Eli Ryder writes fiction and teaches college English in a small desert suburb of Los Angeles. His work has appeared online, in print, and on stage, and he holds an M.F.A. from U.C. Riverside’s low residency program in Palm Desert, CA.
The Only Thing That Matters
by Eli Ryder
Fear is the thing, really.
It’s the thing that pulls the dogs off their beds and shoots them out through the doggie door into single-digit temperatures at night to bark at whatever it is they heard that I didn’t.
Kris, my wife, looks at me wide-eyed and tight-lipped, not quite awake, breathing hard, sweating.
It’s the reason there’s a safe bolted to the wall, and the reason we went with thumbprint locks instead of a combination. Our daughter can’t figure out a combination if it’s hidden in the whorls and loops on our thumbs.
The dogs stop their noise, trot back into the bedroom. I get up to check their paws for foxtails, afraid of another expensive extraction. Afraid of more pain, more limping. The eldest, a golden retriever gone gray in the snout, still licks his front right paw raw, years after that first foxtail was removed. We’re still licking the wounds in our wallets. Afraid of bank balances without commas, all that.
The next morning, my daughter asks me who was walking outside the night before. Kris looks at me wide-eyed again.
“Told you they heard something,” she says.
“They hear something every night.”
“Go look,” she says. “Footprints, maybe.”
“Yeah, Daddy,” my daughter says around a mouthful of cereal. “Go look.” She giggles.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Kris says.
My daughter giggles again and cereal spittle hits the table in front of her. She laughs harder and tries to cover her mouth, but the rest of her half-chewed food ends up back in her bowl and in her lap.
Fear drove us out to the wind-swept edges of a rural suburb. Didn’t want to be neighborly; afraid of having to talk to people. Not another house for a mile in any direction. But, the dogs last night, and my daughter said she heard something. So I go look for footprints I know won’t be there. Like monsters under her bed, or in her closet.
The retriever follows me out, one of my wife’s purple socks in his mouth. It’s a habit he’s held over from when he was little, when she and I both worked and left him alone. My best guess, he was afraid he’d be alone forever and having a mouth full of something saturated with either of us was comfort.
No footprints in the dirt under my daughter’s window. Carlo, the retriever, sniffs and whines at the stucco. The sock is balled up on his tongue and his whining is thick with cotton.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, ruffling the fur behind his ears. “What’d you hear?”
Nighttime is a thousand colors of fear beyond our reach. It’s why we have dogs. Makes the unknowable somewhat accessible.
Carlo spits the sock out on my shoe. It’s faded, matches the purple sage flowers weaving through the scrub on the other side of the driveway. It rolls onto the sand, muddies up. Without crouching or squinting I can see how thoroughly he’s slimed it over. I leave it.
Inside, Murphy, the beagle, drops his ass to the floor, pisses, and wags his tail through the puddle trailing away from him. He flings droplets and splashes Amy.
My daughter scrunches her face and shakes her hands in disgust. It’s a gesture that looks far older than her four years.
My wife snatches her up and takes her straight to the bath. It’s a routine we know without thinking. Murphy has peed his greetings since he was old enough to be happy to see us. Vet said it was a submission thing, showing appropriate fear to the master of the pack, or something. Meant scolding him only made it worse. Fear is his salutatory language, apparently.
Carlo roots around for another sock, comes up with one of my black ones.
“You okay, big guy?” I ask. The sock thing seems a weird habit to pick up again. I’d have figured he’s too old to fall back on that kind of pacifier. I try to take the sock from his mouth, but he dodges me, lopes off to his bed.
I can’t imagine what that thing smells like. I’m afraid to go near it.
He lays down, drops the sock, and rubs the side of his head against it, rolling it up between his cheek and the fur-beaten fabric. Maybe he’s dying, wants to soak up as much as he can in the meantime.
