This “chapter” has grown all out of proportions. It will probably end up as several chapters in the final version. You will probably find continuity errors, a host of typos and some notes to myself.
Rex and his Grandmother
Rex Bailey sat in a hard plastic stacking chair in the waiting area of the Hair Today salon, staring at pictures of pixie-faced models wearing garish lipstick and hair that looked like it had been designed by squirrels. It was bleach day.
Every other month, he called a taxi to drive his grandmother downtown from their tiny home in the outskirts of the city to her favorite salon. There, Manuel would perform the professional maintenance work that made the all the men fall madly in love with her. Or so she said. Every time Grandma Bailey would insist that she could handle this trip by herself, that he should take the opportunity to spend time with friends for a change. And every time Rex would claim to have important business in town, a comic book he needed, or some school supplies. In reality, he didn’t trust his mentally vibrant but physically frail grandmother to safely make it into the city and back without an escort, and they both knew it.
Manuel’s “Platinum Package” took several hours to complete, so Rex was free to run his cover errands for a while before Grandma Bailey was ready to go home. He had already visited the book store, the comic shop and the movie store. Now, having spent his savings from skipping lunch all week and most of his allowance as well, there was little for him to do here but read, fidget and wish this particular responsibility was over.
Grandma was sitting in the second of four cracked red vinyl chairs while Manuel applied bleach to her hair. The acrid stench filled the small salon forcing Rex to take shallow panting breaths until it was over. The best thing was to sit still, minimize his movements and hope that it would be over soon. Of course soon was relative. He knew from frequent experience that he had another 45 minutes of bleach fumes and styling spritz before he could take her home.
“Men are dogs,” his grandmother was saying. Rex rolled his eyes. She pulled that out at every opportunity. It was one of her favorite things to say, summing up her relationship to the world and to the opposite sex in three succinct words.
She was explaining how her neighbor Anjelika Falconi had been left in a bad way by her son-of-a-bitch husband. Mr. Falconi had been sent upstate due to some sort of legal troubles Rex couldn’t quite understand. It seemed to involve money and laundry, but Rex didn’t have any idea why tidy currency should be such a crime. It certainly wasn’t in the Bailey household where doing the wash was always part of Rex’s weekend chores. And other than the occasional random pocket change, it also was not as lucrative as his grandmother made it sound.
Grandma Bailey continued, explaining how Mrs. Falconi cried into her vodka every night because she had a hungry Escalade to feed and would have to find a job, and how she had suggested that the poor woman get a job as a “massage therapist” (she used air quotes here) or something similar and take on a few well-endowed—financially, presumably—clients. Mrs. Falconi apparently saw the benefits of the plan and was eager to get started in that line of work. She found she enjoyed it, and was now able to afford to put enough gas in the Escalade to offer rides around town to a whole series of clients who apparently needed transportation to the hotel where she plied her trade. It seemed to be going well for Mrs. Falconi but she complained that the gifts the men gave her didn’t sparkle enough—or sparkled too much—to be real, and besides her new job wrecked havoc on her four-inch-long manicure.
Manuel shook his head and made sympathetic noises. “You’re right, Mrs. Bailey. You can’t trust men.” Manuel proceeded to tell her how his boyfriend took someone else to the Mariah Carey concert while Manuel was stuck at work servicing ladies who didn’t value his skills as highly as Mrs. Bailey did. It was a harrowing account complete with voices for all the characters and dramatic arm-wavings and it ended in a tortured sob.
Mrs. Bailey consoled Manuel, patting his hand tenderly. “Men are dogs,” she said. “But then you must know that already.”
They spent another twenty minutes comparing notes about the dastardly deeds performed by the men in their lives. Near as Rex could tell, Grandma won.
Finally satisfied with her artfully casual hair, she allowed her grandson to offer her his arm and the two exited with a regal air. Rex hovered over her withered frame as they crept slowly to the curb. At the edge, she shook him off and raised her cane to signal a passing taxi. The driver passed her and rolled to a stop half a block away in front of a leggy woman in a red sequined minidress. Three other taxis ignored the upraised cane before Rex decided to step in. He propped his exhausted grandmother against a light pole. “Wait here, Grandma,” he said. He selected an oncoming taxi and darted into the street, making eye contact with the driver through the windshield. He pointed directly at the man and waved him to the curb. The driver obliged, stopping precisely in front of his grandmother, as directed. Rex retrieved the old woman, solicitously escorting her to the taxi. He opened the door and helped his grandmother in.
