A tale loosely based on my real-life rescue dog Quinn that can be found in my short story collection, You’ll Know Her When You See Her.
I always wondered where she came from before I met her, so I imagined a whole life for her PJ (pre-Jenn 🙂 )
Girls’ Best Friend
My name is Nelly. I’m told that I am five years old. Today is going to be my last day. I might as well tell someone the brief story of my life, while I’m still here. You will do.
I don’t know who my parents were. My first memory is walking along the side of a long dirt road, in search of food. I found an overturned trash can that smelled deliciously of uneaten goodies. As I gorged myself, I felt a pair of hands lifting me from the ground. I looked into the eyes of the human curiously. I could tell already that he was not a nice man. His eyes were narrow and dark, and he smelled of something burnt and acrid and metallic. I don’t like that smell. He turned me toward someone else, a woman, who eyed me greedily. I could tell that she was not a nice person either.
“Would you look at that?” The man asked, looking at the woman with a mischievous smile. “Isn’t she a beauty?”
I was a cute puppy. Not being vain, just factual. I’ve seen pictures. I was slightly pudgy, all white except for a big dark spot on my right side, and smaller one on my right ear. My eyes were huge and dark and sad back then, since I was orphaned and lost, practically begging someone to take care of me.
The woman nodded. “Adorable.”
“You don’t find ones this cute too often as strays. They usually look all mangy and sick, like they have some sort of disease…”
I don’t like this man, so I chose this moment to release my bladder, all over his exposed sandal-wearing feet. The woman laughed uproariously like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, as the man handed me off to the woman and yelled words I didn’t yet understand. The woman cuddled me in her arms. She was bony and smelled like flowers and sweat. I nuzzled into her chest.
“Awww, she’s a sweet little thing,” she said, scratching me behind the ear.
“Grab me that ribbon from the backseat,” the man commanded. The man tied the retrieved ribbon around my neck in a bow. “Now we can give her to mom, save our money on a gift. And now she’ll have some company so she’ll stop nagging us about visiting her all the time.”
“You are horrible,” the woman said, but she was smiling, so I could tell she really didn’t think he was horrible. They got back in the car with me in the woman’s arms, and she held me for the rest of the ride, stroking my head. “You’re going to a nice home. To a nice lady that’s going to love you and spoil you.”
We rode for a short time and pulled into a driveway of a neat little brick house, with a mowed lawn and window boxes full of flowers, a line of tall plants along the pathway leading to the front door. I could tell I was going to be happy there before I even met the woman that lived inside. The door opened before we even reached the front door and a woman stepped out. She was older, much older than the woman still holding me. She was wearing a dress with big flowers on it that came all the way to the floor, her hair was long and wild and light-colored and came to the tips of her fingers. Her eyes were bright and hungry when she saw the man and the woman. I could tell she was lonely. Her eyes widened when she saw me, she greedily grabbed me from the woman’s arms and put her nose against mine. I licked her face and she laughed.
“Hey ma,” said the man.
“Hi Louisa,” said the woman.
“We know this is a tough day for you, dad’s death last year and all. We thought a gift would cheer you up.”
“Oh, Simon, you spent too much,” she rubbed me behind the ears. “She’s absolutely darling.”
“Oh, you’re worth it, ma,” he said with a smirk as he glanced at the woman. Liar.
“Well, do you want to come in for a bit? I was about to cook…”
“No, we can’t,” Simon answered too quickly. “Gina’s family already invited us for dinner.”
Her eyes fell. “Okay, well maybe next time.” Simon and Gina both kissed Louisa on the cheek and went back to the car, speeding away from the curb without even a wave. Louisa stared at the car sadly as it pulled away, continuing to stare at the empty street long after it was gone. I could tell that she was smart, a lot smarter than her son and his wife gave her credit for. She already knew of her son’s selfishness and duplicity; he hadn’t fooled her at all. Finally, she turned her attention to me.
“Come on in, dearie,” she said, looking at me with kind eyes as she carried me toward the house. “I think we’re going to be good friends.”
And we were. She named me Nelly, I’m not sure why, but I answered to it when she called. We spent most of our time outside in her garden in the backyard, she planted seeds as I ran in circles, chasing away birds and squirrels, or inside on the couch, watching her movies and favorite television shows while she fed me jerky. I slept in a cozy little bed next to hers every night, happy and tired from playing outside all day.
