Once Bitten

Katie Cortese

Because I once wanted to be a veterinarian (until bio lab), because I flirted with Buddhism (until I spork-speared a tick at Big Bend and felt only relief), because I genuinely love animals, especially dogs, especially floppy-eared, velvet-snouted, clumsy-pawed snugglers like my boyfriend Amit’s beagle mix—I’m the last person I’d expect to be surfing PetPoisons.com at 2 a.m., searching for inspiration.

The list for dogs is long and mostly obvious. Beer. Chocolate. Grapes. Plus a few surprises. Coconut water. Yeast dough. Toothpaste.

Though I’ve committed no crime, and won’t—not IRL, as my son says—scrolling the page turns my stomach. My mother always says a sin in the mind is worse than the act because an impure or violent thought can become a treasured fantasy. While a crime of passion temporarily reduces the perpetrator to his or her animal nature, remorse is still possible. Atonement. Reconciliation. Harbored hatred, however, can last a lifetime. And beyond.

Some of this philosophy she’s pulled from her Bible. Most is her own interpretation.

Since tomorrow is another early-rising Monday, I bookmark the page—both o’s replaced by pawprints—and tip sideways into my sheets. The list swirls in my brain. Avocados. Onions. Alcohol. Garlic. Caffeine. Apple seeds. Gum.

***

Growing up, I had a Portuguese water dog named Alistair with a coat of curly black hair. He slept with me until his curls turned gray and arthritis immobilized his hips. After that he rested on a tartan pillow next to my bed. We were both eleven when he died of his third stroke. I found him that morning curled nose to tail, an ear thrown over his eyes as if embarrassed to leave such a mess.

As I watched my father lower Allie’s cardboard box into a hole behind our shed, angry, choking sobs grated at my throat. It was no one’s fault Allie died, and I’d known that someday he would, but no one had prepared me for grief like that, for the shriveled-stomach, tunnel-visioned, steamrolled physical fact.

My mother stood behind me as my father filled the hole, and she drew me against her steely frame. “Hush now,” she said. “We gave him a good life.”

I tried to stifle my cries. When my mother’s aunt passed the year before, people kept saying they’d see her again in Glory, so I asked if Allie would go there too. Would someone feed him the hardened crusts we called “pizza bones” in Glory? Would there be other dogs to romp with? Even—I swallowed hard—kids he might like better than me?

“As kids go, doll, you were his one and only,” my father said, raining clumps of earth over the box. “Bet he’ll be waiting on you there, tail going a mile a minute.”

For a breath, the weight lifted from my chest, and I wiped my nose on the hem of my shirt. But my mother couldn’t let it stand. She’d left her St. James inside, but its lessons never left her.

“For shame, Jim,” she clucked. “False hope is as good as a lie.”

For his part, he planted the shovel between them, staring her down over the handle. I knew he abhorred whatever lesson she was about to impart, but neither would he speak against her. In our house, her word was the coffin’s last nail.

I was crying again when she bent level with my gaze. “Laura, the Bible is silent on animal’s souls, St. Francis notwithstanding. Allie was a good dog,” she said, “but we can’t bet on anything. Best to make a clean goodbye.”

I sank to my knees in the summer-green grass. Maybe it wasn’t cruelty. Maybe she’d just wanted to be clear, or even kind. Either way, though, it was the last time I let her hold me.

After I’d left and my father died and I left again, years ago now, my mother sold the house where we’d laid Allie to rest and moved in with her brother in Wolfforth. Then he passed in his sleep, and before I knew what was what, my mother was cramming the dregs of her sixty-seven years into closets I’d cleared out for my boyfriend, Amit, who still lives, for now, with his good dog, Misty, in a loft downtown. It’s two weeks now that my mother’s been with us. My son adores her, so maybe she could have slithered back into my life, maybe I would have even opened my arms, if it wasn’t for the constant companion of her twilight years—barer of browning teeth, croaker of guttural growls, gnawer of fingers and toes: her evil schnauzer, Duke.

And now I pray nightly that Duke, for a capital crime to which my mother herself stood witness, will soon meet his own clean and permanent goodbye.

***

“This isn’t the good kind,” Griffin says, fishing the juice box from his lunch. “I only like fruit punch.”

“It’s the organic kind,” I tell him, “and what it cost makes it your very favorite.”

