7 - Warm to the Touch

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It took a while to get Liam to calm down.

Despite his earlier outbursts,  he didn't seem to be afraid of the dog. On the contrary, he was fascinated by it. He did not want to leave its side. He fawned over it as though it were the most interesting thing he had ever seen.  As Nat and Liz traveled back and forth to the van, hauling out boxes and furniture, he stayed behind and crouched by the dog, inspecting it closely. He would reach out for it, as if to pat it on the head or stroke that soft dark fur, but then draw back his hand at the last moment with a nervous, guilty kind of laugh, the laugh of someone who is doing something naughty on purpose.

The dog held him captivated, and Nat couldn't begin to understand it, but at least he wasn't crying anymore. She did not understand what had upset him, and had resigned herself that perhaps she never would. Children, with their busy minds and unpredictable behavior, were a mystery beyond her depths to solve. Deep down, in a place she did not want to name or look at directly, she suspected that he had done it to upset her. 

When Nat had been in college, she'd had a brief and disastrous affair with an older woman. It was her first serious relationship, and her lover had taken her on like a student, a tutelage that was equal parts informative and damaging. It had taken Nat nearly a year to realize how bad it was, and many more months before she'd had the courage to leave, but her cat -- seemingly wiser, or at least a better judge of character -- had hated the woman from the start. He had made a concentrated effort to chase her away, pissing on beds and coughing up hairballs in shoes. 

Cats could be vindictive, calculating creatures. 

Nat could only imagine that children were, too. 

All told, it took them nearly two hours to empty out the unit. By the time they were finished, everyone was tired, dusty, hungry. But satisfied, too, in a way. This had been the only unit Liz had decided to buy -- and thank god, because the van was crammed full -- and it looked likely to turn a sizable profit. The couch alone would more than triple their investment if they could repair it on the cheap. The paintings, even if they wouldn't sell, had nice frames. Other items would likely appraise well.

It was a tight fit, though, and the dog — which had been holding Liam's attention, and thus was the last thing to get loaded — wouldn't fit in the back.

"We could just leave it," Nat suggested. 

The dog peered up from the gloom. Like a mutt found in the rain, scratching at the door for shelter or a scrap of food. Something about the incline of its head, the way its droopy ears seemed shifted slightly back on the skull, felt clearly plaintive. Its eyes caught the semi-dark strangely, seemed to glint in a way that was wet and shining. 

"We can't just..." Liz gestured, vaguely. "This used to be someone's pet, or something."

"He's my dog," Liam said, loudly, possessively. "He likes me now."

Nat and Liz exchanged uneasy glances.

"I...guess we could fit him in the back seat?" Liz glanced down, raising her brows. "If you don't mind sitting with him?"

"As long as he doesn't pant on me!" He screwed up his face in theatric disgust. "Dog breath. Yuck."

Kids are so fucking weird, Nat thought, but exhaled a steadying breath. The rules were starting to make sense, at least: Liam loved the stupid dog, as long as no one pointed out that it was dead. Well, fair enough. Whatever worked.

Keeping the peace was, after all, her specialty.

"Okay. Let's go take him to the car, then." Liz stepped forward, bending to wrap her arms around the dog's chest and under its waist, holding its stiff body awkwardly against hers. "And then let's get something to eat."

She went to straighten, but her brow furrowed. She nearly dropped the dog, her expression shifting into a surprised look.

"Whoa. He's...heavier than I thought he'd be. Nat, come help me?"

Natasha hesitated. Suddenly she found that she very much did not want to touch the dog; her body recoiled, as if from something putrid and foul. 

She sometimes had to retrieve mouse traps from the store — mice loved the old books and upholstery and wood, they would creep in at night and try to strip the antiques for bedding, perhaps they too had a taste for vintage items. She hated the traps. Every morning, she would swallow back some hesitation as she reached for them, her body screaming in protest at the unnaturalness of reaching for a little mouse corpse. Sometimes their insides would be burst, tiny guts spilling out over the sides of the trap. Mostly, they were just dead, little cotton balls of animals with naked tails and feet jutting out like worms. Her fear of touching them was irrational, but she felt it all the same as if on a cellular level, as if her body were blocking the action before her brain even had a chance to speak up.

She felt like that, now, reaching for the dog.

But as she always did with the mouse traps, she swallowed back her revulsion. She reached, instead, for the front half of the dog, laying its head on her shoulder and grasping it firmly but carefully behind the elbows. Liz took the back end, and together the two of them walked it out to the van.

It was surprisingly heavy, and warm to the touch. 

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