Sometimes she told me stories, like about meeting her husband at the movie theater the night she and her best friend Kitty were going to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie we watched now at least once a week. She’d had a big thing for Paul Newman at the time. Kitty had preferred Robert Redford. They in the midst of a Paul vs. Robert debate when she saw Peter in line at the concession stand. He had piercing blue eyes, the same as Paul’s, and long wavy blond hair. Kitty dismissed him as a dirty hippie; he was wearing a dingy white t-shirt with faded, holy jeans and worn sandals. Kitty wouldn’t even speak to a man unless his shoes were properly shined and he had a crease in his pants’ leg, but Louisa couldn’t keep her eyes off him. He told her he was a traveling musician, only in Atlanta for a few days, invited her to his show at a bar the following night. Louisa went. And she went to every other show the rest of the week. He was a talented guitarist, and she loved his voice, she called it soulful and heart-wrenching. After a few days, she realized she was in love with him. He gave her his deceased mother’s engagement ring, the one he carried around with him in his pocket all the time just in case. They got married at the courthouse the morning before they left for New Orleans. Her parents weren’t thrilled, Kitty told her she was crazy as she packed up her things in their shared apartment, that she would probably end up barefoot, pregnant and abandoned on the side of the road who-knows-where. Louisa kissed her on the cheek and told her she’d miss her. It was almost true.
For the next three years, Louisa and Peter traveled all around the United States as newlyweds, sleeping in the van, going to gigs, having fun, meeting new people, making connections, trying to get Peter signed to a label, finally ending up in Los Angeles. Louisa was certain Peter would finally get his big break, but he was rejected by every record label he met with. He was told the kind of music he did was on its way out, no one was interested in hearing it anymore. Around the same time, Louisa found out she was pregnant. They took it as a sign. They moved back to Atlanta, Peter took a job with Louisa’s father’s company, later taking it over after her father’s death. They settled into a happy family life, raising Simon, making a home. They wanted more children but it never happened for them. If you ask me, they would have been better off leaving Simon on the side of the road as my parents had done to me and continued traveling the country, following Peter’s dreams. But of course, I couldn’t tell her that. So I just laid there, listening to her stories contentedly, since I was the only one there to hear them.
Occasionally, we had visitors. Mostly people delivering things, or Simon and Gina for their bi-annual visits. But there was also a man whose name I never learned, he wore a suit like he worked in a big office and carried a briefcase. He visited every few months, I guess. He and Louisa always went into the den and shut the door behind them, I never heard what they said. But he never stayed long, and Louisa always seemed happy when he left. I wondered if he was her boyfriend. I knew from watching episodes of The Golden Girls with Louisa that sometimes older women got boyfriends; sometimes they even got married. I hoped Louisa would marry the briefcase man; then she wouldn’t be lonely, but it never happened.
Mostly, it was a sweet life. I lived with Louisa for a long time, or what felt like a long time to me. I knew years had passed. I knew I was older, not old, but older, not able to run as fast or as long as I used to. I gradually spent more time inside with Louisa, curled up on my bed, watching her shows. It never occurred to me that anything would change. But then everything did.
One night, Louisa and I were up waiting for the Academy Awards to start. It was Louisa’s favorite night of the year. She had a bowl of buttered popcorn in her lap, sitting up in bed. I was lying next to her, sometimes she let me sleep beside her, on nights when I could tell she was especially lonely. That actress she loved, Meryl somebody, appeared on the screen, talking to someone about the dress she was wearing. Humans’ obsession with clothing is something I will never understand. I expected Louisa to say, “Oh, that’s Meryl, she’s a class act.” She says it every time she sees her on screen. But there was silence. I turned to her. Her face was frozen, her eyes open and unblinking. I licked the side of her face, hoping to make her laugh, but got nothing. I nuzzled her nose, and noticed I didn’t feel her breath on my face. That’s when I figured it out. She was dead. I’d seen people die before, on those detective shows Louisa watched. I never thought Louisa would die. It seems stupid now that I think about it. I knew she was old. It was bound to happen to one of us sooner or later.
I cried, laid my head on her lap, whimpering, afraid, not knowing what to do next. On television, when someone died, policeman came to the house, then relatives came by, looked at their body and said things like, “What a shame, she was so young,” or I guess in Louisa’s case, they would say, “What a shame, but she’d lived her life.” There was always a human in the house with the dead person to call the people to come and do whatever needed to be done.
Since it was Academy Awards night, it was one of the two nights of the year when Simon and Gina always stopped by, the other being the anniversary of Simon’s father’s death. It was a long-standing tradition between Simon and Louisa, they always watched the awards together since he was a little boy, back when he wanted to be an actor, a dream abandoned long ago. Now, they watched some of the red carpet coverage with her and brought her a bottle of champagne and chocolates, before rushing off to someplace more important. I had to wait for Simon and Gina, they were horrible people, but they would know what to do.
Right on schedule, I heard the front door open. “Ma?” Simon called out. I heard his footsteps against the hardwood floor as he walked through the living room.