Griff’s eyebrows lower like his father’s had when he worked a challenging equation—the way I imagine they’d looked composing the note I found in my locker breaking up with me, his suddenly pregnant girlfriend who’d thought they were in love. Griffin asks about him sometimes—Was my dad nice? What’s his favorite color? Where is he now? I always say, I thought so once. He liked the green streaks in my eyes. And, I’m sorry sweetie, but I don’t know.

The juice goes back in Griffin’s lunch, then my third grader slings the whole shebang into a round pack shaped like a turtle in a sweatband.

“Trade it at lunch, Griffy. She’ll never know,” my mother says from the breakfast nook where he’s headed to deliver a hug. His lips twitch with conspiracy.

“Mom,” I snap. “The leash.”

She looks at the red length of nylon wrapped around her hand and sighs, stiffly coaxing the puddle of gray fur at her feet an inch to the left. Griffin’s hesitation is there, but brief. Because of the angle, I can’t tell if he worries the bandage under his shirt.

“Back soon,” I tell her, and then we’re off, Griffin with his sack and me with my list—everything available at the local United, all perfectly legal. It’s just insurance, I’ve told myself. Duke would have to slip again. Badly. God knows I hope he doesn’t.

“Bye, dears,” my mother calls, and blows one kiss for us to share.

***

When I spotted my mother on the front porch slab two Mondays back, balding leather purse clutched to her chest, the fisheye lens showed a stick figure composed of harsh angles. She wasn’t supposed to be there. After my uncle passed and we learned he’d left his house to a son he hadn’t seen in twenty years, I’d called in a favor and gotten her into a fancy retirement place where she had friends from the Ladies Guild. That time of day she was supposed to be shuffling to the dining hall for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and yet a cabbie was hauling her bags across my lawn while Duke hurled death yips in his direction, tail rigid as a bayonet. God help me, I unlocked the door.

“Why aren’t you at Four Winds?” I asked. Moving her in, I’d undergone a grilling by “the girls.” Yes, Griffin was getting big. I was a loan officer instead of a teller now. No ring yet, but I had a steady boyfriend, and—bonus—he was a resident in a local ER. My mother had seemed happy futzing with curtains, scrubbing counters, admiring her view of a gazebo and scrawny crepe myrtle adrift in a sea of yellow grass.

“Ask that skinflint director you’re so chummy with,” my mother said on the stoop. “Take me in or drop me at the Motel 6. Your choice.”

Griffin would never credit his Gamma as a hard, humorless taskmaster, an Old Testament tyrant who had carried a hardbound Bible under her arm to swat away my failings. I never should have let her in, not with all her worldly belongings, and definitely not considering the feral dust mop that settled between her knees after she lowered herself onto the couch. But we were older now. Milder. She’d stopped hauling around that Bible, and I thought it meant something. Anyway, that’s how Griffin found her when the carpool dropped him off: sunk into the couch, coat wrinkled as elephant skin, dress hiked above mended knee-highs. His face flashed exclamation points as he ran toward her, turtle bag bouncing, eyes bright enough to blind.

It happened too fast, I admit, for any of us to have interceded. At my son’s gleeful approach, the dog stiffened on my mother’s lap, snout trembling, head shooting out like an adder as he buried gleaming tooth tips up to their blackened, reeking gums into Griffin’s shoulder.

His shoulder is how the doctor termed it, but whenever I clean the four red spots beneath his bandage, my fingers are inches from his neck.

My mother had the best view from beneath the beast, hands fluttering over his hackles, cooing “oops, oops” as Griffin howled in surprise. Duke’s jaw was stuck or stubborn, blood pattering to the hardwood, until I bellowed something beyond language, leapt across the room in two bounds, and smacked Duke’s bony side. I wish I’d aimed for the head, the neck. Who knows? Maybe I would have gotten lucky. An eye for an eye, after all.

What happened next was instinct. My mother’s hand flew up, clipping my chin, and my teeth met tongue. Copper bloomed.

But the dog released my boy, snarling and—I swear, I swear—hissing, preparing for a second strike as I pulled Griffin to safety, a muddy rose blooming at his collar.

Urgent care asked about Duke’s shots. “Current,” I said with certainty because my mother cared for him like a beloved child. “Is the animal usually aggressive?” the PA asked, peeling off his gloves, and there went my second chance as I admitted he’d snapped before, had mouthed shoes, caught my finger once, but had never before drawn blood. “I still have to report this,” he said, lips twisted in apology.

