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Fiction Contest Runner Up - & amp;quot;The Hounds That Guard... & amp;quot; 

by Shann Ray & r & The Hounds That Guard the Fiery Gate at the Citadel of Seventh Heaven & r & 1. & r & Small Hands, but quick, quick fingers for chord changes and rhythms, picking patterns, strum patterns, tight slick licks the likes of which the world has never known. He needs more. He turns a three minute riff that makes his head sweat. Like death, he thinks, or death like that--all absorption and fire, something to be lost in, like wilderness, like rage. He props the guitar against the arm of the couch, and sits back. He puts the pick in his mouth and feels his face. It feels good to think of a woman loving him, finding him attractive. His nose, like a blade, and his lips, small and red. Won't need a voice, he thinks, just a face--good lines and clear good skin, no marks. One real thing his mom and dad give him, good face, no blemishes.


He pictures how a woman might touch his face, a woman who's seen him play. She'd touch him not for sex, though that would come, but for understanding, to know him more, to be near.


Wheatland, Montana. Odd jobs haying, shearing sheep, shooting coyotes for $10 a hide. He's Nordic white with dirty blond hair that reaches his shoulders. A year gone already, and no one knows him, and he knows no one. Embarrassment, that's why they uprooted him, shame blowing them east along the highline due to his suicide pact with Pat Stone back in Havre. They'd agreed, he and Pat, it would be simultaneous, in separate houses, using shotguns. The detail is what he remembers, simple print on matching blank chord charts:


& lockquote & Wear black. & r & Dope Show, top volume. & r & Picks, right front pocket. & r & Chrysalis carved on left forearm. & r & Place barrel under chin. & r & Question: feel like being blown away? & r & Answer: yes. & r & Thumb trigger. & r & Pull hard. & r & Fly. & lockquote &


Like a good song, he thinks, though he's not sure he would've been brave enough. Band teacher found out, the school made a scene, and in less than a week his dad relocated the family four hours east to Wheatland. "No more black clothes," was all the old man said.





2. & r & Tonight, ugly altered tones from the kitchen. Father. Mother. Anathema.


She snaps. He growls.


She curses. He slams a door. Silence.


Animals, he thinks. Putting his face in his hands he leans back and hears the wind, a north wind against which he feels the house brace itself. A few ticks at the window, the touch of a tree, the beginnings of rain. He cups his hands over his eyes. He can't recall the last time his mother touched his face.


His father, he thinks, only touches in anger.


He sits up.


He stands and wipes his hands on his jeans.


Taking the pick from his mouth he fingers it, clear brown-gold, rounded edges; he stares through the small translucent window, up at the light. He slips the pick into the right front pocket of his jeans. His faded black sweat-top lies in the corner of the room, arms splayed, midsection bent in on itself. He grabs it, puts it on and walks out the front door.





The night is darker than he imagined, a plank of concrete like a grey-white arm in the yard. He jumps down the steps and sprints the length of it, leaping the sidewalk, angling toward the highway. He doesn't know where he'll go and doesn't care. Low ceiling of cloud black in the sky, drizzle of rain at his face, he runs hard down the middle of the pavement and meets no cars and sees no one walking. His face is hot and he cries.


He sees the small squarish houses down from Highway 2 on straight lines to the south. They end on fields alternately fallow or brimming gold with wheat, fields he hates, fields quilting the earth from here to middle America. The old streetlamps burn, lights on metal arms atop half-cut telephone poles, dim amber halos domelike over the sidewalks. Rain enters the outer rim of the light, down in quick jettisons that die shining on the ground. He runs angrily, with no plan but to keep running.


Every house is hard and dark, the tall grass slicked with rain. He feels strong, cruising, floating, only slightly cold in the upper body. From up ahead he hears the noise of a semi as it descends the downgrade toward town. He stops at the corner and lets the force of the huge machine, burdened with downshifting, pass him by. A dirty mist sweeps over him and the white trailer fades east to the city. He walks to the middle of the highway, turns, and follows the truck.


