Three weeks. Three. Weeks. Thank god a calendar happened to hang on the wall outside of his kennel.
He didn’t have any idea what time of day it was, though, since he was in the back, and the owner was pretty forgetful--hell, it could have been longer than three weeks if she forgot to mark it down recently.
It felt like months, if he was honest with himself.
Sure, the shelter closed at nine, which meant lights out, but Damien had been sleeping so much that he could barely keep track of how far apart each night was.
Sleeping was the only enjoyable thing he could do here, anyway. He wasn’t about to stoop down to the level of his dear neighbors and mess with the saliva-covered chew toys in the bin by his food. They reeked of age and vomit, barely recognizable as tangible objects with all of the holes carved by countless canine teeth.
He reimagined the situation that got him in this mess in the first place over and over in his mind, inventing ways it could have been avoided. He should have just run the moment Emily threatened him. Or apologized. Or literally anything else that what he really did.
‘If you ever go near Rose again, I can promise that you will be sorry.’ It had sounded so cute. Emily had an impressive amount of muscle, sure, but from what he could tell, she didn’t seem like the type to resort to violence.
He was right about that, at least. She didn’t.
Instead, she’d turned him into a fucking dog .
Is every lesbian atypical?* he wondered. Probably, if it was just his luck.
The transformation itself was terrifying. Never felt anything like it. His mind had shifted in some painfully irregular ways, and he’d been in fights before (including one that was less of a fight than it was a pathetic loss the moment it started, and goddamnit, Damien should have known that!), but nothing could have prepared him for this.
He wasn’t some cute, approachable little puppy, either. He was fragile and old-looking, his ribs poked out, and the left side of his face had a scar where Emily had grabbed him to put on the collar. People still called him a freak as an animal. One teenage boy even asked why he hadn’t been put down yet.
He was never getting out of here.
“You know I love you, hun, but you’re going to make me hit a wall.”
A familiar voice laughed hysterically. “Shut up! Just come a little closer. I swear, you’re almost here.”
Damien felt his ears perk and twitch--something that’d been happening constantly since last month’s disaster, which he was sure he would never be used to--at the sound of approaching footsteps. He knew they were a pair of sneakers before he saw them, which would be pretty cool if the reason behind it didn’t suck so badly.
He could only see a pair of legs in black gym tights at a short-sighted angle thanks to his kennel being on the bottom rack. Didn’t help that his vision was blurry as shit now.
The couple’s voices were familiar enough, but sounds were so clear that he didn’t recognize anything too well anymore. It was like listening to a song in a higher pitch from a generous distance--the general beat and melody were the same, but unless you were close enough to make out the lyrics, it’d be difficult to determine what it was at first.
Speaking of high pitch, there was a hell of a lot more of that. The bell that rang at the door when someone entered made him rather be deaf.
“Okay, okay! You really were about to hit a wall there. But I stopped you, didn’t I? See?”
“I… can’t see, Sam. That’s the whole point.”
“You have an impressive amount of dad jokes up your sleeve for someone who never wants kids.”
“I didn’t say I never wanted kids. You know better than I do how terrified I am of passing on my genetics and what little I know of how to treat one.”
“Which is why we’re here! You can practice!”
“...In a pet store?”
“How did you…? Were you peeking?”
“It smells like animal, and a parrot screamed at me the second we walked in the door.”
“...Oh. I guess… not really the ideal version of a prize, huh?”
“No, it’s okay! You were right. I should have just told you where I was taking you.”
“It’s really not a big deal. It was sweet.”
“Would you just… take the blindfold off?”
No. No way.
Sam lowered her voice to a whisper (not that it was more of a challenge for Damien to hear). “I remembered that you happened to like wolfhounds, so I did a bunch of research, and… they seem like great dogs. And this one’s name is Alfred, and I couldn’t stop thinking of Alfred Pennyworth because you were laughing so hard at his voice when Batman happened to be on TV last month.”
Damien stretched himself as far as he could to see Sam moving her hand to a kennel on the top row.
“Isn’t he adorable? I know it might seem like I’m rushing into this, and maybe it’s out of the blue, but I feel like I could have gotten you a better gift for your birthday before you left, and--”
“Sam, my birthday gift was a 16-Megapixel Canon.”
“Which is just a small thing that you probably didn’t need.”
“Um, I absolutely did need it, and it was almost three-hundred dollars.”
“Money doesn’t matter! It’s the thought that counts, right? And I don’t feel like I put as much thought into it as I could have! There’s an infinite amount of cameras out there, but each pet is special and personalized, and it breathes !”
“Sam, Sam! You’re making us flicker.”
“Oh, god, I’m sorry, I just--!”
“Sam, look at me.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with Darwin, does it?” Another pause between them. “Hey… I love Darwin, too. He’s been good. But you can’t just replace one pet with another just because the first one’s getting old.”
“...He’s been there for me when no one else has. I’m not saying you don’t matter--that’s not at all what--”
“Sam, I know. I never said that. I know he’s important to you. But do you… really think you’d be honoring him by just getting a replacement?”
“It isn’t just for the reason you think! He needs an animal to bond with before...”
“So this isn’t about me.”
“No, no, it is, I just--!”
“Please just be honest.”
“I am. This really is for you. But with every passing second, I just think about returning home and seeing him curled up hiding somewhere, alone, wondering where we went, never knowing another animal in his life, and it’s all my fault…”
“I just want to do something nice for the both of you. I know it might sound silly because he’s just a cat, and you’re a person--”
“Cats are people, too. They have feelings. They have the capacity to think.”
Damien heard their clothes shuffle together as they hugged.
“I don’t think it’s silly. I understand. You’ve had Darwin for at least a decade. He was here first. Pretty sure he’s got dibs on the newest addition to the family.”
“The dog is for you. But I know you’re patient. I’m just not sure how much time we have. I don’t know. Now that I’m saying it all out loud, it sounds so stupid to me…”
“Let’s get a dog.”
“Are you serious?”
“Thank you .”
More kissing. Damien thought he was going to throw up. It sounded disgusting with his new hearing. Like if fish had sex in a human way.
“But I want to be the one to pick the dog. Alfred seems fine, but I’d need to hold him and get to know him first. I’d do it now, but… I just don’t have the energy today. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I’m sorry if I came across--like--manipulative or guilt-trippy or--”
“None of those things. Just rather come back another time when I’m feeling more up to it.”
“Yeah! Yes. Of course.”
They turned to leave.
Damien’s curiosity turned to rage. He was not about to spend the rest of his life caged up without getting a good look at Mark one last time. No. No! Wait! He tried barking to get their attention, but a guttural “awoo” sound emerged instead, sounding almost human, just barely forming the words, “Don’t go!”
Mark stopped dead in his tracks.
Damien couldn’t believe it. It worked. It was horrifying, and he was beyond embarrassed that it came from him, but it worked.
“What was that?” Mark began walking closer to his kennel.
Damien swallowed his pride and did it again.
Mark laughed. It was the first sound recently that he didn’t hate. It was light and low. Easy on the ears, almost like music. “What are you doing, little guy?” He knelt down to Damien’s eye level. “Was that you?”
“It was!” He laughed again. Damien wished he could hear that sound forever--less in a romantic sense, and more because it made him feel unusually calm. “Oh my god, I forgot huskies could do that! Sam, come here!” Sam was soon beside him, looking confused. “Can you do it again, bud?”
Great. Now he was their circus monkey.
Well, he didn’t mind being begged. He did it again.
“Oh my god, that’s so cute!” Sam’s laugh didn’t hurt as much as Damien had expected. “Do you think he can do tricks?”
“I’m not sure. Can you do tricks, boy?”
Nope. Fuck this. He was not about to be anyone’s entertainment.
“Can you do this?” Mark put his hand up to the bars. “High-five?”
Was Damien Douglas Gorham really about to bend to the will of the same person who ran him out of town seven months ago? Just to be able to touch him one last time? For no reason he could think of at the surface? Absolutely. Nothing mattered at this point, anyway.
“Hey, he did it! Who’s a good boy?”
“Excuse me, ma’am? Do you work here? If so, when did this guy show up?”
That’s what everyone wants to know.
“Oh, I’m the owner, actually. Melissa Riemann. Nice to meet you! And the Siberian? We found him on the side of the road not too far from here in August. I’ll bet he ran away. It’s extremely difficult to keep one of these guys by your side without a leash. They’re born wanderers and can travel for miles without returning if you aren’t careful. But that’s what his old master gets for not being responsible.”
“He looks… really malnourished,” noted Sam.
“You should have seen him when we first found him. It was horrendous . Either he was on the run for quite some time, or he was neglected, too. Could also be depression, though. It’s actually been quite the struggle to get him to eat at all.”
All of the above.
“He should be about two years.”
“That’s young. Sucks that he couldn’t live a good life so far,” said Mark. “How much?”
“Mark?” said Sam.
“You… want him?” Melissa looked shocked. “After everything I just--”
“I’m not sure yet. Do you not want us to or something?”
“It isn’t that, necessarily… Most animals who arrive here in this state end up being put down because they tend to live in a constant state of pain, and since they’re often traumatized, they don’t like children, and they aren’t the most playful in the world. It’s sad because huskies can live up to 15 years, and they’re normally full of life, but… that’s how it is sometimes.”
Sam and Mark exchanged glances before Sam asked, “Can we play with him for a while?”
“Only if you’re considering adoption.”
“We are,” they said in unison.
