Gena Ellett's writing has appeared in Slice, Gulf Coast, The Malahat Review, and elsewhere. She was awarded the 2018 Charles Lillard Founders' Award for Nonfiction, was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Contest, and was nominated for a 2016 National Magazine Award. Find her at @heygenajay and genaellett.com.
I find the first dog on the street outside our apartment. Unemployment affords me long and sweaty afternoons in our apartment while Danny’s at work. Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy, but the heat of the city is too much for me to bear so I rarely leave the house. I only find the dog because I’m looking out our front window, down onto the empty street below, and he is looking back up at me with imploring eyes. Without really thinking, I went down and let him in.
. . .
“What’s his name?” Danny balances groceries in arms as he stoops to pull his keys from our front door. He doesn’t ask where he’s from or how long he’ll be staying. He’s like that—unshakeable in the face of my mania.
“I don’t think he has one, but I’ve been calling him Max.”
Max and I are lying on the bed together. He’s a mutt, an oversized shaggy lab or shepherd with a steady amber gaze.
Danny pauses in our entryway and watches us through our bedroom door.
“You sure about this, Clare?” It’s always startling to hear him use my name. It feels serious and uncalled for. “He’s big. What if he turns out like Maggie?”
“He won’t,” I say, nuzzling my head into the shaggy hair on the back of his head.
. . .
We’ve been in the city for three months. Right after we left our hometown, a small and forgotten place on the edge of a bottomless lake, the forest fires had started and Danny’s mom had called to tell us that the city was burning down.
“You weren’t smoking out your window on your way down to the city were you?” his mom asks over Skype. Moms are like that sometimes. So certain of the power their children possess.
“No, Mom,” Danny says, covering his mouth to stifle a laugh. “We didn’t start the fire.”
Max and I are cuddling on the couch while they talk.
“What’s that, you got a dog?”
“That’s Max. We’re just taking care of him for a while.”
“How’s the scar healing?”
There is silence until I realize that she’s talking to me.
“Fine,” I say, but the video is frozen—her eyebrows raised, her mouth ajar.
She didn’t want us to move away. Danny is her only son, and secretly I’m sure she’s worried about him doing something rash, like marrying me. The only thing that gives her any solace is the fact that our apartment is on the edge of the city next to three hundred acres of forest. The woods are mostly undeveloped, aside from the provincial trails that snake through the trees. When Danny sends her pictures as proof that we aren’t going to turn into “city slickers,” she responds with a message: Good. It’s not right to be away from nature. Being cooped up in all that concrete drives a person insane.
. . .
I must have left the door open. This is the only explanation, even though it’s not a good one seeing as our door is heavy and swings closed automatically. I’d been going up and down the stairs of our building all day with loads of laundry, so perhaps Max had snuck out through the door and I hadn’t seen him because of the basket in my hands. This is what Danny suggests, and I have to agree. I don’t tell him that when I noticed he was missing, I’d opened all our windows and peered down to the sidewalk to see whether Max had somehow managed to jump out.
We’d both gotten attached to him, and I cry for most of the afternoon once I realize he’s gone. It’s so hot in our apartment that I’ve taken to lying on the floor next to our bed, which is where Danny finds me.
“There will be other dogs,” he says, and he lies down next to me on the floor.
. . .
The great thing about the city is that there are so many people, which means there are endless opportunities to fulfill your dreams. I told Danny that I’ve been looking for jobs, but the truth is I’ve been looking for dogs. Every morning around ten, I look out our window on the chance that Max has returned. When he hasn’t appeared for ten or so minutes, I go online.
Aside from the government-controlled animal shelter, there are dozens of rescue societies that people run out of their homes. They bring strays over from far away places and then they post their pictures online. These are the ones that I start messaging, and the ones that don’t require a whole lot of information other than a quick chat on the phone to prove you are, for all intents and purposes, who you say you are. They are desperate, and three hours after seeing her picture on the internet, I bring home a ten-year-old miniature poodle named Daisy.
Daisy and I spend the afternoon napping on the couch. When Danny gets home, he shakes me awake, and lifts Daisy off the couch.
“We have to have some rules here,” he says. I nod, but sneak a conspiratorial look at Daisy once he leaves the room.
Daisy is smaller than Max, and she fits comfortably at the foot of our bed. I find myself waking up night after night though, aware of how small and frail her old body is, and worried that in the night a pillow will fall on top of her or she’ll get wrapped up in the blankets and be smothered. I sleep less and less, and then one day, we wake up and Daisy is gone.
. . .
