The dog was some sort of overbred weedling with a ribcage fine-boned as a chicken’s, a wizened rat’s face and a goony, perpetually bloodshot stare that made Dev Hendrick want to punt the thing over the garden gate. Not that the creature ventured outdoors much, preferring the cosily cluttered terrain of the sitting room, where it spent its days mooching from cushioned niche to niche, secreting archipelagoes of vividly stinking piss stains on the chocolate corduroy couch and crooning with territorial rancour at anyone that was not Dev’s mother. Now that she was dead, that meant everyone.
The dog was called Georgie, and the hate Dev nursed for it was deep and retaliatory. Georgie had come into the house five years ago, sized up the pair of incumbent primates, and set about ruthlessly supplanting Dev in The Mother’s favour. Dev could not compete with the inhuman intensities of affection the dog embodied, its enthused yapping frenzies whenever The Mother reached for the meal bowl, its infant’s mania for the tactile: whenever The Mother sat down, Georgie would instantly scrabble into her lap and remain ensconced there for hours if permitted, squirming sensuously as she ran her knuckles along its candyfloss pelt, its rat face a hideous mask of satiation, black lips peeled and yellow teeth showing. Dev could not compete. The Mother’s cooking was mediocre, and he was too big a boy to sit up on her.
The one-up Dev had on the dog was that he still owned his own balls. Georgie had been neutered several years ago and was tormented since by recurrent seizures of phantom carnality. The closest Dev came to liking, or at least pitying, the creature, was when it mounted its proxy fuck toy – a stuffed Disney teddy bear with one eye missing, synthetic fur gone the smudged grey of a much used eraser – and quivered on its hind legs through a dusty travesty of coitus.
Georgie was doing just that, grimly pumping the nubbled posterior of the toy bear on the night the Ferdia brothers showed up with the boy. Dev was lying lengthways on the sofa with the TV on, laptop propped on his indrawn knees and his phone nestled in the hollow of his chest. He was drowsily watching the dog go at it, a mournful, fuddled expression in its clotted eyes. It was missing something, but it did not know what. Dev had been tolerating the urge to piss for nearly an hour, but was too lazy and comfortable to move. The phone started ringing and after three rings cut off. The Ferdias.
‘Stay, shithead,’ Dev said to Georgie.
He went into the hall, yawned, opened the front door. The sensor light mounted on the side of the house came on, illuminating three figures making their way up the drive. Gabe Ferdia at the front, Vincie at the back, a third person in a grey hoodie between them. The grey hoodie was watching his feet, picking his way among the stone chips littering the drive, the chips combed into mounds by the wheels of the cars that now infrequently dropped by. When they got to the door Dev saw that the hoodie was a teenage boy. The boy’s head was shaven, his hairline an ashen chevron receding sharply at the temples. He had a wine-stain crease under one eye, a face like a baby girl’s but for several skewed tines of silvery hair sprouting from his chin.
‘He drunk?’ Dev asked.
‘Just a bit, yeah. Pulled him out of a house party,’ Vincie said.
‘Is he coming in?’
‘He is, I’m afraid,’ Vincie said. Vincie was the older and bigger of the Ferdia brothers. He touched the boy at the elbow and steered him through the door. Dev stood aside, admitted the three, then latched the door and followed them down the hall. In the kitchen, Vincie stood behind The Mother’s old wicker chair and told the boy to sit. Georgie arrived from the sitting room, considered the three new presences and began barking shrilly at Gabe’s shins.
‘Stop, Georgie,’ Dev said.
The dog startled. A chastened gurgle resonated in its throat.
‘Do I know him?’ Dev asked, nodding.
Vincie looked at the boy’s crown.
‘If you do it can’t be helped. But do you?’
‘No,’ Dev said.
‘That’s all right. You don’t know him. He’s not in fact here, would be the best way to think of it,’ Vincie said. He put a hand on the boy’s neck. The boy’s shoulders jinked fractionally from Vincie’s touch. ‘Though as it goes, Dev, we do need a room for him, just for a night. Two at the most, I’d say.’
‘No way,’ Dev said.
‘I thought of you. Because this is important.’
Georgie was a fleck of incessant motion along the bottom of Dev’s field of vision, an irritation, like a fragment of eyelash stuck on his retina he couldn’t blink away.
‘Sit, you little cunt,’ Dev said.
The dog padded in a circle and promptly fainted on its back across the boy’s shoes. The kid slid a foot out from under Georgie and rested the sole of his runner on the dog’s palely haired belly.
‘He likes you,’ Dev said.
