• Prose

Ryan Gossen - Garbage Night

The encroaching night softened the earth and released its’ smells. The tail end of the warm evening breeze had left, pulling the clean upper atmosphere down behind it. It dragged across the forest floor, sweeping the smell of rotting leaves into the hole. When Barry rolled over to one side, the warm air that was held around him like a blanket by his fine, thick fur was squeezed out, exhaling like a lung worn on the outside of his body. The air that replaced it was cold, which caused him to stir again, thus his metabolism was elevated and hunger rang inside him. Waking up in a hole is different from waking up outside or in a house. The earth is a mother's pouch. No sound comes in. Barry had found dense bushes to be very convenient, and hollow trees were safest, but the best sleep was in a good deep hole.

It's hard not to be at peace when you've slept so well. Barry considered the profoundness of his skill. Others ran faster, fought more fiercely, made louder noises. Some scarcely slept at all and woke twitching with hunger and fear. He had shared a hole with a rabbit once (never again). He tried to empathize with those who spent their short lives in a frenzy of passion and instinct. He would never say it, but he could not see the point of such an existence. Perhaps there was a sense of peace that came with having a microscopic attention span. Maybe small pleasures were more complete, even if they were completely lost in the next moment’s panic. As a Possum, he was fortunate to possess the raw mental power to hold past, present, and future calmly in his thoughts. The key was quality sleep. To sleep late and wake with a mind like the sharpest tooth, this was the soul of wisdom.

A little shuffling brought his nose up to the mouth of the hole, to the litter of the forest like a periscope. Insects, fungi, deer, garbage. Garbage. In the morning, at the end of his day, horrible diesel trucks would stop and start the length of the street lifting the cans and smashing them down. It would would frighten Barry in his hole, but right at this moment, the greatest amount of nutrition and sheer satisfaction which would ever be available to him lined the street on both sides in great, reeking plastic obélisques. It's true the cans were possum-proof and Barry would likely torture himself, groveling in the scent around the curb. But there had been exceptions, things fell out when cans were moved. And Barry was not inclined to overthink such strong signals from his nose.

Rummaging through the bushes, Barry contemplated the smells that became more detailed as he got closer. Brussels Sprout… that was good. He would eat that first and be already a little full by the time he got to the fast food bags with the half eaten MacDonalds and maybe not damage himself in an attempt to become one with them, bag included. Chicken… nuggets. Lazy parents, the Greggios, God bless them, or maybe that was coming from the Ristich’s. Barry wasn't looking particularly hard when he cleared the bushes. He was lost in the world of scent, which had taken him over and assured him he already knew everything he was about to see. His eyes just watched the ground, kept shut when he pushed through twigs, and rolled around loosely, hanging on every word from his nose. So he was surprised by what he saw. The Greggio’s garbage can was… was it possible?… overturned.

On a normal night, Barry would saunter to the can and possibly find one or two items which had been spilled. He would find a piece of plastic which had contained cookies and bite it repeatedly. Then he would aggressively sniff the can, around the can, and attempt to sniff under the can by jamming his nose into the seam between the can and asphalt, his sensitive paws digging reflexively until they sent angry pain signals to his spinning brain. Then he would move along to the Ristich’s, and down the street until he ran into trouble, got chased into some other bushes, maybe switched over to Dolphin Court. But an overturned can… this had happened before but Barry had begun to suspect that he had imagined it. Barry’s mind reeled but his nose was unsurprised.

Edwin, a local raccoon, was already sitting there, chewing and manipulating garbage that lay spread in a fan shape from the mouth of the can.

“Have to work quick. Someone’s dog’s gonna be all over this.”

“Ooooh, there’s… the Brussels Sprouts. And there's… is that jello?”

“Yeah man, get in here.” Edwin said with his mouth full.

Barry went into the jello immediately, his black nose dragging across the wet, sticky sugary mess as his teeth and tongue brought it into his mouth in quick, small convulsions. After a minute of total immersion, he looked up, not to scan the street or even the area around the can, but to see what else could be eaten within a few inches of his head. Chicken nuggets. Some had ketchup smeared on them, some half eaten, all were cold and funky, having been in this garbage for a few days at room temperature. Perfection. After some time spent with the nuggets, Barry returned to the jello, then looked around again. He had a couple bites of the Brussel Sprout. To be fair it was only one bite, since his nose altered him to a new option. It was hard to sort out this new smell from the flood swirling around him. He stopped waving his nose in the air and forced his eyes to focus and conduct a search among the debris for certain textures. There...a pile of rice spilled across an open frozen orange juice container. He was taken aback. He normally thought of eyes as undisciplined children, ranging wildly while anchored in his head above his sensible nose, but here they had surprised him with a useful and goal-focused contribution, like a stupid child saying something insightful. This was something to consider later, back in the hole. Not now. Now was a time for decisive action.

