If he had been walking the dog, she would not be lost. Paul was sure of it. But his wife had the leash in her hand, and when and a man and his dogs approached from the opposite direction—a Doberman mix and a poodle, he thought, though it was hard to tell in the dark—Poppy had planted her feet then back-pedaled. She slipped out of her collar, ran across the street and disappeared between two houses. “Oh, fuck,” his wife said and crossed the street, calling the dog and vanishing behind the houses. Paul turned back to the man with the dogs, who had commanded the animals to sit side by side at his feet and now held their leashes tight.
“I was about to reel them in.”
“Poppy’s skittish,” Paul said. “We rescued her from a shelter in Hudson, Wisconsin, four days ago. She came from Kentucky. A German Shepherd mix. You probably couldn’t tell in the dark, but she doesn’t have much fur.”
Mange, he explained, giving the full story even though the man hadn’t asked for it. The way her previous owner had been unable to pay for the medication. How he had given her to a shelter, not a no-kill facility, and a Wisconsin rescue group intervened. They had picked her up just in time to avoid being euthanized. Paul and his wife had found her picture online, Jane finally ready for another dog now that she had retired from teaching. Declaring a soft spot for dogs no one else would adopt, she had insisted on making the 30-minute drive from St. Paul to their neighboring state.
“So far Poppy’s been mistaken for a wolf, a coyote, and a hyena. A face only a mother could love.” Paul smiled.
“Sounds like you’ll want to find her quick then,” said the man, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket—one of the fancy ones with a screen. “What’s your number? I’ll keep my eye out on the way home.”
Paul gave him the number for his wife’s cell phone. He hadn’t memorized his own, having acquired it only recently. He’d returned his first phone after a week—the buttons were so damn small and despite cataract surgery hard to read. He went several months without one. This time he had asked for the simplest phone with the biggest numbers on the keypad, and still, he found it complicated to use. Paul watched the man continue down the street, dogs back at the end of their 16-foot leads—typical—and listened for the sound of his wife calling for the dog. The neighborhood was quiet. A light breeze blew dried oak leaves down the sidewalk and somewhere a car door slammed. Paul decided to backtrack and head down Vincent. His wife would have ended up on Folwell and he would meet her there.
All things aside, it was a pleasant night. The temperature was still in the 60s—he’d checked the thermometer when they left the house—and he needed only a light jacket. This was his favorite part of the neighborhood: brick and Tudor-style homes and Oak trees lined the boulevard, their branches forming a canopy over the street. He paused every couple of houses and cupped his hands over his mouth, calling the dog’s name and listening for some sound to give her away. The jingle of the tags on her collar perhaps. When he didn’t hear her, he didn’t worry. They would find Poppy; he had a good feeling about it.
At Folwell, Paul crossed the street to a narrow sidewalk cutting through the middle of the block and overshadowed by trees on either side. He thought he heard his wife call his name, but when he looked up and down the street he didn’t see her. He followed the walkway to a steep, narrow set of concrete stairs that descended into woods, exactly the kind of place a dog might go. He pulled a small flashlight from the pocket of his black, Levi’s jeans—a necessary accessory for picking up dog poop in the dark. His night vision wasn’t what it used to be. Taking hold of the metal railing with one hand and shining the light below him, he moved one step at a time. The concrete stairs sparkled in the beam of his light, crisscrossed by veins of smooth, gray patching material where cracks once ran across the treads. At the last step, he paused, examining the dirt path running through the woods. He reached out his toe and lowered it, relieved to find the ground right away.
The trail had once been a trolley track, shuttling students between the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses of the University of Minnesota. His mother had ridden the trolley as a student, before she met his father, and since Paul and his wife inherited the family home, they’d walked their dogs here. Briefly, Paul heard the sound of Poppy’s tags. He pointed his light toward the ground as if listening through the dark would help him hear. There was only his wife, calling his name from the top of the stairs, talking as she descended.
“Thought I’d lost you and the dog. What a night that would have been. I can’t believe we lost her, after only four days. We’re the worst, damn dog owners.”
“You know that’s not true.” Between them they’d raised four dogs from puppyhood and adopted an adult dog, too—a sled dog that didn’t like to pull. “Stop talking for a second. I’m listening for the dog.”