“To the police?” Something in my tone made him look up sharply. That would be the easiest solution. An officer would collect the beast in a wire cage. My mother might wring her hands, but I’d have the law on my side.

“To animal control,” he said, this sandy-haired, gangly kid in blue scrubs. He could have been classmates with Amit. Maybe they were pals. Maybe he could pull some strings; get Duke labeled a danger to society. “They’ll probably recommend home quarantine.”

“What’s quarantine?” Griffin asked, turning up his moon face. His blue shirt was ruined, so he wore an oversized white tee the doctor had offered. Beneath the crisp creases, the shape of the bandage was visible where it bulked up his left collarbone.

“It means Duke has to stay inside, or in the yard, for a while,” I said. Thirty days, the doctor clarified. Inside. With us.

“It’s a small house,” I tried to argue. “Maybe there’s a local facility?”

“Shelters are crowded, but you could check. Keep them separated,” the nurse said, nodding at Griffin. “Geriatric animals can raise all kinds of havoc.”

“Yes,” I said. “And middle-aged ones, too.”

On the way home from the clinic, I dialed Emily Shriver, the director of Four Winds, a high school softball teammate. Last year I’d helped her get a mortgage and we’d gone to lunch a few times since. “Pets are extra,” Emily told me, her tone hard and unlike the woman I considered a friend. “It was in her lease, but your mother said she signed without her glasses.”

“I told her about the fee,” I said. “She couldn’t pay it?”

“I don’t know,” Emily said, warming a degree, maybe remembering our kids splashing together at the YWCA. “I only know she didn’t.”

“Well, how much is it?” I’d asked. “I can spot her a few months.”

“A hundred extra a month,” she said. “I mentioned there’s a sliding scale, but—well, she’s ‘not accustomed to negotiating with extortionists,’ I believe were her words.” Emily paused then, sniffing briefly. “She also inquired as to whether I’m of Jewish origin,” she continued quietly, “though that’s not how she put it. Actually, in that context, it’s hate speech. I’m sorry, but I asked her to leave.”

“Oh my god,” I said. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry.” But it was too little, too late, of course.

And the whole thing was needless. I couldn’t easily afford an extra hundred dollars a month, but my mother had savings, plus my father’s military pension, plus her own from two decades of teaching sixth grade. She was stingy and proud, and it wouldn’t be easy to convince her, but I decided then to make her apologize to Emily in writing and in person. On her knees, if necessary. Somehow, we would get her apartment back. We had to, because she couldn’t keep staying with us. If she didn’t have a dog to move back in, of course, that would be simpler. That’s when I started to pray.

And when we returned home, Griffin’s chest swaddled in gauze, I sent him to the backyard while I explained the plan to my mother. “Duke’s quarantine is up in a month, and then Amit’s moving in,” I’d said finally. “We’ll need your room for storage.”

“Kind of you to take pity on me in the meantime,” she’d said, scratching behind Duke’s ears. The animal’s tongue hung in red relief against his stained, brown beard. “If you’re not careful, someone might mistake you for a Christian.”

***

The carpool will drop Griff off, so I stop at United after work. Each item on my list has a recipe attached: chocolate muffins, beer-can chicken, raisins for ants-on-a-log. The only outlier is the surest weapon, should I need it: the jumbo pack of Wintergreen Ice Breakers Ice Cube gum. Packed with 1.15 grams of xylitol per cube, just two pieces can trigger hypothermia in a medium-sized dog, and ten can lead to liver failure. Duke is small and old. Trained to take every treat. Trained to believe he’s a very, very good boy.

I tell myself: Just in case.

I tell myself: You are not a murderer.

I tell myself: Whether stress, stroke, heart failure, or cancer, his remaining days can’t be many.

But in my mind’s eye, I see the wound, inches from Griffin’s jugular. What mother could sleep well with that beast beneath her roof?

The checkout line is long, but I resist the urge to pull out my phone. The lock screen is my dad dressed as the original Doctor Who and me as a tiny TARDIS. Usually, the picture makes me smile, but since everything with my mother, it’s been sending me straight back to the worst chapter of my life. My dad always said the woman he married was different than the one she became. Their first child was stillborn. After that, she went back to the church of her youth, made a bargain with God, had me, and tried too hard to rear me up devout. I’ve always wondered if she found the trade-off worth it: me and my disappointments in exchange for her evident joy in life.

