Counting Dogs by Holly Walter

Farley found her in June, under a maple’s droopy leaves.  It was the summer following the increase cage sales.  Had the smell of apple hair product not wafted in the breeze as he passed, he wouldn’t have seen.  He would have missed her bubblegum tresses spiraling down her spine.  The soft curve of her cheeks and her round nose wouldn’t flash in his thoughts forever after whenever someone said “cranberry.”  His fingers would never brush across the dandelion tattoo on her neck, or its seeds that scattered across her collar bone.

He was walking Gus.  It was a Saturday.  The first Saturday in ten weeks he hadn’t been scheduled to stock at the pet store.  He liked working at night, because the store was so empty.  The carts were all shoved together in the corral, the aisles were glossy under the florescent bulbs.  Even the shelves were barer after the customers cleared out for the day, and that’s when he was helpful.  Farley’s boss liked him best because he was the tallest stocker.  He could move the dog food from the highest shelf without a stepladder and sometimes he could reach the very back of an aquarium to move the fish for tank cleanings.  But tonight was his night off, and that meant nobody needed him.

He sat on a bench in the park and rubbed his eyes.  He had gotten home just before sunrise and found Gus scratching the back door, his stubby white tail flat against his legs.  “Wanna walk?”  Farley clapped, and Gus barked.  He fastened the dog’s leash.  He never walked Gus after work, because he was usually so tired when he finished his shift every morning.  But he didn’t have to go straight to bed today, didn’t have to wake up for work in eight hours.  He could actually sleep in a little today, if he wanted.  Or he could sit on this bench all morning until the sun got high and hot.  A lawnmower kick-started somewhere nearby.

That’s when the breeze ruffled Gus’s fur and carried the sweet apple smell to Farley.  She sat twenty yards in front of him, a young woman, her back curved against the bark.  She was thin, very thin, so thin that he thought of the cartoons, like when a guy turns sideways and disappears behind a pole – he thought she might do the same if she stood up and went behind that tree.  But she didn’t lift her gaze from the device she held in both hands.

“C’mon,” Farley tugged Gus, just a little, until his ears perked.  They walked towards her, Gus trotting with his tongue lolling, his brown ears flopping.  Farley watched her yawn and stretch one of her long arms up towards the branches.  She seemed tall, but he wouldn’t know how tall unless she stood.  As he pondered, he realized he was only ten feet away and staring.  She looked up, directly at him.  His throat felt scratchy and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.  He was shaky, like when he had two cups of coffee in the break room.

“Ahem, hem” Farley cleared his throat and coughed.

She watched him through her black, horn-rimmed glasses for a second, then stood and strode toward him.  When she arrived in front of him, she was an inch or so taller.

“Oh, sorry.  I—I wasn’t –” Farley stammered.

She had narrow eyes.  They were grey and he couldn’t even see the whites of them.  “You weren’t just staring at me?  What’s your name?”

“I’m terribly sorry.  It’s just, you have pink hair.”

“I’m conscious of that,” she smiled.  “What’s your name?”

“I’m Farley.  This is Gus.”

She blinked.

“Do you come here often?”  Farley asked.  “We don’t.  I usually have to go to sleep, because I work on Saturday nights.  But they don’t need me tonight.  I don’t know why, though.  I’m the tallest stocker, and who else is going to move the dog food down without a step ladder?”

She moved her lips into more of a line than a smile.  She held a black device in her hand and it vibrated.

“Anyhow,” Farley swallowed, “I thought I’d take Gus for a walk.  We never go for walks on Saturday mornings, when the sun is shining.  But I bring a rawhide home for him every Sunday.  I guess I forgot to buy one before closing last night, because I usually buy a rawhide tonight.  Maybe I’ll go get him one this evening.  That’s when I’ll wake up.  I sleep during the day.”

She was looking at the device’s screen.  “Can I come home with you?”  She squeaked.

