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the spaniel

You weren’t going to jump. You just wanted to look. That’s why you followed your big brother Joe’s sad, terminal trail to the Memorial Bridge that balmy, unbearable midnight exactly one month after he jumped.

But while you stand at the railing, a hoarse voice echoes across the bridge.

“Stop!”

A mangy scarecrow of a young man lopes towards you from the north end of the bridge, where the town strays scuffle among bottles in the weeds. He stops short at the railing: “Let me just talk to you. Please?”

You know you fit the physical profile of giving up: a disheveled sixteen-year-old girl with sunken eyes and the delayed-reaction stupor of one whose thoughts are already submerged far below.

You palm a greasy hank of hair from your brow. “No, I’m not here to do it. My brother, Joe…” And then you say no more. A creature bays not so far in the distance, then a wave of headlights wash over the railing as a sedan rumbles past. Curiously, a dog trots out of the darkness immediately following the sedan, like the tail of a drowsy meteor.

It’s a medium-sized spaniel, white and brown. It pads up behind the young man, stops short at the railing, and in unison four tawny eyes blink up at you dolefully: Lost stranger, what are you doing here? You shiver. This was a mistake.

Stepping down and avoiding the young man’s gaze, you snuffle a garbled “Sorry,” into your grimy sleeve, then turn to go. He doesn’t stop you as you traipse away; all you hear is a gentle “Goodnight,” at your back.

When you reach the main road you turn to glance back, but the lamps shine watery light on an empty bridge. What you find instead is a shadow: the white and brown spaniel, trailing politely and silently just a few paces behind.

It follows you all the way home, stopping short at the porch steps to cock its head—this way, then that way—before turning back and disappearing into the moist, black night.

* * *

While you lie sleepless in the big empty bed in the big empty house, the sludgy night turns to sludgy day and you realize you know the guy from the bridge.

Small town like yours, people talked about P.J. McLeod. He’d dropped out of high school a few summers back, slept in a dead Buick LeSabre down by the river’s north bank, and now spent his days watching for jumpers. You wonder if he feels responsible for the ones who slip by. You know you would.

You drag yourself from your quicksand bed and shuffle out into a flat, pearl-gray afternoon. The spaniel is nowhere in sight—likely it had wandered back to the river hours ago.

You shamble to the 7-11 down the block for your daily ration of hot chips and canned espresso. While you fish out a fiver to pay for your pathetic meal, the cashier gazes off at the racks of three-dollar sweet wine and strokes her gnarled knuckles. A gaunt old lady named Destyneigh, she’d spent the last forty years working just about every job a person could take in the small town. She knew everyone’s story; she no doubt knew yourstory, too, though it was common knowledge in town and pretty simple: you and Joe were emancipated from a meth lab technician who’d OD’d on his own crank shortly after he lost his kids, you lived off an inherited pension, and you were pretty trashy, all three of you.

Somehow you hear yourself asking Destyneigh: What do you know about the bridge-dweller?

You forget the old lady spends half her time in an alternate reality.

“I seen him at the Flying J, you know? I waitress graveyard shifts at the truck stop and there he is, hunched over his grits at four a.m. like a zombie. I can tell he’s hemorrhaging magic—it’s like losing blood. And you can tell if you’re attunedto it. I do wonder what on earth he’s spending it all on, but it’s not my place to ask another person about his spells.”

It’s not in you to continue a human conversation these days, so you grunt and you pay and Destyneigh sends you on your way as though she’s already forgotten you were there.

Outside, you find the dog from the bridge lounging by the bike racks. It’s a male—a breed called a Springer, you think?—and he postures himself like a teenager trying to affect cool and grown-up while some adult buys him wine coolers. You wonder if dogs get self-conscious. You almost laugh. It’s been a while since you almost-laughed.

The dog follows you home again. When you reach the porch, you climb up to the swing and watch him stretch out on the lawn. The swing’s peeling green paint scratches your ass through the thin material of your trusty stretch pants and you munch the gross, fluorescent red chips. The dog turns his head this way, then that way; he tracks a sedan tooling by, watching the car like he’s trying to memorize it. To memorize “people.”