“Thank you, Rex.” she said, patting his arm. “You’re a good boy.”
At home Rex helped his grandmother to her favorite chair, poured her a glass of wine and lit a match for her cigarette. Her hands shook as she took a puff. The sulfur from the match mingled with the chemical smell of the burning tobacco additives. He hated doing this for her. He might as well hammer the nails into her coffin himself. But she needed his help. She couldn’t light up around the fumes at the salon, and she always needed a couple of quick puffs before she could settle in to watch the news while Rex prepared dinner. She needed his help and he could not bring himself to refuse her.
He made Salisbury steak with peppers and a bright tomato sauce over rice. Not his favorite, though not bad, he thought. As long as he scraped all the vegetables off the meat, it would be edible. Grandma would like it at least. He served it with a can of The Eternal Green Beans. From experience, Rex knew Grandma wouldn’t eat at all if the meal did not involve green beans. They ate it from china plates balanced on trays in front of the TV.
While Rex cleaned up the kitchen after the meal, Grandma watched TV. She was deeply committed to a new show called The Bachelorette, and shouted a play-by-play into the kitchen throughout the show. She took pains to point out to Rex the devious ways the men manipulated each other and the Bachelorette herself in order to fight their way to the forefront. “These men would tear each other to shreds if they thought it would get them to the head of the pack,” she said. “And you know why that is, Rex?”
Rex knew why. “Because men are dogs,” he called back.
“That’s right,” she said. “The sons-of-bitches.”
Mrs. Bailey felt she had good reason to condemn the entire male race. Months before Rex was born his father had done something unforgivable and had run away from home leaving Rex’s mother in a family way with no visible means of support.
When her daughter died in childbirth, there was no way Grandma Bailey was ever going to let that man get his hands on her grandson, even if she could have found him. He was inconsiderate and unreliable, running off in the night like some kind of stray dog. And beside there was that mysterious unforgivable incident. So she listed the father as “Unknown” and took Rex home herself. She never divulged to Rex what she knew about that man and she never said his name. “Men are dogs,” was all she said about him. She repeated it often as her own personal mantra, often with added expletives.
Rex had heard the speech so often he had assimilated it as part of his own world view. Men were dogs. If his grandmother said it, it was true.
So it was no surprise when a peculiar thing happened one day after school.
He was twelve, that age when a boy begins to feel like some sort of freak. Changes were happening to his body and his whole… self. He felt isolated. Lost. Clearly he had killed his mother simply by being born. He had begun to wonder if his father had known about his monstrous nature and that was the reason why he had abandoned his son. And if the reason his grandmother had never spoken about the man was because she knew it, too.
On this particular afternoon, Grandma Bailey was away playing bridge at her social club, so after school Rex had the house to himself for several hours. Today was the day to find some answers.
He had lived in the Bailey residence his whole life. He had played with the contents of every closet, poked through the spidery basement for secret treasure and hunted Christmas presents throughout the house. The was no hiding place he didn’t know intimately, so he was sure there was only one possible place to look for clues to his past.
He pulled the attic stairs down and climbed slowly to the top. The darkness huddled in the corners of the low-ceilinged room and the superheated air hung still. Rex could smell the stale dust raised by his feet as he crossed the floor. There were boxes stacked three high along one wall. He read the careful labels. Christmas. Thanksgiving. Elementary School: Art Projects. Books. Books. Books. National Geographics. No. Nothing there.
In a corner he saw the collection of the damaged and missing. Two shadeless floor lamps stood guard over a wooden rocking chair with a broken rocker. On a TV tray stood a flowered china teapot with a chipped spout, accompanied by a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl that was missing its lid. A sheet covered a dressmaker’s form-thing. It looked like a ghost, or would have if not for the layer of gray dust covering the shoulders like some outrageous case of ancient spectral dandruff.
