It’s the middle of the night when the dog starts whining. Her cries echo throughout the house, all the way up to our bedroom on the second floor. The illuminated numbers on the clock shade the room in a haze of red. It’s just past midnight.
I roll. “Leslie, go get Princess.”
Next to me, Leslie shifts in the sheets. Her hand rests on my waist. Her eyes are closed, her blonde hair springing crazily around her face, flat where she’s slept on it for too long.
The dog whines again. I went to bed with a headache and now it resurfaces again, an insistent drilling in my temples, made worse by the sound. I touch my temple. It’s her stupid dog. It was her stupid idea to get the dog. “Hmm.” Her hand finds my breast. “What?”
“The dog. Hurry. Morgan’ll wake up soon.”
Leslie sighs. She rubs her palm across my chest before rising from the bed. The blankets shift with a puff of cold air. Then her weight is lifted from the bed and it’s just me, all alone. There is so much space in the bed without her.
The dog stops whining shortly after.
I wake up around seven am and Leslie has already left for work. I open the closet to find her red heels are missing and so is one of her favorite suit jackets—the navy one with large floral print. I step inside the closet, smoothing my hands over the tan trench coat she wears every day in the winter. It smells like lavender. Everything of hers smells like lavender.
After dressing, I head downstairs. For a while she’s been brewing a pot of coffee and leaving it for me, but not today. I frown. She must’ve overslept, been running late and now I will be, too. The stupid dog.
In the dining room, I find our daughter Morgan sitting cross-legged on the wood tiled floor. She wears striped rainbow leggings and one of my old softball t-shirts. Her hair mats where she slept on it, bulging from the side of her head. “You’re up early, baby.”
“I know. Leslie put her out last night. I’m sorry—”
“Mommy, look. The dog.”
I squish the bag of coffee grinds between my fingers, hurrying to brew a pot. The top of the bag is open on one side, and the smell disperses in the air. For the first time, I notice the scent of something else lingering, something rotten. I move to Morgan’s side. “What, baby?”
Morgan’s matted blonde hair bobs. She points a nail-bitten index finger towards the sliding glass windows and through them to the backyard.
The chocolate lab lies in the grass with her head resting on her front legs. Her brown coat shines with the sheen of early morning dew. “She’s sleeping,” I tell her. “You know how she likes it outside.”
“She’s not sleeping, Mommy.”
“Yes, she is.” I take Morgan’s hand, pull. I have exactly twenty-five minutes to get that mat out of her hair, get her teeth brushed, and get her on the bus to kindergarten. “Let’s get you ready.”
“No, the dog.”
I look down at her, then at the clock. Tension tightens my chest. If Leslie were around, this would be easier. I wouldn’t have to do eight things at once. Get Morgan ready, get myself ready, worry about the stupid dog. “Alright, I’ll check on Princess and then we’ll get ready. Okay?”
Morgan doesn’t say anything.
In Maine, the mornings are always cold. Droplets of dew gather on the purple and yellow flowers, spilling down the stems and seeping into the earth. I shiver and pull my robe tighter.
“Princess,” I call. My breath expels a cloud of mist. “Princess, come here.”
But the dog just lays there. I breathe in and that’s when I catch another whiff of that smell—the stink. It smells the way Morgan smelled after she got food poisoning one winter.
My bare feet freeze against the earth. I move closer and peer down; the lab’s eyes are open. Not staring, not focusing, just open. Her ribcage lies still while around her, fog elevates under a sleeping sun. That tightness resurfaces in my chest. It’s almost like heartburn, though I’ve never had problems with it before.
“Dammit, Princess.” I sigh. It’s 7:30 already. I’ll be late for work, and Morgan will be late for school again. The teachers will ask me if everything’s okay when I drop her off. It’s annoying. I’ve just been waking up behind, is all. I get up slow and tired, feeling this weight pressing down all around me.
The sun peeks out from behind the clouds. I close my eyes for a brief moment and let it warm my face.
I manage to get Morgan on the bus and call Leslie six times with no answer. I figure the dog isn’t going anywhere, so I leave her while I’m at work, then take off an hour early. When I get back home, I try to move the dog myself, but two feet of dragging and I give up. The outline of Princess’s body has been burned into the ground. Yellowing, it embeds within fine green blades of grass.
“Princess is dead,” I say finally on the phone to my brother, Dan. “Leslie won’t pick up. Will you help me?”
He says he will be over in minutes.
Leslie comes home late that night. I feel her slip in between the sheets behind me. Her body is warm like it always is, and her hair curls against my neck as she leans down to place a faint kiss on my cheek.
My body instantly relaxes. “Hold me.”
A freckled arm slips around my waist and squeezes. The heat from her body emanates, along the sheets and into my skin.
“You didn’t leave coffee,” I say.
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“The dog died. Morgan needs you.”
“You know more than anything I wish I could be there.”