Something wriggles in the mud of memory: the last time you sat with Joe, really sat with him. Earlier that summer, just before sunset some cricket-punctuated evening, you hunched together on the swing and waited for the daylight to disappear. For that moment to disappear. In ten minutes Joe would leave for a weekend with his unofficial-girlfriend Sasha; in six days he would jump into the whirlpool of his own mind and out of your life.

“How much do you really like her?” you said. And Joe swiped a hand over his scalp, thinking about it.

He’d buzzed all his hair off for football season last August. Varsity blues, you think in retrospect. Every three weeks after that, he’d retreat to the basement and repeat the procedure in his own furtive ritual. All your life you knew Joe with coppery whorls and cowlicks, but when you think of him now, he’s cemented in your memory with that buzz cut: a harder, sharper handsome.

“I like her a lot,” Joe said. A grin revealed his jagged, triangular incisor. “Besides, she got a full ride for trombone. That’s a scholarship-worthy tongue.” The suggestive smirk that followed never reached his eyes, and a month later, you understand it was all part of the year’s elaborate act: I feel pleasure. I enjoy things. I’m just like you.

The memory ends there, anticlimactic.

While the spaniel nips gently at his tail, curled mollusk-like among the weeds, a question pings in your mental inbox: Do dogs suffer neurochemical despair? It’s the first twinge of curiosity you’ve felt for weeks. You stand up.
            “Come on, you.” You pluck at the seat of your stretchy pants and head inside; the dog ambles up the steps behind you, auburn ears flopping.

You bring your laptop to the couch and turn off the happy-family sitcom you keep running on the TV. You sit down and pull up the search engine.

Turns out dogs suffer anxiety—separation anxiety, specifically—and also suffer depressive lows when their environments change suddenly. Sometimes dogs become depressed when their families bring home a new baby. You regard the spaniel where he sits next to the couch, polite and placid: Is he happy? Would you know if he wasn’t?

When he languidly pushes off his haunches and climbs up next to you, you slowly scratch the freckles dotting his muzzle. His sticky-honey eyes gaze dreamlike into nowhere, same as yours. You think abstractly about walking out to buy dog food, but just the thought of leaving the house again drains you of what little energy you have. You blink and it’s dusk—a weak reddish glow fizzling in through the curtains. The spaniel sniffs restlessly at your limp sleeve. Getting up to switch on the sitcom, you head to the fridge and fish out a tupperware of three-day-old rice. You dump it in an unwashed bowl and put it on the rug in front of the couch.

The spaniel is halfway through the bowl when you reopen your laptop to see whether it’s okay to feed dogs rice. Turns out it’s okay.

* * *

Four weeks later, you’ve struck up a new daily routine. Like before, you walk to the 7-11, but now the spaniel waits for you by the bike racks, and afterwards you keep walking: three more blocks, then six more blocks—at ten blocks beyond the 7-11 you reach the library, where you sit on the bench and think fuzzily about that time you borrowed two or three rainbow starfish books with your dad, and how they got lost or ruined in your moldy swamp of a house and he said you guys couldn’t go back because they’d kick you out.

Some days you almost walk as far as the memorial bridge, but you lose your nerve.

When you get back from your walks you drop your garbage snacks on the swing, haul out a hank of rope from the living room, and watch the spaniel alternate chewing the rope and the spiky weeds, his lanky shadow going longer and longer until it’s dark and it’s time to go inside. While the dog watches the happy-family sitcom, you boil rice for yourself. You’ve started picking up rice, instant noodles, and deli meat at the store because the hot chips don’t fill you up anymore. You don’t know why you think you’d see P.J. in the checkout line, and you start to wonder if you want to see him. You wonder if the spaniel knows who P.J. is. You wonder pretty often what the dog’s thinking, and it comforts you that he’s probably not thinking about much more than how being a dog is a pretty happy life.