Her voice was so small.  It didn’t even fill-out the words she spoke.  Her lower lip trembled and she moved her palm over her mouth to hide it.

“That would be fun, I think,” Farley scratched his chin.  “But I’m too tired to hangout now.”

“I will go to bed with you!” She tucked the device into a bag.

Farley tugged his shirt collar.  His neck felt hot all of a sudden.

“C’mon,” she pulled his free hand.  “Show me where to go.”

Because he didn’t know what to do, Farley started walking towards his house.  She followed, her pink ponytail bouncing and swinging as she walked.  It was all very odd.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know if this is a good idea.  I don’t know your name” Farley scratched his head.  Gus did, too, walking and scratching simultaneously.

“Marcie.”

“Oh.  Marcie,” Farley smiled, “Like the Peanuts character.”

“No.”

Marcie’s eyes got squintier.  He didn’t even know that was possible.  His whole body was hot.  His shirt was sticky under his arms.  Her fingers felt like candle wax after it melted and hardened again.  He wanted her to let go but he liked her pink hair, so he pulled his hand back a little and said, “I like your pink hair.”

“It’s better blue.” Marcie tightened her grip.

Farley gulped.  “So what’s that thing you were holding in the park?”

“You don’t know?”  Still clutching his hand, Marcie reached in the bag that bounced off her hip with every step.  “It’s my new cell phone.  See, it’s a got touch screen.  Faster connection, too.  Here!  Look at it!”

“Oh!”  Farely stopped and Marcie stumbled into him.  Gus, who had been leading the pack, reached the end of his slack and fell backwards onto his small bottom.  “I’ve never touched one before.  I can I touch it?”

“Sure, just let me,” she frowned and moved her fingers around on the screen for a minute.

Farley tilted his head.  Her wrist was red and purple-ish around the blue stroke of a vein.  “What’s that?”

She tucked her hand into her jean pocket and her arm disappeared behind the fold of her cardigan.  “Okay!  Go ahead.”

She must not have heard his question, so Farley looked down at the hard plastic thing.  He tapped it with finger twice.  The square icons jiggled in their rows until Marcie pushed a button that made them stop.

“This is how you call someone.  This is how you send a text message.” She pushed the hard screen.

Farley was amazed by how easy it was for her to navigate the hard screen.  Now he wanted a phone like hers.  They were probably expensive, but he didn’t buy expensive things often.  He paid his bills and bought the groceries.  He bought Gus a rawhide and sometimes he bought movies.  He had a phone, but he didn’t use it much.  His boss called sometimes.  His coworkers texted to ask him if he could switch shifts—he always said no to day shifts.  Sometimes he ordered pizza and Chinese take-out, too.  He counted the things he used his phone for on his fingers and there seemed like enough, he thought, to deserve a cool phone like Marcie’s.

The phone vibrated and a text box popped up.  Justin:  Where are you?

“You have a message, I think,” Farley showed her.

Marcie snatched the phone from him. “So, are we going to keep going?”

“Oh, yes.”  Farley began walking again.  That was strange.  He unlocked the front door of his house and Marcie followed him up and over the concrete step and into the living room.  He unhooked Gus, who trotted off down a hallway.  “Gus knows it’s bedtime.  I have to brush my teeth.  I’m sorry, I don’t have a toothbrush for you.”

“That’s okay,” she slipped out of her sandals.  “Are we going to sleep, then?”

Farley stopped untying his shoe.  “Yes.  I’m very tired.  I have to go to sleep, remember?”

Marcie’s cheeks turned a shade darker than her hair.  “Yeah, I remember, but I thought…but you’re right.  Sleep sounds better.  I probably shouldn’t…we should just sleep.”

She was confusing, Farley thought.  She had volunteered to come home with him, to go to sleep with him, and now she was acting like that wasn’t what she agreed to do.  “You don’t have to stay.  I’m sorry I have to sleep.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Marcie’s narrow eyes rounded.  “What should I wear to bed?”

