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“Toodles” by J.R. Mabry

Updated: May 10


Jack knew he was sick. And he knew where he got sick. He had flown from Tucson, connected in Las Vegas, and landed in Oakland. And somewhere along the way, he’d picked up a passenger.

That passenger was now rifling through his lungs, raising his temperature, and preventing him from getting warm no matter what he did. He curled in a ball on the floor in the study, just underneath the big picture window, basking in the sun.

Every now and then Megan would come in, with a blue paper mask obscuring her lovely wide lips that reminded him of Mick Jagger. Her new stretchy blue nitrile skin would touch his face. Every now and then the periscope of milkshake soda straw would find his lips and he’d suck for dear life. But the surfacing wouldn’t last for long. He’d submerge again, lost in a timeless fever dream of wet blankets, bright sun, and the teeming ephemeral multitudes seeping out of his unconscious.

Jack opened his eyes and saw the paisley pattern of the Persian carpet dancing in lysergic ecstasy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hildegard, a mutt bitch they’d rescued from a freeway onramp four years ago. He reached a cold arm toward her, but some resolute remnant of his brain told him not to touch her. Then Megan would have to give her a bath. She wasn’t supposed to be in the study, to be near him.

Jack saw her snatch at a small furry thing. The floor was always littered with her stuffed animals, so this was no surprise. The furry thing squeaked and she shook it with gleeful ferocity. Jack felt something wet and warm alight on his cheek.

***

Megan washed her hands, counting to twenty. Then she counted another five, just in case the talking heads on the news were wrong. A hair in her nose had grown in the wrong direction, and nothing she could do could stop it from itching. She kept trying not to touch her face. She kept failing.

She heard the squeak and the thrashing, and she assumed Hildegard was playing. She felt a momentary wave of gratitude that the dog could amuse herself. After all, she had her hands more than full, just trying to take care of Jack without getting sick herself.

She knew that was a fool’s errand. Eventually, she’d succumb to it. How could she not? Jack was oozing more virus than sweat at this point. Unless she was one of the lucky ones who was immune, she did not expect to escape it. Or maybe she was one of the lucky ones who had already had it, and hadn’t noticed because it was so mild. She dismissed the idea. She was not the kind of girl who won the lottery—any lottery.

“Where is he?” She heard a voice yell. She stopped, her hands still clinging to the towel hanging on the shower curtain rod above the tub.

“What the hell?” she breathed. That wasn’t Jack’s voice. Jack wasn’t well enough to croak, let alone bellow.

She opened the door of the bathroom warily. Hildegard barked. She rushed out into the living room. A very large man was standing there, fists balled, neck red, eyes bulging. She recognized him, but didn’t remember his name. She knew he lived down the block. Bill? she wondered. Yes, the name came back to her, she didn’t know how. But she knew it was Bill.

“Bill, what are you doing?” she asked, moving into the living room, but keeping her distance from him. “Hildegard, back!” The dog backed away from the man, tail pumping. The man looked crazed—was he sick, too? “Bill, there’s a shelter-in-place order. Why are you in our house?” She gave her voice a bit of an edge.

It certainly was unusual. Bill had never been in their house, even before the quarantine had begun. They’d barely said two sentences to each other—the only time she could remember exchanging words was when she was walking Hildegard past his house.

“Where is Toodles?” he roared. “She came in here. I saw her.”

“Toodles?” Megan asked. “Who the hell is Toodles?” She had to stop herself from laughing as she said the name. There was such an extreme unlikelihood to everything that was happening—and happening so quickly—a part of her thrilled at the surreality of it.

“She’s…” he cupped his hands, above and below, as if he were cradling a softball. “You haven’t seen him?”

“Seen who?”

“My Pomeranian. Toodles.”

Bill was an enormous man. He lived alone, near as she could tell. The idea that he owned a Pomeranian named Toodles seemed both unlikely and hilarious. She forced her face to stay straight. “Bill, if I find Toodles, I promise you that—”

“What’s on his mouth?” He pointed at Hildegard.

She looked at her dog. Bill had gotten her gender wrong, but she didn’t correct him. All dogs were fundamentally masculine, just as all cats were fundamentally feminine. It was an easy mistake to make. And then she saw it. Hildegard’s muzzle was, indeed, smeared with something bright, red, and wet.

