The bright silver cutlery orbits like Sputniks, and the plates seem to form a ceramic lunarium, each representing a different phase. The ingredients speckle the surface like craters, and even as he eats he feels hungrier still. He can’t find so much as a drop of tranquillity, let alone a whole sea.
So, he rubs at his jawline. He licks at his lips.
He gets up from his chair and walks out without speaking.
He fetches the case from behind the shelves in the basement, where he keeps it concealed with a dust-sheet and tools. This was the biggest memento he salvaged, from one of his friends, in the wake of the shells. A reminder of nights when such mortars were distant, and they’d put down their guns and played music instead.
He was certain that brass would be safer than bone, safer than Lugers, and that no-one would miss it because the man had no kin. He was sure that the scent wouldn’t tempt any scavengers, and he wouldn’t need to fear judgement when he brought it back home.
But the belt-buckle scars flicker tracer-round bright, and the hairs on his forearms stiffen and tremble. Incisors and cuspids throb in his gums.
No-one in his day-life is aware he still does this, and the men at these clubs, the ones lining this avenue, they don’t call him Louie, or Aloysius, or Lou. And the women he meets here don’t use those names either.
He would like to keep both of these lives far apart, but as he stares at the nearest incarnadine sign, he understands that the boundary is a lot more like that: a raw neon trauma; a battlefield tourniquet, on a wound that won’t kill him but never quite lets him live.
The trumpet case shudders.
The doorman looks over, with his pinstriped suit straining at buffalo shoulders and his boots scuffing dust with the threat of stampede. Louie has seen this performance before, but the doorman does not seem to recognise him. Does not seem to register quite what he is. He shakes with frustration, so close but so far, and the white cotton shirt starts to squeeze at his ribs; the muscles start cramping, the bones glowing through. His hackles are rising. He taps the black case to the beat from the club. Not a simple four-four, it’s a fast seven-eight.
The Devil’s own music, his daddy had called it.
His daddy knows nothing, and Louie can’t stop.
The doorman relaxes, the shibboleth noted, and waves him inside with a hint of a grin.
The barroom is swirling with nicotine cirrus, the blue-grey of smoke from the grave of a bomb. Zippos like muzzle flash, matches like flares — but all of them lit without menace from snipers. The young men and young women sit carefree at tables, and their smiles coalesce and disperse in the mist. They seem utterly thrilled by the current performance, and the louder they cheer, the more nervous he gets; the more scared of being viewed as a tourist, a sham.
He wants to turn back, to be safe, to be normal.
But once you get bitten, you stay bitten, that’s what they remind him — the ghosts of the friends that he found in the Corps. They reach out to restrain him, invoked through these vapours. They steer him towards where he most needs to be.
He rubs at his jawline. He licks at his lips. His fingers are flexing, clicking, extending; the nails become claw-like, curving and sharp. His suit becomes tighter. He struggles to breathe.
A tease of piano, as the coda fades out, and he spots the pale face of the man sat behind it — the eyes wax in welcome, and then wane once again into partial eclipse.
He can feel the tide turning, the gravity rising, and he salivates more as he reaches the stage. He sets his case down at the edge of the platform, and slips off his jacket before it can tear. Unfastens more buttons, and rolls up his sleeves. His forearms bear witness to damages past, with each scar and each bruise like its own purple heart, veined with a tangle of silvery hair. His sweat has a lupine, carnivorous tang, and it blends with the crowd-scent, these people in heat. These others who cannot find comfort at home.
And yet, most at least seem to have found relief here.
He might have lived through a war and got a wife and two children, but he still isn’t easy, can’t rest in his skin. Cannot keep his deviant longings in check. Climbing on stage, in plain sight, breaking cover. Sickened and weary from having to hide.
He is shaking so much that he fumbles the clasps. More scratches on steel. More slashes in velvet. His lips are pulled back to show sharp, gleaming fangs. His panting gets louder. Blood hounds through his arteries, ruthless and slick.
His white shirt is shredded, as soon as he stands, and the buttons burst outwards like splinters from bark. His belt is wrecked, too. His body gleams pewter, ragged with fur. His eyes flicker redly, then coruscate white.
Reflecting the spotlight — the moon he wants most.
It burns at his skin like the heat of a shell, and carries him back to the day when he lost them; back to the nights when they’d put down their guns. It shines through their ghosts in the smoke of the barroom, and it glows on the brass as he raises the horn. It slips down his throat as he whispers their stories, and it floods through his bones and the arch of his back. It highlights the dreams of their bodies all broken, throwing them up on the screen in his head. It makes him feel lucky and guilty and vital; it makes him feel maybe he should have been dead. And he places his lips to the mouthpiece for breathing, and he waits for the moonlight to fill up his lungs. And he knows in his heart this is no Devil’s music — see his palms either side of the trumpet like prayer. And he thinks about angels on windows in churches, and his bloodstream is lit and the brightness is blinding, and he feels a howl building inside like an omen, which there is nothing at all he can do to prevent.
There is nothing at all he can do to revive them.
Nothing at all he can do, except play.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Austin Malone is an author of short-fiction, an associate editor for PseudoPod, and the facilitator for the Crescent City Critters writer’s group. He resides in New Orleans with two other full-sized humans, a slightly smaller human-in-progress, and one tiny dog. If folks would like to learn more about him, they can check out his website at sippinghemlocktea.com