One crisp autumn morning, Cary Zeiglman almost punched a twelve-year-old in the face. Emphasis on almost. She didn’t, but she comforted herself with the fact that she could have if she had really wanted to. Instead, she plastered a smile on her face, reminded the snotty little twerp that yes, he did have to wear his seatbelt, and shoved the minibus into gear. Whatever. It was his funeral. She drove the bus through bottlenecked highways (the route took twenty minutes longer than it was supposed to) and deposited the busload of middle schoolers at the climbing gym, where she then preceded to don a harness and a butt-ugly neon orange staff shirt and belay children until a blister bloomed on the skin between her thumb and forefinger. Crap.
She managed to zone out for the majority of the two hours. Hands moving up and down, up and down. Sliding over thick rope. Sliding, sliding. Empty. So empty. How was it possible to feel like you didn’t exist? How was it possible to feel so old? She was only eighteen but felt more like… thirty. It was as old as she could imagine at the moment, but the number seemed adequately large.
Hours later, as dusk snuck over the skyscrapers with its polluted orange glow, she climbed the steps to apartment 6B and inserted her key in the door, which opened with a creak. With a sigh, she dropped her keys in the conveniently placed coffee mug on the side table, wandered through the dark living room and hall, then flopped down on her bed. Turning on the lights was a waste of time anyway.
The small apartment felt huge in its shadowy emptiness. The schrooming of the cars outside, the whirr and crunch of the ice machine in the fridge, all of it seemed to echo. It wasn’t yet 7 PM, but Cary kicked off her shoes, pulled the tasseled blanket up to her shoulders, curled into the smallest ball she could manage, and closed her eyes.
There was a piece of paper lying in front of her on a table. A white, white piece of paper, so white it hurt her eyes. She blinked, wishing it would go away, but it didn’t. Of course it didn’t. Her right hand, holding a pen, moved to write her name. She felt the tip scratching over the page, but the motion was silent, as if she wasn’t moving at all. Caroline, she thought to herself. Car-o-line. But her hand didn’t want to obey, squiggling out a black line with vaguely alphabetic shapes. Her forehead scrunched. Huh. She tried again, harder than she should ever have to, as if she was a two-year-old learning to write. Caroline. Caroline. Caroline. Caroline! Five black squiggles on a white, white page, the last not much better than the first. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t write her own name.
And deep down, she didn’t care.
That’s the problem, she realized, black ink heavy in her chest, trickling down, pooling in her gut. She didn’t care. She didn’t care enough to write her own name—no one could even read it.
She didn’t care about anything anymore.
Cary woke all at once. The room was a thick black. She was cold, bare feet sticking out from beneath the blanket. She pulled back the bed covers and slithered underneath. Tears slipped from her eyelashes, down her cheeks. Cold. Her hand sought out the bedside table, finding the smooth oval stone right where it always was. It filled her palm, pleasantly rough and familiar. She knew it to be a middling gray, with two not-quite-straight streaks of white down one side and wrapping around to the other. She closed her eyes and smoothed the surface with her thumbs, letting its weight take her back to that sunny summer afternoon…
Mischievous brown eyes. Giggles, hers and his. Messy short brown hair that stuck up in the middle, and she couldn’t ever get to stick back down. Gentle hands. A cold, cold creek. Lining up rocks from the bank and deciding which were most interesting. His hands placing this one in her own, cupped, eyes closed. “Keep it,” he whispered like a secret. “Just so you can remember.” How could she ever forget.
Morning, breaking like a benediction, warm on the bare skin of her arms. Golden, the color of hope. Her mind knew, but her heart couldn’t feel, as her feet hit the carpeted floor and she pushed herself to a stand. Gallons of water lolling around in her limbs, arguing for her to just stand still. This was always how it was in the morning—if she stopped moving, she wouldn’t start again.
