‘When yer momma broke in, she didn’t realise there was a dog. It was dark out, wintertime. ’Bout three years back now. I was upstairs sleepin’, Ralph on the floor. She prob’ly thought the place was abandoned. We’re out in the butt crack a’ nowhere, wouldn’t be too strange.’
Ellie was about five, Joe guessed – though she insisted she was six when he wheedled her about picking a date to call her birthday. Age didn’t matter, but she loved making Joe stick an extra candle into her pancakes when they trialled potential dates.
Today, Ellie was on the mend after a nasty cold. Joe had spent most of yesterday wrestling her fever down, and since she’d sworn she’d feed any more apple juice and crackers straight to Ralph, he’d let her come downstairs for a proper lunch. She sat at their small kitchen table in her pillowcase nightgown, toes a few inches shy of the floor. As Joe had set about warming soup on the gas stove, she’d asked for the story.
‘Ah, she musta snuck around for a good few minutes, grabbin’ things, till she felt safe enough to pop the fridge. But that rattled the shit inside.’ Joe shook his match out as the gas caught. ‘Ralph goes off, barks ’n’ snarls, so I’m boltin’ outta bed. All I knew was somethin’ downstairs was clankin’ around. Grabbed my gun. Hell, Ralph was in his prime, ’bout to tear down the bedroom door.’
Joe fiddled with the pot of soup, shifting its position on the burner. His back stayed to the table, but his hand trembled as it ran through his grey hair.
‘By the time me ’n’ Ralph got downstairs, got to the front door, she’d bolted. Bustin’ ass across the field toward them trees.’ He gestured beyond the left wall. Some 300 paces beyond the window over the kitchen sink, the woods rose into the sunset sky. ‘I was actin’ like an angry old damned fool,’ he croaked.
Ellie linked her ankles to stop her oversized socks from slipping any further, letting her dangling feet rock back and forth. Ralph plunked his huge head in her lap. She shoved his wide mouth shut, stopping his finger kisses, and twirled one of his velvety ears.
‘I aimed low, aimed fer legs,’ Joe half whispered. ‘Figured I’d miss. Just scare the thief, get ’em to trip. Drop my stuff. But she musta… musta stumbled, somethin’ like that.’ He stopped stirring. ‘Ralph ran right to your poor momma. He went from barks to whines, howls. I knew I’d done wrong ’fore I even caught up.’
The small kitchen fell quiet, except for the soft hiss of the flame. Orange evening sun filtered in. Ellie breathed in the scent of timber and warm chicken. The speckled light, bouncing off the leaves outside, danced across the tins and mason jars set along the planks serving as shelves.
The soup started to bubble.
‘You crying, Joe?’ Ellie asked. Her young voice cut through the silence like a bell at a funeral.
Joe huffed and snorted, wiped at his face. Gave his head a shake. He plucked a mug hanging on a nearby nail and ladled broth into it.
‘Lemon, you’re a sharp one,’ he grunted, turning back around. ‘But just ’cause I always tell ya the truth don’t mean I’ve always gotta give you an answer.’ He clunked the steaming mug down in front of her. ‘Get that in yer belly.’
As Ralph’s nose twitched in the mug’s direction, Joe bopped the dog on the head with the ladle. Ralph’s tongue rolled out and jiggled as he pranced at Joe’s heels to the fridge. When Joe yanked the door open, the containers inside jolted on the metal racks, the green tin of dog-friendly scraps rattling. Ralph wriggled and whined.
Joe pulled out a raw chicken bone, lobbing it into the corner near Ralph’s food bowl. Then he settled himself at the table across from Ellie.
‘Yer momma went down just shorta the trees,’ he sighed. ‘Damned near made it. But she was out cold when I got to her, gone in a minute. Bullet went through her back, musta hit an organ, I think. Nothin’ to be done.’
Ralph crunched through the bone. Ellie blew across the broth’s surface.