What Dev did was sit on drugs for the Mulrooney gang. The Ferdia brothers delivered, showed up every few months with bulky sports bags of stuff, sometimes much less. The stuff was sealed in sheets of waterproof plastic. Dev stowed each delivery somewhere dark and dry and forgot about it until the brothers returned. He had a couple of good places: a utility shed at the back of a field, the basement of the house if the sit was quick. Dev was a good sitter because he had no record and no public association with the county’s criminal element. The Mother had died two years ago. A month after the funeral Dev quit his factory job. Since then he rarely ventured into town, or even out of the house. One night not too long after the funeral Vincie and Gabe appeared at the door. The Ferdias were cousins, but Dev had not seen them since school. They offered belated condolences on his mother. They said they heard about the job. They asked him if he wanted to make a bit of extra money to tide him over. The deliveries started a few nights later. This was the first time they had brought him a person.
‘What’s he called?’ Dev was looking at Vincie.
‘Doon,’ Vincie said.
‘Doon,’ Vincie repeated. He came out from behind the boy, stood in front of him, studied the boy’s knees.
‘Stay put. Listen. Stay put. This is Dev. Do what Dev says. We’ll be back in not too long.’
The boy’s expression was sullen, densely remote.
Dev, Vincie and Gabe returned to the front door.
‘Is he in trouble? Will he give me trouble?’ Dev said.
‘He’s not in trouble,’ Vincie said. ‘He’s just a spooked buck with
a hangover coming on.’
‘Who is he?’
‘He’s one of the Shandys.’
The Shandys. Dev had been to Dylan Shandy’s place, once, back in school. He’d gone in with a couple of lads on a bag of weed. Shandy sold the weed, and they went to his house to collect it. It was a sunny day. Dev recalled a one-storey semi-d in the corner of an estate, a fenced front yard, the coils of a hose looped across the grass like an extravagant signature, a child’s inflatable pool pruning as air seeped from it. Inside, a silent girl in jean shorts who was a crucial, inaccessible year or two older than Dev and his schoolmates, and Dylan Shandy himself, stocky and lordly, in flip-flops, with pale, fat, hairy legs, the gear all over the kitchen table.
‘I’ve been in Dylan Shandy’s gaff,’ Dev said. ‘So this lad is something to Dylan Shandy?’
‘Little fucking brother,’ Gabe smiled.
‘Why is he here?’
‘The Shandy buck owes money to the Mulrooneys,’ Vincie said. ‘He owes money and is getting thick about it, suddenly thinks he’s an expert’ – Vincie here sighing, actually rolling his eyes heavenwards – ‘on points of contract that don’t, actually, exist.’
‘Shandy’s being a thick-headed fucker,’ Gabe added.
Vincie put his hand up.
‘The Mulrooneys need something over Shandy. When it gets like this, you need something over the other. All we did, me and Gabe, was walk into a house party tonight. And this fella?’ Vincie nodded toward the kitchen. ‘He was right there. Rank drunk in fact.’
‘Head stuck in a freezer trying to cool off,’ Gabe said, appalled.
‘Credit that,’ Vincie said.
‘You took him out of a house?’ Dev asked.
‘You seen him. He’s cut. He needs a place to flake out and soberise. We escorted him,’ Gabe said. Gabe was thin and looked double his age. His teeth resembled lumps of tallow.
‘This isn’t good,’ Dev said. ‘He’ll give me trouble.’
‘He won’t,’ Vincie said. ‘He’ll sit and do as he’s told. We wouldn’t have got him this far if he wasn’t going to do as he’s told.’
‘Compliant little sham,’ Gabe said.
‘If he tries to leave I’ll let him,’ Dev said. He was trying to sound stern, but the root of his throat was constricting, becoming hot and spongy, as Vincie went on with relentless evenness.
‘He’s just crashing here, Dev, sleeping off a heap of teenage cans. You should have seen the rest of them. We could have lifted any of the little fucks out of there. But we’ve all done it. When I was his age I could barely tie my shoelaces. That’s the level of resourcefulness you’re dealing with here. Feed him a stack of sausages in the morning, don’t let him out of the house, he’ll be happy out.’
Vincie flipped the latch and pushed open the door. The sensor light had timed out and clocked off. The night was summer mild. The Ferdia brothers stepped out.
‘Will you call in the morning?’ Dev asked.
‘Of course,’ Vincie said. He rolled his shoulders. Dev watched their backs, the duplicate hang of their gaits, as they crunched down the drive. They were about to disappear into the dark when the light came back on.
‘What kind of dog is this?’ It was in the boy’s lap, coilingly orienting itself, trying to lick at his face. With each curling dart of Georgie’s tongue the boy feinted his chin just out of reach.
‘I don’t know,’ Dev said.
‘How do you not know?’ the boy grinned, suddenly alert now that the others were gone.
