Summer Short Story Award 3rd Place: “Dog Days” by Catherine Carberry

March 25, 2024

“How well do we know our neighbors, our ex-husbands, or ourselves for that matter? ‘Dog Days’ is a closely observed story that asks these questions in an idyllic town in the Cape. Its narrator gifts us an unsentimental view into a neighbor’s troubled marriage even as her own ex-husband mails her accusatory letters chronicling her faults. These juxtapositions bridge a series of what ifs, and if anything in the end is left unscathed, perhaps it’s the story’s eponymous dogs who wander unleashed.” — Guest Judge Jai Chakrabarti


It was four hours of mostly highway, and when I got to Harwich the air turned heavy, salt-licked. I passed a cemetery, then a funeral home, then a granite company with model headstones displayed on their lawn, without names or dates. This progression felt convenient, like a grocery store next to a farm, or a fire station next to a burning house. Then there was a field and the turn-off onto a dirt road and B’s house, with a sign that said Pegasus, a whim of his grandfather. This was the sort of town where people name their houses, I guess.

I was here because of Lori. There was a gap on the calendar, B said magnanimously, and his parents were in France. Anyway, it was the off-season. Which is to say that if Lori’s body had been found in June rather than September, I probably would have not come at all. B didn’t know about any of it, Lori was only local news, but when I told him I needed a getaway, he said Pegasus was free until Christmas. I did not want to be there at Christmas. Four days was enough, probably, to shake it off, but maybe I’d take a week to avoid any reporters like the ones I’d already dodged while I was leaving, how they all swiveled to me when they saw my car pulling out of the drive, fusing together like one big robotic eye.

B and I have nothing in common except our diplomas issued from the same university, but he still invites me to Japanese tea tastings, gallery openings, a Broadway matinee featuring the music of an irrelevant band my parents didn’t like even when they were relevant. I don’t know if it is a question of kindness, or maybe loneliness mixed with unearned loyalty. Before I moved to the mountains, we would do these things together but have nothing to talk about. I would ask half-hearted questions and he would respond as though I were a census taker.

Still, I appreciate the effort and am bewildered by it. So I do it even now, I drive down to the city for his birthday parties and Friendsgivings. I go and study the other friends he’s invited and try to figure out if we’re all there out of a shared sense of obligation to someone so pathologically nice. And if that’s what friendship is: people who don’t necessarily like each other, jamming their lives together on occasional weekends just to fill a seat or an apartment.

It’s been a year since my ex-husband’s letters stopped coming and I have mostly stopped caring about whether I am a good person. But one of the letters was about that, how every relationship is a transaction, which feels as true as saying that every spoon could be, if turned around, a dull knife. Fine, but what do you expect me to do with this information?

* * *

B’s family house was smaller than I’d thought it would be. A cottage can be a euphemism for a person of B’s social standing. Every single person in America knows B’s last name—his great-great-someone was one of our founding capitalists—but it’s a big family with hundreds of cousins, and some branches of their gilded tree are better off than others. B’s grandmother married a man of lesser status and thus lost favor with the long-dead patriarch and thus the cottage.

The kitchen, though, was magnificent. A marble-topped island, a deep green backsplash and copper fixtures, an unnecessarily complicated faucet. The refrigerator had a chilled bottle of Sancerre with a tag with my name on it, written in dainty cursive. And in the bedroom, another name tag tied with twine to a basket filled with locally crafted soaps and body lotion, a glass tube of bath salts with little flecks of lavender. And a card, from B but not in his handwriting.

Dear C, 

Treat yourself, beautiful! The Seagull has good coffee, and go to Grass Knot for the best lobster rolls. Call William (house manager) if you need anything—number on the fridge. 



Is it friendship if he can’t remember that I’m allergic to shellfish, I thought, if he gets his hired William to assemble gift baskets. I threw out the card and then thought better of it, imagining William phoning B to tell him I was an ungrateful guest, and so I took it out from the tasteful wicker wastepaper basket and slipped it into a book instead. It was nearly sunset so I decided the right and only thing to do would be to pour the Sancerre into a thermos and drink all of it on some beach, along with the charcuterie William had arranged on a small wooden board, so I emptied my bag on the bed and refilled it with these things I just told you about, and then got to the beach even though you don’t need to know how, or why, or where exactly I went.

