Watchers Page 8

“I've never seen eyes like yours,” Streck said, breathing hard. “Gray but not like other gray eyes. Deep, warm, sexy eyes.”

Nora was speechless, paralyzed.

"You're very pretty, Nora Devon. Very pretty. And I know what you need.

I do. I really do, Nora. I know what you need, and I'm going to give it to you.,,

Her paralysis was shattered by a fit of the shakes. She dropped the phone into its cradle. Bending forward in bed, she felt as if she were shaking herself to pieces before the tremors slowly subsided.

She did not own a gun.

She felt small, fragile, and terribly alone.

She wondered if she should call the police. But what would she tell them? That she was the object of sexual harassment? They'd get a big laugh out of that. Her? A sex object? She was an old maid, as plain as mud, not remotely the type to turn a man's head and give him erotic dreams. The police would suppose that she either was making it up or was hysterical. Or they would assume she had misinterpreted Streck's politeness as sexual interest, which is what even she had thought at first.

She pulled a blue robe on over the roomy men's pajamas that she wore, belted it. Barefoot, she hurried downstairs to the kitchen, where she hesitantly withdrew a butcher's knife from the rack near the stove. Light trickled like a thin stream of quicksilver along the well-honed cutting edge.

As she turned the gleaming knife in her hand, she saw her eyes reflected in the broad, flat blade. She stared at herself in the polished steel, wondering if she could possibly use such a horrible weapon against another human being even in self-defense.

She hoped she would never have to find out.

Upstairs again, she put the butcher's knife on the nightstand, within easy reach.

She took off her robe and sat on the edge of the bed, hugging herself and trying to stop shaking.

“Why me?” she said aloud. “Why does he want to pick on me?”

Streck said that she was pretty, but Nora knew it was not true. Her own mother had abandoned her to Aunt Violet and had returned only twice in twenty-eight years, the last time when Nora was six. Her father remained unknown to her, and no other Devon relatives were willing to take her in, a situation which Violet frankly attributed to Nora's uncomely appearance. So although Streck said she was pretty, it could not possibly be her that he wanted. No, what he wanted was the thrill of scaring and dominating and hurting her. There were such people. She read about them in books, newspapers. And Aunt Violet had warned her a thousand times that if a man ever came on to her with sweet talk and smiles, he would only want to lift her up so he could later cast her down from a greater height and hurt her all the Worse.

After a while, the worst of the tremors passed. Nora got into bed again. Her remaining ice cream had melted, so she put the dish aside, on the nightstand. She picked up the novel by Dickens and tried to involve herself once more with Pip's tale. But her attention repeatedly strayed to the phone, to the butcher's knife-and to the open door and the second-floor hail beyond, Where she kept imagining she saw movement.


Travis went into the kitchen, and the dog followed him.

He pointed to the refrigerator and said, “Show me. Do it again. Get me a beer. Show me how you did it.”

The dog did not move.

Travis squatted. “Listen, fur face, who got you out of those woods, away from whatever was chasing you? I did. And who bought hamburgers for you? I did. I bathed you, fed you, gave you a home. Now you owe me. Stop being coy. If you can open that thing, do it!”

The dog went to the aging Frigidaire, lowered its head to the bottom corner of the enamel-coated door, gripped the edge in its jaws, and pulled backward, straining with its entire body. The rubber seal let loose with a barely audible sucking sound. The door swung open. The dog quickly insinuated itself into the gap, then jumped up and braced itself with a forepaw on each side of the storage compartment.

“I'll be damned,” Travis said, moving closer.

The retriever peered into the second shelf, where Travis had stored cans of beer, Diet Pepsi, and V-8 vegetable juice. It plucked another Coors from the supply, dropped to the floor, and let the refrigerator door slip shut again as it came to Travis.

He took the beer from it. Standing with a Coors in each hand, studying the dog, he said, more to himself than to the animal, “Okay, so somebody could have taught you to open a refrigerator door. And he could even have taught you how to recognize a certain brand of beer, how to distinguish it from other cans, and how to carry it to him. But we still have some mysteries here. Is it likely that the brand you were taught to recognize would be the same one I'd have in my refrigerator? Possible, yes, but not likely. Besides, I didn't give you any command. I didn't ask you to get me a beer. You did it on your own hook, as if you figured a beer was exactly what I needed at the moment. And it was.”