Damien had to be dreaming. Had Emily put them up to this? There was no way they were about to pick him. So what if their last thought would have been that their worst enemy was trapped in a canine’s body? Anyone from miles away could easily tell that someone like Damien was not any kind of family pet-- person-- no matter what he looked like.
Maybe they were giving him to Wadsworth as some kind of peace prize. If they didn’t tell her who he was, he was essentially incapable of being harmed despite the bridged distance. If they did tell her, he no longer posed a threat either way, so she would no longer have a reason to go after him. Regardless, she’d be able to keep an eye on him.
“Hello in there?” Melissa made an aggravating, repetitive kissing noise and reached in to pull him from his cage.
“How dare you! Don’t touch me!” he was trying to say, but it came out like another one of those doggy-English misfires.
“I know, I know.” Damien resisted the urge to rip into her face every time she cooed at him like that. Hell, maybe the only reason he didn’t was because Mark happened to be sitting right in front of them. “There. Was that so bad?”
It still is, bitch!
“So, what’s his name?” Mark asked, gently reaching out his hand toward Damien’s face. Damien shrank away as much as he could, suddenly hating everything about this. Melissa held him firmly.
She’s probably some muscular atypical lesbian, too, isn’t she? Jesus, give me some lung-room!
“He… doesn’t have one,” muttered Melissa under her breath.
“He hates them all.”
“Every name I’ve tried to call him--he just growls at me until I stop.” She turned to Damien, talking in that voice again. “You don’t like being called anything, huh, mister?”
Your last ‘name’ for me was ‘Trinket’! That’s not even an adequate dog's name.
“No, no you don’t. How abooouuuut… ‘Shadow’?”
Are you kidding me?
“Yup. Just what I thought. More growling. It’s strange--huskies are known for their intellect, but it’s like he truly understands.”
Hmm… Really? Golly-fuckin’-gee, that’d be wild!
“Maybe he does,” Mark said.
Melissa giggled. “You could be right. Maybe he’ll like your suggestions more than mine.” She addressed Damien again. “Could you let this nice couple hold you for just a weensy-bit? Huh, mister?”
“Huh. ‘Mister’,” Sam echoed. “I kind of... like that, actually.”
Better than what I’ve heard so far, I’ll give her that.
“He… didn’t growl that time. Do you like that, Mister?”
Please never say that again.
“First name he hasn’t rejected. Seems you people know better about naming animals than I do.”
You named a hamster ‘Milkshake’ yesterday.
Sam was the first to pet him. “Okay, but I’m still not quite letting go of this Batman thing.”
“Oh? Were you considering ‘Joker’ for our new son, honey? Or maybe ‘Penguin’?”
“We aren’t even committing to this one yet! I was thinking Pennyworth. Or Penny. Or maybe just Penn.”
“I agree with the dog,” said Mark, noting Damien’s insistent growl. “You still like ‘Mister’, boy?”
Grown-ass man. Damien tried his best to nod anyway.
“Woah. Sam, did you see that?”
“Yeah, that was… interesting.”
“Can I hold him?”
Melissa nodded, held Damien’s two back legs together, and lifted him into Mark’s arms. Mark softly scratched the sides of Damien’s face and back, and scooted closer to Sam to let her pet. She did something similar, but Damien was too lost in how good it felt to think about where, and he hated himself for it.
“He really seems to like you! That’s a relief.” Melissa stood and brushed some fur from her apron. “A few people have asked to see him before, and he was not happy. I’m not sure we’ve ever had a dog this unenthusiastic before.”
Get used to it.
Mark gave Damien an intense stare, clearly entangled in his thoughts. “He doesn’t seem so bad to me. What about you, Sam?”
“Me… neither, actually.” Everyone was silent for a decent minute or two, Sam and Mark still petting Damien, almost waiting for him to snap. When he didn’t, Sam added, “You’ve made up your mind already, haven’t you?”
“Only if you have.”
“Are we really about to impulse-buy a dog that could last us over a decade? And what about Dar--? Oh! Is he good with cats?”
Melissa shrugged. “He seems… indifferent with them, just like the other dogs. I’ve tried to get him to play with some of the puppies to see if it would cheer him up, but no luck. I don’t think he cares.”
Give me a handful of puppies any day as a human, and I’d pay you in liquor.
“Do you think--maybe--I don’t know--he could potentially warm up to another animal? We have a cat at home, and since I haven’t ever had another pet alongside him and he’s really old, I figured he could just use a friend before… you know--!”
“Is the cat male or female?”
Melissa sucked in a breath through her teeth. “I’m not sure about that. Males…”
“I know, I know, I’ve done all the research. But there are ways to introduce them over a certain period of time, and Darwin is so sweet. If he felt threatened, he’d probably just run and hide! It’s what he’s done in the past.”
Melissa stared at Sam quizzically. “I thought you said there haven’t been any other animals in the house.”
Sam was about to answer when Mark interjected. “Yeah, but he gets startled easily. You know how that is, I’m sure. There are at least a thousand videos of cats getting spooked by a cucumber.”
Cats afraid of time travel. Who knew?
Sam laughed again. Good sound. If only he had the hands to record it so he wouldn’t have to hear the entry bell or the angry cockatoo in the corner or the occasional screeching tire outside. Noise was hell, now.
“I would personally advise against it, but if you think you’re up for the challenge,” said Melissa with a sigh.
“We are,” they replied in unison.
“Is that a… definite yes, then?”
“Yes!” in unison again. God, that would get old fast.
Had they just said yes?
And they sounded… weirdly genuine. Damien thought for sure that Mark’s mind would have remembered his own and rejected it like an allergy from the way Mark spoke to him last time. Poison, he’d called him.
“Alright. Well, we have some paperwork to go through. You can take it all home with you and bring it in once you’ve crossed the Ts and dotted the Is. After that, he’s yours.”
“Uh--great!” Mark let Damien down on the floor and stood up almost too quickly. Sam followed.
Wait, you’re just going to leave me here? Oh, fuck no. Not one more night!
Sam softly gasped. “Aww, he’s whining.”
“Looks like a match made in heaven. Come on, boy.” Melissa tugged on the leash and tried ushering him back inside.
I am not a boy!
And with that, Damien lunged forward and turned to face Melissa, growling again.
“Huh… I’ve never had a pet do that before.”
I am not your pet.
“You’ve never had a pet growl at you before?” Mark deadpanned skeptically. “Didn’t you just make a point that--?”
Melissa groaned and ran her fingers through her messy bun. “No, not growling! Choosing a couple of strangers over me.”
“Well… these strangers are his family now.” Sam knelt down and pet Damien on the head, sounding weirdly protective. “Is it alright if we just go through the paperwork now? Take him home tonight?”
Damien Gorham, you are one goddamn genius.
Melissa begrudgingly motioned them into her office behind the wall of kennels and shut the door.
*yes. The answer is yes.
Chapter 2: Focus on the Finches
His day began bright, slow, and unusually warm. Someone’s breath smelled like whiskey and stale Doritos, and continued to blow on his face.
“Hey,” he heard Mark call to him. “Wake up, bud. You’ve been out for over half the day.”
Damien felt himself make a sound somewhere between a growl and a groan. He felt like dead weight. What time is it? he almost asked before remembering how ridiculous he sounded trying to speak English.
“I know, it’s hard. It’s going to be okay, I promise.” Mark ran his fingers back and forth through Damien’s back fur, which felt horrible when they went against the grain, and like heaven when they followed in the same direction.
Was this how it would be forever? Things hurting him without his ability to so much as speak?
“You’ve… been through a lot. I can tell.” Mark sat down next to him and patted the top of his head, which made him feel vaguely threatened for some reason. “Me too.”
Damien finally opened his eyes and lifted his head. He noticed Mark holding a bottle of something of the same scent, but stronger. Still couldn’t read the label, but it took no scientist to guess what it was. It burned his nostrils.
“‘M so tired,” Mark mumbled. After ten blissful seconds of silence, he added, “Never mind. You probably don’t want to hear about this. Got your own doggy issues to work out.” He took another swig of beer. “And that’s assuming you can understand me at all. And I’m... still talking to a dog! Unbe-fuckin’-lievable.”
“Mark?” Sam called from down the hallway.
“Shit.” Mark jumped and set the bottle on the floor behind the nightstand, wiping his mouth with his forearm. “Come in!” he said cheerfully with a hint of exasperation.
The door opened smoothly. No creaks. Nice. “What are you doing?”
“Just waking up Mister Bryant!” His smile was so fake. “Figured we ought to show him around the house! New environment and all.”
“Uh--yes! Yeah.” She approached Damien slowly, outstretching her hand to his face. He was too exhausted to fight back.
Why couldn’t he remember anything from after Mark and Sam followed Melissa?
“Do you think it wore off?” she asked.
Mark nodded. “Yeah, he’s fine. Probably sore from the position he was sleeping in.”
“Poor guy. So used to that cramped cage. Do you think we should, like, file a complaint for the shelter?”
Mark waved his hand dismissively. “If the animals liked their lives too much back there, they wouldn’t appreciate it their new ones, right?”
“I… I guess.” She turned to face him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah!” He smiled wider somehow. “Everything’s great! We just got a dog, Darwin won’t be lonely anymore, I won’t be lonely anymore when you and Joanie are working--”
“Ah, ah, no! No, you do not get to make this situation all sad. Things are good now. It’s a good day!”
She looked hurt. “Yeah, you’re right. Okay. I’ll… make some coffee?”