“What the hell?” Megan asked no one in particular. She wiped at the dog’s mouth. The redness came off on her hand. Even as her brain began to object, she brought her fingers to her nose and sniffed—the coppery aroma could only be one thing. “Blood,” she said out loud.

“What?” Bill bellowed again. He pushed past her and stomped toward the hall.

“You can’t go in there!” she shouted, but he didn’t listen. She noted with dismay that the door to the study was slightly ajar. “Bill, you need a mask!” she yelled, but he didn’t stop. She had the presence of mind to grab her own mask and put it on. She didn’t bother with the gloves, though—no time. She rushed through the door and stopped as if she’d hit a brick wall.

Bill had stopped, too. His mouth hung open as he surveyed the room. The Persian carpet was red, but now it was even redder, and it looked slick. There were streaks of red on one wall. The words blood spatter came to her mind, but she did not say them.

She looked over at Jack, and noted with horror that his face, too, was pocked with blood. He was breathing, she was relieved to see. He was cocooned in quilts and unconscious, as he was most of the time.

But there, just above the jet-black shock of his bed hair, was another pile of hair—as if a wig had rolled off his head and not gotten far. But this hair was dirty blond, nothing like Jack’s. Bill knelt by the wig-like thing and picked it up. Then he howled in grief.

“What did you do?” he shouted at the sleeping Jack. “You killed by dog! You killed my fucking dog!” Jack murmured something inaudible, but did not open his eyes. Bill was disturbing his sleep, but not destroying it.

“Why? What the fuck did I ever do to you?” Bill cradled what was left of Toodles against his chest with his left hand, and reached toward Jack with his other.

Megan’s imagination leaped to what that hand might do, and she rushed to intervene. “You don’t want to touch him,” she said. “He’s got the virus.”

Bill hesitated. He looked down at Jack as if seeing him for the first time. Then he looked up at Megan, his eyes wide, wet, and wild. He looked at where Hildegard was standing, tail wagging, by the door. Bill had found her new plaything. Maybe Bill would want to play. Megan leaped up and placed herself between Bill and her dog. She snatched at her collar and led her into the hall. She marched Hildegard to the door leading to the garage, and brought her through it. She could hear Bill’s heavy footfalls rumble the bones of her house as she rushed to get her dog to safety.

Entering the garage, she shut the door behind her. Then, reaching up above the door, she took down Jack’s 12-guage. She didn’t bother checking to see if it was loaded—she wouldn’t even know how. Jack had inherited the gun when his father, an enthusiastic hunter, had died. She had objected to having a gun in the house, but Jack had argued that they lived in Oakland, and not the best part of Oakland. They might need it. She hadn’t spoken to him for a week, but he had won that argument. The gun had lived above the door in the garage ever since.

She noticed how dusty it was as she brought it to her shoulder in what she hoped was a believable firing stance. The door jerked open, and Bill swayed crazily, filling it up, still clutching the remains of Toodles to his chest.

“Get out of my house, Bill,” Megan said. Her voice was shaking, but there was nothing she could do about it. “I’m sorry about your dog. But your dog came into our house without permission. I don’t know how, but he did. And Hildegard is part hound. They don’t ask questions about whether a little animal is a rat or a possum or a goddam Pomeranian. It just looked like a snack. Now I want you out.”

She began to advance. The wildness didn’t leave Bill’s eyes, but she saw a glimmer of reason enter into them. He began to back away. He continued to back away until he was out of the house. He was still facing her, still clutching the little matted clump of hair that had once been Toodles. But he was out.

With her hands still shaking, she lowered the gun and snatched at the lock of the security door, twisted it. She felt her breathing coming in gulping gasps. “Bill,” she said. “I’m sorry about your dog. I really am. But you’ve got to know. Jack is sick. Really sick. You’ve…you’ve exposed yourself. You’ve got to be careful.” She shut the door and let the shotgun rattle to the floor.

***

Megan’s days were spent pouring over an endless stream of web pages, all about the virus—the stages of the sickness, what symptoms were supposed to appear on what day, which day those infected would pull out and start improving…or not.

Jack did not. He followed the roadmap laid out by the webpages as if he were catching a train—everything was right on time. He had always been a punctual man. She had always admired that about him, and it irritated her. Just this once, she thought, he might be spontaneous.