His wife reached the dirt path and placed her hands on her hips.
“How are you going to do that?”
“Listen for her tags.”
Jane sighed and held up Poppy’s leash, shaking it so that the tags on her collar jingled.
“Oh. That’s right. I wasn’t thinking. Duh.”
Paul said that sometimes—duh—having acquired the habit from their daughter when she was in Junior High School. She had since grown up, graduated from college (unlike Paul), gotten married and divorced (like Paul had done twice during his 20s), and moved to Colorado (something Paul wished he had done). He liked the word as a way to show his third and longest running wife that he was, despite her insistence otherwise, still self-aware. Paul started down the path without waiting for Jane. No need to give her time to fixate on the way he’d forgotten that the dog no longer wore her collar. She liked to nag him now that she had retired, tell him that he didn’t do enough with his day, had let his world get small. If he stayed more active and involved, she said, he wouldn’t forget things like that; he would be sharp and on point. She never understood that if they’d adopted a dog sooner—weeks after their sled dog died rather than a year and a half—Paul would have been able to go for walks, take the dog to obedience classes and have things to do. Her insistence on waiting for her retirement had delayed the very thing she wanted: an “outlet” for Paul to get out of the house and do something with himself.
Thankfully, Jane didn’t nag him tonight, except to complain that he was stranding her in the dark, taking off with the flashlight like that. He waited for her for to catch up and they looked for Poppy for over an hour, walking through the woods and then along the streets, calling her name again and again. They headed home at half past ten and went to bed in their separate rooms. His wife had taken over their daughter’s room when she’d left for college. They told people it was on account of the way Paul snored, but he knew better. She’d been holding a grudge against him since he’d lost his job and never gone back to work. He’d had a rough patch that put their relationship through the ringer, but somehow she’d stayed. He wasn’t alone and he had avoided divorce number three; for that he was grateful. He could hear Jane across the hall, turning over and sighing every few minutes. She would have trouble sleeping on account of the way she’d lost the dog, but Paul wasn’t worried. He still had a good feeling; they would find Poppy, he knew.
* * *
In the morning, Paul did what he always did: swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, waiting for his back to get used to the idea of standing, stiffness the problem more than any kind of pain. When he did stand he pulled on his plaid, fleece robe and, after doing his business in the bathroom, went to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee. He didn’t care for its taste anymore—so bitter he could barely drink half a cup. But he liked the idea of it, sitting on the counter, steam rising. He sliced half a banana into a bowl of cornflakes and poured just enough milk to cover the cereal. He set the bowl and the coffee on the dining room table then returned to the kitchen to pour a glass of orange juice. One of these days, he thought to himself, he would pour the orange juice first. Less time for the cereal to grow soggy.
He took his seat facing the dining room windows and the French doors that opened onto the porch. He liked to look out on the neighborhood and watch its comings and goings. This morning a man stood in the park across the street, using one of those plastic handles to throw a ball for his dog, a border collie with long black and white fur. The dog darted from side to side as the man prepared to throw, then dashed after the ball, running with his head low to the ground. Paul supposed that when he and his wife found Poppy they would have to buy a collar that couldn’t slip off and never let her off the leash. The thought of it made him sad, sadder than losing the dog in the first place. Poppy would have so little freedom. He took a bite of his cereal, the flakes soft in the milk.
“What are you doing?” Jane stood in the doorway to the kitchen. He had not heard the back door open but she had clearly been outside, wearing her purple fleece jacket and her black, felt beret, the dog’s leash draped around her neck. “I’ve been looking for Poppy.”
Paul didn’t respond, and she didn’t wait for an answer, leaving the room and returning moments later with the cordless phone and the business card for the rescue center where they’d adopted Poppy. She pressed the green button, held it to her ear then dropped the phone to the table.
“You haven’t called about the land line?”
“I’m getting to it,” Paul said, though in reality he’d forgotten.
“It’s the only thing I’ve asked you to do and it’s so simple to take care of.” Jane sighed, a ragged, exasperated sound, and dug through her purse to pull out her cell phone. Paul could tell she was on the verge of getting completely wound up.