Travis put one can down on the table. He wiped the other on his shirt, popped it open, and took a few swallows. He was not concerned that the can had been in the dog's mouth. He was too excited by the animal's amazing performance to worry about germs. Besides, it had held each can by the bottom, as if concerned about hygiene.

The retriever watched him drink.

When he had finished a third of the beer, Travis said, "It was almost as if you understood that I was tense, upset-and that a beer would help relax me. Now, is that crazy or what? We're talking analytical reasoning. Okay, so pets can sense their masters' moods a lot of the time. But how many pets know what beer is, and how many realize what it can do to make the master more mellow? Anyway, how'd you know there was beer in the fridge? I guess you could've seen it sometime during the evening when I was fixing dinner, but still . .

His hands were shaking. He drank more of the beer, and the can rattled lightly against his teeth.

The dog went around the red Formica table to the twin cabinet doors below the sink. It opened one of these, stuck its head into the dark space, and pulled out the bag of Milk-Bone biscuits, which it brought straight to Travis.

He laughed and said, “Well, if I can have a beer, I guess you deserve a treat of your own, huh?” He took the bag from the dog and tore it open. “Do a few Milk-Bones mellow you out, fur face?” He put the open bag on the floor. “Serve yourself. I trust you not to overindulge like an ordinary dog.” He laughed again. “Hell, I think I might trust you to drive the car!”

The retriever finessed a biscuit out of the package, sat down with its hind legs splayed, and happily crunched up the treat.

Pulling out a chair and sitting at the table, Travis said, “You give me reason to believe in miracles. Do you know what I was doing in those woods this morning?”

Working its jaws, industriously grinding up the biscuit, the dog seemed to have lost interest in Travis for the moment.

“I went out there on a sentimental journey, hoping to recall the pleasure I got from the Santa Anas when I was a boy, in the days before . . . everything urned so dark. I wanted to kill a few snakes like I did when I was a kid, hike and explore and feel in tune with life like in the old days. Because for a long time now, I haven't cared whether I live or die.”

The dog stopped chewing, swallowed hard, and focused on Travis with undivided attention.

“Lately, my depressions have been blacker than midnight on the moon. Do you understand about depression, pooch?”

Leaving the Milk-Bone biscuits behind, the retriever got up and came to him. It gazed into his eyes with that unnerving directness and intensity that it had shown before.

Meeting its stare, he said, “Wouldn't consider suicide, though. For one thing, I was raised a Catholic, and though I haven't gone to Mass in ages, I still sort of believe. And for a Catholic, suicide is a mortal sin. Murder. Besides, I'm too mean and too stubborn to give up, no matter how dark things get.”

The retriever blinked but did not break eye contact.

“I was in those woods searching for the happiness I once knew. And then I ran into you.”

“Woof,” it said, as if it were saying, Good.

He took its head in both his hands, lowered his face to it, and said, “Depression. A feeling that existence was pointless. How would a dog know about those things, hmmm? A dog has no worries, does it? To a dog, every day is a joy. So do you really understand what I'm talking about, boy? Honest to God, I think maybe you do. But am I crediting you with too much intelligence, too much wisdom even for a magical dog? Huh? Sure, you can do some amazing tricks, but that's not the same as understanding me.”

The retriever pulled away from him and returned to the Milk-Bone package. It took the bag in its teeth and shook out twenty or thirty biscuits onto the linoleum.

“There you go again,” Travis said. “One minute, you seem half human- and the next minute you're just a dog with a dog's interests.”

However, the retriever was not seeking a snack. It began to push the biscuits around with the black tip of its snout, maneuvering them into the open center of the kitchen floor one at a time, ordering them neatly end to end.

“What the hell is this?”

The dog had five biscuits arranged in a row that gradually curved to the right, it pushed a sixth into place, emphasizing the curve.

As he watched, Travis hastily finished his first beer and opened the second. He had a feeling he was going to need it.

The dog studied the row of biscuits for a moment, as if not quite sure what it had begun to do. It padded back and forth a few times, clearly uncertain, but eventually nudged two more biscuits into line. It looked at Travis, then at the shape it was creating on the floor, then nosed a ninth biscuit into place.

