Clutch and Lure
The moon was erratic and getting worse. It was hardly visible up there in the pastel sunset, but still I felt its constant clutch and lure.
Scout was stretched out in the clover, catching cherry blossom petals with her teeth.
"I'm okay," I said.
Scout wiggled and squinted her dark eyes. She groaned, motes of yellow pollen on her whiskers.
"Should we go for a hike?" I asked.
She answered with the patter of her tail against the ground.
We walked to the woods, and the wind felt nice, but the neighbors stared through curtains when we passed their paint-chipped houses. Scout kept her gaze fixed skyward on the glider planes, two of them, glistening.
"Good girl," I said.
The gliders drifted down in drawn-out arcs, like seed pods caught in a breeze. Gwen would always say they looked like sewing needles.
I asked her once, "Sewing needles?"
"Mending the sky's fabric."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"With invisible thread."
Gwen always knows about these things.
. . .
The trail opened up into a glade encircled by towering pines whose tips bowed and swayed in the splashing wind. Scout pranced and howled and drank the breeze in. Her barking cracked the birch skin, shook the snake holes, whipped the pine bark.
She dashed out, leapt and twirled. She fetched the ball again, again. "Again!" she seemed to say. She perked her ears and pointed her nose, then vanished in the ferns.
"Scout!" I called out. "Come! Here!"
I closed my eyes and listened for the tin-chime of her tags. Wind nuzzled the budding branches. Blood slushed behind my ears.
When I opened up my eyes, the sun was red and low between the trees. A molten glow, all thick and sticky, oozed out from its membrane.
There's a slender road that gashes through the woods. The road was nearby, much too close.
"Goddamnit," I said when I heard the cars. They swarmed and buzzsawed down the asphalt.
There was an image in my head of Scout skipping across the road, caught in headlights. If she could, she would carry a basket of dandelions. She would be singing when the car struck.
I thought about calling for help. But who could I have called? Gwen? Then, through twisted branches, I saw the dusty parking lot. In the unnatural light, someone lifted a wriggling dog into a green car.
. . .
My muscles burned from sprinting home. I tossed Scout's leash onto the passenger seat and drove.
The highway pushed on into farmland, everything indistinct as a charcoal sketch smudged by a careless hand. It went on like this long enough to lose the high school radio station.
To my surprise, I caught up. There was the green car, turn signal clicking for an exit. A truck cut me off and the car was gone.
The exit led to a town I'd never heard of. I searched for Scout and drove too fast. Main Street, School Street, County Line Road. The houses all tucked back like they were traumatized.
A kid in overalls freaked me out, standing all by herself under a flickering streetlamp. For a second I thought, Jesus fuck, Scout?
Main Street climbed up into a copse of maples, dropped off at the edge of town. I parked the car and stepped out to breathe.
The moon was a pearly waning crescent. It gripped me whole, all my mass and tissue. Its vectors illuminated the deep gullies of my brain. The way the moon was stamped against the black of outer space made me think of Scout. Made me think of the white crescent mark on her black fur.
Maybe that's when this all started, I thought.
Maybe that's when it started, back when Gwen still lived at home. I got a weird feeling one night and said, "Gwen, do you think the moon looks different?" One night in the living room, I said to Gwen about the mark on Scout's hind leg, I said, "Just look, Gwen, it's a perfect crescent." I said, "Please, Gwen, promise you'll be careful when you take Scout out for walks."
I got back in the car and dug my hands into my hair. Dug until my fingertips pressed craters in my scalp. There was an image in my mind of Scout's kidnappers: arranged in a circle, Scout tranquilized in the middle beneath the sparkling shell of the moon. They passed around a cup, a drop of blood dispersing in clear liquid. I needed badly to rest.
. . .
I turned back up the hill and into town. There was a motel on a wide street with little else on it. I asked for a room and the guy said, "Take your pick."
"I'm not gonna be here more than a few hours," I said.
"Don't matter to me," he said. "Gotta pay for the night, though."
The motel room was wood-paneled and brown. I sat on the edge of the bed. From down the hall I heard gunshots and screeching tires and the theme song of an old cop show. The air was both dry and damp, like a fever.
I felt restless. My chest was a vast and empty cavern and my heart was a lantern. Through the window I saw this bar just up the road. I thought, maybe one beer?
Just a few cars under blinking lights in the gravel lot. A guy stamped out a cigarette and trudged inside. A country song slithered through the open doorway.
I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. I was careful not to make eye contact.
There were certain things swimming around my head that needed sorting. Notions of a string with no beginning and no end. The first wolf opening her tiny eyes. A code passed down a canine lineage. A cave beneath the lunar surface. Something waiting in the cave. Waiting for a long time in absolute darkness.