“Will you relax? We’re going to find the dog.”
Jane moved into the living room, arms crossed over her chest the phone held up to her ear. Paul took another bite of his cereal, eating every last bite of the mushy flakes, then drank the final drops of milk from his bowl. He carried the bowl and mug to the kitchen, placed them in the sink and put two slices of toast into the toaster. He would call about the phone and he would look for the dog; first he would finish his breakfast.
* * *
Paul walked through campus, past Lori’s Coffee House and the Laundromat to the green, where students traversed the sidewalks running diagonally from corner to corner. He and Poppy had walked here every day since they’d brought her home; it was a place, he hoped, that she knew. Where she might scrounge for food or where someone might recognize her—she’d gotten so many looks and inquiries from passersby. He stood at the intersection where the two sidewalks met, saying “excuse me” to students with backpacks that hung low over their pants and books held tight against their chests.
“Have you seen a Shepard mix?”
Most of the students moved with their heads down. Some stepped around him without responding. Others shook their heads but did not stop walking. There was something about age that made a man invisible. Paul stepped toward an Asian girl and held out a hand as if to take her arm.
“Excuse me, have you seen a dog running loose?”
To his relief, she stopped walking and adjusted the strap of her bag on her shoulder.
“What kind of dog?”
“A German Shepard mix. Some people think she looks like a coyote.”
The girl shook her head and said she was sorry, but she hadn’t seen it.
“Good luck,” she said, and kept walking. Paul had been so certain he would find Poppy on campus, but maybe his wife had been right. They needed help. They had looked for the dog everywhere and called all the shelters—even left a message with a dog expert recommended by the rescue center. Someone who’d found lost dogs before. Paul headed toward home, thinking for the first time that Poppy could be anywhere and he had no idea how to find her. If only his wife had better reflexes or he had been walking the dog. Funny all the ways a married couple could disappoint each other.
* * *
The dog expert phoned that evening, a full 24 hours after Jane lost the dog. She took the call, but Paul sat beside her on the couch. He could hear the woman’s voice almost as clearly as if he’d answered the phone. She sounded like a drill Sergeant—brisk, matter-of-fact and demanding to know what they had done to find the dog.
“That’s not enough. Do you want to find her or not?”
Paul felt like she had pinched him right in the heart. His wife apologized.
“We’ve always had dogs. We’ve never lost one before.”
Jane took notes as she listened to the woman’s instructions, turquoise ink on a yellow legal pad, until she had a to-do list two pages long. Her cursive was large and she wrote on every other line, but Paul still felt overwhelmed. They were to make and print fliers and hang them throughout the neighborhood and call shelters morning and night—do not rely on them to call you, the Drill Sergeant had said (Paul had forgotten her name almost immediately and could not get over the accusatory tone of her voice). As calls came in with sightings, they were to make more fliers and hang them wherever Poppy was seen.
“Hang more fliers than you think you need. They need to be everywhere. Once you narrow down the dog’s location, we’ll set a trap.”
She hung up the phone without waiting for Paul’s wife to say good-bye.
“I didn’t know.” Jane held her flip phone, still open, in her lap. “How was I supposed to know we had to do all that?”
Paul placed his hand on her knee, taking note of the way she didn’t pull away—sometimes they still knew how to support each other—but didn’t speak. He wondered about the trap. How big it was. If there would be enough room for Poppy to move around inside. Whether it would hurt her when it snapped shut behind her. The idea of it made him feel like an elephant was sitting on his chest. Not the kind of pressure he imagined came with a heart attack—his wife gave him a tiny, yellow aspirin each day to prevent that kind of thing—but like his rib cage was growing tighter and tighter around his heart. The kind of pressure that told Paul things could go horribly wrong. He knew that Jane would make the flier right away. She would open the laptop, sit tall at the dining room table, peer down at the screen through her cheaters, and get to work. Paul, a lifelong car mechanic, had never gotten the hang of computers and with nothing else to do, he cleared his throat.
“I’m going for a walk.”
“I’ll wear my reflective vest since I’ll be out alone. Maybe we’ll get lucky and I’ll find Poppy.”
