I ran over my boyfriend’s parents’ Maltipoo with my Ford F-250. It wasn’t intentional. I’m not a psycho-animal-murderer or anything. I had just punched in the four-digit code, a pathetic “0000”, and pulled through the front gate when I saw a tiny blur of white bolt across the driveway, which I assumed was my expired contacts giving me a hard time. My truck barely budged, but it was the yelp I heard; so high-pitched I thought I had run over a squeaky toy, although the difference between the two is minimal. I warily stepped out onto the pavement, sucked in my breath, and peered under the side of the truck. A white mound of fluff lay motionless, partly buried under the front tire. I saw the golden pet tag with the name Otto Von Barkmarck etched in illustrious cursive, and I caught a faint whiff of perfume drift from his flattened curls.
This was going to be my first time meeting Bryan’s parents. We’d been dating consistently for about three months, fooling around for five, and I’d been subconsciously dreading this moment since day one. I wasn’t great with rich people. Honestly, I wasn’t great with people in general. “You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine,” he had reassured me, just a couple hours ago. “Just be yourself. Just be Josie.”
Just be Josie. I pulled out my phone and shakily dialed his number. With each digit, the impending dread doubled.
The second I heard the ringgg ringgg on the other line, I immediately hit the red END button without hesitation. I forgot––calling was not an option. He was in the house right now, helping his mom prepare blanquette de veau because he told them I have French in my family. I told him the only French thing about me was my dirty mouth and the way I kissed him with it, but he insisted I talk about my cultural roots. “My parents have an apartment in Paris and go there every summer, so they’ll like you even better,” he had explained. Is it French of me to flatten their lapdog into a crepe?
If I called him, I’d risk his parents finding out and then poof—Josie is deported back to her mom’s unfinished, moldy basement, far far away from proper civilization and Bryan’s luxury city-center apartment with the silk pillowcases. And even if I did call him, discreetly explain the situation, and have him rush outside to help me, the fact would still remain that I ran over his parents’ dog.
Oh my god.
I fucking ran over his parents’ dog.
there was no way in hell that I was going to knock on the door, bloody Otto in my arms, and causally explain how I accidentally demolished their genetically-modified doggy masterpiece. There was no coming back from this disaster, there was just running away from it, and Bryan was too good to run away from. I was 26 years old, verging on 27, and Bryan was the last train to catch at my relationship station before I would walk down the tracks myself and just stick to hitchhiking. He was a first-class train too, with first-class looks, a first-class family, and of course, a first-class personality. I, on the other hand, was a native of Sandgap, Kentucky, who had somehow found myself in the metropolitan chaos of Chicago only by my surprising intelligence level (35 on the ACT gets you a long way), country charm, and my undying determination to never return to that sad little town where the gas station is the biggest attraction. Sure, I felt like a hobo hopping a train I didn’t belong on, but I was a hobo who didn’t care about what I properly “deserved.” What you deserve is not what’s randomly dropped into your helpless, baby hands. What you deserve is what you damn well work for.
Slipping off my white sweater, I carefully peeled Otto’s flattened body from the tire, doing my best to ignore the chunky residue on the tread. Having been raised on a farm, I was fairly used to disposing of dead animals, usually rabid raccoons or skunks, but there was something about Otto that was especially unnerving. His skull had caved inward, with his beady black eyes popping from their sockets like demented Christmas ornaments, but his perfect button nose was left completely intact. I felt like I was going to puke. Shielding his face with the sleeve, I walked towards the main road.
My heels scratched the pavement like nails on a blackboard. With each click, I would step harder and bury them into the concrete. Maybe if I pushed hard enough, I’d slowly file these sadistic shoes into flats. I guess it was a way to cope with what I was doing, but really, I was more irritated than sad. If Otto Van Barkmarck was still alive, then yes, all would continue to be blessed by his high-pitched yip yaps and early morning snuggle sessions, but it was the fact that something like this, a pure freak-accident, had the potential to screw up my future. I laid him gently in the middle of the road, facedown. He could have been crushed by any of the neighbors’ monstrous Escalades. I wasn’t a murderer. I was a human being. Otto wasn’t a human being. He was a dog, and all dogs go to heaven, or whatever.