My mourning period for Daisy is much shorter than it was with Max. This time I am prepared, with a bookmarked folder of rescue websites ready to go. By the end of the day that she disappears, I bring home a pitbull named Frank. Frank is a clown and we spend all afternoon laughing and rolling around on the floor together. When Danny gets home, he shakes his head and goes into our bedroom and shuts the door. Frank and I go back to rolling around until we’re tired out, and then we slip into the bedroom and into bed with Danny, who immediately turns and hugs me tightly into his body.
. . .
The next afternoon, Frank disappears while I’m ironing Danny’s work shirts. I spend an hour crawling around the edges of our apartment, trying to find any kind of secret escape hole that I might have missed. I run my hand around the baseboards and find nothing but stray hairs and grains of rice. I open our mostly empty kitchen cabinets and find nothing but pots and pans. I look under our bed, imagining Max and Daisy and Frank all huddled there in an extended game of hide-and-seek, but there’s just dust. Despite the heat, I close and lock all the windows. That night, I bring home a black lab named Charm who sleeps on the floor next to my side of the bed.
I wake in the middle of the night from a dream about Maggie, and I have a strange feeling that Charm was having the same dream. She’s awake, standing wide-eyed and looking at me from the edge of the bed. In the dream, Maggie, my parent’s oversized shepherd cross, was coming for me again, but this time I fought her off before her teeth sank in.
When I reach out to Charm, she staggers back from my hand and yelps sharply. Shhhhh, I say, and place my hand on her head. I feel something warm and wet. I draw my hand away and smell it, instinctively, knowing that the room is too dark to see anything. For a minute I’m confused whether the blood is hers or mine.
. . .
On my parents’ porch last summer, Maggie had come for me after years of being a good girl. I was alone and so no one saw, but it was the swiftest and most violent thing I had ever experienced. I watched her teeth find my forearm and sink in repeatedly while I jumped up from my seat and thought she’s biting me and she’s not going to stop. I’d never realized her strength, or the potential of keeping such a strong animal captive. We’d had her since she was five weeks old, and she’d always liked me. It was like we were both in a trance. We locked eyes, she snarled, I yelled and bashed her head as hard as I could with the heel of my hand. Just like that, she stopped her attack. Out rushed my mother, having heard my yells. Let me see, she said. And then, as she pulled Maggie inside: It’s not so bad.
Because they hadn’t seen it, and because Maggie had always been a good girl, they assumed that I had provoked her in some way. Because they hadn’t heard her snarl, the puckered, dark purple wound on my forearm seemed superficial—something that could be cured with arnica and aspirin. Because they are my parents, and I love them dearly, I didn’t want to tell them that there was so much blood that it took days to find it all and clean it all up, that sometimes I still find spots of it on the sleeves of my shirt.
They kept her, because it’s hard to be afraid of things you haven’t seen, and because people want to believe in the strength of love, of tender care. And I understand it, I understand why. Dogs are good and loveable and incapable of malice.
We catch our breath, Charm and I, and she nudges her chin into my palm. Her tongue is soft and warm as it finds its way to the scar on my forearm. At some point, I fall back asleep. In the morning, she is gone, and there is a single bloody paw print near the front window.
. . .
This goes on for many weeks. Because I rarely take in puppies, the shelters rarely call to ask after or declare an adoption found for the old dogs that I favour. When they do, I tell them that I would in fact like to adopt the dog, even though by then they’re long gone.
Danny comes home from work every night and flops down on our bed. The heat in the city keeps rising, his clothes are always soaked through.
“Let me wash these,” I say, and start unbuttoning his shirt. Usually he’s too tired to even take his own boots off. I’m grateful that he’s covering the bills during my months of unemployment, and every night I assure him that I’ll return to work soon, even though he never asks and doesn’t seem bothered by it.
. . .
He doesn’t know it, but I read an email from his mother the other day.
It’s time you cut your losses, was all it said.
. . .
The dogs start disappearing at an alarming rate. Some of them barely get in the front door before they’re gone. They disappear when I’m washing the dishes, when I vacuum or sweep, when I make the bed, when I do laundry, when I boil water on the stove. I start setting up multiple fosters in single days, one for the morning and one for the night, and I try not to take my eyes off them. Because of this, the laundry starts piling up and I start eating only one meal a day. Sometimes, I can keep them for hours at a time, until eventually they start disappearing right before my eyes.
. . .
The thing is, they didn’t believe me. I expected them to believe me, or if not me, then maybe they’d believe the blood or the scar. But they hadn’t, and they’d kept the dog, and suddenly I felt so unsafe in my parents’ home. I’d retreated to Danny’s mom’s house where we made plans, where we felt we had no choice.
In some ways I am grateful. I have grown so much in these past months.
Somewhere north of me, right now, the fires are encroaching on their house. I haven’t heard from them, but I can feel it, and I wonder where they’ll go.