Under a rickety ladder he found a pile of old newspapers stacked atop an antique trunk. It looked something like a pirate chest from a movie, just the place someone would put valuable stuff like papers that listed family names, photos and other secrets. This must be it. He set the newspapers aside and knelt before the box.
A metal plate on the front bore the initials RB. engraved in a bold script. R… R for Rex? Was this his dad’s trunk? Was his name Rex, too? He rubbed the smooth dark-stained wood and wondered if his father had touched it in the same way. The handles were much paler, proving that this box had at one time been used regularly, though the dark patina on the brass hardware and the ancient key lock hinted that it had not been opened in a long time. Rex picked up the heavy lock and twisted, pulled and yanked with all his might. Still, the sturdy lock held true.
He ran back down the stairs to the garage returning with a screwdriver. He wedged it under the clasp and leaned his entire weight on the handle. Slowly… ever so slowly… the screwdriver bent. Cheap-ass, useless piece of—. He hurled it across the room where it bounced against a wall and came to rest atop the box of books. He threw himself into the broken rocking chair with a frustrated growl. The stuttering rhythm of his rocking did nothing to help his thinking, so he stopped and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
If the chest was locked, it had to contain something significant. And that meant there had to be a key. No one would keep a locked pirate chest full of valuable or important stuff unless that chest could be unlocked. Right? It wouldn’t make sense.
He got up and began to search, running his hands across shelves, peeking into the cream pitcher and tipping the teapot up to shake free a gigantic dust bunny. But no key. He lifted the flaps of cardboard boxes and rummaged through the contents, but an hour later he was covered in filth, sweaty from the heat and itchy from some insulation that had fallen down the back of his shirt. And still no key. He snarled again and went back downstairs. He returned with a large cross-cut saw. He would cut the end off the damn thing.
Rex didn’t have enough room to wield the saw properly, so he pulled the chest away from the wall and stepped behind it to get a better angle. A large black key was taped to the back of the trunk. He swore. The ancient masking tape crumbled as he pulled it away from the back. A rectangle of dusty putty-colored residue marred the luster of the dark wood where the tape had been.
He heard a soft snick! as he turned the key and the lock fell open on the clasp. Rex inhaled deeply once, twice, then with shaking hands he lifted the heavy lid.
There were more newspapers inside dating from April 1988, eight months before he was born. The one on top showed a picture of police officers milling around a building that had been roped off with crime scene tape. He could see the shards of broken glass from one shattered window and the marks where soot from rising flames had marred the siding. The headline read
BOMB KILLS ONE IN UNIVERSITY ANIMAL RESEARCH BLDG.
TERRORIST GROUP SUSPECTED.
He lifted the brittle pages out of the trunk and placed them carefully aside. Underneath were a stack of photos from a bygone time. Most were of people he didn’t know. Men in pin-striped suits and funny hats posing next to women in fur stoles, dripping with ostentatious jewelry. There were others showing old-timey cars parked on city streets. A few seemed more recent and among those he saw someone he knew. It was his mother. He recognized her from her photo on his grandmother’s mantel. She was smiling under a tree with her arm around a dog. Rex couldn’t figure out what kind of a dog it was. Some kind of mutt, he guessed, but a strong-looking one with an intelligent eye and a gorgeous slick, russet coat. The dog had his front legs in her lap and was staring raptly into her eyes.
The next showed his mother kissing a man he’d never seen before. He had a vaguely Irish look, and a shock of carrot red hair. Could this be his father? He set the two photos aside to show to his grandmother. He leafed through the other pictures in the stack but found no other ones of interest.
He went back to the chest, hoping for something to explain who RB was. There were some letters he assumed were from his mother. They had been written to her “dearest,” but she never wrote his name or signed them with anything other than “Love.” There were a few knickknacks, too. A ivory-handled pocket knife with the RB monogram which Rex put into his own pocket. A smooth gray stone with a line of quartz running through it. A broken watch. A copy of a book he’d read several times himself: Call of the Wild by Jack London. “Dude’s got good taste in books anyway,” he said to himself.
