Fiction, Monologues, Plays & More
Part of the Halloween Issue 2015
By Taylor Ashbrook
Mckaylah felt faint. Woozy. The candy corn, M&Ms, Mini Snickers and tiny Tootsie Rolls boiled and rumbled. She held very still, willing the mouth sweat to stop, holding back all the crap she’d washed down with wine.
Carefully, she managed to spit out the flood of saliva without gagging. Her eyes slid back across the street to the small bump in the gutter. The tangle of blond curls blinked bright, then dark, bright, dark.
She was just around the corner from home. A car was across the street, skewed oddly, emergency blinkers on. She could smell the burned rubber. She’d heard the squeal of the tires and her heart had known.
The blunt darkness felt more like morning than night, the emergency lights creating an eerie strobe. Steeling herself, she stepped into the street. That’s when she noticed the man, a stranger, sitting on the curb with his head in his hands a few feet away. After a brief hesitation, she continued across the street.
It was definitely Little Joe. Her sweet, furry baby. The stupid Halloween costume tangled around his small but mighty body. He’d hated that costume, the most ever. He didn’t get the humor.
Now, she sank to her knees next to the too-still bundle of fur. Trembling, she reached out to pet her little guy. Unnaturally still. No little dreams causing twitches or tiny yips. Not asleep. Dead. Even though he was still warm.
She pulled the tangled blond wig off his little head, ripped the Velcro holding the white dress with dog boobs in place and carefully pulled it off of him, throwing both. Just getting them away. Guilty for the indignity.
“I’m so sorry, Little Joe. I’m so sorry.”
The ache of loss took over. She’d never sobbed like this. Blinded by tears, barely able to breathe, her mouth open to release, what? A moan? A scream? No matter. No sound escaped. She melted onto the pavement, curled around Little Joe without touching the alien, inanimate object he had become.
Footsteps came close. An abrupt scream exploded when she scuttled away from the stranger, startled. Then, too tired to care, she rolled onto her back, out into the street, and tried to catch her breath. The stranger moved past her head to stand further out in the road.
“You aren’t safe there. Let me help you back to the sidewalk.”
She was conscious of the man’s strength as he pulled her to a sitting position and then her feet, leading her back to the curb. He lowered her down, letting her collapse back to the gutter where her dog didn’t move. She wondered about a sound she heard. Something like a whimper. Coming from her.
“My dog… Little Joe… My little guy…”
“I’m so sorry. I swear I wasn’t going fast or anything. He just ran out right in front of me. I, I… tried to swerve. I swear, it was like he was trying to get hit.”
“Yeah, okay. I’m really sorry. Truly. Nothing worse than losing a pet.”
She wasn’t sure how long it was before he spoke again. Her tears and sobbing had burst and then subsided. Now she was just sitting there. Surprised this guy hadn’t taken the hint.
“Is there someone I can call?”
“Would you like me to call someone to come be with you?”
She struggled to think.
“Do you have your phone?”
“I left it at home.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“… Around the corner… I don’t understand how he could be here. How can he be dead, right here, just around the corner from home?”
For the first time, she looked at the stranger. His eyes were damp, face kind, full of concern, remorseful, sad. He didn’t answer her question. When the tears fell again, he searched his pockets for something.
“I’ll be right back.”
He jogged across the street to his car and came back with a collection of paper napkins from various fast food joints. He bent down and tucked them in her hand. When she only looked at them, he wiggled one out and wiped away the snot sliding off her chin.
“Well that’s pretty yucky.” She laughed. Shocked at herself, she reverted back to tears immediately, but she used the napkins to keep the mess under control. “Thank you.”
“My ple-… You’re welcome. I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. Me, too. He’d been barking and barking, and I sent him to the backyard. I didn’t realize he’d snuck back in until I opened the front door, and he just took off.” She looked at the man, the stranger, again, lower lip trembling. “I guess he really hated that costume.”
He stared out into the street, lost in his own pain.
“I never hit an animal before. I’m not drunk or anything. Maybe a little tired… He just came out of nowhere.”
