It all started with this wretched dog.
My wife put it into their heads, I believe, though she always claimed she was not the source of the obsession. Christmas was approaching. Clark was eight years old, and Lucy was five, and they lacked for nothing, unless you counted their thinness and the lack of colour in their cheeks against them. But that was as much a symptom of the London weather as anything else.
Regardless of the idea’s starting place, however, once it had taken hold in their hearts they refused to see reason. “A dog!” they cried. “A sweet, charming pup for us to play with! Oh, Daddy, please!” How they begged and implored me. How they whined! How they cried!
I should have been firmer. I should have put my foot down and refused their pitiful pleas. But eventually I succumbed, alas, to their bleating and whimpering, and on Christmas Eve I came home late from my work as a chemist with a puppy in my arms.
He was a thin, wriggling sort of thing, with white hair decorated by several black and brown patches. His tail was short and whiplike, and nearly always in motion, even from the very first moment that I saw him in that Dog Pound cage. There seemed to be springs in his legs: he bounced to and fro like a rubber ball, his ears flapping around his face.
The children’s excitement that evening warmed my heart the way that little else did in those days. Between poor wages, ill weather, an utter lack of appreciation from my peers, and a total disregard for my peace and sanity from my wife and children, I admit I had become rather a grumpy sort of fellow. For a moment, there in our front hall, as I shook the rain from my hat and coat and watched Clark and Lucy romp with their new friend, I felt again the way I had as a young man, engrossed in my work, enthralled by my discoveries, enraptured by the world of knowledge at my fingertips. There is a certain unique chemistry, I have found, to the relationships between human interactors. The proper combination of place, time, circumstance, temperament, and pheromones can trigger a broad range of emotions. But a true knowledge of that special chemistry has always escaped me. That knowledge is, perhaps, beyond the reach of modern science. If it were not, wouldn’t we all be happy, all the time?
Indeed, the happy effect of that scene I have described lasted only a few moments for me. The shouting and leaping and dancing of the children stirred the pup into a frenzy, and before I had time to react it had voided its bladder onto the carpet.
For this misdeed, Clark dubbed the mutt “Rascal”, and I feared the name would prove to be prophetic. As I sat pondering in my home laboratory that evening, I imagined coming home each day for the next several years to a hallway full of torn shoes, a bedroom covered in tattered pillows, and a living room carpet stained by countless puddles of urine. I made very little progress on my studies that night, and spent Christmas Day in a foul mood.
To the children’s credit, however, they conscientiously took their new pet’s training in hand. My fears, it turned out, were not realized, and there were no further “accidents”. For some time, Rascal was an agreeable enough addition to our family, and caused little trouble. He was seldom underfoot, rarely barked or howled, and entertained the children on those occasions when I did not have the time or energy to do so myself.
Then came that fateful day…
It was a Saturday, some years later. My memory puts the children’s ages at twelve and nine, though I fear I can no longer trust the details of my recollections to the same extent as I once did. I was spending my weekend in my laboratory, conducting my experiments, when my wife burst in with tears streaming down her face.
“What is the meaning of this?” I cried irritably, for her intrusion had startled me in the midst of an important titration, and the consequences of a mistake could have been dire.
“Poor Rascal!” she sobbed. “Poor, poor Rascal!” And for a minute or two I could get nothing else out of her. At last she raised her head, composed herself enough to speak, and told me, “He was struck by a passing car!”
“Wasn’t he on his leash?” I demanded.
“He was, but it was frayed, and broke,” said my wife.
I rose reluctantly from my work. “Didn’t you tell me last week that you intended to buy a new leash? Why didn’t you do so? Now this is the consequence of your negligence. But take me to the animal. I will see what can be done.”
She thanked me and led me out of the house to the street, where the children were watching over their pet. Even from a distance I could see that Rascal was dying. He had suffered a blow to the head, and on closer inspection I deemed his neck to be broken, and two of his legs, as well.
“Can you save him?” wailed young Lucy.