But he was not. Instead, he slid further and further away from her. His breathing became labored, but when she called the hospital they kept telling her “not yet…not yet.”

Her place of vigil was a seat at the kitchen counter. From there, she had a perfect view out onto the front yard through the kitchen window. Bill was there, as usual. He was standing vigil of a sort, too. He was holding a sign that said, “Jack and Megan killed my dog.” It was a new sign. The past several days, the sign he’d been holding was cardboard, and it had started to lose its integrity. He had to hold it with both hands to keep the wind from doubling it up. And he couldn’t hold it very high for very long.

But this new sign was a thing of beauty. It was obvious he’d put some time into it. The words were the same, but they were painted in red against a bright white background. The main part of the sign looked like balsam wood, with a sturdy 2x2 pine handle. You could swing that sign at a baseball and knock it out of the park, she thought as she admired it. You also could not miss.

A part of her said that she should feel violated. She should be angry. She should try to make him stop his stupid vigil somehow. But she didn’t feel any of those things. She found that curious. And as she thought about it, she realized that she didn’t feel much of anything at all.

Instead, minute proceeded to minute with a numb determination that she did not recognize and did not understand. Everything she loved had lost its appeal. She had even stopped sneaking chocolates…not that Jack would see. Instead, she gave the chocolate to Hildegard. A part of her brain knew it was poisonous to dogs. But she felt guilty about Toodles. A tiny square of chocolate every day was not likely to hurt a dog of Hildegard’s size. It was, she realized, a sacrament of penance. And if she could not enjoy the chocolate, Hildegard certainly did.

It had been hard to clean up the blood in Jack’s study. She had made the effort, filling a bucket with warm water and disinfectant. With a fraying sponge, she scrubbed at the carpet and the walls half-heartedly, glancing at the one love of her life now and then as his vitality drained out of him, a little more each hour. Finally, she had just stopped. She was getting nowhere, and did not have the energy to do the job properly. In the end, she had only succeeded in smearing the little dog’s blood across the wall—an entreaty to the angel of death to pass over this house. She pulled the door to the study closed and upended the bucket of maroon water into the toilet.

***

When the EMTs arrived, it was too late. Megan knew she should be angry. She had called. She had told them. She had pleaded. She may even have cried, although she did not remember it. But whether it was because she did not successfully communicate his condition, or because the hospital was filled beyond capacity, or just because Oakland, the paramedics had not been sent for until there was nothing to be done.

Jack had never entered into the really hard breathing stage. He had gone from labored breathing the night before to no breathing at all this morning. He was cold to the touch when she went in to check on him.

His skin had looked like wax, as if aliens had visited in the night and swapped her husband’s real body for this pallid, almost translucent facsimile. She watched her body move through its procession as if from above as the EMTs arrived. They brought the gurney into the hallway.

“Ma’am, it’s probably best if you wait in the living room,” they said, but she had followed them into the study anyway, one hand on Hildegard’s collar as she whined her objection to their intrusions. They gingerly placed the wax copy of Jack’s body into the body bag and zipped it up over his fake face.

When they wheeled the gurney outside, Megan bade Hildegard stay and closed the door behind her. She walked out to the sidewalk and stood beside Bill. His sign had slid to the ground sometime after the ambulance had arrived, she saw. He still held onto the top of it—after all, it wouldn’t do to dirty a thing of beauty like that.

Wordlessly, they stood together watching as the EMTs eased the gurney with Jack’s pod-body into the ambulance. A man with a clipboard approached her. He was making words, and they might have been English, but she did not register them. Instead, she signed on the line he pointed to. Then the man gave her a grim smile that, she supposed, was intended to convey compassion and condolence.

Megan and Bill watched as the man climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door. The slam echoed down the street. The ambulance pulled away silently. They watched it go until it had reached the end of the street and turned. Then it was gone.

Bill cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Megan knew she should be feeling something. Probably something big. Instead, it felt as if the universe was handing her something enormous, something that would take both hands to hold, and she couldn’t find anywhere to set her drink. She turned to Bill. “Any symptoms?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “But…the incubation time. I’m still counting the days.”

She nodded. She placed a hand on his elbow. “Call me if you come down with anything. I’ll…I’ll come over and help.”

“Okay,” he said.

She went back inside, then, to listen to the roaring silence, scrub the walls, and feed chocolate to the dog.

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