Despite my careful avoidance, when the carpool mom texts to let me know Griffin’s home safe, my screen wakes anyway. My dad’s face grins up at me: a lightning strike that transports me to his funeral ten years ago where I sat next to the mother I hadn’t seen in eight months. Griffin was kicking inside me, weeks from being born. While my mother wouldn’t look at me, other relatives never stopped staring. That was how I knew she hadn’t told them about the baby and wasn’t planning on it. If my father hadn’t passed, I might never have heard from her again.

Now, as the checkout line inches forward, I scan Woman’s World headlines, blinking rapid-fire at a blueberry truffle. The checker has to call me once, and then twice, to advance. I expect snark and eye rolls, but when I push forward, she smiles, asks how I am, and compliments my earrings as my items flow by on the belt. Just like that, the knot in my throat loosens. There’s something divine about a second chance. Watching my total mount, I believe Duke and I can come to an understanding. While the ice he walks is still thin, it won’t be my weight that cracks it.

***

Amit has only met my mother in passing, so tonight he brings a bucket of chicken, a bottle of white, and shows up wearing a tie.

I kiss him in the foyer, breathing in Old Spice and antiseptic. “Thank God you’re here,” I whisper. He strokes my hair while chicken wafts salty between us.

My mother and Griffin have set the table and she’s got a pile of Tic Tacs between them, pushing them around for him to add and subtract. “Three,” he says, crunching an orange capsule. “Four,” crunch, “five.”

“That’s plenty of candy before dinner, Mom,” I say, upending the chicken into a dish.

She pushes eight more his way. “Five plus three,” she says. In a flash he’s got them all in his mouth, pulverized, fragments flying, and I have to grip the counter hard before I can speak.

“Mom, this is Amit. You met at Griffin’s soccer playoffs.”

“Dr. Chopra, I remember. I guess you’re not a nutritionist,” she says, nostrils flaring at the chicken. While she’s distracted and Amit’s laughing, I scoop the remaining mints into my palm. Duke is in the yard, howling at the neighbor’s cat through the missing board in our fence.

“First-year resident,” I hear Amit start off, “emergency medicine,” but before long he’s apologizing for egregious wait times, rude staff, uncomfortable seating, substandard food.

“Yanked my gallbladder, then out on my tush?” She’s railing but smiling too, as with an inside joke. “Your generation will set it right, though. Aren’t millennials out to save the world?”

“Sure, after we clean up the boomers’ mess,” I say, though I’m barely a millennial, and she must guess I have no idea how to save this troubled world or any other.

“I’m talking to Doogie Howser,” she says.

Floundering, Amit catches my eye. He’s twenty-five and something of a phenom. I just turned twenty-seven, but my mother says Griffin aged me. Made me hard and calculating and cold. Of course he did, I want to tell her, but he made me better too. I got my GED and then my degree, and so what if I got it online. Someday, I’ll go back for something else. Amit says there were older students in his pre-med program. Nontraditional, he calls them. I don’t want to wear the stethoscope, but I’d like to counsel young parents overwhelmed and over their heads. And the ones who choose not to be parents, too. Lord knows they need champions out here, three hundred miles from the nearest legal abortion.

“Men typically live five years less than women, so really, we’re thinking ahead,” Amit recovers just as Duke’s barking reaches a frenzy. My mother grins like a high school debater.

“You’re thinking long-term then. When’s the wedding?”

Griffin stops caroming matchbox cars around the table. “What wedding?” He likes Amit, I think, but by now he’s learned not to get attached.

Amit runs a hand through his midnight hair. “We haven’t—” he starts, looking to me for help, but I cut a swathe between them to the back door.

“Shut it, Duke,” I call, which makes the creature bound toward me across the stubbly grass. Something limp and gray flaps out either side of his mouth. A mouse, I think at first, but the tail is too long and furred, ears too pronounced, eyes closed to slits. A newborn kitten, gray fur almost black where blood has started to mat.

My hands form fists. “Drop it,” I hiss. To his credit, his jaws creak open like a rusty trap. “Bad dog,” I whisper, but he mishears, sits, and wags his tail in anticipation of a treat.

