"She took it."
"It won't make things any better."
"She's an adult. She can protect me."
"They aren't the solution."
"What is then?"
"You won't like it."
"I don't like being scared all the time."
"You won't like being dead, either."
"I don't want to be dead."
"Then listen to me."
Her lips were dry and scratchy against my ear when she leaned in close, whispering all the things I knew I didn't want to hear and a few I didn't. It unfolded like one of my nightmares, a twisting, curdled thing that superimposed reality with futility and denial. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Things anymore only ever seemed to be measured in degrees of worse, and spending time in my head was one of few viable opportunities for comfort.
I wasn’t ready for this.
“Can you do it?”
Please, just wake up.
Maybe I really am dead.
A dog barking.
“I can do it.”
Scratching at the door.
I felt her hand brush against my chin before a clipped scream. The air shifted, her scent lingering after she was snatched away.
Then came the biting.
I could no longer smell her over the taste of chocolate.
I felt better the next day and Mom decided I was well enough to go back to school. She’d been acting weird ever since Mrs Greer came to visit, kept looking at me like she expected me to say something or I was hiding something. I tried to go about my morning like any other: eat breakfast, put on clothes, brush my teeth, make sure I had everything I needed for school in my backpack. Aside from Mom awkwardness, I felt pretty good; more like I used to feel before all the snoopy dog business. On the way to school, I thought about what Mrs Greer said and I looked at the bracelet and couldn’t help but smile to myself. I was trying to figure out how I could broach the topic of taking our relationship to the next level, so good I was feeling, but the moment passed when I caught Mom staring at me through the rear view mirror.
This continued for the entire trip, and as much as I wanted to know what she was thinking, I was too afraid to ask. When she dropped me off, she didn’t kiss me goodbye, and even though it was odd, there were enough other things on my mind I didn’t think to address it. As I headed to the second set of double doors, Patsy, the secretary, a cheerful woman with a voice left sandy from years of smoking, opened a door at the main entrance and called to me.
“Whisker. Mrs Greer wants to see you in her office.”
She held the door open for me as I squeezed past her, went through the cloak room and into the office.
“You can leave your backpack next to my desk if you want.”
I dropped it on the floor, scooting it partway under the edge of the desk with my foot. I saw Mrs Greer was sitting, head bowed, writing something in her day planner. I ambled up to the doorway, knocking twice. She lifted her head slightly, looking at me over the frame of her glasses and gestured for me to come in.
“Shut the door behind you and have a seat, please.”
I did so and sat down across from her, watching as she finished what she was writing. I couldn’t tell what it said, but she had a strong, flowing script that looked like swimsuit models on the page.
When she was done, she put her pen down and removed her glasses as she rose from her chair, walking around the edge of the desk. She tripped the lock on the door handle and jiggled it to confirm it was.
“Whisker, thank you for coming in.”
I watched as she took her seat, noting the knee-length skirt and silky chartreuse top.
“I think there are some things we need to discuss.”
Mrs Greer opened one of the drawers in her desk and picked something out, plunking it down on the desk in front of me.
“I need to know what this is.”
I looked at it with only one eye open.
“That’s what I thought.”
She tapped it several times with the tip of her index finger. It was a folded up piece of notebook paper. But it wasn’t just any folded up piece of notebook paper: it was a folded up piece of notebook paper I thought I’d left in my locker several days ago.
With a love letter to Mrs Greer.
I tried to remember everything I wrote, hoping it wasn’t too suggestive, too incriminating, but sitting there in her office, across from her, with the door locked—it all came up a big blank.
“How do you think I should handle this?”
“How old are you, Whisker?”
“Well I’m thirty-three.”
“Does that sound old to you?”
“Good. It’s not. But it’s too old for you.”
I watched her eyes dart back and forth, searching mine, and tried to lose myself in them like I did before, but this time they were guarded and wouldn’t let me. They were cold—and I shivered.
“Am I in trouble?”
Mrs Greer sighed and tugged the edge of her collar, lips parting, closing, parting again.
“You’re not in trouble, Whisker.”
“In fact, it’s really quite flattering.”
“I thought it was-- nice. Eloquent.”
Wait for it.
“And thoughtful. But I think it goes beyond, well, it becomes inappropriate.”
“I don’t want you take me wanting to help you the wrong way.”
“That’s kind of you to say.”
“Does it feel, hoo, warm in here?”
She was fanning herself with the front of her blouse like a bellows.
“I think you better-- get to class. We can continue this conversation another time.”
I unlocked the door and grabbed my pack where it lay next to Patsy. She gave me a warm smile and I returned it with a wave.
“Have a good day, Whisker.”
The dog was far away.
I could just barely see it, darker than the night around it. It barked and growled and yipped and paced back and forth, snuffling and trying to catch my scent. For some reason, it couldn’t get to me and it wasn’t very happy about that. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic; so much so I was filled with defiance and bravado. I knew in my head it was foolish, but the opportunity being what it was, I couldn’t help myself.