Cary headed toward the kitchen, feet slapping on plasticky linoleum, hand pausing on the fridge handle. She cocked her head, thinking, and then withdrew back to the bedroom to change. What was the point of eating if you just weren’t hungry? But, her brain whispered, but what if you’re never hungry? What then?
She told herself often that food wasn’t important. Blood sugar, eh, okay, maybe she could concede there. But food? Nah.
She told herself she didn’t need a lot of things. It made it easier when she didn’t want them—or worse, didn’t have them.
Pounding down the stairs, tennis shoes banging loudly on metal stair grating. She was going to be late for therapy—she was always late for therapy.
The door to apartment 3E, the one with the surfboards leaned up against the wall, opened with an annoyingly cheery pop! A boy’s head poked out.
“Hey, Cary! Where are you off to so early?”
Kind eyes, smile with dimples. Floppy blond hair that fell into his eyes, just barely. She willed her stomach to quit fluttering. She didn’t have feelings. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t. They made her feel guilty, and sad, and that’s worse than feeling nothing at all.
“Um, hey there, Grant. I’m going to… the grocery store. Yeah. And it’s not early. It’s like, almost ten o’clock.”
It felt weird to hear her own voice. She wondered how on earth he had known she was coming down the stairs, and why he cared. Why he seemed to know when she was going out or coming in, most days. Why he kept asking if she needed coffee or sugar. She wasn’t anything special. He should know that. Besides, she was better off alone. She worked better that way. People were complicated. A seventeen-year-old surfer should have better things to do.
He frowned good-naturedly. “Gosh, that’s later than I thought it was. I gotta run too. Would you—um—”
He shifted from foot to foot. She looked at him quizzically.
“Would you, uh, like to grab coffee some time?”
The last bit came out in a rush, and Cary squinted, letting her mind catch up and decipher. Would she—oh. Oh. This was new.
“Sorry, but I really gotta run. See you later.” She continued down the stairs, but then—
“Wait, wait a minute. Just one sec.” She paused as he popped back inside as quickly as he had sprung out. Fumbling sounds, a drawer rolling open and slamming closed. He reemerged seconds later waving a square of paper. “Just in case you, you know, need anything,” he said, almost blushing. What a funny kid. “I mean, you just moved here a month ago, and all that.”
She nodded, accepted the paper scribbled with rounded print, slipped it in her pocket, and trotted down the next few stairs, her head disappearing below the concrete floor.
“Have a good day!” frustratingly cheerful Grant called out behind her.
Have a good day, my foot.
Traffic was awful, as usual, and Cary took to the downtown back roads, twisting cobbled avenues, and trash-filled alleyways. Bound to give her a flat tire one of these days. She whirled her wheel around sharp turns, assuming no one was coming around the bend.
What was the point of going to this therapist, anyway? All she ever said was let him go, or you’ll never be happy and you’re stuck in the cycle of grief and all that nonsense. What did she know, beyond her stack of cheesy books and her master’s degree? Had she ever actually lost anyone? Cary didn’t think someone could ever emerge from that experience as obnoxiously sappy and fake as her therapist was. Why did she even bother? Being sad was better than listening to anyone gab along about healing and dependence issues for an hour.
She spun around the next turn. Two brown eyes met hers, and a patch of fur flashed across the street as she floored the brakes with a gasp. Screech, squeal. Heart pounding. Hands gripping white on the wheel. Stillness. She scanned the alley. Nothing. Should she just keep going?
Still quiet. She popped the lock and slid out of the car. Her legs shook slightly. Off to the side, a small shape huddled against the cracked brick wall. A beagle.
“Oh, crap. Oh crap crap crap.”
She crouched low, scooching forward, hand outstretched. “Hey, hey there…”
It whimpered, but let her touch its head, scratch behind its ears. “That’s it, come here…”
It padded forward slowly… limping from its dirty white, right front paw.
“Oh crap.” It was all she could think of to say. “I actually hit a dog. Okay, what now, what do I do now…” She had hit a dog, and now she was talking to herself like a crazy person. This was her life now. Seriously.
