The Flame: A Short Story by Karen Munro
The Flame went down on Valentine’s Day, leaving no bodies behind. Six men traded for a flicker of oil on the swells.
A week later Bertie stood on the front step of King Kerr’s little yellow house. She rattled the knob, then bent to flip the mat. No key, but with her head down she heard the click of claws inside the door.
Back home, she stood smoking at her front window, staring at King Kerr’s house. The search hadn’t turned up any bodies. Pretty soon they’d make a ruling, and then everybody could move on.
“Why even have a dog?” Bertie stared at the television, rehashing the wreck. “How many deckhands do you know have a dog?”
“Some.” Mott, slicing limes, kept his head down.
“And a dog like that. Looks like a damn rat.”
Mott set the knife down. “Bertie.” He seemed about to say something, but stopped. “That Deschutes keg’s about blown.”
“Yeah.” She pulled out her phone.
“You wanna change it?”
She looked around the bar, empty except for a couple of regulars and a visiting journo in the corner, typing up another tale of the sunken Flame. The past week, they’d had plenty of weepy-faced strangers to drain the kegs.
“Man’s best friend, my ass,” she said, heading for the keg.
The next morning she was back on King Kerr’s doorstep. King Kerr was a keep-apart, a loner. No girlfriend, no boyfriend. No family. Just this little yellow house and this little brown hairball of a dog. Every day he was at home, he brought it out in the yard and stood around watching it pee on things. Every day he was at sea, a woman came and took it for a professional walk.
Watching from her window, Bertie had seen the dog from every angle. It was a footstool of ratted wool. A stump of fur. There was nothing in it to love.
“What the hell did he want you for?” she asked the front door. “What’s the point?”
So far, the professional walker was still showing up. Every day at noon she parked her hatchback and brought out King Kerr’s dog on a red leash. Except it wasn’t really King Kerr’s dog anymore, because King Kerr was buried under a mile of cold Pacific.
“You better hope,” Bertie told the door, “that somebody else decides to give a damn about you.”
The next morning the ruling was all over the news and the professional walker didn’t come. Bertie stood at her window smoking, watching. At one o’clock she called Mott and told him she was sick. “OK, Bertie,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
She spent the next few hours pondering. The only person she ever talked to was Mott, and he didn’t care about the dog. The neighbors were all shits. The fire department would break down a door if she called them. The dogcatcher would just gas the thing.
“Guess it’s you and me,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette in her soup bowl. The landlord kept a 20-foot ladder in the garage and it was getting dark.
Up on King Kerr’s back porch roof, she wrapped her jacket around her elbow, figuring a broken window was better than a bashed-in door.
The quilt on King Kerr’s bed had bright nautical triangles sailing across a blue sea. Beside the headboard, a tide chart tacked to the wall. On the night table, a framed picture of something she couldn’t at first make out. She leaned closer. It was King Kerr himself, lashless and blond, hugging his ugly hairpiece of a dog.
Bertie shook her head and went to the door. The dog was there when she opened it, staring up at her with raisin eyes. She leaned down and it ran away.
She felt her way down the dark hall, then the stairs. King Kerr’s house smelled strange. Not just stale and doggy, the way she’d expected. Like wet, mildewy rubber and plastic.
She stood in King Kerr’s living room and sniffed. The air was colder down here, and the smell was strong. With one hand she reached for the light switch. When she found it, the light dazzled her eyes.
There was a dark wet spot on King Kerr’s living room carpet. The dog sat nearby on its tiny haunches.
“Bad dog,” Bertie said.
She looked around. On the floor beside the easy chair was a sheepskin cushion the size of her own single mattress. The couch was littered with dog hairs, strewn with rawhide toys and balls.
“My God,” Bertie said. “Is all this crap for you?”
The dog stared at her.
Bertie went to the couch and picked up a rawhide bone. When she leaned against the couch arm, cold liquid seeped from it. She jerked away.
“Bad dog!” She flicked droplets from her fingers, heading for the kitchen. More puddles on the carpet, on the linoleum. She rinsed her hands at the sink.
“Did you piss on everything?” The dog was watching from the doorway. A red leash hung from a hook in the wall. She grabbed it, then realized it was wet, too. The professional walker had come the day before. Had it rained? The leash was heavy and cold and a clear droplet hung from its metal clasp.
The smell of moldy rubber was stronger now, almost nauseating. King Kerr must have left some of his gear behind. She remembered that smell—musty, unwashed, sharp with old sweat—from when the crew of the Flame would pile into the bar, pushing wads of money at her, shouting for whiskey and beer.
“Come on.” She went back to the living room, leash in hand. The dog was stationed on the carpet by the front door. It glanced at her, then went back to staring at the door. Its little rat-tail thumped the carpet.
When she bent to leash it, the dog ducked away.
“Come here, you little bugger.” The dog shrugged free, ran a few steps toward the door, and sat down. Its tail thumped.
Something moved past the dark window beside King Kerr’s front door.
The dog jumped forward, but Bertie snatched it up and ran for the staircase. If someone was coming—the police, the fire department, the professional walker—she didn’t want to be in here.
Upstairs, in King Kerr’s darkened bedroom, she fumbled to clip the leash to the dog’s collar. The dog twisted in her hands. “Cut that out,” she whispered.
Downstairs, the front door eased open.
Bertie froze. The dog released a single joyous bark and she clamped a hand over its muzzle.
In the absolute silence of King Kerr’s house, she heard slow, quiet creaks cross the living room. The dog squirmed. The room stank of salt and fish, a nauseating low-tide tang.
She crouched, listening to the faint sounds of movement downstairs. Someone in boots stepped onto the kitchen’s lino-leum floor. Someone paused there, then came back into the living room. Another pause. As if looking for something.
The dog’s heart fluttered against her fingertips. She held it tight. Maybe someone had called the police. She should let the dog go and disappear out the window. But for some reason she couldn’t. She was still fumbling to clip the leash to the dog’s collar.
The first creak on the stairs came with a stench like a crab pot left too long in the bottom of a boat. She gagged, buried her nose in the crook of her elbow, and worked frantically on the leash. Freezing water trickled over her hands.
The stairs creaked. It was a man’s tread, long and heavy. A little slow, a little awkward. A neighbor maybe, cautiously exploring. Maybe with a gun. While Bertie was frozen by that thought, the leash clicked onto the dog’s collar. The dog twisted and nipped the heel of her hand. She let go.
The dog bolted out the bedroom door. But the leash, snapping along behind, caught on the leg of the dresser. The red line zinged taut. In the hall, the dog whimpered. The tread on the staircase paused.
Then it started again. One heavy footfall after another.
Bertie fell back onto her heels. She scrambled backward, across King Kerr’s floor. Through the scattered shards of glass, past the bright sailing ships. The room was so cold it drew tears from her eyes. She was suddenly, sickly certain it was no cop or neighbor on King Kerr’s stairs.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Broken glass pierced her hands, each shard a bright point of pain. “I don’t want your stupid dog anyway!”
The stair boards creaked as if someone were waiting with a foot raised, just outside the door. A smear of rotten rubber hung in the air. The dog gave another happy bark, and it was like the click of a trigger against Bertie’s ear. She dove forward and knocked the leash out from under the dresser leg. It shot out of her hand and around the door frame.
She hurdled the window frame and flew flailing into darkness. Then the ground hit and the world exploded into sparks. A wave of barking hauled her back to herself. She got up and ran as if the house behind her were consumed in flames.