I howled back.
I yowled and shook my head, jumping around.
It whined, a rhythm that came out like words.
I mocked it, in the most idiotic voice knew.
“EAT MY BALLS ASSHEAD.”
I was grinning and giggling and practically dribbling piss down my leg, so drunk was I to finally be out of its reach. It stopped pacing, ears laid flat against its skull, and begun to scratch at the ground. I walked around in circles, laughing, making up names for the ugly dumb mutt.
“Buttstink, assbreath, ballsface, stupidhead, assbastard, dickbrain, fartnose, boogernuts--”
Each new one I’d say to myself, and if it was good, I’d stop and scream it at the top of my lungs followed by moaning and barking and laughing and basically being a total shithead.
If I had anything to throw, I would have. Dad and I would walk a lot of different places around town, not just the bank on the weekends.
There was a family a block down who had the entire back yard fenced off where they kept a least half a dozen loud, smelly, barking their asses off dogs I loved to tease and holler at and generally make a nuisance of myself.
At first, we’d wait for them to see us and start barking to go into our own retaliatory air pollution, but eventually I got so I liked doing it so much Dad figured it was best to just let them be. We called them the Baa Dogs on account of the sounds they made.
But I guess that we, at least for a while, were the Baa People until we had sense enough to curb our impulses. Eventually, the people who lived there put up a privacy fence along the chain link one that kept the Baa Dogs in, and by that point, the fun was lost.
It was with fond memories of them that I was stirred into a shouting match with the dog.
Until I was the only one shouting.
“Where you at, BITCHSACK.”
“WHISKER. Can you hear me?”
“Huh? Mrs Greer?”
“I-I can’t quite-- oof-- see you. Can you come closer?”
“I don’t think so. There’s a big--”
“I LOVE YOU PLEASE DON’T DIE.”
Stupid. Stupid. STUPID.
“Now can anyone tell me what sixty-four divided by eight is? Anyone? Whisker?”
“Damn asshole dog.”
“That’s what I thought.”
After filling both sides of a piece of notebook paper with “I will not say bad words in class”, I spent the rest of the day sitting in the office with Patsy. I was given my homework, so if anything, it was more a vacation from Mrs Switt than punishment. I caught a couple of disapproving frowns from Mrs Greer, but it was hardly surprising. After the morning let down, I knew I was headed for a hearthbreak. Patsy could tell I was down and made an effort to lighten the mood.
“Ya know, asshole ain’t so bad. Everybody’s got one.”
“You get to be my age, things start to get a little rusty.”
“Enjoy all your parts while you can reach them, kid.”
Sitting with Patsy was nice, and her don’t give a fuck attitude helped me feel better about my classroom indiscretion. A lot of the kids in school liked her, and now I could see why. For a moment, I considered getting in trouble semi regular just so I could spend more time with her, but with the inevitable talk with Mrs Greer, likely joined by Mrs Switt, looming overhead, I decided it was better to pick my battles.
I slid off the chair and Patsy gave me a wink. Then I shuffled across the carpet and into Mrs Greer’s office.
“Have a seat.”
I did. And I knew it there would only be time for business.
“So I hear you’re having trouble finding appropriate language for the classroom.”
“I guess so.”
“So it’s true what Mrs Switt told me?”
“What did she tell you?”
“Why don’t you tell me what you said.”
“I’d rather not.”
“So you admit your language was vulgar?”
I slumped in the chair, chin to my chest, peering into those tantalizing green eyes through my bangs. Something glittered; something rich and warm.
“I, umm, guess I do.”
She crossed the desk with a leap and grasped the front of my shirt in her hand, running the other through her hair. Pulling me forward, she slid her face up my chest and her nose along the line of my jaw, inhaling and making these little sighs that left taught all the little hairs on my body. She clung to me; breathless.
“That’s what I was hoping you’d say.”
Mrs Greer held me for what seemed like hours. She was in her chair and I stood before her, arms at my side while she sobbed like I’d heard from Haley when we were under all the pants. I could smell her hair—something sweet and floral—where her face rubbed against my chest and I could feel my shirt was damp even through my Underoos. I’d never seen Mom cry like this and Mom cried a lot. Eventually, she pulled away, looking me in the eyes. She reminded me so much of my sister in that moment I almost pulled her back against me.
“How long has it been?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe two weeks?”
“It wants me. It always wants me. When I’m awake, asleep, in the shower, in the garden.”
I knew what she meant.
“It’s always scratching.”
“And biting, yes.”
“And sometimes you taste chocolate.”
“Chocolate? No. It’s-- more like, umm, coffee.”
“It’s always chocolate for me.”
“Whisker. I’m sorry, but, I’m not sure--”
“I’m not sure what to do.”
“I trust you.”
“I don’t think it, well, I don’t think-- it matters now.”
“You’re going to let it win?”
