From the left side Lucky looked alright, sprawled beneath the oak, his blond belly heaving with each wheezy intake of breath. It was the other side that would look bad, the side Joanie couldn’t bear to see face up. She didn’t remember buying the flashlight she found in the glove box, the one whose black handle she gripped in her fist like a cop. She ran the beam along the length of the body, studying its contours: the delicate curve where the back leg met crotch and the stark hairlessness of the skin; the nostrils that pulsed with each labored breath; the wide eyes catching the light and reflecting it back like flat, bright moons. They say a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a man’s. Joanie leaned her face close to the bared teeth so each warm pant was a soft blow to her cheek.
“Got that right,” she whispered, half to herself, half to Lucky.
Joanie had a soft spot for the dog. He wasn’t hers, but he seemed to consider her a friend. He would nose his way through her gate, sniffing about the back porch steps for the toys she left out for him. They weren’t actually toys, and they weren’t for him, but Lucky, being a dog, had no way of knowing this. He would rummage through her bucket of garden tools, pawing at the trowels, the stakes, the rope she used to stabilize fragile tomato plants that had just taken root. Deciding upon a gardening fork, he would seize it in his teeth, traversing her yard with a dirty snout and a jaunty trot, the claws dangling from his mouth like a fifth paw. He was looking for someone to play with and most times Joanie obliged.
Sometimes Lucky gave her gifts in return, squirrels or rabbits he left in secret, critters she would find twitching on her porch steps, ones whose heads she would be forced to crack with a shovel before burying their bodies in shallow graves at the edge of the woods. He had probably been chasing such a creature tonight. Sensing the presence of some small warm thing, he had bounded from his yard, propelling himself into the road and in front of her car, hitting the fender with a thump like a tennis ball against the sweet middle of a racket. She’d braked instantly, the Outback’s tail shimmying on the slick pavement, its belly sliding sideways with eerie grace. The car came to rest at an angle across the road. Its headlights illuminated the squat cranberry bushes that extended back through miles of bogs that Scott and the boys would flood in the coming weeks.
In her rearview mirror she saw Lucky’s limping hindquarters, red in the glow of her taillights. He had always been small for a lab, but he looked especially small now as he made his slow, pained way towards a copse of trees. His clipped yelps were part plea and part rebuke.
“Goddamn, Lucky,” Joanie cursed, shoving the car into park and opening the door.
She thought only briefly about moving the vehicle onto the safe shoulder of the road. It was unlikely that anyone would be traveling this way. Most people figured the road dead-ended at the Thompson place, and the Thompsons were in Maine for the summer. In the distance, Joanie could see the lamplight glowing at the end of their driveway. A forest road snaked off to the left, a full mile of roots and encroaching branches that opened abruptly onto the bluffs overlooking Rocky Neck. It was a cut-through that met up with the coast road, but as far as Joanie could tell she was the only one who ever took it. She liked going out there some nights, stopping at the bluffs and sitting alone with her legs dangling into the blackness. Far below, invisible waves hit the shore with a wet slap that at times sounded affectionate, at other times hungry.
Her own house was quiet tonight, too, perched squarely on a low hill across the bog, a Saltbox dating back to 1712. Her husband and the twins had gone camping in the White Mountains.
“A boys’ weekend,” Scott had said flatly, not meeting her eyes.
“Aren’t they all?” she had asked, just loud enough for him to ignore.
The only other house on the street was a modest Cape with a sprawling front lawn. Kevin Beaudry owned the house. He owned Lucky, too. They had moved here together three years ago, when Lucky was just a pup. The two of them had arrived side by side on the bench seat of their Chevy. The dog’s face hung happily from the passenger window, his blond ears slapped back against his head, a pink tongue lolling out of a mouth that seemed to smile. It looked to Joanie as if he were following a scent.
They came from Michigan, where Kevin had taught American History for two years at a girls’ boarding school, a school where both he and Lucky got to live for free on campus. Joanie asked him one morning why he had left. “Budget cuts,” he said, as if it were a complete sentence.