He keeps running, drifting some, feeling the downslant of the asphalt, drawing himself back. He's been gone so long, it seems, but how long, really? Five minutes, ten maybe. His ears ring. His nose feels packed. The road, a two-lane hump-backed straightaway, slits the city east to west and railroad tracks line the far side, heading toward town, and further east to all the other stops on the highline--Glasgow, Wolf Point, Poplar, through the Dakotas to Minnesota, to Minneapolis, and St. Paul. His shoes are dirty yellow suede, two years old. He thinks of Mom, Dad, words he doesn't use; his reedy mother, he calls her Cher, tiny, full of barbs; his father Frank the fat man with vacant violent eyes. He feels nothing.


A mile or so ahead he sees the light of the city, a faint red hue on a black underbelly of cloud, and closer the small round headlights of an oncoming car. He moves into the car's lane. The car slows, the driver pumps the high beams. Light consumes his body. He feels ghostly and bright-headed. He runs toward the dark windshield but the car veers, taking the shoulder, lurching, kicking up stones. A loud honk blares and an old man's face appears, loose-skinned, contorted behind glass, then gone. Total darkness. Still running, his upper body is hot, his fists are icy and hard. He isn't tired.





3. & r & The rain picks up, thrumming the back of his head and the wind is a loud hush from the north. Suddenly, he doesn't want to run anymore. He considers lying down. Between the big cone-shaped beams of the highway lights there are huge fields of darkness. Dark, he thinks, dark like dark after light has gone, dark like the absence of light. The lights are modern giants compared to the dwarfs that line his small subdivision; they spill bone-white light into the night, ultra high luminaries erected on thin silver poles, slanted at the tip, reaching up, out over the road, out into the dark. Above them, the sky is so black looking into it he feels blind. They don't know him, he thinks. Never have. No one has.


Lightning flashes and for a moment the world opens. The houses become vivid, close on each side, pale shapes in two long lines to the city. Then blackness swallows everything and thunder booms. He is left with an image of the houses looking like the narrow elongated bones of forearms or thick-set femurs, the earth around them a grey-white skin that has sloughed off. In the bang of sound he doesn't flinch or grow afraid. He slows to a walk, down the double yellow line. A monumental apathy fills him. He decides to stop.


He believes if he lies down, the pavement will be hard but good, beaten down, and restful to him. He won't hear the cars, the rancher's trucks with their loud mufflers, the wide holler of gears from the 18-wheelers. He'll sleep and forget everything.


He bends down and touches the road with his left hand.


Something far ahead catches his eye.





Up there almost beyond vision two forms pass into a broad circle of light. He knows they are dogs. The bodies ride tall, the stature and gait wolflike but more squat, more muscular than wolves. They walk, then begin running toward him. He stands upright, head high, watching until they passed again into the dark. His mouth tastes like metal. His nose clears. He smells asphalt, dirt and the oil ground into it, the rubber of tires, the tar of road crews, gasoline. Sounds intensify, grow exalted in the mind. He hears clearly the electricity in the sky, the pull of lightning and the deep stillness that harbors thunder. He hears the quick rhythm of the dogs' paws on the pavement far away.


The dogs come visible again under another highway light, nearer, five lights ahead now, perhaps five or six-hundred yards. That far distant they look sleek and fast. They shimmer. His feet are set beneath him, heavy, stonelike. Along the outside of his legs he touches at the seams of his jeans.


From the black night of Canada and the boundary lands, nothing now to block its way, the north wind rises, and with it the rain. The dogs enter the darkness again. He knows he should go, flee back to the house, he wishes he was loved, he wishes he was lovely, but instead he keeps staring, envisioning things. He should go, right now. His mind feels numb. Another highway light closer the animals emerge, still far away but near enough he can see the pink ribbons of their tongues. He gives name to the breed: Rottweiler. The word jolts him and he runs.


Looking over his shoulder he sees the dogs moving fast with their heads down. He lowers his head and runs faster, lifting his legs, pumping his fists, but his shoes are waterlogged, almost black, banging at the road, louder than the rain. Behind him the dogs claw hard sounds from the street and when he looks again lightning flashes, showing their stark, fierce faces, the strange ear of the lead dog, crownlike, half-eaten. The sky goes dark and he runs, entering the glow of another circle of brightness spread wide on the highway. He is halfway across, frantically looking back when they enter the edge of the light one light behind him. He turns, runs to the first house and leaps a small picket fence. K Street: one over from his own. I can make it, he thinks.