She looked at the beagle again. So small, kind of skinny, dirty. A boy. Sad, sad brown eyes. They reminded her of herself. Oh boy.
She whispered it to him—“I can’t take care of a dog! I can barely take care of myself.”
He wagged his tail, either not understanding or just not seeming to care.
She sighed. Looked like her therapist would have to wait.
At the vet clinic, a quiet young girl—the vet assistant Cary assumed—examined the whimpering but patient beagle’s paw and announced that it was simply sprained. Cary let out a breath of relief she hadn’t realized she was holding. “So, what do I do now?”
The girl blinked. “Considering you found him on the street, and he’s not microchipped, you can either keep him or take him to a shelter.” She said it like the answer should have been obvious.
Keep him echoed in Cary’s ears. “Are those my only two options?”
The girl wrinkled her nose. “Uh, yeah, yes.” She should have just said duh.
“Okay then,” Cary heard herself saying. “Give him the proper shots, and I’ll take him home.”
The beagle cocked his head and looked at her, like, do you really know what you’re doing, lady?
Cary sighed for what was probably the millionth time that day. No, she didn’t. Not at all.
This one-job, college-drop-out, oh and let’s not forget depressed, Caroline Zeiglman was bringing home a beagle.
Crap crap crappity crap.
Cary looked down at her handiwork, soapy hands raised in triumph, and smiled. This beagle was probably the cleanest he’d ever been in his life. And every inch of him, from his floppy wet ears to his drooping tail, looked miserable about it.
“My, do you look fine,” she said as she lifted him out of the tub. “The ladies are going to love you.”
He practically leaped into the towel, as if agreeing, bandaged paw and all. Cary laughed.
The sound echoed in the porcelain space. She paused. It was a sound she hadn’t heard in a while. She smiled again. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. The beagle nuzzled her hand, as if sensing her thoughts. Not bad at all.
One store run later, she wasn’t so sure—or more specifically, her budget wasn’t. Dog food alone was going to run her out of house and home… or at least the water and electricity bill. She was going to need another job, she thought as the little guy crunched away at his food like it was going to sprout tiny little Smurf legs and run away from him. The problem was, she could barely hold onto the job she did have. She only made it to work three-fourths of the time as it was.
A whopper sigh escaped from her chest as she felt the familiar, humid weight settle back down over her shoulders, constricting her breathing. The beagle stopped munching and looked up at her, twisting his head the way he did so often. “Oh, stop looking at me like that,” she mumbled.
She turned off the kitchen light, and he followed her into her room. She sat on the low daybed and tossed a pillow onto the floor. “That’s for you, dude.” He looked up at her mournfully. “Don’t give me that,” she said, turning off the light.
The covers felt cold and uninviting. She pulled them further over her head. The beagle snuffled somewhere in the dark below. She was going to have to think of something to call him other than “The beagle.” If, that is, she could afford to keep him. If she wanted to. Maybe it wasn’t fair to a dog, having a human who didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe someone else would love him better. Cary turned over to face the wall. Decisions were better made in the daylight anyway.
Her hands in his hair. Foreheads touching. Warm skin. Fingers brushing runaway wisps from her face. Stars. Stars. So many stars. Whispered promises. Strong arms holding her close. I love you. I love you. I love you…
Jerked awake, ice cold water poured down her back, nerves jangling, goosebumps running amok. Breathe, can’t breathe. Can’t. Breathe. Emptiness all around her. Darkness. Emptiness. Darkness. Alone. Alone. Alone.
He was gone.
Cary pulled her knees to her chest and wept. She wept like she never could in the daytime, at work, in the car, around other people, even around herself. She let herself go and cried like a child, feeling the grief shake her, her skin, her bones, her soul.
She jumped at sudden movement on the bed, freezing. A cold nose nudged against the sweaty curve of her palm. Seeking. She remembered. The beagle whimpered, clambering against her until she lowered her knees and let him climb into her arms. He leapt against her chest, tongue licking, velvety ears brushing against her neck.