But I’ll tell you a little about it, the walk to the beach, because I spent it thinking that I might have been a better person if I’d been raised in a town like this. Maybe I’d have attended one of those private Jesuit colleges for rich idiots, found some sense of selflessness along the way, volunteering on weekends or hosting campus bake sales with vague, impossible goals—Brownies for Burundi! Maybe I would have an easy way of making conversation, wouldn’t attract murder and chaos as it seemed, lately, that I did.

B’s house wasn’t far from the ocean, but I had to walk past the headstone store and the cemetery and the funeral home, and then down a road lined with bigger houses, large empty porches, sepia hydrangea bushes, American flags. All those families gone for the season wherever rich people lived around here, with their hired Williams checking on the vacation home a few times a week to make sure that no one like me moved a decorative stone. And maybe if I’d had my own William, my own shingled family cottage, I would have been granted certain social graces and my husband wouldn’t have had a reason to write those letters.

* * *

Beach towns in the off-season are the best. You feel like some hardened sea captain, or a tragic widow pacing the shores. It was warm but the beach was nearly empty, a retired couple sitting in chairs and one family near the water, skimming a toddler’s feet above the foam. I laid out my picnic and the Sancerre was perfect, light and crisp, and the meat and cheese and artisanal rosemary crackers made me feel like I belonged, like some new divorcee who got the beach house and was making the best of it.

The sky wasn’t like my sky in the woods, but lighter, a pale sunset in pastels unlike the fiery bursts over the pines, the neon-pink streaks right as the coyotes start to howl. No, it was a muted sunset, the sand turning lavender, and the retired couple, I swear to God, started clapping, lightly, to themselves.

* * *

I didn’t like Lori when I first met her. I was walking the dogs, leashless as we all do, and one of them went down her gravel drive. I knew what was at the end of the drive because I’d walked down once before, in winter during my aunt’s wake, curious about what was at the end of the long downhill path into the woods. Back then, I’d seen the frozen creek, the tractor lodged against a tree stump. The house looked like a witch’s house if the witch was really into architecture that was modern in the seventies, all hard angles, enormous black windows, perched on stilts like Baba Yaga’s and painted the trendy not-quite-black of all the new houses around here.

This time, when I met Lori, the dogs and I didn’t get that far, were not even a third of the way down when I saw a woman in expensive hiking boots walking towards me.

“Do you know this is a driveway?” She was older than me, maybe early forties, and she had the fleece vest that told me she worked in the city and came here on weekends, a country retreat.

Did I know this was a driveway. To tell the truth would be to admit that sometimes my dogs shat here, and to lie would be to play stupid. I shouted no, I was just following the dogs.

“Where do you live? In the rental down the hill?” She squinted at me and I hated her, so I told the truth.

“No, I’m your neighbor.”

We stood there for a little while and it was obvious she was waiting for me to leave, so I turned and walked with her to the road, and I thought, What a bitch, like the lights lady. Everyone in this town is like her or the lights lady, who twice now has stopped me on my way home, the sky still a pale blue, shouting, “Don’t you believe in lights?” with this evil smile. Passive aggressive old hippies, all of them. I could never stand vigilante behavior.

“My husband has been here for five years and he’s never seen you,” Lori said.

“Okay,” I said, which is a trick I learned from B, to accept dialogue and not worry about contributing to a conversation. I didn’t bother telling her that I’m a fireman’s daughter, that the road she lived on was named for my family back when we were one of five homesteading families in this town, that I know everything about her type: the rich husband hiring city architects to design their witch house, angry at tourists but a tourist herself. Mad at the renters who walk down her driveway, as though renting a house gives someone less of a right to just goddamn live.

One of the dogs sniffed the driveway, and I fondly remembered all the times he’d done his kangaroo crouch right here on Lori’s land, shitting by the daffodils.

