Marked

by Alexander Noble

Marked

The harmless flurry was now a wall of ice as the pickup truck headed west on I-80. It was the second week of winter break, during the lull following New Years Day. Roberts first Christmas without Mom had been marked by the empty spot at the table, and it was then he had accepted she was gone. He and Dad had eaten Christmas dinnerwhich had consisted of refrigerated ham and micro-waved mashed potatoesand Dad had apologized for how the meal wasnt what they were used to. Roberttwelve thenhad told Dad he loved it, even though he had silently agreed it wasnt what they were used to at all. The previous January, Mom had slipped away from them, in the bathtub. Dad had told Robert to stay back while he disappeared into the bathroom, stepping into water tinged red. Robert had never confronted the body and had waited in his room until men came and took Mom away. Dad and Robert had gone on through summer and fall and onto Christmas, watching TV and trying not to look at the third cushion on the couch.

GrandpaMoms fatherlived in Monterery. It was his big houseDad had called it, scoffingthey were on their way to visit before running into a storm on the Sierras. The traffic was at a standstill, and Robert was fidgeting in the front passenger seat while Dad surfed all the radio stations.

Cant hear a single one, Dad murmured. Every single station was static. Even the traffic servicewhich had been reminding all drivers to put chains on their tireswas barely audible through interference. The automated voice was a raspy warble coming from the trucks speakers. Finally, Dad turned off the radio.

Useless, Dad said. He scratched his unshaven face. Completely useless. He let out a big sigh and sipped from his coffee. Never saw it this bad before. Weatherman said there would be rain and maybe some snow. Maybe snow.

Robert was listening without interest as he looked at a girlwho had short-cropped hair dyed green--in a van one car ahead in the right lane. She looked around seventeen or eighteen, and she was rubbing her long neck as she read a magazine and sat in the back of the vehicle. Two older people sat in the front, probably her parents. He imagined a big disaster hitting the road, perhaps in a gigantic ball of ice that would flatten cars unfortunate enough to be in its path. Robert would run over to the van while the girls parents were panicking, open the door, reach out with his hand, and tell her she would be safe with him.

The young woman caught his glance and looked back. Robert pretended to be looking alone the entire line of cars, as though he were complaining about the traffic. Pretending to look turned into actual concern as he saw how far ahead the cars were stoppedat least as far as the storm would let him see. He groaned, realizing he needed to pee.

Dad, could we make a pit-stop?

Not for a while, Dad replied. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Never seen anything this bad. Miles in front and miles in back are cars and cars.

When do you think we can make a stop?

I dont know buddy, Dad said. Maybe when things get moving. Is it number one or number two?

Number one.

Dad tapped the steering wheels with his fingers. The bones of the knuckles were visible through the pale skin. Were in a bit of spot now, arent we?

Robert pressed on the lower part of his belly and felt strained.

Ahead, the cars were inching from their stall and working up to a good pace. Dad promised Robert they would get off at the next exit so he could take care of business without anyone watching. The next exit turned out not to be an exit at all. A green van was turned over on its side, blocking the off-ramp. It made Robert think of a turtle stuck on its side. Police officers and men in orange coats surrounded the wreck, sipping coffee from paper cups.

So thats the culprit, Dad said. He looked over and guffawed. Some people dont know how to drive in the snow.

Robert wondered if anyone was hurt. He didnt see an ambulance, but that didnt prove anything. Maybe the help had come and taken the bodies; or worse, maybe the ambulance was stuck in the snow or behind traffic, and the people inside the van were hurt bad. But that part couldnt be true: no one could sip coffee while people were hurt nearby, and the police and the men in the orange coats were going about like business as usual. So no one could be hurt. Probably.

He really had to pee.

Dad, he said.

Pretty bad?

Robert nodded.

Okay buddy, hang in there. Thisll just take a sec. Dad turned on his signal and glanced over his right shoulder. He waved to someone before taking the truck into the right lane. A sign told them the next exit offered gas and food. Dad said it was perfect and merged into the exit lane.

The exit took them to two lanes, one going leftunder the overpassand the other going right. The sign telling them where to turn to head towards the gas station was covered in snow, and the visibility was too poor for them to actually see their destination. Dad told Robert he would make his best guess and turn right.

The road would have been impossible to make out were it not for a few faint tire tracks quickly disappearing under the snow. After driving a few minutes down the road, Dad acknowledged his mistake and was determined to pull back.

Just pull over, Robert told him. I can do it here.

