The overcast sky was a particularly forgettable shade of white as if a child neglected to color it in. Kelp and foam sketched the boundaries of the waters. A stretch of driftwood was shoved up at the head of the shoreline and the waves reached for it, relaxed, reached and relaxed continuously in a rolling hush. Fern and Dog were alone at the beach. Well, alone in the ways that matter; there were gulls and crabs and gleaming tidepools, and far off on the other side of the beach was a stranger with his drake. But a stranger is just that, and they were far enough away to ignore and be ignored.
Fern stood between the line of seafoam and the backstretch of driftwood with a red leash in hand. “You ready?” she asked but Dog said nothing.
She unclipped the leash from Dog’s collar and stared at her tensely. Dog stood still as a statue. Maybe Dog was a statue; a dog figurine or something. Not a real dog, not a real animal abused by people who would never be caught.
“Fetch, Dog.” Fern chucked a piece of driftwood as far as her noodle arms allowed. It hit the ground with a solid thud and remained completely inanimate after. As if competing with the stick, Dog remained just as still. The stranger and his pet had moved closer playing their own game of fetch. “Hey, check them out,” said Fern pointing to the dog-sized lizard as it dragged a log back to its proud owner. “That’s how you do it. I throw the stick, you get the stick, we have a great time…”
Dog glanced up with those droopy, brown eyes. Her boxy face sagged in a way that always made her appear to be frowning. Fern made a straight line with her mouth and, with a soft exhale that reeked of disappointment, went to fetch the stick herself. Another throw, another fetch completed by Fern. On the third throw, the drake snatched the stick and bolted back to its stranger, scaly tail tracing a line in the sand. And that was it for fetch.
It was too cold to swim or do much of anything but play fetch and stare at the water, so Fern leashed up Dog and walked back to the car. She buckled in and reached for a cigarette. As she flicked the flame on, she caught Dog’s droopy eyes in the rearview mirror. Dog was laying down in the back seat, head draped over the edge like a moping child.
She let go of the switch. “What?”
Head still down, Dog looked up at the mirror and folded her ears back against her boxy head.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Fern. “It helps me relax.” The thought of cancer and all those awful side effects never made Fern hesitate to smoke, but Dog didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t fair to expose her. She closed her eyes and ran her hands over her face.
“Fine, fine.” With a sigh, Fern put the lighter away and tucked the cigarette behind her ear. This was supposed to be a relaxing trip to the beach; a fun alternative to the dingy train track walks. They should’ve gone to Lemming Park, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way. Four days had passed since her brother had dropped Dog off and she had barely dipped into her food. It wasn’t unusual for shelter animals to be nervous the first few days in a new home, but Dog had to eat at some point.
Fern drummed her fingers on the wheel. Maybe Zach had given her the wrong food. If Dog had been eating a different kind of kibble at the shelter, she might not like the brand Fern was giving her now. A quick trip to the shelter to confirm her suspicions wouldn’t hurt.
The main roads were packed with cars so she took the back ones. After a couple winding turns through the clustered suburbs, she pulled into an empty parking lot. She parked the car and squinted at the bleak building at the end of the lot. It always reminded her of an abandoned office building. Even though she’d cleaned every cranny of the place, whenever she opened the door she still half-expected cubicles all lined up like a stack of toy blocks. She could just see the sad salespeople and accountants hunched over their desks, slaving away. A job like that probably made triple her pay. Of course, she hadn’t become a cashier for the money. She’d wanted a flexible job so she could make art on the side. That was the plan. That was what she promised herself six years ago but she hadn’t made any art in a while.
She hadn’t done much of anything in a while. Not since her diagnosis.
“I’ve gotta go inside and you have to stay in the car,” said Fern. No reason to stress out an already anxious animal. Dog glanced up but did not stir otherwise. “Just real quick, okay. I’ll be right back.”
A rush of heat and humidity enveloped her as she stepped in the main room. It reeked like urine and bleach. The place had probably just been cleaned before the accident because bleach was always the second cleaning chemical for disinfection, hot water being the first. The volunteers were pretty good at keeping the building smelling clean but animals are unpredictable and messy. And the shelter was a terrifying place for new arrivals. Terrifying, but wonderful.