I fell out of the barstool. "Sorry," I said from the dirty floor. "Sorry. Yeah, I'll have another one." I grasped the coat hooks and pulled myself up like a rock climber.
The music was loud. A woman across the bar raised her glass. Her wavy gray hair was the longest I've ever seen. "Cheers," she said. "Cheers," I said back. Was she talking to me?
I walked to the bathroom and locked the door. The din of the bar was muffled and I took relief in that. My bloodstream rumbled past my eardrums. I avoided the mirror. I really wanted to talk to Gwen.
When I came back out, I glanced around the place: tables, posters, a pool table. An unexpected painting in a cedar frame. Everything tie-dyed by a startling number of neon signs.
The painting pulled me in. Three puppies drinking water, so off-kilter in the neon gleam. Three chalices before them, empty.
Excuse me, can you tell me about this painting? is what I wanted to ask the bartender. It's Gauguin, that much is clear, but what's it called? The third puppy pulled me in closer. I peered into her oil-painted eye, into the universe within it, swirling, eddying. At last, with a fingertip, I traced the arc of the crescent-shape mark on her leg.
Back at my barstool I texted Gwen. "Hi," I wrote, with quaking fingers. I wiped a teardrop from my cheek.
I watched the dot dot dot of Gwen typing. "Hi," she said, finally.
"Scout's gone but don't worry," I wrote.
"What the hell," she answered. "Please tell me Scout's ok. Where are you."
I started writing back about it almost being a new moon. I wanted to tell Gwen so many things. Then she tried calling and I shut my phone off.
. . .
The bar looked like a warm cabin at a distance. Beyond it, in the motel, a single light still burned.
"Watch me," said the woman with the gray hair past her knees. The gleaming pistol recoiled and sent ripples through the space around it.
"Your turn," she said. I fired once and almost fell over.
"Never shot anything before," I said.
"Coulda had me fooled, kid," she said, with a big roaring laugh that turned immediately into a cough.
She fixed my grip on the gun. I pulled the trigger three times in a row and smiled. The kinetic air tasted like rain.
"Need a refill?" she said.
She pulled another beer can from her cavernous sweatshirt pocket, tossed it over. Things crawled and burrowed in the murky field. Crickets chirped.
"They took my dog," I told her, cracking open the icy can. "Like a kidnapping. Planned it all out."
She lit a cigar, puffed on it. Exhaled volcanic smoke. Looked right at me. "And? What're you gonna do about?" she said.
I watched clouds drift across the moon. The clouds were heavy, like globs of mercury.
"I'm just sayin'," she said. "It's yours if you need it. Just until you finish the job." She nodded at the pistol, still heavy in my hand.
I shook my head and took a big gulp. "It's almost a new moon," I said, pointing up.
"What's that?" she shouted. The crickets were so loud my eardrums buzzed.
"The moon is different," I shouted.
. . .
The sun was pure and needling when I woke up. There was a whiskey bottle two-thirds full next to my head. I rolled over on the scratchy carpet and just knew my shoulder was dislocated.
I reached into my pocket with the good hand for my phone. Only the battery was there.
Later, I got Pop-Tarts, Gatorade and Advil at a gas station. I walked around the store with my bad arm in a sort of sling. I was glad I had a blanket in the trunk.
At the counter I pulled out my wallet, and what do you know. "Yes!"
"You all set?" the cashier said.
"Found my phone," I said, smiling.
Back in the car, I put the battery in. There were a lot of messages. Half from Gwen, the other half my next door neighbor. I tapped through and found a picture of Scout curled up with the neighbors' poodle. "Hey there neighbor," the message said. "Scout is safe. We hope you are too!"
Scout had found her own way home. That much was clear enough in the hostile daylight.
. . .
Gwen wanted to talk after that. I told her she could stop by. "It's your house, too," I said.
"Let's just talk on the phone, okay?" she said.
Through the phone I heard cars go by outside her new apartment. She was worried about me, and worried about Scout. And she never stopped loving me but couldn't spend the rest of her life worried. That's what Gwen had to say. I held the phone to my ear long after she hung up, observing the expanding silence.
. . .
Shortly after that, the plane crashed.
I was deep in the woods with Scout when I heard the low sucking whistle of a glider plane approaching. Rain fell in a soft mist from a pale violet sky. The new moon was, of course, invisible.
The glider was dropping lower, getting closer. I thought it might jerk upward, do a loop maneuver. Instead, its metal belly grazed the pine tips. It came so close that I could read the decals on the underside of one wing. A numeric code and a name written in cursive. The name was Luna, possibly Lana. Up close, the glider looked hard and mechanical.