“It was an accident. Not your fault… I loved him and took good care of him, but he always wanted to run off, any chance he got. I never could figure out how to make him stop that.”
“Please don’t blame yourself.”
The stranger picked up the discarded costume and wig, went back to his car and popped the trunk, returning with a beach towel. Gently, he folded Little Joe in the towel. She watched. She felt so far away. Vaguely curious about what he was doing but unable to connect to it, unable to shake the heavy weight of her grief.
“Should we take him home now?”
She nodded and took the hand he offered to help her up.
“Do you want to carry him?”
“No. It’s not him anymore.”
She turned a full circle, slowly, forcing herself to breathe. Then she walked to the corner. The man followed.
Her front door stood open, a bowl upside-down on the step, candy scattered. It seemed like such a long time since she’d rushed out, searching the neighborhood until that terrifying sound. She hesitated at the threshold, a spark of idiotic hope — if she didn’t go inside, none of this would be real. Then, with a shaky breath, she walked inside and down the hall to the kitchen at the back.
Little Joe’s untouched dinner was sitting on the floor next to his water dish. Her emotions swung to anger. She picked both bowls up, dumped the water down the sink. She opened the trashcan with the foot pedal and turned the food bowl over, dumping soggy kibble and canned meat. After a moment, she jammed both bowls into the trash, too. Then she yanked the trash bag out and pushed her way out the back door, unlatched doggy door flapping, and moved quickly to the larger bins along the side of the house. She pulled the lid up, threw the bag inside, and then vomited violently into the nauseating smell, the lid crashing onto her head when her arms couldn’t hold it up any longer.
Gentle hands pushed the lid up and pulled her hair back from her face until she was empty. Then he led her back inside. She ignored the towel-wrapped object left on the back stoop.
The stranger led her to the sink, wet a hand towel and cleaned her face and hair, following her to the floor when she slid down the cabinets. Then he just sat with her.
Dim light glowed outside when she found the present moment again. Heavy and eerily calm, she turned her head to look at the stranger.
His head leaned back against the counter, eyes closed, but he didn’t seem to be asleep. He wore work boots, jeans, and a long-sleeved t-shirt, all spattered with paint. But he was clean otherwise. His hair was tied into a ponytail, gray strands threaded through a rusty brown. His face was smooth but not youthful. Experience and some kind of wisdom perhaps. Looked like he was fairly tall. A big man. She had no sense of his size from the earlier hours. His hands were rough. Working man’s hands.
She contemplated the blue-gray of his eyes before she realized they were looking at her. For a moment, their eyes held each other.
“How are you doing?” His voice was nice.
“I’ve been better.”
“Yes, of course.”
She looked away, and they sat in silence. Birds started to wake up outside.
“Can I offer you some coffee?” she said.
“That would be great. If it’s not a problem.”
She looked at him again. He smiled briefly, then stood and held out his hand. With enormous effort, she raised her hand to his and leaned into his strength as he helped her stand.
“Shouldn’t be a problem. I have… everything…” She turned to the counter and pulled open the cabinet above her coffee machine, revealing mugs and a jar of coffee beans. But she only stood there, confused by these familiar items that felt so foreign now.
“Why don’t you sit at the table, and I’ll take care of this?”
Without a word, or a thought even, she turned into the room and walked around the island, sitting in her usual seat at the little table by the window into the backyard. She listened as he ground the coffee beans. She stared out at the sky, avoiding the grassy playground Little Joe used to… Used to. No more.
“He really hated Halloween. But I have this tradition, you know? I come up with some kind of goofy costume idea… But he never got used to it. This year I saw that Marilyn getup online, so I would be Joe DiMaggio… It was funny. Since his name was Little Joe and everything, it should have been the other way around, you know?” Looking down she realized she was still wearing the old-style Yankees uniform.
“Do you want sugar or cream or anything?” he said, setting a mug in front of her.
“No, thank you.” She usually took four Equals and French Vanilla creamer. “If you open that cabinet to the left, there’s sugar and stuff, if you want.”
“I usually take a little milk. I saw some in the fridge earlier.”
“Help yourself.” She took a sip, feeling the scald on her tongue from a distance, the heat sliding down her throat.
