By Jeremy Griffin
By the time Nicole arrives at the clinic, the parking lot is already full of folks waiting to drop off their pets before hightailing it out of town, out of the path of the hurricane. All morning she’s been battling that crampy twinge in her hand—dystonia, Dr. Epstein calls this, involuntary muscle contractions—and she hoped that she would be able to spend most of today hiding in her office. A foolish hope, considering that all of the pet-friendly hotels within a 100-mile radius have already sold out. Unlocking the front doors, she marshals a smile as the sleepy-eyed clients slump into the lobby with their cat carriers and their leashed dogs.
Inside, she leaves the receptionist to check everyone in while she goes around the building flicking on lights. In the kennel at the back of the building, she feeds and waters the dozen or so animals already boarding and begins taking the dogs outside one by one. Technically, this is a job for the assistants, but as owner Nicole takes a sheepish sort of pleasure in micromanaging. A canopy of clouds hangs low in the sky, the wind already churning ominously. By tomorrow afternoon, the rains will be here, thick and driving. Initial projections had the hurricane cutting west, into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps Nicole shouldn’t have been surprised when the projections abruptly shifted, the storm now expected to hook northeast, right through the Carolinas. That’s her life in a nutshell, isn’t it? A sudden change in trajectory, something to brace for. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself, her mother might scold, caustic old bird that she was, and she would be right. But her mother is long gone, and so who cares if Nicole is feeling a little morose this morning? It’s her clinic, she can feel whatever she wants.
She waits until all the other dogs have been walked before taking out the rottweiler that Animal Control dropped off yesterday. It was found near the air- port, a scrawny female with patchy fur and a missing chunk of ear. Upon being hustled into the van, the animal bit one of the officers on the hand. “Fucker cost me three stitches,” the fellow said when he dropped the dog off, holding up his bandaged hand for Nicole to see.
“Three’s not so bad,” she replied, gently releasing the rottweiler from the restraining pole. When the animal didn’t attack her, just regarded Nicole with a toddler’s look of expectant curiosity, she was both relieved and a little let down: you expect wild things to act wild. “I’ve seen worse.”
The officer, his khaki shirt straining against the bulge of his belly, rubbed his mangled hand, perturbed by the lack of sympathy. “Know what’s better than three? None.”
Unfortunately, the attack means that the dog has to be put down, her head sent to the state CDC office for rabies testing. It’s a cruel catch-22, having to kill a creature to determine if it’s sick, and if the dog’s pleasant demeanor is any indication—tongue lolling friskily, stumpy tail wagging as Nicole slips on the leash—she isn’t. Nevertheless, by state law Nicole has until the end of the day to euthanize the animal and remove the head, a task she’s been putting off until the last minute.
She leads the dog out the back door, around the side of the building, the animal pausing to piss on a clump of weeds, and toward the thicket of trees on the far side of the parking lot. The dog’s ribs are visible through her black fur, but she moves with a merry trot, as though she and Nicole are old friends. As the animal investigates the flowerbeds at the front of the building, Nicole watches the dogwoods rustle in the winds. It’s September, a mild crispness in the air that sets off a pang of longing in her, as if she’s preparing herself for a great loss. Which, in a way, she is. Her retirement from the clinic, from veterinary medicine altogether, is inevitable, despite the fact that she is only forty—the only question is when. That she hasn’t stepped away from the practice already could be construed as reckless, but how do you just walk away from something you’ve worked so diligently to build up? When Nicole took over the clinic from Dr. Farmer six years ago after he quite publicly burnt out (“I’m just ready to start drowning pugs,” she once overheard him grumble to a client), it was a modestly successful practice that, due to the doctor’s cantankerous aversion to advertising, was little known outside of the league of geriatrics to whom he’d spent most of his career catering. Now it’s one of the most high-profile animal clinics in the region, boasting contracts with the sheriff’s department and the police and fire departments (Nicole personally capped all seven of the county’s new drug-sniffing German Shepherds’ teeth with titanium sheaths, the fact of which received a half-page write-up in the Wilmington Star-News). So, what is she supposed to do, just turn her back on the whole thing as if it’s a project she’s grown bored with?
