5 - The Dog

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"Liam? Liam!"

Her voice sounded flat. She'd expected it to echo from the corrugated aluminum of the storage locker doors, but it didn't. Instead, the sound was absorbed, stolen by the heat and the settled dust. There were people, far away now, clustered around another open unit, but their voices too were dampened as if the oppressive heat had come down like a smothering blanket.

It had only been a second. But that was all it took. She imagined him now, under the tires of a car, or in the grasp of some dark-clothed stranger, pulled into a vehicle or shoved into a storage locker. Kidnapped for some nefarious purpose. Trying to explain to Liz: It was only for a second, I only lost sight of him for a second.

Her throat went suddenly dry. She licked her lips, tried again, louder now: "Liam! Where are you?"

"In here auntie!"

Auntie. Not a nickname she had chosen for herself; one encouraged by his father, no doubt. Let's not confuse the boy.

But her relief washed over her irritation, and she moved toward the sound of his voice, found him now within the gloom of the open storage unit.

"You scared me!" She moved toward his hat, a spot of bright color in the near-dark. "What are you doing in here? Be careful, there could be spiders."

He jumped back, as if her saying it had made it come instantly true. He hurriedly patted his hands on his pants, leaving dusty prints that stuck to the sticky grape stains, painted his jeans in purples and tans, bruise colors.

She wanted to chastise him: for running off, scaring her, getting dirty. But she couldn't very well punish him for going where he thought she would be. He hadn't been the one to run away; she had. She swallowed down the reflexive anger, tried to chase away the mental images that had flared with her momentary fear. 

She bit her lip and let it go. Liz was the parent, anyway. Nat was the interloper. The auntie. It was not her place to discipline, not when it was already so hard to get him to like her. 

"Look what I found." He was pointing to the back of the unit, behind a stack of boxes. "There's a doggy."

A doggy? Nat's brow furrowed, and her gaze followed his hand, the extended finger. There, ahead of him, was most certainly a dog.

Or, rather, what had once been a dog, and now was whatever was left when you gutted something, skinned it, stuffed it; whatever remained when you took away its essential insides.

As taxidermy went, the dog was impeccably done. The fur, short and black, was still glossy. The feathering at its limbs, ears and tail was untangled. Its eyes, glass marbles, were set with a slightly upward tilt, as if the dog were gazing up for a treat. The mouth hung slack, barely parted as if in a shy smile, the tip of an acrylic tongue poking out of the open jaws. It was about the same height as Liam, tall enough to meet him eye-to-eye, and the boy now stood just a few inches from the dog's nose.

In the dim light, the dog seemed so utterly lifelike that something inside of Nat clenched; she grabbed Liam by the shoulder, protective, trying to draw him back the way she might if he were too close to a strange live dog and not one that had been mounted and stuffed.

"Why is it like that?" Liam asked.

"Like what?" 

"All quiet and still like that." 

"He's...stuffed."

"Like Cloudy?"

Cloudy was the boy's plush tiger, a floppy white-and-gray toy with plastic beads in its feet. The threadbare toy shared his bed most nights, though it ended up on the floor more often than not by morning.

"No, not...quite like Cloudy." Nat hesitated. This was a strange conversation to be having. It circled around the topic of death, and she realized that she had no idea what Liz had told her son about that subject, whether he understood what death was, whether there was some specific script she was supposed to be using here.

But, then, she didn't want to lie. This dog, whatever its origin, was not a toy, and she didn't want him thinking that it was. 

"It's called taxidermy," she began, cautiously. "It's when a person takes something that used to be alive, and stuffs its skin to make a trophy, or something to remember it by. Someone must have loved this dog very much, to go to the trouble of stuffing it."

"You mean it's dead?" He sounded shocked, betrayed. Her attempts at softening the ghoulishness went completely ignored. "It's a dead body?"

The way he said this last phrase sounded parroted, something he had overheard on the television once, perhaps, or picked up somewhere else. It had the trappings of melodrama. Nat froze, uncertain, not sure whether he was genuinely afraid or just fucking with her somehow. 

She faltered. "I mean, technically, it's like —"

But she'd lost him. His eyes had gone round, white encircling the irises, his mouth pinching up like it was holding back a flood and then, there it was, the cry, the yelling, the theatrics. Crocodile tears, cut through with a scream.

And that was, of course, the moment that Liz returned. 

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