The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 3

Animals Here Below

by Eric Puchner

We haven't seen our mother in really long, a long time, three years almost, so when she pulls up to the curb and gets out of her station wagon, Caitlin and I run out there to touch her hair. It's the longest hair I've ever seen, blond and slithery and down to her waist. My mom laughs and bends over and lets us feel how heavy it is. Mr. Grown-Up, she calls me. We fill our arms with hair, which smells like French fries. So long, it makes me want to not let go. I make up a song, because that's what I always do. Hair of Ages, who do you trust? Hair of Ages, taller than us.
   Dad doesn't come out to see her hair. We used to be rich, but now my father works at the airport handling people's luggage. A ramp agent, he's called. He's got these coveralls that say hudson general on them and plastic earmuffs that look like headphones. He wears them at the kitchen table sometimes, when Caitlin and I talk about our mother. If she hadn't fallen in love with the math teacher, none of this would have happened. Now she's back from Alaska. If I ask Dad about it, he just laughs for no reason and says: “I guess she's fed up with him, too.”
   My mom follows us into the kitchen, glancing around the house and stopping now and then to shake her head. She's never been here before. I keep sneaking glances at her face. She's paler than I remember and you can see right through her eyebrows to the skin underneath. When she smiles, secret lines crease out from the corners of her mouth, three or four on each side, like ripples getting smaller.
   Caitlin's gone Special Ed and just keeps staring at her, mouth unhinged. She's six and doesn't know she's being rude. There's a sugar crust of sleep in her eyelashes.
   “I have some presents for you in the car,” my mom says, leaning her head to one side and swinging her hair around to the front, slow and gentle, like a crane moving something heavy. She peers at the door to my dad's room, where he's pretending to be asleep. It's only recently they've begun talking again. She was going to stay at a hotel, but I got Caitlin to throw one of her tragic fits.
   “Tomorrow night we can see a movie,” Caitlin says, too loudly.
   Mom blushes pink, right through her eyebrows. “Your father didn't tell you? I can only stay for a night.”
   “Why?” I say. Dad did tell us, but this is part of our plan. Mine and Caitlin's.
   “I have an interview in Austin. At a school there. They need someone to teach music.” She squats down to our height. “But I'll come back to Tucson in a couple weeks to visit, after I get settled at your Aunt Tina's.”
   “We're not going to the Desert Museum?”
   She studies me carefully. “Yes, in the morning. I promised we would.”
   She asks for some water and I get her a glass down from the cupboard, inspecting the rim for little orange-juice bits. Then I open the freezer for some ice before remembering what's in there. Zoomer, our cocker spaniel, died last week from dog cancer, and my dad plans to send him to a renderer in Montana who does museum skeletons. Supposedly, the guy has some special bugs that are going to clean Zoomer's skull, make it shiny and beautiful, something you can put on your desk. Dermestid beetles, they're called. It's giving Caitlin nightmares and I have to sing her a song about good beetles that don't eat your face off. Pretty beetle, he sleeps in the wind. Nibbles grass but never your skin.
   Zoomer gives me a sad look through his plastic bag, little icicles dangling from his beard. “Bad dog,” I mouth. The renderer's on vacation, which is why Zoomer's in the freezer, but I wonder if Dad's trying to do everything possible to make my mother run away again.
   I hand her the ice water, worried it smells like dog, but she doesn't notice and takes a long drink. The ice ticks against the glass, even when she's finished. She goes over to the window and looks at our backyard, which is just a dirt place surrounded by a chain-link fence, the only thing of interest being a clothes wire stretched tight with a little crank, my dad's blue jeans walking in the wind. Something about Mom's looking at it in her fancy sandals makes me feel ashamed.
   She plucks at the back of her dress, which is dark down the middle. “I forgot it could get like this.”
   “It's monsoon season,” Caitlin says.
   “She knows!” I tell her.
