Authors: Tananarive Due
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Horror
A low howl filled the two-story house, bleeding from the cracks in the knotty Dade County pinewood walls. There were intervals of peace, then the sound rose two octaves into a scream that splintered Jessica Jacobs-Wolde’s sleep. She sat up, her eyes round. Kira, she thought. Was the awful noise coming through the wall from her daughter’s room?
She reached out to touch her husband, but the space beside her in the bed was empty. The aloneness startled her, and she accidentally bit her tongue. When the scream came again, she realized the noise wasn’t human. With wakefulness, logical thought began to wash over her like daylight.
Of course it wasn’t Kira. Kira wasn’t sick. Princess was sick. The dog was screaming from somewhere downstairs, probably the living room. Jessica closed her eyes, simultaneously relieved and dismayed. Nothing terrified her more than being roused from sleep by a faceless emergency. Her heart raced in dread whenever the phone rang at two
, as if the impending disaster she’d spent her life anticipating had arrived, just as expected. Sleep always made the unknown a tragedy, and this was bad in itself. There was something horribly wrong with the dog.
She heard clumping up the wooden stairs, then David’s lanky form, in white briefs, appeared in the bedroom doorway. “We need to call the vet,” he said, breathless. At certain times, like this, she could hear a buried lilt in his accent, showing his upbringing scattered between Africa and France. Usually, he sounded all-American bourgeois Negro, just like her. “We can’t wait. I don’t know what’s wrong with her, Jess.”
“I’ll page him,” she said, swinging her bare legs over the side of the bed to slip into her waiting Nikes. If you’re a doctor, even a doggie doctor, you have to learn to expect calls at four in the morning, she told herself. She pulled the fading tassel on the black Oriental lamp on the nightstand, illuminating the helpless desperation on her husband’s usually opal-smooth brown face. Worry lines were etched in his forehead. “See if Kira’s awake, David. Don’t wake her if she isn’t.”
He nodded, moving his lips to repeat her words before darting out of the doorway. His movements looked jerky, confused.
He was scared. She’d never seen him more scared in their seven years of marriage, aside from Kira’s asthma attack the year before. They both lost their heads then, listening to their child gasping to breathe as they flew down the expressway. It was a wonder they hadn’t crashed the car. To Jessica, that memory was still potent enough to make her chest tighten; she’d been convinced, for those endless minutes, that her child was dying in her arms and that she couldn’t do a damn thing. No mother should know that feeling.
Yes, thank you, dear Lord, it’s only Princess, she thought. I hate for the dog to be sick, but better the dog than my baby.
Princess, by pure size, had reached nearly human status in their family, especially with David. The Great Dane gave Kira rides and chased David’s Frisbees on the beach with a red kerchief tied around her bulky neck. Truthfully, Jessica had never been able to muster the same affection for goofy Princess as she felt for her rust-orange tomcat, Teacake, when he crawled on top of her breastbone and folded his paws beneath his chin, meeting her eyes for silent conversations. Dogs were entertainers; cats, philosophers.
But to David, Princess was family. Jessica stared up at an eight-by-ten photograph of Princess that David had framed on their bedroom wall. The sleek black Dane was wearing a birthday hat and seemed to be grinning for the camera. Goofy, but lovable. Jessica smiled sadly. She’d better find that vet’s number if she wanted to keep David from having a breakdown. She fumbled through her overstuffed woven African purse for her directory.
She didn’t understand it. One moment, everything was fine; the next, life took on a mind of its own.
Princess, glad to be out of the kennel after their vacation, had been jogging up and down the street with David earlier, just before sunset. But after she wolfed down a can of dog food, she found a corner in the house and retreated there, coughing slightly as though trying to dislodge something irritating from her throat. It reminded Jessica of a person who’d eaten something that had gone bad and didn’t feel well.
David wanted to call Dr. Roman right away, even before the slight froth of dripping foam appeared at her jowls. But Jessica knew Princess couldn’t be having a rabies attack, not just like that, and she’d had all of her shots. David wouldn’t have let her bite a poisonous toad, and even if she had—as one of her family’s two German shepherds had when Jessica was six—Princess would have died immediately. No, Princess was probably just nauseated. All she needed was a nap, and she’d be all better.
Let’s give it until morning, she’d said.
Now, those words were ringing in Jessica’s head with their stupidity. Again, she’d hoped to make something better by just ignoring it, hoping it would fix itself. She did it when her car made unfamiliar noises, when she got phone messages she didn’t want to face, when she felt a strange ache or pain after a mishap. She should have learned better by now. She thought of the slogan at her dentist’s office, which seemed to be posted for her benefit alone: I
Princess wailed again, an agonizing plea that made tears find Jessica’s eyes. What the hell could be hurting poor Princess so much? Why did the dog have to get sick now? In just hours, Jessica would need to perform emergency cosmetic surgery on her nursing-home stories for the newspaper. It was hard enough to drag into work the first day after a week’s vacation, but she’d never be alert now, considering that they’d just made the five-hour drive back from Orlando that afternoon. Images of strolling costumed characters, endlessly winding lines, and fireworks spectacles were still glued to her brain. She grabbed a Minnie Mouse pencil from her purse to jab Dr. Roman’s number on the telephone. Following the voice mail’s recorded instructions, she punched the code to page him. Minnie’s carefree grin stared up at her inanely.
Dr. Roman had been treating Princess since she was a puppy four years before. He was the one who patiently taped and re-taped Princess’s ears for months to help them stand upright, despite the dog’s irritable wriggling. He would understand.
“Did you call?” David shouted from downstairs.
Jessica sighed. She’d told him not to wake the baby, not that anyone could sleep through all of the noise in the house. Sure enough, Kira pulled her door open and stuck her fuzzy head out. Jessica still called her The Baby, forgetting she wasn’t a baby at all. “Mommy,” Kira demanded, whispering, “what’s wrong?”
Jessica went to her and leaned over to kiss her forehead, then took Kira’s hand to lead her back into the dark room. Kira’s old Beauty and the Beast night-light glowed on the wall near her bed, a beacon against boogeymen. Jessica always felt like a little girl again in her daughter’s room, with its happy colors and toys and the sweet smell of mini candy bars melting in their wrappers on her windowsill. David was a good artist, and he painted a new cartoon character on Kira’s east wall each year; it was long past time to paint over the broad-chested, smirking blue genie from Aladdin. Before that, it had been Barney’s wall. Jessica hadn’t been sorry to see that sugar-coated purple beast go.
“Princess is still sick. You just stay in here, okay? Don’t come out. Go back to sleep.” Tears already. Kira bit her bottom lip hard. “What’s wrong with Princess?” She would be sobbing soon unless Mommy said something reassuring.
“We don’t know, honey,” Jessica said. “We’ll fix it.”
“Mommy, will she die?”
Another yelp from downstairs, as though Princess had been struck sharply. Jessica tried to hold her expression blank, pretending she’d heard nothing, as though the dog’s pain wasn’t hurting her. She stroked the top of Kira’s head. “Shhhh. Go to sleep, sweetheart. It’ll be better soon.”
Teacake warbled and bounded into the room. Jessica lifted the oversized cat and dropped him on top of Kira’s bed as she slipped back beneath her blanket.
“Your job is to watch Teacake, okay?” Jessica asked.
“Okay. I’ll do that,” Kira said with an urgency of purpose.
Downstairs, David was kneeling beside Princess on a pallet he’d made from blankets and newspapers near the dining nook, the corner of the house he had converted into his office. His computer sat on the dining room table in the midst of piles of papers. He’d stacked history journals, music theory books, hardbound classic novels, and language books on shelves that reached the ceiling. Sometimes the clutter of their house made Jessica feel like she couldn’t breathe, and she wondered if Princess was having the same reaction. Princess was lying prone, her head resting against the hardwood floor beyond the pallet, her eyes wide open. Foam was still dripping from her mouth. David stroked her neck, occasionally rubbing behind her upright ears.
“Maybe you shouldn’t touch her. She may bite you. She’s in agony,” Jessica said, squatting beside him.
“She won’t bite. She knows it’s me.”
“David, I wish I could figure out what happened.”
“We missed something,” David said, moving his hand to Princess’s abdomen. “Feel here.”