The vest was made of white mesh with reflective strips across the front and back and stretchy straps to hug his sides. When Paul pulled it from a hook by the back door, it was tangled from the last time he’d taken it off. It had rolled into itself so that he could not tell the armholes from the openings for his head and torso. The material seemed to become more slippery the longer he worked at it. He snapped it in the air like a towel, gritting his teeth when he saw that Jane had come into the kitchen and watched him struggle.
“This thing is a piece of crap.” He pushed past his wife to the garbage can, opening the lid and tossing the vest inside. “Nobody makes anything of quality anymore.”
“You need to be more patient.” Jane took the vest out of the garbage and sighed. Paul knelt to the floor, knees popping, and tied the laces of his white Nikes so he didn’t have to watch as she untangled it without a problem. When he stood back up, she held it out to him. “Do you want help putting it on?”
“I’m not wearing that thing.”
“Paul, take it. I’ll help you put it on.”
“I have my flashlight. I’ll be fine.”
Paul jerked the back door open.
“This,” his wife said, “is why I didn’t want to retire.”
He didn’t have to see her to know the look on her face—the way she tilted her head to the side and exhaled, eyes momentarily closing. Paul stepped outside, slamming the door behind him. His heart beat wildly, like he’d run up a flight of stairs. One more way the body aged. Get a little frustrated and your heart acted like you’d been caught in a fit of rage. He waited for the pounding to subside, wondering what his wife disliked about being retired. Was it spending time with him? Or was she frustrated that he’d lost his temper?
He’d hoped that with her retirement they would remember how to be together. That with Jane by his side they could go for dog walks and bike rides, explore new parts of the city: the light rail that ran downtown, the new stadium for the St. Paul Saints, the farmers market during the summer. All the places Paul was reluctant to go on his own, because on some level Jane was right; he didn’t feel as sharp as he used to be. Maybe that’s what she was afraid of: getting slow and old like him. A breeze picked up and brushed around Paul’s body, making him shiver. Without a dog to keep him company, he did not want to walk. The Drill Sergeant had made it clear that wandering around and yelling Poppy’s name would be as effective as not looking at all. Paul had no reason to be out, and yet he didn’t want to go back in the house, his wife’s frustration permeating the air, having to apologize for getting upset. Maybe there was something to do in the garage.
* * *
The Drill Sergeant looked more like a cat lady than anyone in the military. Short, heavy set and pear-shaped, wearing a sweatshirt over a collared shirt. Yet every time she opened her mouth, she spoke with an authority and condescension that drove Paul to walk the opposite side of the street when they hung fliers. He watched his wife yakking away with the woman, catching every fifth sentence. “I don’t want my world to get small.” “I think staying engaged with the world is the best way to stay sharp.” He never heard his own name, but he knew the implication. It pleased Paul to see that the Drill Sergeant didn’t chime in, except to ask for more fliers.
The flier itself was simple. A picture of Poppy followed by a description of when and where she’d gone missing. The picture had come from the rescue center’s website, the same close up that won over his wife—those sad eyes and large ears that looked to Paul like satellite dishes. What the picture did not show were her body and the places where her fur was missing, where her skin had grown dark and taken on the appearance of tanned leather. It seemed to Paul that they hung one thousand fliers. On lampposts, community bulletin boards and at bus stops. In their neighborhood, all over campus, and the first ring suburbs, Falcon Heights and Roseville. Would a simple flier be enough to make someone call them?
Apparently, it was. The first call came that evening from a woman who’d seen Poppy near the Cub Foods parking lot. She’d thought it was a coyote and shrieked, startling her five-year-old in her stroller. But when she saw one of the fliers she was certain she’d seen Poppy. Two more calls came the next day from a neighborhood to the east, suggesting that Poppy was moving toward Wisconsin. The third day after Poppy disappeared, a fourth caller said she was looking at Poppy as she spoke, in a field across from her house. Paul sat next to his wife as she took the call, listening in. The caller was frantic.
“Your dog is here. Right now. Aren’t you going to come and get her?”
“I don’t know where you are. Can you tell me how to find you?”
Jane sat waiting, pencil hovering over a note pad that said I trust dogs more than people across the top until the woman told her it was a false alarm. Her husband had just identified the animal as a coyote.