“Hey. Hey there.”
His squirming, pressing closer and closer, was a language. A language of I love you’s. The tears kept coming, but they didn’t wrack her ribcage anymore, allowing her to settle into tiny sobs. Sniffs and shivers. She leaned against the wall, held the warm bundle quieting in her arms, and began to talk.
“He was everything. He was my world. My heart. My reason for getting up in the morning. My future. He was everything I ever could have wanted and more… perfect because he was just himself. I didn’t want anything else. My hands were full.”
She paused, looking into the black, looking at nothing. The beagle was very still in her arms, not even his tail quivering.
“It was a boat,” she said. “He went on this sailing trip, and I didn’t go with him, because I had an extra exam. I should have gone with him. I don’t know what I would have done, but I should have gone. Sometimes I think it would have been easier if I just—stopped existing too. I don’t know. But he was there, and then he was gone. And it was like I was gone too. It’s still like I’m gone. Like there’s nothing inside. Like I’m not here. Like there’s no use doing anything at all, because I can’t find anything to look forward to.”
The beagle snuffled. She looked down at him. “Everyone tries to fix it, but they can’t,” she said. “I don’t want someone to fix me. I just need something to make life worth it again.”
The dog bounced, once, and she let out a breathy laugh. “You get it, huh? Well at least someone does.”
All at once, she felt extremely tired. Not the bad kind of tired, the one which made her feel like she couldn’t lift her limbs and that the weight of a million years resided in her chest—no, now she just felt exhausted, like she’d run a million miles. Her head felt lighter, her face almost refreshed from the drying tears. She curled into a loose ball in the middle of her bed.
“You can stay if you want,” she mumbled, trying not to think too hard about the fact that she was talking to a dog.
He scrambled up, proceeded to walk around her, once, twice, three, four, five times, and then settled down in the crook of her body. A word appeared in her head, and she smiled sleepily.
“Jericho. That’s what I’ll call you. Jericho.”
Her mind faded pleasantly as she spoke, drowsiness drifting over her along with whimsical sleep logic.
“’Cause you walked around me and my walls came down…”
Cary didn’t get up for work the next morning. The heaviness had descended again while she slept, and despite Jericho’s nervous nosing, all she wanted to do was lie in the dark and watch Netflix until noon. And so, she did. Jericho settled in beside her, warm black and brown fur lifting and falling with each breath, and she found herself laughing at the funny scenes more than usual.
After a handful of episodes, she managed to haul herself to the kitchen. Nursing a cup of sweet chai tea with a dot of cream, she watched Jericho chomp down his late breakfast with just as much enthusiasm as the night before. Watching him made her almost hungry as well, a minor miracle.
She wandered to the fridge and pulled out a cheese stick, shaking her head. “I mean, if you’re going to eat…”
Who knew it would take a dog to get her to eat breakfast? What had she come to? She unlocked the apartment door and poked her head out to check the temperature, crisp but not frosty. They would take a walk later. A bark drew her attention to the kitchen. “Coming,” she called, giving the door a push.
She climbed back into bed, promising herself to only take a short nap. Jericho’s weight in her arms eased her into sleep.
Water. There was water everywhere. Up to her neck. She was treading water, treading, treading, in an endless blue sea. Choppy waves forced her to kick harder to float above their crests. There—to her right. A head, bobbing by a broken mast and torn sail, pale canvas ballooning slightly, air trapped beneath. She swam toward it, the current working against her. She could only make it close enough to see his face.
It was him.
She called out, and he turned to her. The current surged harder, pushing at her churning legs.
Him. It was him. It was really him.
He shouted to her, wind nicking spray and words into the air, floating them off, barely caught. “Cary, you have to let go!”
“Let go? Let go of what? Michael, get to the mast, hold onto it!”
His eyes were as kind as she remembered. He shook his head. “No, Cary, you have to let go. Please.”