“Mind if I sit?”
He stood by the table. She nodded to the other chair. They drank their coffee.
“Clever idea, Marilyn and Joe. I can see why a dog wouldn’t get it, but I think that’s pretty funny. And smart. You shouldn’t feel bad about it.”
“You have great pictures – all those dogs, you know? In the upstairs hall? I noticed none of them have more than one dog. You must be a serial monogamist, in terms of your dogs, right?” With a grin, he took his mug to the sink and rinsed it out. She felt some thought trying to get her attention, a warning maybe, but it was too hard to think.
He refilled her cup, leaving the pot on a trivet he must have found in the drawer.
“Think you can eat something? I’m a pretty good cook – and your pantry is filled with good stuff.”
“I’m sorry?” What had this guy been doing while she was out of it?
“You have everything I need to make a frittata, what do you think?”
When he correctly opened a cupboard and pulled out her cast iron skillet, she felt a stab of anxiety. He went on to put out the cutting board, set one of her big knives alongside, and pull vegetables and a carton of eggs from the refrigerator.
“I’m not hungry.”
That didn’t stop him though. He turned on a radio she’d never seen before, a small one he’d plugged into the outlet her blender usually claimed. He sang along with the oldies playing while he prepped. When he started grating cheese, she stood up.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m going to change my clothes.”
“Good. Yes. I pulled out some pajamas for you last night, but you were so out of it, I decided not to force the issue.”
She stared. He kept cooking.
Upstairs in her room, a silky nightgown was spread on her bed, the covers turned down. On both sides of the bed. What the hell?
She put the nightgown back in her closet, peeled off Halloween, and collected clean panties and bra on her way into the bathroom. Everything on her vanity seemed just a bit out of place. She looked at herself in the mirror while putting on her underwear. She splashed her face, brushed her hair. Her eyes were red. Tired. Confused.
Putting on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, the fog in her brain shifted, allowing brief clarity. She had a strange man in her house. Cooking in her kitchen. Examining pictures on the second story walls. Going through her toiletries and refrigerator… She must have been crazy letting him in. Yes, she had been crazy. Now what?
“Breakfast is almost on the table!” He called from downstairs. She didn’t even know his name.
He’d set the table, even had a small vase with a Gerber daisy he’d obviously picked from her garden. She sat down, and he placed a heaping plate in front of her. It was her good china, her grandmother’s china, china she never used.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“But you need to eat. C’mon, just a bite or two – I’ve never had a complaint about my cooking.” He set down toast, held in her vintage toast rack, something else she never used, something she kept on the hard-to-reach shelf. Then he sat himself down, another heaping plate at his place.
She took a small bite, watching him tuck in. He was a hearty eater. She took another bite. It was tasty.
“I was thinking we could maybe watch a movie or something after breakfast. You know, just keep things very mellow. You have a great entertainment system.”
“Don’t you need to go home? Or to work or something? I don’t want to take up anymore of your time. Won’t your family wonder where you are?”
“No worries. I’m walking the earth solo these days. And I finished my latest gig last night, so I’m free and easy. I don’t think you should be alone, not while you’re grieving.”
“That’s very… generous, but I’ll be fine. It’s always hard, but I know from experience I’ll manage. I can clean up the decorations and the mess on the front steps, keep busy. I’ll be okay. I actually like to be alone.”
“Oh, I already cleaned all that stuff up. And there’s a load of laundry going. Happy to help. I feel… bad.”
She choked down a swallow of lukewarm coffee.
“You don’t owe me anything.”
“Well, crap, lady – maybe you owe me something. I’ve been nothing but nice here, and you are being kinda rude.”
He scraped his plate with the fork and stuffed the last bite of his frittata in his mouth, eyes avoiding hers, anger in his chewing. After he swallowed, he grabbed her plate and pushed most of the food onto his plate, almost throwing her plate back to her side of the table. He stuffed his mouth again, chewed some more.
Watching him, she thought about her grandmother. And her disappeared grandfather. Grandma had replaced Grandpa with a dog for the last three decades of her life, never looking at another man. Her grandmother passed on the dog collar used all those years, and it had helped each of the puppies that came into her life feel like family. It was a very special collar.