4. & r & He cuts across the front yard to a narrow path at the side of the house where he runs bumping his shoulder once on the sidewall. The path opens on a wide backyard picketed like the front. At the far end of the yard he barely clears the fence before turning up the alley.


A moment later he hears the dogs in the gravel behind him, fighting to make the corner. At a grey house on the left he grips the top of a short chain link fence and hurls himself over. Landing, he falls to his knees and scrambles up, running. The dogs come, flying at the fence, clutching the top of it, wriggling into the yard. He reaches a gate, unlatches it and slams it behind him. He runs beside the house and comes out onto his own street. His house is at the far end. He runs harder and wants to cry again. He curses himself.


For a moment he hears nothing, just his own hard breathing. He wants to panic. He calms himself. The gate was topped by a curved metal swirl, a length higher than the rest of the fence. High enough, he thinks, to stop the dogs. He slows. Faintly he hears snarling, the snapping of jaws, the dogs banging their faces into the gate. Volumes louder the storm emits surges of force and ultimate build, factories of noise in the cage of the night, and the rain has torn a whole in everything. Oily wet sheets descend, silver, black, water, sky, everything, nothing. He arcs into the street and runs straight ahead. The voice of the dogs is gone.


Laboring to catch his breath, he holds his side and slows to a jog.


The sound comes, higher, more pronounced, a paw, a muzzle at the fence. The bright familiarity, the conviction. He pictures the mouth of the lead dog carving flesh from his wrist, jaws hinging open and shut, splintering the bones. He turns and sees the dogs on a straight line behind him, bearing down.


He runs for Mr. Elhaven's place, the big fence, a backyard he can rely on, two down from his own. The dogs gain rapidly and he flies to the side of Elhaven's, to the back where he gathers and catapults himself, slamming bodily some feet up the giant chain link fence. He grips the small metal squares and climbs quickly. A sharp-edged pain registers in his hands but he reaches the top, swings his legs over and drops, rolling sideways on the flooded grass of the backyard. Thank God, he says. He turns and sits on his haunches and breathes. He gloats. He blows heat into his hands. Idiots, he thinks, they won't get over that.


The dogs track at full speed, heads down and teeth chalk white, bodies black and slick in the rain. He finds them beautiful. They leap. The fence repels them.


The city is birthing thunder. Lightning rends the near sky. He hears big sounds, mythic sounds. Sounds as of mountains falling or earth opening, hard and harder the darkness and all is gone and all is changed and in the space between the houses, on the horizon to the north and west, a diadem of light branches upward on the surface of the world. Blackness. Then the sky alight again and cracked with wild irregular fractures, the edge-burn hot and white and clean in the night.


He sits on his heels, his elbows on his knees. He is alone in a broad puddle of rain that covers nearly the whole expanse of Elhaven's back yard.


Like toy battering rams the dogs pummel the fence.


"Wear yourselves out," he says and he gets up and walks closer. At the top of his lungs he yells, "Down!"


"Back!" he screams.


The dogs punch the fence with their heads, bloodying their flat, short faces. They're crazy, he thinks, they have mental illness. In among the facial bones, in the dogs' wide, thick skulls, the black, thin slits that hold their eyeballs appear buried and narrow.


He waits. No one comes.





5. & r & "Go ahead," he yells. "Knock your own heads in," and through the fence he spits on them.


The dogs flare.


He stares at them, and he likes the heart he has, the confidence, secure behind this fence. It is a puffed up feeling, making him as big as he wants to be, but it is followed by the certainty that he is really very small, the same boy he's always been, pale and wet standing in this puddle, full of fear. He is more afraid, in fact, than ever.