The most concerning call came before dinner on Monday. Paul sat in a rocker with his feet propped up on a footstool, watching the evening news while his wife took the call. A commuter had seen Poppy running eastbound along the median of Highway 36. Six lanes of traffic traveling 60 miles an hour or faster, and now there was a hairless German Shepard mix in the cars’ midst. Paul could picture it: Poppy’s head low to the ground, paws pounding on the pavement. He shifted in the rocker, causing it to creak as he tried to ease the dull ache in his back, a remnant from hours of walking. If Poppy avoided getting hit—if she was still running or managed to follow an exit ramp off the highway—the pads on her feet must be cracked and bleeding, her mouth dry and maybe frothing from running so hard. Paul didn’t like to think of it, and yet he could think of nothing else.
* * *
After dinner, Paul wiped down the kitchen counters, put a Tupperware of leftover split pea soup in the refrigerator and moved through the hallway toward the bathroom. The ache in his back would not relent, and he wanted an Aleve from the medicine cabinet. Jane had left the door to her bedroom cracked open, and he could hear her on the phone.
“Your father is so stressed out.”
Paul paused, the oak floor creaking under his weight, but Jane did not notice. She sat in her desk chair, back to the door, recounting the tale of the vest to their daughter, suggesting that losing Poppy had fried his nerves. The furnace kicked in as his wife listened to their daughter’s response.
“I don’t know about that. I don’t think it’s his mind. His world has gotten so small since he stopped working and he can’t handle anything out of the norm. That’s all.”
Heat rose in Paul’s body, and he tugged at the collar of his sweater. Ever since he’d spent a week in Colorado, his daughter seemed to think he was losing his memory—all because he couldn’t remember which drawer held silverware or what cupboard housed the glasses.
“There was the vacuum cleaner,” Jane said. “I found it behind the garage last week, next to the garbage can. He insisted it was broken because he couldn’t turn it on; it was fine, of course. But I think that was his temper. I hope it was his temper. Oh God, what am I going to do if he’s losing his mind?”
Paul backed away from the door, returning to the living room as quietly as he could and easing into the rocking chair. He picked up the remote and turned on the television, flipping through the channels without paying attention. Yes, the vacuum cleaner gave him trouble, but his memory was fine. He knew what year he was born. He knew that he’d lived in this house as a child. That the parking lot across from the corner store was once the site of his elementary school, not far from the school where his daughter started kindergarten. He knew that she lived Colorado and had a herding dog named Bark on account of the way she liked telling everyone what to do. He knew every detail of his life and his family’s. He just got frustrated with aging. With the way things once simple now took so long to do. They couldn’t hold it against him for getting upset about that.
Paul rocked, imagining the things he could say to his wife. That she and his daughter shouldn’t talk about him like that. That retirement wasn’t scary so stop complaining. That spending time with him wasn’t bad, either. Satisfied he could make a good argument, Paul peered at the remote through the bottom of his trifocals and typed in the channel for that reality show about singing. He liked that one. Everyone was so positive and the coaches really encouraged the contestants, like they wanted them to succeed. The station was on commercial break, of course—more commercials than show these days—and Paul hoped he had the right night. That it wouldn’t be that gory detective show. And then, thinking of Jane on the phone with their daughter, and because he wasn’t sure which show would come on, he turned off the TV. Picked up that day’s crossword puzzle from the table beside him; Jane did like to see him use his brain.
* * *
Paul sat at the dining room table eating his cereal, mug of coffee untouched before him. He hadn’t slept well, and he felt like his voice would be hoarse if he spoke—as if he’d indulged in a tirade, letting loose the things he imagined saying to Jane instead of deciding to prove her wrong. Today, he would show her: his mind was sound. She entered the room, flipping her cell phone closed.
“Mary says it’s time for the trap. Out by the children’s hospital. We’ve had three calls from that neighborhood, including one this morning.”
Jane raised a single eyebrow, and Paul cleared his throat, searching his mind for a face to put with the name. Surely she didn’t mean her sister.
“She’s helping us look for Poppy?”
“Oh, the Drill Sergeant,” Paul said, relieved. Of course he’d forgotten her name; he never used it.
