Everything is loud here. Everything. The concrete walls reverberate every noise back to me in this prison.
The dogs are unhappy.
“Hey, Connor, did you let Steve out again today? He’s only had one break,” Jake asks.
His voice echoes off the walls, bouncing between me and him and the dog, Steve.
“No,” I reply.
Frowning, Jake says, “Well, get to it. The night shift is about to start soon, you know. If they see that you’ve only given him one break, you’ll be in trouble.”
His voice irritates the dogs all the more, and myself along with them. Their faces mash against their kennels, begging for something they can’t put into words.
Jake too, though. I know the reason he wants me to let Steve out again. He’ll look bad in front of our supervisor, Helen. And Jake definitely doesn’t want to look bad in front of Helen.
“She’ll never look your way if you’re panting at the wall like that,” I say. “A girl like that wants to be looked at head on.”
Frowning again, Jake says, “What?”
Smiling at him, I say, “I’ll let Steve out.”
That was the one benefit of working in the kennel. It was loud. My voice constantly gets swallowed by the dogs.
I let Steve out on the porch.
The sky is dark, the sun hunkering down for the night. Lucky bastard. It’s been snowing for hours it seems, and it’ll only begin snowing harder overnight. According to the weathermen, anyway.
My nose tells me something different.
As I walk back through the tunnel that leads from the porch to the kennels, I pass Jake. I say, “You better get moving if you don’t want to be caught in the storm. It’s going to be picking up any second now.”
The bastard actually frowns again. “The weatherman said it’ll pick up later.”
Controlling myself, I manage to keep myself from rolling my eyes.
“The weatherman speaks gospel now, does he?”
My snark makes Jake recoil a bit. It’s out of character for me to be so cold, but I want everyone out of the clinic before the snow hits.
“Well… okay,” he says, and then walks off.
Walking swiftly, I make my way back to the kennel. I pass other coworkers as I do, and I see them look at me strangely.
“What’s with Connor today?”
“Yeah, he seems a little off, doesn’t he?”
“He looks hangry.”
I would’ve found that funny if it weren’t for the fact that it wasn’t.
When I returned to the kennel, the wind started howling. Against the sound of the dogs, it was a bit mesmerizing.
The roar of wind, the baying of the hounds. It reminded me of something primal. Something straight out of ancient history. Or, maybe medieval history was more accurate. In the kennel, it felt closer to the dark ages than anything else.
I mopped the concrete floor. Though, to be honest, it didn’t do much in the way of making it look better.
The howling was louder now, as was the barking. Everything was becoming louder, clearer.
The sounds scratched against my eardrums, making me grit my teeth.
I hear other sounds now too, though, and the change is welcome. Car doors opening and closing. Engines turning on. Tires crushing frost and snow as they scurry steadily away from the clinic. It’s almost musical to me. For the first time today, peace settles into my bones.
It shattered quickly.
My ears prick when the door opens.
Helen stands there, smiling.
“Good evening Connor,” she says.
Groggy from the tiring sounds, I say, “What’re you doing here?”
Only, the tone is more menacing. My voice rough and hoarse, as if my voice has been crowding into the others that surround me, howling and baying.
Being the detail oriented clinic head, Helen notices too, of course. Surprised at my unfriendly tone, she says, “I have night shift tonight.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes? I do.”
“No, there’s a storm coming in. I volunteered to stay at the clinic by myself tonight in order to keep things running. No one else is supposed to be here tonight,” I reply.
I’ve stopped mopping now. There’s too much crowding into my head. Dog voices, wild voices, my voice. So many things to hear and heed.
Stepping fully into view, I see Helen is wearing an old pair of scrubs. From ten feet away, I can smell that stale scent that means they’ve been hiding in a drawer for well over three months.
She really does have the night shift, doesn’t she?
I smell something else too. Something tasty. For me, it’s like the smell of a three course meal: appetizer, dinner and dessert all in one.
My stomach growls.
“You should go home. The storm is getting bad and I have things covered here. There’s no reason for you to stay,” I tell her. I hope to God she doesn’t see how desperately my hand is gripping my mop.
“What?” she asks.
That’s right. The howling is getting worse. How could she possibly be able to hear me mumbling?
“I SAID, YOU SHOULD GO HOME. THE STORM IS GETTING WORSE. I HAVE EVERYTHING COVERED HERE,” I shout.
Everything is in an uproar. The dogs, the wind, my heart. Everything.
“That wouldn’t be right” she replies, smiling at me.
My blood is soaring. The wind outside calls to something inside. The dogs are there too. They scratch at the concrete, bang their kennels, let the wind carry their complaints. Pounding and pounding and pounding against the walls.
They want out.
It wants in.
It wants out.
“You should go,” I say forcefully.
Now Helen looks frightened. As she should be. My tone is bone chilling. Colder than the storm, harsher than the wind, more insistent than the dogs barking. It’s completely unlike me.
“Last chance Helen,” I would cringe at the change in my voice if I could, but if I move now, I’ll lose it. “You can still walk away, but only if you do it right now.”
“Connor… you’re scaring me…”
Howling, barking, screaming. The sounds mix in my eardrum. A fire starts in a furnace, deep within. My blood boils, and I want to immerse myself in those sound waves.
My voice is huskier, heavy. Weighted with effort, with barely contained desire. An effort I know I can no longer keep up.
“I warned you Helen, I tried.”
The mop handle snaps in half while I hold it. My bones crack. My skin burns and itches as fur sprouts. Finger nails of a different sort explode from my current ones, pushing away my originals like they’re trash. Cartilage and blood push from my body, making way for new systems to emerge.
I feel the howling now. Inside me. Around me. It’s what I long for, and, as I embrace it, I feel coherency slip away. Solid thoughts slide out of my mind like ice sliding around in a hot pan.
The last coherent thought I have is:
Why couldn’t it have been Jake instead?