Her hand skims lower until her palm is hot on the front of my thigh. Her breasts press against my back, the softness of her hips swelling against me. The smell of her soap lingers on the sheets. It makes me crazy. I want her on me and in me and all around me. I want her lips fused to mine. I want things to be like how they were when we were younger, and everything was good and happy and ahead of us.
“I miss you,” she whispers. “It’s only a few more days.”
In the middle of the night, I awaken to creaking.
At first, I’m too tired to move. I have an early morning and there is so much to do at the house after work that I just convince myself it’s nothing. But then I hear the creaking again, and again, like the sound of the wooden shed in the back when the wind blows too hard.
My lip twitches. It’s most likely an animal that pushed the window screen open in the kitchen and crawled in across the countertops, tracking dirt across the kitchen tiles, spreading muddy paw prints and nibbling at the tablecloths. It’s happened before.
I slip out from beneath Leslie’s arm and move downstairs.
Moonlight falls in strips across the kitchen floor. Beyond the dark, cherry wood dining table, one of the windows is open. A draft pulses the hem of my oversized t-shirt. I shiver. “Morgan?”
She stands at the edge of the kitchen, eyes glued on the yellow spot in the grass.
“What are you doing?”
“The dog, Mommy.”
“Princess is gone.”
She shakes her head, blonde curls bouncing. “She’s crying, listen.”
“No one’s crying. Let’s get you back to—”
“Mommy, Princess is crying. Let her in?”
My throat tightens. Morgan’s pajamas are in disarray and her bangs cling, damp, to her forehead. I reach out and pick her up, pressing the back of my hand to a pink cheek. “It was just a dream. Princess isn’t crying.”
Morgan stares at me, her eyes wide. This was how she looked at me on her first day of kindergarten when I told her everything would be fine. She had this wizened gaze, this sad, but knowing look that it wouldn’t be fine somehow. She maintains for another minute, then glances down at my mouth. Her fingers find my lips. She pats them twice, then kisses me on the mouth. Her head falls to rest on my shoulder.
I take her upstairs and she’s back to sleep within half an hour.
The next night, Leslie’s late coming home again. She’s so quiet upon entering the room that I would’ve missed her altogether if it weren’t for her scent. It echoes lavender and a hint of the hairspray she uses to keep her curls, almost more than I can take.
She kisses my cheek. “How are you?”
I roll onto my back. She settles in the crux of my arm, her head on my chest. Her heart beats rapidly against her ribcage. “You’re not cheating on me, are you?”
She expels a sharp laugh. I love the sound of her laughter; it’s full and loose in a way you wouldn’t expect of a lawyer. It makes me feel like there is always hope somewhere, even if I can’t find it anymore. “Only two more days, baby.”
Before sleep can reach me that night, a wail drifts. It echoes with calm precision, up the banister and into our room, jolting me awake. My skin pebbles. I sit up, my ears straining. Leslie doesn’t stir. I listen closer—it sounds like a dog’s whine.
The stupid dog. The stupid dog was Leslie’s.
Fear seizes me. My stomach flutters as I head downstairs to the kitchen. It’s cold in the house. My bare feet burn against the wood tile. Downstairs, I find Morgan sitting on the floor. She looks out at the yellow stain and wails softly, her head tilted.
She doesn’t say anything, just wails. The sound crawls out of the back of her mouth, low and pointed. It echoes in the room, tightening the skin on the back of my neck. She sounds exactly how Princess used to sound.
“Morgan, stand up right now.”
She remains planted, her eyes stuck on the yellow, the space around her illuminated by stark moonlight. I yank on her arm and pull her so she’s standing up. Nausea threatens. I exhale through my mouth.
“Don’t ignore me.”
Slowly she turns her head. “But the dog.”
“Princess is dead. Stop it.”
“Upstairs, let’s go.”
“But Mommy, she’s cry—”
The slap rings sharp and echoes across the wood tiles. Morgan stops, her blue eyes wide with confusion. I lower my hand. My entire body shakes. I have the sensation of sweat cooling on my neck and back, prickling my spine. “You stop it now. I don’t wanna hear any more about this. Okay?”
Morgan’s eyes widen then crinkle and deflate. Her arms fall to her side. The mark on her cheek lingers, red, and I can’t stop staring at it.
I get out of work just after five the next day and buy a Border Collie named Bo at the animal shelter. Breathing in excited huffs, he smiles as we drive through green fields with dotted purple splotches. Lupins. I used to collect them when Leslie and I were first dating, before we had Morgan. I tied them with string and stuck them on her desk at work. I didn’t know she was allergic until a coworker told me she sneezed all day after I brought them. When I asked Leslie why she didn’t just get rid of them, she said they reminded her of me. She liked having pieces of me at the office with her.
Dan shows up with Morgan a little after I get home. After meeting Bo, he sends her upstairs to clean up, then settles on the kitchen counter, his legs swaying against the cabinets. “Heard it’s been hard.”
I hurry around the kitchen, trying to clean up and get all the ingredients together for dinner. I chop carrots, broccoli. The blade hits the cutting board with increasing force. Pft, pft. The air hisses. Pft, pft, pft. “Yeah, it has. Morgan misses her.”
“Did you find out what was wrong with her?”
Dan pauses, his brow furrows and he shakes his head. “Vet said it was stress. Princess was old. Any sudden change—”
“That’s why I bought Bo. Maybe it’ll take Morgan’s mind off things.”
From beyond the counter, sun blasts its way in through the glass sliding doors. The yellow stain remains, curdled soil beneath it like paper that’s been burned around the edges.
For dinner, we have mashed potatoes with carrots and baked chicken. It’s basted and trimmed to perfection, but I can’t eat much. I pour a thin line of tan gravy over white fluffy clouds of potatoes.
Morgan slaps her spoon against the chicken. “Are you going to buy me a new Leslie?”
I put my spoon down. “Morgan, why would you say something like that?”
“You bought me a new dog.”
“Dogs aren’t like people.”
Morgan plays with some carrots. Her eyes squint. She looks at me like I’ve broken her most sacred trust, like I’m a terrible, awful liar. My eyes prickle with tears. For a second, I think I can blink them back, but then they spill over. It’s like a flood; I’m not sure where it came from. I lean forward and cover my face with my hands. My head hurts, my back aches. I want Leslie to be there more than anything, to feel the softness of her waist, or the curl of her hair. But it’s just me and my five-year-old who doesn’t trust me anymore, the new dog panting quietly in the corner.
Leslie doesn’t come home at all that night.
In her absence, the bed is cold and empty. I shiver, draw the covers over myself, but I can’t get warm. Around two am, I get up and draw Morgan out of the princess themed room down the hall.
“I get to sleep in the big bed now?”
I pull the comforter tight over her pink pajamas as a breeze rustles through the window. In the corner, the grandfather clock ticks. It reminds me of how suddenly everything can change, how quickly the moments have escaped me.
Leslie’s lips tickle my ear. “Tomorrow, baby.”
A shiver tremors my body. I sit up. “Morgan, did you hear something?”
I look back down at where she lays. Her blonde hair curls around her ears, her lips pursed with early morning sleep. Her cheeks are red while the rest of her is pale and freckled. She reminds me so much of Leslie in this moment, I can’t even stand it.
In the morning, flowers bloom in groups on the windowsill. The sun peeks in through the blinds, soft in spring warmth. Dan and his wife’s voices echo from the kitchen downstairs. It’s Saturday.
I leave Morgan to sleep and walk downstairs. “Priscilla?”
I clutch at my sweater, pull it tight. “What are you doing here?”
“We wanted to help get things ready.”
The woman’s lipsticked mouth scrunches into a frown as she glances at Dan, then back.
“How’s Morgan doing?”
“Alright, I guess. She hasn’t come to terms with it yet.”
“Well,” Priscilla inhales sharply. She doesn’t meet my eyes. “You can’t blame her.”
Light spills in and covers the small bonsai plant in the corner of the kitchen. It creeps forward as the seconds tick by, slowly opening the room up in a display of light and air. I find my attention wandering back to the stain, wondering if it’s still there.
“Have you cried yet?” Priscilla asks.
“Can we not?”
“Sweetheart, please tell me you’re dealing with this.”
The light falls in across polished floors, sprinkled over dusted picture frames and vacuumed cushions. “Do you have something to wear to the wake this afternoon?”
Bo clops across the floor, his tongue finding my hand. His hair is clean and smooth. I push his ears back, scratch his head. He pants, his breaths warm against my thigh.
“You’d better get dressed and start getting Morgan ready. People will be showing up any minute now.”
The light from the windows is so strong she can barely see. I close my eyes for a moment and imagine Leslie is here instead of Dan and Priscilla. It’s just a normal Saturday, and she’s frying bacon while listening to country music. Morgan is still asleep upstairs with Princess. The spring flowers sway outside, the grass thick and green. No yellow spot. It’s just me and my wife, and everything is perfect.
Upstairs, Morgan shifts from under the covers, bunching the white comforter as her small legs push it into the air. It’s almost ten o’clock already. “Princess wansta be outside. It’s nice out.”
I take out a pair of black work pants and blouse from the dresser. “Princess isn’t with us anymore, baby. Now we have Bo.”
Morgan plays beneath the covers as the grandfather clock strikes once. “Mmm. Bo.”
I spread the black blouse out over the ironing board. It stretches, wrinkled, and the collar folds incorrectly. The clock strikes four times. Phantom dog, phantom life. I will never smell lavender or see red heels and not feel Leslie here with me. “Morgan, we’re putting Leslie in the ground today.”
The covers still. Six times it strikes and blonde hair pokes out from beneath the comforter. “In the ground?”
Eight now. “Mommy, I miss her.”
The iron gives a small puff of condensation, the particles rising like bits of silk. Ten times. “I do too, baby.”
I take the iron and press down.
Chelsea Catherine is is a PEN Short Story Prize Nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee grant recipient. Her short story collection ISABEL was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Ann Porter prize. Her novella, “Blindsided” won the Clay Reynolds novella competition and will be published in September of 2018.