“Michael, let go of what? Please, try to reach me—”
“Let go, Cary. Let go of me.”
Grief surged in her throat, but before she could say anything, mist swept in, obscuring him from view. As she reached out, the world went white.
Cary shoved herself up in bed, her thin t-shirt clinging to her sweaty skin. She fought to control her breathing. The bed felt empty. Her panicked, sleep-dulled mind searched for the reason. Why. Why.
He was gone.
“No need to panic, Caroline,” she said under her breath as she hauled herself out of bed. “He’s just wandering the apartment, you stupid girl you.”
But the apartment was quiet. And empty. Awfully, terribly empty.
She jogged to the door—it was open ever so slightly. The truth hit her like a weighted ball to the stomach—she had forgotten to close it completely when she had checked the temperature. She flung it open, calling Jericho’s name. He could be anywhere—the apartment complex was situated in the heart of downtown. Traffic, and trains, and buses, and—and—
She clamped down on the series of thoughts before it stole her ability to function. Pulling on a pair of boots and a coat, she paused by the fridge… the square of paper was right where she had pinned it with a magnet the day before. Grant’s number. She hesitated only for a second, then snatched it off and punched the numbers into her cell phone. She couldn’t do this alone.
He picked up right away. “Hello?”
She tried to quell the tremor in her voice. “Hey, Grant? I need help finding my lost dog.”
Grant responded remarkably fast, emerging from his apartment just as she reached his floor, his forehead furrowed in concern. He pushed bulky mittened hands into his coat pockets. “So, where do we look first?”
His genuine brown eyes sparked something in her. Let go, Cary… She shook her head to clear it. “Um, I want to check where the traffic is heaviest first. Carter Avenue and Trixan Square… oh, and Wilcox Throughway—”
He stopped her with a hand on her shoulder, and she realized she was about to cry. “Cary. We’re going to find him. It’s going to be okay.”
She sniffed and nodded.
They set off down the stairs, boots clanging. “Since when do you have a dog, anyway?”
Cary laughed despite herself. “I keep asking myself the same thing.”
Hours passed. Cary’s feet dragged, legs like jelly. She dropped down on a bus stop bench and squeezed her temples with cold fingers.
“It’s been too long,” she said quietly, voice strained. “A beagle in this city… he’s so small…”
Grant sat beside her and laid an arm around her shoulder. He pulled her close, and to her surprise, she let him. She leaned her head on his shoulder and forced her muscles to relax.
“We’ll find him. We just haven’t thought of the right place yet.”
She had to admit, it felt good to be held again. She’d craved it for so long, two long years. And she was so, so tired.
“But we’ve looked everywhere—the bridge, the subway tunnels, the park…”
A city bus blew past, brakes shrieking air, and she wrinkled her nose at the smell of diesel mixed with sewage. It reminded her of…
She leaped from the bench and turned to Grant’s startled face. “The alley! The alley where I found him! We have to look there…”
She grabbed Grant’s hand before she could think and dashed down the street. It was only a few blocks away…
Moments later, the two careened into the alley, and she stopped short, panting, breath poofing into white clouds. She scanned its width, from ripped trash bag to overflowing dumpster. No movement. No noise. Quiet, except for the distant sirens wailing in the background.
Grant’s hand gripped her shoulder.
Tears welled, blurring the world.
A small, brown, limping form trotted out from behind the dumpster. Cary’s chest ballooned with breath. “Jericho!”
He barked and headed straight toward her, as fast as his bandaged paw allowed. She crouched down with a laugh and pulled him to her. His warm tongue slimed her cheek. “Oh, so many kisses.” She buried her face in his warm side, pulling back after a moment. “Ah, where are my manners? Grant, meet Jericho. Jericho, meet Grant.”
Grant crouched down opposite her, Jericho between them. “Nice to meet you.” And although he spoke to Jericho, he was looking at her. And the look in his eyes—well, to Cary, it felt something like, dare she think it…