During his absence, John is...
CHAPTER 3: CERBERUS
I was lost.
As I sat parked at the old service station, I pulled out the maps and tried to do a little backtracking. It didn’t take me long to figure out where I had made the wrong turn. I had tried following my memory instead of Luna’s directions and wound up about eighty miles off course. My gas tank was pushing ‘E’ but fortunately the service station was open.
When I stepped out of my Jeep, I could feel the soles of my boots melt on the asphalt. The heat coming off the cracked and pitted cement peeled off in waves that rolled out in every endless direction. The barren mountains in the distance looked unstable, like I was looking at them through a window pane slicked with olive oil.
I slogged my way over to the gas pump and wrapped my shirt around the handle to keep my skin from burning against the desert-baked metal. The heat was so great I worried the fumes would ignite.
A dirty round man stood in the shadowy doorway of the ramshackle service station and stared at me while he rubbed his hands inside an oily red rag. The oval name-patch stitched to his coveralls was loose at one end and curled like a leaf in the heat. His name was Jack.
I topped off the tank and then walked over to him. “You work here?” I knew it was a stupid question the second it left my mouth. He and I were the only living things for fifty miles in any direction. Who the hell else would be working here?
“Who the hell else would be working here?” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders and pulled out my wallet. Jack wobbled inside behind a glass counter filled with everything from belt buckles to oil funnels. “That your momma’s car?” he asked.
It’s impossible to tell what kind of psychological impact this heat would have on a man who lived out here alone, but I was sure it wasn’t positive.
Jack clocked in at about two-fifty and had hands perfectly suited to crushing the skulls of small children. Unfortunately, I was in the mood to see how I would stack up to Jack Skull Crusher. So I played along.
“My mom’s dead. Doesn’t have much use for a car these days.” I handed him a twenty.
Skull Crusher smirked as he snatched the bill in his meaty hand. “Good thing, I suppose. Not havin’ to see her son drivin’ around in that girly thing.”
“What’s girly about a Jeep?”
“The Jeep? Oh, nothing,’” he laughed. “Just that it’s such a pretty color is all.”
“You don’t like yellow?” I asked.
“Yellow’s a pretty color for a flower.”
I slowly began to turn the cheap plastic carousel of aluminum key chains by the cash register. “Yellow’s also the color of infection oozing from a man’s open skull after he’s been beaten and left for dead in the middle of the desert.” I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. “But hey, if yellow makes you think of pretty flowers, well, to each their own I guess.”
Jack Skull Crusher gave me a wad of change and a scowl.
“You got an air pump?” I asked.
He smiled, his tiny tobacco-stained teeth arrayed in his mouth like rows of misaligned baked beans. “Out back. But good luck.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t been able to get to it for three days.” Obviously delighted by my confusion, he waved and said, “This way.”
We rounded the building and he pointed to a small pump about fifty feet off. Just a lone slab the size of a mailbox sticking out of the ground. But there was something next to it. A dark shape lay next to the pump in an amorphous heap. “What is that?”
“A dog.” Jack Skull Crusher’s voice was no longer playful or malicious. He now sounded like a man desperately trying to keep his warped sense of reality from slowly caving in around him.
“What the hell is your dog doing out there?”
“It’s not mine. Don’t know whose it is. Been chained up there for three days.”
I could see little bits of fur disturbed by the minimal breeze moving over the desert sands. “What kind of asshole would leave their dog chained up in this heat with no shade? Poor thing’s probably dead.”
The dog looked up at us for a moment then rested its head back down on its paws.
“Sweet God, the thing is huge!”
Jack nodded his head.
“Any idea who left it?”
“You’re my first customer in a week,” Jack said. “I don’t know how that dog got here.”
“Well, did you try to unchain it? Give it some water or something?”
“Damn thing won’t let me near it. Just growls whenever I get close.” Jack turned to me, his pale forehead turning pink in the heat. “There’s something wrong with that animal. And I don’t mean like it being sick or anything. Can’t tell what it is, but there’s just something…wrong. You get close enough to look, you’ll see what I’m talking about. You can feel it.” He pulled his rag out from a pocket and swiped the sweat from his face. “The switch is on the side. If that thing’ll let you get close enough.” He started walking back to the station. “But if it mauls you, don’t think you’ll get a chance to sue me.” He turned and smiled. “Because I think yellow’s my favorite color now.”
I pulled the Jeep up to the pump and hopped out. The dog still lay on its side, not paying me any attention. It sat directly underneath the switch on the side of the pump. Its black fur was still the only thing moving in the slight breeze.
I reached over to the switch and flipped it. The pump sputtered to life with a god-awful racket and began to vibrate. That’s when the dog moved.
The dog stretched, then stood up and faced me. It faced me. The damn thing didn’t have to look up. Its shoulders came close to the height of my chest and its head was twice the size of a Virginia ham. Its mane of black hair stood out in thin jagged lines that intersected at the nexus of its bared finger-length fangs. And I could hear its growling over the thrum of the air pump.
But it didn’t move toward me. I slowly pulled the hose and filled my tires, taking time out every thirty seconds or so to cool my face with a blast of air. The dog followed me with its black eyes as I went from tire to tire, but it never moved from that spot. When the pump shut off, I put the hose back, careful not to get too close to the dog.
But Jack was right. Something was not right about it. Something was just wrong, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell what it was.
It stopped growling and now was just sitting there in the blazing heat, staring at me, its thick tail slowly kicking away the dust on the concrete. For three days it had been baking under the desert sun with no shade, no food, no water. Hell, even Shane the wolf was able to chew himself free. But this poor thing had no way to get loose. It was simply chained up and left here to die. I couldn’t let that stand.
I pulled a bottle of water out from a cooler in the back and went to the animal. I reached forward with the top of my wrist held out in front of me. The dog snorted at me, took a step forward and sniffed.
I poured the water into my hands and let it drink. It smelled the water before lapping it up with a tongue as wide as my splayed hand from pinky tip to thumb. It didn’t take long for it to finish the entire bottle. When it was done, it took another step forward and gave me a wet, foul-smelling lick on the face. I couldn’t help but laugh.
As I scratched the dog behind the ears, I noticed an old, tattered leather collar buried in its fur. I followed it around its neck until I came to a rusty iron plate the size of a cigarette pack dangling from a metal loop. I moved the fur aside and wiped some dust from the giant tag to see if there was an address, phone number, or something else that showed who might own this thing. But the only thing it had was a name:
“Well, your owners aren’t very original, are they?” The dog wagged its tail once and then barked. It was a deep, bowel shaking burst of sound that made me second guess my proximity to the thing. But it continued to just stare at me. “Okay, Cerberus. You hungry? Let’s get you into some shade with some water and some food. How does that sound?”
Again, Cerberus licked me then sat back on its haunches, motionless and staring. I followed the collar around its broad neck until I found where the chain was connected. The chain that held it to the pump scraped against the concrete when I pulled on it. It was rusty, made with the kind of thick and heavy links found in a shipyard. It was a wonder the dog could breathe at all with this thing weighting it down.
I went cold. Even though I was in one of the hottest parts of the country on one of the hottest days of the year, a chill ran down my scalp and along my spine. I realized what it was that made the dog seem so wrong.
It wasn’t panting.