Dad agreed, saying it might take them awhile just to find the overpass, let alone the gas station. He stopped the truck and Robert stepped out into snow high enough to cover his ankles. He released his urine and laughed when he wondered how well he might write his name. The laugh turned into a shudder when he noticed the cold nipping at his neck and ears. He closed his eyes.

A sniffing sound stilled him. Had he made that sound? He thought of someone who, while asleep, might snore and wake himself.

He opened his eyes and saw a dog crouching by the back of the truck. It was a brown lab studded with flakes.

What is it? Dad called from the truck.

Its a dog, Robert replied. I think its lost. The animals eyes were dark orbs that met his, and he could not help but reach for it. The dog let him pet his head and stroke the fur behind his ears. Good boy. The dogs breath was warm and welcoming.

The dog, Robert noticed, was standing on all legs but the right front paw. Robert thought the dog wanted a hand shake, so he grasped the paw and two things happened very quickly: one was Robert noticed blood seeping from the dogs ankle, and two was the dog lunged for his face.

The dog did not growl or bark. It yelped and Robert felt pity for the poor creature even as it sunk its teeth into Roberts cheek. Robert fell back and the dog limped away.

Dad was out of the truck and at Roberts side. He held his head and told him to be still.

He got you pretty good, Dad stared at him and didnt blink. His hand, shaking, was pink and runny with Roberts blood. Jesus, he really got you good.

I think Im okay, Robert told him. His cheek was throbbing, and he imagined the threads of flesh hanging limply from the wound, but he was more dazed than hurt. I didnt even see if he had a collar.

The dog, which had limped away twenty feet, stood still, as though it knew Robert was talking about him.

Get out of here! Dads voice made Roberts ears ring. He remembered Dad shouting with that same teary anger at Mom.

Hes hurt, Robert said. He pointed to the dogs right front paw. Dont be mad at him.

Its not his blood on my hand, is it? Dad wasnt shouting, but he spoke loud enough for flecks of saliva to fly off his teeth.

Please dont be mad at me. Roberts throat was achy. He wanted to cry.

Im not mad. Now, he was yelling. Do I look mad? Im not mad.

But hes alone in the cold. Hes hurt.

Good, Dad said. I hope it freezes to death.

Robert could no longer hold back the sob. It croaked out of his throat, and he took in loud breaths as he began to cry.

Dont do that, Dad said. He began rubbing Roberts arms. Im sorry. Dont cry now. Okay?

Robert sniffled and wiped his nose with his coat sleeve, leaving twin trails of mucus and blood. He hugged Dad, who told him everything was going to be fine. The lab walked farther away until it disappeared in the snow.

Dad got him into the truck and they turned it back toward the freeway. He was telling Robert to turn his face so he could see. Robert was faintly aware of the truck speeding up. Youre going to need stitches, Dad told him. What a day this has been. He was looking at Robert, holding his face in his hand, as though staring would make the wound go away. They were going faster, and Dad wasnt paying attention. He didnt see the lab, which was standing still on the ice.

Dad, the dog.

I know you feel bad for it, but if your kid was hurt

The dog!

The brown lab stared into the headlights as Dad slammed on the brakes, and the truck made a rattling sound as it skidded across the ice. Everything turned too fast and the truck fell on its side with a bone-shaking thud.

The noise stopped and the only thing making a sound was the snow touching down on the passenger window. Dad groaned and asked Robert if he was okay. He spent the next several minutes pushing up on his door with Dads hand on his behind for force. When the door was opened, they both scooted down carefully to the ground.

At least were not hurt. Dad looked at the truck and laughed. But I dont think well make it to Grandpas.

Robert walked around the front of the truck. He imagined the dog dead under the vehicle, his tongue sticking out. He expected to see blood pooling along the ice. But he saw nothing. In fact, he did not see the dog at all.

Dad held his cellphone in the air and walked around in a wide circle before telling Robert they would have to walk. Absolutely no bars on my phone, he said. Hell of a time to have a cell that doesnt work.

The snow showed no sign of abating as they walked into what may as well have been a low-level avalanche. They had only driven for a few minutes, but walking the same distance would surely take longer. The snow took away all references, and they had on of knowing how long a walk to the gas station might be. So when they noticed a house on their right, Dad told Robert they needed to go inside and ask to use the telephone. Robert agreed. The cold was good for making his wound numb, but it was bad for everything else.

The house was a cabin. Dad told him it was probably a vacation home for people when they wanted to ski. Although it was the perfect weather for winter sports, no one seemed to be home; no lights were on, and no one answered the door bell. Robert and Dad stood freezing on the porch for a few minutes as Dad once again tried to use his cell phone to call AAA. When he couldnt contact anyone, they let themselves inside.

