Elvis by Alan Guffy
I’ve been in this room for close to an hour. It’s cold in here. They’ve taken my clothes and left me in a thin hospital gown on a folding metal chair. The only light comes from a fluorescent tube hanging from the ceiling. No windows. Hell, not even a door. But I can make out a thin seam in the concrete that I suspect will swing inward if they want it to.
How long have I been here? Hours? Days? It was lunchtime when they took me. I’d ordered ramen and was waiting for the delivery guy. They blindfolded me and shoved my head into a football helmet full of speakers that blasted screaming metal for hours. I can’t tell you if we walked down stairs, took an elevator, or boarded an airplane.
Who took me? The army? CIA? It certainly feels like some Guantanamo bullshit. Whoever they are, they know what they’re doing. Something about the noise, all that screaming in your ears for so long, then to be dropped into utter silence—I couldn’t yell if I wanted to. The only sound is the hum of the florescent bulb. Sometimes it’s deafening. Like a mosquito in my ear. Sometimes I don’t hear it at all, and the silence makes me wonder if they’ve forgotten me.
Overhead, the fluorescent bulb flickers. For a split second it goes out and the room is submerged in darkness. When it sparks back to life, it’s half as bright as it was before. The room’s not silent anymore. I can hear my own breathing. Hurried, shallow breaths. If I’m not careful I’ll hyperventilate.
“Good morning,” a voice says. It comes from a speaker concealed somewhere in the ceiling. I can’t see it, but it’s better than the alternative. (What alternative, you ask? Well, how about that I’m dead and that’s the voice of God? Or how about that I’m crazy and there is no voice? There’s a goddamn speaker. Trust me.)
I want to answer, but I can’t. Answering would break the silence, and right now the silence is implacable.
“You can talk to me, it’s OK,” the voice continues. “There’s a microphone in the room. I’ll be able to hear it.”
I try to force an “Okay” back to him. What comes out sounds like the wheeze of gas from an empty aerosol can. I try to gather some spit, but I get a glob of phlegm and start to cough.
“We want to know what happened to you,” the voice says.
The coughing makes my mouth wet enough to talk, but my voice is hollow and foreign.
“Is this about my dog?” I ask. Of course it is. I’d known that since they stuck me in that
Helmet. The hum of the speaker resumes, but the voice doesn’t speak. I think of a boy with a walkie talkie holding down the button while trying to think of something to say. I suddenly want to tell him that he’s gumming up the line, and the impulse almost makes me lapse into giggles.
“Yes,” the voice says at last, matter-of-factly.
I’m closer to the brink now. I can’t shake the image of a stone-faced major in a green beret and mirrored aviators staring at me from across a table and shouting in drill-sergeant staccato, “You will tell me about your sick dog solll-dyer!”
This tickles me, but then I think of my dog. Then I want to grab the drill sergeant and smash his face into cherry cobbler.
“Okay,” I say. “My dog died yesterday.” The voice doesn’t reply. It lets me sit in silence until my nerves can’t take the possibility that there was never a voice at all. “I killed it.”
“Start at the beginning.”
I inhale sharply and steeple my fingers. I run my tongue across the roof of my mouth, not happy with what I feel there. I let the silence continue for longer than I like. A compressor kicks on and blows cold air on me from the ceiling; gooseflesh breaks out across my naked arms and neck and belly. It blows until my knees start knocking together. I rub my bare shoulders and stare into the farthest shadows of the room.
“I don’t know for sure when it started.”
“But you have a guess.”
“Yeah,” I admit. “I have a guess." Saturday I took him out for a walk. We went up and down the street and I could tell something was itching him. He kept jerking and pulling and catching a whiff of something. I usually would’ve dragged him home after he pooped, but I’d been working a lot and he’d had to spend a lot of time inside, so I decided to be a good dog dad and indulge him.”
“What’s the breed?”
My voice hitches. I’ve been trying to keep some distance from the details. He isn’t going to let me.
“Beagle corgi mix.” The compressor cuts off.
“He started pulling toward some woods behind my property line. That’s when I caught a whiff of something foul.”
I consider this. “My grandparents lived on a lake, and when I was a kid I used to dig up earthworms and take them down to the dock in a little can of dirt with holes in the lid for fishing. We kept them in the fridge when we didn’t need them. But one morning, mid-July, I got called up for breakfast and forgot the worms. I didn’t go back down until that afternoon. I smelled them before I was halfway there. What was left in the can...they weren’t worms anymore. Just a pulsing wad of rotten jelly. That’s what I smelled coming from the woods.”
I run my tongue across the roof of my mouth. There’s a blister there from something hot I must’ve eaten and I press my tongue against it.
“The closer we got the harder Elvis pulled.”
“That’s my dog. Elvis Pressley.”
“Okay,” the voice pauses. I hear a pencil-scratch amidst the white noise of the intercom. “Continue.”
“So Elvis was pulling and my backyard has a steep drop at the property line. I lost my balance and fell. Once that happened, the leash was out of my hand and all I could see was that dog’s chubby butt bouncing off into the trees.
“I was a little freaked out. Elvis never runs off, but by the time I picked myself up he was gone. I started calling for him and I brushed myself off and headed into the woods.”
“Okay. And this was the property behind your house?”
“Does anyone live on it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Who owns it?”
“I don’t know.”
The air cuts on again. It’s colder now than it was before.
“You need to cooperate with us,” the voice says.
I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands. “I’m trying,” I say. My voice cracks.
No reply. I’m sweating, in spite of the air. “I kept on into the woods, calling for him. The smell got worse. I had to scale down a gully where a brook cut across the property.” I hesitate.
“Yes?” the voice presses.
“Well, there hadn’t been a good rain for three or four weeks. But the ground was spongy. Like a marsh at low tide. My feet sank into mud almost to my ankles, and I had to catch myself on trees and watch my step. And the smell. Christ. The smell was overpowering. Only this time I couldn’t close a tin and dump it into a lake. That’s when I saw Elvis, rooting his big stupid face in a muddy hole about thirty yards up the hill. But I couldn’t get any closer. The smell was bad enough as it was. Any closer and I was going to vomit. Or worse.”
I almost snap. I almost scream that I don’t fucking know. I just know I didn’t want to be there. I just know that something bad was there and it wasn’t somewhere I wanted me or my dog to be. The only reason I’d gone as far as I had was because of that dog. But I couldn’t go any farther. If I had, maybe... I shut the thought down.
“I don’t know. Like maybe it would kill me.”
More scratching. Then, “What happened next?”
“I called for Elvis. He didn’t come. He was eating something. I called him again. I finally screamed so loud he looked over his shoulder. He had this brown, phlegmy slime running down his jowls. He looked at me for a second and went back to eating.”
The memory of my dog’s eyes makes my whole body tighten. They were sad. Contrite. Afraid. Those eyes makes this almost unbearable.
“I just stand there and let him finish,” I murmur. “Once he does, Elvis trots back over to me like nothing happened. I scratch him and hug him and he licks my hands.” My voice cracks.
I swallow against my constricting throat. “Everything’s OK.”
I have to stop and breathe. The voice doesn’t prod me this time. Maybe it knows it doesn’t have to. I’ve opened a door now. Just like Elvis, I can’t stop.
“At first everything seemed fine. Elvis was a little lazier than usual. And hungry as hell. But I didn’t think anything of it.
“Then, Friday I came home from work and I couldn’t find him. There were wads of fur on the carpet, some wet with half-clotted blood and hunks of skin. I searched all over the house. He was under the bed. He wouldn’t come when I called him. I got on my hands and knees to pull him out, and he snarled at me. I started thinking rabies. I called the emergency vet, but they were no help. They wanted me to bring him in for an exam, so that’s what I tried to do.