In the final layer he found magazines. A handful of National Geographics. Some car magazines. And, oddly, a whole stack of dog-related magazines. There was Dog Fancy, Whole Dog Journal, and AKC Gazette. Even a few programs from old dog shows in New York and Philadelphia. RB must have been some kind of dog breeder or something. Weird.
Then he found something that completely pulled his interest away from his ancestral search. A stack of five girlie magazines. He had hit the mother lode. Reverently he opened the first one. The acid-etched pages cracked at the seam and revealed faded photographs, ads for cigarettes, hard liquor and muscle cars, and of course the articles. The subjects of the photos didn’t seem overly dated, at least. The hair styles looked a little antiquated, but that hardly mattered. He wasn’t really interested in their hair anyway. Grandma Bailey was not expected home for hours, but just in case, Rex opened one of the dog magazines and folded the skin mags inside to camouflage them, then he smuggled them out of the attic and back to his room. There they could be easily concealed among the clutter and detritus of a teen-aged boy’s room.
Lying on his twin bed in the afternoon before his grandmother came home, Rex learned the wonders of the female body from the stack of twenty-year-old Playboys.
Nubile tanned skin posed in awkward poses that highlighted the most feminine parts in the most lascivious ways. Yes. Oh yes. It was a whole new world for Rex.
Men may be dogs, but women—real women, not the worn out ones like his grandmother—real women were…ice cream and cool jazz and the feeling you get just after you swing out over the swimming hole and let go of the rope.
And that is when it happened.
As he flipped to a particularly lovely centerfold, Rex moaned. Except it was not so much a moan as a… well, as a howl. He scratched his palm and wondered where that howl had come from. His nose itched too, probably from the musty smell of the old magazines. They really had a funky smell to them. He had never smelled anything like that before. So intense and acidic.
Now the backs of his hands were itching fiercely. He looked at the red claw marks where he had scratched them trying to stop the fire. Among the welts he had left, there was a forest of new white hairs. He was shocked. They were noticeably growing, sprouting and lengthening even as he watched. He had thought that was just an old wives’ tale. How was he going to explain this to his grandmother?
He moaned again, and this time his groan-moan-howl seemed to come from deep in his chest. A chest that now itched beneath a mat of deep glossy black and white hair. Hair that was curly and thick and matching the hair now covering his legs and arms. And his tail.
Rex dropped the magazine as his hands curled under and his opposable thumbs shortened and withdrew.
This was unreal. Panting, Rex knew now what was happening.
His grandmother had been right. Looking at the Playboys had turned him into a horn dog. She had been right all along. Men really are dogs.
The revelation confused Rex. He dare not tell his grandmother. She clearly knew about the male condition. She had told him so many times, but he had not believed she meant it literally. Who would believe that? Yet here was the proof. He was panting heavily and his heart was racing.
He hoped this would be a temporary metamorphosis. When—if!—he changed back to his twelve year old human shape he would have to keep this event a secret. Hide it from the world, but most especially from his grandmother. He could not deal with both this new reality and her rejection. She had never held him in the same contempt she held for the other members of his species, but he hadn’t been a dog then. Would she toss him out? Is that why he had never met his father? Was this the mysterious unforgivable incident? Did he turn into a dog and she kicked him out? Maybe he should just run away now. If only he could find a way to open the door without the opposable thumbs he had taken for granted for his whole life.
But no. Even if he could figure out the logistics, his grandmother needed him to fix her dinner, keep her house clean and help her take her medications on time. And to light the hated cigarettes. So he would stay.
And she must never find out the truth.
He put his chin on his… paws and concentrated on simply breathing in and out until his eyes finally closed and he slept.
When Rex woke, the sun had crossed the sky and darkness hovered at the horizon. He leaped out of bed and realized it had gotten chilly. And he was naked. Normal and naked. There is a God, he thought. It was a dream. It was just a dream. And now he was awake and clearly not a dog.
Except that there was a dog-shaped ring of glossy black hair across the width of his bed.
Oh, no. He didn’t have time to wash the bed clothes. He pulled the comforter up and folded a corner over the mess. That would have to do for now.