It’s my wife’s day to drop Amy at school. I buckle her into her booster, nice and tight against the seat, kiss her forehead, wave to Kris. My heart stops for a moment, as it always does, when they disappear down the road. It’s two emotions doing that, but the biggest is—yeah.
I shower, dress.
Underwear, to protect me from rubbing against the inside of my pants. Which are there because I’m afraid of the cold, and indecent exposure. Afraid of what the ground will do to my feet, so boots. But, to save my feet and ankles, socks. Takes me a minute to find them—Carlo can’t have them all, can he?—but I do.
So afraid, I need protection from our protection.
I buy socks to replace what we’ve lost and maybe a little for Carlo, too. If he is on his way out, he might as well be comfortable. If a mouth full of dirty sock is what does it, well. He’s a good dog. I’ll wear two pairs a day.
I’d left the doggie door open and Murphy pisses hello in the backyard grass. Carlo noses my hand, takes his scratching behind the ears with dignity. He’s still got the sock.
Below Amy’s window, where I’d found no footprints and left that purple sock, another lay next to it, folded into itself.
“Huh,” I say, and walk toward them.
The socks are sun-dried and crusty, one purple, one black.
“If you’re just leaving them out here,” I say, and pick them up. This time, I do see prints—Carlo’s. I sweep over them with my shoe.
That night, again, the dogs are out barking. I hear it this time, though. What I know is a drove of jackrabbits thumping around below Amy’s window, the night turns into chitinous clacking against the stucco wall. I hear hungry spiders sniffing around the darkness, walking up the walls of the house.
My wife hears too, elbows me toward the safe.
The flashlight on the end of the ammo tube shakes when I shiver, and I’m glad it’s a shotgun. If there is anything out here, I’m going to need the forgiving spread of the pheasant load to do any damage.
Carlo follows me out and stays on my heel. We shove that light into dark corners around the house, find nothing, then—
Under Amy’s window, two balled-up black socks like eyes in the sand.
The gun safety people tell you not to keep your finger on the trigger. They’re afraid you might be twitchy sometime when the barrel swings around at something it shouldn’t, careful as you might be. Good thing they tell you that. I’d have put that pheasant load right through the window and into Amy’s room.
I’m no action hero.
Instead, I jump back, propelled by the involuntary whoof of air that shoots out my mouth. My body tenses. Carlo steps back too, then leans toward the socks laying in the dirt. Whines. Steps away.
I pick them up and just outside the reach of the flashlight, something moves. Carlo barks. I whip the barrel up at the corner of the house, and catch something disappearing around it. Something shapeless and unidentifiable.
It’s just a jackrabbit. Probably.
It’s shadows gone tangible and malignant. The hand of darkness reaching for us all. Six-legged anthropomorphs that feed on children’s tears. In the dark, it’s everything.
I have to catch my breath. That takes a few moments. Carlo sits next to me and noses my thigh. I drop a hand to his face, he nuzzles.
I pick up the socks. Sand sticks to their wetness.
Inside, Kris has gone back to sleep and Murphy hasn’t moved since he crawled into Carlo’s bigger bed when the older dog left. Carlo looks at Murphy, looks at me, paws Murphy’s face, and the smaller dog gets up. Carlo takes his place and I smile. Old guy still has some fight in him.
The next morning, Amy chatters at me between bites of cereal.
“They were loud this time, Daddy! And so many! I want to see them.”
“Did you see anything out there?” my wife asks.
“No,” I lie.
I could tell them about the movement, the socks, being scared enough to almost shoot a hole through Amy’s window, maybe through Amy. But it was just jackrabbits. They were just socks.
“Need you to pick up some socks after you drop her off today,” Kris says.
I’m making faces at Amy, who is trying not to giggle her cereal out onto the table again. “I just bought some yesterday. Did you not find them?” The words are scrunched up by my mugging for Amy.
“If I’d found them, would I ask you to buy more?” she asks.
I go check the drawer where I’d left the plastic bundles the day before. I hadn’t even opened them, I just left them in their packages. Which aren’t there now.