“Please, Papa,” said Clark, stoically disguising his tears. “Can’t you make him well?”
But even as I knelt there, assailed by their pathos, the dog’s heart ceased its beating.
“Oh, my children,” breathed my wife, gathering them into her arms. “Oh, my dears. We will give Rascal a hero’s burial, and a proper funeral ceremony. And we won’t forget him, will we, my children?”
Their tears flowed, then, like I had never seen before, and I felt that mysterious social chemistry working upon me, producing in me the rarest of emotions: sympathy. I removed my jacket and wrapped it around the dog, lifting it into my arms. “What is my work for, if not a moment such as this?” I declared.
My wife stared up at me in evident confusion. Even she did not truly understand my work, I think, and that was as much my fault as hers. I had always made it my policy to divulge as little information as possible, both to her and to my professional colleagues, fearing to have my ideas stolen or condemned. Perhaps if I had been more open with her, if she had grasped the beauty of my intentions, she would have reacted differently. But as I carried the dog back into the house, she pursued me harshly. “Where are you taking Rascal?” she nagged. “What are you going to do!? For God’s sake, let the children say their proper goodbyes!”
I ignored her—she was in hysterics—and laid the dog’s corpse on a table in my lab. I ushered her forcefully out and said, “You may return in 24 hours. Encourage the children to be optimistic! But for this time, I am not to be interrupted.” Then I locked the door so that I would not be disturbed, and immediately set to work.
I threw myself upon the task, and all other considerations fled from my mind. Never before had I concentrated so strictly. I checked every instrument obsessively; measured, remeasured, and measured again; and observed every minute detail of my great experiment’s progress. I knew neither thirst, hunger, nor fatigue for those 24 hours. Indeed, I hardly recognized the passage of time, so intent was my focus. But at last all was prepared, to the exacting specifications I had spent years developing.
Stepping back from that table, I observed the trappings of my science. I already knew every quantity to be precise, every electrode to be meticulously placed, every piece of piping and electrical wiring to be securely connected.
I sank into my chair with a sigh of deep satisfaction. As the frenzy of scientific passion slowly left me, I became aware of a noise from my laboratory door, a loud knocking accompanied by my wife’s wailing voice. Realization dawned on me: hadn’t I been hearing these same noises, in some subdued part of me, at regular intervals over the past several hours? Had I truly been so enthralled by my work that I had blocked out all distractions to even that extent?
I stood, with difficulty, for weariness had begun to come upon me, and looked at the clock on the wall. Nearly 24 hours had passed, just as I had said, and all was in readiness. I unlocked my laboratory door.
My wife spilled into the room like a flash flood, her eyes dark and red and overflowing with tears. She reached out for me, but I gently held her back, afraid that in her emotional state she might disturb my scientific apparatus.
“Be calm, my dear,” I instructed her. “Take a seat in my chair. Where are the children?”
At that, they timidly showed their faces through the door. They, too, looked to have been crying. Their faces were pale and drawn, and they trembled as they looked up at me.
“Come in, Clark. Come in, Lucy. Just this once, you may enter your father’s laboratory.” I beckoned them in, and they obeyed, though not without some trepidation. “There is nothing to fear,” I promised them. “Didn’t your mother tell you to have hope? We are on the verge of a very joyful moment!” My encouragement had some small effect on them, and they joined their mother at the chair, seating themselves on the floor. Their eyes were wide with wonder as they gazed around my laboratory, which they had never before been permitted to visit.
I took up a teacher’s pose beside the apparatus I had assembled. Rascal lay on his side in a shallow glass vat filled with colourless gel. Dozens of electrodes were attached to specific points on his body, where I had shaved away the hair to ensure clean contact with his skin. “Yesterday was a sad day for our family,” I said, “for I know how great your affections were for your pet. But all is not lost, for it is time that I revealed the purpose of my work. Rascal, my children, will be the first among many to receive the greatest gift that can be offered by human science.”
My wife, who had grown quiet as I spoke, whispered, “Charles… What madness is this?”