He threw on a pair of sweat pants and a clean tee shirt and headed for the kitchen to make dinner. He should have started an hour ago. Grandmother would be home soon, and now dinner would be late. Besides, he was starving.
Steaks. He would make steaks. He set out two, and looked at them thoughtfully. Grandmother would eat the smaller one and he would take the bigger. For a moment he considered the beautiful, red, marbled meat. He went back to the fridge for a third steak.
He leaned over the cutting board with his nose mere inches from the steaks. He inhaled the heady aroma. Wonderful. He began to salivate. He picked up one with a meat fork. He wanted to take a great big bite out of it. Ugh!
He dropped the fork and the steak landed with a splat. That was gross. He had never wanted to eat raw steak before. Maybe…?
He examined his shaking hands. The fur was gone. He pulled the tee shirt away from his chest and looked down. All good there, too. He reached behind himself and put his hands on his butt. No hint of tail. Thank G—.
“What are you doing?”
Rex whirled around at his grandmother’s sharp voice. His shoulders hunched and he pulled his head in as if she was going to bite it off.
“What is the matter with you? Why are you so embarrassed? What have you been doing?” He tone had an overtone of accusation.
“I—I—I—,” he stammered. He turned back toward the counter. “Nothing,” he muttered.
His grandmother’s tone softened and she said, “I think I know what the problem is. And Rex, I want you to know: What happened to you is perfectly normal.”
He whipped back around. His voice cracked as he said, “It is? Really?”
“Really. It happens to every young man at about this age.”
That was a relief. “And you never thought to mention it?”
“Well, it’s not really a topic for polite conversation. You understand.”
He did. He truly did.
“Do you have any questions you want to ask me?”
Rex shook his head then remembered the photos. “Not right now,” he said. “Maybe later. After dinner.”
She peeked around him at the cutting board. “Steaks?” She frowned. “That’s a lot of meat, young man.”
“I’m really hungry,” he said.
“OK. But vegetables? How about a nice salad, too?”
“Do we have to?”
“OK. If you insist,” he said and smiled. He took her match book from her hands and lit her cigarette.
His grandmother patted him on the head. “You’re such a good boy,” she said.
After dinner, Rex sat on the opposite end of the sofa rubbing his palm across the worn Chintz fabric. The Bachelorette was over and his grandmother had shifted her interest to another similarly inane show.
He wasn’t sure how to broach the subject of the photographs he’d found. He wanted to confirm whether these really were his parents, but while his grandmother sometimes talked about her daughter, Rex’s mother, she never, never mentioned his dad. When by some accident they approached the subject, she often made a hard right conversational turn in order to change the topic. Rex suspected that she harbored deep-seated anger towards the man and that her “Men are dogs” mantra was largely directed towards him and Rex didn’t want to cause her further pain. So he never asked.
But now, especially after the afternoon’s events, Rex needed to know the truth. How could he be expected to figure out who he was going to be if he didn’t know anything about his parents?
When a commercial started, he opened his mouth to ask the question and closed it again having emitted no more than a subtle squeak. He tried twice more before his grandmother abruptly turned off the television.
“Something’s on your mind, Rex. Is it about what you did while I was gone?”
Rex squirmed. “Yes, I—”
“I told you that it’s perfectly normal. Every young man does that.”
“No, that’s not it.” Rex said.
“Then what is it, Rex?”
He traced a finger around one of the roses on the sofa’s seat. “I was… looking for something in the attic,” he began.
His grandmother waited expectantly.
“There was a chest… and inside it I found some pictures. I think this one is my mother.” He showed her the photo with the dog.
She took it from him and held it lovingly. Rex saw that her eyes were bright as they filled with unshed tears. “I’ve never seen this before,” she said. One thin finger brushed the woman’s face. “Yes, this is your mother, my Victoria. She must be about twenty. I think that’s about the right age. I remember this white dress. It had eyelet around the bottom and a crisp red sash. I made it for her by hand and it was so beautiful. She always wore it on special occasions.” She smiled, lost in the memory for a moment.
“Yes, I remember that dress. She was about twenty, but I don’t remember this dog.” She handed the photo back to him.