“I don’t mean to be rude. You have been… very kind. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there.”
“No, I’m sorry. Just irritated me. I don’t understand why people, especially women, are so nervous around me. Honestly, I’m a nice guy. Trying to do right, as much as possible. I’m not that scary, am I?”
“Of course not. Please accept my apology. I’m used to dogs. And I’m not great with people. And… I’m not quite myself.”
“Yeah, sure. Look, I’ll take care of the dishes and then I’ll get out of your life. Wouldn’t want to disturb your little world.”
“Please don’t be angry. I can do the dishes, you don’t have to–”
“I’ll clean up the mess I made, okay! Back off, and I promise I’ll leave. Drink your coffee and shut… We can just listen to some music. They say it sooths the savage beast and all.”
She did as she was told. The coffee helped clear more fog. He finished quickly and seemed fully relaxed when he wiped his hands and the counter with another heirloom, a dishtowel her grandmother had embroidered more than six decades ago.
“You sure there’s no one I can call for you?”
“No. There’s no one. I’ll call the city. In a while…”
“To pick up the body. Oh, let me get something to… So you can take your towel.”
“No need to worry about that. I buried him. Out there, next to the wall, by the Oleander.”
“I buried him.”
“While you were resting. Before dawn.”
“But that’s illegal.”
“I don’t think anyone will mind. Unless you do.” He watched her reaction.
“No. No. I guess that will be okay… I really miss him. It always hurts so much. I can’t live without…”
“Sure, of course. I’m so sorry. I keep trying to think what I could have done to avoid…”
“Me, too. I mean, thanks. It’s okay. I mean…”
“No, I get it.”
“I’m very… grateful. For your help. So embarrassing, bawling in the street in the middle of the night. God.”
“Nothing embarrassing about loving your dog. I’m glad I could… Sorry. I sure didn’t mean to…”
“Take care of yourself.”
He took the hand she held out and shook it.
“Good-bye then,” he said.
“Wait. Before you go… Could you show me the grave?” She was afraid to go look alone.
His smile was creepy, but she followed him out the backdoor.
The yard was a lovely oasis, especially this close to the city. She was a landscape artist, her backyard an ever changing canvas. But today, without Little Joe, it felt empty.
“You said something about the Oleander?”
They walked the wandering path deeper into the large outdoor space, past raised flower beds, a tinkling fountain, and Little Joe’s favorite patch of grass. There, dead center, was a pile of dog poop, dried from the day before. She lost it. Sobbing again, she crumpled. She could hear him getting the scooper and then the trash bin opening and closing as he tossed the poop.
“Sorry. I should have taken care of that earlier.”
A small mound of fresh dirt was tucked under the Oleander’s lowest branches. A large stone had been placed at the head of the tiny grave.
“Did you bury his collar, too?”
“His collar? It was a gift from my grandmother…”
“Oh, right. Forgot.” He pulled the collar from his jeans pocket. “I meant to give it to you – sorry about that.”
The collar was more beautiful than you’d notice at a quick glance. A thick piece of leather delicately carved with marks her grandmother had explained. Gemstones, ancient, the old patina warm to the touch. She pushed the hook and pulled the length of it through her hand, drawing calm and strength from the familiar antique.
“It’s a beauty. Knew you wouldn’t want to lose that.”
“No… Thank you for protecting it. And not making me dig up Little Joe to collect it.”
“That would be gruesome, Jesus.”
“But I would have had to do it. This has been the collar for all my dogs. And will be the collar for the next one. I can’t live without…”
“Good for you. I hope the next one doesn’t like to run off.”
“I’ll never understand why Little Joe did that. Don’t you think this is a nice place to live?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t live here, and you’re still having a hard time getting rid of me.” He laughed. Shrugged. Turned to go. “Take care of yourself.”
She almost didn’t stop him. But then she did.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“People call me Mac.”
“Huh. People call me Mac, too… Short for Mckaylah.”
“That’s weird. What are the odds, right?”
“Listen, Mac, I’m sorry I was rude. I’m not good with people.”