Jessica, one of the techs, strolls across the parking lot to let her know her first appointment is waiting in Room 1. “Jeez, it’s like the end of days out here,” she remarks, gazing up at the darkening sky. Eddies of leaves whirl past them as if running for their lives.
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only,” Nicole recites. When Jessica narrows her eyes at her quizzically, she says, “Matthew 24:36.”
“I know the verse. I just never took you for a bible scholar. No offense.” Nicole shrugs. “Scholar, no. But I did go to Catholic school.”
“That’ll do it, I guess.”
“You gotta love that Old Testament attitude,” Nicole says. “So doom and gloom.”
“Matthew is in the New Testament.” “Yeah, but it shouldn’t be.”
Jessica futzes with her black ponytail. She wears kitten-patterned scrubs and a silver cross around her neck. Despite her familiarity with the bible, Nicole has never understood the appeal of prayer. Everything has an explanation, that’s just science; no need to bring God into the equation. And yet, there is a contentedness to the believers she knows, the church-goers and the bible thumpers, that she can’t help envying. Like Jessica, they always seem so self-assured, so breezy, as though they long ago resigned themselves to whatever the future has in store for them.
“Also,” Jessica goes on, “Andy called, says he and Marcy and the kids are evacuating, can’t come in this morning.”
“Something tells me we’ll survive.” Nicole expected this, her employees calling out, skittish about the storm. Any other day this would annoy her, but today she doesn’t mind, especially in the case of Andy, a 300-pound assistant who spends most of his shifts out back chainsmoking and who travels in a cloud of men’s body spray and BO. Losing him for the day will probably make things easier for everyone.
“Actually,” Jessica continues, “I was going to see if it was okay if I took off a little early today? I want to get out of town before the traffic gets bad. Do you mind?”
“I guess not.”
“I mean, I can stay if you want.”
“It’s fine, Jessica. The governor’s supposed to issue an evacuation order any- way. You should go.”
“Okay, thank you, Nicole.” She puts a hand on Nicole’s shoulder. The rottweiler sniffs idly at her crotch. “I’ll be praying for you.”
“Let me know how that works out,” Nicole mumbles, immediately regretting it—the girl is just trying to be kind—but Jessica, already turning to go back inside, doesn’t hear.
Living in Wilmington, you get used to hurricanes, or at least you are supposed to. You stock up on food and batteries and hope that your impact windows hold. But this one, Hurricane Florence, feels different. It’s expected to make landfall as a category 4. Nicole can’t help feeling a thorn of resentment over the fact that her clients get to evacuate while she is stuck tending to their pets. But someone has to keep the animals fed, and she isn’t going to stop her stable of vet techs, a few of whom—like Andy—have small children at home, from fleeing town with everyone else. She isn’t that kind of boss.
Actually, she’s still figuring out what kind of boss she is. Before taking over the clinic, she was a partner for ten years, joining straight out of vet school. Sixteen years of experience, more than enough for her to feel like she knows what she is doing, and yet even now she can’t shake the sense that she is faking it, an imposter. A lot of this has to do with the fact that she still looks like she is at least ten years younger, with her compact frame and perky cheekbones and the scattering of freckles across her nose. Most of her friends would kill to be mistaken for a twenty-something, as happens to Nicole regularly. But most of them are stay-at-home moms who peddle Scentsy to keep from dying of boredom. They don’t have to worry about being taken seriously, not like she does. Are you sure you’re old enough to be a doctor? her clients will sometimes say, not necessarily joking, and all Nicole can do is give a bland smile as if to suggest that she too is baffled that anyone would hand over a veterinary degree to a pixie like her.
Then there is this—this, what? Despite its name, Huntington’s seems too complex, too mystifying to be called a disease. Whatever you want to call it, it only compounds the feeling of fraudulence that has characterized her tenure at the clinic, so that it is often hard to determine where her legitimate feelings end and the sickness begins. It makes her wonder if all those years of trying to prove herself were for nothing.