As I walked back toward the driveway, I glanced at the ground for stains, but the dark pavement had already swallowed any trace of blood. Of course, I was relieved, but that relief was short-lived. What about the cameras? An uppity neighborhood such as this one was bound to have 24/7 surveillance, but the houses were so far apart, with their massive golf-course lawns, that the cameras couldn’t possibly cover everything, right? As far as I could tell, there were no street cameras in sight, at least not in this particular curved section of road. Most likely, there would be a private camera in the gate itself. As I walked up to the gate to check, I thought about making a funny face at this supposed camera—like actually sticking my tongue out and wiggling it back and forth like a maniac kid. Not in a na-na na-na boo-boo I killed your dog kind of way. More like in a I am totally screwed if this is on video so might as well go fully off the deep end kind of way. I decided not to make such face, because maybe Bryan loved me more than I thought he did. Anyway, if there was a camera there, I was leaving town before you could say “psychopathic-puppy-killer,” and if Bryan still wanted me, well then hip-hip hooray — he obviously has great taste in women.
To the left corner of the keypad, a tiny lens peeked out at me from its broken, dented glass. Broken. Did I say it was broken? Because praise the Lord Almighty, that camera was as broken as hell. What’s that saying? Love is blind? I triumphantly stuffed my sweater in one of the street gutters and along with it, every eye twitch, sweaty palm, and quivering lip that I had stored deep in the weakest parts of myself. No freaking out. Definitely no tonguing out. Save that for later.
Just be Josie.
After I made it back to the truck, I quickly checked my reflection in the rear view. My hair looked a little messy but other than that, everything about me screamed refined, delicate, and sensible — definitely française. I’m also pretty sure I accidentally smeared some of the dog’s blood on the skirt of my dress, but luckily, I was already wearing red, a particularly gory color all on its own. Bryan had picked the dress out earlier, saying that the red “made my eyes pop” even though they were a dull, boring brown. He insisted they were the color of dark chocolate. I told him they were the color of manure. He laughed because he would always laugh at me, and I smiled because it always felt nice to think someone thought you were funny, even if you were just a big mopey pessimist. As I finally neared the end of the driveway, I pulled closely beside his silver BMW, only inches away, for positive association. Sometimes, I wonder what he saw in me, other than someone to laugh with. Or at.
With a steady hand, I rapped three timess on the mahogany door, maybe a little too forcefully.
“Josie!” The door swung open and Bryan’s grinning face appeared seconds after my hand stopped knocking.
“Bryan!” I fell into his arms, warm and strong, and breathed in the scent of his musky cologne out of habit. My stomach somersaulted. He smelled like Otto, just a little bit, but then I reminded myself how ridiculous it was that someone would spray perfume on a dog, and suddenly my stomach didn’t feel as bad.
He took both my hands and led me inside the foyer. “You look so gorgeous. You should wear dresses more often.”
“Thanks, babe. You’re looking sharp in that su—“
“You must be Josie!”
I had seen pictures of his mom before, but now in person, I could see how much they resembled each other: the same strong jaw line, dusty blonde hair, and hazel eyes. Although, I could see a certain hardness to her face, that even the facelifts and cucumber slices couldn’t erase completely— something about how her wrinkles crawled out from the corners of her eyes, like something in her head was trying to make its way out into the open air.
“Yes, I’m Josie, so good to meet you!” My voice was unusually squeaky and loud. I quickly shook her delicate, diamonded hand.
“What a strong handshake,” she remarked, smiling slightly as she stretched her hand afterward. “Bryan’s described you as quite the young woman. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“You as well, Mrs. Yeats!”
Ugh. I sounded like a brown-nosing honors student sucking up to the philosophy teacher, but Bryan seemed delighted with how things were going. His perfect, straight smile just radiated a brilliant beam of light into the room and washed everything in a filtered glow. The great thing was that it was actually genuine. I knew it was genuine. More genuine than the golden candlesticks resting on the stand or his mother’s perfectly sloped nose.
“Well, Bryan go ahead and take Josie to the dining room. I’ll be there in just a second — with an aperitif.” She winked at that last part, and I faked a laugh. That’s right — I’m French tonight, not Kentuckian.
Their dining room was bigger than my old house and had more art on the walls than cow manure patties in our pasture. I smiled as I trailed my polished nails down the delicate lace overlay and wondered what it would look like against my pale skin. Bryan pulled out my chair and with one last composing breath, I sat down and took in the magnificence of the room. My mom once told me I would never amount to anything more than a sales clerk at Tractor’s Supply. That was after I told her I wanted to go to college. After I begged her to let me go to college. Even after I had gotten a full-ride scholarship to Penn State, she was still bitter that I wouldn’t be there to help her with the animals. God, if she could see me know, she would probably spontaneously combust with jealous rage. Pretty sure she was still somewhere, miserable with mouth cancer, in the armpit of Kentucky, alone.
Bryan sat across from me and stuffed a burgundy velvet napkin into the collar of his shirt. He leaned forward and placed his hand gently over mine, stroking my pinky with his. “You’re doing so good, Josie. I can tell she likes you already.”
I don’t know how he could tell that after a handshake and an introduction, but “words of affirmation” are apparently Bryan’s love language, so I blew him a kiss.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Yeats came back into the room with two champagne glasses in her hands. An older man walked slowly behind her, who I could only assume was Mr. Yeats. Bryan had told me he was pretty reserved, not a fan of excessive words or small talk. I remember Bryan also saying he used to be a neurosurgeon, I think, until his own brain started to give up on him––something about short-term memory loss. I stood up from my chair and shook his hand, expressing my gratitude for dinner and how much I had wanted to meet them. His eyes reminded me of mornings when I would wake up at 6:00 a.m. to let the chickens out before school: cold, gray, and tired.
He sat at the head of the table and began sipping on his champagne, slowly and constantly, to avoid talking. I respected his stubbornness.
“So, Josie, Bryan tells us you’re studying business at University of Chicago?”
“Yes ma’am, I’m pursuing an MBA in— “
“I think you’re smart,” she insisted. “Bryan was dead-set on law, but he could have done business, like his mother.” She winked at him, and he gave her a soft smile.
“He really could do anything he wanted to.”
“So could you, Josie,” Bryan kindly interjected.
I glanced at Mr. Yeats for any kind of response, but his eyes still lingered obsessively on his drink. Mrs. Yeats filled the silence.
“I suppose you’ve met our vicious guard dog on your way in?”
At these words, it was like I vomited inside my body. Nothing came out in the open, thank god, but my digestive tract took a detour towards hell. I crossed my legs and leaned forward in my seat a bit, shaking my head no and innocently raising my eyebrows. She tilted her head to the side, obviously confused.
“Oh, so you didn’t meet Otto? He’s practically part of the family. Did you have any pets growing up, Josie?”
By pets, I assumed she meant animals that you didn’t slaughter or sell for profit. She meant little furry luxuries.
“No. No dogs.”
“Well, you’ll love Otto. He absolutely adores everyone. I swear, if a burglar started hammering at one of the windows, Otto would give him moral support.” She thought this was really funny, and she laughed at herself. Bryan laughed too.
“How about you go get Otto.” She was talking to her husband now, who hadn’t laughed at her joke and still hadn’t looked up from his twirling glass. With a faint sigh, he backed up his chair and made his way to the foyer. I wiped the sweat off my hands onto the bottom of the table cloth then brought the glass up to my mouth. The champagne tasted like bubbling lighter fluid. As I brought it back down, I saw a faint trace of blood, crusted in the corner of my thumbnail.
“Bryan, can you go get the cheese? It’s on the island.”
As he left, I let my eyes wander to the wall behind Mrs. Yeats where a huge mirror hung solemnly still. It was an antique, probably worth thousands of dollars, and looked like it belonged in one of those horror movies where the demons pull you into it and suck your soul. I felt the need to fill the awkward space with words, words about grad school or words about her lovely, precious son, but all I could think about was how convenient it would be if the mirror would just swallow me whole. Because of my silence, she kept talking, kept talking about Otto, and how she found him online, how his sire was some famous toy poodle who placed fourth in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and how one time they took him to Paris, but how she now took him to the nursing home for therapy, and how he’d make the old people feel better, and they’d laugh so hard they’d pee in their diapers, especially when he did his tricks, and how he was SOOO good at tricks, he was the best at playing dead.
“I can’t find him.”
“The dog. He’s not in the lawn.”
It took Mrs. Yeats only a few seconds to reach the front door. Bryan came in afterward, awkwardly holding a giant plate of cheeses. His smile faded when he saw his mother’s worried face pass him in the hallway, and he warily placed the plate on the table.
I took a sip of the lighter fluid, so I wouldn’t have to speak. I grabbed a piece of cheese and popped it in my mouth. It was Gruyère.
It was Mr. Yeats who found him. He knelt on the gritty, wet pavement in his Armani suit to pick up the body. The white fur was now a muddy, red brown, making him look more like a scrawny fox than a pure-bred pooch. I stood back from the scene, but close enough to look involved and interested. When Mrs. Yeats saw the body, she covered her face with her hands and trembled, every part of her shaking. I looked down at my feet and dug my heels into the concrete as Bryan wrapped his arms around her shoulders and tenderly brought her into his chest. “I’m so sorry, mom.”
“You left the gate open.”
I looked up. She wasn’t talking to Bryan. She was looking at her husband darkly from under her messy hair, who still cradled the carcass in his bare hands. He looked up and stared blankly at her tear-streaked cheeks, smeared mascara, and barbed-wire eyes.
“No, I shut the gate.”
“But you’ve forgotten, so many times.”
“I didn’t forget.”
“How are you so sure. You’re always forgetting things, all your meetings, all your appointments, all your damn pills!”
Three pairs of eyes turned towards me at once: one angry, one confused, and one gray, cold, and tired. Was he asking if I killed Otto myself? The way he looked straight into my head like the former neurosurgeon that he was, like he had somehow read my secret in my synapses, made me think that he knew what I had done. Of course, he would have no way to prove it, and the way Mrs. Yeats glared at him like he was the devil incarnate made me realize that he didn’t have a chance. It was a crusty old man’s forgetful word against mine.
“The gate was open when I arrived.”
Bryan walked towards me, leaving his mother, and took my cold hands in his warm ones. He led me to the truck, and he held me once we were inside. I began to cry. Then he apologized. He apologized over and over and over, and oh my god—he was so genuine. But my tears were hardly sad ones. They weren’t even angry ones. They were the kind of tears you’d cry if you had just gotten an acceptance letter to an Ivy League school even though you live in middle of nowhere, where all there is are just plains and plains of nothing and nothing. We went back to his apartment, drank a lot of red wine, and the only thing I remember from that drunken blur was that I absolutely didn’t tell him anything.
Three months later, when Bryan told me that his parents were getting a divorce, I asked him if it was because of the dog. He shrugged and told me that their marriage had been struggling for a while, but he guessed that the dog incident just sent them off the edge. Fifteen years later, when Bryan told me that he was having an affair, I asked him if it was because of my job failures, or because of my stubborn womb, or because of the wrinkles that had begun crawling out from the corners of my eyes. He said it was none of those things. He said it was just the “way things turn out sometimes,” and no matter how hard I tried to argue with him, no matter how hard I beat my head against the wall to find the perfect last words to crush him, to make him realize how much he crushed me, there was nothing I could say—you can give it all you got, but eventually the glue weakens, the knot slips, and all you’re left with is yourself and your cold, lonely eyes.