“It is not madness,” I replied patiently. “It is science. You may not appreciate it, but you are standing with me on the horizon of history.”
“Please, my husband,” said my wife, and I can remember very clearly how her voice caught upon that word. “You are frightening the children. You are frightening me. Will you not allow us to bury our pet?”
“Enough,” I said. “I can see by the dark circles around your eyes that you are tired and overcome by your emotions, and therefore irrational. Have trust in me that all will be well!”
“I am tired,” she said. “In fact I have not slept for even an hour since you sealed yourself inside this tomb. I laid awake at the door, straining to hear your movements, to know that you yet lived. Even now, as I look upon you, I half wonder whether you are not dead, and whether this very conversation is not the product of a delusion.
“You mention the darkness of my eyes, but have you not observed your own? Look into a mirror, Charles. See the paleness of your skin; the blood vessels of your eyes, which are near to bursting; the wildness of your disheveled hair. You seem a monstrosity, Mr. Portency! I can hardly bear to look upon your face.
“Won’t you cease this madness?” she begged me. “Can’t you see what you are putting us through? Have you no sympathy?”
I addressed her sternly, then, perhaps more sternly than I ought to have: “Madam, every minute of these last 24 hours has been an exercise in sympathy, though now, at the culmination of it all, I find that that emotion has long since left me. Sympathy was a manifestation of my weakness, for I am only a man. But I did not achieve this coming moment by lamenting my inadequacies: I achieved it through the exercise of my strengths. My wife, you may feel, in the weakness of your own emotions, that you are looking on the face of a monstrosity, but in fact you are looking on the face of true genius!”
Then, suffering no further disruptions or delays, I reached to the wall and threw the switch.
Instantly my machine began its work. Chemicals of my own discovery and invention poured and mixed, flowing down into the vat and submerging the dog in a viscous green solution. The electrodes began to pulse, stimulating the organs, each in turn, and then the brain, massaging them, caressing them, increasing in vigour as the voltage slowly rose.
I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of the climax, my audience forgotten in the rapture of the moment. Circuits whined and glowed and the chemical solution bubbled and churned. The symphony of sound and light reached its crescendo, and with a sudden flash the circuits fully discharged themselves into the dog’s body.
The brightness of the light surprised me, and I threw my arms up to cover my eyes. As the glow faded, I blinked away the spots in my vision and eagerly leaned forward to see the results of my experiment. Much of the chemical solution had been instantly evaporated by the climactic moment, so that Rascal now lay on his side in only an inch or two of liquid.
For a few moments, all was still. I stared intently. The quietness pressed down on me like a heavy weight. I cast my eyes across my apparatus. Every beaker had been emptied, every circuit was in its right place, every electrode remained attached. All was as it should have been. And yet, all was still. Every muscle in my body grew tense. I hardly breathed.
A hand grasped my elbow and I uncoiled like a spring, crying, “Don’t touch anything!” My wife tumbled to the floor, her cheek red where I had struck her. My children’s eyes were wide with horror as my shadow loomed over them. Regret flooded through me. I sank to my knees and covered my face with my hands, moaning, “My wife! My wife! Forgive me! What have I done?”
But just then, little Clark’s voice broke through my sorrow: “Look at Rascal!”
I whirled in ecstasy and saw a vision that seemed brighter even than my dreams. There, in the shallow glass vat, stood Rascal, his thin chest slowly rising and falling as he breathed and his tail limply swaying side to side. He looked at me, and past me to the children, and I saw that the procedure had done something to his eyes: the whites had gone deep gray, like ashes, and the pupils glowed like black coals.
“Rascal!” cried Lucy. She stood and rushed forward to pet him, but I caught her and held her back.
“Wait!” I said, not wanting her to come into contact with the chemicals that remained in the vat.
Startled by my shout, Rascal did something then that he hadn’t done indoors for years: he had an accident. I watched the thick, dark, sludgy urine trickle into the vat, the symptom of decomposition and chemical congealment. To this day I wish I knew what element of that emulsion was to blame for the reaction that followed: the chemical solution began to bubble, and then rapidly to boil and steam, and before my incredulous eyes the chemicals burst into flame.