   Caitlin looks like she might cry, the little scar on her cheek dimpling into a V. My mom used to help me search for monsoons when I was younger, casing the sky with binoculars. That was before she ran off with Mr. Osterhout, when we lived in a big house with air-conditioning and a view of the mountains and javelinas that drowned in the pool if you didn't close the gate. The mountains were covered in saguaro cactuses, which could kill you if they fell over but they never did. At night the wind went through them and they sounded like music. Mom used to take us out there before bed, me and Caitlin and sometimes my dad, and we'd listen to the cactuses humming everywhere at once, some of them two hundred years old and taller than our house. Mom knew exactly what letter it was in, C or B-flat. Dad called her Miss Solemnis, after her favorite Beethoven song.
   After she left, though, everything changed. Dad stopped going to work so he could listen to her CDs all day long, the same ones he'd always thought were boring. He'd drive us to school in his bathrobe and then pick us up as if no day had gone by, the hairs on his chest sticking out for everyone to see. He'd never paid much attention to Zoomer before, but then he started buying dog groceries every day, feeding him pigs' ears and chicken croissants and K-9 Kupcakes. Zoomer even began sleeping in bed with him. They'd snuggle together, refusing to get up before noon. After he got fired from the bank, I stopped at my dad's door in the middle of the day and he was lying there with his eyes closed, letting Zoomer lick his toes. I watched Zoomer clean every toe like a cat, one through ten.
   That was the “lower depths,” as my dad calls it. I thought he'd escaped them, but now he hasn't been to work at all since Zoomer died and even made me call the airport yesterday to tell them he had bronchitis.
   Mom takes me and Caitlin outside again to her station wagon, which is filled with shoes and boxes and garbage bags tied into mouse ears at the tops. The desert sun squinches her eyes. She hands us presents, wrapped up carefully with red ribbons, like the ones she sends from Alaska. I rip off the paper and pull out a box filled with little totem poles, which she explains is a chess set made of whalebone. I don't even know how to play chess, but I pretend to love it anyway because of the plan. We're going to make our mom fall in love with us again. With our father, too, even. That way she'll stay here forever and he'll stop being depressed and we'll be in the higher depths like we used to, moving back to the mountains where we can hear the cactuses.
   “I brought Zoomer something too,” she says, holding up a fake bone with the words top dog written on it. “Where is he, anyway?”
   “Dog heaven,” Caitlin says sadly.
   I give her a dirty look, because she's forgotten what we agreed to say. “It's a dog kennel,” I explain. “He's not dead.”
   Mom squints at me, one hand cupped above her eyes. “Why is he at the kennel?”
   “It's a school. They're training him to be obedient.”
   I say this since I'm on the spot and Dad used to joke about sending Zoomer to Regurgitation Training, because there was so much dog puke cookied to the rug. Mom seems not to remember this. Luckily, the screen door squeaks into a slam and my father appears on the porch, wearing his Hudson General cap and flip-flops. He flops over to us. There's a pearl of shaving cream perched on the rim of his glasses. He stares at my mom's hair, like someone in a trance. She looks down at her feet and hands him the fake bone she brought for Zoomer. Her face is all shy and speechless, and for a minute I think the plan's working before we've really started.
   Dad puts the bone in his teeth, I guess for a joke. No one says anything. He blushes and takes it out of his mouth. “Nice to be back on top,” he says, reading the words on it.
   My mom's face hardens. “Don't start.”
   “Hoo, boy. Started.” He peers in the window of the station wagon, then looks out at the trash-filled street. “Take your stuff in for the night. This isn't Via Roma Road.”

While my mom showers for dinner, Caitlin and I run off to our room to put away our presents. The sound of water moans from the wall. I put the chess set on my dresser, which is already covered in gifts. There's the creepy-looking spirit mask, the pouch containing real live gold dust, the erasable globe where you're supposed to write in the country names like a test. I spin the globe to make sure you can see the little drawing on it, the stick-figure woman standing where Alaska should be, which my mom must have Magic Markered in herself. The woman is smiling, holding a harpoon in one hand. Once my dad got drunk and wrote “whore” underneath the drawing when I was asleep. In the morning he looked very ashamed and even started crying when he erased it.
   Caitlin and I put our ears to the wall and listen to Mom's voice, which is singing through the hum of pipes. The words are in a different language, long and beautiful. While we're waiting, I take down the shoe box from the closet and pull out my favorite letter. The envelope has the stamp of a moose on it, pasted next to a black circle that says fairbanks ak around the edge. I open the letter carefully, because it's tearing at the folds.

Dear kids,
   A few days ago we saw the first aurora borealis, which are these swirling green lights up in the sky. They're kind of like a gigantic moving curtain. You know when people say “breathtaking”? They actually took my breath. I wish you'd been here to see them. Maybe soon, when we find our own place, you can come up to visit. Ian, you'd get a kick out of Matt's brother. He has a big red beard and breeds sled dogs, which he keeps outside even in the rain. They're the best behaved dogs in the world (nothing like Zoomer!). You tell them to stay, just like that, and they don't move for as long as you can watch.
   None of the schools here need music teachers, so I've been keeping at home while Matt teaches. I'm trying to prepare myself for the all-day darkness. Sometimes I think about your real mother and get jealous and upset because she could have taken you with her. But I can't, your dad would never let me.
   Other times I think about things I want to say to you and send them to you in my head. I even close my eyes. Matt's brother has this tape, about mind reading. It says you're supposed to picture your thoughts like snowballs. You're supposed to pack them really tight, I guess to make you concentrate. Crazy, I know. Once in a while I'll hear one of your voices in my head, saying hello Mom or are you happy, and I wonder if you're sending me snowballs too.
   Caitlin asks me to read it out loud again and I do, skipping the lines about our real mother, who died in the hospital when she was born. Afterward, we sit on the bed and choose a message to send with our brains. A single word, to make it easy. Then we close our eyes and beam it at Mom in the bathroom, packing the word into a snowball, a hard and shiny secret. Stay.
   Later, she asks us to help with her hair, which looks brown and seaweedy from the shower. Caitlin and I take turns with the dryer, trying to make her hair as nice as possible for my father. It shimmers under the hotness and turns blond again. “Va Va Va Bloom!” Caitlin shouts, pushing her into our room. This is the name of the lipstick we picked out. We bought it yesterday at Walgreens, while Dad was shopping for garbage bags. My mom looks at her suspiciously but tries the lipstick, puckering her lips at the mirror, which makes me think maybe she heard our thoughts through the wall.
   She unpuckers her lips when she sees all the presents on my dresser. For a minute, her face looks frozen. “I forgot about drawing that,” she says finally, staring at the smiley-faced woman clutching her harpoon. “Did you think of me like that?”
   I nod, hoping it will make her happy. She looks out the window. I want to ask her about the aurora borealis, or the sled dogs in the rain, but something in her face makes me think twice. “Does Fairbanks get below zero?” I ask. The idea seems incredible.
   She frowns, turning the globe so we can't see Alaska. “You know how cold it is? No one can turn their engines off. They just leave them running in the parking lot, like a humungous smog machine.”
   While we're waiting for the pizza guy to show up with dinner, Caitlin and I go to find my father, who's lying in bed and reading his favorite book, Strange but True Dog Tales. He takes off his plastic earmuffs. We have to lie and say that my mom begged him to join us. Even then, he shows up at the table with his book, barely glancing at her lips before going back to whatever he was reading.
   “Listen to this,” he says. “‘The faithful dog Hachiko, from Tokyo, Japan, was famously attached to his master, Professor Eisaburo Uyeno. Each day, “Hachi” would accompany Professor Uyeno to the train station when he left for work and meet him there, tail wagging, upon his return.'” My dad reads how Professor Uyeno died at work one day and Hachi went to the train station like always, waiting for him to come back. He did this for more than ten years. Finally Hachi died too, in the same spot he'd last seen his friend alive. When he gets to this part, my dad's eyes mist up, though he's read this story to us before. He seems to have chosen it on purpose. “Incredible. They've put up a statue of him in the train station.”
   Mom glares at him, her eyes not misted at all. “Is this how you entertain the children?”
   “What?” he says. “They love these stories.”
   “No, we don't,” I say. The lie makes me fidget.
   My father looks at me, betrayed. He frowns at Caitlin and then back at me. “What about Daisy, the poodle with psychic powers?”
   I look down at the table. Caitlin starts blowing bubbles in her milk, which she does when she gets nervous. “Mom has ESP,” she says. “She can hear our thoughts.”
   Dad blinks at my mother, who blushes pink again. She smooths the static from her lap. “It's nothing. Just something I feel sometimes.” “Your mother does not have ESP,” he says. “That's ridiculous.”
   My dad goes back to his book but keeps glancing up at the three of us, as though he's jealous of something. When the pizza comes, he insists on saying grace. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” he says, “praise God all animals here below.” Instead of saying amen, he and Caitlin bark into their pressed-together hands. It started out as a joke, but since Zoomer died we've been doing it every night like a religious event.
   My mom scrapes her chair. “Is this normal behavior around here?”
   “Maybe you have a better prayer,” my dad mumbles. “About logarithms.”
   “I'm sorry. I promised.” He looks at the dog bowl in the corner, his voice catching in his throat. “I just miss Zoomer, is all. I keep waiting for him to start whimpering and paw my lap.”
   “Logarithms are covered in ants,” I sing. “Throw them in the fire, dance dance dance.”
   “Why don't you just go and get him?” Mom says, ignoring me.
   “Zoomer! From Dog Heaven! Go there and bring him home?”
   Dad stares at her in disbelief. “Just whip up there myself?”
   “Sure,” she says, shrugging. “If you miss him so much.”
   “Christ, Jane. Do you think I wouldn't?”
   “What? Has he been biting other dogs?”
   “How in God's name would I know?” Dad whispers. He puts his face in his hands. After a minute he gets up and grabs Zoomer's bowl before trudging back to his room. This is not how we've planned things. My dad used to make us laugh all the time, but now he cries at the table for no reason. Last month, at the airport, he saw a man die. Another ramp agent. The guy stepped too close to the engine of a 747 and flew headfirst into it, like Superman. I wish I could tell this story to Mom, because it might help her understand something. A pepperoni's hanging from the slice of pizza in her hand, caught in a cheese-slide to her plate.
   “He's sad because of you,” I tell my mom, glancing at Caitlin. “If you stayed here, longer, it would help him.”
   “Oh, Ian.” My mom sighs, napkining her lipstick. “I'm not the sort of help he needs.”

In the middle of the night, I get Caitlin up and we slip from our beds, tiptoeing through the TV room where my mom sleeps on the fold-out couch. This is part two of our plan. We sneak into the kitchen and I go through the knife drawer, testing the tips. Insects buzz all around us, like static. Caitlin's too nervous to speak. Quietly, I open the freezer and check on Zoomer, who's grown another icicle. I ask him if we're being bad dogs. He doesn't answer me, only looks.
   “I'm not a dog,” Caitlin whispers.

In the daylight, you can see the stabs in the rubber, pushed out like lips. There's one on each of the tires, which have sunk down to the hubcaps. Dad circles the car in his robe. A wishbone of veins bulges from his temple. He eyes me and Caitlin, who's squatting in the yard and plucking at some weeds. For some reason, she's covering the scar on her cheek.
   “I don't believe this,” Mom says. She sits on the hood, pinching the wedge of nose between her eyes. “I just put new tires on.”
   I'm worried Caitlin might say something, but she's too busy killing weeds. A homeless guy walks by on the other side of the street, pushing his shopping cart up the sidewalk and yelling at the lady in front of him, who's riding an electric wheelchair. “Fucking cunt!” he yells. “I told you that from the first beginning!” My mom glares at my father, as though the bad words are his fault.
   “Sunday in the neighborhood,” she says.
   “Hell,” Dad says, still looking at the tires. He squints down the road. “I don't know what's going to be open.”
   One place, it turns out, but it's in South Tucson and my dad can't get anyone at the tire shop who speaks English. My mom calls our Aunt Tina in Texas, her voice taut and whispery. Still, the plan works out even better than we thought, because she can't drive a stick shift and my father has to take the four of us to the Desert Museum in our Blazer. There's some dog fur on the passenger seat, and Mom brushes it into a little tumbleweed and sticks it in the ashtray before sitting down. She has to sit on her hair, because the air-conditioning's going full-blast. It smells like zombie breath. (Some rats were living in the engine for a while and never got out.) Amazingly, my dad has on a fancy-looking shirt with a little button at the back of the collar, which I haven't seen him wear since he was senior loan officer at the bank. His hair is combed back, parted straight as a pencil. Caitlin and I watch him in the rearview mirror. He keeps his eyes on the road, glancing now and then at the dog hair in the ashtray.
   We leave the haze of the city and drive toward the mountains, which from a distance look as barren as the moon. When we pass Bianchi's Pizza, the mountains suddenly go 3-D, cactuses everywhere you look, their corduroy arms shimmering in the sun. It's like a see-through forest. Some of the cactuses have white flowers blooming out the tops in Martian clumps. We wind up Gates Pass Road, driving by the scenic turnout where I used to set up kamikaze jumps for my bike.
   “Can we look at the house?” I ask.
   “No,” Dad says.
   Mom gives him a funny look. “You take them by the Via Roma house?”
   “Sometimes.” He coughs and meets my eyes in the rearview mirror. “If we're up here anyway.”
   Something sad drifts into my mom's face. She looks out the window, watching the street signs. “Does it look the same?”
   “They've put in a hot tub. Where the deck used to be.” Dad fiddles with the mirror. “It's good for the, um, javelinas. Speeds up the mating process.”
   Mom actually smiles. I catch Caitlin's eye and we sort of chuckle along in the backseat, even though I don't really get the punch line. How long has it been since he said something funny? I think up a song: “Javelinas are mating, why aren't you? Javelinas in the hot tub, cook me a stew.”
   “What on earth is that?” Mom asks, laughing. “A commercial?”
   “A song!” Caitlin says ecstatically.
   “My God. Where does he get that from?”
   My dad frowns in the mirror. “Where do you think?”
   At the Desert Museum, everyone stares at my mother's hair, as though it's one of the exhibits. It's so hot that the animals mostly shadow-bathe without moving. We look at the bighorn sheep, the coatis, the black bear lurking in its cave. I rush my dad past the Mexican wolf sleeping like roadkill, worried he might start thinking of Zoomer and get distracted. In Cat Canyon, the jaguarundi slumps on a rock and just sort of eyes us in a depressed way, and Dad says it's because all the jaguars say “Yo, jaguarundi!” whenever they see him. For the “yo” part, he uses a dopey Italian voice. This is the second joke in one day, a miracle, so Caitlin and I go spastic laughing and spend a long time trying to duplicate my dad's voice.
   Mom laughs too, smiling her new wrinkles. All around us are families, normal ones with two parents, and it makes my heart jump ahead that we're the same as everyone else.
   Outside the Hummingbird Aviary, my mom gets sort of quiet again and puts her hand on my head. This is my favorite part of the museum. There must be a thousand hummingbirds in one little place, which means they dart around you and hover at your face and zip past your ear like the letter Z in flight. It's scary and beautiful at the same time. The birds are all different colors, and you have to keep yourself from swatting them like flies. Mom barely makes it through the door before they swarm all around her, attracted to her hair. She closes her eyes and doesn't move an inch. They shoot around her head like sparks. Dad calls her the Bird Lady, and Caitlin and I take the end of her hair and stretch it as far as we can walk so that she laughs and does a curtsy. One of the hummingbirds actually lands on the bridge of hair we've made, still as a picture. It makes my breath stop moving, too.
   On the drive back we barely talk, the sun burning through my shorts. My mom spots some coyotes in the road and touches my dad's leg. He brakes the car. The coyotes cross in front of us and saunter into some shrubs. Dad doesn't move. Mom keeps her hand there for a few seconds before snapping out of her trance.
   “I do miss it here,” she says.

When we get home, Dad checks the answering machine while Mom's in the bathroom. An old man's voice, deep and crackly. The skull doctor, he calls himself. He says he's back from vacation and to send Zoomer's head in for a “beetle bath.” My dad looks embarrassed. I flash Caitlin a secret look.
   “What a kook,” Dad says, frowning. He slips into a TV voice: “Beetles, take me away!”
   Later, after we've gone to bed, I can hear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen. I'd forgotten what it sounded like, the deep and high responding to each other. It makes me feel safe and rich again. I nudge the top bunk with my foot, and Caitlin and I get up quietly and sneak down the dark hall to watch. Mom is sitting on the floor of the kitchen, my father crouched behind her in a chair. Her hair spills over his legs. He brushes it slowly, starting at the top of her head and following it down to the mess in his lap. Each stroke takes a long time. If he goes too fast, my mom turns stiff and bunches her shoulders. Caitlin stiffens along with her in the dark. Dad rests his arm between brushes and then starts again at the top. “What a pain in the hair,” he says, his voice small and serious. “I always liked it short”; but it's more of a fact than a complaint, like maybe they'd be better off without it.

Though it's his day off, Dad actually gets up early the next morning to cook breakfast, his hair combed back again like a banker's. He makes Mom laugh by flipping pancakes at the ceiling. He even finds a garage for her where they speak English. Caitlin and I squeeze along in the tow truck with my mom, watching TV in the waiting room while her tires get changed. She checks her watch during commercials, craning her neck to peer into the garage, but after last night I'm not worried.
   Through the window I can see a pack of clouds, inching in from the mountains, creeping like a spider on lightning legs. “A monsoon,” I tell my mother, who bends close to the window to look.
   “I love that smell,” she says, closing her eyes.
   “What smell?” Caitlin asks.
   “Wet desert.” Mom looks hushed and happy. “I forgot about it.”
   When we get home, I'm sweating from the storm in the air. Mom goes to change her clothes, and I slink into the kitchen and open the freezer to cool off. Empty. No Zoomer. Caitlin comes over and does a wide-eyed blink, because the plan's working even better than we thought. I stick my head inside, which feels like dog heaven.
   I'm basking in the cold when my mother screams. A screech, like the squeal of a car.
   I rush out to the backyard. She's standing on the porch and staring down at my father, who's kneeling over a dead dog in the dirt, the back of his Born to Run T-shirt soaked with sweat. He has his earmuffs on and doesn't hear us. The tool in his hands whines through Zoomer's neck. Our battery-powered carving knife.
   Just as the head slumps off, Dad notices us by the screen door. He turns red and stands up quickly, carving knife hanging at his side. There's blood on his T-shirt, freckling Bruce Springsteen's face.
   “You're back early,” my father says, yanking the earmuffs to his neck. “I wasn't expecting you. For an hour.” He looks at the head, which has rolled away from its body and is staring dead-faced at the sky, tongue tossed back like a scarf. “Took forever to melt. Zoom Zoom. He's finally thawed through.” He's shaking, eyes pink and bleary. He bends down and picks up Zoomer's head, like a baseball. “I'm sending it to the skull doctor.”
   My mom just stands there. “What?”
   “The renderer. He's preparing the skull. He only wants Zoomer's head.”
   She turns to me, white as her eyebrows.
   “He has some beetles that'll eat off his face,” I explain.
   This doesn't seem to help. Caitlin starts to cry, staring at the headless Zoomer. Mom puts a hand over Caitlin's eyes and leads her into the kitchen. My dad stands in the yard for a minute, holding the head in front of him. He lays it on the porch with two hands and then follows my mom inside, trying to explain about Zoomer's cancer and how close they were before he died.
   “So you've got the kids lying for you!” Mom stares at the wide-open door of the freezer. As if for the first time, she takes in the bubbled wallpaper and stove crusted with food before fastening on the sink, our dishes towered there from breakfast. Caitlin is still crying, a worm of snot peeking from her nose. “Look at this dump! It's no wonder they're traumatized. You can't even take care of yourself.” My mom closes her eyes. “I should have seen this coming.”
   My dad's face looks sore, as though he's been slapped. “Right,” he mumbles. “With your psychic powers.”
   “ESP. Very convenient. You can skip off to Alaska and still talk to the kids every day.”
   “You're going to talk to me about raising kids!”
   Dad smiles in an ugly way. He bows his head and puts his fingers to his temples, as though remembering a date. “Go ahead, psychic woman. Show us your powers. I'm thinking of a word.”
   “Don't, Howard. Jesus.”
   “It starts with W.”
   “We'll be normal,” I say.
   My mom covers her ears. “I should never have stayed here. I knew this was a mistake.”
   I grab her hair. I can't think of a song right away and so I pull it as far as it goes, like we did at the Desert Museum to make her laugh. “Ow!” she yells. “Ian, that hurts!” She rips her hair away from my hands. She goes into the TV room and shuts the door. I can hear her inside packing up her things.
   Outside again, my dad digs a grave for Zoomer's body, which has started to draw flies. He mutters to himself as he works, the earmuffs still clamped around his neck. Afterward, he seals Zoomer's head in a garbage bag and lays it tenderly in a box, stuffing the top with blue ice packets. The box says fragile on the side.
   “Go get your sister,” he tells me. He holds the box in the air. “We're going to the post office. Your mom wants to be alone.”
   “No,” I say.
   “She came all the way to see you. She won't sneak out before we get back.”
   He grabs my arm and I start to flail, making him drop the package with Zoomer's head in a prickly pear. My dad tightens his grip. When he speaks, though, his voice is calm and gentle.
   “She was never going to live with us.”
   “Yes, she was.”
   “I'm sorry, kiddo. She was leaving today anyway. You can slash her tires all you want.” He loosens his grip. A fly sits on his wedding ring, like a jewel. “She gets sick inside, your mother. You don't realize that. It's all hooray-the-greatest for a while. Everything's ‘breathtaking.' Like Alaska, I'm sure. Then suddenly she can't bear another minute.”
   His face looks weak. Weak and stupid, the earmuffs skewed around his neck. I yank my arm away and fish the box from the prickly pear and hold it in front of my face.
   “Kiss me,” I say like a woman. My voice is shaking.
   “Stop it,” he says.
   “I'm still alive. I want your puppies.”
   “Stop it!”
   I push the box at his face, making a kissing sound with my lips. My dad grabs it from my hands. I bolt away from him and run around the side of the house, my shoes slapping as they hit the driveway. “Dogfucker!” I shout. I want everyone to hear. I run into the front yard, which smells sweet and cindery in the first drops of rain. The drops make little craters in the dirt. After a while, my dad rounds the house and walks down the driveway, dragging Caitlin by the hand. The box with Zoomer's head is cradled under one arm. He looks at me for only a second—a sad sort of Who are you?—before getting into the Blazer and backing out the drive.
   I lie down in the dirt, closing my eyes. It starts to rain. To pour. It's like the sky just opens up and collapses. Rain pelts my eyelids, gurgling all around me. My shirt soaks through, painted to my skin. I can feel the ground melting beneath me. I can't breathe or talk or open my eyes. The rain nibbles at my face, eating it away speck by speck.
   Unless my mother finds me. Unless she hears my thoughts and runs out of the house and plucks me from the rain. Help me, I think, trying to pack the thought into a snowball. The ground is flooding. Water creeps up my neck, warm and bathtubby. I wait and wait and wait. I beam more thoughts at my mother, picturing them like darts this time, flying through the window and bull's-eyeing her brain. Water seeps into my ears. The rain goes quiet, devouring my face. I want my mom to save me. I want to lie in bed with her, snuggled there till noon.
   After a long time, the rain slows to a normal drip. Someone scoops me from the mud. It's not my mother. It's a strange man, lifting me by the armpits. His glasses are steamed into little moons. He shakes me till my ears unplug, sparkling inside from the leftover water.
   “Are you okay?” he shouts.
   I nod. My father sets me down. He clutches me tightly, as though I'm going to slip through his fingers. His nipples, strange and hairy, show through his T-shirt. For some reason, they make me feel alive. Caitlin lurks behind him in the rain, hugging the box with Zoomer's head.
   “The streets are flooded!” she explains to my mother, who comes out with an umbrella. “We couldn't drive.”
   Mom shakes her head, staring at the box. The TV murmurs through the screen door. She looks old to me and tired, holding the umbrella with two hands. “For God's sake, you're soaked. Kids, get inside right now! You'll die of the flu.”
   “They'll be fine. It's the middle of summer.” Dad lets go of me. “They're stronger than I am.”
   She looks at his bloody shirt. “What are you? A doctor?”
   “I'm their father,” my dad says.

By afternoon the streets are still flooded, people getting swamped in the middle of the road. On TV, we see some rescuers pull an old man from his car, his shorts shoved up so you can see his diaper. My mom's garbage bags are lined up neatly by the door. Through the window I can see her sitting on the porch, staring out at our street, which has turned into a brown river like the others. She looks stiff and untouchable, like something from a museum.
   “I'm going to miss my interview,” she says, when Caitlin and I go out to visit. Her hair is braided into a horse tail, so long she has to rest it on one knee. Amazingly, the sun is hotter than before. Our socks have dried already on the railing, crisp as worms. “I'll have to be a baggage handler, like your father.”