“Oh,” Farley scratched his chin, “that is a good question.  I don’t have women’s pajamas.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

“Maybe you could sleep in a t-shirt.  And…well, I think my shorts will be too big for you.”

“I’ll just take the shirt then, thank you.”  Marcie began to unbutton her shorts.

Farley was sweating practically everywhere.  He didn’t know if he could share his bed with a stranger.  She’d be lying right next to him in her underpants, which were black with blue polka dots.  He tried to talk, but his words came out like a gurgle.  He went to the bedroom and she followed.  Gus had curled up close to the wall, his head on one of the two pillows.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to use Gus’s pillow,” Farley opened his dresser.

Gus lifted his head at the sound of his name.

Marcie sat down on the bed.  “It’s okay, isn’t it Gus?”  She scratched the dog’s ears and he inched closer to her and rolled on his side.  “He’s a Jack Russel, right?”

“Right.”  Farley took his clothes to the bathroom and shut the door.  He worried he’d be too nervous to sleep.  He couldn’t remember the last time he fell asleep in the same room as another person.  Was he supposed to start a conversation first?  Did he just say, “sleep well,” and roll on his side?  Where would Gus fit, and would he be comfortable?  He was really beginning to think Marcie shouldn’t have come.  But he had stared at her pink hair, so now he had to keep her company.  That’s how people made friends, he knew that.  They noticed someone and kept noticing them, making sure that person knew they were noticed.

His questions were answered when he returned to his room.  Marcie was curved like a quarter moon, facing the wall.  Her side rose slowly with each breath and was suspended, like a pause, like she was frozen in space and time.  Then, when Farley started to worry, she exhaled and collapsed, smaller and smaller into herself, like she was trying to sink through the sheets.  Like she was dreaming of being invisible until her side rose again.

Gus curled in the crook of her knees and yawned.

Farley hovered over the bed, trying not to wake Marcie.  He slid under the duvet and felt the heat of her body.  It was much warmer than Gus’s when the small dog pressed against his owner’s waist.  Farley stared at the ceiling, trying not to think about the closeness of Marcie’s bare legs, which were inches from his flannel pajamas.  He tried closing his eyes and counting breaths.  Then he counted dogs, because he liked them more than sheep.  He was restless and unmoving, listening to the neighbor children laughing in their backyard.  He turned his head to look at Marcie’s pink curls, flattened against Gus’s pillow, and began counting again.

 

When Farley sat up, the dresser and the fan were gray in the dusk.  Marcie was a full moon now, her legs drawn up to her chest so that she made a perfect ball in the corner of the bed.  It had been seven hours, the length of time Farley always slept.  He thought maybe Marcie worked the third shift, too, because she was still deep in sleep.  She must have been just as tired as him, and that’s why she was so willing to go to bed with him.

He worried.  What if she had to work?  He reached to nudge her, but the curve of her shoulder made him tremble.  He rolled off the mattress and Gus followed him out to the backdoor.

“Go ahead, buddy,” Farley waited by the screen while Gus sniffed for the best patch of grass to pee on.  His parents gave Gus to him as a housewarming gift—they gave him the house, too.  Farley rarely saw his dads anymore.  That must have been because they had wanted a child, not a hairy man.  He remembered how they cried when they first met him.  They looked at the red, purple-ish smudges on his neck—the smudges looked a lot like the ones on Marcie’s wrist, Farley realized.  And for many years afterwards he would find his dads crying when he walked into a room.  “We love you.  You are perfect.” They would say.  Farley never understood how that could be true, because they cried.

The small dog did his business and ran inside, following Farley to the bathroom.  Farley shaved, showered, dressed, and shuffled back into the dark bedroom.

“Mm, ‘morning,” Marcie’s groggy voice came from somewhere in the shadows.

“Oh!”  Farley jumped.  “Hello.”  He watched the outline of Marcie’s arms stretch towards the ceiling.  Suddenly, her phone lit up beside her.  He watched her scoop it up and he thought her face was scared in the harsh light.

“Can I use your bathroom?”

She stumbled out of the bed and locked herself in before Farley could nod his head.

 

Marcie emerged from the bathroom after what seemed like an hour, and then it was the best night ever.  After Farley had lent Marcie a towel and a washcloth to shower, they made spaghetti together.  She smiled and even laughed, especially when he commanded Gus to roll over for a meatball.  They sat on the couch and watched Frasier.  “See, Gus, you look just like Eddie,” Farley said.  He had to tell Gus every time they watched the show, because he didn’t think Gus would remember.

Every ten minutes, it seemed, Marcie’s phone would illuminate like it had in the bedroom.  And every ten minutes, she stared at the screen longer and longer.  Farley worried she wasn’t having fun, so he asked how a mouse feels after a shower, and said “squeaky clean!”  He told her about stocking the pet store and the puppy he wanted to bring home as a friend for Gus.

When neither of those attempts seemed to draw Marcie’s attention from the phone, Farley crossed his arms.  “Are you unhappy?”

“With you?”  Marcie snuggled a pillow.  “No.”

“Are you unhappy with Justin?”

Marcie stared at the television, unblinking.

“Is he your boyfriend?”

“Yes.”

“Do you love him?”

“Yes.”

“Does he love you?”

Marcie continued to stare at the television.

“Does he cry?”

“Never.”

“Do you cry?”

“Why are you asking me these things?”  Marcie said, louder than she had ever spoken.

Farley sank into the corner, away from her.  “My dads always cried.”

Marcie softened.  “Why did they cry?”

“I think because I had marks like those,” he pointed to her wrist.  “I had marks like those when they met me.”

For awhile, Marcie said nothing.  She began to cry, silent tears at first, then sobs and gasping breaths.  Farley put his arm around her and let her rest her head on his chest.  It seemed like the right thing to do, even though she was wetting his shirt.

“Didn’t—you know—they were bruises?”  She hiccupped.

“I was only five.  No one told me they were bruises.”

“You’re right.” She wiped her eyes.  “That’s why your dads cried.  Because they knew what the bruises meant.”

“Well, what did they mean?”  Farley handed her a tissue from the coffee table.

“They meant someone didn’t love you the way they should have.”

When the sun rose, they were watching a baking competition on cable.  Again, Marcie’s phone lit.  She had been leaning against Farley, her eyes heavy.  But when she looked down at the screen, she sat up straight.  Her lips were a line and her face was pale.  Farley could see dark crescents under her eyes now that she wasn’t wearing the horn-rimmed glasses.  It was no wonder she slept so deeply.  He watched the dandelion seeds tattooed on her neck ripple when she gulped.  It was bruised stem, he noticed.  Like the bruises on her wrist.  Someone didn’t love Marcie the way they should have.  What if that someone was Justin?

Farley had to do something interesting, quick, to make Marcie feel better.  “Hey, want to see something cool?”

She shoved the phone into her pocket.  “Okay.”

Farley led her into his spare room.  That was where he kept his computer and his books.  But the newest and most exciting addition to the room was the bird cage he had gotten at the pet store.  “For some reason,” he explained, “we got a special shipment of birds and accessories this past spring.  There were parrots and parakeets, small cages and large cages, cockatoos with yellow feathers on their heads and finches with orange beaks and cheeks.  I don’t have a bird.  I just like the cage.”

It was almost as tall as him at its highest curve, and wooden and polished.  The front of it had rails like a balcony and the tops of them were carved acorns.  A tree was chiseled into the oval roof, its leaves a round sun with zigzagging rays instead of an amorphous clump growing from the branches.

“I don’t know if I’ll get a bird.  I just really liked it, and nobody was buying it, and it went on sale, and I don’t usually buy many things,” he said.

Marcie only folded her arms, yawned, and smiled.

“I’m tired, too,” Farley stretched.  “I should sleep, because I have to work tonight.”

Marcie hugged her arms and bowed her head.  “Can I sleep here again?”  She whispered.

“Oh, yes!  Yes, of course,” Farley beamed and zoomed to his bedroom to find her another sleep shirt.

But after they had been lying next to each other for awhile, after he could hear her heavy breaths, it occurred to him that he’d have to go to work and she would have to go back to Justin.  What if he was the one who didn’t love her the way he should have?  And if she left, what if he never saw her again?  He liked how she kept the bed warm and laughed at Gus and leaned on his arm while they watched the cooking channel.  No one else had ever been in his house, no one had ever before done those wonderful things.  He thought of all the years he came straight home from work, all the times he had seen people in the park or in the produce section and hadn’t said hello.  He finally had a friend and he didn’t want her gone.  He didn’t want to her to disappear, though she tried with every deflating breath, with every fall.  Deeper and deeper into the dark, dark sheets.  He closed his eyes.  One dog.  Two dogs. Three dogs.

 

This time, Marcie was awake and sitting up before Farley’s alarm beeped.  She dressed as the sun set and he showered.  Then he poured two bowls of cereal, but Marcie’s softened and floated on the milk.  She bounced her leg and tapped her fingers on the kitchen table.  She was ready to go, he thought, and she didn’t look like she wanted to come back.

“Well,” he stood, “I have to go to work.  I guess that means you have to leave.”

“I guess,” she mouthed, but no sounds came out.

“I—I just,” Farley smoothed his hair, “I want to see you again.  I don’t want you to leave because I don’t think you want to come back.”  His eyes stung and he looked away, biting his tongue.

“I do!” Marcie shot up.  “I do want to come again.”

“I know, you say that, I know.  But what if you leave and change your mind?  And what if you don’t leave your number, or you leave the wrong number and I can’t call you?  And what if I go to the park every morning, looking for your pink hair, or your blue hair, and never see you?  I don’t know what I’ll do.  I won’t have anyone to sleep beside me.  Well, I’ll have Gus.  But he’s not as warm.”  Farley paced.  He said too much, he knew, but he couldn’t help it.  His thoughts were exploding in his head like the enemy ships he pew-pewed on Galaga.

“What if,” Marcie touched his arm, “I wait for you here?  Then you’ll know exactly where I am, and I can keep you warm again.  Here!”  She grabbed his arm and pulled him into the spare room.  She opened the wooden door of the bird cage.  Her pink ponytail brushed the top of the entrance when she stepped inside.

Farley laughed.  She looked so funny, standing in the cage, even though it seemed just her size.  He smiled at her through the wooden bars and relaxed.

“If you shut me in here, I can’t go anywhere.  And,” she touched where her phone bulged out of her pocket, “I’ll be safe.”

“I don’t know,” Farley scratched his head.  “That seems weird.”  Gus, who also seemed curious, tilted his head until one ear flapped inside-out over his eye.

“Please,” Marcie’s eyes softened.

They were grey, grey like moon on a winter night. Speckled in some places, and deep like the craters you could see from far away.  Farley wondered about how many hours it would take to get to the center moon, what was it made of?

“Okay,” he agreed.  Delight swelled in his chest as he realized what this meant.  She’d be there when he returned, waiting to warm him.

 

That night, Farley said hello to his boss.  He greeted Jeff, one of the other stockers, and asked him about his favorite movie.  He worked so quickly there was nothing to do.  He started facing canned cat food and watched the fish dart around in the aquariums.  He let a hedgehog hobble into his palm and held it until his boss asked him to clock out early.  The first-shift cashier had just arrived and labor was too high.  There’d be more work the next night because the delivery truck would come.

Farley scanned his employee card and went to the dog toy aisle to fetch Gus’s rawhide.  The first-shift cashier stood in front of the squeaky hamburgers.  She was tall, but still half a foot shorter than him.  Her hair was brown like the patches on Gus’s fur and braided long down her back.  When she saw him, she smiled with big, sparkling teeth.

Her smile caught him off guard.  He had never seen anyone smile so wide so early in the morning.  “Hi, I’m Farley,” he reached out, and before he knew what he was doing, they were shaking hands.

“I’m Colleen,” her grasp was smooth, “it’s nice to meet you.  I think I know what you’re looking for.”  She crouched and handed a rawhide to him.  “I’ve checked you out—I mean, I haven’t checked you out, I’ve checked rawhides out…to you…I’ve rung them up for you a few times, is what I mean.  I—”  She shook her head, laughing, “Okay, now you think I’m a total loser.”

“No, I don’t.”  His cheeks were starting to get sore near his dimples.

“I’ve noticed you visiting with the puppy that was over there,” she pointed across the building.  “Guess who bought her yesterday?”

“You did?  I thought of taking her home so that my dog Gus would have a playmate, but I’m sure she’ll be happy with you.  Are you looking for a toy?  What did you name her?”

“Lucy,” Colleen chuckled.
“Oh, Lucy!  Like the Peanuts character!”  Farley lifted a plush goose off a hook and passed it to Colleen.

“Yeah, actually.  I loved those cartoons growing up.”  She accepted the goose.  “Thank you.  This one’s perfect.”

They stood silent, smiling at each other.  Farley noticed her eyes were pale blue like the sky, right then, like the soft glow of the sunrise.  She had no bruises that he could see.

“I guess I’d better get to my post.  C’mon, I’ll ring up Gus’s bone.” She strode ahead and he followed.  “And hey, you never know, Gus and Lucy may be pals after all!”

 

All the way home, Farley breathed in gulps of air and sighed.  The smell of fresh cut grass and drying laundry filled him up, and he couldn’t wait to tell Marcie about Colleen.  Colleen.  Her name was just right for her, because the second syllable rose cheerfully, and that’s exactly what she was.  Maybe he could love her like Marcie loved Justin.  It was too soon to think that, though, right?  He could ask Marcie.  Maybe she would be happy, finally. Maybe she would laugh for him and tell him all about what it’s like to be in love.

When he arrived home, he didn’t have to enter the house to know that something was wrong.  The gate was bent in.  He unlocked the front door and stepped inside.  The kitchen table was flipped and Gus’s kibble was scattered across the floor.  Cups and plates were broken and smashed all over the tile, one cupboard door was hanging by a hinge.  Glass from the backdoor was shattered and sparkled under the morning sun.

He knew Marcie would be gone, though he raced down the hall to the spare room, taking in the hole in the drywall and the fallen picture collage of his adoptive parents.  He looked in through the open doorway.  One of the wooden doors was ripped from the bird cage.  Marcie’s bag and its contents were strewn across the floor, among the splintered mess that was the front of the lovingly crafted shelter.

Gus slunk in, trembling.  His tail quivered with each shudder.  Farley scooped him up and hugged him.

Among the mess, he spotted Marcie’s cell phone.  The cool, flat screen had a jagged crack through it.  Farley clutched Gus and reached for the phone.  He pushed the button Marcie had showed him.  This is how you call someone.

 

This is how you send a text message.

 

Farley opened her inbox.  Message after message came from Justin.  Where the fuck are you?  Said one, sent last night.  Farley touched the screen, scrolling through the unanswered messages.  Marcie told Justin exactly where she was, but she said, it wasn’t my fault.  He kidnapped me.  Farley’s heart sank.  She asked to come home with him.  Justin didn’t believe her anyhow, because a few messages later he sent:

Youll be sorrier than you ever been when I find your worthless ass your dead

Farley was almost sure Justin gave Marcie her bruises.  People got bruises when they were hurt.  His heart was pounding and he couldn’t catch a breath.  Gus licked his wrist but he barely noticed.  Then Farley thought about how eager Marcie was to show him the phone.  She showed him how to make a call.  He dialed 911.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

Farley shuddered.  “My friend’s boyfriend didn’t love her the way he should have.”

–Holly Walter

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