‘It’s my mother’s. Ask her.’
‘Your ma,’ the boy said. He cuffed Georgie’s ear. ‘I will.’
‘Yeah, well, you can’t,’ Dev grunted.
‘Cos she’s dead,’ the boy said. He bent his head to the dog. ‘Some mix of a Pomeranian and something else, I’d say. Dainty little showpiece. But these things get messed up. Poor lungs.’ He gripped the dog under its scrawny forelegs, lifted it into the air with a veterinarian’s dextrously brutish matter-of-factness, and pressed his ear against its elongating belly. ‘Hear that. System’s all gunged up.’
Dev shrugged, bewildered.
‘Put it down.’
The boy guided Georgie back to his lap and eased his grip. The dog slithered down the boy’s knees and scuttled a yard clear of him, retreating beneath a chair and from there eyeing the boy with a kind of grudging reverence.
‘I haven’t done anything,’ the boy said.
‘They took my phone.’
Dev pulled the fridge door. It resisted, then popped free, condiments chiming against each other in the door’s shelf. ‘If you don’t want anything, that’s fine, but there won’t be anything else until morning.’
Dev removed a rib sandwich from a plastic container, plated it, and nuked it in the microwave for sixty seconds. The boy watched Dev as he watched the plate revolve in the treated glass of the machine’s window. The microwave pinged.
When Dev stepped close to the boy he saw that the injury to his eye had evolved, fraying threads of blood now strobing the eye’s white like a raspberry ripple.
‘Did they do that?’
The boy’s jaw began to putter, his mouth shrinking to a stony ruck, his eyes crisping with tears. He stood up, sat down, jumped back up and screamed. Dev palmed the flat of the plate against the boy’s chest and watched the circle of white delft crack cleanly in half. The rib sandwich flopped against Dev’s forearm, hot. The boy’s hands were on Dev’s arms, fingers digging deep. Dev grabbed the boy’s throat and shoulder and the split plate fell. The boy was pushing forward, as if trying to climb up over Dev’s shoulders. Dev drove his thumb into the jumping braid of a tendon in the boy’s neck, guddled a knee between the boy’s thighs, and pushed in the direction of the wicker chair. Dev’s muscles were spasming and he thought he was about to collapse when the boy gasped, moaned and went slack within Dev’s grip. A wave of exhaustion washed over Dev as the boy wrenched back down into the chair. Dev stood back, his legs jumping and twitching in place.
He watched the boy smooth the thighs of his denim jeans, arrange the disordered neckline of his hoodie. The boy blinked emphatically several times, as if corroborating some inner calibration, then put his hands to his temples and pulled his head down onto his knees. He pressed the ends of his fingers against the back of his skull, so hard his knuckles began to whiten. Wet babyish noises escaped his lap. Dev cleared his throat, recleared it, swallowed a gob of sputum. His blood was spouting in its grooves. He felt dizzy and addled, warm in his core and vague at his extremities, as if he’d emerged from a long time in a steam room. He looked around. The plate had broken into further pieces on the floor. Georgie was already over the rib, heartily chowing down on the warm meat.
Dev’s breath was short and rushed, the edges of incomprehensible words flitting from his mouth before he could snag them and speak. Finally, he found he could talk.
‘If you don’t. If you don’t do that. Again. I won’t tell.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ the boy groaned into his thighs.
‘This isn’t anything. This isn’t anything,’ Dev said and kicked the largest fragment of the broken plate across the kitchen floor.
He couldn’t let the boy out of sight so made him come upstairs. The boy waited in the hall while Dev pulled bedding from the boiler closet. Into the boy’s arms he piled folded sheets and a sleeveless pillow grainy with must. The pillow was torso-sized, its stuffing wadded into lumps, like muscle that had lost its definition. Dev balanced a rolled-up blanket on his shoulder with hairs that itched at his neck. Georgie was watching them from the top of the stairs, pacing imploringly back and forth on the final step and refusing to come closer.
In the kitchen, Dev punched the goitred pillow into an approximation of pillowyness and tossed it back at the boy. He wanted to keep the boy’s hands occupied. The door to the basement was between the fridge and the door to the back garden. Dev opened the basement door, reached into the cool, raw dark for the light panel. The basement bulb was naked, stubbled with dust motes that singed as the bulb heated up. The basement floor was unpainted concrete, and looked as cold as lake water. There was a mattress on a metal-spring frame, a desk with an old, fat, dust-caked computer monitor and a hard drive the size of a suitcase on it, a hank of cables descending into an intestinally knotted heap under the desk, the prongs of the white plug heads glinting in the dim. Dev had spent much time here as a teenager. Other kids went out. He went under the floorboards.
