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This happened almost two years after Katie died, in late July of 2014. I'd sold the last of our old things and just moved into my second apartment. I was still drinking, too, although not as much as the first year, and only 'cos my boss told me to shape up or ship out, and you know getting a new job isn't a piece of cake anymore. I got added incentive when this couple dropped off a battered and starved trio of kittens at the shelter I volunteer at. Didn't wanna let the little guys down.
I celebrated my first night in the new apartment getting so smashed that the room wobbled like in an earthquake. I'd sit on the couch and pretend I was back on that bumpy carriage ride with Katie on our first date, and Katie was latched onto me like a baby koala trying not to cry. Maybe I chuckled once or twice. Then I went back to crying and staring at Dad's revolver case on my coffee table and wondering if Katie would be angry to see me again so soon. Or if she was as lonely and miserable as I was then, brooding in whatever dark oblivion awaits atheists after death.
So Thursday rolled around, my first day off in my new place. I got my groceries taken care of, and this time I actually remembered to shop for one instead of two. Saved me a breakdown. I was on my third beer and approaching my second hour of videogames when this weak little knock sounded at the door. Wasn't expecting anybody. Figured it was Dave the landlord wanting something. His kid's dog was having health troubles all summer and he asked me to take a look at it just about every week.
I looked through the peephole and saw a dainty teenage girl with a bundle in her arms and tears in her eyes. She was looking at the bundle, trying to control herself and not doing so good. Her clothes were a mishmash of outdated second-hand items, all probably bought from Savers: worn blue short-sleeved tee with the Rainbow Brite logo; old black jeans, probably with holes in the knees; a black sock made into an elbow-length glove for her right hand, and a red one for her left. Her hair was long and brown and disheveled and snaked out from under a black beanie. I couldn't see what was in the bundle that had her so upset. She was a teenage punker's dream come true, cute as hell and absolutely pitiful.
She knocked again, louder. I just watched her at first. She waited a full minute and it seemed to break her heart that nobody was answering. She started to cry a little as she turned around and knocked on Mrs. Donahue's apartment across the hall.
Mrs. Donahue was at water aerobics. She wouldn't answer. The kid stood there, waiting.
It startled her when I opened the door and asked what was the matter -- she squeaked and whirled around like I was a monster jumping out of the bushes.
I was dead-on about the holes in the jeans. Her shoes were beat-up Vans, one red and one black just like the sock-gloves. The bundle in her arms was a gray hoodie.
Wrapped in the hoodie was a sleeping, malnourished rottweiler puppy.
I said, "You...need something?"
She sniffled and said, "I'm so sorry, I just...I don't got anything to feed him."
"Is he yours?"
"I found him," she said in a trembling voice. On every word I expected her to start bawling. "Some asshole left a bunch of 'em in a box on the junkpile up the street. There was a dozen of 'em and this was the only one wasn't dead."
I've seen plenty of sick animals, so if this was a con she was unnaturally lucky to have found the dog, or unnaturally cruel to have abused the poor thing for authenticity. The puppy couldn't have been more than two weeks old and it's probably a miracle it was alive at all. Its ribs were like a tiny xylophone and its fur was matted with dirt and filth.
I looked up at the kid and found her watching me with the sort of desperate hope you only see in movies. Her eyes were chocolate brown. And she was almost as dirty as the dog.
I waved her in and pointed to the couch. "Set him here," I said.
She scampered in and gingerly set the bundle on the couch. I gave the puppy a closer look and would've bet money on him dying before I could drive him across town to the vet where I worked. The girl sat next to me and watched, wringing her hands together.
I said, "What's your name?"
She sniffled and said, "Alex."
I said, "Well, Alex, this little guy's too young for solid food. I can make some formula for him, but I'll have to run and get some evaporated milk." I didn't have any milk in the kitchen 'cos of my lactose intolerance.
She said, "I can run get it! Just tell me what you need and..." Her face became sad again and she looked at her hands. She looked back at me and opened her mouth to add something, but her voice was hiding in shame.
I asked if she had any money. She looked at her hands again.
She said in a mouse squeak, "My family lives outta a station wagon," as if it explained everything. It was enough for me.
All I had was a twenty dollar bill. I froze when I took it out of my wallet, recognizing the red scribble on one corner, left by Katie's pen when she was writing her last client's address. My heart shifted in its seat and pushed something hard and cold up into my throat.
