2. Ruff and Tumble

He glimpses the monster through blurry eyes.

A low, loping black creature, belly scraping the bank mud, bones squirming under sodden skin, cold wiry fur bristling. Craig lies rooted in the mud, watching, burning and freezing as his vision shimmers and the shape swells and bleeds, whisper-screams in his ear to look out, look OUT, soldier.

A mournful whine. Claws clicking over loose pebbles.

Kill it

Wait.

Warm-rough-damp nuzzles against his skull.

KILL IT

Wait.

He holds his breath as rough paws dig into his leg and blunt teeth start to worry hungrily at his ear.

‘Hey,’ he breathes, his voice a jarring echo inside his own skull. He pats the dog’s flank frantically, shaking his head to pull his ear away. ‘Ow.’ The dog snaps and tugs at his lost dinner, growling at him, angry and startled and hungry, so Craig offers his sleeve to gnaw at – an apology of sorts. He rubs the dog’s bony head while it chews happily, blunt teeth scraping his arm, making him shiver. His shoulders unclench. Then the mongrel shuffles down to his boot and starts chewing at the leather.

‘Ah-ah. No.’

He pats its head roughly, and it retreats a few paces to glare. It growls at him to stay put so he complies, keeping his eyes downcast and shoulders slumped to make his silhouette smaller and nonthreatening.

The mongrel bares its teeth but slinks off to explore the edges of the underpass. It scowls back at him every so often. He carefully maintains his nonthreatening body language, legs crossed, eyes down, body still. It’s good practice.

Stay still. No sudden movements. Don’t startle it.

After every inch of the grimy underpass has been sniffed – except for a three foot space around him – the mongrel sits and curls its tail around its paws. Craig keeps his head down, silently pleading. I won’t hurt you…it’s okay…I’m a friend…

His heart stutters when their eyes meet and the dog whines plaintively. It slowly crawls over on its belly, hesitates…then snuffles into his palm, cold wet nose nudging his fingertips.

‘Heyyy…it’s okay….shhh…’

Warm-rough-damp rasps over his fingers before the mongrel slumps against him with a pleased little huff. He reaches out tentatively to scratch behind flea-bitten ears. It – him, he’s a male – nuzzles into his hand, tail drumming into the muck.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

He rests his forehead against the dog’s mud-spattered neck, breathing in the musky smell of damp wiry fur. The dog doesn’t complain. He’s got a sleeve to chew on again. Craig reaches up blindly to pat his head and gets a friendly growl in answer, hot and rank and achingly close.

No family. No home. Just a skinny mongrel as hungry as any he’s ever seen. He presses his cheek into warm mud-encrusted fur, gives a shuddery exhale, and holds on. The dog’s stomach gurgles, and he blinks forlornly up.

Oh. So that’s what he wants.

Craig’s belly rumbles in sympathy. He roots around in the depths of his rucksack, comes up with a near-empty pack of hardtack biscuits. The sight of them makes his teeth grind. Dry. Bland. Flavourless. Taste like sawdust. Ugh.

The mutt’s tail thumps against the ground. Craig barely holds one out before it tackles him to the ground, gobbling up the biscuit as he goes sprawling.

‘Hey, woah! Easy now, slow down!’ And sweet Jesus – he’s laughing, actually laughing as the dog clambers all over him, munching happily and eager for more. His battered ribs shriek at him but damn, does this feel good.

He wriggles free, chuckling, and retrieves another dry biscuit. The dog’s eyes track it unblinkingly.

‘…Sit.’

The dog’s hindquarters flump into the muck. It stares fixedly up at him.

Aww, very clever, Sarge, Sean drawls into his ear, you gonna make it do tricks now?

‘Shut it, private, your dad was a piss-poor sheep herder,’ Craig mutters, with as much Galway scorn as he can. But he’s grinning. Of course Sean isn’t really here, never was, but the rush of echo-memories feels like a victory; he’s glad the Rangers were what bubbled into his head for once; his own crew, loud and boisterous and blessed idiots, the lot of them.

The dog tilts its head, looking baffled.

Glory hallelujah. Now you’re even creeping a mongrel out. Great job, Sergeant. Just terrific.

Something skitters out from a wet heap of mouldy leaves. His boot stomps down reflexively. A muffled squeak. The mutt’s ears prick up.

A trapped mouse, tail pinned beneath his boot as it thrashes about. He lifts its wriggling body up, and the mongrel immediately starts yipping excitedly.