Both sides of the hall were lined with grid-wire gates stretching front to back. Barriers between each cage gave a faux impression of privacy. 8…10…12. As Fern passed the numbered cages, the shelter bubbled to life. The dark silhouettes of the creatures pressed against the gates. In one cage was a shaggy hound; its knotted green fur dripping with algae. In another, what appeared to be a mop head until it stood up, glowing monkey peering between the chords. There, a hairless mutt with hollow fangs and dark quills pushing out of its shoulder blades and over there, a hound with a sharp ridge cresting up its snout and over its forehead. Multiple heads, extra legs, barking, whining, yipping. Yet in some cages, only a submissive silence. It was bittersweet. On one hand, they were caged and isolated, abandoned and rejected. On the other, they were warm, fed and nurtured by people that cared. They were alive even if their conditions weren’t ideal and that alone was something. It’s not like they could last on the streets sleeping out in the cold.
“Look who we got ‘ere.” Spraying a hose at the end of the hallway was a stout dwarf wearing shorts in December. “Mind your step, kid.”
“Hey, Ronnie. How goes it?”
“Aw, you know. You know. Say, Zach said you took in a dog ‘cause we were full.”
“Yeah, about that-”
“You returnin’ her early?” Ronnie locked eyes with her but kept spraying.
“Nah,” said Fern, looking down as she shoved her hands in her pockets. It wasn’t uncommon for people to return animals to the shelter like damaged products. The reasons: chewed up furniture, accidents, nipping at children when their tails were pulled. Realistically though, it was better for both parties for the pet to go back if the home wasn’t a right fit.
“Nah, I’m just here for different food. She’s not liking hers too much and I’m not sure if it’s ‘cause she’s anxious or if it’s ‘cause Zach brought the wrong kind. I’ve got the generic at home.”
“Ah, I see. I see. Well, let me check her paperwork.” He hung up the hose on the links of a cage and shuffled to the back. Fern stared forward, ignoring the whimpering wafting from a nearby cage. The whimpering escalated into a sharp yip and she made the mistake of glancing over. Pressed against the wire frame was a lanky mutt with sharp ears and narrow eyes. A coydog. They had even worse luck than pitbulls at being adopted. The coydog locked eyes with her and darted side-to-side, thin snout tracing the concrete floor. It whimpered, it whined, it yipped desperate for contact.
Fern said nothing.
Ronnie’s shuffling preceded him. “Nah, it was the generic,” he said, rounding the corner. “We weren’t givin’ her nothin’ special so must just be her nerves.”
Fern nodded, maroon lips pulled into a straight line. She turned to leave but Ronnie started up again. “Try feeding her some canned chicken or somethin’ if she’s still not eatin’ by tomorrow. It worked with Max and you know how tricky those three-headed dogs can be. Had to give a can to each head.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
When they got home, Fern cracked open a can of chicken and smiled as Dog tilted her head. Buzz. Her phone rattled on the counter. She glanced at the screen and immediately regretted it. Call out. They needed her to come in early. She needed the money. She replied, set the can of chicken on the kitchen floor and rushed to her room. After a quick sniff test, she pulled on her cleanest work shirt, shoved a slice of bread down her throat and painted on her eyeliner She never went to work without eyeliner. “I’ve gotta head out now but I have tomorrow off. We’ll go to the park or something, kay?” She gave Dog a pat on the head and turned to leave when her foot slipped out. Her hand slammed against the wall and she caught herself from falling. Adrenaline pumping for the fight that never happened, she breathed manually. Calm thoughts, calm thoughts. She couldn’t afford a flare-up; not this close to the holidays. Her heartbeat slowed to a manageable pace and she glared at the floor searching for the guilty object that tripped her.
It was the can of chicken. The half-eaten can of chicken. That was a plus.
