I put off visiting Hans and Laurel for so long that by the time I flew out to Michigan, they’d rescued a dog, a gangly, tawny, jumpy boxer they named Shelley, and bought a house — old and overly charming, with sloping pine floors, wavy glass windows, white enamel doorknobs painted with little bouquets of fruit and flowers.
We sat on their lawn in wobbly wicker chairs, sipping iced tea sweetened with syrup made from their backyard cherries. The conversation sputtered to a stop every time one of them leapt up to prevent Shelley from rooting in the grass for fallen fruit.
“Cyanide,” my sister explained, after the third or fourth time. “In the stems and pits. And cherries give her indigestion.”
“That was a long night,” Hans said, tugging the dog toward the house. He emerged a moment later, Shelley pawing at his chest as he held a new tennis ball over his head. When he lobbed the ball toward the back fence, Shelley lunged forward, in motion losing her particularity, becoming just the impression of a dog.
Hans loped after her, and Laurel grinned at his attentiveness. “It’s good practice,” she said, satisfied. “For later.”
I wanted to press her for more, and I would have, if she hadn’t married by best friend. I thought, before I came to visit, that I was content with how they seemed happier: he was less argumentative, she was more forthright about what she wanted. Crisper.
But on their lawn, confined to talking about work (Laurel’s orchestra politics, new principal at Hans’s school, no breakthroughs at my lab) and the house (endless repairs, refurbishments, reclamations) and the dog (enthusiastic, mischievous, beloved), I felt as if I were floating on the surface of their lives, no longer permitted to dive below to visit their reefs and wrecks. Constraint between us had grown practically overnight, like kudzu vines choking trees along the highway. Though Laurel and Hans were still the tenders of my most rooted secrets, the groves arching over their own were now fenced, barred to me as long as they were with each other.
I picked up my glass and gulped the sweet tea, cherry bits hitting my upper lip. I tongued the wet flesh, muddling back to where the conversation had left off. “You’re thinking of getting another dog?”
“Another boxer. They do better in pairs.”
“Yeah, she definitely gets lonely,” Hans said, flopping in his careless way onto a chair, which groaned beneath him. He pried the ball loose from Shelley’s jaws. “She opens doors to find us.”
Out of professional habit I imagined the outline of her skull; her head was so wide it made Hans’s large hands seem small. Of course she could push a door open.
Hans followed my gaze. “No, no — she’s figured out doorknobs. We have no idea how — she only does it when we’re both in another room without her. One morning we woke up and there she was, lying next to the bed, looking very pleased with herself.”
“She’s brilliant,” Laurel said. Smitten, though I couldn’t tell whether it was with the dog or with Hans.
Later Hans made dinner while Laurel and I picked more cherries for dessert, macerating them with sugar to pour over tart yogurt. As we ate, Shelley paced underneath the table, startling me with her flicking tail, her warm side against my calf, the weight of her head resting on my knee.
“She loves you!” Hans said. I smiled and scratched Shelley’s ear, not answering. Hans always knew when I was lying.
Laurel and I had grown up with dogs who had the run of the house, lovable mutts who often spent the night at the foot of our beds, when the door was left open in invitation. But the thought of an animal slipping into my room while I slept — the cherries turned bitter in my mouth.
The house was agreeably drafty in the cool evening, and I appreciated the bright, soft quilt on the bed. Laurel had outdone herself with the room: a slim vase of fresh wildflowers matched to the painted bouquet on the doorknob, thriving houseplants set on stacks of novels, a framed photo of the three of us next to a pitcher of cool water on a bureau I recognized from our parents’ house.
I felt very much like a guest.
In the morning, clumsy with patchwork sleep, I nearly knocked over the water pitcher as I pushed the bureau away from the door, millimeter by soundless, painstaking millimeter, just as I’d moved it the night before. Glad to have avoided disaster, I got dressed, ready to make coffee and burn my toast while I read the news.
But something was wrong with the door; the delicate knob came away in my hand. Delaying the inevitable, I squinted at the cornflowers and poppies and cherries, each petal sharp, the cherries glowing red against the cold surface.
In the hall, her jaw parted enough for me to see the gleam of white enamel, Shelley lay sprawled and stiff at my feet. Alone.
Carolyn Oliver’s very short prose has appeared or is forthcoming in jmww, Unbroken, Monkeybicycle, Tin House’s Open Bar, CHEAP POP, matchbook, Midway Journal, formercactus, and New Flash Fiction Review. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, she lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to more of her writing can be found at carolynoliver.net.
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