“I got back down there with a flashlight.” I pause. My whole body is trembling so badly that the chair, slightly unlevel, is tapping against the concrete floor. I squeeze my knocking knees together, shove my hands into my armpits.
“He was lying in a puddle with his face on the floor. He’d pulled out half his fur along his shoulders and belly. He’d scratched all the fur off his muzzle and had big bite marks all over himself. I think he was trying to get to his throat but he couldn’t reach it. He recoiled from the light, snapped at me and growled. I flipped up the mattress to grab him, but I missed.”
This is a lie. I hadn’t missed, but how can I tell the voice that what I grabbed had the texture of a boiled egg? And that while my fingers sank deep into him, they found nothing to hold on to? Whatever meat he had beneath that membrane of skin was no more substantial than a clot of mayonnaise.
“He slipped by and bolted down the stairs.”
“What was he lying in? On the floor?”
“Blood,” I lie. “I followed him downstairs. He’d left a trail,” I hesitate, then add, “Of blood. The pantry door was open and I could hear him” Slurping. Sucking. “eating. I snuck up and shut him inside so I could find my bottle of Benadryl. It puts him to sleep like a baby.
“While I dug around the bathroom all hell was breaking loose in the pantry. He threw himself against the door over and over again. I heard something splinter inside. The next time something cracked.
“By then I’d found the Benadryl and mixed it in a bowl of vanilla ice cream. I set it by the pantry. The tantrum stopped. He just scratched and whimpered like he’d done when he was a puppy and wanted to go outside.” I grimace. Tears are welling in my eyes.
“Did you feed it the ice cream? Or let it out?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? But I don’t answer. Why should I? Why should I tell him that as soon as I’d gotten home, before I’d seen the hair or found my dog, the smell had hit me in a wave? That rotten worm smell, so strong that it sent me retching and puking into my shrubbery. Why should I tell him that when I shined the flashlight on Elvis, his throat was swollen into a fleshy wattle that looked like a sack of marbles (or a clutch of eggs)? Why should I tell him that the Benadryl is a lie? And that I’d not gone into the bathroom, but into the garage, to sift through old boxes until I found where I’d stored the rat poison.
“I gave him the bowl,” I say at last. “He ate every drop. He must’ve been sicker than I thought...it killed him.” I sigh, stare up at the ceiling, and add, “And that’s what happened to me. I swear.”
The voice considers this. “We didn’t find a body.”
I darken. “I burned it.” My voice is strangely mechanical. I’d expected to feel shame, but I feel nothing. Perhaps I even feel satisfied. Yes, I burned him. I burned my dog, and I would burned him one hundred times over if I could. Because even after he’d finished the rat poison à la mode, after the convulsions had stopped and his body was lifeless and bleeding from his eyes and mouth, that wormy, stinking clutch beneath his jaw still throbbed with life.
“Disappointing,” the voice said. “But at least the harvest wasn’t a total loss.”
What harvest? Before I can voice my question, the fluorescent tube above me pops and flickers again. Then it dies completely and I am enveloped in a womb of darkness. Minutes pass.
“Aren’t you going to turn the lights back on?” I yell.
No response. Then, the mechanical click of a lock turning over, and the seam in the wall retracts. It was never a door. It was a window. And as it pulls away, revealing an ink-black void of stars and the familiar blue glow of Earth, no bigger than a nickel in the distance, I hyperventilate.
“Relax,” the voice commands. “Stress is bad for the babies.”
No, I think. Then I scream it.
I try to clamor to my feet but they’re gelatin. And I begin to realize how very, very hungry I am. How hot. I’m suddenly grateful for the cold air still filtering through the room. Something opens in the wall behind me. I hear a shuffling of moist bodies. The smell of rot makes me gag at first. But as the minutes pass, it doesn’t bother me so much. I trace my tongue across the top of my mouth. The blister that I can’t remember getting is still there. Now there’s three of them.
They’re soft, and when I push my tongue against them, I can feel something wriggle.