***

We put the kitten in a shoebox and walk it next door. Griffin insists on carrying it. Roger Burns is mid-forties, lumberjack looking. He asks us to wait and we hear him telling his kids, twin teenage boys, to check out the backyard. He returns empty-handed.

“Probably got through the hole in the fence,” he says with no visible emotion. “Rest of the kittens seem fine. We didn’t know she’d had ’em. I moved a pail so we should be good now. When did you get a dog?”

“He’s Gamma’s,” Griffin says at the same time I say, “We didn’t.”

After apologizing again, we walk back to our house hand in hand.

“Why’d he do that?” Griffin asks quietly, eyes scanning the grass. “Kill the kitten.”

“Schnauzers were bred to kill rodents.” I’m trying to work out if tonight broke the truce. Does it count as a crime of passion?

“It was a kitten,” he says. We’re back inside. Through the living room I can see Duke teetering on his hind legs for the scrap my mother dangles just past his nose.

I squeeze his hand before answering. “Instinct’s hard to shake.”

Hours later, saying goodbye, I tell Amit I tried to warn him about my mother.

“I have one of my own,” he says. “Next summer we’ll visit her in Srinagar. Your mom can come too. She wants to meet you all before the wedding anyway.”

“You still want to marry me after all that?” I ask, blinking rapid-fire like an ingénue so we can both laugh. I haven’t told Griffin because part of me doesn’t believe it will happen until it does. Amit is serious as tax law, but every time I get close to settling down with someone, I’ve managed to push him away. It’s always been me and Griffin against the world, and whoever we let in will be second best to both of us. I told that to Amit and he said second best was good enough for him, but they all say that until they realize what it means.

Amit presses me against the closet, hinges squealing, and slides one hand under the fall of my hair. “Yes, doctor,” I tell him as he bends to kiss me, “right there, doctor.” Griffin is in bed, but we are unused to my mother’s sensitive hearing. I don’t know how long she’s been standing by an overburdened bookshelf when we part, but she looks comfortable there, lips pursed in a caught-ya smile.

“Sorry, dear. Where do you keep your tea bags?”

Amit flashes a grin then brings his palms together as if in prayer. “Good night, ladies,” he says, letting himself out. “It was a pleasure.”

Duke had been scratching at his crate’s sheepskin padding, but as we pass through the living room, he sits at attention, casting a baleful glance at my bare feet. While my mother puts the kettle on and selects a packet of chamomile from the canister on the counter clearly marked “tea,” I double back to his lair. It would be so easy to dig the tub of wintergreen cubes from my purse. I can almost feel them in my palm, a grainy pair of dice rubbed bare of numbers.

“Now you’re a kitten killer too,” I say as his tongue protrudes in a pant. “Maybe that one wasn’t your fault, but bite my kid again—breathe too close—and I’ll consider it an act of war.”

I kneel before him and he stiffly wags his tail. There’s something about his anticipation, his sudden, blind, unearned trust, that makes me extend my open hand for him to sniff. His matted beard spiders over my life line, a ticklish caress, before my mother enters the room and he jerks back, shoulder checking me in his haste to join her on the couch.

“Making friends? There may be hope for you yet,” she says, leaving no clue as to which of us she’s addressing.

***

My mother surprises me by offering to watch Griffin on Friday so Amit and I can go out. It’s been months since we sprang for a sitter—weeks since he spent the night—but still, I almost decline. My mother never offered to watch Griff when he was a baby, even though we lived with her the three years it took to save for an apartment. Maybe she knew back then that if she’d offered, I’d have laughed in her face. No matter what she pretends now, when I told her I was pregnant, her first question was, “How much do you need?”

“How much what?” I’d asked, though I knew.

“Money. For the place you took Susan. Don’t make me spell it out.”

I set my jaw and leaned back against the glass-front cabinet where her Precious Moments’ cowered. We’d had a cover story, but she’d sniffed it out. “Susan didn’t want hers. What would your church friends say if they knew you wanted me to kill your grandbaby?”

She knew I was a liberal. One of those progressives. She was right, but that didn’t change what I wanted.

She reddened and set aside something she’d been needlepointing for a craft sale. “You could have a future, Laura. And it would kill your father to know what you’ve been up to.”

