It was the prairie dogs’s own stupid fault.
Can an animal kill itself?
Trevor was pretty sure this one just had.
Trevor could have been a hawk, or a dog off its leash, or even a car, and the prairie dog would be just as dead, and it would have been just as unintentional. Just as much a part of nature. This is how things go, and how they’ve always been going, with or without Trevor and his bike. In programming terms—which Belinda would be all over his case for bringing into yet another discussion, but this discussion was just in his head, so she didn’t have to know—in programming terms, Trevor would be a function, this prairie dog the variable that had plugged itself into that function, to get processed through.
The product, the result, the output?
Well, close to death.
Right now the prairie dog was flopping around beside the concrete path.
How Trevor knew he was a good citizen here was he’d pedaled all the way back uphill to witness this. Because watching a rodent spasm and kick and bleed from the mouth was his just punishment for having been coming down this hill at twenty minutes after two on a Thursday afternoon, to deliver Belinda the laptop he’d mostly fixed for her?
Never mind that the moments after the impact, Trevor had veered back and forth on the bike, fighting for control, one of his feet coming all the way off his pedals so that he probably looked like a cartoon character for all the people driving by on the road.
He’d straightened up, though, had braked without quite locking the rear tire, and had even managed to keep from careening off into the prairie dog town proper, and collapsing who knew how many tunnels and dens on his way to the fence down the hill.
What he deserved for that, he figured, was an award from the animal kingdom, a commendation from Mother Nature herself. What he deserved was a prairie dog dignitary coming up and ceremoniously bestowing upon Trevor some object his ancestors had found buried in the dirt generations ago, and then meticulously cleaned and kept in a holy place, for just such an occasion as this.
Trevor grinned, thinking of the prairie dog dignitary wearing a red sash with gold fringe. And a monocle, maybe. The kind with a chain hanging down like from a watch fob. Or do all monocles have that? No, not that kind that are up on a stick. Unless only those opera-glassy spectacles got sticks.
Either way, Trevor was the hero, here.
And, if he had been a car? Then he’d be miles past already, oblivious that he’d even run anything over.
So, it was only due to his trying to save the world one pedal at a time—Belinda was all the way against fossil fuels—that he was here now, leaning over his handlebars in the sun, watching a prairie dog hump and jerk and die.
If that was in fact what was going to happen, here.
It had taken Trevor, what? Forty-five seconds to regain control of his bike, stop, then grind back up here to where this had happened?
And now, now he’d been watching for probably a whole minute.
The prairie dog was still flopping.
Trevor huffed air out in appreciation for these mortal gymnastics going on beside the path, but there were no other bikers there to be impressed along with him. Just a lot of little brown heads poking up from the ground, their eyes black marbles, their noses twitching.
“Nothing to see here,” Trevor said to them. “Move along, move along.”
It would be over soon. It had to be.
How long could it take for a stupid prairie dog to stupid-die?
Couldn’t some other prairie dog scurry out here, finish this already?
But prairie dogs were probably herbivores, Trevor figured. Maybe the occasional bug, if it got in the way of a particularly tasty seed. A prairie dog would never think to apply its big rodent teeth to the neck of a fatally-crushed . . . brother or daughter or, or—townie, Trevor decided. That’s probably what prairie dogs called each other.
Unless of course this dying prairie dog had been sentenced to try this mad dash in front of this giant bicycle.
Why else would it have tried?
Why did the prairie dog cross the road?
“To kill itself,” Trevor mumbled.
Because—it had all those great animal senses, didn’t it? And it had grown up here, hadn’t it? It had come of age with bikes always whizzing through at high speeds. There were probably stories handed down since caveman prairie dog times, about how you crossed only when sound wasn’t approaching, never when it was approaching, right?
The same way prairie dogs had distinct alarm calls for hawks and dogs, they probably had something for cyclists. Maybe they even distinguished between road and mountain and commuter bike, for all Trevor knew.
All of which came down to: no way was this Trevor’s fault.