They walked around to the back of the house and found a door with a doggy entrance. It was easy to slide up the cover of the opening from the outside and reach up to unlock the doorknob from within. As Dad this, he told Robert this was the reason they had no pets in their house: other than the fact Robert had just been bitten by a dog, having a pet-friendly house made helped burglars break in more easily.

The cabin was a two-story home with the bottom half below ground. They came into the living room, which was furnished with a bear rug, a couch, and bookshelves with old hardbound tomes. There was no TV, but a fire-place waiting for a stack of wood to be set aflame with warmth and light. No fire was burning, and the house was cool and dark. Above the fireplace was the stuffed head of a buck with horns branching out toward the rest of the living room. Away from the living-room was a set of stairs that led to the lower level of the house. Robert noticed the stairs descending into the dark as they entered the house, and he remained standing where he was, not moving any farther from the door. He waited for Dad to find a home phone they could use to call for help. He found one on the kitchen counter, but it was dead. None of the light-switches worked either, and it did not take them long to realize the power was out.

Outside, the snow continued to fall with no sign of slowing down. Robert thought there might not be anything except for the storm, and the whole world was the cabin drifting in a white cloud with no up or down. The idea made him sick enough to sit down at one of the chairs by the counter.

Dad was in the bathroom for a moment before he came back with a box of plus-sized Band-Aids, tissue paper, and rubbing alcohol.

Are we stealing, Dad?

Its not stealing when someones hurt. Dad twisted the cap off the rubbing alcohol and poured some of it into the tissue paper. Thisll sting.

Dad placed the tissue over Roberts wound, and the alcohol stung as he said it would. Robert did not make a sound as his Dad patted his cheek a few times before putting the tissue aside.

Are we stuck? Robert asked.

Dad applied one of the Band-Aids to his cheek. Yes, he said. Then he added, for a little while anyway. The storm knocked out the power, and I cant get ahold of anyone on my phone. But anytime now, it will slow down and we can get help.

Can we go to the gas station and get help there?

We will once the storm slows down, and if I still cant use a phone.

Maybe it wont be so bad if go now, while its light, Robert offered. He didnt want to be in the house.

Thats not a good idea buddy, Dad told him. He sat down next to him and rubbed his arms with his hands. Robert was cold, and the touch was reassuring. Driving didnt work, and I dont think walking will either. Give it an hour, and Im sure things will slow down.

What if they dont? Robert asked. What if we really are stuck here?

You shouldnt be worried, Dad replied. We were both lucky not to be hurt. And if this house wasnt here, we might be in real trouble. Relax.

They sat at the counter, watching the snow fall, and Robert tried to relax. Dad let Robert play a few games on his phone to keep him occupied while Dad went around the house, looking for circuit breakers or anything that might help with the power. When the snow was still coming down heavily, Dad suggested putting the phone away to save power. A few hours passed with them playing tic-tac-toe and hangman with a paper and pencil, and though the sky was darkened with night, they could see the snow was still falling. The power had not returned, and as the light waned, Dad searched in the garage for flashlights but found none. It became impossible for them to see other than for the scant light of the storm, the white glow of which made Robert think of death. His mothers funeral had been on a snowy day the previous January, and even though the weather that day was a Florida vacation compared to the storm they now faced, it had nonetheless changed the definition of cold for him. The winter his Mom died had been filled with that kind of cold. The soil of Moms grave had been hard and unyielding because of the low temperature. Robert had kicked the dirt experimentally and only succeeded in hurting his toe. He had marveled at the fact the grave could have been dug at all. On that day, the diggers put his mother into the ground as large white flakes fell onto her casket, sticking to the surface and sealing her away from warm summer days or even the joyful sort of cold of late December, which was warm in its own way.

The dark filled the house and there was no way of seeing anything except the silhouette of the bucks horns, which at times seemed to be growing like the gnarled branches of a tree.

I dont want to be here, Robert said. He was lying on the couch, his head resting on Dads leg.

I dont either, Dad told him. He was stroking Roberts hair. But its only a house. And were not outside. Things could be worse.

Im cold, and I want to be home. His body was freezing, but his head felt like a burning coal.

Dad felt his forehead. You have a fever. The rubbing alcohol should have disinfected it. Do you feel real bad?

No, not too bad. Just cold.

Okay, its probably just a mild fever. Hold on for a second buddy. Dad left him for a few minutes, using the cellphone as a flashlight, and came back with two pills.

What is it?

Aspirin, Dad told him. Itll keep your fever in check until we leave.