The problems began six months ago. At first, she thought it was just depression, which she’d battled in college, and so she was no stranger to the weary malaise that settled over her like a cloudy film around her brain. Except, there was more to it this time—bouts of crippling anxiety, as though certain death was imminent; flashes of unreasonable rage, often in regard to something innocuous (a dirty bathtub, an offhanded remark from one of her two sons) and which left her feeling guilty and in need of a drink; moments of embarrassing forgetfulness (more than once she ended up sitting through green lights, much to the fury of the drivers behind her, because the notion of going, bizarrely, just didn’t occur to her).
Looking back, it’s surprisingly easy to write these mishaps off as byproducts of the divorce, which took place last spring, instead of the onset of a debilitating sickness. Her brain rebooting itself in the wake of a major life change, that’s all it must be. The truth is that she’s trying her damnedest not to acknowledge the stony realization yawning in the faintest reaches of her mind, that what is happening to her is part of something larger, the same thing that took her mother nearly thirty years before.
In her younger years her mother was spry, crotchety, and sharp-tongued, a nightmare for telemarketers and pushy salesmen. By the end of her life, however, she had degenerated into a shuddering, babbling wreck of a woman wholly dependent upon the staff at the hospice clinic. She couldn’t move on her own or go to the bathroom or even form words, though the nurses re- assured Nicole’s family that despite the mental deterioration caused by the disease she was cognizant, still able to understand most of what they were saying to her. To Nicole, however, this made it seem all the more horrific: her mother was a prisoner in her own malfunctioning body, a passenger trapped on a sinking vessel.
It makes sense, then, that for years Nicole deluded herself about the likelihood of facing the same fate—confronting the truth seemed too immense, like solving a riddle whose only reward was death. Until, that is, the incident with the Great Dane puppy. She was pulling out the intestines of the six-month-old dog one morning during a routine spay, trying to get a better look at the uterus, when her hand twitched. A single flicking motion, momentary, but enough to make her drop the scalpel, slicing the root of the mesenteric artery. For nearly forty-five minutes she struggled to get the bleeding under control while Jessica, who was assisting, looked on, mortified. That the dog didn’t die was a miracle, and in fact Nicole didn’t even tell the owners about the accident. But for days after, it was all she could think about.
Weeks later, at the doctor’s office, listening to Dr. Epstein drone on about mutated chromosomes and dominant genes, all Nicole could do was inwardly berate herself for never getting tested for the gene, in spite of her sister Laurie’s persistence. “Don’t you want to know, just in case?” she’d said. “So you can plan?” No, as a matter of fact, Nicole hadn’t wanted to know. The coin was already flipped the moment she was born—as a woman of science, she told her- self it was only logical to let it fall on its own, without any intervention. What a stupid, immature belief, she can see this now. She’s had her entire life to prepare for the illness, which blessedly passed over Laurie, but what did she do? Bank on the wrong odds, that’s what, allowing herself to be blindsided. Nothing logical about that at all.
Terminal illness, it turns out, can teach you a lot of things, most of which you are better off not knowing. And if Nicole has learned anything from the illness so far, it’s the inadequacy of language. Knowing what her future holds seems to defy words—I’m going to die doesn’t even come close. Very few people get to know what’s in store for them, but the ones who do wish like hell that they didn’t. And so, she’s kept it to herself so far, not even telling Garrett or the boys, because no matter how she formulates the explanation in her head, it never feels like enough.
At noon during her lunch break, as Nicole is prattling around the treatment room working up the courage to euthanize the rottweiler, Garrett saunters in with the pink cat carrier under one arm, Jinx mewling angrily inside. The treatment room is technically off limits to clients, and while Nicole has never given the receptionists instructions to bar him from that part of the building, she just assumed it was implied. No clients and no ex-husbands.
“Who’s this?” he says, motioning toward the dog in her cage. “A stray. Bound for doggie heaven.”
“That’s too bad.” He holds out his palm. “Hey there, pooch.”