When he told Belinda about all this later, after he’d explained the new way her laptop was going to be working, he would recreate the scene for her. There’s him, pedal pedal pedal, her laptop strapped carefully into his messenger bag, his eyes intent on this delivery, as she needs this for work tomorrow. There’s the prairie dog, down in the blocks, as it were, front knees bent, back legs coiled, that little black-tipped tail twitching back and forth, eyes casing the concrete path, waiting for that whirring sound to come.
At which point it happens: the prairie dog surges forward in slow, dramatic motion—maybe it’s a thrill-seeker?—spins out a bit in the loose dirt but scrabbles deep with its claws, finds enough purchase to jump out onto the hot concrete, to stretch itself out to its complete length, minimizing the chances of this coming tire possibly missing it.
Had Trevor managed to avoid it somehow, then the result would have been a wreck, probably. Him and his bag and his bike parting ways mid-cartwheel.
And then what would Belinda have had for work tomorrow?
Motorists probably would have even pulled over to make sure he was all right.
All the prairie dogs would be in their safe little hidey holes by then, of course. None of them telling any secrets about what had really gone down in the overworld.
So, had running this one prairie dog over even been a choice, which it hadn’t been, then Trevor would have effectively had no choice. It was that prairie dogs’ life or it was Belinda’s slideshow presentation tomorrow.
Never mind any injury his own person might have incurred, of course.
He was the least important part of this equation.
And this prairie dog, it was still flopping back and forth.
Had it been three minutes, now?
This was verging on comedy. On the truly ridiculous.
Trevor looked up the hill for any other cyclist cresting, and then down the hill, for any bikes starting the long climb.
He was still alone. Because it was Thursday, and not lunch, not five o’clock. And hot.
He clocked the traffic on the road. Maybe eight cars in half a minute? Meaning sixteen per minute, at least in the lane by the path. Fifty in the time he’d been sitting here.
None of them were looking over at Trevor. If they gave him any thought, then at worst he was catching a call, and taking up some concrete to do it.
The cars were just there for a blip and gone, though. And no way, at their speed, could their drivers register a single dying prairie dog. Or where Trevor’s front tire might be in relation to that single dying prairie dog. The one they couldn’t see anyway. The one they would never know about, even if they slowed down and leaned over to see out the passenger side window.
Trevor shrugged his left shoulder about this, nodded to himself that it was the right decision, the only decision if you thought about it, and he walked his bike up to this flopping prairie dog.
He breathed in, held it, then gave his handlebars all the weight he had, rolled forward across the small body, pretty sure that that crunch that came up through the forks was ribs, splintering into small lungs.
It was for the best.
There was no way this prairie dog had been going to live.
A dark clotty red spurted from the—the face, Trevor would have had to have said, as he couldn’t tell mouth from eyes from ears from nose—and from the backside as well.
There was a kind of swallowed chirrup, too, from the prairie dog’s throat. Probably it had just been the result of the contents of its lungs whooshing all at once over the vocal cords, Trevor figured. Technically a last gasp, sure. But not a sad farewell to all the other prairie dogs watching, their ears cupped in the Trevor’s direction.
Maybe this had to happen periodically, right?
Trevor supposed it had to.
Not because for every fifty prairie dogs that come along, one or two are going to be suicidal, or unable to judge distance. Probably this kind of public violence, it had to happen to keep the rest of the prairie dogs on their toes.
The same with hawks or coyotes, right? You can have fear of them born into you, just coursing through as instinct, and you can listen to all the lore circulating around whatever passes for a campfire underground. Every now and again, though, a population needs an object lesson.
This was that lesson.
By crushing this prairie dog under wheel, Trevor was actually saving the lives of countless more, who would learn from this day.
Had he been thinking ahead, he would have gone to the costume store, rented some big fabulous wings, and maybe bought a rubber dog head to pull over his own, so as to drive three scares at home at the same time—bikes, birds, canines—but you can’t do everything for everyone.