Loaning the kid twenty bucks was better than leaving her alone in my place, so that's what I did. I shoved the bill into her hands, told her Dolan's Marketplace across the street would have evaporated milk. She ran out the door with the cash, apologizing like a broken record until she was out of sight. I left the door unlocked for her, made sure the puppy was still breathing, and then went to take a quick leak. Didn't know how long I'd have to nurse the thing, assuming it lived through the next five minutes.
The puppy was gone when I came back.
It didn't make sense that the little guy could have wandered off when he was barely alive a minute earlier. Turned the living room upside-down and didn't find him. Turned it upside-down again making sure the girl hadn't come back and stolen anything while I was in the bathroom, even though that didn't make any sense either. Nothing was missing. Nothing but the puppy and my twenty bucks.
I went to the landlord's office and described the girl to Dave. He hadn't seen her come or go, but he's always watching cop dramas on his little TV and never sees who comes or goes anyway. Dave's mild-mannered to the point of seeming condescending, and it pissed me off he didn't seem to care that I'd been taken for a sucker. I was mostly pissed at myself for letting my guard down so easily. I suppose anyone acts stupid around a pretty girl in dire straits. Especially pathetic guys like me.
What stamped "sucker" on my forehead in big red letters was my exhaustive search for the junk pile she'd mentioned. I walked all over the neighborhood within three blocks of my place and only found a busted TV in a dumpster. Didn't find a trace of a junk pile, much less a box of poor, defenseless, and very dead rottweiler pups.
Couple of old gents chatting in front of the barber shop just north of my apartment saw me bumbling around, looking pissed, and asked if I'd lost something. I told them about Alex and the dog and the alleged junk pile.
The taller, skinnier gent pointed across the street at the empty alley between the Laundromat and the Chinese buffet and said, "Only junk pile I remember useta be right there. Everybody in the neighborhood useta gather up the junk they couldn't sell and dump it there for people to help themselves to."
The stouter gent slapped my shoulder and said, "Guess that'll learn you to trust a pretty face, eh?"
I said, "Yeah," and went home to get drunk.
Could almost hear Katie laughing at my dumb ass the rest of the day. "Couldn't stand to see me cry, either, ya big pussy," she'd say.
I walked home in a major bunk, chasing pedestrians out of my path with a cold glance. I was crossing the apartment lobby when I suddenly remembered the bill I gave the girl -- the bill with the red mark. A dim light went on in my head and I ran across the street to Dolan's. I asked each cashier if anyone had paid for anything with a marked twenty, describing the red scribble in detail, describing the girl and explaining she had stolen the money from me. They all shook their heads. I went two doors up the street to the pawnbroker's, then one more to the coin and stamp dealer's, and then the antique shop, and finally back to the barber. Nobody knew what I was talking about, and nobody had seen anyone matching the girl's description.
The barber told me to report it to the police. I asked what was the point and walked out.
Next week rolled around. Nothing new: working at the vet, volunteering spare time at the animal shelter, playing videogames, sitting at home alone, hating myself. I managed to take the gun out of the case Monday evening. Even chambered a round and spun the cylinder, all the while hearing Katie's voice somewhere, sobbing angrily like she had the day she left the house and never came back.
"Just do whatever you want. I don't give a shit. Gonna do whatever you want anyway. Nothing I say ever matters."
I told the empty room it wasn't true. Then I realized I was talking to an empty room and it killed what little nerve I had. The gun went back into the case and I cried myself to sleep on the couch.
I didn't drink at all on Tuesday, or the rest of the week for that matter. Felt pretty good to be sober for more than a few hours at a stretch. Actually started to think the whole incident with Alex and the puppy was just the booze messing with my head.
Thursday afternoon there was a weak knock at my door. Deja vu. I got up and looked through the peephole and my temper flew out the window in an F-16 jet. Who else should be crying on the other side with a bundle in her arms but sweet, pitiful little Alex -- stupid enough to forget she'd already made a fool out of somebody in that apartment complex the week before.
She almost leapt out of her Vans when I threw the door open and screamed, "Get lost!"
Suppose I'm kind of a bastard for relishing the shock on her face. She tore ass up that hallway like I was Godzilla.