The dog gives his hand a tentative sniff through the wires of the cage and then looks up at Nicole, uncertain.
“Going somewhere?” Nicole asks, indicating the carrier.
“Taking Neil and Sean to my dad’s.” Garrett’s father lives in a roomy colonial outside of Atlanta.
“We didn’t talk about that.”
“It’s my week with them. I didn’t have to clear it with you. Besides, don’t you want them as far away from here as possible?”
“You could have at least given me a heads-up.” “I’m giving you one now.”
Nicole sighs. It’s all she can do in the face of his presumptuousness, although he is right, she doesn’t want the boys in town for the storm. Taking the carrier from Garrett, she dumps the cat into one of the empty treatment cages. Jinx takes a swipe at her and cowers behind the litter box, issuing that low feline rumble that to Nicole always sounds like distant thunder.
A lot of things have changed since the divorce last year—Nicole moved out, into a condo near the beach; she only sees her sons every other week (perhaps she should be more distraught over this, but after spending a week as a single parent with a twelve-year-old and a thirteen-year-old, she welcomes the next seven days to recuperate); a good number of her friends have dropped off the face of the earth; and Nicole, no longer required to prepare meals for her family, has packed on ten pounds from her diet of fast food and microwavable meals. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Garrett continues to bring Jinx to the clinic. Starting over with another doctor, he’s explained, would be a pain in the ass. This is one of the many things that has always annoyed Nicole about her ex-husband, his ability to spin his own laziness into an act of prudence. Not to mention his creepy devotion to the cat, a Maine Coon mix who, from the moment they adopted it, has despised Nicole, always hiding around corners and attacking her ankles. Even now, more than a year after moving out, she still bears scars from the ambushes.
“That cat’s a psycho,” she says.
“He just gets scared in new places. You would, too.”
“This isn’t a new place, Garrett. Seriously, there’s like fifty clinics in this city. You can’t go to one of those?”
“He’s your cat, too.” There is a pouty note in his voice that makes Nicole’s bowels clench. Goddamn Garrett, always going for the heartstrings.
“Not anymore. That’s not how this works.”
He leans against the counter and sighs. A statistics professor at UNC Wilmington, he carries an air of scholarly poise that is both charming and irksome. “I really wish you’d reconsider evacuating,” he says. “This thing is supposed to be devastating.”
“They say that every year.”
“You could come with us. Dad’s place has plenty of room. I know the boys would love it.”
“I appreciate your concern, Garrett, but I can’t. We’re full up with boarders.
And fifty bucks says the storm is downgraded before it hits.”
He shrugs but doesn’t push the issue, though she can see that he wants to, some mild rejoinder about her refusal to accept help, perhaps. Nicole studies him, his thin, angular face and whiskey-colored hair parted down the center. She used to joke, to his annoyance, that he looked like a choirboy. She recalls how, long before the divorce, when Neil and Sean were young, she and Garrett would stock the space under the stairs full of boardgames and snacks and drinks, and the four of them would ride out the hurricanes in cozy comfort playing Battleship and Monopoly. When it was over, they would walk the neighborhood, inspecting the damage, the felled trees and scattered limbs, the pieces of siding ripped from houses like old bandages. There was always some- thing reassuring about the scene, the way it reminded them that they were still here, still standing. The storm had passed, and here they were, survivors.
It’s one of those moments of somber introspection when they both seem to be sizing each other up, probing for ways in, and she is reminded of what drew them together in the first place and, at the same time, why it didn’t last. What might have happened if she had been diagnosed before the divorce? Would they have found a way around their differences? Would Garrett have taken care of her over the course of her illness, or would he have come to resent her for her slow degradation right in front of their sons’ faces? Either way, Nicole suspects she’s better off not knowing. In the back of her head, she can hear her mother’s voice again, the same refrain she hears these days whenever she is around Garrett or the boys: Just tell him. Get it over with.
She is right, of course, but no, Nicole can’t do that to them. It’s her burden, not theirs. For the time being, anyway.
If not now, when?
Soon. It needs to be done, of course she understands this, yes. But how do you drop something like that in someone’s lap, the father of your children no less? While she knows it is unfair to keep Garrett out of the loop, bringing him in feels equally ruthless. As for Neil and Sean, she’s already lost plenty of sleep over that impending conversation. After all, she was witness to her mother’s own slow demise—if anybody knows what that sort of thing does to a kid, it’s her.
“You okay?” he says.
“Yeah,” replies Nicole. “Why?”
“You had a funny look on your face.”
She busies herself with a stack of files on the counter, averting her eyes. “Just zoned out for a minute.”
“You should get some rest. You work too much.”
It’s one of the ongoing points of contention between them, Nicole’s obsession with her work, and while she knows that Garrett isn’t baiting her, she is still bothered by his having ruined the moment. All he had to do was not talk for a little bit, is that so hard? Rolling her eyes and exhaling loudly, she worms her fingers through the wires of the rottweiler’s cage and scratches the furry folds beneath the animal’s jaw.
“Where have I heard that before?” she says.
It wasn’t just the sight of her mother’s contorted form in the wheelchair that made Nicole hate the weekly visits to the hospice clinic when she was young, or the groaning burble of her struggling to speak, or even the arsenal of
crushed-up medications that the nurses had to force down her throat several times a day because she was incapable of swallowing. It was the antiseptic stink of the room, the lifeless fluorescents humming in the hallway where all day long hunched figures in dingy robes shuffled back and forth like spirits. It was the way everything felt only half there, as if it were in the process of vanishing. This wasn’t death, this was something much worse.
“Don’t ever let me end up in a place like that,” she once proclaimed on the drive home from the clinic. How old had she been? Ten maybe, eleven. She wasn’t sure who she was speaking to, her father behind the wheel or Laurie in the passenger’s seat. The subject of hers and Laurie’s genetic dispositions had been broached once or twice—Nicole understood that her chances of her developing the disease all depended on her genes, though she didn’t really know what that entailed—but their father, left alone to raise his two daughters while his wife of twenty years languished in the foul-smelling clinic, hadn’t yet had the stomach to explore the matter in any depth.
“We’ll cross that bridge,” he mumbled.
“I don’t want to die in some gross hospital room,” Nicole said. “I don’t want to have to wear a diaper.”
“You’ll die way before we have to stick you in there,” teased Laurie, who was three years older than Nicole. “Cancer of the butt, that’s what gets you.”
“Whatever. You’re going to get cancer of the face.”
“Would you two stop being so morbid?” her father said, a faint tremor in his voice. “Please?”
“I hate that place,” Nicole groused. “Seriously, if I ever end up like mom, just kill me.”
Jerking the wheel to the right, her father swerved into the parking lot of a pizza restaurant, Nicole and Laurie rocking in their seats. He lurched to a stop and then, twisting around, slapped Nicole across the face. He was a bear of a man, a general contractor, and his hand felt mammoth, the skin of his palm like aged wood. The slap, which resounded like a gunshot, was forceful enough to knock Nicole sideways, her head bonking against the window.
For a couple minutes nobody spoke. The interior of the car felt tiny, stifling. Behind them, traffic whizzed past. Nicole clutched her stinging cheek, her eyes watering, while Laurie gaped at her as if trying to understand what she had just seen. It was the first time their father had ever laid hands on either of them, and from the backseat Nicole could see his face as the realization of what he’d done sank in, his features stiffening and his cheeks deepening in color. She could tell that he wanted to apologize, to undo the moment, but instead he turned back around and, swiping at his misty eyes, gripped the steering wheel like an anxious first-time driver.
“No one’s killing anyone,” he grumbled.
