Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Outside the window, storm clouds were gathering, dark and sticky, as thick as molasses. They scattered across the sky like a horde of cockroaches and threatened to pour down with rain. Annie hoped for a few more summer days, but the unrelenting wind, the carnivorous rustle of trees, the hideous mess seeping through the clouds made her realize that the summer was over. Oh, well, I’m going on vacation in a week, only one week until I check into my hotel in Burgas, Annie thought. I will enjoy my life to the fullest, yes I will, she thought, tapping on the keyboard, working selflessly, a freelance blogger living with her mom. Her small hand reached into a cookie jar that had been there since the morning, only there were no cookies, it was just a jar, as empty as the streets at this hour.
“Do we have something to eat?” she called out to her mom, pulling an earbud out of her ear.
"Dinner is not ready!" her mom shouted back from the kitchen.
"I’m not asking about dinner. Do we have snacks?" Annie tried again.
“Come see for yourself,” her mom replied, annoyed by her asking.
Annie let out a sigh, pressed her hands against the desk and slowly got up. She froze for a moment, like a battleship before a complex maneuver, there was tingling in her legs, arms, and feet, like hundreds of invisible bugs crawling up and down her body. All at once, the window opened, and burning cold raindrops fell on the floor like fire arrows, filling Annie’s room with holy autumn water. Annie shivered, but didn’t close the window. She walked into the hallway ankle-deep in water, stopped at the entrance to the kitchen and watched her mother stirring borscht. Her mother loved cooking borscht, it calmed her down, carried her away to the strawberry fields of her youth. As one politician said, a woman must cook borscht, and if she doesn’t want to, then she’s a whore.
“Again this soup, it makes me want to puke,” Annie complained. “Should I go to the store?”
Annie’s mom dropped the spoon and stared at Annie as if her daughter were a ghost.
“What are you talking about? Do you see this?” her mom pointed at the clock. “Ten minutes to six, only ten minutes left.”
The spoon she used for stirring slowly slid down the pot and dissolved in the patch of orange grease.
“The shop is just around the corner, I’ll be back soon,” Annie said, bending down to tie the laces on her sneakers.
“It’s dangerous, you can’t leave, I won’t let you!” her mom sounded distressed, panicked.
“You are making a big deal out of nothing,” Annie replied with a roll of her eyes.
She grabbed the keys and ran down the stairs.
Annie’s mom caught up with her halfway down. She tugged at her sleeve, opened her hand and put there a set of dull, yellowish brass knuckles.
“Your grandfather fought nazis with these, now they are yours,” her mom said. “Now go to the store, and be back soon.”
And she crossed her the Orthodox way, from right to left.
Let me briefly explain why Annie’s mother didn’t want her to leave the house, although it’s hard to put into words. There was a curfew that began every evening at six o’clock, when everyone felt an unspoken urge to race to a nearby building and barricade themselves inside until sunrise. Everyone somehow knew that they shouldn’t go out, they obeyed the unspoken rule and didn’t question it. In summer it didn’t get dark until late, the outside could still be filled with sunlight, but as soon as the big hand of the clock hit the top, fear crawled into the backstreets and alleyways, public parks and playgrounds, swollen like a rotten maggot, sickeningly palpable, and whomever it touched pissed and shit themselves. They thought that fear couldn’t penetrate the walls of their houses, but they were mistaken for it had long settled in their hearts. And no matter how many barricades they erected every night, they could not protect them from the nightmares.
Annie left her building and walked through a small park where on school days teenagers gathered for a smoke, paving the trails with cigarette butts. Now it was empty, only the trees swayed like ghosts and moaned with the wind. Annie approached the grocery store, climbed the steps to the front door and pulled. She tapped on her cell phone: it was six o’clock. In fact, the store was open until midnight, but no one would stay there after six, even the clerks. That’s why all of them were replaced by robots without eyes, they had no ears and mouths either. They didn’t see Annie, they didn’t hear her walk in, and even if they heard her they wouldn’t say a word.
Annie realized that she may have to stay there for the night, and wrote a short text to her mom, but didn’t press "send" because at that moment the glass door in front of her burst open, sending a cascade of glass shards at Annie’s face. Annie bent down, then fell to the floor, stunned, helpless girl, a crumpled piece of paper stained in blood. Her cell phone fell out of her hands and landed behind the store counter. Annie’s eyelids were stabbed with glass daggers, her whole body was crushed under a monstrous pulsating mass. Annie felt damp, stinking breath on her face, the rotten-smelling air filled her lungs, she was desperate, lonely, little red riding hood stuck in a dark fairy tale.
“What’s up, bitch?” growled in her ear.
Anxious thoughts fluttered in Annie’s head like a flock of wounded birds.