“No need! I have enough energy to run a marathon. And you, Sam the Brave, should come with me! We’ll take the dog for a walk, get some sun, show him around the neighborhood. That sound like fun?”
“Yeah.” She nodded quickly. “Yeah, it does. Let me just grab a pair of shoes--”
“Ah, fuck it! Let’s go barefoot! We’ll walk in the park, just you and me! And the dog… obviously.” He forced a laugh and kissed her on the cheek. “Let’s go!”
“Come on, boy!”
He resisted the urge to growl at “boy,” again as Mark tugged at what felt like a bigger collar around his neck and led him out of the room to what he could only guess was the front of the house.
A mirror hung by the door. Damien sat in front of it, unable to look away. It felt like a dream. A terrible, inescapable dream.
Metal against metal clicked together, and soon, Mark was holding the leash.
How pathetic. Every success and mistake he'd ever made had led up to this.
Where would he go from here?
Damien wasn’t often one for looking too far ahead. He recognized his impulsivity as being nothing short of laughable at times. In the past, though, he could at least make up a turn of events in his mind, a logical bridge from points A to B.
Nothing came up this time. Nothing he could see, anyway.
What would he even do from now on?
“You okay?” Mark asked, snapping Damien back to reality.
“I’m fine,” he was going to say, but didn’t. Then he realized Mark was talking to Sam.
“I don’t know. Are you?”
“Yes! Sam, I haven't felt better in my entire life since I came back from that trip. It was fun, and the experience was... unforgettable. But I never stopped thinking about coming home to you.”
“Don’t tell me you were wasting all your energy on--”
They were quiet again.
“Sam, just…” Mark leaned in and gently shushed her.
Oh god, if they kiss again.
“Okay.” Sam rested her head against Mark’s. “I’m ready.”
"We're just taking Mister to the park."
“Or anything else!”
“Alright." Mark chuckled. "Good.” He tugged Damien’s leash to the door. It swung open effortlessly, and the trio started down the sidewalk.
Three whole weeks inside a cage made Damien almost grateful the outside world existed at all. But the feeling only grew stronger with everything new he could smell and hear and feel. It was, like, straight from Middle-earth.
He hadn’t walked on the ground in bare feet since he was around ten, and he’d forgotten how… real it felt. The small cracks and lines and the occasional dandelion growing through the sides were so noticeable now. Colors were more dull, but it was mostly like a filter--there was no kind of great contrast between the floor and the sky, so it all felt like one big machine blowing and snapping and chirping together. (The birds may have been twice as annoying, but even they belonged there well enough.) It couldn’t have been later than noon; the sidewalk's temperature felt preserved from the night before, and Damien wasn’t uncomfortable in the slightest despite his fur. And the grass… Oh god, the grass…
“Look at him go!” he heard Sam call from behind.
“It’s like he’s never seen a flower before.”
“Isn’t it great? Mark, we saved him.”
“I know. I just hope he isn’t too shaken up from what happened to him. He should enjoy it because he can, not because he doesn't know anything better.”
“Melissa said found him outside, probably miles from home. I’m pretty sure he’s known the outside world longer than inside.”
You would think.
It usually pissed off Damien when people talked about him as if he weren’t listening. But not only did he not have a say in it, but they seemed to think of him as benevolent by default just because he was a dog. Hell, if he were a small child, they’d probably trust him less. The thought gave him a strange feeling in his chest.
Besides, the less he interfered, the longer the conversation went, and the more he could listen in secret. Or, well... as secret as anyone could call it.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Damien’s feet began to slip underneath him out of nowhere. Mark tugged on his leash again, leading him in the opposite direction of where he was headed. “That’s a cliff!”
“Woah! Oh my god.” Sam jumped, and Damien felt the ground vibrate when her feet fell victim back to gravity.
He blinked and squinted ahead. Mark was right. If he had taken only a few more steps, he would have fallen right off the plateau onto a steep hillside. The bottom was a cemented bike trail.
How could he have missed that?
Sure, he was sniffing the ground and not paying the most attention, but there was no way in hell he would have made that mistake as a human unless drunk. Must be the new-and-improved vision.
“That’s… That was a nice save.”
“Deep breaths, Sam.”
“When are we going to introduce him to Darwin?”
“What? Sam, we just got him yesterday. You don’t think he needs time to settle in on his own first?”
“Not if he’s going to start falling off hillsides like that, Jesus!” Her entire body started flickering like an expired light bulb. Damien knew where this was going.
“I’m sorry. I just need to go for, like, five seconds! Don’t come with me!”
“I swear I’ll be back, I’m sor--!” And just like that, the area around her flashed, and she folded into herself as the air around her caved in.
“Fuck.” Mark pitted a stone he was holding onto the sidewalk. It cracked open in three large chunks to reveal a sparkling crystal compound that reflected painfully off the sun.
Damien heard himself whimpering again. It was almost automatic. Why? He wasn’t afraid. Mark wasn’t hurt. They were fine.
Mark reached for Damien’s collar and held him close. “It’s okay, boy. She’ll be back.” He laughed a little. “Bet you’ve never seen that before, huh?”
He had only seen her do that one other time, obviously. It was something special, alright. Looked painful, though.
Mark sat with Damien for a while, playing with his ears, which felt like someone tapping on a microphone a thousand times.
In what felt like half an hour, a gush of air pushed itself outward from nothing and rearranged Samantha Barnes in the exact place she’d left. She stood in silence for a moment, refusing to make eye contact with either of them. “How long?”
Mark glanced at his watch. “Four minutes.”
Four minutes? It had to have been longer than that. Unless time was slower to him now, too. Which would be, you know, just dandy.
Sam stepped closer to them with caution, as if they were strangers. “Can I... hug you?”
“Of course you can hug me, Sam. You don’t have to ask.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry! I mean…”
“Just come here.”
It would have been a thousand times more awkward to watch a happy couple quietly holding each other if Damien were human. In this state, it felt almost natural. No need to worry about what they were doing--he could just zone out and focus on the finches.
It had just occurred to him that he didn't have to care about what time it was like this. Mark, with what he could only guess to be a passionate, inherent love for dogs, and Sam, too riddled with anxiety to not care about Damien, would be the ones handling what he’d been forced to as a non-atypical. Details would no longer matter to him because there was no reason for them to.
Dogs didn’t pay bills, or drive cars, or make enemies (unless you count the squirrels).
They just… were. They existed outside of--yet so closely to--the daily tasks of modern society. But they were still loved and nurtured unconditionally because they had a pretty face.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
This was so bad.
Never in his life had Damien been so terrified of a cat.
Based on what Sam had told Melissa days ago, he thought for sure the thing would have just scrambled out of sight the moment it saw Damien--a Siberian husky four times its size with sharp nails and thick fur that made him look even bigger.
But no. No, this was… the opposite of what he had expected (or wanted). It didn’t help that his head was closer to the ground by default, and the scab on his face reopened and started to bleed again on the first scratch.
He was hiding in the closet now. The cat had run under the couch after striking a couple of times, but Damien wasn’t taking any chances. The cut burned like a motherfucker and dripped into the corner of his eye.
“Darwin. Darwin, come out! Jesus, you’re strong.” A thud. “ Ow .” Probably hit his head from underneath the coffee table in front of the loveseat. “Sam’s going to be pissed if she finds you under there.” A hiss. A growl from Mark. “You little shit.”
Of course Damien caught himself whimpering. He was rarely used to feeling safe anymore, but something about Mark being attacked by the same animal that was a lot more terrifying up close made him uneasy.
It felt like an hour in that damn closet, but this new animalistic side of him kept him shrouded in darkness.
He heard his stupid pet name being called again.
“Where are you, boy?”
He was not about to howl to get Mark’s attention.
Though the door did shut itself when his tail dragged against the handle…
He could hear Mark approaching the hallway by the closet.
“You in here?” The handle turned, and light poured in from behind.
Oh, thank god.
“Hey, come on out. It’s fine.” Damien felt himself being collar-dragged out of the closet.*
“You’re gonna be okay… God damnit . Let’s go… fix this.”
The soap burned his skin, and he instinctively tried to pull away every time the sponge touched the cut.
Mark’s hands were tender, albeit covered in calluses and small burns. But he handled it carefully.
Damien wasn’t sure if he appreciated all the eye contact or not. As a human, people only made it with him when he was trying to make a connection (with a few aggravating exceptions), but he felt something new when Mark looked at him. It felt like… almost like Mark was looking for something. He couldn’t have known, right? But he hadn’t looked at Darwin that way. Not since Damien had gotten there. Though based on Mark’s friendly little chat with the thing, he could guess that they didn’t share the friendliest bond. Or maybe they did. The two had a lot in common when it came to how they felt about good ol’... whoever he was now.
He must have been in third grade the last time someone else cleaned his face. His mom had done it a lot. It was annoying, and she was obsessed with keeping him sharp, but… it was one of the biggest things he willingly admitted to himself that he missed about her. That, and when she read The Hobbit to him on Friday nights.
Mark was grumbling to himself about it all. “‘Oh, Mark, don’t worry about Darwin! He’s upstairs ! I locked the door, Mark ! He has food up there, Mark ! He’s not territorial. Mark .’” His imitation of Sam was hilarious. “‘Let’s get a dog, Mark! Let’s get one with the saddest backstory and the deepest eyes and the…’” Mark winced and rubbed his temple. “Fuck.” He focused back on Damien. “What are you looking at? Never see a drunk guy ramble before?”