“Well, if you ever need anything, I live right here,” I said, pointing to my house across the road. It was grander than what someone who looks like me could afford, because it was my aunt’s home and I inherited it last year. It’s been in the family for generations. Clawfoot tubs, a few original bubbled windows, a wrap-around porch where my homesteading ancestors sat and watched the sky, celebrated the purchase of oxen or mourned another baby dead, whatever those hearty ancestors did. The city people admire people from here, so desperate they are for belonging. They think because they know Jimmy at the A&P or Fran who owns the bookstore that they are imbued with some folksy wisdom. They love peppering their sentences with these names, signifiers that even though they’re weekenders, they aren’t like the other city people. They don’t understand that all city people are exactly the same.

“I love this house!” Lori said, and she became a person. I could see it, the transformation, from how she was to how she is with people she wanted to please, people she respected.

“Peter and I were wondering about who lived here. Can I see the view? I love our home but miss having a view.”

“Another time,” I said. “I have company.” The truth was that it was just my dad coming up with his girlfriend, they were helping me fix up the kitchen and take some of my aunt’s things that made me too sad to touch. She was very old when she died, but still, I couldn’t stand looking at the crystal decanter she got as a wedding present and was very proud of, the little lace doilies.

A while later I saw Lori walking up the hill with her mail and then disappearing into the open mouth of the forest, walking over the gravel tongue to her witch house.

* * *

At the beach, the sky was wider than I’d remembered. Lately my view was always obscured, no matter where I went. Trees or mountains or tall buildings, and I’d forgotten that with an unbroken horizon, with just the thin line of the sea, there could be more sky than earth.

I left before it got too dark, because I hadn’t read the news the whole day, and I didn’t know if they’d found Peter yet. I’d left the lights on for that reason, and as I checked the closets and behind the shower curtain, and put William’s number in my phone, I wondered if I’d always do this new ritual, even after they’d found him. Peter wasn’t looking for me, per se, but that’s the thing about the disappeared, they can be nowhere and everywhere, even in Harwich.

I unpacked my things in the bedroom. Above the headboard was a mass-produced sign made to look like driftwood—SANDY FEET HAPPY HEART. The sheets, though, were soft as some luxurious cream, and as I lay in bed I tried to not think about Lori, or Peter, and when I closed my eyes I saw a white van disappearing behind a highway median, and I saw a man in a neon vest with something in his hand, walking down the grassy hill.

In the morning I took one of the bikes and went on the bike path, but it was muggy and I kept biking through swarms of gnats. When I got back to the house, I called William to hear another human voice.

“This is Carla, B’s friend.”

“Welcome to the Cape, Carla! Have you found inspiration yet?”


“For your writing”

“Oh, sure, it’s beautiful. Great sunset last night.”

“Need anything? Amanda will be there on Tuesday to clean.”

“No, it’s okay, I just wanted to check in.”

After I hung up, I decided I should text B. I stepped outside to take a selfie in front of the house. It’s so nice here! Thank you soooooo much <3 He wouldn’t text back, I knew, or if he did it would be with a yellow smiley face, blowing me a kiss.

The best lobster rolls cost thirty dollars and would kill me, so I ordered a bacon-egg-and-cheese and walked to the beach again. I missed my dogs, who were staying with my father. Well, one was my dog, my beautiful mutt from a pound in the Bronx, and the other was Lulu, my aunt’s drooling Havanese, who, the vet told me, would never die. Or something like that. Another twelve years felt close to immortality.

I walked on the beach and saw all kinds of dead crabs—legless, crushed shells, one half alive and twitching while a gull tore off an appendage. When I turned to walk back, I thought I saw her, Lori. She was ahead of me, holding her hands behind her back, looking for shells, maybe, or a lost ring, but the gait was wrong. Lori had a long stride, the walk of an Achiever, and this woman took short, uncertain steps. I was feeling so eerie that I thought maybe that’s what she’s like now that she’s dead, maybe death is a blow to the ego.

* * *

I met Peter the same day Lori disappeared, though I didn’t know it yet. I was with the dogs, always with the dogs, when he pulled up in a Sprinter, like something a band with some success but not fame would tour in. He was sixty or older, with long grey hair and stubble, but he still had that rich guy sense around him, like he was someone who’d retired at forty-five from some obscene career and still was living off the money his money made.