Can the fever kill me?

No, Dad replied. Its mild. You wont feel very good, but youll live. Take these. Robert dry-swallowed the pills as Dad took off his jacket and wrapped it around his torso. Try to sleep. Morning will be here soon, and well go back home. Im sorry we wont be able to see Grandpa.

You dont like Grandpa, Robert said. Why?

I like him fine, Dad told him. He just never thought I was good enough for your mother. Hes probably right.

I wish she was here with us right now. I try to see her face in my head, and it gets too hard.

Talk about something else, buddy. Dad was still stroking Roberts hair, but his hand was not moving as much.

Do you think that dog will be okay? Robert asked. It was so cold outside. And I couldnt see anything. What if the owner cant find him?

Hell be fine, Dad said. Talk about something other than what makes you sad or scared.

Robert let out a deep breath and closed his eyes. I saw a pretty girl.

You did? Dad said. Thats nice. Where did you see her? At school?

No, it was today. I saw her in another car. She had green hair.

Dad laughed. Green hair? Thats kind of silly.

It was weird, but it was nice in some way. I dont know. It made me feel funny, but good too. Its hard to explain.

They talked for a while. Robert couldnt tell if they talked for fifteen minutes or two hours, but their conversation kept his mind off the house, the storm, and Mom. Dad told him about girls, letting him know what to expect. He told Robert some of it would be good and some of it would be bad, but there was another world waiting for him. Hearing these things was good because Robert realized life might go on, after the fever, and the night spent in the house with dead animals and no lights.

The dream was memory running through the haze of fever, so Robert could not tell life from death. Mom and Dad were talking late at night in the kitchen. Hundreds of white tablets were strewn across the table from when Mom had tossed the prescription bottle.

I cant do this, Mom said. Mascara-laced tears were streaming down her face and her body was wracking with sobs.

Dad was trying to hold her, to let her know they were just dreams, and dreams didnt mean anything at all.

Unclean. She screamed. God. I am unclean. I am marked and damned. Hes got its claws in me and wont let go. Im his, and he wont let me go.

Hes not real, Dad told her. Theres nothing there in the dark. He cant be there waiting for you. Its just you and me, honey. Just you and me. Dad held her tightly to his breast. You have to take your meds. Remember what Dr. Burton said. You have to take your meds and the pain will go away.

It wont go away, Mom told him. She was talking to Robert, now. They were no longer in the kitchen, but in the bathroom. Dad was gone. Mom reached out to him from the tub with cut wrists. The blood was streaming down her arms, and the mascara tears were obsidian crags on a white-marble face.

I am his, she kept saying. I am his.

Robert woke up to yelping. As soon as he opened his eyes, he knew he was hearing the whistling whine of a hurt dog. He was sure it was the brown labdying, alone.

Dad was asleep. How could he not hear the crying? Moving made Robert sick, but he got up and took Dads phone with him for light.

He walked around the couch, the kitchen, hearing the dog crying everywhere.

Im coming. His head was pounding and he couldnt stop shaking. The dogs nails were scratching against a wall. Please dont cry. Im coming.

Robert walked around the room until he thought he heard whining coming from downstairs. He illuminated the steps into the basement and climbed down, trying not to fall; his skull felt as though it were made of lead. The stairs were covered in a carpet with long strands. He imagined blades of grass under his feet as he stepped into a wilderness.

Downstairs, he found a game room with a pool table and an entertainment center set in front of a sofa. This was someones home. He could see himself living here, playing video games, watching TV, and doing homework. This was a part of the house where people ate pizza and watched a movie on Saturday night. He shouldnt have seen it empty while looking for a dying dog.

Im here. He wiped sweat off his forehead. Please dont cry. Im here.

Robert held up the phone and saw a window on the other side of the entertainment center. A tree branch was hitting the glass, making scratching noises as the wind wailed outside. The air had been the source of the whining and whistling.

No dog, he said. Of course theres no dog.

Then he heard a growl. The dogwhere had it come from?was facing him, coiled on its haunches. Its lips were curled over the teeth and a stream of saliva was dripping onto the carpet. The labs eyes were white and bloodshot, and the irises were not much bigger than pinheads; they were black dots pointing at him accusingly.

What was he supposed to do to prevent a dog attack? Stand his ground? Look mean? Play dead?

Then labs face was no longer a dogs. It was the face of the girl from the minivan, but the eyes were still the same, and mouth was gaping wider. The lines creased on her face in a snarl he might have expected from a wolf. And it spoke to him, in a voice that was neither male nor female, nor human, but a drawn-out burning hiss that singed the words together. The breath was a hot assault of acid he sometimes tasted in the back of his throat when he had heartburn.