“Can I keep it? I don’t have a picture of her. Not one of my own.”
“Well, you should keep it then. I’ll get you a frame the next time we go into town.”
“There was another picture, too.” He showed her the one of his mother kissing the man.
Rex could feel the anger bubbling up beneath her silence. Would she cry? Would she scream and shred the picture? The silence hung on for too long. He was afraid to breathe.
Then a single tear rolled down her cheek and fell onto her sleeve. “She loved him, your dad.”
Rex slid over to sit closer to her, leaning his cheek against her arm to comfort her.
“He seemed like a nice man. I thought he was. He seemed kind and gentle, and generous, too. He had plenty of money and he wasn’t stingy with it. He brought her flowers and candy, and took her walking in the park. They talked on the phone and he went to church with us every Sunday.
“She was so happy. I didn’t think I had ever seen her smile so much.”
“I thought you hated him, Grandma. You never talk about him. What happened?”
“Your mother sent him away after she found out what he did. He had been working with an Animal Rights group.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“The government called them a terrorist organization. Especially after they killed that researcher at the university.”
Rex remembered the newspaper article with the bombed-out building.
“He left in the middle of the night after that. I’ll never forgive him for leaving. For what it did to her. Victoria cried over that man. For days and days. We didn’t know at the time that you were on the way, and by then he was gone. She never told him. She couldn’t. He was a fugitive. She had no idea where he was. Then when you were born and she… Well, I never told you about him. Maybe I should have.” She was crying now. She put her arm around Rex and squeezed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe I should have told you sooner. I did the best I could.”
The best she could? She had lied to him—for twelve years! Could he forgive that?
“Will you tell me about him now?”
She sighed. “Rex—”
“I need to know, Grandma.”
“I’ll try, Rex. I’ll try.” She stood and kissed him. “But I’m tired now and I’m going to bed. Don’t stay up too late.”
Rex wasn’t sure how long he sat on the silent sofa before he, too, went to bed.
The next day Rex went to school as usual. Except it wasn’t quite like usual. Walking down the hall was a whole new, terrifying experience. He navigated through the individual cliques of jocks carrying loaded gym bags and geeks with their glasses and stacks of textbooks. He was afraid he might accidentally brush one the bow-headed girls who gossiped together in gaggles throughout the building. He could smell them, each one, flowery in their shampooed hair and lotioned calves. He hunched his shoulders and tried to minimize the sensory overload by breathing slowly through his mouth. He was afraid if he made contact with one of them, touched her creamy skin, he might burst forth in a hairy, werewolfly frenzy and hump her right there in the hall.
By 1:30 he was trembling with pent up energy. He left his books in the bottom of his locker and slipped off campus, walking quickly down the worn path into the woods. Well out of view of any possible watchers at the school, Rex stopped at a large moss-covered boulder not far off the trail. He was breathing heavily as he sat down to remove his running shoes, socks and tee shirt. He hesitated looking around again. There was no one to see. The heavy foliage obscured him from casual passersby. Nevertheless, he could not shake the embarrassment of being naked in the woods. He had that hair on the back of his neck feeling of being watched.
He heard chattering. A squirrel looked down at him from the oak that overshadowed the boulder. It flicked its tail and chattered again. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Rex said to it. “Laugh it up, fuzzball.” He stepped primly behind the stone to remove his jeans, folding them neatly on top of his shoes. He wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He braced his feet and concentrated, straining without result. He succeeded only in releasing a prodigious fart.
The squirrel snickered at him once more.
“You’re not helping,” Rex snarled.
He tried again. And again. And again.
This wasn’t working. He needed a new tactic. He brushed the sticks and debris aside and settled himself onto his haunches. He decided if straining wasn’t working he would try to relax instead.