“Are you Carla?” he said. “My wife told me about you.”

We made small talk for a while. He asked me about my car, details I didn’t know the answer to, and then he traded me boring facts about his Sprinter, how he’d bought a new one every eight years since 1972.

“I’m looking for Lori. She went for a bike ride and her GPS went out. I lost her.” He grimaced. “I’m hoping I find her up here.” He pointed at the road, which we both knew was a dead end once it got to the top of the mountain, the houses getting larger and uglier as you made your way to the top, modern atrocities painted slate-grey.

“I hope you find her soon,” I said to be polite, and then he started to laugh.

“Mama’s out tonight,” he said. He was pointing up the road near his driveway. Maybe fifteen feet away was a large bear and two tiny cubs, barely bigger than Lulu. I held onto the bigger dog’s collar, scooped up Lulu, dragged them both into the house. I don’t think I even said goodbye.

Later, once they found Lori, I told this story to my father, and he told it to the police chief, and then I told it to the police chief who told it to the coroner, and the consensus was that Peter spoke to me, most likely, to have an alibi. There was a possibility her body had been in the Sprinter just then, behind the dark windows, and that was the last time anyone heard from Peter.

* * *

I still followed her, though, the woman who looked like Lori. I got close enough to see that her profile was all wrong, when she turned her head to make sure I wasn’t a man. We’re all the same, that way, women who walk alone on beaches or streets. You can feel someone following you, and when you see it’s a woman, your shoulders drop.

“Do you see that?”

The woman stopped and pointed at the ocean. I couldn’t see anything except a face that was not Lori’s face, so I tried to look at the water instead.

“See what?”

The woman kept her eyes fixed over the water, her finger drawing a slow, straight line to a shark’s fin.

* * *

After my father by way of the police chief told me about Lori, the walls began to close in like that scene in Indiana Jones. It was bad enough that my aunt’s oil paintings were still there, and occasionally I’d find a glass with a lipstick print still on it, wedged somewhere strange, a crawl space or in front of the water heater, because she was a country woman who fixed things herself, but I guess she hydrated while doing so.

It was bad enough that I shared a bed with two dogs who would sometimes both look at the same spot on the wall, wagging their tails, and then to know that across the street, Lori had been poisoned or bludgeoned or—the details weren’t out yet, just Peter’s blood-splattered Sprinter found in a parking lot in Albany. It made sleeping difficult. I wished I’d brought the dogs with me to Harwich. Being in a different house, alone, across state lines, was hardly better.

In the living room, B’s family had one of those clocks that chirps a different bird call each hour. Eight o’clock was the Eurasian wren. I called William again and asked him if he had recommendations for something to do at night.

“Not a lot going on here for young people,” he said. “But I’d like to have you over. I’m just down the road.”

I wondered if this was part of William’s job, if there was a genteel understanding between him and B’s family that he would also entertain their lonely guests. Or maybe I was the first lonely guest.

William was retired, a professor who knew B’s dad. His was one of the houses I’d passed on my way to the beach. At night, the street looked like a film set, like when George Bailey lassos the moon. Milky light from a streetlamp, grass so lush it looked artificial, like some downy nest. The houses were dark except for William’s, and I saw the back of a balding head on the couch, two empty glasses on a tray on the coffee table. I felt safe for a minute because William seemed like a gentleman, someone who would not murder a woman in a row of empty houses where no one could hear her scream. And then I felt a little panicked, like I was in a movie but didn’t know it, and the movie was about a woman who walked into a house and never left. Because you don’t know, at all, what someone is capable of. If things were different, I might be entertaining Peter and Lori tonight, a neighborly drink around a fire. They could have walked down the hill together and we’d make small talk, the two of them cheerfully bickering—she never empties the dishwasher, et cetera.

I was deliberating turning around, but then the door opened. William was short, and I thought of the soft places I could kick to escape if I needed. When he told me to come on in, I followed.

I decided this was probably not a house where I would be murdered. There were photos of children in silver frames on the mantle, and by the door I saw a letter in child’s script—HI GRANPA HOW ARE YOU IM HAPPY TODAY. In the corner was a beautiful birdcage, with two large, rust-colored birds.