The children screamed and fled the laboratory. My wife stood and grasped at me, trying to pull me towards the door as the fire rapidly spread to my equipment, but I was not prepared to abandon my work so readily. I pushed her towards the exit and reached under the table for my fire extinguisher, then vented the flame-suppressing foam into the vat.
It was too little, too late. The fire was already beyond my control. I turned to run, but was arrested by Rascal’s piteous howl as he pulled against the electrodes, attempting to free himself. In that moment, his howl sounded to me like an invitation to redemption.
I wrapped my jacket around my hands, reached into the conflagration, and pulled the dog out, yanking him free of the electrodes. In my delay, however, the fire had spread to the door frame. Smoke was filling the room, and it was becoming difficult to breathe. Every moment I hesitated, my window of opportunity for escape was growing smaller, so I steeled myself, clutched the dog close to my chest, and leapt through the flaming doorway into the hall.
I fell headlong, and awkwardly, onto the floor. My head and lungs burned. The world swam around me, and my watering eyes saw only the grey of smoke and the orange of fire.
My eyelids closed, and I fell into gloom.
Then I felt a cool roughness on my cheek. My eyes opened, I blinked away my tears, and I saw the dog standing over me like an apparition, frantically licking my face. Amidst the conflagration, it looked like some wretched imp, a pitiful Cerberus, its patchy hair slicked down with chemicals, wisps of flame dancing on its ears and tail.
But it was alive, and mere minutes ago it had been dead. That thought, that triumph, filled me with new resolve, and I raised myself onto my hands and knees and began to crawl.
I didn’t know what direction I was going, or even what part of the house I was in, but the dog led me, dancing ahead and yapping at me or circling behind me and nipping at my heels. Walls collapsed around me, ceilings crumbled, but somehow I found myself at the foot of an outside door. I reached for the handle and it seared my skin, but with a rush of adrenaline I turned it and yanked the door open. The inrush of oxygen sparked a rushing blaze that swept over me as I flung myself out onto the scorched grass of the back yard.
Every part of my body hurt like death, and I might have laid there and been completely consumed if I had not been encouraged onwards once more by that unfathomable dog. I crawled as far as I was able, and then darkness took me.
I smelled burnt flesh and ash. I heard the crackle and roar of flame. I felt waves of heat assailing me.
I opened my eyes to the darkness of night, tinted with flickering red and orange.
I rolled onto my side. The dog was sitting nearby, watching me with its infernal black eyes. I held my hand in front of my face: it was charred red and black and covered in blisters. I knew I should feel incredible pain, but all I was aware of was a dull, deep throbbing, like a full-body heartbeat. One thought pressed its way to the forefront of my mind: where was my family?
Standing, I shuffled back towards the house. The fire had settled somewhat, and was now completing its consumption of the lower storey, sending a great tower of smoke and ash into the sky. I passed around the side of the house, giving it a wide berth to avoid the heat. As I neared the front of the house, where it faced the street, I became aware of the clamouring sirens of emergency vehicles.
I rounded the corner of the house and stopped under the shadow of a tree. The street and yard were fill with a pandemonium of fire trucks, ambulances, and onlookers, but one thing caught my attention, one face seized my eyes and refused to let go.
My wife lay on a stretcher, limp, helpless, hopeless. A sheet covered her up to the chin, and the skin of her pale face was tinged grey with soot and ash. Her eyes fluttered open, and my heart leapt into my throat: alive! I took one step forward, and somehow, across the chaos, she saw me. Her gaze pierced the shadow under the tree and met me. There was an endless instant of emotion. My spirit shattered.
They were dead. I knew it by the glistening abomination in her eyes. She hated me. She abhorred me. She blamed me. And I deserved every ounce of her scorn.
Then they lifted her into the ambulance.
I am a horror. I am a fiend. I am a wanderer.
Will this wretched dog never die?