He breathed through his nose, noting the earthy smell of the forest loam, the decaying leaves and the moist undergrowth. He smelled the squirrel and some other small creatures living nearby. He thought deliberately about slackening each tightened muscle and felt his limbs begin to loosen. Soon he felt calm and comfortable but very alive. He then began to think about the dog he had become. The fur, the muscles, the shape of limbs and bones. He felt the exhilarating pain as the change began. The shifting of his bones as his body rearranged itself. He howled in pain once, twice. Then the pain stopped. He looked down at his paws and back toward his tail waving like a flag. He leaped into the air and twisted in joy. The squirrel began to shriek in alarm. Squirrel!,Rex thought. He put his feet on the oak’s trunk and snapped at the damned critter. “Back! Back! Back!” he barked. You’re nothing but a bite-sized, fluffy snack. Come down here and I’ll bite you in half.
The squirrel declined.
When that game lost its interest, Rex took off at a run, racing through the trees, chasing small forest creatures and delighting in the feel of his long fur blowing in a wind of his own creation Hours later, exhausted, he realized it was nearly dark and he must hurry home to start dinner. He followed his nose back to the moss-covered boulder and his neatly folded clothes. He relaxed his tired muscles and was pleased to feel the change begin smoothly and a little more quickly. He might learn to manage this yet!
At home he brushed the leaves and sticks from his hair and cleaned himself up, then Rex went to the kitchen to get dinner ready. His eyes fell immediately upon a book placed importantly at his place on the table. The What’s Happening to My Body Book for Boys. He held his breath as he opened the cover and leafed through the dog-eared pages. He found nothing about dogs. Not a single word. Great. Completely useless. As if he couldn’t check that out of the library himself. He threw it back onto the table and got to work.
Over the next few months Rex tested the limits of his new abilities. He started thinking of it as “changing Skins.” With a capital S. On TV, the werewolf always took several minutes to change, and the resulting monster—it was always a monster—was often portrayed as a hairy man with long fake canines and pointy fingernails. This was not the case with Rex. He learned to effect his shift quickly, and completely. No half way for Rex. Nose to tail, he found by looking at his reflection in the lake, he looked like exactly like a dog. A border collie, in fact. And he was really a rather handsome dog, if he did say so himself.
He learned as well that with his collie Skin, he had certain enhanced abilities. His nose was much more sensitive, so that he could determine what Mrs. Anderson was cooking for dinner that night from the distance of several city blocks. Tonight, he knew, it was meatloaf, heavy on the ketchup and light on the garlic, with mashed potatoes and creamed peas on the side.
His hearing was good too, but his visual acuity and focus was off the charts. When he wasn’t enjoying a run through the woods, he made watching his new hobby. He began to install himself on the hill overlooking the reflecting pool at Victory Park to track the confluence of people, squirrels, ducks. Those little brown birds that stayed all winter. He watched them all as if it was his life’s purpose.
One day he watched as a little girl—maybe three—wandered away from her mother who sat oblivious, chatting up a shirtless Don Juan who shared her park bench. Rex stood, transfixed. Her child toddled over to the low concrete wall that enclosed the pool and peered over the top. She rose up on her toes several times, before climbing onto the edge. She tottered momentarily then reached toward the paddling ducks. The girl, Rex thought. Lady. Your girl!She couldn’t hear him. And even if she could, he could not seem to force the needed human words from his entirely canine throat.
Without thought his body launched into action. Rex lowered himself to crouch and raced in an abbreviated arc towards the girl and behind her. He sped towards her and nipped at her heels driving her away from the lake. The startled girl shrieked and ran for the safety of her mother’s arms. Don Juan rose and took a defensive posture in front of the pair. Rex skidded to a stop, panting with his ears pricked and his mouth wide open.
“Watch out,” the man warned. “He might be rabid.”
Rabid? He clearly had misunderstood Rex’s intentions. He picked up a large stick and swung it like a baseball bat. Rex retreated a few paces and the man advanced, stomping, darting forward and brandishing the limb. “Call the police. Call the Dog Catcher. Get somebody out here with a gun. Right now.”
Police? Dog catcher? Shit! This was out of hand. What would happen to Grandma if he ended up in the pound… or worse. She was too frail to get by without him. He needed out of here right now. Rex turned, tucked tail and ran. As he darted towards the woods and home, the limb struck him in the hindquarters. Hard. He rolled and kept running, limping now. The shouts faded as he reached the woods and safety.