That winter day my brother and I stomped through the snow for sandwiches was notable for several reasons, but for me it’s when I started to look over my shoulder, a tic I carried with me throughout my life. At home, in the grocery store, at a museum—I’m always expecting a blow from the back.
It was a cold day. My face froze every five seconds, and when I spoke I was afraid my skin would split. So I kept my face in constant motion and scrunched my cheeks in a ghoulish pantomime.
“Are you okay?” Gene asked. “You look like you’re having a fit.”
“What’s a ‘fit’?”
We stopped at a corner and waited for a taxi to pass. Gene grabbed my shoulder, started to shove me in front of the aqua-and-orange-coloured cab, and then yanked me back. I almost tumbled over my feet into a curb-side stack of snow.
“You owe me,” he said. “I saved your life.”
Gene was fourteen. I was nine.
Gene and I were sent out into the cold together to fetch lunch, but even at that young age, I knew my inclusion was charitable. It was an effort to bolster my morale after a demoralizing loss in a recess “fight” at the hands of a thick-fingered tormentor who choked me into an asthma attack, all while Gene focused his attentions on a high-stakes handball game on the other side of the playground.
No matter my attachment to the task, Gene was in charge; he wrote down the orders and pocketed the money. I was just another element of the chore he needed to complete.
“Come on,” Gene said, “Keep up, goddammit.” He’d taken to swearing outside of the house at the time and settled on that particular blasphemy, I think, because it sounded less flashy than most profanity. More grown-up.
“Where are we going? Mr. Sub is—”
“We’re taking a shortcut.”
We hiked through unplowed back alleys behind the storefronts on Danforth. Coarse-grained cinder blocks and garbage bins vandalized with half-finished flying saucers gave it an air of lawlessness.
Once we kicked the snow off our boots at the entrance, Gene stepped up to the counter and gave three sandwich orders to the towering man in the ill-fitting red apron, politely confirming he wanted extra hot peppers on his own. I gave my own order.
“Pizza sub,” I said. “Lots of onions.”
I was thrilled at the idea of a pizza sandwich, which I’d heard about from another thuggish bully who raved about it after taking the banana from my lunch. It was a warm sandwich but that wasn’t the only peculiarity that snared my attention: the newness of the microwave intrigued me, along with the melted cheese and soggy bread it produced (a leading example from the banana thief’s recommendation).
Outside the shop, he cradled all four sandwiches in a brown paper bag and I could see mine sweating through a corner.
I worried Gene would pay more attention to his short-cut behind the buildings than our meals and the pizza sub would tear out of the wet corner of the bag. I stared so intently at the sandwiches, I didn’t see the two stray dogs circle us. I didn’t see them until they were ready to attack.
The moldy white dog growled at me. I felt my face draw tight in the polar air. The white dog barked and snapped at me. His teeth collided with a sound like the dull clack of severed piano keys. Gene grabbed my shoulder. The brown dog with the palsied front leg lunged.
Gene turned. He cradled the bag in his right arm and lifted it clear of the brown dog’s grasp. Gene held me tight and as he pivoted, I swung in front of him. I stumbled onto my right knee as the brown dog dropped from his lurch at the bag.
His breath smelled like rancid beef. His right incisor was broken and his left eye was clouded by a milky yolk.
The snow beneath my knee melted as soon as I hit the ground. As the icy water soaked through Gene’s hand-me-down jeans, my eyes caught sight of the tagged garbage bin and I realized the flying saucers were, in fact, disembodied penises.
The brown dog caught wind of my fear and reared back and I saw there were more broken teeth in his mouth. His snout was scraped bare in two places. A fresh pink gash started below his cloudy eye and streaked toward his clay-coloured nose.
I shielded my face with my arm and heard a jagged incisor saw through the sleeve of my nylon jacket. Gene wrenched me up by the shoulder and into his chest. The brown dog lunged again and bit into the wet corner of the bag. He pulled out my pizza sub and tore into the wax paper before it hit the ground.
Gene pushed me out of the alley. I looked over my shoulder and saw the brown dog. Steam curled over his broad head as he swallowed half the sandwich in two gulps.
We wobbled down the street in silence. I heard snaps and snarls as the two dogs fought over what remained of the food.
Between the missing sandwich and my torn jacket, we needed to draft some explanations.
“What are we going to tell Mom and Dad?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Gene said, his face riven by worry beyond his years. “I can’t be there for you every minute, you know!”
I expected Gene would work out the story we’d tell. For some reason, I assumed a tall tale was in order.
Gene rubbed his strong chin as he thought.
“Fucking pizza sub,” Gene hollered. “I bet they could smell it a mile away.”
Gene tried to wipe the tremble off his lips with the back of his hand. I wished he’d asked me what to tell our parents.
I’d say, You saved my life.
Jesse McLean writes and lives in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada.