My self-destruct button pops up. It sits idle with flirt and temptation, just atop my ribs. Throbs with each perfectly pained thump of my heart. I hear a dog cry so fearfully that I know torture is upon it. I know that this is one of those wrong-place, wrong-time, make a decision now or your life will forever be changed kind-of-nights.
The dog cries again.
The self-destruct button pulsates—begs me to undo my ultra-sanitized life made up of happy hours, salaried paychecks and weekends spent binging Netflix. Urges me to take one step into the darkness and interrupt this injustice I’ve accidentally stumbled upon walking home from the bars.
The beast howls in misery once more.
My bones crackle with freeze. Paralyzed in place, I’m an upright mound of meat and tendons and uselessness.
The dog continues to yelp in agony. The wicked lash brought on by a whip. Over and over. A yelp. A faint whimper to follow. I hear a gruff chuckle from a man I can’t see. He stands on the other side of the iron gate, separating the injured dog and me. His whip clutched in his hand, breaking down the animal.
The San Francisco night is abusive in its presence. This alley, drowning in shadow, cuts across two streets in the Outer Sunset, where inclined rows of suburbia blur into a mess of white picket fantasies. Houses have long since turned off their lights—when the black sky threatened everyone back into their bedrooms and into the comfort of their dreams.
The dog faintly barks. The whip, the coiled tool of torture cocks ready with thick braided leather and strikes, biting into the dog once more. It bellows.
I turn around and face back in the other direction. Stare at paved concrete, uncovered by streetlight, the journey back home guided by corner signs. My neck thumps with adrenaline and my feet start to move me forward. I’ve tracked only ten paces when I sense it—a faint buzz on my conscience growing to a hypersonic scream—something other than the moon illuminating my cowardice. The reason behind the self-destruct button.
It was the summer that she took me camping. It was in Pescadero. Just a twenty-minute drive from Half Moon Bay. Mother didn’t like camping. She knew I wouldn’t either. That was the point.
The whip breaks the serenity of the evening yet again—my neck twisting to face it.
The self-destruct button gyrates. It tells me it’s time to ditch the life I’ve created—the life bound by normality. A path to 401k. It tells me that most people would run from this. It dares me to press it. To give my life real meaning. Free it from safe decisions governed by fear. By helplessness. By inaction. It dares me—over and over—to press it.
So I do.
Thirty seconds to self-destruction.
Mother gripped the wheel tight with both hands, lips sealed shut in a way that made her dimples pop. I turned the radio up as we drove the highway along the beach, our tires rolling over loose gravel along the way. Without ever looking at me, she turned the radio off. “Today you’re going to learn what it means to kill your comfort,” she said. “To learn how to blow it all up so you’re never a bystander to fate.” We would be at the campsite soon.
The man’s baritone laughter pierces the air, echoes on his side of the fence. My fingers lightly glide against the surface of the barrier, its cold metal grooves moving my hand in waves. It takes me around the corner. A large moving truck sits idle, parked against the curb, its back door left open. A metal ramp stretches to the street, connecting the curb to the truck’s cargo container. Inside are crates, rattling from side to side as I approach. At first, I only see the outlines of beasts unknown. At first, I only hear the faint rumble of growls laced with rage. I walk up the ramp. The dogs lurch against the front of their cages. Pit Bulls, imprisoned and stacked on top of each other. Row by Row. Three crates tall. Their ribs marked with the signature of the whip—blood oozing out. They snarl. They flash their fangs.
Twenty seconds to self-destruction.
Mother pulled our old station wagon to the side of the trail. Parked at our reserved campsite, she pulled several metal poles and a green vinyl tent out of the back of the car. She handed me instructions. She pointed to a mallet and several iron stakes.
I join the trapped dogs inside the truck. The symphony of trained aggression plays for me—the barking, their primal instruments. Dozens of wounded creatures let it be known that they will not be quiet tonight. I nod in agreement.
Mother began to lecture. “I’ve watched you, my little boy. The weekends at your father’s have made you soft.” I carefully laid the tent and poles out on the ground and followed the instructions. She watched with stern fascination. With an invisible scythe at the ready.
Here comes the whip. The metal gate grinds against the sidewalk. With each step, the clacking of the man’s boots on the cement grows louder, nearer. I know the time is now. My eyes meet his, the weapon dangling from his hand. He stares me down. Weathered face—a scar beneath his right eye. Tall. Slender. He hisses through his teeth. He looks to his left. Then to his right. Checks for witnesses. But there is nobody. He starts moving in my direction. A nearby streetlight shreds the shadows off his face—reveals an arrogant smile.
But I smile back.
I had two more stakes to hammer into the ground and I’d be able to hoist the tent up. I smashed the mallet into the stake, and it cracked in two. I was left holding the wooden handle. Mother asked me what I would do, how I would improvise. She told me to finish the job. I wandered off to find something that could replace the mallet. A nearby stream spilled a hush of energy into the serene setting. There was one rock, the size of a fist, found on the edge of the water. I picked it up and turned it over. There, on the underside of the rock, squirming and wiggling, were dozens of maggots. The legless larvae forever seared into my nightmares.
The man makes his way toward me, he and his eager whip growing with each step. His gruff chuckle returns, triggering the Pit Bulls to roar with primitive rage. My hand reaches behind me for the nearest crate. I unlatch the opening. Watch as his abused cargo transforms. Weaponizes into something beautiful. The cage the gun, the beast the bullet. The dog’s hind legs flex, shoot up into the air, barreling into the man’s chest. He grunts as they fall to the ground. I reach for another crate and unlatch it. Fire off another Pit Bull at the man. I reach for another.
Mother saw my look of horror. She watched me stand frozen as several maggots fell off the rock I held in my hand. Aided by an icy stare, she told me to smash it into the stake and finish the job. I objected, not wanting to kill the poor maggots, no matter how badly they disgusted me.
Guttural sounds eviscerate silence. The man’s flesh becomes the currency for every encounter with the whip. My shoes thump against the ramp as I walk back toward the gate, past the carnage. Fangs tearing and ripping, the man screaming and pleading. Once again, my hands run along the grooves in the fence. A surge of energy ignites a growing inferno within my swelling chest—my heart and lungs the kindle.
Mother walked over to me. She slapped me across the face. My cheek instantly on fire. She said, “If you’re going to look at what’s hidden underneath something, you better be prepared to deal with it. Today you self-destruct to be reborn with courage.” I finished putting up the tent.
The lights of nearby houses turn on as I move inside the opened gate. I find the dog curled up behind a tree, licking his sides. I kneel a few feet away.
I tell him it’s okay.
I tell him he can come with me.
He belly crawls nearer and sniffs my outstretched hand. He rises with methodical trust.
The sirens blare in the distance.
We walk away.
Omar Hussain is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, transplanted to Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Dream Noir, Fleas On the Dog and (mac)ro(mic), among others. Omar’s beta-test novel, The Outlandish and the Ego, debuted in late 2017. It received some praise, remarkably.