Travis sipped some beer and waited tensely to see what would happen next. With a shake of its head and a snort of frustration, the dog went to the far end of the room and stood facing into the corner, its head hung low. Travis wondered what it was doing, and then somehow he got the idea that it had gone into the corner in order to concentrate. After a while, it returned and pushed the tenth and eleventh Milk-Bones into place, enlarging the pattern.

He was stricken again by the premonition that something of great importance was about to happen. Gooseflesh dimpled his arms.

This time he was not disappointed. The golden retriever used nineteen biscuits to form a crude but recognizable question mark on the kitchen floor, then raised its expressive eyes to Travis.

A question mark.

Meaning: Why? Why have you been so depressed? Why do you feel life is pointless, empty?

The dog apparently understood what he had told it. All right, okay, so maybe it didn't understand language exactly, didn't follow every word that he spoke, but it somehow perceived the meaning of what he was saying, or at least enough of the meaning to arouse its interest and curiosity.

And, by God, if it also understood the purpose of a question mark, then it was capable of abstract thinking! The very concept of simple symbols- like alphabets, numbers, question marks, and exclamation points-serving as shorthand for communicating complex ideas . . . well, that required abstract thinking. And abstract thinking was reserved for only one species on earth: humankind. This golden retriever was demonstrably not human, but somehow it had come into possession of intellectual skills that no other animal could claim.

Travis was stunned. But there was nothing accidental about the question mark. Crude but not accidental. Somewhere, the dog must have seen the symbol and been taught its meaning. Statistical theorists said an infinite number of monkeys, equipped with an infinite number of typewriters, would eventually be able to recreate every line of great English prose merely by random chance. He figured that this dog forming a Milk-Bone question mark in about two minutes flat, merely by purest chance, was about ten times as unlikely as all those damn monkeys recreating Shakespeare's plays.

The dog was watching him expectantly.

Getting up, he found he was a bit shaky in the legs. He went to the carefully arranged biscuits, scattered them across the floor, and returned to his chair.

The retriever studied the disarranged Milk-Bones, regarded Travis inquiringly, sniffed at the biscuits again, and seemed baffled.

Travis waited.

The house was unnaturally quiet, as if the flow of time had been suspended for every living creature, machine, and object on earth-though not for him, the retriever, or the contents of the kitchen.

At last, the dog began to push the biscuits around with its nose as it had done before. In a minute or two, it formed a question mark.

Travis chugged some Coors. His heart was hammering. His palms were sweaty. He was filled with both wonder and trepidation, with both wild joy and fear of the unknown, simultaneously awestricken and bewildered. He wanted to laugh because he had never seen anything half as delightful as this dog. He also wanted to cry because only hours ago he'd thought life was bleak, dark, and pointless. But no matter how painful it was sometimes, life was (he now realized) nonetheless precious. He actually felt as if God had sent the retriever to intrigue him, to remind him that the world was full of surprises and that despair made no sense when one had no understanding of the purpose-and strange possibilities-of existence. Travis wanted to laugh, but his laughter teetered on the brink of a sob. Yet when he surrendered to the sob, it became a laugh. When he attempted to stand, he knew that he was even shakier than before, too shaky, so he did the only thing he could do: he stayed in his chair and took another long swallow of Coors.

Cocking its head one way and then the other, looking slightly wary, the dog watched him as if it thought he had gone mad. He had. Months ago. But he was all better now.

He put down the Coors and wiped tears out of his eyes with the backs of his hands. He said, “Come here, fur face.”

The retriever hesitated, then came to him.

He ruffled and stroked its coat, scratched behind its ears. “You amaze me and scare me. I can't figure where you came from or how you got to be what you are, but you couldn't have come where you're more needed. A question mark, huh? Jesus. All right. You want to know why I felt life had no purpose or joy for me? I'll tell you. I will, by God, I'll sit right here and have another beer and tell it to a dog. But first . . . I'm going to name you.”

The retriever blew air out of its nostrils, as if to say, Well, it's about time.

Holding the dog's head, looking straight into its eyes, Travis said, “Einstein. From now on, fur face, your name is Einstein.”


Streck called again at ten minutes past nine.

Nora snatched up the phone on the first ring, fiercely determined to tell him off and make him leave her alone. But for some reason she clenched up again and was unable to speak.

In a repulsively intimate tone of voice, he said, “You miss me, prettiness? Hmmmm? Do you wish I'd come to you, be a man for you?”

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