Joanie let her eyes run up the road and down the length of Kevin’s driveway, a shape she could trace in the dark. His truck was gone. It occurred to her that he might return while she was following his dog, barreling down the road with the radio tuned to the songs he loved before he knew her. He would not expect her Suburu to be squatting lengthwise across the road. But then, she hadn’t expected Lucky to lunge in front of it either. So be it, she thought, grabbing a flashlight from the glove box and shutting the driver’s side door. Sometimes these things just happen.
Joanie could no longer see Lucky, but she could hear his whines, higher now and not so personal, more a lament than an accusation. She knew then that he was going to die. It was just a matter of finding a spot to do it, like searching for a safe place to bury a bone, a place you’d remember later.
The copse of trees was a familiar silhouette. In the center stood the boldest one, an ancient oak with a knotty network of roots. High up, a branch as thick as a trunk jutted out at a right angle. It was the sort of tree where a kid might hang a tire swing or a white-wigged man might hang a woman, one who flew over barns and muttered to herself, one who knew how to float and to heal her own wounds. Kingston was not Salem, but as Kevin had explained to her, Salem once had a much wider expanse. He had shown her a map of the village as it existed in the seventeenth century, spreading it on the table in his dining room, pushing aside their empty wine glasses. See here. He stood behind her, reaching around to trace his finger along the borders of an older Salem, claiming parts of Marblehead, Beverly and Danvers. He slipped his other hand beneath the waistband of her jeans. As she closed her eyes she saw a drop of merlot seeping its way through the edge of the map, bleeding into the outlying towns and obscuring their names.
For the first few months, while he looked for a real job, Kevin subbed at the public high school. He covered for the twins’ class once, before Joanie knew he was her neighbor, taking over for a geography teacher who left on maternity leave. That was the year the twins had the most trouble, the year Gene’s homeroom teacher discovered the vodka in his water bottle, the year a cafeteria worker found Troy parked in the delivery lot, passed out in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s car. She and Scott came in for a conference with Kevin the day after the boys were suspended for skipping school. The other teachers sent make-up work through the main office in stiff manila folders but Kevin wanted to meet them in person.
His handsomeness had startled her and she briefly forgot why she was there. Scott had talked impartially about the boys’ issues as if they were kids he’d read about in the paper, hypothetical ones towards whom he felt no bias and little responsibility. She had remained silent, too embarrassed to admit that the boys’ behavior shamed her. It was one thing to have a teenager who got in trouble, but it was another thing to have two. Twins were supposed to be opposites, and the boys’ mutual disobedience and shared sullenness felt like a conspiracy.
She could still recall the firm kindness of Kevin’s handshake when they left the classroom, the way his eyes, free from judgment, held her own for longer than she would expect of her sons’ substitute. He had walked to the parking lot with them, a leather briefcase hanging from his shoulder, butting softly against his hip. Its tan hide was scuffed in places where thick books bulged, the way some men’s back pockets wore thin, the edges of their wallets making white lines in the denim. As she and Scott pulled away, she saw him unlock a familiar Chevy. She recognized it as the one in which a yellow lab had bounced happily towards his new home. It was the same one she later looked for on weekend mornings, before the twins got up and after Scott had gone to work in the bogs. It was the one he left parked in front of the garage, its tail end facing out if he meant for her to visit.
Months later, when she asked him one morning why he had moved here, of all places, he rolled back on top of her with a playful smile. He said he liked old neighborhoods. He said they had history.
Kevin was thirty-one, twelve years younger than she was. That made him four-and-a-half if you were calculating in dog years. Sometimes Kevin would call for Lucky while he sat on the sofa with Joanie stretched beside him, her head on his lap. He would give the cushion a firm pat, and Lucky would scramble up, settling in behind her, his warm bulk against her back and his wet nose by her ear.
