Aimee Bender

The Neighborhood

The barking does not stop even though neighbors have been throwing dog bones out their upstairs windows for awhile now. Everyone is afraid to leave their house and go see. It is a ragged bark and the word rabies has come up in over ten kitchens in the last hour, people looking it up in their never-before-used encyclopedias, searching down the page, index finger skating over the gloss, finding the words froth and lather, shivering with fear, closing the book on the finger, looking out the window.

Dogs can break through windows. Dogs don't care about alarms. If this dog wants, he can bite his way into any skin, make lather rise like a car wash.

The truth is, outside the dog is barking because a kid has fallen down on his roller skates and knocked himself out, face down flat; there is no blood but no movement either. The parents of this kid, Eddie, are away, they are out to dinner for their fifth anniversary, (silverware), and the kid is supposed to be with his friend rollerskating but the friend likes to skate ahead and never look behind, the friend likes the movement forward alone, he likes the wind in his face so hard it forces water from his eyes; his friend never notices until later when he reaches a front door that Eddie is not there and even then he assumes Eddie is just very slow. When the friend's mom says: where's Eddie? the friend says, back there, Eddie is slow, and the mom stands looking on her front porch, searching for the figure of a second dogged skater but all she hears is the damn dog barking and she's never liked dogs, it's a childhood thing, it was a next door mean pinscher that had snapped once at her outstretched hand—no contact, just intent.

She sees no sign of Eddie yet and goes back inside.

After twenty empty minutes she says we have to go find Eddie, get in the car.

The friend, her son, says no because he is now busy building a tower.

The mother, deciding a child alone indoors is better off than a child alone outdoors, leaves the house.

She has bad eyesight and driving at night is difficult. She strains to see his moving skating body, stepping in clumps over the sidewalk.

The dog's barking gets louder and she grips the wheel and when she reaches Eddie, still flattened and alone, she can't see much, just flashes of the dog's teeth and the dog runs up to her car window and barks more, and she sees triangles of canine white and she would've missed Eddie completely if not for the silvery glint of the wheel on his skate catching her headlights like a diamond.

She feels her lungs grow smaller and meaner and the air swimming around for a place to spread out.

What to do? If she gets out and scoops him up, she might be eaten by the dog. The dog, perhaps, has rabies. But what choice is there really? The boy could be dead.

She puts the car in park and opens the door, the barking is louder and cleaner outside, and dog biscuits are hitting the ground like tiny food drops in wartime and she extends one foot and waits for the bite but the dog just keeps sending sound out. She puts out her other leg and goes over to Eddie who is stirring and she kneels down next to him and screams out, into the evening, call 911. A man in a house, watching out his bright yellow kitchen window, dials it up right away and says to the phone Come fast, Hurry, There's a screaming woman and a rabid dog.

The police arrive in five minutes and she, the mother, is still sitting next to Eddie, not touching him because you never know about the spinal cord and the two police hold out their guns and say: Lady it's a rabid dog, it has no collar, move out of there and she says: Officer, this boy is hurt we need an ambulance! The other cop, the partner cop, he calls up on the cop car phone and the first officer looks at the dog which now has stopped barking because it knows something about guns and all the neighbors are silhouettes in their windows, carved shadows inside safe boxes of light.

I don't think it's rabid, says the mother. But the boy isn't moving.

The officer steps carefully forward, one tentative boot. I don't think you can be too sure, he says, rabies is rabies, and he points his gun barrel and gets ready to shoot but the dog does a cute thing, it puts its head down on its paws and does a little puzzled eyebrow move and the cop lowers his arm.

It can't have real rabies can it? he says as the ambulance pulls up and the stretcher comes out and Eddie is lifted up and taken away. The mother pauses for a moment and then gets in her car, following close on the tail of the ambulance, and the policeman starts petting the dog.

It looks like my old dog, he says. His name was Sam.

His partner leans against the car, smoking.

Come on, he says, let's go.

The cop picks up the dog whose tail is spanking the pavement and puts it in the backseat. We can't leave it, he says. This dog saved that boy's life. Probably.

They rev up and the cop car follows the mother, following the ambulance. They put on the siren, but a lot of cars refuse to move to the right, deaf cars, the ones that say: siren? what siren? The cars that say: no one I know has ever been hurt before.

At home, the rollerskater who is unhurt makes a building up to the ceiling out of blocks. It is as tall as he is, and it threatens to fall. He stands beneath it and imagines himself in the highest floor, face to face with the giant outside. He waves to his little self inside and the phone rings loud and it's his mother, and she says, into his cheek, Honey are you okay? Honey are you okay? and he says yeah Mom, where is Eddie? Now that kid is slow and she starts crying and he says I'm okay Mom and she says don't touch anything dangerous honey and lock the door and just sit tight, I'll be back soon.

He says Mom what's going on? and she says: Just don't touch anything dangerous, honey, okay?

And he says: like what Mom? like what? and she's quiet and then says Everything baby everything, just sit still and wait for me, just sit still and don't you move.

When he hangs up the phone, he sits beneath his building.

He imagines all the little people in his building. It's on fire. It's a big scare. They jump from the top story, one at a time. Wheee. He saves them in his puffy palm, and brings them safely to the carpet. They huddle in groups of two and three. When they're all out, he stomps the building down.

When his mother gets home, hurrying up the stairs, her face older than it was three hours before, she finds him asleep in a pile of colorful blocks, his mouth open, his breathing making a small noise. She takes the blocks and makes a wall around him, tracing the exact shape of his sleeping body. She makes sure each block touches the other one perfectly right. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, her asleep on her arm on the floor next to him, his whole body is framed in blocks, and his stomach seizes up in a fear which he does not understand. He shoves down all the blocks and kicks them into the closet but they stick, invisible. Even though he never plays with them again, they are now fixed to his body for years.

Aimee Bender is the author of 2 books, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt which was a NY Times Notable Book of 1998, and An Invisible Sign of My Own, an L.A. Times Pick for 2000. She's had short fiction published in Harper's, GQ, Granta, Paris Review, and is currently in Mcsweeney's. She lives in L.A. and teaches at U.S.C. Visit Aimee Bender's website