By late afternoon Nicole is down to just a couple of techs, the rest of her staff having either called off or left early. She spends the remainder of the day taking blood samples and clipping claws and administering heartworm meds and expressing anal glands, rattling off the usual instructions to clients: Apply twice daily. Wrap it in a piece of bologna before feeding it to her. Try not to let him lick it. There is a certain rhythm to it all, a kind of logic, that she has always found comforting, especially during her last years with Garrett, when they could hardly stand to be in the same house and all she had to keep her sane, in addition to her children, was her job. Why humans are considered the pinnacle of evolution, she will never understand: animals make sense in ways that people don’t. They don’t lie or bicker with you over a diagnosis or make sloppy attempts at flirting during appointments, as happens to Nicole at least a couple times a month. Sure, animals can be difficult, and over the years she has been mauled by countless frightened pets. But at least that fear is predictable, and more and more a little predictability is all she really wants.
At four o’clock, shortly after the governor’s evacuation order for all the
counties along the coast, she and the techs nail up sheets of plywood over the lobby windows, making the place look condemned. Holding the hammer proves tricky—she has to grip it with only her pointer and middle fingers, her achy pinky and ring fingers curled inward, useless—but they manage to get the job done within a half-hour. When they are finished, Nicole sends them all home. One or two of them extend half-hearted but well-intentioned invitations for her to skip town with their families, all of which she graciously declines. Her condo is far enough away from the beach that flooding shouldn’t be an issue, and she has stockpiled enough cases of bottled water and food to last her several weeks. “I’ll be just fine,” she assures them, and she can see the relief on their faces at her declining their offer.
When it’s just her and the animals left in the building, she trudges reluctantly to- ward the treatment room to finish off the rottweiler. If there is one part of the job she can do without, it’s the euthanizing. Having that kind of control over another living thing has always felt somehow indecent. How many animals has she put down over the years? Hundreds? Thousands? Enough that this one shouldn’t feel any different. But it does. It feels cold-blooded, like it’s her own dog she’s destroying.
Nicole leads the dog from her cage and leashes her up to the eyebolt in the wall. She fills a syringe with pentobarbital and a dash of muscle relaxant and then kneels down to administer the candy-pink concoction, pulling back on the skin of the dog’s leg with her thumb to expose the vein. To her surprise, the rottweiler doesn’t protest, just lets her manhandle her as though she has already accepted her fate, silvery strings of drool dripping from her whiskered jowls. Some animals you can look at and see the contented house pets they might have been in another life, the same way you can tell with certain people that this isn’t the path their life was supposed to take. Maybe the rottweiler could have been a farm dog, wrangling sheep alongside some weathered farmer, sitting on the porch in the evenings with a rope toy, secure in the knowledge that she is accepted and loved. Do animals have an inkling of how differently their lives could have turned out? Would they be any better off for it?
This is what Nicole is thinking as she brings the needle to the animal’s leg, only to find that her hand is too stiff and sore for her to operate the plunger. She tries shifting positions, readjusting her legs beneath her, but she still can’t get her hand to cooperate. Maybe she could switch hands, only she doesn’t trust herself to locate a vein with her left. She tries again, but her fingers won’t move right. As she’s struggling to tighten her grasp, the syringe slips from her sweaty grip and clatters onto the floor, rolling toward Jinx’s cage. As the rottweiler takes a step forward to sniff it, the cat’s paw shoots out with dizzying speed and catches the dog on her nose.
Yelping, she flails backwards, knocking against the cabinets as she paws at her own snout. “Goddammit, Jinx!” Nicole snaps, smacking the cage door, prompting a hiss from the cat. She kneels down in front of the whimpering dog and strokes her head to calm her. “It’s okay,” she murmurs, “you’re okay.” Trembling, the animal allows her to examine the wound. Three scratches, beaded with blood, right down the front of her black muzzle. Grabbing a handful of paper towels, Nicole blots at them.
What’s the point? You were about to kill her anyway.
Yes, but sending the animal off with a bleeding wound feels cruel. Doesn’t every creature deserve some dignity in death?
Of course, but deserving something and actually getting it are two very different things.
As she strokes the dog’s fuzzy snout, her thoughts drift back to the day of her mother’s funeral, the reception at the house after the burial. Throngs of black-clad mourners milled around nibbling deviled eggs and chicken salad, chattering in whispery voices. While her father smoked on the back porch, Nicole drifted through the room in a daze, enduring the doleful condolences of neighbors and distant family members. She’s in a better place now. Oh, how she would like to have throttled those people, just wring all of the useless platitudes out of them like the last spurts of water out of an old rag. A better place than with her husband and daughters? she wanted to say. Is that what you mean?