. . .
Last night when Danny got home, I could tell he was angry. He didn’t say anything, but I saw him clench his teeth when he saw the pile of laundry in the hall, and I saw how tightly he was holding the handle of the frying pan while he made his dinner and listened to me talk about the dogs—he nodded along but his knuckles went white. He’s tiring of our situation, I know he is. That’s the thing, you can lie but you can’t count on your body following along.
. . .
There is no poof of smoke, there is no magical sound, they are just there and then they are gone.
. . .
At the end of August, I sit out on our front stoop first thing in the morning. Another dream of Maggie. Summer is ending in mist and grey skies, but our apartment still holds in the heat of the previous months. I can’t sleep, so I wait for the sun to come up and then I drink my coffee on the step before retreating inside.
This morning I had company. When I looked across the street to where the forest edges onto the grass sidewalk, there was a coyote standing completely still on the sloping wood fence that acts as a border for the vast park. He almost blended in to the forest behind him, but I hadn’t seen another human (aside from Danny) for many months, and I picked up on the sharp twitch of his whiskers, even from a distance.
“Hello,” I said, but he had already jumped down and disappeared into the forest.
. . .
That day, none of the shelters answered my calls. I tried at least five different numbers, but they all just rang and rang. I couldn’t even get an answering machine. I started to panic. Because I had woken up so early, the day seemed to stretch out indefinitely before me, and I had nothing to anchor myself to. I began to panic, and I decided to walk down to one of the shelters that I’d previously fostered through.
The walk wasn’t far, less than ten blocks downhill from our building, but when I arrived the door was locked. I tried it again, thinking perhaps I was meant to push instead of pull, but it didn’t budge. I peered in through the glass of the door, but all the lights were off in the reception area of the office.
I decided I’d catch a cab to a different shelter, but the streets near our building were empty and I didn’t know what number to call, so I walked back up the hill to our house. It took almost no time at all, and when I arrived back to our house, the panic had built up considerably in my chest, to the point where I couldn’t stop shaking or whimpering from the acute pain that seemed to radiate outward from the scar on my forearm. My mother always suggested rest when feelings like this took over, so I went to lie down. I closed my eyes and slept through the rest of the afternoon and into the night.
. . .
I wake up thinking about the coyote. I can’t tell if it’s morning or night, only that the sky is either getting lighter or approaching total darkness. There’s a light under the door, and when I realize Danny’s not in bed, I assume he must be out in the living room. I get out of bed and wander through the apartment, but he’s nowhere to be found.
Without thinking, I unlock our door. I walk downstairs and out the front, across the small lawn and the street until I’m standing next to the fence where I’d seen the coyote. My feet are wet with dew, so I am careful as I climb over the fence and enter the forest. It’s very dark and I have to walk for at least thirty paces before I can make out the individual shapes of trees around me. The forest floor is soft and bouncy and I’m not sure whether I’m on a trail, or have strayed off into the wild.
I walk in silence for several minutes, until I reach a clearing. Light infiltrates the tree canopy, either from the moon or from the approaching grey blue of the morning sky. I walk to the center of the clearing where I pause to take in my surroundings. The blank face of the forest unfolds around me, and I can’t make out the direction from which I entered the clearing. Behind me, a branch cracks. The sound is as sharp as a smack across the face, and then silence.
“Hello,” I say. Another crack, and another, and another. The sound of plural breath.
“Hello,” I say again. I can see them now, what’s approaching. A pair of eyes stares out at me from the woods. A small gesture from the trees turns into the outline of an animal. It steps forward. The coyote slinks towards me and stops, his mouth stretched tightly into a smile that exposes his teeth. Behind him, another animal emerges. Max is bigger than he was before, but I recognize his amber eyes immediately. Slowly, more shapes begin to materialize from the woods. One by one, my dogs step into the clearing. They stand, heads lowered, noses to the ground. More come, and then again more, dogs I don’t recognize or perhaps don’t remember. They are bigger, their fur is caked with dirt, their eyes are colder and unblinking. They surround me completely.
I think briefly about calling for help, but decide against it. Instead, I hold my hand out to Max, and whistle softly under my breath.
. . .
The first time I held Maggie, she was small enough that she fit perfectly in my two open hands. I was so proud of her, of how cute and soft she was, of how special it was that she could sleep there in my hands for hours without moving. Imagine the power—the absolute, unshakeable power—of holding the heartbeat, the breath, the small, unfolding life of a creature in the palms of your hands. You can’t help but imagine the possibilities, and hope that the world will meet them halfway.
Sometimes I doubt myself, but deep in my heart I know: I showed her such care, such reverence, didn’t I? •