‘How about this?’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

He places both thumbs behind the rodent’s tiny skull, grits his teeth and breaks its neck with a dry snap of cartilage.

‘Here.’

The dog snaps up the bony morsel eagerly, crunching through bones and gristle. It chews, swallows, then rolls onto its side with a huff and shows its belly, panting happily.

‘Better?’

THUMP THUMP THUMP

The dog slinks closer to snuffle into his hand, cold wet nose nuzzling into his palm. He picks out another of the dry hardtack biscuits and waves it in the dog’s face. ‘Better than these, right?’

It snorts, shaking its head, then fixes him with a deeply unimpressed look.

‘Yeah, I never liked ‘em either.’

Two streets away, behind a grocery shop at the end of an alley, the stench of rotting garbage fills his nose as he roots around in a battered dustbin. Finds a dented tin can of something claiming to be beef stew – ‘‘a hearty meal!’’ according to the label – and what’s that old myth about canned food lasting forever? (cons: potential projectile vomiting followed by slow agonising death; pros: he’s really really hungry)

It smells…all right, after he saws off the lid with his knife, and the gravy doesn’t taste too bad. He scrounges a bent spoon from inside the dustbin. Stirring gets rid of the shiny film of grease congealed over the top, and it’s all good from there.

The dog’s looking expectantly at him again.

‘Smells good. Try some.’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

He dollops out a spoonful of meat onto the ground between his own bites; the dog wolfs it down eagerly until it’s just sniffing at the food and curled around his feet, blinking sleepily up at him. He scrapes out the last chunk of carrot and licks the spoon clean, watching the dog wag his tail and pant happily. Craig offers his hand, and the dog leans into his touch, licking his fingers.

Warmth slides down to his chest, settling deep into his belly. His eyelids feel heavy. He  breathes out and scratches behind the mutt’s dirty ear. The dog shakes his head, sneezes, and leans into the warmth of his body again.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It feels good. That’s what the warmth is. It’s good.

*

And one hour later he learns exactly why half-starved mutts should not eat canned beef stew. Also that a rubbish bag is essential equipment. Ugh.

It’s not a pleasant experience. At all. He cleans up as best he can – only gagging once or twice – and sweeps a pile of leaves over the steaming remainder before settling in to rest against a knobbly tree trunk. The mongrel curls up alongside him in the damp grass, blinking sheepishly and nuzzling at his fingers in apology.

Turns out, the dog makes for excellent company. Rather than let him retreat into himself, the nosy young mutt has him speaking aloud, even chuckling sometimes. He finds himself taking breaks before his teeth start rattling, talking more. ‘Quit it. I’ll stop. Not on the bag. Whatcha got? Mmmh. Hey. HEY. NEVER on the bag.’

He’s a good dog, even if Craig does have him to thank for the throbbing mess on the side of his scalp that itches and stings and has to be washed clean from a gurgling street pump. But that’s not the dog’s fault. He didn’t know he was hurting Craig; he was just hungry. Half-starved. So was Craig. Hell, if he’d had the chance he probably would’ve tried to eat the dog right back, so guess they’re square now. Besides, after a wash in the foul-smelling canal he’s not even that bad looking. Blotches of grey and black and brown tan all over his wiry fur. Dark wet eyes blink up at him.

He lets the mutt rest his scruffy head on his knee while he sits under the shade in the park and listens to the birds, the mutt gnawing stubbornly at a broken stick.

Still, the dog needs a proper name. Names are important, somehow.

There’s a glimmer of something: an echo-memory too far away to see. It leaves the taste of sugared apples on his tongue and a name that settles into his heart like a stone in deep water.

‘Sean.’

But no, that’s not right. Something about offering up that name doesn’t settle, the ripples spreading further and further away. It isn’t right.

The mongrel burrows into the crook of his elbow, eyes drooping shut. The warmth spreads through him again, making him smirk. ‘Shitcan, how about that for a name?’

The dog opens one eye to glare up at him. Craig rubs his thumb along his spine, slowly, slowly. Soft.

Another echo-memory surfaces: the scent of bitter woodsmoke and the damp smell of fallen leaves.

‘Liam?’

No response. The mutt dozes on. Splotches of black and grey all over. Smears of green moss. Flecks of dried mud. But beneath it all, a dull reddish-brown fur.

Like the beached iron hulls of ancient shipwrecks, blasted by endless wind and sea.

‘Rusty.’