When she’d had more than she could handle, she considered going up- stairs to Laurie’s room, where her sister was hiding out, no doubt getting high, but instead Nicole found herself drifting toward the bathroom. Inside, she looked at herself in the mirror, her prim black dress and globby makeup. Shakily, she brought her hand to her cheek, the same cheek that her father had smacked, and she recalled the hot sting of his palm, the way it had whipped her head around like a weather vane, and how for an instant all her thoughts had scattered.
Then she slapped herself. It was light, as though she were smacking at a mosquito. When she did it again, she did it harder, her head reverberating with the steely energy of a tuning fork. She did it once more, even harder this time, though she found that she didn’t mind the pain—she actually sort of liked it, the way it focused the rabble in her brain into a single point and how, with each successive hit, that point grew finer, her awareness of the world around her shrinking as though she were blacking out, until she was heaving breathlessly over the sink, her cheek the shade of raw meat, her hand throbbing. Mascara ran down her face in rivulets, her lipstick smeared. She looked like a survivor of some great catastrophe, someone who, despite the odds, had managed to thwart disaster.
Why this memory now surfaces, Nicole has no idea—maybe because it was the first time she understood that pain is the only real certainty in the world. In any case, it suddenly makes killing the rottweiler feel unforgivable. She continues blotting at the scratches, until after a few minutes she guides the animal to the back door. Shoulders low, as if she suspects she might be getting led into a trap, the dog follows Nicole outside into the swirling winds. Across the street, sheets of particle board cover the doors of the Stop’N’Go. Even the cars on the highway seem to be scurrying away from danger. Nicole removes the slip-on leash and stands back as though waiting for the dog to go sprinting down the street. When she just continues to stand idle as though waiting for instructions, Nicole shouts, “Go on, get out of here!”
The rottweiler takes a couple startled steps backward but still refuses to flee.
She watches Nicole with trepidation.
“Go on!” she yells again. The dog turns from Nicole and gazes across the parking lot, seeming to weigh her decision. Blowing a sweaty lock of hair out of her face, Nicole clamps her hands on her hips, frustrated. Here she is trying to help the poor dumb mutt, to save her, only you’d think the thing wants to be put to sleep. Shouldn’t freedom be unmistakable? Finally, she gives the dog a swat on her bony rump, and with the lethal swiftness of a snake, the dog’s head whips around, her jaws snapping at Nicole’s hand, missing it by only a couple inches, her black lips curled back to reveal the yellowed cage of her teeth. Nicole jolts backward, nearly losing her balance. A growl like the sound of a whirring machine on the verge of malfunctioning oozes out of the dog’s throat. It’s just a warning—the dog wants Nicole to understand what she is capable of—but she gets the message all the same. So there is something wild in there after all, she thinks as she backs away, hands held up in surrender. Well, of course there is. Don’t all creatures have their limits?
Something has shifted between them, something irreversible. Nicole gets this and she suspects that the dog does as well. After a few moments, understanding that she is no longer wanted here, the rottweiler turns and lopes out toward the front of the building, her overgrown claws clattering on the asphalt. Overhead, the anvil-shaped clouds pulse purple. Tiny droplets stipple the sidewalk. Yet, even despite the winds rocking the trees, there is a brooding stillness about everything, as if the world is bracing itself for some great upheaval. But concerning that day and hour no one knows. Nicole watches the animal once more pause to investigate the flowerbeds before disappearing out of view, into the dawn of the hurricane, never knowing how close she came to extinction.
Jeremy Griffin is the author of the short fiction collections A Last Resort for Desperate People, from SFAU Press, and Oceanography, from Orison Books. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Bellevue Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University, where he serves as fiction editor of Waccamaw: a Journal of Contemporary Literature.
Originally appeared in NOR 29.