by Ben Higginbotham
It’s three a.m., and I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because of the dog.
It’s not a real dog, mind you; at least not in the way you or I would think of it as being real. I could go over there and try to touch it, but I think my hand would pass right through it. I say “think” because I’ve never had the guts to try it.
That’s because I can see it just fine from where I’m sitting right now, and it’s nothing that I would want to touch. It looks like a normal dog, like one of those little frou-frou dogs that you always see sticking their heads out of the socialite-du-jour’s handbag, except that the crown of its head is pulsing rhythmically. Like it’s breathing.
I shift in my chair, and this is the signal the dog’s been waiting for, apparently. Its skull opens up with a sound like someone losing his boot in thick mud, and the opening starts spewing out roaches.
They come swarming out like the dog is some hellish piñata that some unfortunate child just fetched a solid whack. The roaches are like a living sea engulfing my living room, crashing over my bookcases, my TV stand, my ottoman.
In a few minutes, those waves will breach against the chair I’m sitting in, and I may or may not feel that horrible tickling as the roaches skitter up my arms, their little legs pumping double-time as they scramble over me, going nowhere as fast as they can. I don’t know if I’ll feel it. All I know is that one way or the other, I’ll scream.
So I do the only thing I know how to do.
There’s a half empty bottle of bourbon sitting next to me on the end table, the cap already off. I lift the bottle to my lips, and the sea recedes a little bit.
The dog’s panting now. I can see its pink little tongue lolling out of its mouth, but only just. The power company turned me off today. Can’t say that I blame them either. I’ve been spending all my money on booze. I have to.
I’m not a drunk, or at least not by choice. And these aren’t the DT’s, either. It’s not like this started because I stopped drinking my morning fifth of Jack or anything. Before this started, I’d never touched a drop in my life.
As to what this is, I don’t know. The easy answer would be that I’m dead, and this is Hell. But I’m not dead. Nor does Hell have 24-hour liquor stores, at least not to my knowledge. All I really know is that it changes every night. Last night it was a baby. The night before it was my mother.
The first time it happened, it was me.
It never does the same thing twice, either. Like these roaches. This is new. And the dog, that’s new too. It’s never done animals before.
I’m not a drunk, or at least not by choice. It’s just that alcohol is the only thing that helps.
The dog stands up, its head still parted in that obscene mouth. The cockroaches are still pouring out of its head in endless waves. The dog doesn’t seem to notice, though, and begins to pace my apartment.
It acts like a real dog. It looks like one, except for that mouth. The dog putters around my apartment, sniffing. After a moment, it stops by a barstool that I used to use, back when I didn’t have to drink my three square.
It sniffs the leg of the stool, and, finding something about the stool that it likes, lifts its leg.
I can see the piss hitting the bar stool, I can hear the thin trickle-hiss sound that belongs to that act alone, and there’s no puddle forming at the foot of the stool.
The roaches are still coming, and the living sea has become a living carpet. The cockroaches are probably two or three deep on the floor now, and yet I still have about two feet of clear, pristine floor all to myself.
The alcohol is keeping them back. I drink to this.
The dog’s inspection is apparently done, and he pads back over to his spot and sits on his haunches. Thus settled, he locks eyes with me and just sits there, as calm as Buddha in the midst of the thrashing, roiling sea my dining room has become.
I went to the doctor today. That’s what you do when you’re feeling sick, you go to the doctor.
My dining room has reached critical mass, it seems. At least horizontally, anyway. The roaches are starting to stack on top of each other, and they’ve managed to get about six inches high.
For a moment, I wonder how many roaches it takes to fill an 8x10 dining room, but then I stop and add it to the mental filing cabinet marked Things I’m Probably Better Off Not Knowing.
The dog is still sitting there calmly, even though the roaches are up to his chest now. He looks like he’s grinning at me.
A single roach breaks through the barrier and starts skittering over to me. A nip off the bottle makes it leap into the air as though it’s just been goosed, and retreat back to the sea. Safety in numbers, I guess.
I knew what the doctor was going to say even before he said it. I mean, you drink as much as I do, then you have to know that even if you don’t have it right at this moment, the check’s in the mail.
The roaches are higher now. If the dog had been wearing a collar, then the roaches would be at collar-level now. In a few minutes, the dog will be swallowed by that pulsing, jittery sea, and still it sits, as cool as a cucumber.
Cirrhosis of the liver. It’s done, crapped out on me. The doctor told me he could put me on the list for a new one, but it’s a long list. I told him not to bother. I’d just wear the new one out, too.
The dog’s up to the first mouth in roaches now, and that second mouth is still spewing roaches. I can’t see its little pink tongue anymore, but the dog’s eyes tell me what its tongue can’t. Still cool as a cucumber, they say. Yes sir, everything’s right as rain.
The doctor pleaded with me, almost. He told me that I was still a young man, with my whole life ahead of me. I told him that’s the part that worried me, and walked out.
The roaches seem like they’re ready to burst the seams of whatever it is that’s holding them back. But I’m not ready for that. Not yet. I take another swig and the roaches start toeing the line again.
I lose sight of the dog, but not before I see his eyes one last time. No sweat, those eyes say. Happens all the time, those eyes say. Cool as a cucumber, those eyes say.
I hope I’ll be that calm.
The bottle’s almost empty. Not that it’s the last one. Not even close. But I asked myself today, what’s the point?
The roaches are coming faster now, rising steadily past the bar stool, the table, the TV stand. In a few minutes, they’ll be ready to burst the seams again, right around the time the bottle gives up its last taste.
The liquor cabinet’s in here, only a few feet from where I sit. I can get up and grab another bottle of bourbon without stepping on a single roach.
But I asked myself today, what’s the point?
So I think I’m going to try and follow that dog’s example.
The sea of roaches has become a wall of roaches, six foot high and rising. They’re also starting to bulge against the boundaries again.
In my head I keep seeing the dog, pink tongue lolling without a care in the world even as the roaches come spewing out, covering the dog, suffocating it.
The bourbon is almost gone, two swigs at most. I drink to this.
The roaches slow for a moment, but it doesn’t matter. They’re already higher than the archway that connects the two rooms, and I’d bet they’re at least eight feet high.
I see that dog again, and I wonder if I’ll be as calm, as cool as a cucumber. I doubt it. I don’t know if I’ll feel it or not when they swarm over me. All I know is that one way or the other, I’ll scream.
I look down the neck of the bottle, see the last sip sloshing at the bottom. The roaches are already trying to burst the seams again, and it will take a lot more than what’s in the bottle to stop them. What’s more, I’ve waited too long. Even if I took this last sip on the way to the liquor cabinet, I don’t have time.
I drink to this.
Copyright © 2007 by Ben Higginbotham