At least he had now successfully put this particular prairie dog out of its self-imposed misery. And—Trevor leaned forward over the bars as he walked slowly backwards—he hadn’t even got anything wet on the tread of his tire.
This was a win-win, pretty much.
To say nothing of whatever lucky scavenger was going to find this feast in an hour or two. Surely the flies had already sent up the alert in whatever chemical or buzzy way they had, and were massing this direction to spawn their shiny white young.
“You’re welcome,” Trevor said to everything that was going to benefit from this.
The prairie dogs just stared at him from their holes.
The way Trevor had always imagined them, they each had small stepladders down there to stand on, that they folded up and tucked away whenever anyone came sniffing.
Such is the animal kingdom, Trevor figured. A whole species of rat standing in line at the hardware store, each with a new ladder tucked under its arm.
He hauled his bike around grandly, like a twelve-year-old making a statement about how fast he was about to go, and he had one foot hiked up on the pedal for the blast downhill when a flicker of motion to his left brought his head around.
It was that prairie dog. The dead one.
It had just shaken, or quivered, or trembled.
Death rattle? Was that a real thing or a movie thing?
Trevor stared the small body down, daring it to move again.
When it didn’t, he nodded—the world could make sense, if you gave it time—set his right foot on that same pedal, his hands fixed to both grips, and the exact instant he started to roll away, every inquisitive brown face jerked down into their holes all at once, together, as if every one of their stepladders had folded at the same instant.
Every face except for one.
“You too,” Trevor said, bouncing his front tire in a way he thought would surely be terrifying to a prairie dog, especially considering what that tire had just done.
The prairie dog didn’t flinch.
It wasn’t taking any note of Trevor at all.
What it was staring at, it was the dead prairie dog on the concrete path.
Trevor tracked along the sightline between this living prairie dog and the dead one, and finally he nodded, said, “Y’all were together, weren’t you?”
As in, mated for life.
As in, just go get one more cheekful of seedheads, okay? I’ll stay here and—Trevor didn’t know—do something around the den that needs doing.
But no seedheads were coming back, were there?
Worse, no significant other was coming back.
Even worse than that, if this prairie dog left behind, whom Trevor had already decided was female, if she stayed there watching like that, she was going to have to see her dead husband first coated in flies, then carried off in the jaws of some impossibly tall animal.
“Just go home,” Trevor said to her, bouncing his front tire again.
Her heart was breaking, after all. Your self-preservation instincts, they go away at moments like that, don’t they?
For an accidental moment—by rule, he wasn’t sentimental, wasn’t prone to romantic fits—Trevor looked ahead of him. Down the hill, along the path, two miles ahead. To Belinda.
No way was she standing on the porch right now, her hands grasping the top rails, her hair lifting slightly in the wind, her eyes set on all the specks on the horizon that might become her boyfriend.
But she was waiting for this laptop. Maybe even anxiously waiting. Walking across and across her apartment’s living room, then executing a neat flip-turn when there was no more carpet to wear down.
And that was kind of the same, wasn’t it?
For her intents and purposes, “laptop” and “Trevor” were a single object. The former was part and parcel of the latter. A single, rolling package.
Another way to look at it, Trevor had to allow, was that he was the wrapping, to be discarded once Belinda had the laptop in hand.
Could he have fixed it such that he wouldn’t be required to fiddle with it every few days?
He hadn’t even considered that.
Or, until he’d topped the hill he was now stranded on the downslope of, he hadn’t considered it. But, for a moment up there, that little bit of stillness you get right at the top—hadn’t he?
And then he’d been interrupted by a suicidal prairie dog. By a death-penalty prairie dog. By a cautionary-tale prairie dog.
One Little Miss Prairie Dog couldn’t seem to pull her black eyes from.
“He’s gone,” Trevor called across to her, then checked the path behind him, for who might have heard him consoling a stupid prairie dog who probably didn’t even register loss or feelings or regret.
All of which Trevor was feeling, as the moment continued swelling.
He’d lost time for this soft little speed bump. He regretted coming this way instead of the bike lane up on the road, which was actually more direct. He felt . . . what he felt, he supposed, it was some variation of impatience. Almost anger, even.
When he showed up late with the laptop, instead of getting rewarded for having salvaged it, he was going to get questioned about where he’d been. What had taken him so long. Didn’t he know her slideshow had to be prepped by morning?
No dead prairie dog was going to save him from that. Even if he scraped it up from the concrete, tied it to his rack, led a plume of flies all the way to Belinda’s door and had a line of car drivers lined up behind him, each ready to recount Trevor’s heroics as they’d witnessed them: it had either been the prairie dog or the laptop, ma’am. The rodent or your job. So your boyfriend here, yeah, he risked his limbs and probably his life—his soul too, if killing useless animals counted against you in any way—to make this very special delivery.
Trevor glared across at this prairie dog-in-mourning.
In for a little, in for it all, right?
He laid his bike over gently, then settled the messenger bag down across the frame.
The prairie dog never looked away from her dead husband or brother or father or whatever.
As far as she was concerned, the world had already exploded.
Anything else that happened, it would just be the last few features of the landscape, crumbling over. Still, when Trevor stiff-legged it over to her, he kept out of what he figured would be her peripheral vision.
At the last moment, when he was mid-air, leading with his open hand, his shadow darkening as he fell into it, she did at last turn to him, and—and it was less like she folded down into the hole. More like she was sucked down into it.
Trevor’s fingers were long and graspy, though. You don’t code for seventy-two-hours straight three or four times a month and not get those tendons loose, those muscles tight, those responses automatic.
He latched onto what felt like a hind leg, and snatched her out into the daylight.
The first thing she did was curl up, plant her rodent teeth into the meat around the ball of Trevor’s thumb.
The second thing she did was claw a furrow into his wrist with her other hind leg.
The third thing she did was emit some alarm call, like a strangled squeak.
It made Trevor wish once more he had those costume wings on. And that dog head.
He would have squawked back to her from his dog mouth, he was pretty sure. And then come in with the rubber teeth.
Her heart would surely have stopped.
Unlike now, when it was a machine gun pulsing against his palm.
Trevor’s left hand came around all on its own, had this prairie dog around the fleshy-but-firm middle from the back, so he could extract his other hand from those teeth and claws.
What he almost did was spike her down against the packed earth, to stun her. At which point he might go ahead and just step on her. Not fast, not a stomp, but slow, so she could feel it coming, so she could feel all her blood and internal organs being squeezed up from her middle to her top, to the prairie dog geyser she was about to erupt into.
But she’d bitten him.
That would be too nice.
Trevor stood awkwardly, held her up in victory for all the other prairie dogs to see.
They weren’t standing on their little stepladders watching him with their stupid innocent faces, but Trevor knew they were watching. Just, from the safety of their holes—with some crude periscope apparatus, probably.
Watch this, he said, inside.
He strode across the prairie dog town, his eyes set on his bike.
To . . . what?
He wasn’t sure yet.
Maybe four steps closer to the path, though, his left foot stabbed into a crumbly prairie dog hole, and the rest of him vaulted forward.
The prairie dog went flying.
She hit with a solid splat on the concrete, and rolled.
Trevor, quite aware he was falling and that there was nothing to be done about that, tracked her the whole way.
He brought his foot up from the hole almost in the same motion he’d stabbed it into the hole, and he shambled the rest of the way to the path, dove onto the scurrying prairie dog, first by her tiny hind foot, then, with his bleeding hand, around her middle again.
Something snapped wetly inside her.
She wasn’t biting anymore.
Her breath was strained.
Trevor drew her up to his face, said, “You were just going to mope around and die from sadness. This will be better.”
It was for her own good, what he had planned.
He was saving her from days or weeks of dealing with the loss of her—whatever that other prairie dog had been to her.
Kind to the bitter end, right?
Right, Trevor told himself.
Maybe even a hero, for trading in some piece of himself to keep this prairie dog from all the pain and mental anguish that would precede her death, a death surely eventuated by her not scurrying fast enough from this hole to that one, because she was weighed down by all this rodent sadness, this prairie dog malaise.
Better she go this way.
Better that Trevor was here, yes.
His first thought, the one that blipped up before he could police it, was to open Belinda’s laptop, crush this prairie dog between the keyboard and screen. But he’d just end up having to fix it all over again. The laptop.
His bike, it was already on its side.
“That’ll work,” he said to her.
The prairie dog’s small head, it nestled right into that V of space between the chain ring and the chain. On the upside, of course. The intake.
“I don’t really have time for this,” he said to her, and, with his other hand, pushed the pedal forward.
First the skin of her neck drew up under the greasy links, and then some muscle, some meat.
It wasn’t fast.
Chains, they’re already and always tight. There’s no room in there for the neck and shoulder and head of even a small rodent.
Finally Trevor had to sit on the ground, try to pedal with his actual foot.
The bike just slid forward.
“Well then,” he said, and stood the bike up again, stepped into the saddle, the prairie dog’s rump hanging there, brushing his ankle. Eyes straight forward, he pedaled ahead with all his weight.
Her head squelched off, fell onto the toe of his left shoe.
Trevor flicked it off.
The body was still connected by skin to the chain, though.
It rode back into the cogs and the hub and the rear shifter, was already there before Trevor could find the brakes.
He threw the bike onto its side, set a foot on the spokes and pulled at the body.
It came away easy.
He spun it as far as he could across the prairie dog town. Far enough that he didn’t even hear it land.
Now his hub, and all those little red teeth around it—when Trevor came out from Belinda’s, so she could finish her slideshow, his whole back wheel was going to be shiny with flies. He knew it.
He was starting to hate this day.
Try to do one nice thing, and the rest goes straight to hell.
The cars just kept sweeping past.
No other bikers crested the hill. None were climbing from the other way either.
Trevor narrowed his eyes into the distance, trying to backtrack through all the variables that had spit him out here, instead of already at Belinda’s.
It was the laptop, wasn’t it?
He couldn’t blame the prairie dogs, finally.
Prairie dogs are just stupid animals.
That one he’d just mercy-killed, even, he had probably been just dreaming that it had been in mourning. Probably it was the one that had been elected to watch the horizon for hawks or coyotes, or listen for bikes.
It didn’t matter.
One less prairie dog wasn’t going to fundamentally unbalance the world, was it?
Trevor chuckled, imagining an existence that fragile.
Which didn’t mean he didn’t sometimes peel back through pages of code to find one unclosed bracket that was keeping everything from iterating forward.
“One unclosed bracket,” he muttered, reeling his eyes in from the distance, focusing them again onto this field of holes.
This was conditional, what he was thinking. A big “if.”
But, say that prairie dog he’d just beheaded, what if it had been a female? Not necessarily the wife of the one he’d run over—run over twice, he guessed, ha—but just a female.
There had to be a fifty percent chance of that, right?
And—and, prairie dogs. They’re forever getting snatched up. By hawks. By dogs and coyotes. By cars. By ferrets let loose upon the unsuspecting world.
Everything wants a bite of prairie dog, doesn’t it? They’re nature’s bite-sized morsels. Their skin isn’t skins much as a pouch to hold all their tasty meat.
The only way to fight this, to keep the species happening, that would be for all the females in the town to always be having cycles and cycles of pups, right?
Meaning, if that had been a female he’d cut the head off of, then she surely had some pups down there, already snuffling around blind for their next feeding.
“It never ends,” Trevor said, and walked back out into the field. For the body he’d thrown.
No reason to go digging if it had been male, right?
He finally found the small body in the tall grass at the fence.
The ragged stump of a neck was already congealing black. There was grit and blades of dead grass sticking in it.
Trevor didn’t care. He spread the hind legs.
Female. Not that he was a prairie dog expert, but from what he could tell, she probably did have a litter down there. A litter starving now.
Trevor dropped the prairie dog, walked from hole to hole until he found the one his foot had stabbed down into, its lips all exploded out from his shoe pulling out.
From that one, he walked back, found the other hole, the one with raw gashes at the lip, from his arm reaching in.
Still no bikes coming up or down the path.
Had he ever been this alone out here? Where was the rest of the world?
It didn’t matter.
Using his heel, Trevor crashed the edges of the hole in.
It was easier than he’d figured it would be.
Then he had to get down on his knees, to tump the big dry clumps out.
Inside five minutes, he was down into the smelly parts of the den. Where the prairie dogs really lived, he guessed.
Then it was just a matter of lying on his side, reaching into this blackness and that blackness, keeping his lips tight so none of the dirt would stick to his teeth. Or, so no more of it would. Assuming that even was dirt. Please let it be dirt, Trevor prayed. Please please please.
Finally something back there nibbled at his fingertip.
No, not nibbled: suckled.
He withdrew his arm, widened the hole, reached deeper.
He came out with three pups in a single pull.
They were like . . . his first thought was novelty hacky sacks, maybe. Hacky sacks with stubby little legs. But they were also like pie dough rolled into gummy oblongs and left on the counter until a skin formed.
Mostly they looked like, yes, they were going to have been full-on prairie dogs someday.
If their stupid father hadn’t darted out into the path of certain death.
If their mother hadn’t pined for him for a few breaths too long.
They each had, though. Which meant that the other prairie dogs were just going to leave these pups to starve in the darkness, now.
It was better this way.
Trevor dropped them onto the packed dirt, spacing them out, then, breathing in like that could keep the small wet crunches from coming up through the soles of shoes, he stepped from pup to pup, giving each his full, slow weight.
They didn’t know to squeal any alarm cries. The second and third one, they maybe had a flash of recognition—a taste in the air, of the insides of one of them being suddenly on the outside—but Trevor didn’t think they had the cognitive gears to ride that smell into recognition, or anticipation.
When you’re that young, every new taste, each new smell, it’s just one more thing to catalogue, to taste, to make a world from. And then a brief coolness comes, a shade and a pressure, and a sound that, instead of coming at you through the air, comes up through your own soft bones.
And then nothing. Simple as that.
Trevor breathed out, looked around.
Nothing was watching him.
He nodded to himself that this was over, this was it, he was done with this little roadside non-attraction, thank you. He’d done all the good deeds that were in him to do for a single day.
It wasn’t going to get him any credit with Belinda, but—he’d heard this once, hadn’t he?—you don’t do a thing for recognition. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
As far as he was concerned, there had been exactly one single moment of decision: when he’d elected not to endanger Belinda’s mostly-repaired laptop. When he’d elected instead to let this suicidal prairie dog take its chances.
The moment the tread of his front tire rolled into the short wiry hair on the left side of that prairie dog, that was actually the moment that whole little prairie dog family had doomed itself.
Trevor had just been a function, here. Not a cause. Not the instigator. Just the one who’d had no choice but to follow through.
Really, the prairie dogs had been lucky it had been him here today, not some other commuter, one without the stomach or the nerve to follow through.
Anyone else riding by, they wouldn’t have gotten their hands dirty with all this, would they have?
No way they would have. Zero chance.
It had to be Trevor.
This time on his way through the prairie dog town, back to the path, he wove among the holes. Because he didn’t want to start anything else.
He was just shy of the path when a motion to his left flickered in his peripheral, exactly like a short stubby tail, saying something too fast for him to catch, and, he supposed, in a language he didn’t exactly know, too.
Trevor closed his eyes, promised himself that if this was that first prairie dog, if it had gasped another breath in, was pulling itself ahead on the one paw that could still reach—
He opened his eyes.
It wasn’t that dead prairie dog.
It was a living one.
Just watching him.
“What?” Trevor said.
The prairie dog just stared.
And it wasn’t alone, was it?
Trevor laughed to himself, looking from face to face, hole to hole. The whole town was up again, tracking him.
“You’re welcome,” Trevor said, affecting a little bow, and shuffled forward under the weight of all this adulation.
The prairie dogs all came down off their stepladders as one, were gone.
All except . . . how many was this?
Four. No, five.
“Tough guys, yeah?” Trevor said, then hopped up onto one foot, so he could see the bottom of his left shoe.
The tread was packed with infant prairie dog and bloodied dirt.
Still hopping, he held that sole out to these five tough guys.
They didn’t look at his shoe at all, but past it, at Trevor.
No, into Trevor.
“Screw this,” Trevor said, and stepped forward, planning to go right across the one of these five between him and the path.
At the last moment, though, he couldn’t, irrationally sure that the reason there was five prairie dogs, not four, not six, was that these weren’t animal heads, but faces painted onto the fingers of a giant hand, one he was standing in the palm of.
“Ha ha very funny,” he said, stepping along the path instead of onto it.
Of course there was another hole where he planned to gain the concrete again.
Of course another head popped up there.
Trevor looked back to the other five, but they were gone.
“Where’d all your friends—” he said, but swallowed it.
The other four were there again, spaced . . . not quite evenly around him. But definitely in an arc between him and the path. Him and his bike. Him and escape.
Which is to say: a guy who could fix a laptop over three consecutive nights, a guy who could walk across baby prairie dogs, each step bringing death, a guy who, for all intents and most purposes, was the real and true god of all these low things, he was scared of . . . what, exactly?
Being watched? By prairie dogs?
Belinda would love this part of the story, he knew.
Which was precisely why he wasn’t going to be sharing it.
Again, he looked up and down the path, for witnesses.
It was like he’d pedaled through some invisible aperture, into a side-world. No, it was like he was between places.
In this one, he was the only commuter out at two-thirty on a Thursday afternoon.
Maybe everyone who slammed down this hill, they rode though this same non-place, just, it looked exactly the same as the reality they knew, so they just rode right back out.
Except—except this time, this day, Trevor had stopped, hadn’t he?
For a stupid prairie dog.
“Screw this,” he said to this world, “I’m going home,” and found his muscles all tensing, for this step he was about to take across the one prairie dog between him and the concrete.
There was just a hole there now, though.
“That’s right,” Trevor said, liking the way it sounded coming out—like he was in a movie, like he was the star of that movie—and, swinging his foot across for the concrete, he leaned over maybe ten degrees, for a better angle down into the hole.
Just to see if that prairie dog was tucked away, waiting for him to be a safe enough distance away. Just to see the last foot of that stepladder he knew had to have just been there.
What he saw instead was . . . wetness?
A little pool down there?
No, not a pool. Pools don’t bulge up.
And this, it wouldn’t be water, either. It was too black.
Trevor leaned down, fully aware that there was no chance in hell of him sticking a hand down there to investigate. But he could look closer, anyway. He had one foot still on the concrete, firmly in and on the undeniably-real world. It’s not like anything could happen.
The wetness, then—this was the only possible word for it—it blinked.
Trevor sucked air in hard enough that his throat closed.
Now there was just that bulging black shine again.
But—but if that had been a blink. If it had, then the lid, the eyelid, it had been the color of the packed-down dirt, hadn’t it?
The color of prairie dog.
Trevor shook his head no, that this was too stupid. That of course he would see something like this, after having just done what he’d had to do.
To prove it, he gave that particular hole a wide berth, and walked along the path three steps, to the next hole. This one was farther out from the concrete.
Trevor put one foot down onto the dirt by the hole, gave it his weight like testing to be sure it would hold, and then he took the last step, the one that got him the angle he needed to look down into that blackness.
This time he caught one of them napping, it looked like.
Instead of a giant eyeball in this hole, there was that dry brown hair.
“Big boy,” Trevor said, about how this prairie dog spread out when lying down.
At which point that prairie dog flicked up, became another enormous eyelid.
In that huge deep marble of an eye, a pupil dilated, taking Trevor in.