“Huh,” I say. I look down at Carlo. “You stealing the new ones now, too?” Not a single shine of plastic around him, no sock in his mouth.
I check the laundry basket we toss our dirties in and the two socks I brought in last night are gone, too. Not a single sock there at all, like we’re a sandals and flip-flops family.
I’m afraid of why the socks are gone. And, I’m afraid of my boots.
I drop Amy at school, where she sandwiches her goodbye around telling me she needs socks too, and shows me her bare feet shoved into her slip-on deck shoes. The thought of Carlo comforting himself with Amy’s socks is heartwarming, but for the whole family to be out of socks? Doesn’t sound like Carlo.
So, quick stop at the department store and then I’m home with brand new, bulging plastic packages. I set them out on their Kris and Amy’s beds so they can see I actually did bring them home. I head to the wall outside Amy’s room. This time, Carlo doesn’t come. I figure it’s too cold, but there’s a shake in his whine I haven’t heard since we lived across the road from the county fairgrounds. The Fourth of July used to rattle our windows.
I do see footprints this time, sort of. Sharp indentations in the sand that circle the two pairs of socks sitting there—one black, mine, and the other, tiny yellow fuzzies with rubber slip knobs on the bottom, Amy’s—and then beeline for the wall, where they stop.
No. They don’t stop. They continue up the stucco. Dime-sized chips in the paint crawl up the wall and around Amy’s window, then down to the edge of the building, where the wall turns the corner. The chips in the paint end there, like whatever had been walking on the wall just kept going out into thin air.
I shiver, suck in a sage-laden breath, breathe it out slow. I puff steam into the winter air and calm my nerves. The socks, paired as they are, feel obtrusive, like they’re ogling. I shove them into my sweatshirt pockets and go inside. They go straight into the washer with the contents of the laundry basket.
For the forty-minute cycle, I’m afraid they’ll be gone when I pull the rest of the clothes out.
They aren’t. Into the dryer they go, and for the first half of the cycle, I wonder what it would mean if they weren’t there.
Carlo barks at something outside, Murphy follows, and I go check. There’s a roadrunner fat as lazy Christmas ten feet outside the gate at the edge of our property. It waves its long tail at the dogs, hops in a slow circle, then waddles away.
Murphy fires off a rasp of barking and yowling and I hear desperation in it, like he’s afraid he’s never going to see another roadrunner ever again.
I go back inside to the dryer and it has stopped tumbling. The clothes inside are still a little damp. I check my watch. The dryer shouldn’t be done.
The socks are gone.
This time, knowing Amy is at school and my wife won’t be home for at least another hour, I do hide behind the shotgun, finger on the trigger, less afraid of the gun going off than I am of what I’m looking for in the house. I’ve never shot at anything that wasn’t made to be shot at.
The house is empty. My bare feet slap against the tile. The echoes coming off the walls are just that, but fear—well. Fear makes the sound tiny feet chipping the paint as they run out of the laundry room and then the house, socks in tow.
Anymore, I’m not so sure fear is wrong.
At dinner, I’m quiet. I don’t eat much. I keep hearing tapping just out of identifiable reach. My wife doesn’t talk much either, disappointed in there not being new socks for all of us when she got home.
“My feet are cold,” Amy tells me.
Kris eyes me.
“I bought them, I swear.” I show her the receipt. “Left them on the beds, honest.”
“So where’d they go?”
“I don’t know. Are you pranking me or something?”
“So,” my wife says, “we’ve got a sock prowler, is that what you’re saying?”
It sounds ridiculous. And I don’t like that she’s throwing the word “prowler” around like it’s not something to be afraid of. I wish I’d told her about last night and the chips in the stucco. Something about her strong and stern face, though, makes last night and all its fears seem just as ridiculous as a sock prowler would be.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“What’s going on?” she asks. There’s concern in the strength in her face now, and I remind myself to appreciate that more, and better.
“Nothing. I don’t know. Sleep, I guess. I need sleep.”