“Get ready for the darkest night in your life,” another voice said, it was coarse and cruel.
They dragged her out by the hair, and Annie’s fears and pain dragged behind her, reminding her that it was all her fault, that had she listened to her mom that wouldn’t have happened.
Annie rolled down the stairs, and every second felt like an hour. She rubbed her eyes and whimpered in pain, bloody tears streamed down her cheeks, dripped on her chest and shone like rubies. Fear entered her bloodstream through the scars on her face, it was the same fear that made people barricade inside their homes, the fear that turned their lives into a screaming nightmare. And it was coming from the mad dogs who had now surrounded her. They had shiny black fur, long muscular legs and slender bodies, and a pair of hateful eyes on unnaturally small heads. They had no penises, and it made them angrier than stray dogs who can fuck as much as they want. Demons summoned by an evil spell, feeling the blood, they bared their teeth and stepped closer to Annie.
“What’s happening? Why are you doing this to me?” Annie asked.
“Shut up,” the dog growled. “Wait until the chief comes, and you’ll regret the day you were born.”
“I just wanted to get groceries,” Annie stammered, touching her eyes, red from blood and inflammation. “Please don’t beat me.”
“Just shut your fucking face,” another dog yelled. “You got what you deserve. Next time, you’ll know better.”
The mad dogs snarled, revealing sharp yellow fangs, and the fury of a thousand dead stars reflected in their eyes. There were already at least ten of them.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” asked a calm, stern voice. It poured on Annie like a bucket of cold water, without warning.
The black dogs suddenly fell silent and retreated slightly, tail between legs. The chief was there. He was in no hurry to attack, instead he leisurely walked around, sniffed the air, and Annie relaxed a bit thinking that finally someone believed her, he wouldn’t hurt her, after all, a dog is a man’s best friend. The chief yawned and jumped on Annie’s lap, licked Annie on the cheek, just like a lapdog would do. He took out a wet napkin and wiped Annie’s face, her eyes. Annie felt stinging in her eyes but didn’t show it. She was touched by the sudden kindness and wanted to cry.
“Thank you,” Annie whispered under her breath. And backed away a little, just in case.
“Are you afraid of me? I won’t hurt you, you are like a daughter to me,” the chief cooed hoarsely, resting his front legs on Annie’s chest.
Annie let out a short squeak, like a deflated air balloon. She made a few feeble attempts to free herself, but the mad dogs sank their teeth into her small white hands, pinning Annie to the ground in the form of a crucifix.
“Does this hurt?” the chief asked soothingly. “Know that I haven’t done anything to you yet.”
And he pressed harder on Annie’s chest, as if he wanted to squeeze her out of her body, drop by drop, spill on the sidewalk and flow down the drain away from him.
“I can bite your head off and get away with it,” the chief whispered close to her ear, running his wet nose down Annie’s neck, then raised his muzzle and looked her in the eyes, as if he was looking for something and, perhaps, found it.
Annie understood the seriousness of his intentions and trembled like leaves in a storm, 7 on the Richter scale, sending cracks splitting through the pavement. The mad dogs slowly retreated, uncertain, maybe scared, they didn’t expect anything like that to happen and were not prepared for that. Annie’s head fell back, and she saw a piece of clear sky between the trees, with one pulsating star right in the middle. Remembering the Morse code she learned at a Girl Scout camp, Annie focused her gaze on the light flashes sent to her by the star: one long, one short, short again, a pause...
“Get the brass knuckles out of your pocket,” the star told her.
Annie slid her hand in her jeans pocket, and there, indeed, were the brass knuckles that her mother gave her. She pushed her weak fingers through the cold metal eye sockets and suddenly felt so much strength, as if her grandfather, who died right after the war, were there, as if he were guiding her hand.
“Thanks grandpa,” Annie said quietly and struck the chief in the gut.
Helpless confusion spread within the troop of the mad dogs. Without their chief they transformed into a bunch of puppies, trotting in a circle whelping pitifully. Meanwhile, Annie got to her feet and sent crushing blows right and left. People who lived along the street stuck their faces out of the windows and cheered her on. They rushed out of their homes armed with knives and forks, rolling pins, table legs and whatnot, and lashed out against the remaining mad dogs. They stopped with the last death scream, then gathered around Annie and said: “Dear Annie, if it wasn’t for you, we would have never found courage to fight back. Now we’ll band together and chase away the mad dogs. Hurray!”
Annie thanked everyone in return, put the brass knuckles back in her jeans pocket, walked back into the store and searched for her phone behind the counter. She wiped the phone on her jeans, glanced at the thirty-four missed calls from her mom, and typed a short text: “I’m on the way home.”
The cover: "Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas" by Otto Dix