“Please don’t call her that to her face.”
Jane handed Paul the keys to the car as they left the house. He took it as a positive sign; she hadn’t taken his lapse of memory as a sign of incompetence. When she navigated—telling him when to exit the freeway, when to turn by the park and stopping him before he drove past Davenpark—he didn’t worry. That was her way. He pulled up to the curb, turned off the car, and reached for the lock button on the door. The window went down. He hit the button to close the window and the locks clicked. He expected Jane to make some kind of comment, but she stood waiting on the curb, arms crossed and looking toward the hospital. So far, he thought, so good.
The children’s hospital was purple and made of tile, not unlike a big bathroom as far as Paul was concerned. “That’s something,” he said, though Jane didn’t respond. They walked around the west side of the building, the tile giving way to beige concrete with purple stripes—strange, but somewhat better. The Drill Sergeant waited next to a metal cage with a bowl of wet dog food and water inside.
“It’s a great location.” She bounced on her toes even as she stood in one spot. “No one coming and going back here; the dog is more likely to take the bait. Hospital security can see it on the surveillance system to boot. They’ll call if we catch her.”
Paul didn’t like the way the Sergeant used the word bait, but he was relieved to see the trap was large with metal siding, similar to a dog kennel. She assured him that Poppy would not be hurt when she entered and the door swung shut.
“Startled for damn sure, but not hurt.”
Paul imagined crawling inside, lured by a sense of safety only to become trapped. Startled seemed like a mild word for it. Would Poppy snap or snarl? The Drill Sergeant and his wife had a buzzing energy about them, like they were on the verge of something great. Paul worried. Would Poppy remember them? Trust them? She’d only known them four days.
“We’re getting close. I can feel it,” the Sergeant said.
“When we find this dog,” his wife responded, “it will be entirely because of you.”
The Drill Sergeant did not disagree.
She and Jane decided to fill time hanging fliers. Paul’s wife handed him a canvas bag of supplies, and he walked the way they’d come, cutting across the lawn in front of the hospital entrance and a statue of a young girl holding a kitten—a life size version of those porcelain figurines his mother once collected. This place couldn’t get any uglier. Crossing the street and heading east, Paul stepped up to a telephone pole and pulled out a flier. Poppy’s picture looked sadder than ever. A dog dejected so long she didn’t know love when she saw it. Paul knew the trap was a good thing; it would bring an end to the ordeal. But it seemed unfair that getting her home—getting her what she needed—required scaring her one more time.
He worked his way from telephone pole to street sign for two blocks, his feet rustling through the dried, brown leaves along the boulevard, then turned right. He covered two more blocks and turned right again, continuing up the street until he ran out of fliers. He walked to the corner, a T intersection, and looked around. Stucco bungalows lined the blocks on either side of him and what looked like an office building sat across the street, beige with purple accents. There was no accounting for taste, Paul thought. He glanced up at a street sign but didn’t recognize the names. Perfect. Nothing looked familiar, and he didn’t know which way to go. One more reason for Jane to judge him.
Paul pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, flipping it open and tilting it back to read the buttons. Jane had entered her phone number into a list of contacts, but he couldn’t remember how to find it. He was about to hit a green button when the phone began to play music, guitar cords. Why cell phones couldn’t have a regular ring, he did not know, but at least he knew how to answer the damn thing. He closed the phone so he could flip it open to talk, and the music stopped. When he reopened it, no one was there. He snapped it shut and shook it.
“Come on, you piece of crap!”
The guitar chords recommenced, and for reasons Paul did not understand, this time Jane’s voice was there when he answered.
“Paul, Poppy’s in the trap! Shaking like a leaf and huddled at the back of the cage, but we found her.”
“Good.” His tone was curt, and he knew it. He couldn’t shake his irritation with the phone or getting lost.
“Good? It’s great. Come meet us.”
“Why on Earth not?”
Just like Jane, Paul thought, asking questions instead of helping him out.
“I got turned around.”
His wife sighed and Paul could hear her speak to the Drill Sergeant. “We have the dog, now we need to find Paul.” Then she asked him what he saw—landmarks or street signs.
“There’s a beige building across the street with purple stripes. Ugly as hell.”
His wife took so long to respond Paul wondered if the line had gone dead.
“Are you there?”
“The hospital, Paul. Is that what you see?”
“It’s a big beige and purple building,” he repeated, further annoyed. Did she think he was that far gone? He would know a hospital when he saw one.
“Stay where you are,” she said. “I’ll find you.”
Paul dropped the phone into his bag and turned away from the building. They had finally found the dog, and now Paul couldn’t even be excited. Jane was annoyed; maybe angry he’d gotten confused. She would stride up to him with heavy footsteps, heals striking the earth and jaw clenched. He could just imagine what she’d tell their daughter; probably wouldn’t even admit he’d been right from the beginning—they’d find Poppy, he knew. But when Jane arrived, she walked softly and she hung back when she asked if he was okay.
“Of course,” he said, surprised by her demeanor. She took the canvas bag from his hand, tucking it into the crook of her elbow and crossing her arms over her stomach.
“Mary is picking us up. She put Poppy in her van, and she’ll take us to our car so we can follow her to the vet. Poppy looks fine, poor girl, but she needs to be checked out.”
Jane stared at the ground, rubbing the toe of her sneaker on the curb. When she sighed there was an uneven keel to her breath, and she looked so worried that Paul could no longer feel annoyed.
“It’s okay,” Paul said. “We found her.”
Jane shook her head and directed her gaze toward an approaching white van, the Drill Sergeant at the wheel. She came to a stop in front of them, and Jane opened the sliding door for Paul. He climbed onto the bench seat, relieved his wife would sit in front. She hadn’t given him a hard time about getting lost, but she wasn’t acting like herself.
“You would not believe how smoothly it went,” the Drill Sergeant said to him. “A beautiful thing.”
The sharp tone of her voice was gone, replaced by wonder and something that sounded to Paul like she couldn’t be more pleased—with herself most likely. Jane slid the side-door shut, and Paul looked behind him for Poppy. The rest of the seats had been removed, and she sat in a metal cage at the back of the van, slumped against its side. She looked like a giant, hairless rat. Panting. Shaking. Refusing to look at Paul when he called her name. He wondered what was going on inside of her head, if she was aware of her surroundings or blinded by surges of adrenaline and fear. He found it so hard to look at her—to see her helplessness up close—he looked away, finally examining the building as Mary drove them toward their car. Three floors of windows, some with shades closed and others lined with cut paper pumpkins and black cats. A cross between a hotel and a school, Paul thought.
When the front of the building came into view, purple siding gave way to tile, and Paul saw the statue of the girl and her kitten. Jane had been right; he’d been looking at the hospital. Paul tried to swallow, but his Adam’s apple seemed to get in the way. Sweat dripped from his armpits, and the van felt so small and stuffy it became difficult to breathe. He needed fresh air. The window next to him had two latches at the bottom; he could push it open a couple of inches if he could figure out how to open it. He touched the smooth plastic of a latch, unsure if he should lift up or push down. He glanced toward Jane. She had her face turned toward the Drill Sergeant, could be watching him from the corner of her eye. Paul dropped his hand to his lap and turned to look at the dog in her cage.
“Poppy.” He kept his voice light, and though she continued to shake and pant, she lifted her head. “That’s it, Poppy. That’s it, girl.”
Paul draped an arm over the back of his seat. If he could get her to look at him, he thought. If he could find some way to break through that panic, everything would be okay. She would get a clean bill of health from the vet. They would go home, the three of them. They would go for walks around the neighborhood—with a better collar of course—and over time, Poppy would come to know their house as her home. He and Jane would take her to training classes together and maybe, with enough time, Poppy’s fur would fill in. Maybe they would take a road trip to Colorado to visit their daughter and Bark.
“Come on, Poppy-girl,” Paul said, trying not to plead. “It’s okay. Everything is fine. Everything is going to be fine.”
Alissa’s writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Dirt Rag Magazine, and Mountain Gazette, among other publications. She lives in the Colorado Rockies, where she is an editor for the local newspaper and is the owner of WritingStrides, where she helps writers show up at the page and create meaningful stories. This is her first fiction publication.