She looked stricken when the words sank in, and she was on the verge of crying again, but cut herself short. She sat up, rubbing the tears away with her palms, and sniffed a few times.
Mrs Greer put her hands on my arms, still at my sides, and looked me straight. I fell into the eyes that comforted me, but refused anything more. If it was as good as I could get, I’d take it.
Sometimes all you have is the person next to you.
Her lips parted slightly, eyes narrowing.
“How do you do it?”
Those green eyes scanned every inch of me, inside and out; hoping.
All I could do was shrug.
“Sometimes it, umm. Sometimes it helps if I-- if I don’t breathe.”
We spent the rest of our time together just like that.
Trying not to breathe.
Haley was rocking back and forth where she sat on the floor next to my bed with her knees drawn up to her chin. Her clothes were dirty, frayed, and almost the same bruised indigo hue as her extremities. There was a dullness to her color, like a popsicle with the syrup sucked out. And her eyes—huge—like the girl from the G-Force cartoon, were rainy windshields: perpetually teary.
Her head tilted to the side, cheek on her knee, bottom lip pouted, a thin rope of drool slithering from the corner of her mouth. I watched her from my bed, arm dangling over the edge, tips of my fingers lightly brushing her shoulder.
“Oh where-- oh where-- has my little-- cough-- little dog gone.”
“It’s good to have you home, Haley.”
Her bottom lip twitched with every word, mouth like a goldfish, hair like tadpoles against my fingers.
“Oh where-- cough-- oh where can he be.”
“I told you I’d do it.”
I traced with my eyes the way her kneecap jutted through the skin of the joint while she rocked. It was slow, but deliberate; a clock pendulum.
“With his ears cut short-- and his tail-- cut long.”
“I missed you.”
Whatever was in her hair, or on her scalp, was spreading to the crown of her forehead and nape of her neck. It was a cross between gelatin and oatmeal and made my skin tingle like muscle cream. She was missing a shoe, and I saw her big toe poking from a hole in her sock. Half the nail was missing.
“Oh where, oh-- cough cough-- where can he be?”
“Did you miss me?”
She stopped, turning her head such that her bottom lip dragged across her knee and left a track like a snail. Her cheeks and nose were puffy.
I stroked her shoulder, feeling a waxy residue on my fingertips.
“What is it?”
The look she gave me was a mix of fear and resentment.
"I lost another tooth."
On Saturday, Dad took me to Ponderosa for supper. We’d spent the afternoon at the Art Center, which was around the corner from where I went to school. It was a mixed show of local artists, with everything from oil paintings to sculpture, even an ornate table with chairs. It had two levels, lots of open space, with white walls and treated white pine floors.
There was a window on the South side that stretched from the bottom of the first floor to roughly midway up the second, which you can look down onto the main gallery below from the cutaway wall behind it. I found the building itself more interesting than the contents, and would trace a circuit as many as four or five times to see what, if anything, changed with each pass. You could say, by action, it was the first sapling branches of insanity. For me, it was comforting. It felt safe.
Conversation with Dad consisted mostly of my week at school: progress, friends, what Mom packed for my lunches. I slyly avoided mention of the outburst and things developing—or not developing—with Mrs Greer. As far as he was concerned, everything was hunky dory and I aimed to keep him in that loop. I was kind of a bitch like that.
“So Mrs Greer seems to like you.”
“I guess so.”
“Mrs Switt, too.”
“Really? Feels like the opposite.”
“Nah, she likes you. She just wants you to work to your potential.”
“Why would I do that?”
“You don’t want to do your best?”
“I guess so.”
“I know a lot of things come easy for you.”
“None of the important ones.”
“You don’t think school work is important?”
“Not as important.”
“You think girls are more important than your education?”
“I don’t have to work in class.”
“But you have to work at girls.”
“Something like that.”
“Listen. This early in the game, education only comes around once. You’ll have plenty of time to worry about girls when you’re older.”
“That’s the problem.”
“I don’t want to be a kid anymore.”
“Oh, I don’t think you mean that.”
“Why don’t you want to be a kid anymore?”
And that’s where I was at; still a kid, yet no longer wanting to be. Life had become more about everything I couldn’t do being a child than those I could. If that part was over, maybe I’d be able to do the things I wanted: date Mrs Greer, bring Haley home and stop the snoopy dog. I suppose that’s a tall order for anyone, adult or otherwise, but it’s good to have goals.
“Ehh, I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Come on. You brought it up.”
“You think it’s easy being grown up? Being married?”
“Didn’t say it was.”
“Trust me. Just-- try to concentrate more in school. Your teachers want you to succeed.”
“If you say so.”
“Talk to Mrs Greer. I have.”
“Just the other day. She sure likes it up the ass.”
I choked on my Pepsi.
“Tonsils deep in that miserable slit.”
He took another bite of macaroni salad.
“W-what did you say?”
Dad put down his fork, elbows on the table, hands pressed together. He was smirking when he leaned toward me.
“Tastes like chocolate.”
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