“Excuse me, ma’am? Looks like your coupon is expired.”
“Well, scan it again.”
The tall, too-slender cashier forced a smile as she scanned the coupon. The register buzzed angrily. “ERR, CPN EXPR” popped up in green letters. It was only to be expected. The coupon, as evident by its faded print and worn edges, was two years old. She turned the screen to the customer, the hinge creaking with protest.
“Yeah, it’s not working.”
“But it’s your coupon. I need these chocolate turtles for stocking stuffers and I’m not getting them without this coupon.” The customer snatched one of many foil boxes from her cart and shook it, red nails digging into the wrapping. Then the box shook itself back as the little chocolate turtles stirred; their enchantments kicking in a tad too early.
Ophelia Fern Dankworth, known as Fern since the third grade, had navigated this type of conversation many times in her six years as a cashier. “Oh, okay. I can set them aside to be back.”
“You’re not going to honor my coupon?” The middle-aged woman scowled as plucky Christmas music played over the intercom. This was the fourth time Fern had heard this song today because the track repeated every hour. Five hours left. The line grew behind the customer but that didn’t seem to deter her.
Fern brushed the pompom of her Santa-hat out of her eyes. “Ma’am, I’m not authorized to give that big of a discount.”
“Well call over someone who can.” And there it was. At least Carly was the manager on duty. She’d understand. Fern paged and the other customers in line shifted uncomfortably. Jingle bells rang down the aisle and as the bells grew louder, the faint sound of sucking and popping came with as an older woman approached on tentacles. “What seems to be the problem here, hon?” Carly twisted her chunky jewelry between her fingers.
“She,” snarled the disgruntled customer, pointing at Fern, ”won’t take my coupon.”
“Well let’s see here.” Carly adjusted her horned-rimmed glasses, her beaded eyeglass chain klinking. Her and Fern exchanged a look. “Go ahead and approve it, hon. I’ll give you an override.”
The middle-aged woman tilted her chin up. Fern felt her maroon lips reflexively curl up in anger, but caught herself in time to them into a smile. “No problem!” she said as Carly scanned the override in. Hands on her hips, the middle-aged woman smiled at the other customers in line looking for support but they did nothing. The line cleared quickly after but Carly stuck around.
“Sorry ‘bout that, sweetheart,” she said quietly after the disgruntled customer rounded the corner. “She had that kinda look ‘bout her, like she was gonna call corporate or make a scene or somethin’. You know how it is.”
Fern nodded. It was better to get the customer through the line than deal with a twenty-minute tantrum. “I need a break,” she said, already reaching for her cigarettes.
Carly let her through and signed into the register. “Sure thing, hon. Go ahead and take a fifteen ‘stead of a ten. You deserve it after that.”
Fern took a long drag on her cigarette and watched the puffs of smoke rise into the dark, December sky. The cold light of the street lamp acted as a spotlight and the smoke phased in and out of focus, shifting in the breeze. Today was hell. Cashiering at Granny Smith’s Grocery was usually awful but with two callouts and Christmas looming, it was a particularly unbearable kind of awful. At least she had a job, she reminded herself. She had a job and she had bills and it was this endless cycle. She worked to live and she lived to work. The threat of homelessness hung over her head like an anvil on a rope. The sound of a bell rang clear in the night, and far behind her, by the grocery store entrance, a volunteer in a santa hat asked for donations to the local shelter. Fern shoved her free hand in her pocket and, watching the smoke break into vague wisps, wondered what it would be like to sleep on a park bench on a night like this.
The bright pinging of her phone made her tense up. No one ever called her, no one but solicitors. Just yesterday, she’d received an automated call about a free stay in a time-rift hotel. The roaring twenties never appealed to her when she remembered the Great Depression that followed. Not like she could afford a vacation, anyway. The white light illuminated her puzzled face. Her brother.
“Hey!” she answered. “What up, stranger?”
“Hey, sis,” he said and she knew right away he was going to ask her a favor. She could just see the toothy grin now, the way his ears stuck from out his spiked hair.
“You don’t even know what I’m gonna to ask.”
She took a drag. “I know you and that’s reason enough.”
“If you’re gonna say no, at least say it to my face.”
His voice wasn’t just coming from the phone. She looked up and saw her brother walking towards her. Still holding the phone as if he wasn’t right in front of her, she looked past him. He wasn’t alone. At the end of a slack leash was a thin, silent shell of a dog that was probably part pitbull at some point.
“No,” she yelled in the receiver and hung up.
She turned towards the employee entrance sucking up the last bit of her cigarette, but he jogged to catch up to her. “Come on! Just a week. One week.”
“We’ve been through this, Zack. I work too many hours to have a dog.”
“I know, I know but you know I wouldn’t ask you if I had other options. She’s got nowhere else to go. The shelter’s full and if we send her to Eastside she’s not gonna last. I mean, just look at her, Fern.”
Fern stopped and stared forward, flicking bits of ash on the ground.
“Fern. Fern, come on. Turn around.” She knew if she turned around it would all be over but she also knew she’d hear from Mom later if she didn’t.
She turned around.
The sad creature huddled up behind him, tail between its legs and spine bones sticking out so far, they threatened to break skin. It was obvious the dog had been neglected but that wasn’t anything love and food wouldn’t fix. Yet even with care, the dog was unadoptable; too much of a breed stigma. The cropped ears only sealed the intolerance. She was probably a breeder, then a bait dog after one too many litters. The emaciation implied she’d been neglected for quite a while. While it was sad, it wasn’t a sight Fern was unfamiliar with. Their family had run a no-kill shelter in Hemlock West for over a decade. Eastside shelter was not a no-kill shelter.
She tossed the butt on the ground and stamped it out with her thick boots. “How’d you know I worked today?”
“Trick question. You’re always at work. And, uh, about that Fern…” He chewed on his lower lip and the skin around his snake bites turn white. “She’s not the only reason I’m here. I’m worried about you. You haven’t been the same since…” he trailed off because they both knew how that sentence ended. She hated the thought of it but he was right. She hadn’t been the same after her diagnosis. Not like she ever had time to process. Work kept that certain.
She looked back to the pathetic creature huddled behind her brother and was surprised to see her looking back. After a few seconds, the dog began to wag her tail and Fern had to refrain from smiling. She averted her eyes and crossed her arms. “Ok,” she said before she could reconsider.
His face lit up. ”Yeah?”
“Just a week. Nothing more.”
“Of course.” He shoved the leash into her hand and she grabbed it like a live snake: afraid to hold it, but even more afraid to let go.
“What’re you doing? I’m at work! You can’t just leave her here with me!”
“I have a meeting I gotta get to!” he said, dashing towards his car. “I’ll drop some dog food off at your place!” And with a car-door slam, she was alone. At least, alone with a dog in a parking lot full of cars.
Fern gently tugged on the leash and the dog followed behind her with its head hung low.
She opened the door to her shoddy car and immediately wondered if it was even close to being dog-proof. At least the management company allowed pets at her apartment. They didn’t allow smoking but that never stopped her.
The rest of the shift progressed without any more complications. Beep went the machine as she scanned the barcode on a Christmas beast. Hopefully, the dog was alright. Beep. Had she left any food in the car the dog might get into? Probably. Beep. She clocked out and speed-walked to the parking lot. It was raining but that was to be expected this time of year. She’d only had one white Christmas in Hemlock and even it hardly held up. It was more frost than anything and the tops of the grass blades had stuck through the snow.
The dark silhouette of the pitbull perked up as Fern approached. She got in slowly to avoid spooking her. “You okay there, dog?” she asked and the dog said nothing. Not that she had expected anything, but conversation, however one-way, made her feel less lonely. The dog laid down in the back seat and Fern slowly pulled out of the parking lot.
The rain wasn’t so much rain as it was just rushes of mist sending water in every direction. The streetlights reflected off the roadside puddles embellishing the pavement with flickering reds and greens. If she wasn’t already burnt out on the holidays, she would almost think the phenomena beautiful. The intersection changed to red and Fern clutched the steering wheel. As long as the drivers in front of her were paying attention she should make the next cycle. There was always traffic now. Didn’t use to be but the city annexed patches of suburbs about a decade ago and, with just a few papers, the small town went from a few thousand to fifty plus overnight including the university. Of course, it wasn’t outwardly obvious the city’s population had surged. There were never pedestrians. The council had built sidewalks, planted flowers but the sidewalks were still bare. The cars, however, were endless. Streams of traffic flooded the town until it poured over onto the backroads and snaked through the surrounding suburbs. Sometimes she liked to think cars were the dominant species on the planet.
The dog didn’t fight the leash and followed Fern through the apartment building. The door numbers increased as they walked down the hallway. 209….211…213. Numbers were the only markers on each door: no decorations, no names. Fern didn’t know who lived behind the numbers, at least not anymore. The bag of dog food sat lopsided in the middle of the kitchen and she stepped over it to get her daily injection out of the refrigerator. She set it on the bathroom counter to warm up and turned to face her new roommate. If her brother knew what kind of condition the dog had lived in before now, he had failed to mention it.
“Well, dog. What’cha think?” she asked and the dog said nothing. “Man, I know it’s a dump but there’s no reason to be such a critic.”
After setting out mismatched cereal bowls of food and water, Fern made a makeshift gate out of her dining room chairs to keep the dog in the kitchen. She knew from experience it was better for the dog to spend the first night in one room. They’d both had a lot of changes in one day and honestly, space would do them well.
Fern retreated to her bathroom and shot up. She should’ve waited longer; the cold medication hurt in a familiar way. Clutching the edge of the counter, she counted to ten and waited for the entirety of the needle’s contents to be emptied. She dragged herself into her bedroom, cursed her broken heater, and flopped into her bed. It had been a long day and the holidays were just getting started.
The next morning, Fern woke up in a haze. She laid in bed coasting between awake and asleep and everything in between; that place where ideas are accepted without reservations. Warmth surrounded her and she was comforted, however momentarily. Gradually, consciousness dug into her mind and her face scrunched up with annoyance. She had a dream and though the details escaped her, the feelings still lingered. She had been running, chasing something. Or was she being chased? More awake than asleep now, Fern laid in her bed and let the apathy wash over her. She didn’t want to do anything. In fact, her partially coherent mind convinced her she had never wanted to do nothing so much in her entire life. Her eyelids cracked open habitually and in the blurry vision of the room, by the brown dresser blob and doorway blob was an unfamiliar blob.
She jerked awake, body tense, inhaling with surprise.
It was the dog. She had forgotten the dog. Sitting up, she rubbed her eyes and swore under her breath at the dark smudges on her fingers. She’d forgotten to wash off yesterday’s makeup. The remained dog sitting by the door frame, hunched over, droopy eyes unsure of Fern.
“Hey, how’d you get out of the kitchen?” she paused searching for a forgotten name only to remember her brother never told her the dog’s name. She certainly couldn’t name it, either. Naming it would lead to keeping it and she was in no place to have a dog.
“Come on, dog,” she said, pulling on a pair of boots and a hoodie over her pajamas.
“Dog” would work. It was just for a week. “Let’s go outside.” Dog didn’t move as Fern clipped the leash on and followed slowly beside her down the hallway, past the numbered doors, and out the front entrance. They walked along the train tracks behind the restaurants and storefronts; the city empty except for cars whooshing by. Dog sniffed the tufts of grass and stared at a murder of crows so intently, Fern was surprised she didn’t bark.
As they passed behind an old crystal shop, a somewhat familiar face approached with her own dog. It almost looked like a corgi but it was walking backward. Strange. At the sight of Fern and Dog, the other dog walker stopped and picked up her pet. “Well, hello there. You’re that young gal that lives up the hall, arentcha?” said the dog walker.
It clicked with the “arentcha.” That neighbor from Minnesota who always leaves the tea kettle on. She was somewhere in her fifties with short brown hair and red cheeks. “Yeah, yeah. You live in fifteen, right?” said Fern, suddenly self-conscious. She really should have changed out of her pajama pants before leaving the house.
“Oh, you betcha.” The neighbor adjusted her glasses and opened her mouth to say something when her dog let out a high pitched shriek, steam billowing from its mouth.
“Oh my garsh! You stop that, Pookie.” The dog, rather the thing that looked like a dog, folded its pointy ears back and whined. “Sorry ‘bout that. These teakettlers, dontcha know. They just don’t quit. I’m Nancy, by the way.” Propping the teakettler on her hip, she stuck out her free hand.
“Fern.” They shook and Nancy hunched down meeting Dog’s eyes.
“Well, arentcha just the cutest darn thing? Are you on a walk with your mamma? Yes, you are!”
“Oh, um, she’s not my dog. I’m just fostering her for a week.”
Nancy put her hand on her chest and made a little noise halfway between a gasp and a squeak. “Oh bless your heart! That’s just the sweetest thing!” Pookie whined once more. ”Well, I best be going but you just let me know if you need anything.” And, addressing Dog, said, ”Buh-bye, sweetie.”
The trip back to the apartment seemed shorter and as Fern passed by the numbers on the apartment doors, she thought about the people behind them. Muffled music came from one. Maybe Christmas music. It sounded like Christmas music. She pictured a family behind the door baking cookies and decorating their tree. She hadn’t gotten a tree this year, or last now that she thought about it. Did all the people behind the numbers have trees? Did they even celebrate Christmas? Maybe all of them did. Maybe none. As long as she was ignorant, both possibilities existed simultaneously. Schroedinger’s Christmas. Beyond the holidays, each little apartment was a boxed mystery. In one, a neighbor getting ready for work. In another, a student desperately cramming for finals. And in all the boxed mysteries, maybe one neighbor played with a pet. She glanced down at Dog and met her sad, brown eyes but the dog did not wag. She hadn’t wagged since yesterday.
Work seemed to simultaneously move faster and slower and during lunch, Fern sat in her car, mind drifting to Dog. She must be lonely in that small apartment all by herself, no one else to keep her company, and the thought pushed her through the last bit of the day. The drive home seemed brighter, happier almost. Must be the water tower, all lit up and sparkling like the old glass ornaments on her grandmother’s tree. If work wasn’t too awful tomorrow, maybe she’d pick up a tree after her shift. Dog would probably like the smells from the farm. The creaking of her apartment steps was almost charming and the numbered doors seemed less anonymous. The bright sound of a tea kettle rang out from behind Nancy’s door and Fern smiled knowing it was not a tea kettle.
Fern opened her apartment door a sliver, then felt a soft resistance. As she peered around the corner, Dog sat up and looked at her with those brown, droopy eyes. Fern shimmied in sideways, careful not to disturb Dog’s resting spot and checked on the cereal bowls: the water was empty but the kibble had barely been touched. Probably nerves from being in a new place. She’d eat more with time. Turning to the droopy roommate, she said “Hey, Dog. Wanna go on a walk?”
The next few days followed similar routines: walk Dog, go to work, walk Dog after work, cook eat, sleep and repeat. She had gotten a sparse, little tree and strung a single strand of lights around it and each day after the evening walk, Fern would plug in the tree, kick back with her dinner and binge watch X-Files for the eighteenth time waiting for her shot to warm up. Dog would lay by her feet, same droopy, brown eyes. Every now and then, Fern would lean forward and scratch her back and feel a certain level of peace.
This was alright. Life was alright.
Of course, it couldn’t stay like this.