“Take a seat,” William said, patting an armchair on his way to a tasteful cream-colored sofa.

“No, not much to do around here for young people in the off-season,” he said. He poured me a glass of wine and I took it, deciding that since he uncorked it in front of me, it didn’t contain powder that would make me amenable to bludgeoning.

“B told me you were a professor.”

“English. Martin, his father, has an extraordinary collection of rare books.”

“What’s your favorite class to teach?”

William took a jovial sip of wine. “Epistolary novels.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, but William didn’t seem to expect anything.

We drank our wine in silence and I got to thinking about epistolary novels. I remembered reading Les Liasons Dangerous in high school, but couldn’t remember it. The letters were passionate, probably, very French and tormented.

“Why do you like studying letters?”

“Oh, the unlikely elasticity of the form, the authorial/editorial voice. The mirage of authenticity.” He recited the phrases and I thought of all the students who would have copied them down over the years. I wondered if he was one of those old-school professors who read from a typewritten sheet written sometime during the Eisenhower administration.

“My ex-husband sent me letters for two years,” I told William. In fact, I’d received a letter the day I first met Lori. When she walked down the mountain to our mailboxes, my letter would have been in the box next to hers. This one was another treatise of my misdeeds. He had copied out a letter I’d written before I left, annotated with caustic parentheticals. (Good one, sweetheart) (If you’re going to call yourself a writer, you must know that words have to mean something). I shoved the letter into the garbage, beneath the coffee grounds and wet paper towels, and then I took the bag to the end of the road and put it in the bear-proof can.

William blinked, waiting for me to say something else, so I told him the truth. “He’d write these long catalogs about my behavior. He told me that I would have to live with the knowledge that I am a cruel and calculating person.”

“Why would you read them? I didn’t read my course evaluations.”

“Do people hate you?”

“Some students might have,” he said. “What else did he say?”

“He thought I only married him for his money, which he didn’t have a lot of, and I don’t care about. I don’t think I’m cold and calculating. I’m nice to my dogs.”

“Be kind to animals and old people and you’re good.”

“ARE YOU HELPING,” one of the birds screamed.

“The fuck was that?”

“My wife taught him that. She says it to the grandkids all the time.”

He walked over to the cage and covered it with a large black cloth, which I guess served as a light switch for the birds. Then he came back, and as if he’d forgotten his assigned seat, sat next to me.

Why did Peter do it? Was it one of those predictable cases—an unimaginative man having an affair, thinking it’d be easier to kill his wife than to tell her? Or was it something else.

“You’re probably not a bad person,” he said, and he put his hand on my knee.

“You don’t know me at all.”

He smiled and went back to his seat. “You’re nice to animals. How do you know B?”

“We met in school,” I said, and then before I could stop it, “He collects friends and doesn’t ask any questions. It’s all transactional, it’s all just, ‘Come to this thing with me,’ and I don’t know why he does it. We have nothing in common. I do feel guilty about that.”

William nodded.

“I’m glad he let me stay here,” I corrected, “It was super nice. But I’m not a good friend.”

“Have you ever worked a job?”

“Of course.”

“And your parents worked?”

“My dad’s a fireman.”

“That’s why you don’t understand.”

“Are you telling me about the burden of being a gazillionaire?”

“People need to want something to be interesting. That family hasn’t wanted anything for generations.”

“What do you want?”

“My wife and I could be better at loving each other.”

William drove me home, even though B’s house was barely two blocks away. Fog had dropped down over the town, and his headlights were nearly useless. He made small talk about Halloween in Harwich, the kids who came to his door.

“But you’ll be gone by then,” he said.

* * *

My aunt’s house is halfway up a mountain, on land that belonged to Indians for whom the town has erected plaques. It is a progressive town that way, reminding us that we live on stolen land and thinking this gesture is enough of a reparation. It’s why Lori bothered me, when I met her, that obsession with ownership. My view, my house, et cetera.

My aunt used to say that all palaces are temporary palaces, this too shall pass. In my aunt’s home, in B’s home, it would feel grotesque to believe anything belonged to me. I prefer it that way, being weightless. But I’m not much different than Lori, I guess. You don’t see me giving up the house.