Backing away, he sits on his heels again and wraps his knees in his arms. He considers killing the dogs, but has no idea how he might do so, small as he is, and without a weapon. He looks around, hoping to find a hard-edged implement or bludgeon, a broom handle or two-by-four, a baseball bat. He finds nothing. In the far corner of the yard is Mr. Elhaven's tool shed, small square of tin, clean linear island in an ocean of broken black water, the water beaten to pieces by the rain. The world is so often unlovely. A silver and black masterlock seals two white tin doors. No good, he thinks.


How much love does a man need?


He decides to wake Elhaven and gets up, but as he approaches the back door of the house the ragged-eared dog trots down the fence-line and slips his snout under the latch of a small gate that enters upon the backyard. He wishes he would have noticed that gate. He wishes he might have been more attentive to something so small yet so large in the scope of things. The dog pushes the latch with his nose and paws open the gate. The dogs flow into the yard like eels and he breaks for the back fence, fleeing without thinking, splashing wide holes in the pond the storm has made. The dogs are faster, the angle precise, and the lead dog overtakes him just as he reaches the fence.


He cries out.


No light and no one stirs. His momentum carries him and he falls forward into the fence, scrambling upward, dragging the dog, the dog jerking convulsively, jaws locked on a bell of denim at the bottom of his right pantleg. The second dog half-climbs the flanks and head of the first, but fails to gain purchase and careens off, hitting the fence, falling to the ground.


In a vigorous thrust he moves to the top, making a quick reach and finding it, securing a handhold. He pulls his chest upward and throws his arm out, checking another lunge from the second dog. The dog bites the top of his forearm, tearing a wide hole in his sweatshirt, then it falls back to the ground, scrambling, trying to gather again. On the whiteness of his arm, a crescent of blood begins. He sees the skin belled out and half-mooned, blood running downward, branching, reconnecting. He moves upward, trying to dislodge the first dog and get free. His jeans are tight to his hips, the thing heavy as a hay bale. Too close to the lead dog the second dog is frantic, scratching the lead dog's back, biting the flanks. He hears the pull of denim in the lead dog's mouth, a creak of stitching and a shearing sound as the dog falls backward, white-eyed, wriggling, smacking its head and chest on the ground, legs splayed, yelping.


Frantic, the second dog sniffs the ground.


Seeing this, he pulls his chest to the fence-top and hoists his leg over, clean shinbone white as snow in the ragged hole. The sudden imbalance flings him free and he floats in mid-air, his mind like a lost thing until he lands flat on his back in the alley.


As if he'd swallowed a stone he lies holding his stomach. Both dogs are at the fence an arm's length from his face, pawing vigorously at the base of the fence, splashing muck and water behind them. He is stuck; he can't find air. Then his chest opens and he sucks in huge whole breaths, arms wide, legs straight, rain hard on his face. Grit covers his teeth. His hair is set back from his head, the locks spread and dirty in the gravel. I've done it, he thinks, I've won.





6. & r & His house is only two doors down, two sets of garbage cans, his own weedy back yard, his own back door, and beyond, the mighty field, and beyond that the darkness, and under it the light, under the darkness the light of everything. He rises slowly.


The dogs leave the fence and sprint back for the open gate, and he sees them and he runs. They'll circle in front of Elhaven's, he thinks, try to head him off on the far side of Binder's, on the fenceless, manicured lawn, mowed clean and tight to the wall of weeds that forms his own backyard. He believes he'll beat them there. He sees the dented metal of his father's garbage cans in their old wooden frame, and running he searches the line of weeds that form the corridor between his house and Binder's. Just there the dogs come out low and quick, and he ducks down. A dream, he thinks--the fur of their bodies oiled as a raven's wing, the solid, blood-stained noses and silken complexion of the face and neck--has to be a dream. Sniffing, they don't see him. They sweep into his yard and disappear into the height of weeds.


He moves along the back of Binder's yard, nearing his own, watching the forest of knee-high weeds wet in the torrent of rain, and beyond this the vast luminous emptiness of the big field. He kneels behind Binder's garbage cans and sticks his head out. No dogs. He pulls himself back and drops to one knee, placing the inside of his hand on the back of his neck. The skin is slick and very cold. Rain strikes his chest. He imagines Binder, the local pastor, in a shooting stance on the back step, shotgun to shoulder, blowing the dogs away.