It folded when it plunged into the trees. Its nose didn't touch the ground, but hung inches above it, wedged tight between two trunks. A wing swung from a fiberglass thread, cockpit ripped clean off. I caught my breath and saw the pilot pressed against the harness.
I reached down for Scout, but she wasn't there. "Focus." I ran to the plane, a little dizzy, shoulder throbbing in the sling.
There was a lot of blood and the pilot wasn't moving. I pleaded with the man to respond. Without warning, his bleeding eyes shot open.
"I'm helping you!" I yelled. He looked straight through the back of my head. "You're gonna make it," I said. I really meant it. "Just hang on."
I started toward the road and dialed 911. The dispatcher asked for the location. "In the fucking trees," I said. "Sorry. Let me think." We settled on me waiting at a parking lot.
Then I called Gwen. I scanned the woods for Scout while the phone rang. "Gwen," I said, "please listen, you have to...."
"Have to what?" she said. "Get you from jail? The hospital?"
I tried to explain. She sighed.
"I'm coming," she said. "Just wait there, okay? Everything's gonna be fine."
Then she paused, and into the quiet I said I her name. "I know," she answered in a small voice. "Don't do anything stupid, okay?"
I clenched my eyelids tight. I love you, please help me, again, I'm sorry.
Gwen got to the parking lot before the ambulance. I wasn't surprised. We just stood for a moment, letting our eyes adjust to the other's presence.
"Why don't you go find Scout," she said. She looked at my arm. "Think you can do that?"
"I promise I'll find her," I said.
"I'll wait for the ambulance, okay?"
I turned to leave. Gwen reached out and took my good arm in her hand. I got chills up and down my vertebrae.
"Yeah?" I said.
"Where's the plane?"
"Yeah." I rubbed my forehead. "You remember the bat?"
"Last summer, with the broken wing."
"We saved it," she said, remembering. "It looked like a little dog, didn't it?"
"Yeah," I said. "Well, that's where the plane is. Past the lily pond, right where the bat was."
. . .
Scout was tunneled deep down in the dirt when I found her. Just her tail was sticking up like an antenna.
We ran back through the dusky channels until a helicopter touched down in a nearby clearing, stirring up dirt and leaves. In its lights, a short way through the foliage, there was the glider plane.
There were floodlights set up around the crash, more than compensating for the fading twilight. Gwen was standing off to the side watching a team of paramedics pull the man from the ruins. The cool wind tossed a wisp of hair across her face and she pulled it behind her ear.
Her back was turned to me as I walked up the path with Scout at my side. "Sorry I dragged you into this," I said. Gwen jumped a little when I spoke.
"Hey," she said. The lights reflected off her eyes. "Pretty fucked up, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Pretty fucked up." I pushed around some pebbles with the toe of my shoe. The paramedics carried the pilot on a stretcher to the helicopter.
Scout lost patience and jumped up on Gwen's legs, leaving two muddy pawprints on her pale jeans. "Scout!" said Gwen, kneeling down. "Oh sweetie, I missed you so much." Scout twisted and yawned and licked her face.
Gwen's warm fingers brushed against my cold hands when I passed her the leash. We stood in the pine needles at the edge of that surreal devastation, not looking at anything in particular. Scout nestled between our legs, three foxes in a den. But my head tingled. The feeling trickled down my spine into my toes. And my body separated from the earth.
Gwen reached up and pressed her hand into mine. Water fell off me in sheets as her grip melted layers of ice. While Gwen pulled me down, the moon wrenched me away.
Caught for an instant, suspended between two poles, the cells of my body ripping like tissue paper, I looked down at the three of us: Gwen's hand in mine, Scout at our feet, a guarded happiness shimmering on my retinas.
"Gwen," I said, "it's too late." But Gwen couldn't hear me. She kissed my hand. "Gwen," I said again, "I'm already so far away."
Time stretched out like a taut string. I was bathed in the most astounding darkness. Further in the depths, something opened its eyes. The eyes glimmered with a light that can only have come from within. It lured me over the rocks, towed me closer. Its whimpers turned into a howl.
Scout started barking when the helicopter lifted off. I opened my eyes to see Gwen staring deep into the starlit sky, and I understood that I might have been wrong. "Gwen," I shouted over the roaring snare of helicopter blades, "do you think it's too late for me? Gwen?"
Daniel is a political scientist who often writes fiction when he should be doing research. He's originally from the Chicago suburbs and called Iowa City home for some time. Now he lives in The Netherlands where he is a teacher and researcher of international political economy. When he's not at a desk, he is usually in the woods with his two shelter dogs.