The mongrel’s ears prick up. He snuggles closer against Craig’s side, tongue lolling. Craig scratches behind a grizzled ear, just the way he likes, and the dog flops his head onto Craig’s stomach with a huff. Tail beating against his leg.

‘Yeah? Rusty. You like that?’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Okay then. Rusty it is.

His eyelids slide shut and he lets himself sink into the calm rumble of growling on his stomach, sleep stealing around the edges until it folds him into its warm embrace.

Surviving in the gutter. An unfamiliar city. No family. No friends. Outcast. Alone.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Not alone.

Not anymore.


© 2017 Tom Burton

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28 thoughts on “2. Ruff and Tumble

  1. This is a great chapter! Really can’t fault the way you write at all, its so fluid, and your scenery conjures up the world effortlessly in the reader’s mind. In this chapter, I really liked the onomatopoeia of Rusty’s tail! I particularly like when writers describe using senses and sounds to infer the meanings. Also, I like how Craig just gets on with life and deals with his surroundings and situations (e.g. killing the mouse, patting Rusty endearingly even though Rusty has fleas and needs a bath) – it alludes to what kind of experiences Craig may have had in the army to be so matter-of-fact and unperturbed about dealing with such unclean, un-optimal environments (because as I read it I definitely had shudders at some of the descriptors – snap of cartilage, haha).

    I really like the way you naturally grew the relationship between them, and the effect that it had on Craig’s feelings, and how you described the way he realises what they are! At the beginning, I realised that the voice interplay in his mind sounded like ‘Craig’s rational voice’ and ‘Craig’s army voice’ which is a great way of letting us know more about how he thinks. Craig is still quite mysterious, and we don’t know much specific about his past, where he’s from or what he’s doing. I wonder if a couple more hints on who he is and his past might allow us to be slightly more hooked on his character, and to start to break down his mystery slightly. That being said, he is a very likeable and intriguing character! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! Love your feedback so far. Really appreciate all the details you’ve singled out (Craig being not squeamish about getting his hands dirty, enjoying the dog’s company despite the odour and the fleas). And yeah, I wasn’t too sure if the interplay between his inner voice and his army instincts would read well, but thanks for being so encouraging about it! 🙂 Is there anything in particular that makes Craig likeable/relatable/sympathetic for the reader?

      Like

      1. You’re welcome! I’m glad you’re finding it helpful! 😀

        I think I consider Craig to be sympathetic because he didn’t really hesitate to gravitate into his companionship with Rusty. Even if they might have had an uncertain start, and Rusty is trying to eat him, the descriptors of Rusty from the onset were always quite endearing (Warm-rough-damp nuzzles against his skull), and during their time together, we get no indication from Craig that he regrets sharing his food, or has to go out of his way to find some for Rusty and himself, or has to tolerate smelling perhaps not the best. This emphasises that he’s quite kind hearted and not the complaining type. I get the feeling Craig is the type of person who might prefer the company of dogs to people sometimes (which is relatable, haha).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow, thank you so much for explaining it so well! I was hoping to have them both scruffy survivors brought together through chance and learning to live with each other like ‘guess this is how it is now, huh.’ (Plus, it’s a man and his dog, winning combo right there 🙂 ). And his self-reliance from the get-go; I wanted to establish him as someone who knows how to survive and take care of himself, but who isn’t immediately ready to trust in other people quite yet and keeps his distance until he knows them better. Great feedback! 🙂

        Your welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. Keep up the writing!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for such positive feedback on what’s engaging for the reader. I’m trying to streamline the story better than before while still keeping a tight plot. Hope it’s working! 😀 x

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know how you do it, Tom. This chapter is so heartwarming and reads like a dream. The tempo is perfection. You paint an incredible picture that I can actually see with my own eyes as I’m reading. The things the character says and does with Rusty are so relatable to anyone who loves animals. I found myself smiling as I would be reacting the same way. And the dog’s behaviors, expressions, the sounds and smells around them are so authentic. This gives a great contrast to the first chapter – in showing a softer side to the protagonist. But brilliantly also in line with his “core” motivation – looking out for beings that are weaker than himself, in need of protection. Just absolutely wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww! 😀 😀 😀 I’m so thrilled that you loved this chapter, April! As a huge dog fan myself, I really wanted to leave a powerful first impression for them both, and I’m so happy that this resonated well with you. I’m deeply humbled that you’ve found so many enjoyable aspects in this chapter, many of which I hadn’t originally considered when writing this. Hopefully their future adventures will keep drawing you in & make for an engaging story! ❤ 🐕

      Liked by 1 person

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