I was pissed enough to go to the cops that time. I gave 'em a detailed description of Alex and the puppy, explained that she'd taken me for twenty bucks (describing the marked bill), and suggested she was probably just barely keeping the dog alive so she could sob her way into peoples' homes. One of the older cops -- a beefy Asian sergeant standing by the water cooler -- was looking at me like it was the weirdest thing he'd ever heard.
But would you believe she did it again? The following Thursday afternoon, like clockwork this kid came and knocked on my door for the third time. This time I just watched her through the peephole with no intention of playing her bullshit game.
She knocked again, louder. I watched, my knuckles white from my fists balled tight enough to crush lead. She waited a full minute and it seemed to break her heart that nobody was answering. She started to cry a little as she turned around and knocked on Mrs. Donahue's apartment across the hall.
Mrs. Donahue was at water aerobics. She wouldn't answer. The kid stood there, waiting.
My skin crawled like it was made of slugs.
I slowly opened the door. She turned around, half-startled, and stared wide-eyed at me with the puppy in her arms.
"What the hell're you doing?" I said. The hollowness of my voice surprised me.
She sniffled and said, "I'm so sorry, I just...I don't got anything to feed him."
Her eyes were pleading, just like before. The puppy looked no more or less awful.
She genuinely didn't remember me. It was as plain in her face as the tears in her eyes.
I told her to wait outside and closed the door. I called the police station and told them that the brat I told them about was at it again, that she was probably crazy, and to get out there as soon as possible. She'd bailed by the time they arrived.
The Asian -- his name was Tanaka -- was one of them. He took a keen interest in my story, and asked me to describe the girl again, and my previous encounters with her. I did so in vivid detail, leaving out the part where things had played out exactly the same each time, like alternate takes of a single movie scene. He wrote it all down with a look on his face like he was a part-time psychologist, and I was a fascinating patient -- a kind of condescending "Is that so?" look, halfway between amusement and wonder.
I asked if the girl might be crazy, or have some kind of memory disorder.
He nodded thoughtfully, then said, "Possible. Sometimes people, animals -- hell, even places, if you believe in that sorta thing -- can suffer such a severe trauma it leaves them in a kind of loop, reliving the trauma over and over again."
Katie's angry face flashed before my eyes just long enough to stick a dagger in my gut.
"Don't go on vacation anytime soon," said Tanaka as he left. "In case we wanna talk to you again."
Friday afternoon, Tanaka called and asked me if I'd be willing to come down to the station for a bit. I was looking at the gun case on the coffee table as we talked. I said sure and hung up.
Tanaka greeted me with a casual smile and led me to the room behind the one-way mirror of the first interview room, where another, younger cop was grilling a granite-faced older guy who looked like he employed street urchins as pickpockets in Whitechapel. His eyes were gray and his coat was long, brown, and moth-eaten. He didn't like the cop too much, and said so in so many expletives.
Tanaka was watching me expectantly. "You don't know him?"
I shrugged. "Am I supposed to?"
"He's Danny Teague. Picked him up for possession and petty larceny. Not the first time, either. Apparently he's picked your neighborhood for his wheelin' and dealin'."
I shrugged again.
Tanaka touched me on the shoulder, told me to wait, went out and into the interview room. Teague groaned at the sight of him, like the two knew each other.
Tanaka pulled something out of his pocket and slapped it on the table in front of Teague.
It was Katie's scribbled twenty-spot.
Teague looked at it, looked up at Tanaka. "What is this? You offerin' me a job?"
"You employing kids to do your dirty work these days, Danny?" said Tanaka.
"The fuck you talkin' about?"
"You bought cigarettes with this twenty, here. Last person that had it was a teenage girl. The owner before that was the fella she'd lifted it from."
"Get the fuck outta here. That twenty-spot was mine, fair and square."
"'Cos you didn't steal it yourself, that makes it yours?"
"I didn't steal shit! I found it in the gutter! I'm itchin' for a smoke, and I got none left. I look down, I see this twenty-spot sittin' there, callin' to me. 'Zat a fuckin' crime all a sudden?"
Tanaka smiled and put the money back in his pocket. "No, 'spose it isn't. Totin' a bag fulla rock, though..."
Teague spread his arms. "I tolja that shit wasn't mine."