Was he expecting an answer?
The home security ding! resounding from the front door opening downstairs caught Damien’s attention, and the door locked subsequently. “Mark? I’m home!”
Mark slammed his head onto the side of the bathtub. “Yes. Hello. Hi !” he yelled to her facedown.
“Darwin?” she called out.
Mark sighed in defeat and held his face in his hands, kneeling fully on the floor. “He’s under the couch. I couldn’t get him out.”
She gasped softly. “What happened?”
“Just… come upstairs. I think he could use some time alone from us humans. And Mister missed you, too.”
“Oh no…Did they-?”
“Did I forget to-?”
“It’s fine. Just fixing the battle scars.”
“Oh my god.” Rapid thumping led to Sam’s form lingering in the bathroom doorway. “Can… I…?”
Mark nodded. “He’s fine. ‘S just a small cut.”
“God, I feel awful.”
“It was a simple mistake.” Mark was clearly irritated, but it didn’t seem to Damien like Sam noticed. That, or she was desperate to pretend it wasn’t there.
Sam moved in closer and put her fingers near enough to the injury that he couldn’t help but pull away. She hushed him. “It’s okay. I just want to get a closer look.” Her voice was twice as soft now. “That’s it. Just let me…” He couldn’t tell what she was doing at first. “That’s… deep. How long has it been since Darwin got his claws trimmed?”
Mark shrugged. “You tell me. You’ve had the opportunity for months.”
“Yeah, but I was… distracted.”
Mark furrowed his eyebrows. “How much had you been taking care of yourself while I was gone, Sam?”
“My cat doesn’t count as me.”
“No need to get defensive. It was just a question.”
“Can we talk about this later? I just want to clean this.”
“Already done. We’ve got nothing else to do now except be honest with ourselves.”
Sam folded her arms. “You don’t have to be so passive- aggressive about this.”
“I’m not!” Mark stood and briefly threw his hands up. “I’m just worried about you.”
“And we’re constantly worried about each other! All the time! What’s the difference between then and now?”
“Because now, it’s like you’re hiding from me.”
“H-oh! You’re one to talk.”
“You barely talk to me anymore. Like, really talk to me. Since you came back, it’s, ‘Go here,’ and, ‘Do this!’ Like you’re purposefully avoiding me. What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything! I’m fucking stressed, okay? I thought I would be on to a more stable job by now, I thought someone would hire me, I thought I could finally take care of you like you deserve-!”
“I know, I know! It’s toxic of me to think that I owe you something all the time, but I can’t help it. I love you, Sam, and the last thing I want you to think is that I don’t care, or that I’m, like, mooching-!”
“You’re not mooching!”
“I just want us to have a stable life. I want to be able to go to work and be a productive member of society, I want us to have enough money--because you know that your inheritance won’t last us forever--and I want us to start living normally.”
“Mark, we’re atypicals! What about any of this has lead you to believe that we could ever be normal?”
“You know it doesn’t have to be like that. Everything horrible--at least, I fucking hope so--is behind us now. Sure, life isn’t perfect, and I feel covered in this disgusting ink that Wadsworth and Damien and my parents spilled all over me, and it drips all down my body and mind, and I can’t run away from it no matter how hard I try-!”
“But I at least want something that says I’m better than that. That I’m better than where I’m from. Don’t you want that, too?”
“Of course I do, Mark, but a job doesn’t define you. And that pressure shouldn’t be all on you even if it did! Agent Green is paying Joan and I now--and well over the amount we need. I’m already saving up for a trip I have planned for us.”
“It’s a surprise, and I didn’t actually want you to know until later, but… yeah.”
“That’s… That’s amazing, Sam.”
“Then why do you seem so sad? God, I just want to know, Mark. What are you hiding?”
“I’m not hiding anything! It’s just… everything that happened is still there, you know? I was able to get a small break from all that on the concert trip, but… the problems I had followed me, and… things happened on the road that made me realize that I need to start fixing things. So I can at least feel human again.”
“It’s like… It's like I’m too tired to feel like a person anymore.”
“I wish you had... told me this when you first got here.”
“I didn’t want to worry you anymore than you already do.”
It went quiet again. Mark and Sam refused to look one another in the eye, and Damien was not having it if it meant he had to do nothing but sit there until they worked out their couples therapy or whatever-the-fuck.
He felt the sudden urge to see the trees again.
“What’s… he doing?” said Sam suddenly, turning her attention to Damien.
Mark didn’t move. “Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m-I’m not! Or, not, like, trying to. Mister’s acting antsy.”
Mark smiled for real this time. “I think you might be projecting, Sam.”
“No, no, really. I think he wants to go out.”
Mark seemed to lock eyes with Sam again. “Do you ?”
“It’s not about--I didn’t mean--!”
“Let’s take him for a walk.”
Sam actively tried breathing slower--something Damien thought would probably help her more with everything if she’d do it more often--not that he cared because why would he?--and replied, “Yeah!... Yes. Where to?”
Mark shrugged. “Chloe’s house?”
“We’re going to walk all the way over there? I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that if you really want to-!”
“We could take the bus, and just stop a few blocks away. Or the…”
“...If you think you’re up for it again.”
*Okay. Understandable how this would seem kinky at face value to any unsuspecting guest.
Chapter 4: Jumbled Mess of Mumbles
Yes! Yes, yes, oh my god. Yes. That was the only thing echoing through Damien’s mind since they had gotten in the car. Why hadn’t he stuck his head out the window more often as a human? He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this free. It almost made him forget about everything else.
Even with his high-end hearing, though, he still couldn’t tell if Sam was laughing or hyperventilating from the front seat. Probably both. “He looks so happy!”
“I know. I wonder what he’s thinking.”
Who's on top of the world now, bitches?
They turned into a driveway at the bottom of a hill, which Damien could have guessed was the beginning of a cul-de-sac. When the car stopped, he felt doors slam shut and reopen, which pulled him back to reality.
Sam clicked the leash to the side of Damien’s collar again, and Mark followed them to two small flights of stairs trailing up to a screen door. The three stood there for an aggravating period of time, saying nothing. Damien wasn’t necessarily apt to complain at this time--he was still outside, at least.
Mark turned to Sam, clearly confused. “...You’re not going to ring the doorbell?”
Sam seemed to be trying to hide a smile. “Just wait.”
A few more minutes.
Mark began slapping his clothes, suddenly. “Shit! I forgot my phone. Kayla told me she was going to call me sometime today, and that it was ‘really important.’ Is it alright if I--?”
“Yeah, yeah, yes!”
“I’m sorry, Sam.”
“No, it’s okay! We’ll be inside whenever you’re planning to join us.”
“Okay. I’ll be back in a few minutes, I swear.”
He turned to leave, and Damien was left. Alone. With Sam. Great.
More minutes. Then, frantic thumping from inside seemed to jolt the house with senseless vibrations, like they were about to be chased. This had to be another sensitivity on Damien’s end. Chloe, based on what little he knew about her personality, was not someone to spontaneously attack people. And it didn’t take much brain power to assume that she’d be even more lenient with animals.
She skidded to a halt in front of them, smile looking too bright to be real. She waved vigorously with all the radiant energy in the world as if nothing was wrong, unclicking the lock. “How long?”
Sam turned her fist upward. Who would have thought she was the type to wear a watch? Oh. Wait a minute. “Five minutes.”
Chloe pulled open the squeaky door and ushered them inside. “Not as much progress as I would have hoped, but… not bad! Two earlier than last time.” Her smile sputtered out randomly. She slowly turned her head down to Damien. “Who’s… this?”
No. There was no way. She couldn’t read his thoughts to begin with. And when it came to what Doctor B told him about telepaths over the years, his new dog brain was another barrier.
But why was she looking at him like she wanted to spit on his face?
“This is Mister! We got him a few days ago. I would have called or texted earlier, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Isn’t he beautiful?” Sam stepped a bit behind Damien, as if to give Chloe a better view. Damien sat still, panting for good measure.
She blinked a couple of times, as if breaking out of a daze, and smiled warmly. “Yes! I love him already. Sorry if I didn’t seem excited initially, but I think he’s dehydrated.”
“Oh. Really? Yeah, I guess we sort of came here on impulse. Sorry if--!”
“It’s fine, Sam. I like your drop-ins. I’m going to get some water, so you and Mister can follow me to the kitchen.” They started moving accordingly. “I gathered that Mark needed his phone for work.”
“Yeah. Seems like he’s been avoiding me lately.”
“He’s not going to abandon you, Sam.”
“I… I know! I think.”
“More like you think you know.” Chloe flipped open one of the cupboard doors and pulled out a red porcelain bowl with a black pawprint painted on the side. “This is normally what I use for any strays we find. Ooh, speaking of which, was Mister a stray?”
Sam scooted out a chair and sat. “No, he--”
“Sam, that shelter is so bad. There’s only one woman running it, and she tries so hard, but… it’s just not enough.”
“Oh…. wow. I didn’t know that.”
“It’s fine. But either someone else should start working there, soon, or it needs shut down. Then again, I don’t know where else they would go… Maybe that one down the… Sorry!”
“It’s no problem. I’m actually glad that your ability came back, believe it or not. I much prefer this to the abstract squiggles you’d been suffering from.”
“Why thank you, valiant Sam.” Chloe took a dramatic bow. “May I be here to forever entertain you.”