Work went even worse than usual. It was like the customers knew it was her Friday. One after another taking phone calls, digging out exact change, abandoning the register to get more items and of course, trying to pass off expired coupons. And throughout it all, she smelled like chicken. She hated her job. How she completely, entirely loathed it. She hated the monotony, she hated the unreasonable customers, but most of all she hated that it was all she knew. Six years, six years here and it was supposed to be a temporary job. Just something part-time until she could start her career. And then her car broke down. And then she had a few loans she needed to pay off. And then, and then, and then she just forgot to leave at some point and it wasn’t like anyone would hire her now. Not with her condition. She was doomed to be a cashier living alone in a rundown shack.
She clocked out late and stretched. Her day off had arrived but the relief had yet to follow. She sped home, cigarette smoke trailing out her open window. Her front door seemed friendlier when she remembered someone was waiting for her. She opened it slowly and smiled at Dog’s brown eyes. Home. She was finally home and nothing sounded better than settling in. Dog hadn’t been out for hours, though. She begrudgingly grabbed the red leash and clipped it to her collar. Walk it was.
They took their usual path by the train tracks, chill December air exacerbated by the pelting rain. Tomorrow’s forecast was the same but the following days, the days she was working, were projected to be less miserable. Of course. Her job had robbed her of so much. She’d missed out on family, on friends, on art. Work wasn’t the only guilty party: she had agreed to come in today. All those other times, too but It was much easier to blame work than accept her self-imposed isolation. What else was she supposed to do in her condition? It was dangerous to be around her even for Dog. She glanced down at the pitbull. Just three more days. Off in the distance, a bright light neared. Fern pulled Dog away from the tracks and continued walking. The trains didn’t usually run during their walks. She wondered if the schedule had changed until she remembered she clocked out late that evening. Her schedule was always changing. The only routine she had really were these walks. It would be strange without them. Strange coming home to an empty apartment but she would get used to it, right?
The whistle blew and Dog yipped. Fern clamped down on the leash, struggling against the wellspring of strength Dog suddenly possessed. “Hey!” She pulled back trying to rein her in. “Calm down! It’s ok, it’s just a train.” Dog pulled back, caught in a frenzy. With a solid yank, she tugged the leash out of Fern’s hands and darted off in the opposite direction of the train.
“Dog!” yelled Fern, voice strained in the pounding rain. She bolted after her, legs pumping, shoes smacking the wet pavement. “Dog!” she yelled louder as the gravity of the situation sank in. Her legs started to ache in a numb sort of way but that didn’t worry her as much as the cramp in her stomach. The anxiety, she assured herself. She raced down the back alley looking for any sign of movement but the pelting rain kicked up too much mist. The light from the street lamps reflected off the droplets and the alley was illuminated with a soft glow. The further Fern ran, the more she knew Dog was long gone.
She was alone in the alley with a few parked cars.
Years of smoking caught up to her and she hunched over wheezing. Her legs felt stiff and the cramping had gotten worse. She grabbed her sides and as she hunched over, felt the ache spread from her core to her arms and legs. This wasn’t anxiety, she realized a little too late.
Oh no. It wasn’t supposed to be today.
First a shudder. The tremors rippled through her muscles like a warning. The dread sank in and she gritted her teeth in anticipation.
It started in the bones.
Grinding, cracking; they grew. Her jaw shot forward, her gums bled and her teeth fell out only to be replaced by canines. Next, the flesh. Tendons snapping, fibers ripping, skin pulling, and stretching. She could always handle it until this point. Not that she had a choice, but she gave herself credit regardless. It was the itching, the intense burning shredding across her skin as the fur burst out. Patches, puffs then all her skin was on fire.
Of course, it happened early this month. Of course, when everything else had hit the fan and Dog had run away.
Fern whimpered and stared sideways at the world around. The glow of the streetlights painted the pavement like a dream and she fazed in and out of consciousness. The worst of it was behind her but she was still too weak to move. The rain came down hard, pelting her fur until it slicked up against her skin. She glanced around, getting her bearings. Still in the alley, still missing Dog. Pathetic. She was just pathetic. Sobriety arrived eventually and she twisted to lay on her stomach. She pawed the cold ground gauging her strength, and with a wheeze, pushed herself up on all fours.
