The pink-haired woman in the black hoodie locks eyes with me.
I glance down at her little corgi, linked to her via a bright red lead. The dog, too, stares at me with its little black eyes. As it spots me, it stops. It doesn’t move at all. It hangs back, shiny lumps of coal focused on me. Only when the lead that Pink holds becomes taut, as she keeps on walking, does the corgi move. One word to describe the dog’s motion: reluctant.
I look across the street. All clear over there. I have time to dash over the road — dodge any cars that might come — and avoid them altogether. A problem with that plan, though. I don’t recognise Pink. Which means that she might recognise me. How weird would it look, if I’d scamper away at the sight of her? Very, if my time amongst people has taught me anything. So, before I act, I must know.
I flick my gaze back to meet Pink’s eyes. You have to be careful. Too much eye contact could scare people. Especially if it turns out that you didn’t know each other. Don’t want to be that creep who leers at strangers. That forces people to ask questions — too many of them. And, sometimes, involves law enforcement. The less attention the better. But, on the flip side, too little eye contact could upset people. Especially if it turns out that you did know each other. People didn’t like old friends to ignore them. They consider it rude — if you’re not known for rudeness. And that would be attention in its own right.
A stuttered twitch of a watch hand. Gazes locked. Hers and mine. Invisible connection ties our eyes, links us for one moment in time. As much as I don’t want to, I hold it. I need the information, so I cannot sever the data stream.
One microsecond ticks past.
And then she smiles. And raises her hand.
My heart stumbles over its feet within this cage of bones. I hesitate, jammed cogs fight to turn, teeth caught. I push against this body, weak as it is. Override its puny electrical impulses and hormones and slam it into I gear. I return the smile. And the wave. Both are well-practised — hours in front of the mirror. The smile is not too wide, nor are too many teeth shown. Enough to dimple the cheeks, lopsided for a natural oh-hey-there effect. The wave is neither too high nor too vigorous. Two relaxed pumps, then drop that arm back down to your side. Good. Good.
“Gavin!” she says as she approaches. “Long time no see, man! How’ve you been?”
I add the word man as a synonym for a friend into my vocabulary. “Hey there!” I say. I try to match Pink’s volume and enthusiasm. People respond well when you reciprocate. I don’t have a name to slot into the sentence, so I leave it out. Safer than to risk a gamble. More often than not, you can piece it together with clues and context. “Not too bad, thanks!” A regurgitated phrase I stole from someone else. “How about you?” And then I throw in another: “How’s everything on your end, these days?” A mix and match of copied and pasted sound bites.
Pink nods, so I must not have said or done anything to arouse suspicion. “Yeah, I’m doing good, man! Still living with Petey, he asks about you, you know.” She leans in as if to share a conspiracy. “He still talks about that night on cheap Lambrusco.” And then she tilts her head back and laughs.
Damn. This is where it gets difficult. Laughs are hard to fake. I tilt my head back in reflection of Pink’s movement. “Ha! Ha.” Pink frowns a little at the sound that comes out of my mouth but doesn’t say anything.
Meanwhile, the corgi remains a few steps away. The tiny beads it calls eyes are still trained on me. Its shoulders are up next to its ears. I know that this dog has raised hackles. A small — but audible — rumble emanates from its throat. It sounds like the world’s smallest chainsaw.
The dog smiles at me.
But the corgi must not have practised its smile in the mirror for as long as I have, because it’s all teeth and no warmth.
The smile twists into a snarl, canines exposed.
I realise too late — this is a threat.
It leaps at me.
Pink has to pull back on its lead to stop it from latching to my leg. She does so with a fraction to spare.
I yelp and take a step back — one of the few times I allow this body’s natural impulses to dictate movement.
The collar around the dog’s neck tightens and the corgi’s eyes widen. It flops to the floor with a yip. But it’s back on its feet in seconds and pulls the leash as long as it will go. Its teeth are still bared, and the buzz saw noises continue to flood its throat.
“Whoa, down boy! Down Michaelangelo! Whatsamatter? You always loved Gavin!”
Michaelangelo. Well, at least I know the animal’s name, now. Pity the woman hadn’t attacked and the dog held her back. “Whoa, down girl!” He could have said. “Down Pink!” Or whatever her real name turned out to be.
My heart continues to smack its face against the wall of the ribcage, a lunatic in need of a padded cell. How did people cope with this sensation all the time? Madness. I offer another smile, but Pink doesn’t return it. She looks at me funny, and another sick sensation tugs at me. It feels as though the stomach of this body has dropped away, through the bowels, into the ground. Could be that I used too many teeth this time. I stop the smile.
“I-I’m sorry, Gavin!” says Pink. She holds the leash with both hands. Almost as if she’s having a real battle with this tiny animal. Odd. I could snap its neck in seconds. But, based on what I’ve observed, that wouldn’t offer much comfort in this situation. Pink shakes her head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him! He—” she licks her lips, eyes wider than before “—he must’ve seen a squirrel or something!”
Ah. I nod. “Yes, I get that way too when I haven’t killed in a while. No worries, man.” I throw in the odd use of the word for an adult male right back at her. It should make her feel right at ease.
Instead, all the colour drains from Pink’s face. Her skin colour becomes something ashen. It makes the pink of her hair — why is it pink? Natural pigmentation? — look even pinker. She starts to cut a wide berth around me. She pulls Michaelangelo with her out into the road, even though a car is coming. It slams on its breaks and blares its horn. Michaelangelo continues its incessant volley of barks. Continues to pull at the leash, all teeth and aggression.
And then they’re both gone, off down the road. I raise one hand. Not too high. I pump it twice, in a relaxed manner. I call after her. “See ya, man!” Then let that arm drop to my side. So smooth, so natural. Good. Good.
But something doesn’t sit right about the encounter.
Something in her expression, her reaction.
A change from the start of the encounter.
The way she left.
I stand there for a moment longer and think about what she said.
He must’ve seen a squirrel or something.
I frown and glance around. This is a city centre. A concrete jungle, I’ve heard someone refer to it as. No trees, no bushes, no patches of grass — much to the complaint of the people. Their bodies must need greenery in some manner, but I’ve not yet figured it out.
It dawns on me. Michaelangelo did see something that he didn’t like. But it couldn’t have been a squirrel. That much is an impossibility. The realisation makes the blood in the veins of this body run cold. It’s… unpleasant. I can see why they dedicate so much of their poetry to such sensations.
I turn and continue on my way, eyes everywhere. I keep my head down, turn my collar up. I would prefer to not have another interaction with a person any time soon. Each crossing of paths is a stroll through a minefield. The sooner I get back to the place this body calls home, the better. As I walk, I reflect on the furry friends humans keep as their companions.
Cats I’ve encountered before. Similar reactions to the cold reception Michaelangelo gave me. But one big difference. Cats, everyone agrees, are assholes. If a cat doesn’t like you, it’s no big deal. “Nothing new,” one man once joked to me. But dogs? I’ve heard lots about mankind’s so-called best friend. Everyone loves dogs. Everyone. Now I can see why. Somehow — somehow — the dogs know. They know. How they do this, I have no idea. Could be they see beyond what the human eye can detect. I’ll need to test this hypothesis further, under special care. In the meantime, I’ll have to operate on the assumption that it’s correct.
Steer clear of dogs.
They can sense demonic possession.