She rubs my shoulder and Amy smiles.
This is why I’m afraid of the nighttime and all its unnamable dangers.
I leave the safe open after Amy goes to bed, and then I do end up sleeping. Not well, though. I’m barely under, then up, then turning, then under again and dreaming of falling deep into darkness, feet first, forever. Then up. Under again, and then—
Clacking on the tile floor in the hallway in front of Amy’s room. Any other night, I’d know it was Carlo’s claws tapping as he walked. Sometimes he parks himself next to her closed door, sentries through the night.
Tonight, he butts his head against my hand and the clacking in the hallway speeds up to running, and I swear there’s more than four feet out there.
I hit the switch on my lamp and look to my left, reach out to reassure my wife. She’s not there. Murphy has his paws up on her side of the bed and sniffs around. Whines. Sniffs again, then bounds to my side.
I’m up with the shotgun and flashlight pointed down the hallway before I register the sound of Amy’s door closing, the dogs bray painfully and the light hits a gangly bundle of sinew and bone hunched just outside my bedroom door, its black eyes open wide, infinitely deep. It dissipates before I can hit the trigger and its eyes fall to the floor.
Carlo noses one of them, picks it up in his mouth, drops it with a yelp.
It’s my black socks on the floor.
The dogs stop yowling and stick to my hip. I step over the socks into the hallway.
“Amy?” I call out. “Kris?” Nothing. The dogs whine.
In front of Amy’s door, the tile is chipped in little polka-dot patterns that run to the door, then up, then further down the hall. I open her door and the flashlight shows me her empty bed, her head-dented pillow, her covers pulled back and two fuzzy yellow socks crumpled on the sheet. I swing the light back to the hallway—the floor is clear, socks are gone—then back into Amy’s room and I swear I catch the socks settling to rest. I ball them up in my left hand, up against the fore end of the shotgun.
There’s chattering on the stucco outside.
The dogs beat me there, barking and snarling, paws up on the wall. In the light, I catch another of the twisted sockeyed creatures perched on the wall like gravity bends sideways there before it puffs to nothing and drops lavender socks onto Carlo’s and Murphy’s snouts. Carlo snatches one up, spits it out, and looks at me.
I slide in my bare feet to a halt next to Kris’s socks and try to pick those up too, try to bend down, but something is wrong.
I can’t get the flashlight turned around right, but I can still see—feel—that one of them has stabbed its spiked feet to my hip. It hangs on, pinned by that same sideways gravity, and looks up at me. Its eyes are blank and its feet are sharp bones. My hip is bleeding. It shakes and I let go of the shotgun with my left hand to bat it away. Amy’s socks fall out of my hand and the thing shoves off my hip, catches Amy’s socks, lands on the wall with them it its clawed grip. It crouches, steps into them. Sinks all the way down and comes out the other side bone-feet first, then twisted skin and backwards-angled joints, then its head.
It’s Amy’s face, socks for eyes, smooth bone instead of soft skin.
The Amy thing blinks its fuzzy yellow eyes at me. At the edge of the flashlight’s glow I see lavender eyes blink twice, then both sideways creatures clatter across the stucco to the edge of the building and past it. The clattering noise stops because they’re walking on nothing and Carlo yelps. I look down, see black socks balled up at my feet, and when I look up the yellow and lavender eyes are gone.
Murphy pees and howls, Carlo whines, and I look down at the socks in front of me. They’re a little gritty from the sand, a little wet.
The why of it all doesn’t matter. Carlo knows that and nudges the socks toward me. I should probably think about how many creatures there are, how many lost socks there are in the world, but that doesn’t matter either.
The only thing that matters is I’m afraid.
It’s fear that opens my hand and drops the shotgun to the ground, fear that sits me down with the socks in my hands, fear that puts my feet in them and makes me pull with all I’ve got down into darkness.
I’m so afraid I’ll never see them again.
Copyright 2018 by Eli Ryder