ReadingRoom

Short story: Stray, by Nat Baker

"Boxer wouldn’t stop barking; not until Ruth was out of bed, downstairs, jamming the door open, sweeping the mail and shoes and rubbish out of the way": a short story by Auckland writer Nat Baker.

Ruth pulled the duvet over her head. Still, she could hear the guttural barking: Jase had left the damn thing outside. Ruth didn’t want a dog. She’d long ago grown wise to the foolish appeal of pets: silly substitutes for love, failed experiments in parenting. They say pets teach kids: kindness, empathy, responsibility. She’d seen fuck-all evidence of that.

When Jase was twelve, Ruth bought him a yellow-faced cockatiel from a ‘closing-down sale’. He looked at it for ten minutes and then turned to her, incredulous: “What’d you do that for? Birds should fly free,” which of course, was true, but it wasn’t what she’d meant, and she said: “As a pet, you know, to take care of?”

The poor bird heard him. Broken-hearted it stopped chirping, started swaying its head sideways as if lost at sea. Ruth sang for it as best she could, tried to stroke it, till it bit her. It plucked out its feathers, one at a time, no matter how much she read to it, replenished its water and seed. One morning, it was dead, fallen on the newspaper like a lump of pink clay. She left it for a week, dead in the corner of the lounge, where they ate breakfast and dinner by the TV. Jase said nothing. When the carcass started to smell, Ruth buried it.

The day after his twenty-first birthday, Jase came home at midnight with Boxer. She should have said: “No” but she wanted Jase to stay. When he stayed, she could make sure he ate properly; she could wash his clothes and build a fire for him (there was no joy in a ‘fire for one’). Jase insisted he had a job now, but wouldn’t tell her what it was. She pleaded with him to come work at the rest-home; she’d find him a job in the kitchen. But all he said was: “Ma! No way! that’s lame!” and walked away from her – which was just as well, because fire burned in her belly – working at that home, all hours available, had been how she’d got them through. The man whose name appeared on Jase’s birth certificate had disappeared to Sydney years before, never called or sent a cheque. She’d waited, like a fool. Then she threw his things on the lawn and let them steep in the rain, bake in the sun, until one morning she stepped outside and they’d gone. 

Last month, Ruth was ‘given notice’. No one was obliged to tell her, so she assumed the plan was the same as every other: bulldoze the units, build luxury townhouses a short walk from the shore. Make money quick before the sea rose up and tore down those Takapuna mansions piece by piece. Of course, because of Boxer, she’d probably be out sooner. She’d ripped up angry notes posted in her letterbox, scrubbed away the dog shit smeared on her front door, ignored scowls from the Mum next door, the one with bleached blonde curls and yellow yoga pants.

Ruth and Jase had stayed in the street when everyone else left. She still remembered the summers when they belonged to each other, when neighbours left their front doors open, when all the children and animals roamed, no concrete walls to hold them in. She remembered walking by the house next door, now replaced, and being invited in for a drink, a sausage for Jase. They’d crack jokes; about how they couldn’t afford more than cask wine and 99 cent loaves from the petrol station. Now, all the curtains were pulled; the gates fitted with intercoms and pin-pads.

Boxer was a stray, possibly stolen. Jase was drunk when he found him. Boxer’s left eye hung lower than the right and tear marks dragged across his body. He wouldn’t stop barking; not until Ruth was out of bed, downstairs, jamming the door open, sweeping the mail and shoes and rubbish out of the way. He would not stop until he was inside.

*

Finally, the beast stopped barking. Allie should take a photo, call Animal Control, report it. Didn’t people realise how much it cost to be on this street? She brushed her teeth again, fixed her lipstick and sprayed perfume into the air before walking through it. 

She’d been up all night, blending, mixing, baking, and icing Jack’s birthday cake. Her hands were shaking by the time she’d come to placing the single red car near the finish line, on the black liquorice strap race-track. She’d texted a photo of it to Jeff, but still, this morning, there was no reply.

The doorbell rang. She ran, light-footed, down the stairs and past the table: she paused to admire her magnificent ensemble of streamers, balloons and bunting, the cake was a marvellous centrepiece. She called out to Jack and Lottie, her voice sunny and warm. As she opened the door, she caught sight of Missy. She’d forgotten to put her away.

Allie tried her best to teach them things: like Missy. In the last week of school term, waiting in the carpark, she’d stumbled down an endless rabbit hole of internet ads: **25+ adorable pictures proving your kids need a pet now**. Like a frenzied drug addict, Allie clicked through photos of children embracing animals in green yards with perfect hair. An emptiness ached in the pit of her stomach, again. She put down the phone, decided to do something about it.

She hurried the kids from school and drove home; left them in the car as she ran inside and found a shoe box, an old towel – and snacks. Then she drove them across town, to an animal shelter without saying a thing. The kids whined, threatened and protested; silently she promised them: you’ll be so glad we did this.

“S-P-C-A” said Lottie.

“Mum!!” said Jack.

Allie couldn’t stop smiling as she ushered them inside. Of course, the kids pulled faces and pinched their noses at the smell. At reception, Allie announced her grand plan: “We’re here to adopt a kitten!” and then she turned to them, waving her hands, as if to say: Ta-dah! You never knew it, but I’m the best Mum ever! And Lottie, bless her, made a squeeeee! noise through her tiny nose like it was, in fact, the **best news ever**, while Jack just stared at her blankly and said: “What the?”

The tabby slept on a sheet of newspaper. Allie gazed at it, imagining all the photos she would post, #blessed, online. Pale blue eyes blinking, the kitten purred as Allie placed Lottie’s hand on its warm body. Giddy with excitement, Lottie whispered: “I love you” and Allie’s heart swelled.

On the way home, Jack said: “Why couldn’t we get a dog? A dog can bring you beer.” Allie ignored him, and turned up the radio.

Nine months later, Missy was as good as furniture – Jack and Lottie dropped their clothes on her; swatted her away whenever she walked the edge of the sofa or pushed her body against their legs as they ate breakfast. Before the kids arrived, Allie had meant to find a safe place for Missy, wrap her in a blanket somewhere quiet.

Kids from Jack’s class streamed past her on either side, and a bevy of mothers, au pairs and grandparents stared at her gormlessly from the doorstep; some of them waved and left, others waited. “Tea? Coffee? Wine?” Allie called. Those that stayed shuffled in, followed her to the dining room: they lined the walls like hostages.

As the kettle boiled, Allie looked out the window, on the renter: those godforsaken units. Finally, the dog was inside. The place was an eyesore; the grass knee-high, an old abandoned sofa perched in the centre of the yard, empty noodle boxes and crumpled beer cans scattered around it. Allie adjusted the blinds. Soon, it would be demolished; she might still get the neighbours she deserved.

The sounds of children playing echoed through the house, Allie could rest in that. She checked her phone, still nothing from Jeff. He’d forgotten to email his itinerary; like always. He was used to coming and going, so much that he barely noticed her – tied to the house and the kids. But, that was their unspoken agreement – Jeff could detach himself, and she never could. She knew he’d be home for the cake, but she texted him again, anyway.

Soon, she would call them in, help with party hats, pour drinks and hand out pizza slices. Then, she’d light the candles and they’d all sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her sweet boy, and – screaming, the screams of children filled the house: whatnow?

They were out front – had Jeff arrived after all?

Allie laughed into the air, towards no one in particular, kind of at the parents, who waited, with looks of concern. She was nervous but also hopeful, she ran outside. But there was no taxi, no Jeff.

The children stood, shoulders touching, shouting and pointing away from her.

The dishevelled renter, still in pyjamas, was retreating, pulling at the dog around its neck, dragging it back from the children.  Jack screamed “What the?” over and over.

As Allie parted the children, they floated away from her like waves. On the other side, she found Lottie, knelt in the grass, sobbing. When Allie crouched down next to her, there was no sound: it was Missy. She was sleeping, except she wasn’t, her fur was wet – blood soaked – Lottie’s skin stained. Allie’s vision bent, the salty scent of the shore made her stomach turn.

*

An hour earlier, red and yellow balloons buffeted the neighbour’s letterbox as Ruth let Boxer in. She fed him a bowl of cereal and ate hers, scrolling through rentals online. Hardly any allowed pets – not that Boxer was hers – but he belonged to Jase and she supposed she would take his things with her: his skateboards and stereo, video games and old clothes. She wanted rid of the dog, but how, without losing Jase? Council had left concerned voicemails. Would she be fined? Could they take him away? Would the dog be ‘destroyed’?

From the kitchen, she watched the children in her neighbour’s yard, all dressed-up, running, chasing each other. On her own, there was the sofa that Jase said his friends still wanted, and the neighbour’s cat, asleep, curled up beside an empty Pepsi bottle, in a slither of sun. Ruth closed her eyes – the sounds of playing swirled – and she smiled, remembering Jase when he was young: dark hair in the wind, laughing, screaming –

The children were screaming.

Boxer had the cat in his mouth.

She had left the door open.

Ruth tipped her coffee into the sink, then raced down stairs. She flung herself out the door in her night dress – hair like Medusa – she shouted: “Leave! Leave!” at Boxer. Finally, she reached the wretched dog and kicked it. “Bad dog!” she shouted, until the dog stopped shaking its head and dropped it. Ruth scooped the cat from the grass, whispering “Fuck, fuck, fuck” and wondering what new hell she had entered.

She handed the writhing fur to the trembling, clean-faced Cinderella with outstretched arms: “Please, give her to me” the child whispered.

Ruth was mute. She pulled Boxer away from the children as fast as she could, before she could no longer walk, before she crumbled.

*

The children were shushed and led away as they cried; goodie bags filled with lollies and matchbox cars, forgotten; her masterpiece, the birthday cake: untouched. They carried their shoes, bundled into cars, driven away without being made to say thanks. Still nothing from Jeff. It really was true: Allie had to do EVERYTHING.

She smashed her fist against the renter’s front door. Lottie stood beside her, hair tangled with leaves, dirt and blood smeared across her face. The child gulped air, whimpering and shaking. Jack mumbled something about his party being ruined and Allie scowled at him, told him to shut it, and save it for his father.

Allie shouted at the closed door: “Why are you still here?”

The door opened. The renter stood, eyes swollen, cheeks red. She wore a uniform: navy pinafore, black jeggings and white trainers, tinged brown. Her nails were bitten, skin dry and flaking. Full of fury, Allie noticed these things and felt, differently.

“I’m so sorry” said Ruth.

“I’m calling Animal Control,” said Allie.

“Please don’t, I’ll take care of it.”

*

Ruth finished her shift, like she always did, around 2:00 am. She’d locked Boxer inside and when she got home, found he’d chewed the sides of the stairs, torn up newspapers and bills – she should have locked him in the garage. He’d only barked once when she opened the door and went back to snoozing in the rubble. He was peaceful in his sleep; nested in the bunched-up papers and a damp towel he must have dragged down from the bathroom. She let him stay there. She ate leftovers for dinner even though she wasn’t hungry, and after that, she took a rope from the garage. She tied it around Boxer’s neck, led him out to the car before she changed her mind. In the dark, the street was empty, except for the sounds of the ocean, murmuring in the wind. Already, she missed this place. She wondered about Jase: how long would it be till she saw her boy?

When they arrived, after Ruth had driven up and down streets for a place that might be understanding, after she’d established she had no choice, again; she unwrapped the knuckle she’d taken from the rest-home kitchen and gave it to Boxer. The big, silly – bad – dog flopped down on the grass berm, savouring the gift; and as he did, she tied the rope to a street light and knotted it. She sat down next to him, instinctively raised her hand to stroke his head, but stopped.

Next week's short story is by Westport author Becky Manawatu. Her novel Auē is shortlisted in the Ockham New Zealand national book awards, to be held this Tuesday.

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