"Yeah, yeah," said Tanaka as he walked out. "You were just holdin' it for a friend."
Teague flipped the bird as the door closed behind Tanaka, who came back into my room and gestured for me to follow him. We swam through a crowd of bustling police and went into his office. He closed the door and drew the blinds shut, asked me to sit. I sat. He had a picture of two chubby-faced kids on his cluttered desk.
He sat behind the desk, opened the top drawer, pulled out a handful of photo prints. He slid them across the desk toward me.
I stared at the topmost photo first with disinterest, then confusion. I leaned slowly forward for a closer look. My heart squirmed again.
It was a postmortem photo of the girl. Part of her face had been put through a cheese grater, and her hair was wrapped around her neck like frayed snakes, but it was definitely her.
I looked up at Tanaka. "The hell happened?"
"That's your friend, the puppy lover?" said Tanaka. His face wore a strange half-smile, as if he were in on some kind of tedious joke.
"Yeah. What happened?"
"She rescued a sick rottweiler pup from a trash heap and went door to door looking for someone willing to help her take care of it. One fella was nice enough to help her, gave her a little money to get the puppy something to eat. She took the money and ran across the street to Dolan's Marketplace. Didn't watch where she was going." He looked down at his desktop. "Got chewed up by a bread truck."
I must've looked like a dead fish with my mouth hanging open so wide. "Bullshit," I said. "I live across the street from there."
"I know. This happened July of 1991."
I watched him long and hard, waiting for him to grin and laugh like an idiot. His face was somber like a Roman statue.
I glanced back at the photos. It dawned on me that the eyes were half-open, staring directly at the camera as if she could see me.
I fell off the chair to get away from the face. "You're fuckin' with me," I murmured.
Tanaka didn't say anything, just watched me pick myself up. I was angry now, glowering down at his fat face.
"Not enough crime in the city these days?" I snapped. "Gotta get your kicks fuckin' with regular folks?"
"Siddown," he said, exasperated.
"If you useless assholes aren't gonna do anything, just tell me so!"
"Siddown a minute," he said. "It's all right."
"Fuck you," I said, and stormed out.
The next week I treated three different rottweiler puppies. I managed to keep my cool even though they kept reminding me of that damn kid, and that damn cop with that damn smug-ass face. And that all led to a brief crying fit as Katie's memory assaulted me with a baseball bat, I guess because I'd been contemplating putting a bullet in my head when that Alex kid first came knocking.
The knocks came early that Thursday. They were heavier. I peeked through the peephole and found Tanaka on the other side with that damn meaningless half-smile, wearing a plain white shirt and gray coat.
"Open up," he said. "Don't have much time."
I threw the door open and said, "I'll file a fuckin' harassment complaint if I have to."
He held up one beefy hand to calm me down. "She's not here yet, is she?"
"What time did you say she comes by?"
"About Four O'clock."
He checked his watch. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was ten minutes to Four.
"We'll wait for her," he said, helping himself to my couch. "Siddown and relax," he added, as if it were his apartment, and I were his guest.
"She's on her way here?" I said incredulously.
He answered with a grin. "Sit. You'll scare her off, looking all boogeyman-like."
I sighed angrily, eyeing the gun box on the coffee table. He seemed to notice it at the same time as I bent to collect it and carried it into the bedroom. I went to my tiny, pathetic kitchen and got two beers, tossing one into his lap.
"Make yourself at home, why doncha?" I grumbled.
I parked in my easy chair. We cracked the beers open, but he didn't drink at first. I chugged mine, crushed the can, threw it across the room into the trash bin, got up and grabbed another.
One minute past Four, he started to talk. "There's a young lady in Japan," he said.
I huffed. "I hear there's lots."
"She climbs the steps of her high school, weeping like she's been stood up at the big dance. She walks all the way to the roof, four stories up, and she stands there on the ledge, teetering and sniveling." Tanaka spread his arms like wings. "Then she tips forward, arms out--" He made a hand motion of something flopping onto the armrest from a great height. "--and falls to the pavement. Splat."
I sniffed in response, staring at his hand.