He laughed. It was the only response that made any kind of sense whatsoever.
“So, so,” he said, still not believing this. “If you’re an eye”—this hole—“and you’re an eye”—the first hole—“then, then, then the mouth would either be . . . ”
Trevor turned to look behind him, to the path.
“It would either be under the concrete,” he said, like a dare, “or it would be—”
Trevor visually spaced the two “eye”-holes, then centered himself, stepped back grandly, planted both feet.
“—here,” he said.
And he chuckled. He was hoping someone would pedal past, now. Just so he could try to explain.
There’s this giant prairie dog under the ground, he would tell them, then jump once right where he was standing. Right here. Just lying face-up.
At first they probably wouldn’t smile, not sure how to take Trevor’s claim.
Then they would risk one corner of their mouth rising, in what could either be a smile or the first part of whatever excuse they were going to extricate themselves with.
Trevor would just shrug, let the awkwardness balloon around them both, like they were going to ride away in it.
He tried that exact shrug out—his left shoulder, like usual—and that was when the ground opened up beneath him, into a maw.
A prairie dog’s teeth are curled in, like most rodents’.
It’s so their prey—seeds, vegetable matter—can’t escape, can only be pulled in.
But some are hungrier than that.
Trevor went in feet first, the dirt clods around him already bubbling with his own blood.
“No, this isn’t—!” he screamed, but there was no one there to hear.
The earth he tried to dig into with his hands was falling in with him, and there were fast cracks running from hole to hole, from the pressure pushing up under this crust of earth.
Forty or fifty feet down the hill—not the path, but the packed-dirt slope leading to the fence—a long black claw speared up from a hole. The hind feet were gripping while the mouth pulled.
Trevor was gone almost instantly.
By the time the next bike sweeps past, the churned earth marking his passage is already starting to congeal in the sun.
Two days later, the rain comes softly, rounding off the hard edges of the upturned clods, and then the sun bakes it beyond suspicion.
Over the next couple of weeks, the bike lying now alongside the path loses first its canvas messenger bag, then its wheels and tires, and then one morning the frame is bent, from whatever kids had been walking past after dark.
On the third week a woman walks alone up the concrete path, and stops at the bent frame of this weathered bicycle.
Does she recognize it?
She does stop, lower herself to it. Run her hand along the frame, the forks. The grips on the handlebars, as if the palm of her hand can remember what her eyes can’t.
“Trev?” she says, because there’s no one close enough to hear.
No one human, anyway.
Standing up from one hole on the other side of the path, a new prairie dog is watching her.
Because just its upper body is aboveground, she can’t see its tail flicking back and forth, hesitantly, as if not wanting to believe this.
Because her ears aren’t tuned for the sound, she doesn’t hear the mewling whine in its throat.
She stands, looks behind her for anyone coming up the path. When no one is, she fingerwaves bye to this cute little doll of a creature, then turns uphill, for the rest of this path.
She looks back, of course.
Not because she’s particularly fond of rodents, but because this one seems intent in a way she wouldn’t have ascribed to a prairie dog. Like it’s trying to tell her something?
She finally shakes her head no, that whatever she’d been thinking, it was stupid, and right when she turns uphill again, the racing bike crests from the other direction, slams down towards her all at once, the rider’s head down because his legs are pumping, pumping, pumping.
The impact of helmet-on-face is brutal. It splits the afternoon in two, and releases pungent new smells into it.
Afterward, she lies there panting on the concrete, her breath hitching slower and slower, her blood pooling under her cheek, using a crack in the concrete as a channel.
The cyclist is rolling like an injured log through the prairie dog town, careless of the holes or the dusk caking into his sweat.
Slowly, taking care to fold his stepladder, the lone prairie dog withdraws, crawls back into the darkest, most remote part of its new den.
With its nose pressed tight into the corner, all it can smell for moments at a time is loamy wetness, cloying soil, damp decay.
It breathes deep, trying to fill its whole head with just that.
Originally published in Gamut, May 2017.