   “He's a ramp agent,” I say.
   My mom just tightens her lips. Her face is glazed with sweat. I want to tell her something about my father. How he worked on Christmas morning last year, making triple time to pay for our presents. Or how I caught him once in the bathroom, smelling one of her old tennis shirts that he refused to wash.
   “Did your father talk to you about living in Austin?”
   Caitlin shakes her head.
   “I should have known.”
   “We're moving?” Caitlin asks.
   Mom looks at her lap. “It's up to you two. We both think it's a good idea. Your father needs some time, you know, to get his life together.” She moves her braid from one knee to the other. “I'll be back in a couple weeks. You have time to think it over.”
   “Dad's not coming?” I ask.
   My mother sighs. “Your dad—father—has a lot on his mind.”
   Caitlin looks at the porch. “How about if he gets his old job back?”
   “Right. Ha. And I'll be singing with the Vienna Opera.”
   Mom says this in a voice I've never heard, curled in and disgusted. The kind you might use for smelly feet, or a food you can't stand. She fans herself with both hands.
   “God, how can you stand this place!” She stands up and goes to the end of the porch, holding her tank top away from her back. When she lets go, it turns pink against her skin, like a magic trick. She swivels around, frowning. “I didn't mean that.” She tries to smile and musses my hair. “Don't worry about Austin yet. Silent kid. How about one of your songs?”
   I look at the street, at the moving water. I don't feel like making up any songs.
   Later, Caitlin wakes me up in the middle of the night, whispering my name from the top bunk. She hangs her face off the edge, hair dandelioned from her head. She wants to know what the plan is. Outside the insects buzz and buzz, never rest. I tell her to go back to sleep, there aren't going to be any more plans.
   “You said. If the other didn't work.”
   “It was all just pretend,” I say. “Grow up.”
   “We stabbed the tires.”
   “I stabbed the tires! You didn't do anything.”
   She pulls her head from the edge. I can feel the volts of anger from her bunk. A car drives by on the street, slow as a bicycle, and you can see a movie of it on the wall.
   “Mom came back,” Caitlin says defiantly.
   “She doesn't even look the same.”
   I get out of bed, pretending I have to pee. The carpet is limp and sweaty on my feet. My mother is sound asleep in the TV room, and I stop and watch her from the doorway. She's lying with her back to me, wearing a T-shirt that says bear safely in alaska. In the moonlight, I can make out the perfect twists of her braid. It hangs off the mattress, touching the floor. On the table beside her is the fake bone she brought from Alaska. Standing there by myself, I think of Zoomer, which makes me think of that dog in Japan, the one who waited at the station every day for his master's return. Imagine waiting all those years, picturing the ideal perfect ghost in your head.
   The freezer light is on in the kitchen, glowing through the cracked-open door. Dad stuffed the box in as best he could. Maybe it will sit there after we're gone, a frozen secret, while my father grows old and gray and little.
   Quietly, I peer into Dad's room on the other side of the kitchen. He's asleep like my mom, snoring with his mouth open. He looks peaceful under the covers, calm and smiling. I wonder if he's dreaming about Zoomer up in dog heaven. I close my eyes and have this vision of a place without people, cool as Alaska. Zoomer's there, of course, and the Mexican wolf, and the hummingbirds shooting around like sparks. The jaguarundi are just as famous as the jaguars. Oh give me a home, where the grizzly bears roam. Even the dermestid beetles are there, eating fruit and avoiding everyone's face. Everyone's happy. And in charge of it all is my father, Top Dog, earmuffs turned around his neck like a collar.
   My dad stops snoring. I don't know how long I've been there. He sits up and switches on the lamp, blinking in the light.
   “Don't cry,” he says.
   “I'm not.”
   “That's my job.”
   He scoots over, patting the space beside him. I crawl up in bed with him. He lets me under the sheet, where it's still warm from his body. A song starts to come to me, the first few words turning in my head.
   There's some scampering in the hall. “Who's there?” Dad says.
   Caitlin comes charging through the door. She's holding scissors. In the other hand, she lifts our mother's hair like a snake—grinning at me, ecstatic, waiting to be loved.

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