"That's all she does," said Tanaka. "Her existence reduced to a dim memory of those last moments in that last location, and she repeats the last thing she was doing when she died. Does it over and over and over, same time every night. Even if you keep her in one place for the duration of her scene, when her time is up she'll be ripped from the earth like a band-aid. Next day she'll be back as if it never happened. She doesn't realize she's dead, so she keeps on doing it. You can't just tell her she's dead, because she's just a character in a scene. She only understands the scene, like a bad actor. Fuck up the scene, she gets confused."
"Tell her she's what?" I said.
The knock interrupted us: the dainty knocks and tiny sniffles of a teenage girl with a dying puppy in her arms.
I leapt to my feet, but Tanaka halted me with his palm as he got up. He reached into his inner pocket and pulled out a folded piece of newspaper, which he shoved into my hand. "Show it after I leave," he said. Then he went to the door and answered it.
Alex stood there in her ratty clothes with the puppy wrapped in a hoodie, her eyes gleaming wet as she looked up at Tanaka the same way she'd looked at me when we'd met. She seemed frightened, her breath coming in short sobs, but Tanaka opened the door strangely, stepping aside to make sure she saw me, too. When her eyes met mine she was breathing normally again, and there was a tiny gleam in her eyes -- not of recognition, but hope.
"Can we help you, Miss?" he said sweetly.
She sniffled and said, mostly to me, "I'm so sorry, I just...I don't got anything to feed him."
He cooed over the puppy like a grandpa would over his grandchildren. "Here, bring him inside. My friend is a vet. He'll take good care of him."
I started to protest, but gave up when I saw his cautionary look. The girl skittered into the room, smiling with relief through her tears. The smile broke something inside of me.
Tanaka directed her to the couch, where she gingerly laid the puppy, sniffling and thanking us over and over. She only seemed to acknowledge his presence in her peripheral: she never looked at him again, as if she were still afraid of him.
"I dunno what to do," she said in a trembling voice. "Some asshole left a bunch of 'em in a box on the junkpile up the street. There was a dozen of 'em and this was the only one wasn't dead."
Both she and Tanaka looked at me expectantly.
I couldn't move. I just stared at the girl, clutching the beer in my hand, my heart crawling up my throat, my skin crawling with goosebumps.
Tanaka said my name and brought me out of it.
"Uh, he's...He's too young for solid food. He'll need puppy formula. I can make some with evaporated milk."
"Where do you keep it?" said the girl, standing suddenly.
I coughed. "We can get some at the market across the--"
Tanaka leapt up. "I'll go get it. You two just stay right here."
He was out the door before I could stop him.
Unsure what else to do, I went over to the puppy and took it in my arms, trying to keep it warm. It weighed nothing and its fur was matted with filth. It stank like piss. The girl sat on the floor in front of me, watching it with huge, worried eyes, sniffling on occasion. We sat in silence, her worrying, me reeling as if I were in a lucid dream.
Her sniffling got worse after a minute. She seemed paler and her eyes were glassy. I asked her if her parents would be worried about her being gone. She explained that she lived in a station wagon with her mom and dad and baby brother, and had lived that way for some years. She liked to search trash piles for interesting junk, or anything that could be sold for a little money: cans, electronic parts, and whatnot. That's how she'd found the puppy.
I only vaguely heard what she said, because I finally looked at the newspaper clipping Tanaka had given me.
It was a headline about a homeless girl, Alex Pearson, fifteen years old, who was run down by a bread truck while trying to save a sick dog. The photo was an old one from Alex's yearbook, before her parents lost their jobs: she smiled at me from the page, her face bright and full of warmth. The face of a kid who would cry over a sick puppy.
She must've seen the disbelief in my face, because when I glanced back up at her, she looked almost frightened. I went on autopilot, turning the clipping in my hand and offering it to her.
"I'm sorry," I said, my voice cracking.
She stared at the article for a long time, her lips trying to form questions that died in her throat. She backed away from me, first addressing me with horrified confusion; then with appall, as if the whole thing weren't any of my business, or as if she resented my spoiling her big scene on opening night. She grew a shade paler and the offense in her face congealed into a maelstrom of misery, confusion, and exhaustion as if I'd been interrogating her for days under a sweltering lamp. Her mouth twisted into a grimace and she began to sob.
I stammered like an idiot and apologized. She began to wail: loud, blood-curdling banshee wails with her hands over her face, like I'd just shown her the corpses of her parents. Her chest heaved with sobs between each howl and tears dripped from between her fingers, and I couldn't get her to acknowledge me even as I set the puppy down, took her by the shoulders and shook her.