“That’s okay. I kinda got that when I realized you don’t have any pictures of people.”
“You really like it here?”
“It’s a very nice place. Really nice. I’ve never lived anywhere this nice.”
“Well, why don’t you stay? You’re right. I can use the company.”
“Well, damn. I’d love to.”
She opened her arms to him, inviting him in for a hug. His smile was smug as he stepped forward and pressed his body against her. They stood still, holding each other. Then he felt her arms shift up around his neck. Then something wrapping around his neck. Then something yanked tight, and he choked, backing up.
She liked the look of the collar on his neck, even rather enjoyed the bulging eyes blinking rapidly. His working man’s hands tried to pull the leather away, fingernails clawing at it uselessly.
“What do you say we take a nap, Mac?”
Mac dropped to the ground, right on the spot where Little Joe had left his last message to the world. Mckaylah sat down next to him, petting his long hair, loose now from his struggles. It wasn’t long before she lay her head down and let her exhaustion take over.
It was hours later when she woke up. The yard was cool in the shade, birds chirping, bees buzzing. She opened her eyes and turned her head to Mac.
Instead of the large, long-haired man, a puppy, sitting in a pile of Mac’s clothes, shivered and scratched at Grandma’s collar. She reached out and picked him up. His body went limp, the hindquarters quivering, the eyes avoiding hers. He was some kind of shepherd mix with various muddled patches of white, black, brown, tan and rust. He would be a big boy when he grew up.
“You are so cute! What a little sweetie… Oh, I sure hope you are happy here. We can have such a great life together, you’ll see. I promise to take great care of you.”
The puppy squirmed, and she let him down. He backed away from her and then turned and ran around the yard, sniffing and peeing, and searching the perimeter carefully. Mckaylah watched, curious. When he headed past the trash bins, she remembered something and opened the trash, thinking she’d retrieve the food and water dish she’d tossed the night before. The smell of vomit changed her mind.
Usually she didn’t find a replacement so quickly. Usually she was more prepared. She collected Mac’s discarded clothes and threw them out.
Eventually, her new puppy joined her on the back stoop. He tentatively put his paw on her knee, looking into her eyes, begging for something.
“Are you hungry? I bet you are. Come inside, and I’ll get you a snack.”
He entered the kitchen door she held open, and she cut up a hot dog, feeding him the pieces one at a time. He gobbled them up. She filled an old Tupperware with water and set it down for him.
“We’ll go out in a bit, get you some new bowls. Just for you.”
He cocked his head, looking at her directly. So cute!
“Oh, goodness, I just thought of a great name for you: Paint! Isn’t that perfect? We are going to be so good together.”
He turned and trotted through the living room to the front door. She followed, wondering where her camera was hiding.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take you with me almost everywhere. And when I can’t, you’ll have the run of the whole place, all to yourself. That won’t happen often though. I work here at home.”
Paint whimpered softly and pawed the door.
“Oh, no, mister, none of that.” She picked him up, and he didn’t struggle. He stared out the window.
A loud beeping sound caught her attention, and she looked out in time to see Mac’s car being towed away.
“Wow. That was fast.”
She sat down with Paint in her lap and pet him until he relaxed and twisted around so she could rub his tummy. His eyes blinked down to sleep. Just a puppy in need of a nap.
Mckaylah smiled and leaned back into the couch, reveling in the softness of his fuzzy belly. Before she drifted off, she had a great idea for next Halloween. A western theme. She’d be a cowboy. Paint would wear a little saddle and harness. She dreamed of tumble weeds and harmonica music. She dreamed of a Happy Halloween.
Taylor Ashbrook’s current favorite quote about writing: “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” By one of her favorite playwrights, Tom Stoppard. A born and bred “Theater Geek,” Taylor aspires to write more than she actually manages to put words down on paper. Having written mostly with partners for live theater projects, she hopes to someday write a novel she would enjoy reading. Currently, she’s working on a dark, full length play – sans partners – just to get it out of her head. Except she takes a lot of breaks to direct, act and produce. Taylor has been a Member of The Eclectic Company Theatre, except for a couple brief years, since 1990.