Youaredeadyourmotherisdeadandyourfatherisdeadandyouwillneverfuckanyonebecause yourfacehasmymarkyourhearthasmymarkandyouwillneverbethesameyouwillbeeatenandyouwill bemine.

Roberts head was throbbing. If he did not lie down he would fall. He leaned on the stair banister and let himself slip onto the stairs. He crawled, like a baby, on hands and knees. The lab was on top of him, reaching for his wrists. The paws were hands now, with long bony fingers. The nails were crusted in blood dripping down the palms. It spoke again, but the voice was a womans, one he recognized.

I killed myself Robert. I cut my wrists and I bled myself out. I was sick so I had to kill myself. But Dad did nothing. And you did nothing. You knew I was in the tub and I was bleeding from my wrists and you wouldnt save me.

I dontno

The dog/the girl/Mom held his wrists and straddled him from behind, breathing in his ear. The light on the cell phone turned off, and he was in the dark with the thing on his back. It spoke again in the hissing voice. Yourmotherismineandnowyouareminetoo. One of its nails ran along the bandage on his face. The wound burned as the finger traced its path along his cheek.

Dad, he called. Help me. He could not hear his own words. He was shaking with sobs, but he could not even hear them through the hissing and slobbering in his ear. He was going to be lost in the dark forever, bleeding out his soul from the wound in his cheek as the thing took him down.

Robert. It was his fathers voice. Come here, Robert.

Another pair of hands reached under his arms and hoisted him up. His fathers voice broke through the agony. The claws, the hissing, the darknessthey were gone.

Im here buddy. Dad held him and swept back his hair. Im here.

The fever wasnt as bad in the morning. The sun was shining, and the outside cold was soothing to Roberts temples, and he had tied the jacket around his waist so he might cool down while he and Dad waited for the tow truck. Dads car was a mound of snow in the middle of the street. The sun was out and the entire surface of the road was bright enough to hurt his eyes. He listened to Dad talk on the phonewhich now had barsas he looked at the towers of ice that were snow-covered trees, searching for a brown lab.

Dad put the phone in his pocket. Theyll be here soon. How are you feeling buddy?

Better. It hurt to speak. The aspirin had done a good job, but his head was still heavy. He had been happy to leave the cabin, but he was looking forward to lying down.

Well get home soon. Lucky the phone was working. Dad put his arm around Roberts shoulder. Beautiful out here. Its not worth being stuck for the whole night, but it sure is pretty. Dad yawned, and the sound rang out across the street and came back in an echo.

Robert held one gloved hand to the bandage covering his cheek. A scar would form, and his face would be changed permanently.

Dad looked at him and frowned. Whats wrong?

You didnt see it, did you Dad? Robert asked.

See what?

Last night, when you found me downstairs, Robert said. Did you see it? The thing in the dark.

Dad smiled sadly. I didnt see anything, buddy. It was just you and me in that house.

But how? Robert asked. It was right there, on top of me. It was saying these awful things about Mom.

Dad hugged him and spoke into his ear. What you saw wasnt real. Our minds are awful places sometimes, and we have the worst feelings in the world. But theyre only feelings. Theres nothing more to it than that.

When I saw Mom last night

She wasnt there, buddy. Dad held him against his chest. Beneath the ribs and muscles, the heart was thumping steadily. It was Dad who had seized him in the night, not the dark. Robert latched onto the heartbeat; he wanted to believe it was the sound of reality.

The tow man came and pulled the truck out of the ice. He exchanged a few friendly words with Dad about the storm and he offered both of them a cup of coffee. Robert sipped from his drink and found it was not as bitter as he expected. The cream and sugar made it sweet, and he had to keep himself from drinking too fast; otherwise, he would have burnt his tongue. When Dads truck was settled onto the carriage, he and Robert climbed inside the tow truck and the driver took them away. The driver asked Dad if he wanted to listen to any particular radio station.

Ill let my boy decide, Dad told the driver. He spoke to Robert. What would you like?

Robert asked the driver to find a station that played classic rock. Dads favorite music. The three of them drank coffee as they moved along the icy road, which was sparkling in the sun. Robert couldnt help but smile when he gazed at the crystalline trees and the drifts of snow flowing from their branches.

Then he saw something that made him shudder.

As the tow truck headed towards the freeway overpass, across the landscape of ice, a brown lab stood amongst the towering evergreens as though it were a part of the wilderness, and it watched.

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