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About the Author

Tim Pratt has earned a Hugo Award and other accolades. He is a fiction writer, poet, sometime teacher, occasional performance artist, and graduate of the Clarion Writer's Workshop. He has poetry upcoming in Asimov's and other venues. He lives in Santa Cruz, California. His website is More about Tim Pratt at Wikipedia.

Deep Outside SFFH 1998-2002 pioneering online professional SFFH magazine - we made history!

The Dog Boys

by Tim Pratt

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The day before Michael first saw the dog boys, Mr. Fraenkel ran over a basset hound with the school bus. The bus picked Michael up before anyone else each morning, and dropped him off last. Michael always sat behind the driver. Sitting deeper in the bus only invited attack from older, bigger boys, and while Mr. Fraenkel never tried to stop those torments, the boys wouldn't attack anyone so close to his seat of authority.

That morning, before the dog boys, a long-eared basset hound sniffed at the edge of the road, waiting with Buddha-like patience for the bus to go past. Michael looked at the dog, mostly for want of anything else to watch.

Mr. Fraenkel suddenly hauled the wheel to the left and the bus sped up. Michael, his face close to the window, cracked his forehead against the glass. A few fingers of black crept in at the edges of his vision, but he saw the hound start to move, too late, and disappear under the wheels. He felt a bump and imagined the cracking spine, the pop of a crushed body, and the last baying yelp. Mr. Fraenkel straightened the bus on the empty road.

Michael turned to look back, but through the filthy windows he could only see a dark spot that might been a shadow in the dirt, but must have been the dog's body.

"Why did you do that?" he said, turning to face the front.

Mr. Fraenkel didn't answer, only flickered his eyes to the wide mirror and looked at Michael's face. He rolled a toothpick between his lips, then looked back at the road.

A minute later they reached the next house. Mr. Fraenkel pushed the silver lever to open the doors. A girl with a new dress and black pigtails boarded the bus, ascending like a queen, and took a seat halfway back without saying a word.

Michael didn't speak, either.

* * *

The dog's body was gone that afternoon, claimed by an owner or dragged into the ditch by a passer-by. Michael watched the spot where it had died intently as the bus rolled by, but he could find no sense in the stained dirt.

Mr. Fraenkel stopped the bus at the end of Michael's road. Michael rose, red lunchbox in hand, bookbag on his shoulders. He walked past Mr. Fraenkel and down the steps, eyes on the floor. The doors didn't open. Michael stood dumbly for a moment, looking at the oak tree where he always waited for the bus. He looked back at the driver.

Mr. Fraenkel sat, watching him, his hand unmoving on the silver lever.

Michael turned back to the unopened door. Don't fight, he thought. Don't fight. After a moment, the doors squeaked open, but not all the way. Michael waited, and when nothing else happened, he went through the crack sideways, the black rubber around the door scraping his cheek and pulling at his bookbag. He stumbled free, almost falling down the steps, and walked quickly from the bus. It took longer than usual for Mr. Fraenkel to pull away.

* * *

The next morning Michael saw them, on the side of the road halfway between his house and bus stop. The three wore shorts and t-shirts despite the autumn chill. One had blond hair cut raggedly in a short coxcomb, and pointy, foxlike features. His whole posture spoke of tension, and he seemed on the edge of manic movement. The other two were twins, with dark hair and equally dark eyes. All three crouched around something in the road, Michael drew hesitantly closer to see.

The boys prodded at the body of a long-eared hound, its belly smashed and caked with guts, the same dog Mr. Fraenkel had run down the day before. Michael's stomach did a slow somersault.

They hadn't seen him yet, and he didn't recognize them. Michael knew every boy around, at least by sight. He should have known the twins, at least. Identical twins achieve a certain degree of fame by virtue of their rarity.

Suddenly all three boys plunged their faces into the dog's corpse, like hyenas in a nature video. They snapped their heads back, dirty day-old flesh caught in their teeth. Michael stumbled back with a little, inaudible cry. The twins chewed mechanically, the blond with gusto and obvious pleasure. He took one of the dog's rear legs and wrenched, pulling and grunting as it tore free. Gristle and bits of fur dangled from the haunch. Michael stood frozen, sick and fascinated, twenty feet away. The twins saw him and stared like watchful felines. The blond turned his head, still crouching, and whirled sudden as a striking snake. He cocked his head at Michael.