‘So I’m out in the frigid fuckin’ midnight cold in my slippers, yer poor dead momma at my feet. I realise she’d looked all big and burly ’cause she was wearin’ man clothes, prob’ly stolen too. And I’m fallin’ to pieces. A damn mess. Ralph is worse, cryin’, tail tucked. Old purple blanket and a jar of jam, that’s all she’d gotten. That’s what she’d gone ’n’ died fer. And I’m tryin’ to calm down, to think, shit. Drug addict? Criminal on the run? Crazy homeless lady? But just as I face back to the house, thinkin’ I best drive the three hours into town and get the cops, Ralph goes nuts all over again.’
Ellie took a sip and felt the colour flush back to her cheeks. She sat up straight, bouncing her knees in anticipation.
‘Lemon! You saw a lemon!’
‘Hey!’ Joe hunched over the table and shook his finger at her. ‘Respect the dead!’ Ellie whined, a bit like Ralph at the sight of the scraps tin, but she pinched her lips closed. Joe harrumphed, settling back into his chair. ‘So I start to turn to the house, and Ralph goes ballistic. And I realise he’s locked onto where the tall grass starts. So I squinch my old eyes up, peek into them cattail weeds. And right as I’m gonna drag Ralph away, I see a flash of yellow.’
Ellie didn’t interrupt again, but she flung her arms wide and pointed at herself. Joe granted her a chuckle.
‘Yeah, it was you, Lemon. Curled up tight and quiet, like a good little fawn. That yellow dress saved your patoot. When Ralph set to shnufflin’ atcha, you squished up into a tighter ball. So I knew you were alive. I grabbed that purple blanket and scooped you up, and we spent the whole damned night, Ralph ’n’ me, gettin’ you warm. The cabin was a damned sauna. Huge fire downstairs. Got you bundled in every blanket in the house, Ralph tucked in there too.’
‘Then pancakes and the bad man,’ Ellie prompted. She slurped down the last of the broth, then tipped the mug back, sucking at a lingering noodle. Joe took the mug and pressed the back of his scratchy hand to her forehead.
‘Mph, better,’ he pronounced. ‘One more day in bed though.’
Ellie squirmed at the prescription of more bed rest, squinching her toes inside her socks.
‘Don’t go grumpin’, now. We can’t have ya headed into winter with cold bones.’ Joe rose to his feet. ‘Come on, off ’n’ up.’
Ellie huffed, but held her arms out.
‘Off ’n’ up,’ she grumbled back, wrapping her arms around Joe’s neck as he scooped her off the chair.
‘Away we go,’ he grunted. Ralph zipped past Joe’s feet, beating them both around the corner and up the creaky stairs. By the time Joe got to the bed and shooed Ralph aside, the blankets had been warmed under the dog’s belly.
‘Joe, tell the pancakes,’ Ellie urged again. Joe lifted the quilt so she could slide under. The beams on the handmade wooden bedframe groaned as she scooted. ‘And the bad man.’
Joe tucked her in, pulling an extra wool throw over the quilt’s bottom edge. When he was satisfied, he shuffled back to sit on his own bed. It groaned under his weight as well. Ralph did a circle before snuggling into a furry doughnut, his butt wedged into the crook of Ellie’s legs.
‘The next morning,’ Joe resumed, ‘gettin’ you outta those blankets was a bear. You sure liked Ralph, but you wouldn’t have shit to do with me. Couldn’t blame you, I guess. But you snatched water soon as I held it out, and I saw how skinny your arms was. So, bein’ all shook up myself, I marched into the kitchen and started fryin’ an entire damned box of those powdered pancakes.’
Ellie wriggled her toes under the warm blankets. The broth had left her too full for pancakes now. But if she got better, she bet Joe would make her pancakes for dinner tomorrow, maybe even put candles on top.
‘Boy, I put a fat slab of butter out. Honey, syrup. Opened the jam your momma didn’t take. And I started stacking pancakes onto a plate next to me. About three pancakes in, I peek, and you ’n’ Ralph are snoopin’ round the corner. Five pancakes, and I hear you sneakin’ barefoot behind Ralph as he clicks into the kitchen. Twelve pancakes, I turn round with that plate, and who’s perched at my kitchen table, yellow dress ’n’ all?’
