By Nicole Van Den Eng
I opened the front door because something was scratching at it. The sensor light on my porch flicked on. I opened my door to the twilight. Over my front lawn, across a lonely country road, the distance was quiet. My brow creased. Something brushed over my calves. I looked down, startled. I stared at it for a moment, registering fur. Dog. My dog. My dead dog. Dead dog.
Gil trotted into my living room like he’d been waiting for me to simply open the door all these years. I gaped. My stupor stalled a scream—my mouth hung open. I don’t think I would have imagined him accurately if it was a hallucination: his saunter was perfect, there was a knot in his tail, and nails that I’d been meaning to clip.
Plopping his butt on the floor, Gil looked at me with a perk to his ears, maybe expecting something, maybe not. I couldn’t look away from him. I didn’t move, didn’t make any noise. I was waiting for him to suddenly not be him so I could shake it off and roll my eyes at myself.
His tongue hung out and waggled while he panted. I was stuck in the doorway; a chill invaded my house in a rush and gave me goosebumps. I angled the door closed, and then didn’t. The four-month-old Christmas wreath banged back and forth. I held it open wider for him, in case he would possibly just go.
Instead, Gil went off to find the bathroom. His favorite spot to sit had been the bathroom mat in front of the shower. He didn’t bother to stop and sniff things that had changed; he rounded the corner. I followed, leaving the front door open. I realized, with a surreal sense of annoyance, exactly which items were around the last time he was: my mother’s porcelain peacock, the beaver doorstop, the ugly metal shoe rack. Everything that was Mariah’s was gone, though.
I peered into the bathroom. Like the rest of the house, it was small, and Gil took up the floor. With his chin on his paws, he strained his eyes up at me like he used to, revealing the whites underneath: Treat?
He used to sit on a yellow mat that I threw away because it had been his, and he was bloody. Now the mat was dark blue and I would have to throw it away again.
Gil was a shaggy stray. I didn’t know where he had come from; I never found an owner seeking him and he never wandered away. He came to me while I sat out back with a glass of clear liquor, my eyes perpetually red-rimmed and puffy. He walked right up and regarded me calmly, the way I did him. My daughter was thirteen then and her dad had just left.
“Can we keep him? Please mom?” She loved him instantly because he made her loneliness evaporate. I couldn’t turn him down; besides, I wanted him too. I needed solidarity and a warm body to sit with.
He spent a year in our home, as a good dog; the best year I think I’ve ever had. We healed—all three of us. Mariah and I bonded. Gil was flawless company.
And then without warning, against his nature, out of the blue, all those things that mean surprise and distress, he attacked her.
We were in the kitchen. I was loading the dishwasher. I let Mariah feed Gil because I’d forgotten to that morning. She was scooping the kibble out of the bag as Gil nosed around in his bowl. There was no warning growl. He let out a deep canine grunt and lunged at her face.
The awful truth is that it was me who killed him. I was leaning forward, situating cups in the rack, when I heard the noise behind me. I didn’t need to see anything to know what was happening. My hands dropped their trivial duties and moved first, open-palmed, toward Gil who had Mariah’s cheek in his mouth. She didn’t have time to cry out before he was on her. But I was there. Mom was there.
You tell me, if you saw an animal attack your child, you would let your domestic training reason with you. Tell me you wouldn’t loose the reptile inside you and pummel the life out of the threat to your baby. Tell me you wouldn’t drop into your instincts and use your God-given claws with fury.
I ripped at that dog. I dug both hands in his mouth. Gil’s snarl turned into a groggle. My entire body honed in on my pull. Pull him off. Pull his mouth open. He bit back, but I won. I broke him. And all three of us bled.
And as I turned the corner and saw him in my bathroom, six years later, identical to the moment before the outburst, I shed tears. I was never ashamed of what I did to him, I told the truth. I defended my daughter’s life. But it still ate at me.
I leaned in, not wanting to step closer than I had to, and caught the doorknob with my fingertips. His tail wagged. I pulled the door shut between us.
I looked at my phone to check the date. I looked in Mariah’s old room; she was not thirteen anymore, she was nineteen and her room was now full of boxes. There was no more Gil. I dried my face with my shirtsleeves.
Cold accosted my skin. Across the house from me, a rectangle of nighttime-blue was highlighted by my lone porchlight. I looked out with suspicion, feeling weak.
I locked the front door, then locked myself in my room. Gil was just on the other side of the wall. I turned on the TV and settled in bed. Television was my most effective comfort. Mariah left, decided my phone calls weren’t important, and I was sentenced to face myself every dragging minute. TV was the only thing that numbed me.