The blond boy stood and took a step forward, grinning, his teeth white, his chin smeared with blood and tissue. Smile wide, eyes twinkling, he extended the dog's leg toward Michael, as though offering a gift.

Michael ran past them on the far side of the road, feet pounding on the dirt and heart pounding against his ribs, but they didn't follow. Dog boys, he thought, and they were named.

* * *

The day he first saw the dog boys, Michael sat against the fence at recess, a few feet from a fat boy in a green t-shirt. The fat boy stared intently at his own floppy gut. One of the older boys swooped by, grinning, and caught sight of the fat boy. With a quick glance for teachers (there weren't any, there never were), he approached casually, then reached down and grabbed his arm, jerking him up. The fat boy pulled away, pressing against the fence, but another yank brought him to his feet. He never lifted his eyes. The older boy made a fist and punched him hard in the shoulder. The fat boy pulled back and whimpered.

"That's it," the older boy said. "You get two for flinching." He punched again, and again, and didn't stop at two.

A blond child, younger than Michael, sat on the jungle gym, legs swinging. He laughed and clapped his hands as the fat boy took his beating. He was almost beautiful, his hair shining in the sun.

Michael saw it all without seeming to see, and sank back against the fence, silent.

* * *

Michael came in quiet from school and started to clean the kitchen. He had to finish the housework before he could do his homework or read his unwieldy library books, hardback and stamped all over with the school's name.

Once his father had stood swaying in the kitchen doorway, a beer in his hand. He was on vacation from work then, and spent his days watching television and drinking, the way he always spent his nights. He grunted and said "Hey, little Michael, we should've named you Michelle, huh?" Michael dried dishes at the sink, giving no sign he'd heard. Inspiration struck his father. "If you're doing woman's work, don't you think you should dress the part, Michelle?"

Michael's father went to the back of the kitchen and took down the pink-frilled apron that had belonged to his wife, that had hung covered in dust and undisturbed since her death. He threw it at Michael and said, in a voice that brooked no argument, "Put that on, little girl."

Michael didn't argue. He picked up the apron and hung it around his neck. He was just tying the strings when his father stopped him. "Take it off," he said gruffly. "Hang it back up. I don't want you touching that again."

Michael did as he said, and his father disappeared into the den. Michael had never known there were some things even his father couldn't bear to do. It provided small comfort.

The day Michael first saw the dog boys, his father came home dressed in heavy work boots and a flannel coat. He looked over the sparkling kitchen, grunted, and stomped into the den, where he would sit in his armchair and watch the TV, already tuned by Michael's diligence to the right channel.

With his eyes closed, sitting in the faded light from the window at the kitchen table, Michael waited the appropriate interval. Then he went to the faintly humming refrigerator, covered with magnets shaped like all fifty states, his mother's collection. He tugged at the door and took his father the first beer of the evening.

* * *

Michael listened to the country night noises for a long time before he slept. There were crickets, and an owl hunting shivering mice, but he didn't hear the howl of a single dog.

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Michael waited at the bus stop. The overcast sky looked like wet concrete. He stood by the ditch, tossing stones into the weeds, listening for the rumble of the dirty yellow bus.

He turned, some warning tingling at the back of his head, and saw them coming. The twins approached from either side, as if trying to flank him. The blond came up the middle. He resembled some combination of serpent and bird of prey, his wiry body swaying hypnotically, his blond hair standing up. The nails on his hooked, bony fingers looked unusually sharp. The three advanced, stepping in tandem to some inaudible drummer, slow and constant.

Michael moved back, aware of the deep ditch behind him. He could jump it, but that would mean turning his back. He doubted he could outrun the boys, but he didn't think letting them hit him until they got bored would save him. The twins couldn't possibly be any more disinterested than they already were, and the blond would rip him to pieces long before his interest waned.

Michael was considering running, doubts and all, when salvation came.

The school bus! Michael heard it rumbling, a mobile haven that had never been a haven before. He turned his head and saw the approaching cloud of dust, and the dog boys stopped too, the blond lifting his head like a lion scenting meat.

They'll leave now, Michael thought frantically, they'll run away. Like the boys in the back of the bus, who don't mess with me if I sit near the driver. The dog boys didn't scatter. They kept coming, the blond grinning ravenously, teeth large in his boy's mouth. Michael turned and jumped the ditch, waving his arms, mentally urging Mr. Fraenkel to speed up. The bus chugged steadily and the boys approached. Michael looked over his shoulder, torn between hope and terror.

Then the bus arrived, the glass door's long window before Michael's face and the dog boys safely distant on the other side of the ditch. Michael stepped to the doors.

They didn't open.

Michael looked up, his stomach rolling. Mr. Fraenkel, high on his seat, watched Michael and the dog boys, his face smooth and interested but distant, uninvolved. His hands rested in his lap like small obedient pets.

Michael looked back at the boys. The blond, whose smile had faltered a bit at the bus's approach, grinned again. The three moved more quickly to the edge of the ditch.

Michael beat his fists on the bus door, hammered with his hands and his lunchbox, which broke open, spilling his neatly made sandwich onto the dirt. Mr. Fraenkel watched. Michael looked over his shoulder as the blond crouched on all fours, lips peeled back from his teeth, clearly tensing to leap.

Mr. Fraenkel's eyes went wide, and he reached for the silver lever. Michael hammered the doors until they pushed against him, opening. He stepped back, then plunged through. The doors closed behind him.

The glass thumped as the blond boy crashed into it. Michael scrambled up the steps, sure the boy would come through the glass to reach him. He made it safely to the seat behind Mr. Fraenkel and huddled against the far wall, breathing hard and crying.

The blond snarled, foaming. The twins stood calmly behind him, their hands hanging loose. The blond clawed at the door, his nails dragging long impossible furrows down the glass.

Mr. Fraenkel put the bus in gear and pulled away, but the blond boy scrabbled at the glass and somehow found purchase with his hooked fingers. He clung like a leech, his eyes wide and bright in his unlined boy-face. Mr. Fraenkel jerked the wheel, hard, and the boy swayed but held on. The blond beat his forehead against the glass, eyes still wide and fixed on the driver.

Mr. Fraenkel drove to the edge of the road, perilously close to the ditch, where weeds and long branches poked from the autumn wild. Michael clutched the back of Mr. Fraenkel's seat, helpless and terrified. Branches and briars scraped the side of the bus and tore at the blond boy, who still impossibly clung, his monstrous grin fixed and white.

Mr. Fraenkel floored the bus and it roared like an angry beast, like a tiger in a zoo, and the branches scraped and rattled against the bus with greater frequency. A gnarled dogwood branch struck the blond boy and tore one of his arms loose. He swung out precariously, but didn't fall, one hand still holding onto the glass. He glared, feral and determined, at Mr. Fraenkel and Michael in turn. The next branch struck him squarely in the back and tore him, tumbling, from the door.

Michael swallowed and ran to the back of the bus. The blond boy was nowhere, gone, unless he'd fallen in the ditch.

Dead, Michael thought. But knew he wasn't.

"What the fuck?" Mr. Fraenkel said, and Michael was too worn and scared to be surprised.

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Mr. Fraenkel made no mention of what happened, and Michael didn't either. Michael didn't think the driver would tell anyone else, either. Leaving aside his own culpability, the details of the clinging boy were hardly believable. Michael felt a new disgust and distaste for Mr. Fraenkel that could have begun a slow burn of rage, except that Michael's capacity for rage had long since turned to ash, destroyed even in his babyhood. Now he could only endure, passive, unobtrusive, but even that tactic failed him now. If the dog boys came again he would run, because he could do nothing else.

But if they kept coming, one day he wouldn't run. It would be a kind of escape, he thought, the end of resistance.

That day Michael ran to the bathroom during the math lesson, startling his teacher, and vomited into the toilet. He read the obscenities scraped into the beige walls, then struggled to the sink. He stared at himself, face a moist white pudding, pale and unremarkable, his eyes colorless and flat behind his glasses.

His teacher, a tall delicate woman who wore her eyeglasses on a chain, poked her head into the bathroom. "Michael," she said, "are you sick? Should I call your father?"

"No," Michael said, still looking at his own bland face in the mirror. No sharpness there. No visage of wolf and lion. "No, don't call him, I'm fine."

* * *

Michael sat calmly, hands folded, in his usual seat on the bus. Mr. Fraenkel seemed skittish, irritable, snapping at the children to shut up and be still. His knotty hands twisted at the wheel and tugged at the silver lever as he let the children off in ones and twos and threes. His red-rimmed eyes cut often to the mirror and looked at Michael.

Michael returned the look steadily. Things would happen. Things would grind on, no matter what Michael did, so wasn't it better to sit and wait until he had to move?

* * *

Eventually only Michael remained on the bus, and Mr. Fraenkel began to talk. "Listen, I didn't know they were really trying to hurt you, I thought they were just messing around, you know how boys are, do you know those boys from anywhere, I never saw them before," and so on as Michael shook his head in quiet negation, not so much in answer but in refusal to answer at all.

Not far from Michael's stop, Mr. Fraenkel rounded the curve and saw the dogs.

He shrieked and jerked the wheel. The bus slid ponderously sideways, skidding in the gravel, and bumped gently against the grisly roadblock.

Every dog in the county must have been there, piled across the empty road, freshly killed and mounded seven feet high. Blood-caked muzzles, dangling eyes, and spilling guts steamed in the cool air, all in a mishmash of fur and bone. The enormity of the carnage, the stink slipping into the bus, so overwhelmed them that Michael and Mr. Fraenkel could only stare. Hundreds of dogs, pit bulls and terriers and dobermans and greyhounds, labs and retrievers and collies and huskies, good mongrel coon dogs and pointers and one unlikely coiffured poodle, all stacked across the road to stop the bus.

Then, abruptly, hurled from the trees on the edge of the wood, the body of a hound dog smashed into the windshield and bounced onto the hood. It lay on its side as though waiting for its stomach to be rubbed. But its eyes were gone, its back mashed with the pattern of heavy tire tread, and someone had torn off its hind legs.

Mr. Fraenkel screamed and struggled to stand, pulling at his seat belt and hauling on the silver lever to open the door. He stumbled, a mechanical centaur unmanned, down the short steps onto the gravel, where he paused for a long moment of indecision.

You thought you were tough, Michael thought, watching the driver go. You're nothing compared to them.

Michael rose and pulled the lever back, sitting in the warm immense driver's seat. The doors closed, sealing together with a faint squeak, irrevocable behind the still-hesitant Mr. Fraenkel.

The boys came. The twins approached from one side, where the back end of the skewed-sideways bus pointed, and Mr. Fraenkel danced in the other direction. The blond came from that side, wearing a maggoty brown dog's pelt like a cape.

Mr. Fraenkel turned to get back on the bus. He found the doors closed and looked into Michael's face, his own expression not one of horror or surprise but only grim understanding.

Michael didn't have to watch for long. The dog boys dragged Mr. Fraenkel into the woods. A long time later, as the sun began to sink, Michael opened the doors, left the bus, and walked around the stinking pile of dead animals to go home.

* * *

Michael told his father he'd missed the bus after school and walked home. "I didn't want to bother you by calling for a ride. I'm sorry I was late."

His father, dark and broad in his armchair, grunted and swigged his beer. "I already ate. Find yourself some dinner and clean up after."

Michael went to the kitchen. His father turned up the volume on the TV. Michael stood considering the open cupboard when he heard a quiet tap on the door. He froze. This was supposed to be over. He'd given them Mr. Fraenkel, hadn't he? Did they still want him, too?

He went to the door wearily and pulled it open. A simple hook held the screen door closed. The blond boy waited, his dirty cape gone. The twins stood behind him. The blond could have torn through the screen easily with his hands, and Michael waited for that, but it didn't happen. He only stood, regarding Michael calmly, his chest smooth and golden, his face clean. Finally he said, in any ten- or twelve-year-old boy voice: "We didn't do it to help you. We planned to get you, first. Because you're weak. Because we can. We thought the driver would let us have you, but he was weak, too. When the moment came, he flinched. He saved you. Understand? We did it because he flinched."

Michael nodded slowly. Then, quietly, pitifully: "But I didn't flinch. I let you have him."

Now the blond boy smiled, a broad meat-eating grin. "It isn't enough to leave a door closed. Anyone can sit still and leave a door closed."

"Michael, who are you talking to? Who's in there?" His father's voice boomed, but the chair didn't squeak, so he wasn't getting up.

His father. Michael understood. He looked over his shoulder into the darkened den, and then back at the dog boys.

The twins had their meaty hands closed into fists.

The blond boy went on. "Sometimes you have to open a door, Michael. Sometimes, you have to do that much at least."

There in the gathering night, Michael reached up and unhooked the latch.

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