Think, he tells himself, and he looks again. The lead dog sniffs the ground fast on the line between Binder's yard and his. He pulls back. When he looks again the lead dog is on the small slab of cement at the back of the house, nose down, pacing in front of the screen door.


He moves into the gap and enters the yard on a dead run. The lead dog turns and meets his eyes and pauses. I should turn around, he thinks.


Then he sees the second dog, and it stops him.





Coming into the open the second dog has already flanked him. He tastes bile in the back of his throat. He wants to run. He wants a gun. He wants to maim the dogs, to kill them. His hands are stiff. It's over, he thinks, but when the rear dog rushes in, his mind quickens and he lowers his head and runs for the screen door. Powerful. Graceful.


The lead dog comes straight on, directly for him, and he sees the dog's ear, the naked look of it, and he doesn't dodge or look away even as the dog leaps with perfect form and with such force the impact snaps his head and hair back. The bite carves an opening in his face from the upper right side of his forehead, across his nose in an S, all the way to the underside of the jawbone. He bends backward and falls, throwing his forearm into the dog, flipping the dog crazily behind him. Immediately the second dog's teeth set in his calf but he recoils and rolls, tossing the dog sideways. He runs forward and jumps for the screen and breaks through, hitting the floor hard, striking his cheekbone, chest, and hip. He slides on the water but turns and reaches the back door, throwing it shut just as the dogs lunge.





7. & r & Struck down, destroyed, he puts his face to the floor, and breathes. He is more alive than he's ever been. He waits, listening to the sounds the dogs make, tearing at each other, at the door. He breathes and doesn't think, and blood spills from his head and pools on the floor.


Tentative, he gets up and approaches the door. He sets the deadbolt. From a small square-shaped window in the upper portion of it he watches while the dogs leap, bumping at the window with their mouths, bloodying it. He moves to the sink, touching the edges of the wound. He fears the dogs might break through, despite the height and firmness and smallness of the window. He stands for a long time with his hands at the sink watching the blood slip from his chin into the basin, watching it bloom as it hits a sheen of water in the bottom, darken from pink to red, widen and slide down the drain.


In the small chamber of the laundry room sounds are muffled, the bump of the dogs' heads on the outside, the bigger sound of the storm, thrashing. He stands over the sink for a long time. He hears nothing from his mother, his father. Finally, he turns and backs away. The far wall touches his shoulderblades and he slides to the floor. He sets his feet out before him and waits in the semi-dark while the blood drips from his chin to his sweatshirt and blackens a circle wider than a fist. Blood warms the underside of his pantleg. His calf aches. He stares blankly at the door. Strands of his hair stick to his neck. He fumbles in his jeans pocket, finds the pick, amber triangular disk, lovely, iridescent even in the dark. When he sets it on his tongue and closes his lips his mouth waters and he feels comforted. His mind feels light. He sits this way and it seems to him all the blood is running slowly out of him. He thinks he should drink something. He is too tired to lift himself. He sleeps.





Far on, the light of morning comes.


The dogs are quiet. No rain. A blade of sun from the window puts the bright gold shape of a diamond on his chest. He feels hot. His eyes burn. When he stands he hears movement outside. Looking out the window he sees the dogs rise. He remembers the pick and flips it with his tongue, moving it to his cheek. The dogs stretch and stare up at him blankly. He hadn't noticed it before, faint brown mask on each face, in the shape of a butterfly. They turn their heads and walk away, disappearing in the growth for a time, reappearing on the lawn at the back of Binder's yard. They cross the alley, long-legged, heads high, mouths still quiet with sleep. Their faces look dark and indistinct that far away and when the dogs slip into the corridor between two houses, they're gone.


He takes off his shoes and socks and walks from the room. His feet dampen the floor. The sun has warmed his upper body.


Through the hallway he sees the blue-white glow of the television and the couch where his mother lies sleeping. She has her back to him, a small baby-blue pillow tucked beneath her head. He sees the slight curve of her body, her tiny feet at rest on his father's lap. His father's head is tipped back, the drone of a snore discordant with the smooth hush of the television. Tenderly, almost loosely, his father holds her feet in his hands.

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