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Authors: Gary A. Braunbeck


BOOK: Keepers
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The Cedar Hills Series




Gary A. Braunbeck





San Francisco



Original Version Copyright © 2004 – Gary A. Braunbeck

Author’s Preferred version Copyright © 2015 by Gary A. Braunbeck


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


JournalStone books may be ordered through booksellers or by contacting:




The views expressed in this work are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.


ISBN:  978-1-942712-38-1  (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-942712-39-8  (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-942712-40-4  (hc)


Printed in the United States of America


JournalStone rev. date: July 17, 2015


Cover Design: Alerim –


Edited by:  Dr. Michael R. Collings












We lay aside

useless bones,

ribs of reptiles,

jawbones of cats,

the hip-bone of the storm,

the wish-bone of Fate.


To prop the growing head

of Man

we seek

a backbone

that will stay




—Miroslav Holub, “Bones”

(translated by George Theiner)






“...altogether I am now trying to recover like a man who has meant to commit suicide and, finding the water too cold, is trying to regain the bank.”

—Vincent van Gogh

Letter to Theo, Saint-Rémy, early September, 1889



Chapter 1

It Was Already Broke When I Got Here

“...Did you lick their hands when they were done?”



The dismal bitch lay on her side in the dry gray October twilight in my front yard, her black wrinkled teats lumped beside her like a cancer grown far too large and malformed for her body to hold inside. Her sides shivered as she labored to pull in air, and the sound of her breathing—wet, thick, ripped-raw painful—was like no other sound I’d ever heard before, nor one I would ever care to hear again. Her coat was patchy with mange, her eyes bloodshot and mad; when I came closer, they narrowed into slits and a low growl came from her throat. I could smell her from ten feet away, a ripe, sick, sweet-rotten smell. But beneath all of this was a moist kneading sound, soft but persistent; as I reached out toward her she jerked to the side and a flap of flesh held in place by the merest thread of tissue fell back: beneath it, maggots teemed in an open wound as too-bright blood seeped outward into her fur like the ever-expanding strands of a spider’s web, some of it dribbling onto the lawn and trickling toward my feet, forming rivulets in the grass.

I thought of the old man on the highway earlier, and it almost cut me in half.

“It’s okay, girl,” I said in what I hoped was a tender voice. “It’s okay, shhhh, there, there, just let me take a look so we can make it all better, okay?” I continued on like this for what seemed an hour but was probably less than a minute. Once I thought she might let me touch her long enough to see if there was a tag on her collar, but she made a snap for my hand at the last moment, startling both of us.

I’ve never done well when it comes to ministering to sick or wounded animals. I guess it stems from an incident when I was a high-school sophomore, one of those “It Happens” incidents that you think you’ll eventually get over but never really do, even though admitting to it some two decades later feels embarrassing...but the sight of this pathetic animal on my lawn caused this particular instance of “It Happens” to cross my memory once again.

I had a part-time job after school at a local neighborhood grocery store, Beckman’s Market, one of those Mom-and-Pop operations that’s been in the area for as long as anyone can remember. I was cleaning the beer cooler one afternoon—it had been defrosted the night before or something—and there was this big puddle in front of the side entrance door. It was the first thing that the customers saw when they used that entrance, which a lot of them did, so the boss wanted it to look nice. One customer came in and accidentally pulled the door’s spring off its hinge and the thing slammed shut like a vice grip. I started messing around with it but the boss told me to leave it alone, he’d fix it in himself a little while.

A few minutes later another customer came in, followed by this little grey cat. Cutest thing you ever saw, all furry and friendly...and evidently hungry; it kept darting to the produce section, trying to get at the apples and oranges. I thought whoever owned it must keep it on one hell of a diet.

My boss told me to get rid of it. I picked it up, kicked open the door, and threw it out. I threw it quite hard, on purpose, so maybe it'd get the hint and go back home.

No such luck.

The door started to slam shut just as the cat was making the feline version of a mad dash to safety back inside.

It never had a chance.

The door slammed right on its neck. I was only a foot away and heard something crack. Then another customer came in and the cat did not so much
back out as spasm.

I opened the door and saw the cat choking to death, kicking and coughing and spitting, horrible, heart-sickening sounds...and it never once closed its eyes, just stared at me the whole time like it was my fault. It spewed blood and vomit from its mouth while its other end evacuated all manner of pained foulness.

It had to have been a horrible, agonizing death. And all I could do was stand there and watch it happen.