Gingerly, Jessica touched Princess. She drew her hand away quickly. Princess’s abdomen was stone—bloated and tight. “Oh, my Lord. What’s—”
“It’s serious. We should have done something. It’s not just her throat. It’s something internal.” David could barely speak.
Hindsight. Damn, damn, damn. It was her fault. An apology was forming on Jessica’s lips when the phone rang, its sudden shrill making her jump. Their living room phone was an old-fashioned black antique with a rotary dial, and it rang with a jangling bell that reached every corner of the house. She grabbed it to silence it.
Dr. Roman sounded put out at first, but he drilled her with questions about Princess’s condition. Had she eaten just before she got sick? Did her tummy feel bloated? When did it first start? The longer they spoke, the less sleepy his voice became, and the more rapid his words.
“I want you and your husband to get her to my office,” Dr. Roman said, “but I feel obligated to prepare you. It sounds like it might be a stomach torsion, Jessica, and if it is, it’s very grave. Princess may not make it. The only thing would be surgery, if it’s not too late. And even then…”
She saw David staring up at her expectantly, and she could only listen with her mouth half open as the veterinarian’s words assaulted her with their finality: Very grave. May not make it. “I don’t think we can lift her,” she said softly to Dr. Roman, filling a silence on the line she’d been unaware of for seconds.
“We’ll lift her,” David said, standing, sounding encouraged.
Jessica stared at him and shook her head slowly, the tears creeping to her cheeks. She watched David’s boyish face change slowly, from puzzlement to gradual understanding to despair. He understood her eyes. Once again, he kneeled beside his dog and began to stroke her ears, speaking to her in low, soothing tones. Princess had been very quiet for a long time. “I’ll meet you at the office,” Dr. Roman said to Jessica.
Jessica told Kira not to worry and to stay in bed. They were opening the front door because Mommy and Daddy were putting Princess in the car, and then Mommy would be right back.
Luckily, the minivan was empty because Jessica had forced David to help her move their bags out so she wouldn’t have to face the task in the morning. They folded the backseat forward to make room. Jessica hesitated to touch the dog at first, still thinking she might snap at them, but David was getting frantic, telling her to hurry up and to take the dog’s haunches.
Sweet Jesus. The dog weighed nearly two hundred pounds and felt unbelievably heavy. They strained to half drag her across the aged marble tiles to the doorway, then they grabbed her at either end to lift her into the back of the minivan, which David had driven over their dirt pathway to back in as close as possible to the front door. Princess, wide-eyed, didn’t utter a complaint. By the time David slammed the back hatch down, they were both perspiring and Jessica’s forearms ached.
Jessica smelled something in the air besides the blend of their combined unshowered musk; it was sickness, turgid and bitter.
Jessica stood in the breeze and watched the vehicle rock as it drove up the steep driveway, the only sound on their quiet street of houses sleeping beneath a blanket of eucalyptus and ficus trees, and majestic old oaks buried with hanging moss. The red lights from the minivan’s brakes lit up the street, illuminating clumps of the moss that appeared to be hanging from air. Then, with a screech, David was gone. Jessica heard the water from Little River lapping softly behind their house, and a dog from across the way barked into the dark. Princess’s favorite basketball, riddled with teeth marks and half full of air, was on the front stoop beside Jessica, left behind.
Jessica sniffed and wiped her face with her nightshirt before she went back into the house. The sickness smell was on her. And she was alone. And, somehow, she already knew Princess would not be coming back.
Once inside, Jessica switched on the television set in the living room so a familiar noise would drive away her discomfort. As usual, David had the cable channel set to American Movie Classics. The black-and-white movie, one of those Fred Astaire dance spectacles, made the living room a safe bluish hue. The song was so cheerful that it made the moment feel more pronounced and ugly. Jessica went upstairs to look after her daughter, and to wait.
It was six-thirty, becoming light outside, when Jessica heard the front door open and knew David was back. She had been anxious, only half sleeping on top of the covers, and she felt equally wired and exhausted when he came up to the room. His eyes were pink from strain, vacant. His hair looked bunched.
“No?” Jessica asked.
David shook his head, not looking at her. He stepped out of the green University of Miami sweatpants he’d thrown on and folded them neatly to replace them in the drawer of their antique oak bureau. She knew he was acting out of habit; he should be putting them in the hamper in the bathroom instead.