She was in my hands one minute, crying, inconsolable; the next, my hands were grasping at vapor in the vague shape of a weeping girl, her wails echoing in my ears like the aftermath of a nightmare. I blinked, and then I was alone in the room. There was no girl. There was no puppy on my couch.
Sniveling like a child, I had just opened my suitcase and begun frantically packing it when Tanaka finally came back -- I don't know if he actually went to the market or just waited out in the hall the entire time. At first sight of what I was doing he seemed to get upset.
"You can't leave," he said.
I made some kind of nervous laughing sound. I glared at him. "You're gonna stop me?"
"I got a badge and I'll use it."
I took a moment to look at him with disgusted bewilderment. When I showed no sign of stopping my hasty packing, he closed the suitcase and swept it off the bed. I pounced on him, screaming for him to get out while I struck him ineffectually with a wadded sweatshirt in my fist. Next thing I knew, he had me pinned face-first against the wall with one arm twisted behind my back.
"Hear me out," he said with annoying calmness. He didn't even notice my struggling. "Just hear me out, is all I ask. You can do it here, or down at the station after I arrest you for striking an officer."
"You're trespassing!" I snarled.
"I also gotta clean record. They'll believe me over an unhinged animal doctor who lost someone close to him. That sorta thing makes a guy loopy."
I fumed and struggled for another minute, but I may as well have been wrestling a tree. Exhaustion overwhelmed me, and when I broke down and cried he finally released me and led me to sit on the bed. He leaned against the doorframe and watched 'til he was sure I was calm enough to listen to him.
"Alex was my case back in '91," he said. "I was the one had to find her parents and break the news to 'em. Don't even know if they're around here anymore. Mighta packed up and left. Hearing you tell the same story as the previous tenant shook me up pretty good, but my family has a bit of a history with...well, we'll just call 'em ghosts. As good a name as any."
I sobbed. "Why me? What the fuck does this thing want from me?"
Tanaka shrugged. "Nobody was around to answer her plea 'cept for one nice person. You're the only one who's home at the same time she died, and you're in the same apartment. Your presence, and your living situation, and god knows what else were the right combination of ingredients to wake her up. Long after you move out, if someone else ends up in the same situation, she'll wake up again. Or maybe your situation is unique. Maybe you move out and she goes back to sleep and never wakes again. Just sits here in this building, dormant, never at peace."
I sniffled with a shiver. "How do I get rid of it?" I said weakly.
"Only way to get through to her, and help her move on, is to rewrite her scene with equal persistence -- rewrite it so she understands what's happened, just like you did today. It'll take time. It may not even work at all. But she's drawn to you, so you're the only one who can help her. You saw how scared she was of me, like I didn't belong there. She'd have run off if it were just me. You fit the role she needs, so she comes looking for you, even though she doesn't know it."
Tanaka looked gravely at me. "You're her scene partner. What you gotta become now is her therapist. You gotta help her."
It's been a year since our Thursday "sessions" began. Useta be I'd see Alex every week like clockwork: I'd let her in, sit her down, and try to talk to her. Usually she'd react as horribly as the first time, but sometimes she'd just run away and refuse to listen. Once or twice she threw something at me. Come the following Thursday she'd be back, and we'd do it all over again.
These days I seldom see her. Maybe one Thursday a month we'll go through the same routine, but she doesn't bawl or reel in horror. She just looks sadly at the floor like she knew all along, but was hoping for the best. A kid whose parents hadn't gotten along for years, finally being told about an imminent divorce.
Some Thursdays I may not see her at all. I might just hear her sob once or twice in the hallway. Sometimes I just catch a glimpse of her, watching me with those big brown eyes: sometimes angry, like I'd brought all this upon her; sometimes almost lovingly, like an estranged sister who wants to reach out, but can't find the courage. She never smiles, and she always vanishes after a few moments. I think we've made a lot of progress, and maybe one of these days I'll go an entire month without seeing or hearing her at all, and maybe that'll be that.
Anyway, that's why I don't have the gun anymore. I don't drink so much anymore, either. And when I think of Katie, I don't feel sick to my stomach with grief. What the hell, even the dead can move on with a little effort.
Written by Mike MacDee