One day after pizza-for-dinner, Dad decided to teach me how to make shadow puppets. We stood by the desk in his office, a big beast of a thing with sharp-corner shoulders hunched down to hold a computer and its screen.
The overhead light flicked off. My whole body went cold.
“Imagine a dog,” Dad said. “Imagine its profile against a blazing sun.”
“I don’t want to,” I said. “I can’t.” Did it have a broad face like the neighbor’s bulldog or a long snout like the German Shepherd down the street? Did its ears point up, or flop down? More importantly, did it bark and snarl like my parents used to before Mom went away?
Dad loomed over me, dark on dark, hungry to chomp down. The image of Mom’s suitcases standing by the door came to me, the loneliness of them, the way they kept everything locked up inside.
A quiet screech sounded, a click. The desk lamp came on, and the shadow of my face splashed onto the wall. The angles were wrong, my forehead stretched, my chin compressed. I rotated my head, stood onto my tip-toes, reshaping what I was until the shadow trued.
“Pay attention,” Dad said. He cupped one hand into the light and propped the other behind it, two fingers extended. A dog’s face appeared, a glowing eye, a slit for a mouth. I opened my real mouth, and the light rushed in. I gulped. A shiver shook my shoulders.
“Try it,” Dad said. His teeth glinted. I held my hands in rough imitation. A smaller dog appeared on the wall, a mutt with crooked ears and deformed jaw.
“There you go,” he said. “See how easy that is?”
“Make it bark,” Dad said. He opened and closed his fingers. A growl sounded deep in his throat. It scared me. My dog dissolved into hands.
“Dammit,” Dad said. He twisted me by the shoulders. “Why is everyone so goddamned timid?”
I wanted to tell him, but that would only make it worse.
“Again,” he said. He pushed my hands together in the light. I scissored my fingers and the little dog opened wide. I thought of Mom staring from her dinner plate. Her eyes were shadows in an inflexible face.
“Let’s play,” Dad said. The larger dog darted in and out, jaws snapping. I tried to keep up, but his dog was bigger, faster, better formed. I thought of real dogs fighting, the noise of it rising up and up inside my ears, a shout, screams, the sound of something smashed.
Dad’s dog lunged. Its jaws closed. A whimper pressed up from my stomach. Get it over with, ISts thought. Just get it over with and kill me like you killed Mom. Mom wasn’t really killed — I understood that in my head — but I didn’t think she would return from the place Dad drove her. I pushed his hip with all my might.
He shoved back. I stumbled into the corner and went down. One wall pressed my shoulder, the other grated my arm. All I could see was Dad’s open hand in the beam from the lamp. I watched his expressionless face, part shadow, part light. His fingers curled into his palm.
“I’m sorry,” I said. The words were hard edges in my throat. I barely got them out.
“Yes,” he said. “You are.” He moved out of the light. A snick drew my attention to the exit. “I should’ve sent you with her.” His silhouette appeared against brightness and extinguished as the door swung closed.
I squeezed my hands into fists, but could not see them. Somewhere a dog was barking — yap yap yap yap yap yap yap. I joined in — “Yap, yap, yap!” — my voice swelling until it filled the room.
Stephen V. Ramey’s work has appeared in a variety of places. He also edits the Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and trapeze, a twitter zine. He lives in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river. His collection of very short fiction, Glass Animals, is available from Pure Slush Books via Lulu.com and Amazon.