My boss made me throw it in the trash out back. God, I was sick about the whole thing: I didn't mean for it to die, but now here I was, scooping this dead cat into a shovel and dumping it in the trash. It should have been on its way home to a bowl of milk or a can of tuna. It should have been rubbing up against strangers’ legs, purring in that warm, please-love-me way that almost no one can resist. But it wasn’t lapping milk or rubbing someone’s leg; it was lying on top of a trash pile, flies already swarming over its still-warm body, and I was the one who’d put it there. I dropped the shovel and picked up the cat’s body, my thumb brushing blood from the silver tag on its collar, whispering “I’m sorry, kitty,” over and over as if the thing was suddenly going to rally against Mr. D. and whisper its forgiveness. For some reason, I wanted to wipe all the blood from its tag, I wanted to know its name; it seemed to me, at that moment, that something should be done to make its body more presentable—but to whom or what I couldn’t have said. I just wanted to give this poor thing some kind of dignity, I guess, before I tossed it in among the empty egg crates and tin cans. I knew how silly this would look to anyone passing by but I didn’t care; I apologized again and again, wiping the tag (which refused to come clean) until its ass began leaking something dark and thick down the front of my shirt and apron.

I spent the rest of the day crying. My boss sent me home early. I was depressing the customers.

I would not simply
stand here
and watch this dog suffer. I didn’t need that on my conscience.

I went inside to call the pound, who instructed me to contact Animal Control, who told me to get in touch with the nearest emergency veterinarian service, who in turn told me they had no one available to come and collect the dog, could I possibly get her into my car and bring her over? They would have someone waiting to take her.

Your Cedar Hill tax dollars at work.

I said I’d call them from the car once I was on my way, hung up, and looked for something in which to wrap her. It seemed the right thing to do, the decent gesture, a last act of kindness before we parted ways.

I didn’t bother changing my clothes; my pants and shirt were already ruined with blood, and the fetor of fresh death was all over me.

Two hours ago, as I was driving home on I-70, an old man several vehicle lengths ahead pulled to the side of the road, climbed out of his car, and simply stood by the highway. Traffic in my lane wasn’t nearly as fast as in the other two, so I was afforded a better-than-average look at him. In his early seventies, gaunt-faced, reed-thin, dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, he stood like a character from a Magritte painting: snappy, formal, arms held rigidly at his sides, wearing a derby as if he’d been born with it on his head.
The Musings of the Solitary Pedestrian

I could not read the expression on his face, though I think there was something of the blissful to it; even now I can’t be sure, because when I was four car lengths away a gust of wind blew his derby from his head and bounced it across two lanes of traffic. Amazingly, it was never struck or flattened by any of the cars. The old man snapped out of his reverie (if in fact that’s what it had been), slapped a hand on top of his skull to find that, yes—
!—the derby was indeed gone, and in a series of movements equal parts stumble and run, darted into the river of oncoming cars. The people in front of me swerved to miss the car in front of them, which had swerved to miss another car as it barely missed the old man, who by now was well into the center lane where the traffic was faster but better-spaced; he almost had the derby in his hand when another gust of wind blew his frame one way and the hat another. He looked upward, his face devoid of expression, watching helplessly as the derby performed a bouncing, twirling, oddly graceful aerial ballet on its way back to my side of the road. The old man didn’t even check the traffic this time; he moved in the direction of the hat as if in a trance, arms reaching upward, imploring. Everyone, including me, was sounding their horns and rolling down their windows to shout at the old fellow to watch himself, get out of the way, move it fer chrissakes, you crazy son-of-a-bitch.

The derby landed on the hood of my car, skittered up against the windshield, and caught on the edge of a wiper blade. I looked to make sure the lane was clear, then opened my door to get out and retrieve the damn thing.

The driver of a minivan in the center lane laid on his horn but never slowed, even when it became obvious that the old man wasn’t going to move out of the way. The van hit him head-on, crumpling him against its grille and dragging him several yards before whatever forces govern such human catastrophes saw fit to release his destroyed frame and spin-roll it several feet, scattering small and not-so-small pieces along the way before it stopped with a sudden, silent, wet finality.

I don’t remember getting out of the car and retrieving the derby, nor do I clearly recall being the first to reach the old man, who was somehow still alive.

I knelt and offered the hat to him. I couldn’t think what else to do. He reached out and grabbed my shirt with a bloody, demolished hand. My heart tried to squirt through my rib cage, and then something else happened but I don’t quite remember what. I know I showed him the derby once again but he didn’t seem to notice. He spit blood on me, tried to speak, almost made it happen, then released his grip. And died.

BOOK: Keepers
5.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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