I don’t know where the name Lucy came from. I imagine it meant something to Isabelle’s mother; Lucy was her dog. I used to wonder why she didn’t take the dog with her. Sometimes my husband calls Lucy the name of his ex-wife when he doesn’t know I’m around. He sings it out softly when they’re leaving for a walk, or whispers it as he pets her nose early in the morning when he goes to start the coffee.
Isabelle is sitting very still in the passenger seat with the dog taking up her whole lap. Lucy stopped shaking, Isabelle tells me. It’s true, the dog isn’t twitching anymore. Her body’s curled up like a stone with her face and paws hidden, so that the subtle rise and fall of this stone as it breathes is somehow surreal.
This is the first time my husband’s ever left me in charge of his daughter for more than a few days and it’s getting easier and easier to make mistakes. I didn’t tie up Isabelle’s hair when we were baking and now the ends hold clumps of frosting. When I lean too close I can feel the heat from Isabelle’s sunburned shoulders, though I know he won’t ask after forgotten sunscreen.
Each house we pass is a slight, grey smudge on the street, like small piles of driftwood staggered at low tide. The houses are old, but ours is made new by too many appliances and too few books, remains of the woman that came before me. Neighbors have been disappearing quickly, I’ve noticed, no doubt due to four cases of cancer that popped up within a few years of one another and caused families to flee, fearing the pesticides from the fields. I’ve only lived here five months, but sometimes I feel these pesticides in my breath, falling from my skin in the shower.
Stop that, I tell Isabelle. She’s shuffling around to scratch her neck. Try to keep the dog still, we don’t want her throwing up all over the place, I say. I don’t mean for it to come out cold. I’m trying to be warm toward the girl, but sometimes I slip.
There are empty fields out of both of our windows with dust rising from their bones. Up ahead are the same tall buildings that can be seen from our front yard. Isabelle used to draw those buildings before bed, speckled yellow dots as lighted windows. She revealed them to her father once and said it was New York City. With one hand petting Lucy, he explained
that New York was too far away to be seen, and those were only the tall buildings of the University a town away.
When we arrive at the clinic, a woman in green scrubs takes Lucy from my arms. I follow her into a room with a cold steel table and she asks me when Lucy first became comatose.
Comatose? I say. She was shaking earlier and then started breathing heavily, but she was not comatose.
Now I see how her limp body can be prodded without her eyes opening. Patches of fur are matted together across her stomach and Isabelle stands level with the steel table, holding Lucy’s ear in one palm and petting it with two fingers of her other hand. I can see the woman’s small ears and long, thin nose twitching as she inspects the dog. Her eyes are warm when they pass over Isabelle. This, I think, is the woman I’d want my husband to come home with. She’d jump into Isabelle’s chair and blanket forts, solve the girl’s lonely tantrums with soft laughter. I won’t leave my husband and let his daughter be alone again. It would be an exaggeration to say I didn’t love him anymore; such a sentiment can’t vanish that quickly, I hope. But somehow it’s slipped into the abandoned corners of our house, and I only come across it every so often, like a twenty-dollar bill I don’t even remember losing. Even so, I’d welcome a woman that forces me out, a woman like this, who would care for Isabelle where her father’s indifference cannot.
Isabelle tugs the bottom of my shirt. She stretches up to whisper something and I bend to meet her. I don’t think I’ve earned the trust of being the one she whispers to, but I listen as she says, is it because I gave her a snack?
No, Izzy. I say, you only gave her a dog treat, didn’t you? The girl curls her shoulders in, folds both chubby arms across her eyes. She tells me, through short, suffocated breaths between each sob, how she let the dog lick the bowl and the spatula covered in chocolate batter.
In the waiting room I call my husband. I tell him I dropped an open bag of chocolate chips on the floor and Isabelle was the one to notice how Lucy got to them before I could pick them up. I tell him Isabelle is trembling in the heat. When the woman in green scrubs comes back with arms clutched over a clipboard, I tell him Lucy is gone.
The drive home is shorter than it was before. The drive home always is. Isabelle’s silent with her arms resting on her belly and then she tells me, Mama had brown hair that was soft, just like Lucy’s long ears, and that is all she says. There’s so much dust in the air that I cannot see the tall university buildings in my rearview mirror as we drive away. Only the copper of the fields and the gold ghosts that rise from their skin. When we get closer to our house I pull the car over to the shoulder of the road. There’s a pair of wild turkeys that step jarringly across the field. They’re digging at the ground with their beaks and I think there must be something in that soil getting ready to grow.
Bryna Peebles Cofrin-Shaw is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA in Creative Writing, and Brown University. Her work has been published in the American Literary Review and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is originally from Northampton, Massachusetts and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.