“She must be watching in her room; I hear the TV,” said Gina. Their footsteps came closer, until they were both standing in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at me lying on Louisa’s lap, whimpering softly.
Gina rushed to my side, “What’s wrong, sweet girl?” She stroked my head as I continued to whine. Simon went to his mother’s side and put his fingers on her neck. “She’s dead.”
Gina stood up immediately. “What!”
“No heartbeat, and she’s not breathing.” He put his hand under her nose to demonstrate. They looked at each other for a second, then began rushing around the room in a flurry. I was confused. Was this how humans grieved in real life? They didn’t stand around saying things like, she will be missed, or may she rest in peace? Gina grabbed something bright and shiny from Louisa’s top dresser drawer and stuffed it in her jeans pocket. Simon slipped Louisa’s engagement ring from her finger and put it in Gina’s bag. Louisa loved that ring. Even though her husband had been gone for years, she wore it every day, still had it routinely cleaned. They rifled through her things some more, stuffing more and more in their pockets and bags as I watched in disbelief. They transferred everything to Gina’s large purse and Gina rushed outside to put it in their car trunk. After she returned, they straightened up the bedroom, then Simon called the police. The mock-sadness in his voice as he explained what happened made my stomach roil.
Simon and Gina were the kinds of humans that only cared about things. They didn’t see anything else. I’d learned about humans like this from TV. The ones that would do anything to get things, money, shiny things, clothes. They weren’t like Louisa, who appreciated simple things, like the beauty of her garden, good food and books and movies, companionship. Louisa and I had been alike that way. There were times when we just laid outside, Louisa on her lounge, me on the grass beside her, staring at the clouds, listening to the birds and the wind, just being. I could never imagine Simon and Gina lying there like that. They were always looking, for things Louisa and I would never see.
Soon the small house was full of people. Relatives I had never seen, who probably hadn’t visited Louisa in years, a police officer and EMTs, and finally the coroner, to officially declare what we already knew, that Louisa was gone forever. The police officer turned to Simon. “What about the dog?”
“What about it?” he responded in a nasty tone, as though I were some sort of nuisance instead of his mother’s only friend for an unknown number of years.
“Are you guys taking it home with you?” the cop asked.
“Simon, maybe we could…” Gina started. I guess she really did have a soft spot for me.
“No, I don’t want to deal with some yappy dog crapping all over our house. I know she was good to my mom, and I’m thankful to her for that. But I don’t want a dog.”
Just like that, I was being dismissed. I’d served my purpose as far as Simon was concerned. He would never know how much I loved Louisa, or how much she loved me. I probably loved her more than any person in that room, Simon included, and I wouldn’t even get to go to her funeral.
Gina looked at the floor, and the cop sighed. “I’ll call animal control.”
Animal control? Was this some sort of new place where animals were dominant and humans were the pets, I wondered. Is that what happened after your human died? If so, I’d much rather go there than go live with Gina and Simon.
I soon learned that wasn’t the case. Animal Control is a dark, dank nightmarish place filled with hundreds of dogs and cats in cages smaller than a closet. The nonstop barking and meowing and howling is enough to nearly drive me mad. I sit in an oppressively hot cage, in my own filth, staring at a wall covered in crawling insects, batting away the rodents that scurry across the floor. For a few minutes per day, I get the pleasure of being jerked around on a leash for my “outdoor time” by some overworked volunteer. Sometimes humans come to Animal Control to take some of the animals home to be their pets. I don’t think I will ever be picked. One of the workers here doesn’t like me. On my first day here, I saw him being too rough with another dog, kicking her when she wasn’t moving fast enough outside, shouting vile names in her face as she whimpered. When it was my turn, I snapped at him, I didn’t make contact with the skin, just enough to scare him so he’d know not to try that crap with me. Now, whenever someone stops near my cage, he says, “She’s not good with kids.” As they lean closer he whispers, “Bite history.” And they hang their heads and move on.
I’m not bitter, like I said before, I’ve lived a sweet life. I see animals come in here, flea-bitten, their fur nearly all gone, eyes milky and infected, open wounds on their heads or all over their bodies, skin and bones, barely able to walk. I’m grateful that my human loved me, was much better than whoever did those things to them. Every new animal has a sign placed on their cage with their name, or the name the volunteers have given us, their approximate age and breed. Until their last day. On the last day, the sign is taken down, and near the end of the work day, someone comes with a leash and takes them away, never to return again. Most of the dogs don’t know what’s coming to them, leaving their cages happy with wagging tails, thinking that they’re headed for their outdoor time.
My sign was taken down today. So now I’m waiting. I’m not afraid. It’s just the natural order of things. Animals don’t live forever. I just hope it won’t be painful, however they choose to do away with me. I hear footsteps coming down the path. I assume it’s the mean volunteer, gleefully coming to take me away. But it’s not. It’s a woman. She’s young, with smooth dark skin and short hair, close to her scalp and curly, much shorter than I’ve ever seen on any woman. She has high cheekbones with full lips and an easy, beautiful smile. She stoops down, so that she’s eye-level with me, and she smiles again. Her beauty is only marred by a jagged scar on the side of her neck, barely visible. I wonder what her story is. I stand and start to wag my tail, feeling hopeful for the first time since I was brought to this horrid place.
“You,” she says plainly.
“Are you sure?” asked the volunteer standing behind her. “We have…”
“She’s the one.”
The volunteer sighed and shook his head. “What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Jo Delaney.” Her voice is rich and melodic. I wonder if she’s a singer.
He scribbles something on his clipboard. “Okay Jo, follow me.”
A while later, the worker that hates me comes back and unlocks my cage. He pulls the leash tightly around my throat and leads me out into the lobby. The leash constricts my throat and nearly cuts off my air supply. Jo is waiting. She frowns when she sees how the worker is dragging me, how I’m gasping for breath.
“Good riddance,” the worker whispers under his breath as he pulls back hard on the leash. I turn and face him and he looks afraid, as though he suddenly realizes that I understand everything he’s said. I squat and release my bladder all over his white tennis shoes, as he squeals and jumps backwards, dropping the leash on the floor. Good riddance to you too. Jo just laughs.
She kneels to pick up my leash and looks me in the eyes, rubbing my ear. “Rae. Your name is Rae.” My second name, for my second life. Jo will never know about Louisa, or that my real name is Nelly, or about Peter or Butch and Sundance or Academy Awards night, that I had a long happy life before we met, which makes me sad. But as she leads me out into the sunshine, I’m forever grateful to her. It isn’t going to be my last day after all.
I sit in the front seat of Jo’s tiny car. I notice the backseat is filled with boxes. It’s my first time in a car since Simon picked me up from the side of the road. Louisa never went anywhere; she had everything delivered, even her groceries. We drive for a long time. I notice the buildings get smaller and smaller until there are no buildings at all, only lush trees and wide open fields of grass. I’ve seen scenes like this in the movies. We are in the country. The air is a bit fresher and sweeter as I poke my head out of the open window. We pull into the driveway of a strange-looking house, very different from Louisa’s. It is made of trees, seriously trees, chopped down and turned sideways, stacked on top of each other, with little windows cut out in the front. Jo calls it her “log cabin.” There’s lots of land, but it’s wild, nothing like Louisa’s neat little coordinated rows of plants and flowers. Jo’s land is bursting with plants I’ve never seen before, which don’t appear to have been planted with any sort of design or plan, they just exist, growing wildly and freely. I like it.
I expect life with Jo to be different from living with Louisa, she’s so young and so pretty. The pretty women I saw on television were always sitting around tables with other women, drinking glass after glass of wine and complaining about their boyfriends. They had men that came to their houses and picked them up, took them out dancing or to restaurants. I expect to be alone more often, left to my own devices. But Jo isn’t much different from Louisa. She stays home most of the time. She does something called telecommuting, which basically means she gets to sit at home and type things on her computer screen instead of go to an office and type things on a computer screen, like Pam on The Office, one of Louisa’s favorite shows. The phone rarely rings, she has few visitors.
In fact, she’s had exactly one visitor since I’ve been here. There was a knock at the door on a lazy afternoon, Jo was reading, I was lying on the living room rug, gnawing on a bone. I could tell Jo was annoyed that her reading was interrupted. She sighed and peeked through the peephole, then slowly opened the door. A woman was standing there, with a little girl. The woman was petite, with long wavy hair and wide expressive eyes. Her skin was light, like Louisa’s, and her daughter was her spitting image, about four, with her hair in pigtails. She introduced herself as Cass, her daughter was Nora, she welcomed Jo to the area and gave her a basket filled with some freshly-baked goods that smelled delicious. Nora saw me standing behind Jo and stepped inside, patted me on the head. I licked her hand.
“Nice doggie.” she said in a sweet voice. “Mommy, can I play with the doggie?”
“Maybe another time, bug,” Cass answered, reaching out for her daughter.
Jo thanked them for the gift and told them she’ll stop by soon to return the favor. But I know that she’s lying. Louisa stayed home all of the time because the world had shut itself off from her, but Jo is hiding, and I don’t know why. Cass has come by a few more times, and Jo always pretends she isn’t home, hiding behind her couch until she goes away, which is confusing to me.
Jo leaves the house a couple times a week, running routine errands, or to run. Other than that, we watch a lot of television, or sometimes Jo just reads, for hours, sometimes for an entire weekend. She sits perched on top of her tall dresser on top of her throw pillows, next to the highest window, she calls it her sunny spot. At night, she tosses and turns, sometimes crying out, words I don’t understand. I know she’s afraid. I climb onto the bed and put my head against her shoulder, breathing slowly, until she calms down again. I don’t go to sleep again until I feel her heartbeat slows and her breaths are regular. She puts her hand on my head in her sleep and whispers my second name. She knows I’m there, that I’ll protect her.
Sometimes she bakes, all day, filling the house with warm, cozy smells. She always makes way too much food for just one human, crusty pies and cupcakes, muffins and banana bread. For dinner, she makes food that looks too lovely to eat, fresh herb risotto, stuffed green peppers, butternut squash and pear ravioli. She eats alone, but sets the table beautifully. Folded cloth napkins and silver, fine china, a glass of wine. She eats slowly with me at her feet, waiting for the occasional delicious nibble, staring out the window at her overgrown yard and thinking.
She talks to me too, sometimes, not as much as Louisa, but she talks. She tells me her full name, Jordana Leigh Delaney, she grew up in a big city, a place called Chicago, but she hated it. She’s shy, preferred the wide open spaces of the country, less people and fresh air. She was a bookish quiet child who preferred the company of animals to humans. She’d been a vegetarian since she was five. She had four dogs and three cats growing up, they all slept with her in her crowded bed every night. Most of the other kids thought she was weird, but mostly left her alone. She spent her childhood dreaming of the day she could leave the constraints of the city and go somewhere where she could breathe. A big house with lots of land, full of rescued animals. She ended up staying in Chicago longer than she wanted, she’s very close to her mother and was reluctant to leave her, but something happened that made her leave. Something that scared her. She won’t tell me what. She had to leave in a hurry, so she left her animals with her family and a few friends, rented the cabin on the computer, sight unseen, and drove all night, not stopping. That’s why the first thing she did after she moved to Georgia was come find me. She said she picked me because I reminded her of her first pet, her dog Sidney; she said we had the same eyes. I get the sense from her that she knows, just like Louisa, that I hear her, that I understand. Even though I can’t talk back with words, I nuzzle her hand or lick her cheek when I can tell she’s sad. That makes her smile. She calls me her “sweet Rae.”
Jo and I run twice a day, we’ve gone on hikes through the north Georgia mountains, or along the Chattahoochee river, or sometimes on hilly path through the wooded area behind our house. Our nightly runs are my favorite. The look on Jo’s face is one of determination, I can’t tell if she running from or to something. I just know she needs to run, she needs to run to feel alive, no longer trapped in that dark cabin crouching in fear, like she’s taunting death. It’s so different from running in circles around Louisa’s small, neat yard. It’s like we’re wild animals, able to truly connect with nature in a way we can’t in the light of day. I love the smell of the night air, the fresh dirt, the sounds of the nocturnal animals, the way the moon shines on Jo’s face when we reach the top of the hill and she stops, putting her hand on my head and looking around, taking in the beautiful country.
But, it’s during one of our nightly runs that I smell it again, something acrid and metallic. I turn my head, looking for Simon, which I soon realize makes no sense, why would Simon have followed me here? He was glad to be rid of me. I see a slight rustling in the bushes, a pair of beady eyes peeking out between the leaves, a large hand parting the branches only slightly. I stop and run toward the bushes, barking loudly. The person runs away, the branches rustling in their wake. Jo looks back at me, I see the shining fear in her eyes. She knows the person who was hiding in the bushes, I see it on her face. We run back to the house, faster than we ever have before. Jo locks all the doors and windows, checking each one twice, and then she gets on the phone with someone, speaking in a voice so shaky and low I can’t make out what she’s saying.
A while later, there’s a knock at the door, and Jo doesn’t hesitate to answer this time. It’s two cops, a man and a woman. Jo is visibly shaking as she lets them in. The police look bored as they enter our cramped living room. The man is bald and sneering, looks at Jo as though he already isn’t going to believe whatever she has to say. The woman is tall and thin, so thin she looks fragile, nothing like the policewomen I see on Law & Order. Jo tells them about the person hiding in the bushes. That she thinks he’s someone named Nate Harold, her ex-boyfriend, who must have tracked her down all the way from Chicago. She shows them the scar on her neck, tells them that he did that to her when she tried to end things with him, left her for dead, bleeding out. The Chicago police haven’t been able to find him. The male cop’s face softened, the female looked like she was about to cry, kept staring at the scar. It must be her first day on the job. They tell her they’ll take a look around behind the house, see if there’s anyone hanging around, but even I realize that they are useless. Jo’s shoulders deflate as she shows the two cops out.
She crawls onto the couch across from the fireplace, pulling the plaid fleece blanket over her body, even though it’s not cold at all. I cuddle next to her, and she puts her arm around my neck. I know she’s ready to tell me the story now.
Jo and Nate met at work; she was working for an animal hospital as a nurse, planning to go to school to become a veterinarian. It was her dream job. She loved seeing the animals every day, even the finicky overly-energetic ones seemed to calm at the sound of her voice or her touch. Nate worked across the street at a boutique law firm as a paralegal, planning for law school the following year. They ran into each other nearly every day, getting coffee in the morning or at Jo’s favorite lunch spots; he asked her out constantly.
She had to admit he was attractive, tall with cocoa brown skin and a smooth bald head, brown eyes that glinted in the sun. But something didn’t seem right about him. He was too charming, too smooth, too slick. But after a few months, he wore her down, she agreed to meet him and a group of his friends for dinner. They sat close to each other the entire night, their knees touching under the table, speaking closely, ignoring everyone else. The relationship progressed at a rate that was a bit scary to Jo, but thrilling at the same time. They immediately became exclusive. Nate wanted all of her time. He told her he was in love with her after two weeks of dating. Jo reciprocated, but didn’t know if she really felt it. She rarely saw her mom, or her few friends. She initially thought it was romantic; he was so consumed by her he couldn’t spend a moment without her. But his intensity became dangerous really quickly. He exploded in anger when she broke plans with him to spend time with her friends or her mother, some of whom she hadn’t seen in several months. Screamed at her, accused her of loving her family more than she loved him, which was ridiculous to Jo. Of course she loved her family more, she’d only known Nate for a few months.
The first time he hit her was six months in. It was at his apartment, after she thought they had a lovely dinner and romantic walk along Lake Michigan, he thought she wasn’t paying enough attention to him because she was checking her text messages instead of talking to him. Her phone had been off the entire night; she just wanted to check in with a few friends. He screamed at her, snatched the phone from her hand and threw it against the wall. She screamed back at him, got right in his face, asked him if he was insane. He hit her with a closed fist against the side of her face, knocking her into the wall. He stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.
Jo was shocked, she just sat there for a while, her face smarting, until she decided what she had to do. She grabbed a pen and paper and began to write Nate a letter, ending things for good. Before she was done, Nate came back with tears in her eyes, full of apologies. Saying he loved her so much she made him crazy, he couldn’t bear the thought of being without her. Against her better judgment, she forgave him. He promised he would never hit her again; and he didn’t, for another year.
Nate had entered law school by then, still working full-time at the firm. They saw less and less of each other. Jo thought she would surprise him on campus with a romantic home-cooked meal, under the stars in the outdoor courtyard. As she waited for him with a basket containing a warm spinach pesto lasagna, crusty bread and a bottle of red wine, one of Nate’s classmates, Mike, approached her. She’d met him a few times before, he had a long term girlfriend, Dahlia, and they’d done a few double dates. He sat next to her, keeping her company until Nate’s class ended. He pulled out his phone to show her pictures of the engagement rings he was thinking about buying to propose, wanting Jo’s opinion. Jo leaned close, studying each picture intently. She liked Mike’s girlfriend a lot and wanted her proposal to be perfect. When Nate found them, saw how close they were sitting, with their shoulders touching, laughing with each other and chatting like old friends, she saw the look on his face and knew that he was furious.
Before Jo could say anything, Nate jerked Mike up from his seat and punched him in the mouth, while Jo screamed, begging him to stop, assuring him there was nothing happening between them. She tried to pull him away from Mike, but this only made him angrier. He turned his attention on her, slapping her across the face then punching her. She fell on the ground, blood streaming from her nose, when campus security ran over and restrained him. Mike helped her up and walked her to her car. She was certain now it was over. Nate was a hothead, he would never change. She cut off all communication. While Nate was in jail for the assault, she left her apartment and moved back in with her mother.
Unbeknownst to Jo, Nate was released on bail a few days later, and immediately went searching for her, easily finding her at her mother’s house. He banged on the door in the middle of the night, shocking Jo out of a light sleep. She was all alone; her mom was working the night shift as an emergency room nurse. Jo crept to the door and looked at Nate through the peephole. He looked manic, wild-eyed, tears streaming down his face, beads of sweat forming on his bald head and his temples, arms shaking, nearly foaming at the mouth. She didn’t respond to him, but he kept yelling, begging her to take him back, demanding that she open the door, asking for her forgiveness, but Jo was done with his apologies.
She went to grab the phone to call 911, when she heard him banging his entire body against the door, trying to knock it down. Her hands were sweating and shaking so hard she couldn’t get a good grip on the phone. She hadn’t even begun dialing when the door swung open. Nate stood in the entryway, looking crazed, panting like a wild animal. She tried to back towards the bedroom but he was too fast, seeming to cross the living room in two steps. She screamed for help as he pushed her to the ground. In an unsettlingly calm voice, he told her he loved her, that she’d never be able to leave her, and pinning her to the floor, he slashed the side of her throat.
He seemed shocked at what he’d done, when he saw the blood spilling out onto the carpet and dropped the knife, running out the front door. A neighbor who’d heard Jo’s screams called 911 and Jo was rushed to the hospital, where she made a full recovery, a miracle considering the amount of blood she’d lost. Nate, in the meantime went on the run. He jumped bail, there were multiple warrants out for his arrest, but the Chicago PD had no success in finding him. It was as though he’d disappeared into thin air. As soon as Jo was released from the hospital she fled the state, took a job doing billing for a medical office, and laid low, waiting for the day she would get the call that Nate had been caught, charged with attempted murder and in prison for the next 50 years. But he’d found her again. She was certain of it.
Jo’s story angers me, yet emboldens me at the same time. Nate sounds like that mean volunteer at Animal Control, another person who takes pleasure in terrifying other living things. It takes a long time for me to get her to fall asleep, but eventually she does. I won’t sleep tonight though. I think Jo is right. I think Nate has found her, and it’s my job to protect her.
During the darkest part of the night, when the moon isn’t shining and everything is asleep, I smell that horrible smell. I think it is the smell of evil. I jump off the couch, baring my teeth, looking at the door. The knob is turning slowly, jiggling up and down. I bark loudly, which wakes up Jo. She grabs a knife from the kitchen and stands in the living room facing the door. Her eyes are fiery, she’s not afraid, she’s tired of being scared. She’s ready to end everything, once and for all. The door finally swings open and he is standing there. He’s clearly surprised to see Jo alert and facing him, a weapon in her hand. He was probably expecting to find her asleep and defenseless.
“Get out of my house, Nate,” she says in a low growl. He slowly approaches her, saying nothing, just wearing a twisted smile. “Get out!”
She’s screaming now, tears falling from her eyes. I growl and charge him, leaping at him. He kicks me away and I yelp in pain, hiding behind the sofa, feeling like a coward. Jo cries out when she sees me fall, but there’s nothing she can do for me now, she has to deal with Nate. He’s standing right in front of her now.
“I told you I would always find you, Jo,” he says in a way that he probably thinks is loving but I find terrifying. He reaches out to caress the side of her neck, where he scarred her, but Jo backs away. “I love you.”
“What you did to me wasn’t love. Get out, now, Nate!” She raises the knife and Nate rushes her, grabs her arm and twists it hard. She cries out in pain, and I hear the clatter of the knife as it hits the floor. He hits her once, with all of his force, and she falls to the floor. He punches her again and again and again, Jo is screaming. I can’t stand it. But I’m so afraid. My side smarts from where he kicked me. I feel frozen, but I know I have to move. The knife is there on the floor, its only matter of time before he uses it, finishing what he started before. I can’t lose Jo. So I will my legs to move. I creep around the couch, being as quiet as I can, coming up behind Nate. He’s crouching over Jo, pummeling her face mercilessly. I bare my teeth and dig them into his calf, locking my mouth. He yelps in pain and tries to shake my off him, but I won’t be moved. I sink my teeth deeper into his flesh, tasting blood as he screams in pain. I don’t care how many times he tries to kick me. I’ll never let go; not until Jo is safe. Jo uses the interruption to grab the rock sculpture from the coffee table and bash him over the head with it. He falls to the ground, unconscious, and I finally let go. Jo and I both stare at each other, breathless. Jo’s face is battered and bruised, but she is alive. She’s faced her deepest fear and come out on the other side. I stare back at her, wagging my tail. We are fearless.
Jo is in the hospital for a few days, Cass runs to Jo’s side as she is being loaded into the ambulance, she promises to look after me and her house while she’s gone. Cass and Nora come by every day to feed me and walk me and play. Sometimes her husband Patrick comes by too; he’s tall and handsome and looks a little bit like Paul Newman, which is a good sign. He’s a nice guy, I can tell.
When Jo gets back, she is different. She’s still the same Jo, but the phone rings now, we even have visitors. Cass comes over, sometimes by herself for “girl talk” sometimes with the entire family for dinner. So now someone else gets to enjoy Jo’s cooking except me. She goes out too, with Cass, to movies and shopping and lunches and happy hours. She’s even planning on applying for veterinary school. She is slowly rejoining the world. I’m happy for her, but selfishly, I miss her sometimes. But she’s never gone long.
One day, after Jo has been home for a few months, she puts me in the car and we go on a drive. I expect us to end up at another state park for a long hike, or maybe at the river, but she’s going the wrong way. I notice that we are near the city. For a brief moment, I am afraid, thinking she is taking me back to Animal Control, but I know that’s ridiculous.
After a long while, we park in front of a two-story red brick building, on a long treeless street with numerous identical looking buildings. Jo leashes me and takes me inside, confusing me more. I’ve never been inside a building like this. It is completely odorless, with a big square desk in the middle of a mostly empty room, a humorless woman looks down at me as though I’m carrying rabies before addressing Jo.
“Can I help you, miss?” She asks in a tone that implies she’d rather do anything but.
“Yes, Jordana Delaney to see Edward Turner,” she responds in a much nicer tone than that woman deserves.
“Yes, he’s expecting you. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Less than a minute after the woman gets up from her desk and leaves the room, a man enters and approaches Jo with his arm outstretched. I am shocked to realize I know him. It’s briefcase man. He introduces himself as Edward Turner, a probate attorney, and invites us back to his office. I am wondering how Jo knows briefcase man, and why she brought me.
He leads us down a narrow corridor lined with windows to his small office at the end of the hallway. Jo sits on a small loveseat next to the door and I lie at her feet as Edward takes a seat behind his mostly clear desk. He must not be very busy.
“Man, are you a hard lady to find,” he says as he opens one of his desk drawers.
“Why did you need to find me? Your letter said that I’d inherited something? I don’t know of any family members that passed away recently. And why did you want me to bring Rae?”
“Well, technically, it’s not you I was looking for; it was her.” He points at me, lying at Jo’s feet.
“Yes, ma’am. Her former owner, Louisa Hamilton, lists her in her will.”
“Oh, I had no idea her last owner passed away. I thought she’d been a stray.” She looks down at me sadly.
He pulls out a sheet of and a picture falls onto the floor. Edward picks it up and hands it to Jo, and she leans down to show it to me. It’s of Louisa and me on our first Academy Awards night together. Simon had taken it. Louisa was all dressed up, wearing the diamond earrings that Gina had stolen, with a shiny dark dress. She smiled luminously for the camera with her arm around me.
“Oh is this her? You look so happy, Rae.” She rubs my head.
“Yes, I found out from the son that he’d sent the dog to Animal Control, then finally learned from them that she’d been adopted by a Jordana Delaney. Took them forever to sort out their records; that place is mess.” Tell me about it.
Edward reads from the sheet of paper. “The provisions of the will are as follows, ‘I wish for my savings and investment accounts, in addition to the proceeds of selling my jewelry, my home, and my husband’s former business, to be divided equally between the Atlanta Humane Society and a trust to care for my dear friend and companion Nelly for the rest of her life. She has been the only bright spot during these years after my dear husband’s passing, and the best friend a girl could ask for.’”
“Wow,” Jo says, seemingly at a loss of more words.
My heart warms. My dear Louisa, she didn’t have to give me anything, her friendship had been enough. But, I have to admit I’m a bit happy that Simon won’t get his hands on anything. I smile on the inside.
“Yep, she had it changed a few months before she died. Everything was supposed to go to the son before. Man was he furious. Called his own mother every name in the book. Good thing she wasn’t around to hear it. And he and that wife of his had to fork over all of the things they stole from his mom’s house after she died. Can you imagine that? Thinking about money at a time like that? But it happens all the time…see it every day. Good thing Louisa had all of her jewelry inventoried before she died. They even tried to see if they could get the dog back, just to get their hands on the money. But the Animal Control people told him it was too late, he’d already given up ownership and the dog had been adopted.”
Edward and Jo talk more, she’s curious about Louisa, which makes me love her more. He tells her he was a sweet, gentle woman, who loved cooking and gardening and old movies and animals. Whenever he came by for a visit she always had a glass of sweet tea and fresh baked cookies waiting for him. He always looked forward to seeing her. Then the conversation turns to business; they go over some paperwork regarding my trust that I really don’t understand; Jo has to sign her name a bunch of times, and then we leave.
During the car ride home, Jo turns to me. “So your name is Nelly, huh?” Jo says, grinning, stroking my fur. “Is it okay if I call you Nelly Rae?” I wag my tail affirmatively.
Jo frames the picture of Louisa and me and sits it on the fireplace mantle, next to the one of her and me taken last week by Cass during a day at the park. The sun was setting behind us as we sat on a bench, a large oak tree hanging over us. Jo is smiling happily as I lean against her shoulder. We stand back and look at both pictures, admiring them. I notice that Jo and Louisa have the same kind, trustworthy smile. My two best friends. Jo lies down on the couch, covering herself with the blanket. I lie on the rug next to her, listening to her breathing, until I’m sure she’s asleep.