They both laughed. It was crazy how Sam just… went with Chloe’s ability. No annoyance in her tone. No questioning the moral ambiguity of an outside source being in her head. Why couldn’t it have been like this with him? Sure, Damien wasn’t exactly interested in being buddy-buddy with Mark’s girlfriend, but…
He knew why. It was the same reason he preferred not to be too close with anyone to begin with. But he looked desperately for a way to justify his reasoning anyway, and only hurt himself when his own logic defeated that tiny sliver of furious hope.
“So… are you completely healed?”
Chloe wrinkled her nose, holding the bowl under the running kitchen sink. “I think so. I mean, I know my ability has definitely gotten less… chaotic. Everyone’s thoughts are so much clearer now, so it feels less like a jumbled mess of mumbles when I go in too deeply.” She walked over to Damien and crouched down, pushing the bowl in his direction.
“What do you mean… ‘in too deeply’?”
She stood and wiped her hands on her shirt, taking the chair on the other side of the table. “I’ve been meaning to tell you this. It started happening about a week ago. I didn’t notice at first, but… I think all that training just to get my ability back to normal has made me stronger than I was in the first place. I can hear people from longer distances, and if I focus enough on one person, I can kind of peek into their… subconscious?”
“What? Chloe, that’s amazing! God, I’m so proud of you.”
“Yeah…” She looked away for a second, to the window. “...Amazing.”
Chloe vigorously shook her head. “It’s just… It has its perks, don’t get me wrong. But the whole ‘Is it right for me to involuntarily snoop?’ thing has been kinda dragging me down lately. And even the nicest people have some really dark things hiding in their heads, and it’s just been… hard. To process, I mean.”
“I’m so sorry, Chlo.”
“I’ll be okay. Using it for good is what matters, right?”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
“You were hoping shortening my name by one letter would make me feel better?” Chloe made her way to the stove and opened a cabinet drawer near the wall.
“What?” Sam chortled and fixed her hair. “Nicknames can soothe people sometimes.”
Chloe retrieved a box of pasta and a pair of tongs from where Damien could only guess was next to the silverware drawer. “That’s true. Roger likes it when I call him ‘Row.’”
Sam’s eyebrows furrowed. “How do you know?”
“What? Oh, he just seems to purr when I call him that. Probably a coincidence, but I like to think there’s some part of him that understands me.” She filled a metallic pot with the same tap she used for Damien’s water bowl.
Damien’s water bowl. God. That was a thing, now.
“Sam… I’d really like you to stay. Really. But I… can’t see Mark right now.”
“He and I aren’t on good terms. I wouldn’t ask him about it--he may even outright deny it so that he doesn’t upset you. Don’t push, by the way! If he says no… I’d just leave it.”
Huh, observed Damien. Guess miss Telepathy is even less perfect than I thought. He felt a low growl circuit through his veins. What did she do to him?
“What’s all of this about? Why didn’t you say something earlier?” Sam’s hands began to tremble slightly, and Damien could hear the slight rumble against the wood.
“Because I wanted to spend time with you! I can hear Mark’s thoughts from here, and he just found his phone, and… you need to talk to him about the thing with Kayla. She wants him to go on tour again.”
“ What? ”
“I’ll watch Mister for tonight. He and Darwin need a break from each other.”
What?... No. No, you can’t do this. I don’t belong here. I don’t even know her, and there’s another cat here, and oh my god, you’d better not fucking do this.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I promise I’ll explain later. I care about you.”
“I... Okay. Let me know if you ever want to talk about it.”
“Not if. When. And I know you just adopted Mister, but you don’t need this added stress right now, and I’m sure Darwin would appreciate the one-on-one time. Or… one on two if you and Mark get things sorted out. He’ll be safe with me for tonight. Maybe even a couple of nights.”
“Okay. Thanks, Chloe.”
No! Fuck you, Chloe!
“Of course. Call me if things go sour and you need somewhere to crash.”
“It’s my house.”
“I know, just… by choice.”
“I’ll call you when I get a chance, okay?”
Sam nodded and stepped up from the seat, handing the leash to Chloe. “Thanks… again.”
“He’s coming in the house at any second.”
“Okay, okay. Uh--bye, Chloe.”
And just like that, she turned to leave, but not before cupping Damien’s new face in her hands and resting her forehead against his. “I promise, I’ll be back. I love you, Mister.”
Damien’s heart stopped. What did she just say to him?
And now she’s fucking leaving ?
No. This couldn’t happen. He wouldn’t let it.
Chloe held the leash firmly in her grip. He realized he was trying to chase after her. Mark. Don’t let her leave without me. She can’t do this! God, Mark, can you hear me? I don’t care if you can, somehow. I know you’d hate me if you knew who I was, but god--! His stupid canine ass was whimpering again.
The door shut behind Sam.
Chloe then tied Damien’s leash to a nearby closet door handle and hurried over to lock the door and close the blinds. Shortly after, she swiveled back in Damien’s direction and kneeled down next to him, scratching behind his ears. “They’ll be back, boy. I promise.”
So she didn’t know. Did being a dog make him more paranoid? Weird. Dogs always seemed so… unaware. Detached from their environment, even.
She poured the box of spaghetti into the pot that was now boiling, stirring it in with a wooden ladle, humming to herself. She looked almost… momlike.
He was in a foreign place, now. Even more so than before. And there was a cat on the loose. God. He hated cats. His mind was made up.
“Don’t worry,” she said. Fuck . Did she know? “Mark and Sam are just having a little spat. But I can guarantee that they love you very much.”
Okay, she definitely didn’t.
He suddenly heard muffled shouting from outside. He felt a cold shudder zap his body. He didn’t want Mark to have to be angry anymore. He didn’t want him to have to yell.
Just let him go , he pushed. Of course no one would feel, receive, or obey it. But he tried anyway.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed from when he closed his eyes, but when he opened them again, another bowl was in front of him, filled with buttered noodles.
Real food. Holy shit. Kind of irresponsible of you to feed an animal people-food, isn’t it, Chloe? he sneered, pretending she could hear him. Not that I’m complaining.
“You’d be surprised to know that any type of pasta isn’t, in fact, bad for dogs. Just as long as you don’t include the sauce,” she said, her words like knives stabbing a wall, not turning around from her position by the sink, washing dishes.
He froze. How could he have been so stupid?
I need to get out of here.
An exuberant laugh escaped Chloe’s lips. It gave him chills. “Oh, Damien. I would love to see you try.”
Chapter 5: Like Alphabet Soup
A warning for this specific chapter: mention of suicide and suicidal thoughts.
He felt that primal anger again. How dare she keep him captive like this.
“How dare I? How. Dare. I ?”
When she turned back to face him, he was certain he would see that look in his nightmares. He'd had no idea Chloe was even capable of that much pissed-offery.
“I don’t know how you got into that body, or anything about the poor soul that must have existed there before, but you’d better deliver one hell of an explanation.”
You wouldn’t do anything to me. You’re soft.
“I wouldn’t need to. All I need is to provide Sam with one phone call, and it’s all over for you. No more cozy bed, no more lack of responsibility, and no more Mark.”
His skin turned to ice. Are you… blackmailing me?
Hm. Simple answer. I like that.
“Oh, hilarious!” She threw her arms in the air. “You still think you have some control over anything about this conversation. Update from Truthville: you are not only talking to someone who has an ability that completely nixes out yours, but you, as far as I know, were already powerless before… whatever you did to become like this!”
I didn’t do anything--!
“Shut it. I don’t want to hear whatever excuse you’re about to… Oh. You really didn’t cause this. But what, they just so happened to pick the one dog from the shelter that carried your consciousness? You had zero influence on that?”
Well, I may have acted a little cute, but I didn’t expect it to work!
“Oh. My god. You still don’t get it! This is your fault! Indirectly, it’s even your fault that you upset Emily enough to do this. What did you do to Rose?”
I was just going to visit her again.
“Really? After all this? You still didn’t learn… Ugh. I thought when I spoke to you at the diner, things would be over. You’d move on with your life, learn how to be a better person, something. But Mark was right about you. Stop whimpering. You know it’s true.”
I’m not--! He was. Again.
“Do you have any idea how terrified I was when I felt your presence from upstairs? I thought I was hallucinating. I thought, ‘Huh, wow, maybe my training did more harm than good, and now I’m starting to hear things that don’t exist!’ I’m not even sure how that would work, but… No, not terrified of you. For them! For Mark and Sam, who, honest-to-God, are just trying to live and survive in peace. And you made me lie to them, and I just caused a fight between them that I know could have gone better had I just let Mark tell Sam when she was ready, but no. I had to create a diversion so that I could keep you here to prevent you from interfering with their relationship for once!”
He growled. I didn’t make you do shit. You think I wanted to stay here? You’re trying to tell me that it’s my own damn fault that the ‘kindness of your heart’ was maliciously twisted and compelled to create some elaborate plan on impulse just because you thought you’d be doing the world right by interfering with what happened to me rather than just living and letting live?
She stopped. Looked down at her hands. Stumbled back against the fridge and sank to the floor. “...I’m so tired. I was... relentlessly pursued by an angry stalker with mommy issues for a year and a half, and when we finally went head to head, he busted mine until my ability felt like alphabet soup. And now he’s a dog, and I’m feeding him buttered noodles from a bowl that I molded and painted. And he isn’t even satisfied. Probably never will be.” Her voice cracked and shook. “I just don’t know what to do. Doesn’t matter that your contagious negativity is in my head, clear as day. Doesn’t matter what you take from me. My ability, my energy, my sense of safety. You just always want more.” Her head turned in his direction, dripping with tears. “What do you want from me?”