Joe’s birthday is coming up. August already: three months since he left. You’ve taken to browsing the most inane things on your laptop, the sitcom burbling in the background while you skim message boards for questions strangers are too afraid to ask each other in person, things like: How to order at Subway with severe anxiety? And then more practically: How likely will dog get worms without shot? Is it bad not to name pet? And, the day before Joe’s birthday: How do you celebrate dead person’s birthday?

The day arrives just like any other. While you walk you ask the dog if he has worms in his butt and whether he would tell you if something was really wrong—he would trust you with that, right? You stop at the 7-11 for a stale two-pack of cupcakes, which you’ll split with the spaniel even though it’s probably not good for him. And then you’ll be done with it.

While you pay, Destyneigh gives a phlegmatic grunt: “So that kid P.J. I was telling you about: finally out of the hospital. I do janitorial over there in the mornings, right? And the nurses were saying, some kind of anemic collapse. I know better: he nearly killed himself hemorrhaging magic on god-only-knows what. These rookies don’t know when to quit, but I do feel bad for the kid. He’s got a real philan-tra— a phalamp-tra— a real altruist’s aura.”

Back at the house, you sit and watch the day fade from the street. The shadows blend into themselves until the street lamps wink on, glinting off the cars grumbling by. The spaniel finishes his mysterious rounds of the lawn’s perimeter and trots up the steps to shove his wet nose in your palm. You scratch his muzzle.

“Does it bother you I haven’t named you at all?” Probably he doesn’t notice because a steady, gentle voice is enough to christen a dog: Loved. And you do love him. You never thought you could love anyone or anything again after Joe, but you love this dog, who lets you make him happy, and gives you a reason to be alive.

You stand abruptly. “Come on, buddy.” You walk to the end of the drive, and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the block. Through the 7-11 window you see Destyneigh, probably telling the woman at the counter about the magical boy down by the river, and you feel such an uncontrollable, inexplicable wave of love for the misunderstood old woman, who posed guileless questions about a hidden world when you couldn’t find any awe or wonder in your dark days. And when you walk past the library, you love your dad—yes, your dad—for absolutely everything and nothing, for teaching you that when you cherish and then lose something as simple as a book about rainbow starfish, the shame of failed safekeeping does fade away, you just have to give it time. And of course you love your dad for giving you Joe, for as long as you had him.

And when you round the corner at the bridge—the bridge wide and glistening over the impassive river below—this time you keep walking.

Then you stop short. Two figures stand on the bridge.

It’s P.J., scraggly as ever, facing a wiry, black-haired young woman braced against the railing.

“What kind of life is this?” Her words echo clearly across the empty streets. “I lost my scholarship, my boyfriend—there’s no way out of this shitty town and I’ve got no future. I don’t want to be me.

P.J. moves closer to the girl, but she flinches away, barks a threat. After a pause, P.J. gives a very short statement.

An offer.

The girl shakes her head. P.J. extends a hand. And when he speaks, you hear him:

“What about a different life?”

You look down as the spaniel presses his muzzle into your hand, softly lapping at your palm. Under the lamp light he looks mythical, immortal.

Loved.

You look back up at the bridge and the breath stills in your throat.

P.J.’s hand rests on the girl’s neck and she ripples—somehow her body waves like a mirror behind a sheet of water, something twists at her neck and it moves at an unnatural angle and the girl curls in on herself, moves towards the pavement, and finds itself resting, solid somehow, on the sidewalk.

A dog.

P.J. drops suddenly behind the dog that was once a black-haired girl, rocking crookedly on his ass and then pitching sideways, clutching his forehead, while the Boston terrier shudders away from him, peering frantically around the bridge. After a minute, the terrier semi-circles him, cautiously nosing at his sweatshirt. Weakly, P.J. strokes the terrier’s back. The person and the creature soothe one another.

And while you’re staring, shivering, the spaniel chomps on your sleeve and starts to tug you back the way you came, as though to say, Come on, give them privacy, let’s go celebrate Joe’s life over a package of shitty cupcakes. Then we can be done with the day.

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