Cerberus

I was sitting on the N Judah with my daughter, we were headed for the beach. She was three years old and I was forty. The Inner Sunset looked grim that time of day, with a rain cloud directly above, but I had told her what to expect of Ocean Beach, and she liked the rain. She was dressed in her ladybug raincoat with matching boots and umbrella and hat.

Any number of signal, service or guide dogs for the disabled are allowed to ride Muni Free and Unmuzzled. (29 USC Section 794, 42 USC Section 1231, CA C.C. §54.2)

‘Can you read that sign?’ I asked her.

‘No,’ she said.

‘Can you give it a shot?’

She looked at it for a while, then looked away, appearing to think about it. ‘Doggies!’ she shouted.

‘That’s right, it does say “dogs,” very good, but can you read the words in order?’

‘No daddy, look! Doggies!’

The City is a strange place and it always has been. Dogs started pouring in the doors of the train, all kinds of them, mutts, purebreds, fighting dogs. I lifted my daughter up on my lap. My daughter’s name is Harmony. I was raised in the City by my parents, they used to take me to Ocean Beach, to the zoo, to the Cliffhouse, to the Beach Chalet. I held onto her tight because some of the dogs were fighting dogs. I was scared but I didn’t show it. She didn’t seem scared. She was enjoying pointing at the dogs and talking to them. She wanted to squirm away from me to play with them but I held onto her tightly. The other passengers didn’t seem even to notice all the dogs.

There was a strange old man who got on, once all the dogs had stopped pouring in through the doors. He was bent over his walker. He had dark goggles and a soiled trenchcoat. The City is strange because it’s full of people like him. People who know the rules Any number of signal, service or guide dogs and exploit the rules. Who learn the rules inside and out just so they can take advantage of the systems constructed to promote general welfare. By the strange old man’s feet was the biggest of the dogs, a big black dog. I don’t know breeds.

Harmony’s mother would know, her family always kept dogs. Harmony’s mother worked too much, couldn’t take her daughter to the beach. She wanted me to take Harmony to more museums so that she could read the signs aloud. I never had a dog as a pet as a kid. We always had cats, because we didn’t have a yard.

‘Why are we stopping?’ Harmony asked me. ‘Is the train broken?’

‘No, sweetie, there’s probably just another train on the track ahead. We’ll be moving again soon.’

‘But daddy, the lights are out! That means the train’s broken!’

‘Shh, sweetie, just stay close, alright? It’ll be okay.’

She was saying more to me but I couldn’t hear her. For some reason there was just this god-awful metal screeching and scraping and crashing in my ears. I had told Harmony ‘Let’s close our eyes, okay?’ and I don’t know if she heard me but I closed my eyes for as long as I could and when I opened them up the train was on its side. I was lying with my arm sprawled out and there was blood coming from my mouth onto the smashed window. I grasped for Harmony but all I could get ahold of were the dogs, all those yelping and scrambling dogs, the ones that hadn’t been injured. I looked up, and there was the old man and the black dog. They were standing just like they had been, except now the train was on its side. The old man pushed the emergency exit open. He wasn’t holding his walker anymore. He was holding Harmony’s ladybug umbrella, using it to push the door open.

I shouted at him. He was trying to get out of the train, trying to lift his feeble body up and out. I propped myself up and pushed the snarling and scared dogs out of my way, pushed through the unbearable crush of dogs to get at him but he had just cleared the exit. The black dog was sitting on its haunches. It looked me in the eye and followed after its master.

The other dogs were trying to get out of the hatch too but I used all my strength now to push them aside. I stepped on their heads and lifted myself up to the air. We were in the tunnel. The train had crashed into another train ahead. I couldn’t see any other survivors. I saw the old man and the dog at the other end of the tunnel, walking out into the light. I ran to follow.

I ran out into the blinding light of the street and saw them entering a residential building. There was nobody on the street. There were no cars on the blindingly bright street. I looked up at the sky and it was bright but it was grey. It was about to rain. It started to rain as I ducked inside the building. It had started to pour. The dogs had followed me. They were barking now, barking in the rain, and lightning clapped down, struck one of them. The others descended upon its smoking carcass. They barked at me and a couple of the german ones pulled their ears back and started walking towards me. I ran, and they pursued.

I ran upstairs and heard them barking and snarling. I looked up to see the old man leaning over the staircase. He was a few floors up. He was still holding Harmony’s umbrella. I shouted again. I kept shouting until I made it to the level where I had seen him, and I hammered on the door and shouted for him to let me in. The dogs were closing in on me. I sank to the ground when they approached, put my hands over my face.

The door opened. I scrambled inside. The room was full of dust, and the only light was the intermittent flashing of the lightning storm outside. I saw the strange old man sitting on a chair. His chin was touching his chest. His trenchcoat was moving in ripples. His arm lifted jerkily and his gloved hand pointed across the room. That motion was all he could sustain, and rats started pouring out of his sleeve. He was made of rats, I could see that as his trenchcoat opened up. Rats feasting on an almost-clean skeleton. They started to move up to his face.

But I now looked at where his hand had been pointing. There was the black hound. Sitting. Waiting. I crawled to him. I put out my hand, bade him to spit out what was in his mouth. He did. A shred of ladybug fabric.

His mouth remained open.

‘Serve,’ he said, as the door behind him swung open. As the gate inside that door opened to accept me.

‘No,’ I said.

I was sitting on the N Judah with my daughter, we were headed for the beach. She was three years old and I was forty…

By Neil Ballard

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