Ellie giggled through a yawn. ‘Now the bad man, Joe.’
Ellie had dreams about the bad man. In them, instead of eyes, he had a mass of swirling shadows above his lipless mouth, which snarled like a coyote’s.
But also in her dreams, Ellie was tall. Taller than Joe. And strong! She could swing an axe like Joe did, scoop Ralph up like a baby bunny. So when the bad man attacked, storming in the front door or crawling from the oven, Ellie squared her shoulders. She ducked her chin and threw a punch, just like Joe had taught her. And the bad man would explode into ashes.
‘Well,’ Joe continued, shuffling his feet a bit wider so he could rest his elbows on his knees, ‘after I fed you pancakes, I gotcha wrapped in the purple blanket again and into the truck. Ralph jumps in there too, so you’re between us. And the whole drive, ’bout three hours, you don’t say a word. When we pull into the police station’s parking lot, you’re a ball again, curled up like a kitten on the middle seat. Nobody’d see you without standin’ right aside the truck window. You bein’ hid… that was good. A good thing.’
Joe shifted. Cracked his knuckles.
‘I look to my left,’ he said, ‘and in the car next to us, parked in the lot, I’ll be damned if there’s not four women crammed in there, two with babies on their laps, all of ’em in yellow flippin’ dresses. Even the two tykes. And lookin’ at those women, they had a kinda fear brewin’ in that car… Nobody should look that afraid of nothin’ in life. It shook me somethin’ good. So I followed those ladies’ eyes, looked where they were lookin’, smack straight ahead.’
‘The bad man,’ Ellie exhaled. Ralph had started to snore. Joe gave a small nod.
‘He was holdin’ the chief’s hands in his, clasped like, pleadin’ to the chief’s face. “So long! So cold! She stole a baby, you’ve gotta find ’em faster!” I heard enough to get the idea. Chief looks exhausted, spots me there, and sorta excuses himself. Starts headin’ over. And soon as the chief’s back is turned, I see that man… change. Like he’s shruggin’ off a damn coat. He straightens out, stops cryin’ easy as you’d flick off a radio. Shoots his eyes my way. Vicious, them eyes. Animals can’t make their eyes look like that. Only humans, only real nasty ones, can pull that kinda look outta their soul.
‘Then the guy stalks off, over to the car fulla women ’n’ kids. And I tell you, all the ladies in that car, they twitch when they see him comin’. Both mommas yank their kid close. One girl in back, the one to the right, closest to me, hell. She starts outright cryin’. Hunched over, shakin’. I can’t take it. Somethin’ in me snaps, I think. And right ’fore the chief gets to my window, I tug that purple blanket over top of ya. Give Ralph a yank so it looks like the blanket’s for him to lie on.’
At the sound of his name, Ralph gave an approving snort in his sleep.
‘Chief taps on the window, lookin’ all tired. I roll down an inch. I’m prayin’ you stay still. Chief says he’s busy today. Asks what I’m doin’ at the station. And all the while, behind him, this poor girl is losin’ it. Tears, gasps. Keepin’ quiet ’nuff that I can’t hear it, but it’s gotta be makin’ noise in the car. The momma next to her, she’s got her baby grabbed in one hand, her free hand tuggin’ on the girl’s shoulder. Not for comfort, but like she’s tryin’ to get the girl sittin’ straight, get her to stop.’
‘Then the bad man lets the cold in,’ Ellie whispered, snuggling into Ralph.
