31 - Homecoming

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"Did you put this here?" Nat's voice sounded unnaturally high, a panicky falsetto, and she struggled to regain control of it before it veered off into hysteria.


"Did you put this here?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Liz rounded the corner, appearing in the arched entryway of the sitting room. Her hair was damp, perhaps drying from a shower, but she was dressed and looked better than she had this morning. 

Nat's eyes strayed down to the dog, which stood in the place it had been this morning, its shadowy body like a dark cutout against the sitting room decor. It was as though she had never moved it: never taken it to Matt Cook's, never carried it to the curb in the desert. It stood like a sentinel at the doorway like it was the most natural thing in the world, like it had always been there. 

She was certain that it had been posed differently, before. It looked at Nat, not with the plaintively inclined head and upturned eyes, but with a faint turn of the head and a gaze that bore straight forward. The silken ears were pulled back against its head. The muzzle was creased as if in the beginnings of a snarl.

Is it the same dog? She wondered, crazily. Had Liz somehow found another taxidermy black hound to replace the first? That hardly seemed possible. Or had she somehow known that Nat had left it behind? Had she somehow known to go out and bring it home? Perhaps Matt Cook had seen it, somehow, and called her about it. 

"The dog," Nat said, trying as best she could to remain calm. "Did you put it by the door?"

"That's where he's been," Liz said, impatiently. "You're the one who put him back, right?"

"I didn't..."

"Did you not go see Matt this morning after all?"

If Liz was fucking with her, she was doing a convincing job. Nat stayed frozen in the doorway, as if afraid to walk past the dog. But that was absurd. She steadied herself, and pushed her way inside, holding her breath as she passed the hound and crossed into the sitting room. The dog, of course, did not move. "I did, I just..." she trailed off, and sighed, exhaling air that felt as though it had begun to go stale in her lungs. "Never mind. How are you feeling? Where's Liam?"

"A lot better, and in bed. I sent him to bed early, since he hasn't been sleeping well."

Nat glanced at the old cuckoo clock mounted on the wall near the bookshelf. It was nearly 9 pm. She hadn't realized she'd been out so late. It made it all the more strange that Liz hadn't sent her any messages; but, then, she hadn't thought to check in either. She hesitated now, waiting for Liz to press her with questions, but her wife merely turned and headed back toward the kitchen, wordless. Nat followed, feeling like she should say something, and not knowing what to say.

Her mind was still on the dog, standing vigil at the door.

Maybe you didn't actually leave it in the desert, she thought, desperately. Maybe you nodded off while you were at work and dreamed that you did it.

That had to have been it. She must have dreamed the whole thing. Of course she had. It was ridiculous to imagine that she would have dumped it on the side of the road. It was even more ridiculous to think that it would have ended up back here on its own somehow. 

A long-dead dog, a stuffed hide of fur and leather, traveled home of its own volition to wait for her beside the door.   

It simply wasn't possible. 

She must have brought it home, left it here, then gone back to the shop. Fallen asleep. Had a vivid dream. That was much more logical. She couldn't remember every minute of her day. Thinking back, she hardly remembered her afternoon at all, or the final stretch of evening at the shop. Doing paperwork in the back room was boring. Surely she had nodded off. Surely she had dreamed. 

The more she said it to herself, the truer it felt, and by the time she joined Liz in bed that night, she was convinced the whole thing had been just another of her vivid nightmares. 

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