And I, at that moment, cared very much about my TV.
Work nagged at my brain before I was even awake. I rubbed my eyes as I got up for the bathroom (step one after waking). My bedroom carpet was dirty beneath my feet.
Releasing my bedroom lock, I was greeted by a second closed door. And I remembered what was behind it.
I actually knocked first, listening for movement. Then I eased the door open and flipped the light on. There was a brown and white, short-snouted dog on my blue bathroom rug. Gil was dead, his eyes slightly parted. I didn’t need to check to be sure, I recognized it. Death has a scent like the grimy bottom of your kitchen sink.
My hands shook as I closed the door once again. I huddled in my recliner with a cup of coffee, stalling for as long as I could. I called into work and told them I had a family emergency with bleakness in my voice and a lack of details.
It took me a full pot of coffee to work up my nerve; I used the blue rug to partially wrap Gil and drag him outside. It was spring thaw and the optimistic sun hadn’t yet been able to melt away the grey clouds. I stabbed a shovelful of ground back in the dead weeds. It was wet, sloughing ground. I dug a hole right next to where we buried Gil the first time—at the very back of my yard, farthest from the house, and up against the farmer’s cow pasture. I buried the rug with him.
Inside, I bleached the bathroom floor and the toilet because he used to drink out of it. I also bleached the shower before I used it, just because I needed clean. I scrubbed my skin with a thick layer of bubbles and struggled to clear my mind. Minds don’t really clear, ever, we just force them to pause for a short while.
I didn’t leave the house that day and didn’t dare count how many hours the TV was on. I didn’t eat until later that afternoon when I heated a frozen entrée.
I thought of my daughter. I missed Mariah deeply. The arguments with her dad were human: we were imperfect and resented each other for it. But they were things that I could make excuses for; Mariah and I could blame him for leaving.
Gil stitched our trust. I leaned into my daughter and she leaned back on her mother. When I touched her hair I felt it. There were no absent gestures.
What happened with Gil, it dragged us both through a whole new kind of hurt. Gil scarred her face and he broke her heart and we fell into a flurry of half-hearted grasps. Mariah grew into eye rolls and whatever-mom’s. I tried too hard.
I lay on the couch and dozed.
The summer after high school, on an overheated evening, Mariah got out of Kyle Langstein’s car. I watched from a little hole in the blinds. She kissed him goodbye through the driver side window. She walked up the driveway in clothes tight enough to demand attention.
I’d had blow-ups before and they only ever ended in yelling and door slams. This time, I restrained my temper and tried to dampen my opinion but we knew each other too well. All she had to do was look at me, hovering near the front window, and she did the blowing up for me.
“You don’t want to me to make your mistakes!”
Those were her words. I had to swallow mine with my tears.
She left just a month after that to live with a couple girlfriends. In a strongly self-disciplined manner designed not to shove her off any farther, I phoned once every two weeks. Half the time I was left for the voicemail, but I always closed with I love you. The other half of the time, we had clipped conversations that were mostly from my end.
Eight months later, I still hadn’t been invited to see her new room.
I woke to scratching at the front door. I swung off the couch and threw the door open with unresolved anger. Evening had settled. Gil trotted in like he’d just enjoyed a piss.
“No,” I snapped, “Bad dog. Out.” Gil sat his butt down in the living room and acknowledged me. I went over and tried to shoo him with my foot. He tipped his head at me in the adorable dog pose. “No,” I repeated. But Gil didn’t want to move.
I went to the fridge and got a pack of lunch meat. I lured him to the door with a few pieces on the floor and flung the bag outside. He followed it. I slammed the door behind him.
Gil scratched at the door all night long. I turned the TV in my room way up. It was so loud I didn’t wake to my alarm. I opened my eyes at 8:11, eleven minutes late for work. Launched into a panic, I dressed messily, flew out the door without coffee and nearly fell over Gil’s body at the top of the steps.
Work was suddenly not so important. I knelt by him and stroked his soft ear. He was dead again. My hands shook and I used my unreliable to not cry. I carried him carefully to the back yard. He was a medium sized dog; I had to cradle him like a sleeping child. I set him down gently in the place where he was now buried twice over.
I only pretended to work that day. I fled from conversation like they were going to ask me if I’d seen a dead dog.
Mariah hazed over my thoughts. I wanted to call her. But the last time she answered, we wound up arguing over $200.
Last year, Mariah stomped into my bedroom with an empty coffee can.
“What the hell, mom!” was how the conversation started.