‘That’s right,’ Joe said. His voice was grim. ‘The man, he’s in the driver’s seat now. But his damn door’s just hangin’ wide open. Those poor babies hafta be freezin’, I think. And he’s gotta hear this girl in back. But that bastard sits there. Starin’ into his mirror. Still as ice. Chief says somethin’ again, so I open my mouth. Right then though, this girl looks up. Like she’s confused about why it’s so cold, why the car ain’t movin’. And she realises.’ Joe shuddered, squeezing his knees. ‘Oh, hell, she realises she’s bein’ watched, just fuckin’ watched the whole damned time. He’s been watchin’ her in his mirror. And when he gets her attention, he don’t turn around. Doesn’t say nothin’. He just puts his finger to his lips. Real slow. And that girl shrinks into herself. Like a snail sucks itself into a shell. Never seen anything like it. Never seen that kinda fear.’
Off in the woods, a fox sent several high-pitched yips into the sky. Joe glanced in the direction it came from. Ellie stayed as she was. The wood walls of the cabin seemed to absorb the harshness of the notes, rendering the fox’s cry soft and haunting, adding to its distance.
When it stopped, Joe slapped his thighs twice, like he was swatting the memory away.
‘The chief is pissed now. Chief says “Joe, the hell you doin’ here, old man?” And I feel you kinda squirm next to me, and the lie pops right outta my mouth. I say I’m in town for supplies. And I wanted to report I’d had to kill a deer outta season, since it got too close to my dog.’
Ralph’s snoring had grown deeper, steadier.
‘Chief says he’s got bigger shit to deal with. And like that, I turned us all around. Three hours straight back home. I hadn’t slept, but I couldn’t feel it. Felt like I was burnin’ with energy. I took that purple blanket, and I wrapped yer momma’s body up in it. Dug all day, thankin’ the stars the ground weren’t frozen yet. Buried her with your yellow dress and a jar uh jam right outside. Come spring, you n’ me planted her a cherry tree.’
Ellie extricated her arm. She scootched a bit, stretching her hand over her head to make a few taps on the window behind their beds.
‘That’s right.’ Joe leaned to the left so he could tap too. The twigs on the cherry tree branches that pressed against the window seemed to tap back.
‘And that’s the story, Lemon. That’s the whole of it.’ Joe pushed himself to his feet, his boots scuffing as he scooted forward to tuck Ellie under the blankets again. ‘Sleep off the resta this now.’ He started to move off, out of the room, but Ellie snagged the edge of his plaid shirt in her fingers.
‘Joe?’ she mumbled. ‘Pancakes?’
‘Hmpf,’ he grunted. ‘Not tonight! Not in the mornin’ neither. They’ll be too heavy on your gut. Maybe fer dinner tomorrow.’ Ellie gave another little tug. Joe sighed. ‘If ya sleep good ’nuff to be in fightin’ shape, we’ll put some candles in ’em. Just cuz, though. Still gotta pick your birthday, alright?’
He went to shift away again, but Ellie held on.
‘It’s a good story, Joe.’ Her eyes were heavy. She let them fall closed. Joe was quiet for a moment.
‘Hope I told it OK,’ he finally said.
‘I think it makes you sad, some parts.’
‘You’re too sharp for me ’n’ Ralph, Lemon.’
‘If it makes you sad,’ Ellie asked, her grip weakening, ‘why do you tell it?’
Joe removed her hand, tucking her arm back under the quilt. He gave a firm pat over the place where her hand curled under her chin. Then he straightened out with a long exhale.
‘Part of the penance,’ he murmured.
Joe’s boots scooted away. The metal switch on the room’s lantern tinked off, and the door creaked shut.
In Ellie’s dream that night, the bad man climbed out of the living room’s wood stove. The grate slammed open, embers toppling onto the rug as his snarling face emerged. Spidery limbs unfolded, arms and legs steaming, skinny fingers splaying on the floorboards. He yanked his last foot free. And when he stood, rising up off all fours, Ellie charged forward and punched him into ashes again.
Joe cheered, and Ralph barked and ran circles around her sturdy legs.
After, she and Joe helped each other sweep the ashes out the front door. The black powder rose on the wind, swirling and billowing against the sky like a cloud of starlings.
Ellie and Joe, with Ralph between, watched until the last of the ash condensed. Until it shrank into a long ribbon that slithered into the surrounding woods, disappearing among the shadows.
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