The transformation got a bit easier each time. The pain was still as severe, but she knew what to expect. That was where her experience ended, though. She usually took tranquilizers before the change and even if she was awake for the worst of it, she could at least sleep off the rest and make it into work on time the next day. After a bit of math, she figured she’d snap back at sunrise. Her clothes were next to her in a rumpled heap and she scooped them up in her mouth. She had a degree of control, the injections ensured that much. Supposedly, they also regulated the timing of the shift but her stress must have throw it all out of whack. She’d let herself get too worked up. Why’d she let Zach talk her into this? She knew it wouldn’t work out.
Calm thoughts, calm thoughts. If she wasn’t careful, she’d stay like this longer than a few hours. She dragged herself to the nearest carport and slumped behind a red truck. At least, Fern knew it was red from memory. It looked gray at the moment. Whatever color it was, she was out of the rain and with luck, the truck owner would stay parked at least until she changed back. It was just a waiting game at this point. This was just ridiculous. Everything about this was ridiculous. If the rain wasn’t bad enough, her sense of smell was magnified far beyond what she’d considered possible and every putrid smell from the alley bombarded her: old fish reek from the diner, incense spice from the crystal store, urine and oil, and all the discarded bits of urban indulgence. Yet within the cacophony was a familiar smell she didn’t even know she recognized. Something soft and pleasant. It was closer than anticipated. She glanced around, suddenly alert and out of the corner of her eye, spotted a familiar blob emerge from the other side of the truck.
Dog stared at Fern with her droopy eyes. She’d come back. A blip of joy washed over Fern at the realization. How had Dog found her? It must have been by smell but that didn’t make sense; she probably reeked like wet dog. Then Fern remembered the chicken and the half-eaten can. So that was it. Dog found her because she was hungry. Well, at least she was back and Fern wouldn’t owe her brother any explanations.
She glanced up at Dog’s boxy face. Her droopy, brown eyes squinted and she parted her mouth as if she were about to say something. Fern stared, curiosity peaked but knew better than to expect anything.
But Dog spoke.
Of course, it wasn’t eloquent or a high mark of expression in any way. It wasn’t even verbal but it was exactly what Fern needed to hear.
Slowly, Dog walked over to Fern and curled up beside her, head resting on her shoulder. She let out a content sigh and nestled into Fern’s wet back, tail thumping softly on the pavement. Fern shivered, but not because she was cold and nestled in closer to Dog. She’d come back and it wasn’t because she was hungry. She’d come back for her.
Together, they fell asleep in the alley with a few parked cars.
“Fern? Fern! You’re gonna miss the picture!”
“Just a sec, mom!” Fern called back as she fiddled with Dog’s headband. The antlers stuck up at an odd angle and Dog glanced up at Fern unsure. With a laugh, she said, “You look great. Come on.”
Her mother and brother waited around the tree in their gaudy sweaters, camera pointed and ready. In front of her family members sat three other pitbulls, all with antlers.
Her mother gave a harsh wave. “Get over here, Fern. We’ve got a ham waiting for us!”
Fern squeezed in next to her brother and looked back in time to notice Dog hadn’t moved.
“Come here, Dog!” She patted her legs enthusiastically and Dog slowly walked over. The family called it quits after six frames hoping the odds were in their favor.
As he slapped too much ham on his plate, Zach turned to Fern and said, “So you’re gonna keep calling her Dog even though you’re keeping her?”
“I mean…we’ve both kinda gotten used to it.” She formed a mountain out of her potatoes and dribbled a Pompeii amount of gravy.
“So you’re gonna have a dog named, “Dog?”:
“Yep.” Hiding under the table, Dog wagged her tail as she eyed the ham and Fern tried not to fall for it.
“What about Deeogee?”
“What? Where did that come from?”
Zach shoved an entire roll in his mouth and kept talking. “It’s still Dog, but you pronounce each letter. D-O-G. Deeogee, get it?”
“That’s kind of brilliant, actually.” She turned to her dog. “Deeogee?” Deeogee perked her head up, alert and strong. Fern snuck her a slice of ham and Zach smiled lightly so their mother wouldn’t catch on.
This was alright. Life was alright.