I looked up from my crochet project with wide eyes, “What?”
“Did you take my money?” She held up the empty coffee can.
“Mariah, it’s not okay for you to hoard all your money and expect me to still pay for everything you want.”
“Well what did you do with it?” She was practically snarling.
“I paid for your French lessons. Isn’t that what it was for?”
“You paid for French lessons with my money?”
“Mariah, you wanted the lessons, you ought to pay for them.”
“Then you can ask me! You don’t just take someone’s money. That was my move-out money, mom, and now I’m stuck here even longer!”
She stormed out as aggressively as she’d come in. I stared at my aging hands for a long while afterward.
Gil returned again that night, just after it was fully dark. He scratched, I opened the door, and he came in freely with a wagging tail. I noticed he wasn’t wearing the collar he died with.
I cooked him up some scrambled eggs and set them next to a bowl of water. He ate happily, like any dog. We watched each other. He made no sounds. I hadn’t heard him bark since he showed up two nights earlier. When Gil was alive, he barked at everything.
I think we grew bored with one another. He got up and sniffed around and I turned my attention to the TV. A few hours passed and I decided to go to bed. I did lock my bedroom door, though he made no move for it.
In the morning he was dead, yet again. He lay on the kitchen floor next to his water bowl. Water was dribbled all over; he used to do that. I sat down next to him and hugged my knees, at a loss. I was fiercely afraid that the moment I told anyone about this it would cease to be true and I would cease to be sane. But if I didn’t tell anyone… what if I wound up with a pile of dead Gils in my backyard and eventually the police would be called and I would have to plead I wasn’t a deranged animal killer.
I sighed and resolved to call Mariah. She was the only voice I wanted to hear right then. To my surprise, she picked up.
“Hello?” She sounded tired.
“Hi, honey, it’s mom. I’m just calling to see how you are.”
“I’m okay,” was all she said. Two words in and the conversation lapses.
“Did you find a car?” Last time we spoke, she said she was trying to secure a cheap car because the bus was getting old. She worked as a waitress and was trying for an IT certification.
“Um, no, not yet. I found a couple that looked okay but I don’t want to get screwed over.”
I got up and leaned over my kitchen sink, looking out the window at the garage. The sky behind it was metal-gray. Yellow and brown brush colored the muddy cow pasture beyond. A long branch balanced on the gutter edge of the garage. It swayed in the wind.
“Hello?” Mariah said.
“Sorry, just lost in thought. Maybe you could call the place that fixes my car. They’ve been honest with me so far.”
“No, that’s okay, I’ll find something.” It was so easy for her to cut off a conversation that our phone calls were mostly me scrambling for topics.
“How’s the house?”
“Good. Good to hear.” We were waning. “Mariah, this might sound odd, but, is there anything weird going on?”
She paused a significant pause. One of my maternal red flags waved in the breeze. The branch on the garage rocked back and forth.
“You know mom, last night was the third night that I came home to a dead bird on the stoop.”
I looked at Gil, lifeless on my kitchen floor, “Do you think it’s a cat?”
Mariah made an exasperated noise, “Maybe. I mean, probably. But all three of them,” her voice got quiet, “they had these little papers tied on their legs.”
The red flags in my head blew wickedly in the wind, “What kind of papers?”
“Do you want to come see?”
“Yes, absolutely I do.” A little bit of glee seeped into my veins but the damned branch on the garage kept on tipping.
I drove into town to find the address Mariah gave me was a squat duplex on a busy street. She greeted me at the door in her sweatpants.
“Cassie and Laylah are in Cincinnati for the weekend,” she said of her roommates.
I looked around, trying to disguise my over eagerness. The walls were bare white, the couch was stained, and the word penis was scratched into the top of the old coffee table. There was a recliner with a broken back and a flat screen television nicer than either of mine. I couldn’t help but feel a swell of nostalgia at this display of new independence.
“Mariah, thank you for inviting me over. Thank you so much. The place looks like a lot of fun,” I smiled warmly at her.
She tried to downplay her grin but she was pleased. The scar on her cheek puckered. She led me wordlessly back to her room. It was messy with clothes and simple, like the rest of the house. There was a mattress on the floor and the old dresser from my house, cluttered with makeup and jewelry. She’d painted a mural on the wall—a blue flower patterned with white clouds and silver ivy.
“Here are the papers, mom,” she toyed with three little scraps on her dresser. “This one was first.” I had to use two hands to flatten out the tightly curled paper. It was the size of a fortune cookie slip and had one word printed neatly on it in type: The.