Edwin’s small black hand scooped up a portion of rice and withdrew it. Barry’s eyes followed the hand back to Edwin and saw that he was pressing it, forming some kind of ball. Edwin glanced over and registered Barry’s attention, looking up and down the street, and back to his project. “Im making energy bars.” he said.

“What?” Asked Barry.

“Rice, some chicken, some… ketchup. Or syrup, whatever this is, to hold it all together. It's great for long trips or staying up in a tree. You know, if you get hungry.” He pressed the wad of garbage into an oval shape, then placed it on the ground next to three others he had already made.

Horrible and loud barking came from across the street. The noise frightened Barry so badly it made his head hurt and he pooped a little bit. Edwin shot a hard look across the street. “It's the Robinson’s dog, he’s locked in the yard but that doesn't mean he can’t get out. Anyway, now we've been announced.”

Three dogs on the street and two more on distant streets joined in the barking. Edwin was gathering up his energy bars in one hand and did a quick look around to make sure he wasn't leaving anything important. “Seriously Barry, I’m ditching. One of these dogs is getting out and I’m not going to be here.”

Barry lifted his head from the garbage and looked down the street in the direction of the most serious sounding barking. Since their target was more than five feet away, his eyes now had nothing to say. A human joined in from somewhere, yelling a dog. Barry could always eat more in a situation like this, but wisdom suggested he begin to plan his departure. It wasn't that he did not take his ears seriously. Sound was hard evidence of the world. Smell however was not evidence at all, but the thing itself traveling into Barry’s head, where it was understood intimately and in detail. The decomposition gases of a week of the Greggios’ food now circulated through Barry’s sinuses and made a strong counter argument to what his ears were telling him about the dog. It did not stop him from leaving, of course he was going to leave, but it slowed him down. He reoriented himself away from the pile, unnatural as it felt. Moving counter to what his nose told him was like swimming against a strong current but Barry’s deep reserve of wisdom could, it must, overcome this and sustain him to the safety of the bushes. When he got himself pointed away from the garbage, he knew the hardest part was done. Ahead of him was darkness and safety and he could focus on that. There, apart from the other garbage on the brightly lit street, was a neatly shaped oval of pressed rice and chicken and macaroni, dropped in a careless frenzy by a mind lacking Barry’s attention to detail. It was just in front of him, and his eyes, eager to prove their worth again, fed him nuanced detail with great urgency. This information fused with the accelerating data from his nose and Barry decided that the wisest thing was to eat it right now. He focused his attention and gathered it into his long mouth with both hands, jerked his head up and down a few times to position it in the back of his mouth, and down his throat in two efficient swallows.

His focus prevented him from noticing that one of the barking voices was changing pitch and direction. What had been frightening and annoying yapping changed to shorter yips accompanied by heavy breathing, as dogs do when they run, and the skittering of small claws.

Chewy the Dachshund was used to getting what he wanted, from humans. They seemed to like to watch him jump around in a circle, sometimes while they held the stupid phone up at him. Jump in a circle, the humans make the cackling noise, he gets the treat, repeat. Until he completed the hole under the fence, the digging was as academic as the jumping, another divot torn into the sod at the edge of the fence. But the smells from down the street had inspired him. He was shocked when his head cleared the other side of the fence, followed distantly by his backside, understanding for the first time the vast difference between a divot of bare earth and a true hole with an entrance and an exit. Things were not so academic now. Until now, the promises of violence he made from his yard had been hypothetical descriptions of what would occur if the fence were not there, having the effect on passers by of hearing a loose fan belt. Minutes, weeks, years of rage stained the pickets where his nose pressed against the gaps. But who was to say his threats were idle? None could say until he was out and the scent of prey clarified his own true nature. It was not even a decision but a reflex. Rage. Rage without thought, pursuit without mercy, it would be murder. This night, Chewy would take part in the bloody dance of nature. He would have blood, and would bring pain and death.

With only space before him, he sprinted towards what he had smelled: two targets, each one alone worth the effort and consequences of his escape: a garbage can, tipped over, and a fat, slow possum. Chewy pulled pavement under him savagely, snorting and snarling as he breathed with each lunge. It felt good, though it seemed like it took rather a long time.