Joanie approached the tree under which Lucky had come to rest on a damp patch of earth. He lay with his wounded side against the ground, a thin whine escaping his throat and a pair of dewy eyes looking to her for help. She knelt beside him, feeling the mud seep through the knees of her jeans and studying his good side under the flashlight’s beam. She reached her hand gingerly beneath his right hindquarter, letting her fingers graze the sticky darkness that spread from his side. He yelped, struggling for a moment with an energy he didn’t have. His breath came short and shallow, raspy at the edges.
“Aw, Lucky,” she whispered, as if he had disappointed her.
The nearest vet was twelve miles away and not open at this hour. She would have to go to Quincy, the closest one with emergency services. But by then she knew it would be too late.
Poor Lucky. He had just been in the wrong place at the wrong moment. She was fond of him, although she often caught him looking at her in strange ways. Some mornings she would awaken in Kevin’s bed and her nose would catch a trendier scent in the sheets, the kind girls dabbed behind their ears when they wanted a mate. Lucky would stare quizzically at her from the hardwood floor. She wished they spoke the same language. She wished she knew what he knew.
Joanie wasn’t surprised when Kevin began keeping his truck in the garage, his way of letting her know their mornings together were over. She would see him easing down the street in the Chevy, his profile partially obscured by a pretty passenger. The seat would be pushed back. Her bare foot on the dash and the slender arch of her tan leg told Joanie she was young, maybe even young enough to be her daughter. Kevin would sometimes give Joanie a half-wave from his driveway, but he never came closer. Lucky, on the other hand, would prance into her yard as if nothing had happened. He would nose her butt while she worked in the garden, unearthing the bulbs she had buried, the ones she hoped would some day bloom. She let him fuss with her crops, marveling at his brazenness. She wondered if he remembered they had sometimes shared a bed. She wasn’t sure how a dog’s brain worked.
A fifty-five pound dog is hard for a woman to lift, and when it’s dead weight it’s even harder. Putting the flashlight in her back pocket, Joanie returned to the car, opening the hatch and grabbing several yards of the garden netting she used to keep rabbits and chipmunks from eating her plants. She returned to the tree, wrapping it tenderly around the dying dog. She tucked his paws close to his body, swaddled him into a bundle she could hold in her arms. When she reached the car, she placed him onto the flat back as gently as she could manage. She put her hand to his belly and felt the ebbing warmth through the netting. Before she closed the hatch she ran her finger along the bumps of his spine, each one a separate thing.
The entrance to the forest road is difficult to see at night, but she had traveled it enough to sense its nearness. Turning into the narrow mouth, she let the car roll of its own accord. The gradual downhill made it unnecessary to accelerate except when she hit a particularly stubborn root. When she finally got to the bluffs, she turned the car, backing it as close to the edge as she dared. She cut the engine and got out, walking around to the rear of the vehicle. A mosquito hummed by her head, alighting briefly on the back windshield. Joanie watched it brush and flutter against the glass.
Popping the hatch with the remote, she stood for a time looking down on her companion. Lucky’s ear had flipped up, revealing delicate furrows and folds that reminded her of the grooves on a shore when waves recede. His coat, visible in patches through the eyes of netting, was the color of soft beach sand. Joanie marveled at the deep stillness that had settled over the dog and wondered at what point in the ride she had lost him. Scooping her hands beneath the body in a posture of reverence, she rolled him into her arms, cradling him against her chest. The night air felt familiar, warm and briny and elemental. The dark sky gaped above them, the round moon’s white light reflecting on the water.
The sea gulped when the body hit it. Joanie watched a piece of netting free itself briefly, rising to the surface and catching the light in its webs. It sank just as suddenly, the dog’s weight catching up to it, pulling it into the sea.
Late that night Joanie lay in bed alone, listening to Kevin’s calls. He searched for Lucky into the wee hours. Sometimes it was a hopeful here, boy and sometimes he used his name. His thin voice echoed longingly in the empty neighborhood, a disembodied cry that arose from the bogs, the woods, the Thompsons’ property, her own back yard. She pictured him in the months that followed, finding blond hairs on his carpet, in his bed, in the crevices where things got lost. Each time, she imagined him wondering with fresh grief whatever happened to his dog.