“This was wrapped on the leg of one of the dead birds?”
Mariah nodded. “I didn’t tell anyone. I figured it was trash. But the next night there was another dead bird,” she handed me a second little paper. It read: Truth. She was already handing me the third piece of paper: Is.
The. Truth. Is.
“It’s freaking me out, mom.” I looked up at her in the mirror. She was squinting at the paper in my hands, reading it for the hundredth time probably. She looked vulnerable, yet still more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen in my life.
“Do you think someone is stalking me?” she asked seriously.
I thought. “The birds had teeth marks?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged, “I didn’t want to touch them. I threw them in the garbage. Should I call the police?”
I’d decided on the way over I couldn’t tell her about Gil. I didn’t know if I could explain it at all, and if I could, it would only scare her. Still, I considered it because it lent solidity to the issue. “What kind of birds were they?”
“Little black ones.”
I nodded. The truth is… “Why don’t we get a hotel room tonight? We can sit in the hot tub, get a disgusting pizza, and wait to see what happens.”
She looked at the floor, “I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be here tonight or not. I mean, what is this? What if it doesn’t stop? I can’t. I don’t know what to do.” She was shaken, talking hastily. “But what’s the truth? What could this have to do with me? If this isn’t a stalker then what? I haven’t done anything. Nothing that would lead to this. Have you?” She looked up at me with unrealized innocence in her eyes.
“No,” I said. I meant it. “Before you were born I was just like you. And after you were born I was like this. Like me.”
She dragged a bag out from her closet and stuffed clothes in it. “We could just stay at your house.”
“I think it’d be better for us to breathe easy in new scenery. It’ll be fun. Or at least relaxing.”
I took her out for a nice lunch. Conversation didn’t come easy but I was so thrilled to be with her that I let the silence be silent. She wolfed down a Philly Cheese Steak. Plus fries. I ordered a diet soda and a turkey-no-mayonnaise. We wasted time at the grocery store, buying snacks for the hotel room, and then at a big box store, buying nothing. We checked in to the hotel as the day was at its brightest gray. The clean welcome of a fresh room lifted my mood. Mariah was noticeably more chipper as well.
“Why don’t I run home and pack my things for the night. When I get back we can find that hot tub.”
“I can come with you; I haven’t been home in a while.”
“That’s okay, I’ll be quick.”
“No, mom, really…”
“I said I’ll be fast.”
She bit down on her words. Tension crackled between us. She didn’t want to be left alone.
“Okay, sorry, I just didn’t want it to be a hassle. If you want to come, feel free.” I nearly chewed up my words as I envisioned Gil on the kitchen floor.
We settled in my car and took off for the country. It wasn’t a long drive, just far enough for there to be more land than houses. Brian and I bought the house shortly after we were married. We were as in love with it as we were each other. A brand new, dream-perfect life had been handed to us. It was exactly what I’d hoped it would be and I had nothing to complain about. The problem was simply that perfect was unnatural and couldn’t last a full lifetime.
“The truth is…” Brian said to me after we realized we were crumbling. The memory of those words rang heavy as I had my foot on the gas petal, Mariah beside me. On the outside of the car, the city diminished. “The truth is,” he’d said, “I don’t love you anymore.” He hurled his heaviest rock at my glass box and left me exposed, alone—alone as a mother.
Mariah lay in my bed and cried on his pillow. “Can you make it better?” she asked. I hugged her and let her fall asleep.
“Can we make this better?” Mariah asked from the passenger seat. I blinked and studied the landscape to reassure myself of where I was. “I mean, can we actually do anything about this or are we just going to have to deal?” she repeated.
We were flying down an old county highway. It was a narrow, cracked road with no painted lines and prominent gravel shoulders. Dark, leafless trees sped past on one side, storage units on the other. I was just about to admit to her that I didn’t know, when we hit a clearing. A cloud of hundreds of blackbirds erupted from a field of soft grass. I pumped the brakes.
There were thousands of blackbirds. They clustered in stumped trees and flapped about in the snow-melt puddles. Schools of them rose and fell like waves of water. Behind them, like a backdrop, was a yellowing factory. Its walls were cinderblock cut with warped, cube windows. The wet field reached out to us.
“What are you doing?” Mariah asked with her head turned away from me.
I pursed my lips, wondering myself, and rolled the car onto the long-ignored driveway.
“Do you think the birds came from here?” Mariah asked softly.
“It just seems… odd. Convenient. I’ve never seen so many birds here”
I stopped when we came to face a beat up industrial garage door that sat heavily on the gravel. “Do we dare go in there?” I asked
“What are we going to find? More birds?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped.” I shifted, abruptly uncomfortable. “This is silly.”