This was something else entirely. Something so much better. Racing across the street like a snarling sewing machine, Chewy felt a dignity and pride so strong it stung him. His rage swelled up and focused a laser beam of vengeance and hunger, a million years of wolf ancestors pushing him onward.

He considered himself one of those natural athletes who were untested because they were simply never called upon, but possessed of a deep reserve of primal force and agility which was visible only to the trained eye. Every dog owner thinks their dog is a lover, incapable of dealing out pain, and Chewy was content to let his lady believe this if it got him treats and cuddles. To the ignorant, his long body and floppy ears suggested low muscle tone, but one familiar with dachshund physiology could see this was a killing form, suitable for cave fighting. Behind the efficiency with which he navigated the underside of a blanket (something he did at every opportunity), was a quite un-playful facility at entering holes and dismantling long-toothed prey in single, bloody combat. That he had never specifically done this was immaterial. He was bred for it, it was in his genes, and those genes called out for blood.

It wasn't until he got right up on the beast that he realized there was a decision to make. He could simply go for the jugular, of course. But who knows what this thing is capable of? If he were to get a firm grip, and it doesn't go down right away, should he hold on? And what about claws and teeth? Does this thing have them? And what does it taste like? Normally there was a great deal of information Chewy had about things he considered biting in advance. But there had been no investigation, no due diligence other than what he had been able to smell at a distance. He had run ahead of the wind and it was going to be sight first, taste second, smell last. Maybe better to peel off and hold the thing at bay… Chewy initiated a hard left turn designed to confuse the beast and leave it off balance for the vicious barking that would follow. He got his body re-oriented, and was able to execute a few leaps in the new direction, but to his horror, this had no effect on the direction he was moving.

The face of the great beast, covered in smears of rice and a horrible red stain, lifted up and it's eyes grew wide as Chewy, whose feet had turned and were trying to move him perpendicularly to his angle of travel, slammed into it and they both tumbled through garbage.

Chewy recovered his footing instantly, took up a position at a safe distance, and let loose a barrage of barking that was emotional and accusatory. “ARH ARH ARH ARH ARH ARH ARH ARH!!! “

Barry considered playing dead. Running was out, this thing was fast. The thing about playing dead though, was it only worked with things that don’t eat carrion, and he was meeting this thing at a turned over a garbage can so it seemed plausible that it was fine with eating the dead. Besides, playing dead was not as typical a possum behaviour as commonly thought. Barry deeply resented it as a stereotype and felt some shame that it was the first thing that came into his own mind. No, there was only one play to make here, and that was The Pose. While facing the barking, snarling thing, Barry turned his head sideways to profile his jaw. He then opened his mouth and drew back his meagre lips, revealing mottled black gums and an improbably long mountain range of teeth, silhouetted against the streetlight behind him. His jaw seemed like half his body length, wet and dripping with carnage.

Chewy’s barking faltered briefly, and he adjusted his stance, a foot farther back, and resumed.

Seeing he was having some effect, Barry switched sides, pointing his head the other direction. Where his head had been backlit for a dramatic outline, it was now in full direct solium light.

Chewy saw the eyes of a killer who wanted nothing but to engage those teeth. Its fur was a thick grey with subtle brown edges, but its face, oh horrible... the greater part of its face was stained blood red and a shred of something fell from its lip. His barking was becoming increasingly frightened and less angry, although no less loud.

“CHEWY. CHEWY!!!!! Get away from there… oh gross!” When the owner approached, Barry started preparing himself to play dead, which involved some metabolic changes as well as making peace with one’s likely actual death. It is no easy task to go from fighting for one’s life to taking a nap. A skinny woman with blond hair in pajamas was circling around the pile to get to the dog, which avoided her by circling the same direction while trying to sustain a focused stream of abuse at Barry. Barry was about to cash it all in and lay down when the lady rushed the dog and it ran twenty feet away. Barry saw his chance and went into the bushes. When the dog pursued, the lady got it and they were on their way back across the street with no goodbye or apology. Technically it was illegal for dogs to be off leash at all here and Barry hoped that other neighbors were watching and something might be done about it.

But mostly he was very, very tired. Once you start the playing dead preparations, it's hard to go back, and he felt the food he had eaten pull him down, down into the earth. He dragged himself back to his home, smelled the familiar leaf litter at the base of the great maples reaching up to frame the stars. He pointed his nose down and fell into his hole.

Ryan Gossen grew up in Northern California. He became, in the following order: an English major, construction worker, maid, ski bum, dishwasher, arborist, scientist, software designer, corporate hack, and finally, writer of stories. His work has been published in Underground Voices, Jet Fuel Review, Rumblefish Quarterly, and The Showbear family Circus.


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