Damien was dumbfounded. What he wanted from her? All he wanted was to spend some time with Mark without hurting him before he inevitably wandered around somewhere on the street and kicked the bucket. And she’s playing the victim?
“I’m not ‘playing’ anything, Damien. It’s called doing the right thing. I’m not sure what to do with you yet, but you can’t be around them. Not until I know you’re completely harmless.”
You said it yourself. I’m powerless.
“But not toothless. Or clawless. And if your ability does come back, Mark and Sam could very well lose more sleep than they already do by staying up all night to fan you and feed you premium steaks.”
I know better than that.
“Do you? Do you, really? Because you may think you do at the surface, but… No. I don’t want to go any deeper. I know there’s softness somewhere, but I don’t owe it to you to find it. You’d never admit to it out loud, anyway.” She hugged her legs under those paint-splattered jeans, and if it weren’t for Damien’s new set of ears, he wouldn’t have been able to understand what she said next. “I don’t even know what I’m doing. I should really just drug you and drive you halfway across the country and leave you with some nice old couple in the middle of nowhere. Even then, it feels like it’d be too much to do for you.”
Or you could… maybe… never think about doing that again.
“No promises.” She closed her eyes and faced the ceiling. “Why can’t you just be a good person? It isn’t that hard. It really, truly isn’t. What warped you into this weird mindset where it’s everyone else’s fault somehow? Okay, sure. You didn’t choose to be given a mind manipulation power. But you actively chose to revel in it and use it to control and dominate other people. You were already given the opportunity to not have to worry if your relationships were mutual once your power was taken away, so… Oh. That’s why you went back to Rose. Because she was your... only true friend.”
Damien didn’t bother to think anything toward her this time. Just let his thoughts hum on autopilot. It didn’t matter--he couldn’t control what she knew. Bonus points if he was going to be stuck like this forever. At least someone else would know his story. In a way, he wouldn’t completely die off.
But what good did that actually do?
“You were telling the truth. Your parents left.”
Fuck. Not this. Not right now.
“You’re an orphan.”
The word hit him hard. Never in his life had he been called that before. He hadn’t even thought about himself that way. Sure, it fucking hurt more than anything else, but…
“Ugh, no! This isn’t my job. If you had actually spent time with Joan as a patient, maybe you would have learned something about yourself. It isn’t about you anymore. This is about Sam and Mark. Why can’t you just accept that they want to move on? That you messed up? That you need to try again with someone…? Oh, yeah. You still think that you’re just going to leave one day and let yourself get hit by an unsuspecting car. And then that would be the end of it.” Her eyes widened. “...Oh. You meant… soon. You were going to actually…” She put her head in her hands. “Damien, even as an old man, you have potential to do something good in this world. I’d even go far enough to say that you could leave a lasting impression. Why do you think that just… getting your fix and then killing yourself once you were satisfied would do any good for anyone?”
Mark wouldn’t have to think about me anymore.
“Neither would the rest of the world, or the other billions of people that you haven’t met or even influenced! You could have moved to Thailand and had a tattoo shop or something! And god, is Mark really the only person you care about? What about Rose?”
She’ll take her girlfriend’s side. There’s nothing left for me here. I’ve accepted that.
“Maybe not in this town, or even this state, but… what about literally anywhere else?”
Your optimism is so annoying.
“Why? Because you wish you had it? Because I’m a good person and refuse to just let people be miserable?”
I thought it wasn’t your job to fix me .
“It isn’t, Damien. It really, really isn’t.” She was quiet for a minute, refusing to look up. Then, “It’s late, and I need sleep. There’s a doggy bed by the stairs. And also a couch in the living room.” She stood and began walking down to the basement. “Try not to die on that one, either,” she mumbled, locking the basement door behind her.
He was going to ignore her and try to sleep everything off, knowing it was useless to try unlocking anything with his new "hands," but he remembered something.
Chloe, wait! Wait, bitch! How can you hear my thoughts now? What happened?
Nothing from the ground floor except a snicker and, "Right. I'm the bitch in this situation."
He scratched the door standing on his hind legs, not caring how ridiculous he probably looked. Chloe!
"Go to bed, Damien."
It had been over three days so far. Damien knew this because Chloe had said “Good morning” or “Goodnight” seven times since their little brawl. It felt like a week.
At least Roger was nothing like Darwin. This cat was not only tolerant, but downright warm to him. Irritating, but not dangerous, to say the least.
Was this it? Were they never coming back? At this point, he wasn’t surprised. Of course they didn’t want him.
“Wow. Not sure if I’ve told you this before, but… your self-esteem is so low,” said Chloe, beating yet another canvas with a brush caked in what he told was was red.
He couldn't see red anymore.
I just meant that they probably already know who I am.
“Mm… Definitely not.” She took a marginally smaller brush and delicately dotted the outer corners of the red with a baby blue, streaking a few with repeated application. “Well, at least, I know for a fact that Sam doesn’t. Her thoughts were so clouded with worries about Mark and their future together when she dropped you off. If anything, she may have forgotten about you entirely because she’s so swarmed with their issues.”
She rolled her eyes and squirted a tawny, rustlike color onto the palette. “I didn’t mean that you’re forgettable. Quite the opposite, actually.”
Huh. That’s the first positive thing I’ve heard about myself in years.
“I wouldn’t say ‘positive’ would be the right word. I don’t think anyone would be able to magically forget about the person who kidnapped, manipulated, insulted, or threatened them.”
I never threatened Mark.
“I’m not just talking about Mark. He’s definitely been through a lot, but he isn’t the only one you hurt.”
I just said that I never threatened him, much less hurt him.
“You’re missing the point. And you did hurt him. Just not physically.” She scrunched up a medium-sized brush against the canvas with the rust-colored paint, moving in small, delicate circles. “You already knew that. What made you think you could hide that from me by trying to use one thought to mask another? Are you just too proud to openly admit your shortcomings, or…? I mean, of course you are, but I meant that in the rhetorical sense.”
Do you enjoy dragging me like this? Is this fun for you?
“Believe it or not, Damien, not everyone takes joy in inflicting pain on other people.” She scooted backwards on her knees and made a portrait shape before the canvas with her hands. “And it isn’t my fault your ego is so fragile that it can’t handle any criticism that flies its way.”
I don’t ‘enjoy’ inflicting--!
“I know. Just something that came out of my mouth because I’m frustrated, and it was very difficult not to see you as some sadistic bastard all this time when you continued to hurt the people I care about.”
And you couldn’t hear my thoughts at the time, so you took a wild guess and stuck with it.
“...In my defense, I would have probably guessed a little more nicely if you hadn’t done the things you did.”
So what do you think of me now--? Why are you petting me?
“Because you’re soft, and I’m stressed out.” She went quiet for a minute or two, staring at the unfinished painting. “I have no idea what I’m doing wrong, but I’m just not feeling this one. There’s something missing inside. I know what I’m doing with the outer edges, but I feel like I can’t do them if I don’t fix something, here.”
It looked polished, he gave her that. Better than anything he could have done. The brown went weirdly well with the blue, though it could have used some black wisps as crevassed outlines. Not straight to black, though. It needed to be diluted into gray to fade in from the brown.
Chloe had a strange look on her face all of a sudden. “Oh my god, you’re right.”
Shit. Did I really think that out loud?
“Very funny. It surprises me none that you don’t tend to be aware of what’s going on in your own head in present time, Damien.”
Can it, daisies. We aren’t pals just yet.
Chloe smirked. “...‘Yet’?”
Can it, daisies. We’re not pals.
She squeaked with laughter. “You can’t just resubmit thoughts and expect the first ones to be… negated. I’m not the Internet!” Something small vibrated in her pocket. She pulled out her flip phone and hit the green button.
God, are you serious? What year are you living in?
Chloe mouthed, ‘Shut up,’ and held the phone to her ear. “Hey, Sam!”
Damien wasn’t sure if it was his top-notch hearing, or she just had a really shitty phone, but he could hear every word.
Sam sounded… tired? Not that he cared--just an observation. “Hey, Chlo. Um… Things are good now. I’m sorry for… Thank you for taking care of Mister.”
“It’s no trouble, Sam. He’s been great company. Are you feeling okay?”
“No? Yes? Completely? Not at all? I don’t know.”
“Deep breaths. What’s going on?”
“Mark and I just came back from a trip. A time trip.”
“No, no, I mean yes! Yeah, but… it wasn’t bad. There were some, like, bad parts to it, but I’m… fine? Ish? We got a lot sorted out.”
“Where is he?” asked Chloe, rinsing her small blue-caked brush in a cup of water.
“Home. I’m at the store, getting some things for Mister. Figured he deserved it after I sort of just left him. I feel so bad. God. What if he hates me now?”
You’d better feel bad.
“He’s not going to hate you, Sam. He’s a dog.”
You did not just say that.
Sam let out an enormous sigh. “Okay. I know it might be a lot to ask, and I understand if you can’t or won’t or don’t want to--!”
“Just tell me.”
“Could you just drop him off at my house? I know you’ve been looking after him for days, and I’m sorry that this is just another thing you have to do, but--!”
“Can I meet you halfway and give him back at whatever store you’re at?”
“Is this about the Mark thing? Because--!”
“No. I just assume you’re at the place I’m thinking of, which is closer, and I need to get back home in time to make dinner.”