“Is it?” Mariah asked honestly.
“I don’t know,” I finally said.
Mariah unbuckled and got out.
I put the car in park. We stood, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the looming factory on its sodden bed. The sound of the birds was cheerful but my eyes were at odds with that impression.
A door was ajar: a metal, once-white entrance door beside the garage. Mariah approached cautiously. It leaned inward, scraping over the dirt on the concrete floor. The entire top half of the factory was lined with blocky windows that let the cold light in. A petrified machine hogged the floor among broken buckets and old debris. Rusted parts twined together and shared flecks of rotted yellow paint. It could have eaten us with one continuous grind.
We walked together, along the side of the great machine, in the quiet.
The back of the factory approached us, as did the corner of the contraption. We rounded it and stopped midstride. Behind all that structure was a final belt, protruding out over open floor. Beneath it, delivered, was a pile as tall as me of scraps of paper. My heart felt like it wasn’t beating right.
Mariah and I went and looked. Thousands of little slips of paper mounded against the machine with thousands of little words. I picked one: The. I picked another: Is. The. Is. Truth. Truth. Is. Is.
“Is,” whispered Mariah. “Truth,” as she read them.
We picked through the pile wordlessly. Neither of us had any choice but to try and satiate our discomfort. Agitation rushed through me and I grabbed two handfuls of paper and threw them behind me. There were no other words. I dug. Only three words repeated themselves.
Mariah had a paper in her hair.
I kicked the mass with a grunt. It rustled enough that blackness caught my eye. Nearly covered by the ski slope of paper was a hole in the machine. Not a very big hole, but lightless and wet. The metal edges curled out around the hole like something had blasted out of it.
Mariah gasped and I jerked my head around. She was gaping at the ceiling. I followed her eyes.
In the rafters of the factory were rows and rows of blackbirds, seated primly next to each other. Every one of them had their heads bent down, watching us. They made no noise. Chills ran through my body so hard my back muscles spasmed.
Through the silence came a clacking—the click-clacking of uncut claws on the concrete floor. Out of the inky, damp hole came Gil.
Mariah’s hands flew up and cupped her mouth. She took a step backward.
I reached out and touched her shoulder, “Wait, Mariah.” I gasped, suddenly short of breath. I wanted to take the fear from her. “I didn’t know how to tell you, but Gil has been visiting my house every night this week.”
She looked at me. She didn’t believe me but wanted to believe me but couldn’t believe herself as she was actually looking at that dog. I understood.
Gil, in tactful response, sat and raised his paw in the “shake” gesture. Mariah had taught him that.
Her fingers trembled, clenched over her face.
Gil got up off his haunches and approached her slowly.
Kneeling, with a hand warily stretched out, Mariah touched Gil on the head. He licked her fingers. She unclasped her other hand and ran it down his back. They bent closer. The practical side of my brain pointed out they were close enough for Gil to attack her again. I swallowed and thought of what I would do if he bit Mariah again; I would resign my soul for her.
Gil looked up at me, knowing. He started licking Mariah’s face as she scratched his neck. He licked along her jaw and up her cheek in the place he’d bit her. Then he backed away. He looked up at Mariah before he turned back to the machine. He laid down and curled up in front of the hole he came out of.
I watched Mariah stand. She stared at Gil as I tucked her hair behind her ear. I used my sleeve to wipe the dog spit on her cheek. Her scar was gone.
Mariah helped me bury the other two Gils. She didn’t say a word. She kept touching her face, running her fingertips over the area of skin that used to be pocked.
When the dogs were buried and we both were coated in filth, I touched her face myself. I’d touched that marked cheek many times with regret. Now, I left dirt where there was already dirt, gritty over her soft skin.
I held her; she buried her face and cried into my jacket. I clasped her head against my shoulder and cried with her, though not for Gil. I cried because that was the first time in years she’d let me hold her.
We sat in the hot tub for two hours, watched an old legal drama on cable, and ate continental breakfast early in the morning.
I pulled up in front of her house and parked.
“Call me later and tell me how you’re feeling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Mariah breathed. Then her eyes narrowed up the driveway. “Hey,” she started and got out of the car. At her stoop she bent down. From the car, a black spot was visible on her step—a dead bird. I scrambled after her.
With her hands, Mariah untied the little slip of paper that was wound on the bird’s leg. She read it and handed it to me with a fragile upturn on her lips. A single word was printed on the paper: Negotiable.
The truth is negotiable.