‘I’ll stick the heating on for an hour. It’ll warm up down here, but if you want to just get under the blankets with your gear on.’
Georgie brushed into the gap between the boy’s legs, inspected the revealed depth.
‘I should put him in here with you. Company,’ Dev said.
‘Don’t do that,’ the boy said.
‘You put that dog in with me and I feel like I will murder the thing. I’ll make it suffer.’
The boy did not look murderous, only, again, on the verge of tears. Dev was angered, not because of the threat, but because it was a convictionless lie.
‘That’s my mother’s dog, you stupid little shit. No one gives a fuck about you, and that’s the truth. What are you even doing here? No one cares. That’s the truth.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ the boy said again.
Dev picked up the bedding and the blanket, steadied himself and flung them down the stairs. The sheets plumed in the cold dark air and snagged on the stair steps.
Dev debated locking the door. He had to. He would set his phone alarm for 6 a.m. At dawn he would unlock the door, and if it ever came to it, would claim the door had never been locked at all. Believing he could undo anything he was about to do gave him the resolve to do those things. He locked the door. If he had not, he knew he would not sleep. He likely wouldn’t anyway. There was the possibility the boy might try and smash his way out: there were implements, things down there he could try as a bludgeon. But Vincie was probably right. The boy claimed he had done nothing, but he was going along more than he should have. Even if his compliance was just a way of buying time, it was still compliance. Dev did not know the boy but he already hated him enough to see the night through.
He went back upstairs, to his own bedroom, and hefted down his mattress. He cleared a space on the kitchen floor, threw a blanket on it. He sank onto the raft of this makeshift bed and an appendicital jab in his side reminded him he still had not peed. To remain within sight of the kitchen, he went outside and a little way down into the back garden.
It felt good to piss outside, the night air around him. Georgie came out, face truffling in the grass, weaving back and forth like a dowsing wand. Dev could hear Georgie panting, imagined he could make out the racing dicker of the dog’s minuscule heart. The arc of Dev’s stream wavered and guttered out like a candle flame. He jounced in place to dry off, looked around.
The bottom of the lawn was too dark to make anything out, but Georgie, an inherently unintrepid creature, was surely still just there. It was only that Dev couldn’t see. He listened. The garden ended in a rotting wooden fence. Beyond the fence was a mound of amputated vegetation, then crop fields. Dev listened for the dog, and out of the silence rose a minglement of remote, delicate and richly inhuman sounds; papery rustlings and scuttlings, tricklings and clicking secretions. He said the dog’s name again and turned and started toward the house. Georgie appeared and had already gone in ahead by the time Dev got to the kitchen entrance. Inside, Dev moved past the basement door and without looking brushed a fingertip against the looped handle of the key protruding from the lock.
He retrieved his laptop from the couch and made a bowl of cornflakes. He ate them slowly as they turned to slime, desultorily surfing, opening tabs and multiplying links in an attempt to postpone looking at the basement door. Every time he imagined going over and turning the lock a heat flash startled along his neck. He held his breath at intervals, the better to listen into the depths of the house; but he heard nothing, only the ambient hum of the domestic electricals. It felt to Dev like he was listening to the house listen to its own silence. Twitches, stray darts of voltage, coursed through the meat of his thighs. It was exhausting and agonising to not move.
He shut down his laptop, stood up, and turned off the kitchen light. He stood for a moment in this sudden, self-inflicted blindness, the darkness like a fresh contusion pulsing into the sockets of his eyes. It was like he had punched himself in the face. He groped his way to the mattress and sank onto it with the careful grogginess of a punched man. Georgie came over, panting in rapid, stinking darts, tongue flicking at Dev’s hanging fingers. Dev shifted, opened out his arm and the dog scrambled up into his armpit.
‘Settle, you cunt,’ he whispered.
Dev had aligned the mattress with the basement door, had pushed back the chairs to permit himself an unobstructed view. He propped himself against the pillow. It was too dark to see anything.
Dev had recurring dreams about the house. In the dreams the house was this one, but its interior was changed, mutated. He would for example go upstairs and find that the landing extended deep beyond its regular dimensions. There would be an extra, unopenable door or supply closet built into the walls, or blank drywall where a window or door should have been. The turns in the hallways went the wrong way, left instead of right, or vice versa. Electrical cabling and wiring coming through broken plaster like ganglia. In the dreams Dev would wander these transformed, overgrown spaces but there was never anyone else there.
Georgie’s dog breath thrummed against his ribs. Dev was awake again. He blinked. The dark had taken on grain and texture. He could see it, could see through it. For a relieved moment he thought he was looking at nothing, but there, in the dark, the basement door, the pale glowing length of it, began to appear.