On the top of the mountain, a small plane crashed in the 1960s, killing the pilot and his family, a wife and son. They’d gone on a joyride. The plane is still there, two miles up, past the switchbacks and over the walls of granite. I’d never gone looking for it, and I don’t know why no one ever came for the plane. I didn’t need to see it to know that every rock and tree is haunted.

But that’s not what I told Lori, once she’d started coming around. I said it like insider knowledge, like I wanted to Add Value to her Return on Investment, because that was, it seemed, how she saw things. That and, ultimately, I came to like her and I wanted to give her something. My husband had it all wrong about relationships being transactions—they inspire transactions, at least in the beginning. You don’t want to give yourself but you want to give a part of yourself, something adjacent.

I don’t know if that’s how Lori saw it. The first time she came over, she brought a good bottle of wine and handed it to me as she walked on the deck and made a dramatic sound when she saw the valley unfurled in front of us.

And she kept coming over, always bringing something, a pie from a farm stand, slices of quiche, zucchinis from the garden. And then she’d poke around, admiring my aunt’s antiques.

So when I remembered the plane, I thought of it as something I could offer in return. I’d said it like this, do you know there’s a plane up there on the mountain? Like some delicious secret, a grave site. I didn’t talk about the stolen Indian land because it isn’t sexy. The plane crash is more concrete, the remnants of death, the ghost story.

We walked up together one day after work. It’s a steep hill, forty minutes of a climb, but the leaves were starting to change and every time we could, we paused and turned around, looking at the reservoir below, a silver scarf in the valley.

“Ooh look at the lake!” she said. “It’s so much nicer up here. I love the city but it’s great to just get away.”

When we got to the top of the mountain, we had to scramble up a granite ledge to see the plane. My dad had told me how to find it, but I didn’t expect it to be so close. It’s always jarring, to see something man made in these endless woods.

We saw the pilot’s door first. One piece looked like a robot’s spinal cord, another like some kind of tool. And there was the plane, wedged between trees, a jaunty red. One side of it was perfectly intact, the other crushed and torn apart.

“Peter would love this,” Lori said. “He makes sculptures from junk metal. He has a gallery in Chelsea.”

I felt a sinking in my chest, the idea of Peter coming up to salvage the plane, pick it apart and turn it into expensive junk-art sculptures.

“Don’t tell him about it,” I said.

“He wouldn’t take anything,” Lori said stiffly. “Peter respects leaving things better than he found them.”

Back when the plane crashed, there wasn’t a road up here. I wondered if bears got the bodies before medics, or if we’d find skeletons in the cockpit. I imagined my aunt’s house down the mountain, our proximity to this site becoming ominous. I wondered if I’d feel it, now that I’d seen the plane, this looming sadness at my back when I walked the dogs, took out the garbage.

When we walked down, the sun had turned the clouds a bright pink. Lori stopped to take pictures with her phone.

“I’m so glad I met you,” she said, looking at the sky.

She rarely talked about Peter, another fact I told the police chief. Except for one time, when she came over after crying a little. That time, she didn’t bring anything.

“Don’t you wish they’d hit you sometimes. You’d have an excuse to leave if they hit you.”

I’d had that exact thought about my ex-husband, the letter writer, before I realized that the thought itself was reason enough.

But with Lori I bit my tongue. I knew better than to give a neighbor marital advice, didn’t want to sympathize too much and then see her and Peter walking together to get the mail, looking smug.

Was that it, again, a symptom of my being a cold and calculating person, as diagnosed? Maybe I had heard and ignored a sort of desperate thumping from Peter’s van when he crawled up to me and the mama bear, maybe there was a smear of something reddish on the door, and maybe I’d chosen to unsee those things, to unhear a sound that sounded like Lori. But it was a useless question, really, and you could drive yourself crazy with what ifs. 

Catherine Carberry is a writer and editor in New York. Her fiction has appeared in journals including
Harvard Review, Guernica, Kenyon Review, North American Review, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio. A recent MacDowell Fellow in Literature, she was awarded the 2023 James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, inspired by the women leaders of the Puerto Rican independence movement.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved