Dog Eat Dog
by Matthew D. Saeman
Jack hovers near the hallway entrance sporting an expression of determined grit. As he takes a step forward, something inside compels him to start singing, not just any old song, but one he knows all too well. Though not a crooner by trade, he can certainly carry a tune, and his hope is not that his sister appreciates the melody but rather that she listens close to the lyrics and hears them for what they are: a warning.
“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain. My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.”
Singing on, he straightens his tie and dabs the sweat from his brow with a paisley kerchief. He pulls a comb from his pocket and works to neaten his tousled, thinning hair.
Finally arriving at a closed door, he places his hands gently upon the surface, shuts his eyes and belts out the finale with gusto: “For what is a man, what has he got, if not himself, than he has naught. To say the things he truly feels, and not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows and did it myyyyyyy way!”
Nearly breathless following his impassioned a cappella performance, Jack puts his ear to the door but hears not a peep. He jiggles the handle and finds it locked. His voice booms, “Goddammit!” but then, like a flipped switch, it instantaneously resumes a tone of serenity. “Dad loved Sinatra, didn’t he? Remember how he used to play him all the time, even at Christmas? Jillian? You remember? And if someone dared change the record how he’d get so pissed his face would turn purple? Purple! Remember that?... Jillian?”
Seconds pass... then minutes, and still no sound emanates from the other side of the door. So, sighing with a mishmash of anger and fatigue, Jack sinks to the floor and buries his face in his hands. “You’re my sister, Jillian... I don’t want to kill you. But we have to sell this house and, in order to do that, you have to leave it... It’s time. You need to break free of this fear, step outside and see the world. This... condition... you have is all in your head. Mom and Dad chose to ignore it, but I won’t... I can’t. It ends here... now. Come on out, take my hand, and we’ll face it together.” Tilting his head back, it clunks against the door with a dull thud. He listens close, hears nothing but the persistent sound of silence.
“Well then... I guess that’s that.” Jack rises to his feet, slaps his hands to remove the dust. “You’ve got one hour. If you’re still here when I get back, I’ll cut your throat and bury you in the back.” Turning from the door, he starts away but, after only a few steps, spins back around. “Phone line’s been cut, and your cell’s cancelled. Oh, and all the neighbors were informed that you’re delusional and they should steer clear, so there’s no need to call out to them for help.”
Moving forward again, now at a quicker pace, he doesn’t even look back as he states in conclusion, “Got no one to blame but yourself.” He then disappears around the corner, and seconds later the front door slams so hard it shakes the whole house.
Jillian sits cross-legged in the empty bathtub with her eyes shut so tight they look ready to bleed. A breath catches in her throat when she hears the front door close. She peels her eyelids back, and with the slightest inkling of hope, begins to rise.
“Don’t be dumb. You really think he’s gone?” a child’s voice beckons.
Jillian turns her head, her formerly frightened eyes now showing venom. “Don’t call me dumb.”
On the sink sits a little ragamuffin girl with a pixie hairdo whose smarmy face shows pure contempt. “I didn’t call you dumb, I said don’t be dumb.”
“Shut up,” Jillian says in a defeated tone. She sits back down, contemplates her options.
“You have to leave.” Jillian raises her gaze to see a great-grandpa-looking old man now sitting opposite her in the tub. “He’ll be back in fifty-seven minutes. And I believe him... He will kill you.”
“Bull crap,” the child says.
“Watch your mouth!” the old man chides with an edge.
“He’s nothin’ but talk, that one. Always has been,” the child says.
“Both of you, shut up!” barks Jillian.
“Leave this house and never look back,” begs the old man.
The child hops off the sink, looks down her nose at him. “Run away? That’s your solution?”
The old man steps out of the tub, looks down upon the child, “All right, tough guy: how would you suggest we remedy this situation?”
The child snarls, outraged by the old man’s slight. “First off, there is no we. This is all on her. Second, it’s clear he’s never gonna give in. Even if she leaves before the hour’s up, he’ll just keep on trying to ‘save’ her. It’ll never end.”
“And your solution?” asks the old man.
Jillian now sees where this is heading. “No,” she clamors with defiance.
“What? Are ya chicken?” says the child.
The old man looks confused.
“He’s my brother!” Jillian screams.
The child smiles with pity. “Oh my. You really are dumb, aren’t you?”
Jillian hops to her feet. “I told you...” Her angry expression shifts swiftly to one of perplexity. “What the hell are you two talking about?”
The child spins around laughing, leaps back up onto the sink. “Surrounded by idiots.”
Though speaking to the old man, Jillian keeps her eyes trained on the child. “She wants me to kill him.”
The child rewards her with a dramatic, silent golf applause.
“Oh.” The old man takes a moment to digest this thought. “Oh!”
Waiting for it, but hearing no rebuttal, Jillian finally looks over at him. “Oh?”
“A pre-emptive strike. As much as I hate to agree with that little piece of... filth, it could be our only workable option.”
“Hers... not ours,” the child says.
“Have you both lost your minds?” Jillian asks. “I’m not killing Jack.”
“How much time is left?” asks the child.
The old man checks his watch. “Forty-nine minutes.”
The child looks to Jillian. “Anything on your bucket list you could do in less than an hour?”
“He’s bluffing.” She points to the child. “You said so yourself.”
“I never said he was bluffing,” corrects the child, “I said he was nothin’ but talk. But what do I know? Maybe grandpa’s right. Guess we’re... sorry... you’re gonna find out in... forty-eight minutes now?”
For the first time, Jillian’s face shows uncertainty. The child sees this, continues working the lead. “Think about it. With him gone, you got no worries. Your parents left the house in your name; you already have enough money to retire ten times over; and you’ll no longer have that pesky fly named Jack trying to force you out the front door. Win-win all around!”
“Except that she’ll have to live the rest of her life knowing she murdered her only brother,” the old man posits.
“Small price to pay. She’ll be over it in a month... two, tops,” counters the child.
Jillian’s uncertainty has morphed into full-blown confusion. She climbs back into the bathtub, resumes her cross-legged sitting stance, and closes her eyes. The old man kneels on the floor next to the tub, places a gentle hand on her shoulder, which startles her. “Just take it one step at a time. Jack won’t be back for a while, giving you ample opportunity to make it out that front door.”
As Jillian thinks hard on this, the old man looks over at the child who sits quietly with her hands folded neatly in her lap. He cocks a suspicious eyebrow, to which she returns a pleasant smile. Turning back now to Jillian, he waits patiently for her to verbalize her thoughts.
“I’m scared,” Jillian states with a shaky voice.
“You’ll be fine. I promise,” the old man says.
“Uh-oh. Promises? What if she’s not fine? What if Jack kills her anyway?” the child asks.
“Why must you be such a bitch?” the old man angrily asks.
The child grins. “That’s how she imagines me.”
Quick as a flash, the old man lunges over and slaps the child’s face hard.
Jillian’s confusion increases tenfold upon hearing this assertion. “What do you mean ‘imagines’?”
“Don’t!” the old man warns.
The child rubs her now reddening face while glaring contemptuously at the old man. “Nothing. I’m eight. That’s what eight-year olds do, we make stuff up, right?”
The old man hurries back to Jillian, looks at his watch. “Forty minutes left. I want you to stand up—”
Jillian looks at him with curious eyes. She reaches out, touches his face. “You feel real.”
The old man takes her hand in his. “I am, dear, now get on your feet—”
“Yes, on your feet! Go out there and die like a champion today!” the child shouts.
“She’s not going to die!” the old man retorts while keeping his focus on Jillian.
The child now races over and hops into the tub, takes Jillian’s other hand. “The only way you’ll get through this is by striking first.”
“Get out of this house and you’ll be safe,” the old man desperately pleads.
“Kill... or be killed,” the child preaches.
“He’s your brother and he loves you!” the old man yells.
“He’s desperate, wants to sell the house to pay off his gambling debts!” the child yells louder.
As the two continue their bickering, now totally focused on each other, Jillian takes back her hands, covers her ears, and shuts her eyes tighter than they were before. Her mind spins fast, the voices quicken and increase in volume with each passing second. Jillian breathes hard and fast, finally snaps and lets loose with a high-pitched howl.
Jack walks through the front door, pauses, and looks around. “Time’s up, Jillian.” Hearing no reply, he walks to the hallway, stops and tries again in a more playful pitch. “Jillian?”
Jack hears a soft, cooing sound coming from behind the same closed door he stood before earlier. Disappointed, he walks to it, checks the handle, and confirms that it’s locked. He pulls out his phone, dials a number, and waits a few seconds for the recipient to answer. “She’s still in there. Yep, let’s do this. I’ll see you in a few.” As he returns the cell to his pocket, he listens close at the door. The sound is clearer now, Jack makes it out as crying.
“Sorry, sis... you had your chance.” He takes an old-fashioned key from his shirt pocket, leans down, and inserts it into the lock. When it enters only a tiny bit, Jack pushes hard, but can’t get the metal to reach the tumblers. He steps back from the door, puts an eye to the keyhole, and sees what appears to be a piece of wood jammed through from the other side. An appreciative smile crosses his lips. “Wouldn’t be you if it were easy.”
Taking a few more strides back, he races forward, throwing the entirety of his body weight against the door. It goes nowhere. Jack rubs his shoulder, doesn’t waste his time on a second attempt. The crying inside continues. “I gotta get something from the garage, Jillian. Should take me a couple of minutes. Get out now and we forget this ever happened.” He disappears down the hall, all remains quiet... except for the continuous crying.
Jack returns carrying an axe like he knows how to use it. Having lost all patience with the situation, he chooses not to bother checking the door’s lock before swinging it hard and plunging the sharpened metal deep into the wood. This undertaking causes him to work up quite a sweat, he finds himself quickly out of breath, but refuses to quit. Eventually he creates a hole big enough to fit his hand, drops the axe to the floor, and in one fluid motion reaches through the door, twists the lock, turns the handle, and bursts on in.
It takes his eyes a few seconds to adjust and when they do, he sees the bathroom is empty. In awe, he opens his mouth to question his confusion, but before any thoughts can materialize into words, he hears her crying again. It’s coming from behind the shower curtain. He smiles, steps quietly to it, reaches for the plastic and yanks it away fast. But his eyes widen when, rather than finding his petrified sister convulsing on the floor of the tub, he sees her cell phone propped up against one sidewall. Both stunned and impressed by Jillian’s craftiness, he reaches down, lifts the phone to his ear and listens to the playback of her sobbing. “I’ll be damned.”
He never saw it coming. The axe blade falls with such force it splits his head like a crisp apple. Jillian watches Jack’s body fall dead to the ground, shows absolutely no emotion as she drops the axe, turns, and leaves the bathroom. The child stands waiting at the door with a high five hand held aloft. Jillian ignores it. “You did the right thing!” the child intones as Jillian passes her by. The child then looks upon Jack’s corpse with a wicked smile. “Sorry, bro.”
Ambling up the hallway, Jillian sees the old man leaning against the wall with folded arms and a look of discontent on his face. Her feet slightly stumble, but she quickly corrects, lowers her shamed eyes to the floor, and marches on. As she proceeds, he watches her go, says nothing, simply shakes his head. Upon entering the first floor TV lounge, Jillian gasps, pulls to an abrupt halt. She stands motionless, her eyes stare straight ahead. “Hi, Jillian,” a gentle female voice says. “I’m Doctor Fielding, a friend of your brother’s.”
Jillian looks around the room, recognizes every face she sees: uncles, aunts, cousins, family friends and neighbors. The doctor approaches her slowly, “This room is filled with those who love you, and the reason we’re all here today is to help you.
“Now, I know Jack probably scared you with his crazy antics and threats, but it was all an act. It was he who contacted me because he cares so deeply for you and your well being. You see, I specialize in counseling those afflicted with agoraphobia, and what I’ve learned over the years is that to beat this disorder, one must be put to the test. What better test than choosing between life or death?
“Test,” Jillian says. “This was a... test?”
“Please remain calm. I know right now you’re probably feeling a lot of anger,” the doctor says in a soothing voice.
“Probably?” Jillian asks rhetorically.
“It’s natural. I call this the transition period, and that’s why you’re family and friends are here. For the next couple hours, or however long you feel you need, this loving group will be right here to help you deal with the agony you’ve just gone through,” says the doctor.
Jillian rubs her eyes, fights with all her strength to wake from this nightmare.
“Sorry, kid, it’s real,” the old man declares. She looks up fast, sees him and the child sitting beside her Uncle Max.
The doctor steps before her, places her hands gently on Jillian’s shoulders. “You can yell, scream, cry... whichever means of release you feel work best. And then, after you’ve accepted that this experience was initiated out of love for you, we can get down to business and remove this fear that has plagued you for far too long.”
“Plagued? Who uses that word anymore?” asks the child.
“An educated mind... something you’ll never possess,” jabs the old man.
“You can take your education and shove it up your ass. Lotta good it did you,” the child quips.
Jillian watches the two loudly banter back and forth, sees that Uncle Max is oblivious to their presence, that in fact no one in the room, except her, can see or hear them.
“She was right,” Jillian concedes.
“What’s that, dear?” the doctor asks.
“Go on, dear, tell her all about us,” the child prods.
Jillian looks into the doctor’s face. The doctor sees she’s gone a bit pale, pulls a chair over and sits her down. “You OK?” the doctor asks.
“No,” Jillian replies in earnest.
“A perfect time to begin.” The doctor takes a seat, looks at her watch, then to Jillian: “Where’s Jack?”
Jillian looks to the old man and the child. After a few seconds, they all start laughing like lunatics. “Um... last I checked he was in the bathroom,” she says, and continues laughing so hard she nearly falls out of her chair.
With a professional demeanor, the doctor looks to everyone. “We’ll just give him another minute.”
Copyright © 2018 by Matthew D. Saeman