“Okay, okay! Yeah. Fredrick’s?”
A small laugh from Chloe. “Where else?”
“Okay. Thank you so much for th--!”
“It really isn’t a bother to me. I’ll take him right now, then.”
She hung up and, ever-so-slowly, turned to look at Damien. “You’d better pretend that you’re so excited to see her you could pee, or I swear, I’ll tell her who you are the second we walk inside.”
EDIT: OH MY GOD. I AM AN IDIOT.
Dogs can't see the color red.
Okay, you know what? I fixed it.
But god, I'm pissed at myself, lmaooo.
Chapter 7: First on the Fourth
Putting on the act in the store was easy enough. All he really had to do was let the new feral parts of him take the lead and allow himself to go on autopilot. He could feel Chloe smiling at him when they turned to part ways.
It was weird to experience Sam like this. All happy to see him. Like his existence alone made her forget about her problems.
The ride home wasn’t bad, either. Buses had these weird smells he wasn’t used to, but to his surprise, not all of them viciously assaulted his nose. He had a hard time sitting perfectly still thanks to the occasional pothole, though.
She had this habit of gripping his fur tightly and twisting the tendrils between her fingers, like she was looking. Looking for parasitic dirt underneath the soft grass.
Or maybe she was just nervous.
He felt the compulsive urge to rest his head on her knee. He knew better than to actually do it, but then he already was, and she was trailing a finger down his forehead and to the tip of his snout.
God. ‘Snout.’ What an ugly word for something people thought was so cute.
But being scratched behind the ears numbed everything, and he just didn’t want to care anymore.
When they exited the bus (leash twirled around Sam’s arm, of course) and walked a couple blocks, Damien could barely make out a soft-looking blur rocking in the porch swing.
It would have been fine if Mark had been alone, but a small brown lump was curled up in his lap, and Damien adamantly walked backwards, allowing himself to snarl.
Darwin let out a little huff and defensively clung to Mark’s shirt. Mark in turn held him tightly and tenderly shushed him.
Damien was almost impressed that Sam was able to drag him up the steps to the front door without anyone losing an eye. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me, was all that rang in his mind when the door was unlocked and he sped up the stairs, in case that tiny gremlin decided to follow him.
He bolted into the first room he remembered--the bedroom, where a fluffy, brand-new dog bed was sitting in the corner. Thank god. He wasn’t sure what logic pulsed in his subconscious made him think this, but maybe, just maybe, the cat would leave him alone if he was ‘sleeping.’
He hadn’t slept on the one Chloe had for any night he had stayed there. Not only because it was humiliating, but he also had no idea how anyone could sleep in such a little patch of space. But his mind wasn’t making any sense now--presumably out of fear--so he pulled himself into the smallest ball he could manage and closed his eyes.
He woke up with his head on Mark’s thigh. When he looked up, the man was asleep. He didn’t dare move.
It was dark when he stood again. At first, he thought there was some weird invisible nightlight in the room, and then he realized that this was just how he could see now.
Had it been for any other reason, Damien would think that this was fucking awesome.
But no. No, it was not, in fact, fucking awesome.
He had to find Mark.
The second he heard what would have only been the fridge rustling from downstairs, he knew.
Oh. Fuck. He had to walk downstairs.
Hadn’t he done it before? Walking up stairs was fine, as long as he didn’t actively think about it, but down them was a different story.
Okay. Four legs. No big deal.
Why had Chloe let him back here, anyway? Wasn’t she supposed to hold him hostage or whatever until she could ‘determine’ if he was ‘safe’?
Oh yeah. Blackmail. That was a thing. Of course Sam would give Chloe a call if he did anything to her.
Okay. Back to the stairs. Fun.
He was going to die.
Were his thoughts getting repetitive? He couldn’t be this panicked. Jesus, they were just stairs.
He put one paw--foot on the first step. Nothing bad yet. Second on the first. First on the second. Second on the--no! Third on the first. Second on the second. Fourth on the first.
God, he hated this. But he was on them.
Now to just continue the pattern at least seven times.
He could do this. He was Damien, goddamnit. He’d done harder things.
There was a vacant empty space between each step, though. If he missed, a foot would fall right through, and if it bent the wrong way...
How fragile were dog bones, anyway?
First on the third. Third--no, fourth on the second. Second on the third. Third on the second.
First on the fourth-
Fuck! He jumped, startled, and slipped, stumbling across every single step until he hit the bottom.
“Sam?” Mark yelled from ground level, panic in his voice.
“It’s just me,” grumbled Damien, forgetting not to speak. Not the love of your life or anything. Don’t worry.
Mark rushed to where Damien was and stopped in the doorway that lead to the stairs, light pouring through around him, giving him an angelic glow. “Mister?” he whispered. “Oh, god, are you okay?”
Fine, he internally snapped, feeling pain ricochet through his body. Please don’t let anything be broken, please…
“Here, come here, boy…” He was wearing a robe that looked dark blue but was probably a light purple, according to what Chloe showed him. Mark gently patted around Damien’s form. “Does anything hurt?”
If it did, I couldn’t tell you, you fucking moron. Damien stayed silent, knowing that if he made any noise, Mark would think it’s from some kind of injury.
“Can I pick you up?”
Impossible. There was no way Mark Bryant could be such a nice person that he asked animals permission before picking them up.
Mark scooped Damien in his arms and carried him to the living room, setting him on the couch and turning on the TV, and picked up a bowl of ice cream from the coffee table, plopping down on the other half.
Damien must have been giving him a look, because Mark swallowed another spoonful and motioned him to come closer, tapping his thigh.
If only things were this easy before.
The smell of alcohol tested his tolerance again. Gross.
He was positive it wasn’t Mark’s natural scent. He didn’t smell like that in the pet store.
But he did now. It wouldn’t have mattered if it didn’t bother Damien’s nose so much.
He chose to ignore it and zeroed in on the ice cream.
“Hey, no! That’s mine!” Mark scolded. “You’re not supposed to have this. It’s bad for you.”
Mark raised the bowl above his head. “No! Stop it. Bad dog. No.”
‘Bad dog’? The words stung him. Why? He very clearly was not a good dog. What else could he be?
Strawberry. Not his favorite, but god. Human food. He needed it.
He felt his desires overtake him--as they typically did--and he pawed Mark’s shoulders to reach higher.
“Hey!” Mark began to laugh, stretching his arms to hold the bowl higher. “Stop it! Fuckin--Mister!”
Damien reached to taste it, his tongue just about to touch inside the bowl…
...And instead, he licked Mark’s face by accident.
Mark just chortled and scratched the neck of a mortified Damien.
He was never making that mistake again.
Chapter 8: Pudding Cups and Lunchables
Damien began to notice something after a while, especially when he was around Mark or Sam.
He didn’t have to “act like” a person. Social rules and etiquette didn’t apply. He could be the sloppiest motherfucker on the planet, and no one would give a damn--well, except maybe Sam, but that was just because she felt the most compelled to clean up whatever mess he made.
He started out by testing little things. He let his jaw hang open when he chewed--which, he found, was much more comfortable than what he was doing before, and now he understood why other dogs did the same thing. It felt natural, and the roof of his mouth didn’t feel so scraped-against. No one said a word.
He made loud, stupid noises. Randomly. For no reason. Mark thought it was so annoying, and would occasionally say, “Oh my god, stop! There is literally nothing happening right now,” but aside from that, he never gave a look of disapproval or showed a lick of embarrassment for the way Damien acted.
He’d break things when no one was around. Tear into the furniture, knock over the trash. He’d be scolded, sure, but it was different than being yelled at as a human. Their voices were soft and well-meaning, and they’d even just laugh sometimes. It was like he could do no wrong.
Which was fucking awesome .
His walks became more frequent, and with Mark and Sam spending time in their precious lala land together, Damien could roam a little more freely, especially since they had gotten him the handy new retractable bungee leash.
They showered him with gifts whenever they felt like it. Ones that squeaked, rattled, and moved on their own. Some were pointy and gave him something to gnaw on when he was nervous. They were all that entertained him sometimes, dumb as it sounded.
Mark played with him the most, especially when Sam was at Doctor B’s place pretending to save the world or whatever. He clearly took pride in being able to look after Damien--maybe because the guy had nothing better to do, but it didn’t matter if Damien had all the control. Control over what he was doing, who he was focused on.
Weirdly enough, being a dog almost felt like he had his ability back at times. It was like the world opened up for him again. Strangers were overtly nice just because, people did things for him at random. Sure, it was more of a gamble than anything else--a lot of the time, he’d be given things he didn’t specifically want or care for, and he couldn’t tell anyone no because he didn’t have the proper voice to, but it was… something. It was something.
An experience Damien knew he’d never forget was when Doctor B saw him like that for the first time.
It was raining outside. One o’clock. Kind of warm despite the drizzle. Well, it wasn’t drizzling--it was more like pouring but in spurts. 15-minute intervals between empty warm wind and thunder-worthy downpour. Or, at least, it felt like 15 minutes.
Mark was in the dumps--it didn’t take a scientist or an empath to know that. He managed to smile every time he looked Damien’s way, even if just a sad one, but something was bothering him. The liquor was resting stilly on the living room table as he bounced a small, squeaky, red rubber ball repeatedly on the matted carpet.
Damien just liked to watch it sometimes, to hype himself up. He remembered himself thinking that, months ago, there was no way in hell he would be doing this. He should have been dead. Put down, let back out on the street, something. This was a chance he could take to Vegas and become a millionaire if he could ever be bothered. So yeah. It was the simple things that excited him most. Because they weren’t simple. It was chance after chance stacked up on top of one another, something built out of glass, out of porcelain. All it would take was one poke at the top, and the illusion would crumble to the shattered pieces that had both killed his oldest life and replaced his broken parts.
It was the simple things.
The sound of dinky metal being jammed and wiggled into a larger chunk of metal suddenly caught Damien’s attention, and his ears perked up. Sam was coming in through the front door, like always.
Mark grabbed the bottle and set it between the corner of the couch and the wall, then frantically sprayed as many squirts of Febreeze as he could before the door opened.
But Sam wasn’t the case this time. A different smell invaded Damien’s muzzle, and he bared his teeth. It was so familiar that he knew who it was before she so much as revealed a hand from around the other side. A faint whiff of orchids. Gingerbread, too. But not from an actual cookie, but more from a candle. Worn linen. (Was that even a smell? Damien didn’t have an answer to that, but whatever the third thing was, that was what first popped up in his mind.)
“Mister, it’s okay.” Mark gently scratched behind his ears and patted down his stiff fur standing on end. “It’s just my sister.”
“Hey, Joanie!” Ugh. “What are you doing here?”
“Sam’s working late at the office, and wanted me to check in.”
“She couldn’t just call?”
“That’s what I said.” Doctor B shut the door behind her with her hip and set an assortment of grocery bags down on the table before walking back to where she entered from and lifted her legs one by one, easing out of her heels. “But… she seemed very focused on what she was doing that it didn’t seem like the best time to interrupt. I can’t say that I haven’t found her recent development in work ethic to be anything short of admirable.”
“I don’t think that’s recent,” said Mark, grinning to himself. God, could he go five minutes without swooning over her? She wasn’t even around.
“How have you two been doing?”
“I never mean to pry. You know that. I could have been the one to call you, too, but I… Well, I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.” Mark itched the back of his neck. “Things have been hectic around here, and I… haven’t exactly been making time to see you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Mark. You never have to apologize for having a life.” Her eyes locked with Damien’s. “Oh. Is that the ‘new member of the family’ Sam mentioned?”
“Yep!” He began playing with Damien’s collar absentmindedly. “This is Mister.”
“He looks… sweet,” she said with a tight-lipped upturn of her mouth. Good. Then she knew just how much Damien was prepared to bite her face off at any given moment. “I’m sure he’s been giving you company.”
“You know it. Just me and him half the time. Darwin still needs to adjust, I think.”
Her wry smile turned genuine. “Of course. Is there anything else I can get you? There are some snacks in these bags I know you’ve been wanting--”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Already too late, little brother. Chocolate pudding cups and Lunchables galore.”
“Joanie, I’m 30.”
“29, if I’m not mistaken. And I know you’re going to tear into them the second I leave.”
“Wouldn’t count on it.”
“I absolutely would. Might help with the hangover.”
Mark froze, refusing to look her in the eye. Dead silence for an amount of time Damien didn’t bother to count.
“You can’t hide from this by pretending I’m not here, Mark.”
“It’s my life…” he trailed off before clearing his throat. “It’s my life, Joanie.”
“Sam doesn’t know, does she?”
“It’s my life ,” he pressed, this time in a tone that almost made Damien want to back slowly into a corner.
Doctor B closed her eyes and seemed to be mentally counting to ten, releasing her breath eventually. “Right, well… I should get back to work, then. You know to call me if you need anything.”
Good riddance , thought Damien when she finally had her shoes back on and had shuffled out the door, locking it behind her.
“Fuck.” Mark rested his head back against the nearest couch cushion, reaching for the bottle. His mood had officially dampened beyond repair for the rest of the day.
Hey, come on, she’s gone now , he wanted to say. Fuck what she thinks. I’m still here.
He didn’t remember it because of Doctor B’s reaction to him. He remembered because every time Sam was in the same room as the Bryants, that tension didn’t exist. It was like they were all puppets in a one-act. It was like everything else was just a bad dream. Doctor B had been over at the house countless times by now. Only when Mark was alone did she seem… colder. Had it always been like this between them? If Damien had to guess, probably. It was so like Doctor B to take her own brother for granted. Her own brother who just so happened to be Mark Bryant.
He noticed that the only memories that really stuck out to him now were the ones filled with tension. Sam and Mark had spats here and there, but it all felt like a big smudge to him now, like pages of a book that had been rained on so intensely that you could only make out a third of the words in it, that you figure there’s no point in reading anymore.
His memories of having his ability felt even further away than they did before. When he’d had his own apartment, his own home, without needing to physically pay for it, everything was relative. Time didn’t matter. He could wake up at 4pm on a Tuesday, and no one cared. There was no one to check in on him, to threaten his job termination if he slacked off--which, yes, was an infinitely rude awakening when he had finally managed to get one.
God, Starbucks. Fuck Starbucks.
He felt… weirdly useful, though, when he had a job. Like he was doing something important. Even if it was for people he would rather see drop dead on the street than scream at him for seven pumps of raspberry instead of three. (Who the fuck gets seven pumps of raspberry?)
But he was actively cared about, now, and they meant it.
Mark was gone tonight. He hadn’t told Damien where he was going, which meant he was either so ashamed of it that he couldn’t say it out loud, or Sam had installed a thousand recording devices in the house while Damien slept.
It had to have been the bar.
Either way, Damien didn’t have the widest range of options when it came to entertaining himself when he was alone. Sure, he had all the toys, but they really only interested him if they provided a challenge, which they didn’t if there were no quick, human hands in charge of their movement.
The boredom was the worst, even if he didn’t experience it often. No wonder dogs have a history of running away , he thought. I’d sooner… His thoughts hit a wall. Because no, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t sooner leave and get himself lost again, only to be captured and put into another shitty cage. And the waiting, god. The waiting. At least in his boredom, he was free to run around in circles until he felt sick.
That was the worst part, he’d decided. The worst part of being a dog was the lack of freedom. You had to ask to go anywhere, and you had to play a game of charades just to get your point across every single time. It was like being a toddler that didn’t age.
A toddler that didn’t age…
That thought made his skin crawl. Would he be like this forever? The cues would get easier--they’d see patterns more quickly with time, and they already did, so conveying an important message to Mark or Sam wasn’t impossible. But doing this for the rest of his life?
What would be the alternative? Him getting caught? How would that even happen? Who could…?
Knock, knock, knock. Brrrring.
Probably just the delivery boy.
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
A very persistent delivery boy.
“Sam?” a muffled voice called from outside.
God fucking damn it!
Damien padded his way downstairs--his technique pretty much mastered by now--and sat in front of the door. Just who he thought. No one’s home, sunshine. Come back tomorrow, or in a month, or something.
“Is everything alright?”
Yeah, I’m fine. What do you care?
I can’t open the door. Kind of why I’m stuck here 24/7.
He’s out. Away. It doesn’t matter.
“Wait… what do you…? Damien, we need to talk. Right now. Is there a spare key somewhere?”
Under the potted plant--nowhere.
“Remember what I said last time about how you can’t override thoughts and pretend they aren’t there? I’m coming in.”
This has got to be breaking some trespassing law.
Chloe rolled her eyes, key-to-lock. “Says the lifetime convict.”
Why are you even here? If you didn’t know Mark was absent, you shouldn’t have come if you want to keep my secret. He’s a mimic, remember?
She gently closed the door behind her and knelt down to him. “I… knew he wasn’t around. Frank saw him at Bentley’s. I just wanted to see if you’d try to lie about it first.”
Sneaky. Tsk-tsk. I keep forgetting you aren’t as innocent as you appear. Very deceiving for your looks.
“Why haven’t you done anything?”
I knew he was at a bar… What?
“To alert Sam that her alcoholic boyfriend is in the middle of a relapse. You have the cognition to understand what’s going on, right? You’ve lived here for a few months now, and you just sit around and let this happen?”
It’s not my job to babysit.
“That’s exactly what your job is. I don’t think you get what’s happening. I let you stay here in my best friend’s home knowing she’d be angry and maybe even hate me for not letting her know that one of her least favorite people in the world is couchsurfing right under her nose because I trusted you would be the one to help out in ways that very few other middle-men can. And you not only haven’t been doing that, but you’ve been actively letting Mark indulge in the very thing that almost destroyed him when he first left the AM a year ago.”
I didn’t… He wasn’t… It wasn’t like… I just… What?
Chloe clenched her jaw and swallowed hard. “You really haven’t been taking notice, have you? You’ve just been frolicking around in your own little world to escape your problems while everyone else deals with them like fucking adults?”
He had never heard her swear on that level before. It was… sobering. You know, I’m not sure if this has dawned on you, yet, but my brain has been changed to the point of me barely remembering life before this point, so if you could bother to sympathize even a little bit--!
“Wow, seriously? Your first instinct is to make it about you and act like you’re the one suffering? Can you ever admit when you’re wrong?”
You know nothing of what I’ve been through in the past--!
“I know what you’ve been through in almost every part of your life. You think about bad memories a lot, you know. A lot more than the average person. It’s like you live in this cloud of self-pity.”
Bad memories hurt less than the good ones.
“Is that why you hope you go full-dog? So you don’t have to think or take responsibility anymore?”
“I’ll explain later. But for now, you need to tell me everything you know about Mark’s drinking habits. He needs help. Real, professional help.”