“I doubt anything could kill him faster than he’s already dying,” I said, unable to keep the bitter words from spilling out. We both glanced to the hallway toward the guest room and his new Craftmatic bed. The hospital had set us up with a steady stream of hospice nurses. He still had good days even though the cancer had leapt from liver to lung to brain, and while he got confused easily, he was gentle, delighted by birds flocking to his feeder and light filtering through the prism to splash rainbows across the wall.

“I thought you were smarter than this, Laura,” my mother said. “Only seventeen.”

“And I had no idea you were this much of a hypocrite,” I said. Something snapped between us like a frayed rope giving way. “Besides, I’m a year younger than you were.”

Her head snapped up, lips trembling. “Yes, and married to your father by then. Are you going to marry this boy—who is it even? Do I know his mother?”

It wouldn’t help to tell her that I’d been sure it was love. He’d brought blankets for the cold metal bed of his pickup, and when the condom had broken, he’d cursed himself with glassy eyes. I’d thumbed dry his lower lids, and when he’d said nothing bad could come of love, I’d believed him.

I didn’t bank on wanting the baby, but it was the truth, and in our living room, the night I confessed, I told her I was going to Susan’s until she calmed down. My mother had cocked her head as if channeling some higher authority. “If you leave this way,” she said, “don’t bother coming home.”

I paused in the doorway. She’d issued ultimatums before—over dyed hair, breaking curfew, cigarettes on my breath. If she’d known I was dating Griffin’s father, she would have made one then too. In his note, he’d said he did love me, probably, but didn’t want a kid with me or anyone. I’d crumpled the note and shoved it in his locker vent, but I sort of understood. If you’d been dealt a poor parent, you could swear off kids, or else you could seek parenthood out, like I sometimes think I did, for the chance to do it right.

I left the house in jeans and a tank top. In my purse: wallet, keys, phone, peppermint gloss. By the time she let me back in, my father was dead.

***

On Friday, date day, I stick around to give Griffin dinner, read him a chapter of The Hobbit, and see him safely asleep. My mother looks strange in the living room surrounded by action figures and art supplies. She and my uncle weren’t close, even at the end, and she’s the only one left of her siblings. I’m her only child. Seeing her among items I curated during the years I’ve lived away from her, it’s easier to see what she’s lost.

“Thanks for this,” I say, and she flaps one hand. We’re not used to being mutually grateful, so she makes a show of fishing for the remote beneath Duke’s leg.

Duke’s eyes close as he resettles against her and releases an old man’s contented sigh. Maybe he just needed time and space to get used to us, like my mother herself. And us to her.

His overhanging brows lift in alternation over deep-set eyes as he swipes a pink tongue over and around his nose. Congratulations, I think, slowly approaching the couch, extending my hand in a loose fist so he can sniff it, your sentence has been commuted. Now that I’m close, he does stir, scrambling upright in a jingle of tags. Paws dig trenches in my mother’s slacks as he wetly noses my hand.

“It’s the purse,” my mother says, gesturing with the remote. “Mine’s where I keep his treats.”

“Well, there’s nothing in here for you,” I say, patting the side of the bag where the Ice Breakers still jumble around in their unopened tub.

But my mother is fishing out a few miniature bone-shaped biscuits from her own bag now. Duke eats them on one side of his mouth, drooling and spraying brown flecks on the faux suede. I could scold him, or her, but I don’t want to lose the ground we’ve gained.

“He’s got a sweet side, don’t you baby,” she says, patting his bony side.

There’s something so solicitous in her drawn-out “baby” that a prickle bursts to life in my center: jealousy, icy cold. I straighten and tell her to call if Griffin wakes. “Thanks again,” I say.

“Anything to make an honest woman of you.”

***

After we gorge ourselves on jambalaya at a new place downtown, the waiter asks about dessert. Instead of reaching for the menu like he normally does, Amit pats his pockets frantically, eyebrows knitting in consternation.

“Forgot my glasses,” he says. “Guess we’ll have to run home before the movie.”

“Goodbye, mango sorbet,” I say, trying not to whine. It would have hit the spot after all that cayenne.

“Maybe they have mints by the register?”

“Oh, I have something,” I say, rifling for the gum in my purse. Popping the container releases its deadly cloud of wintergreen, and in my mouth, the cube is crunchy with crystals, alive with mint that sears my tongue.

At his Depot District loft, we race up the stairs, holding less and less hope for the movie, especially after he pours a complicated Malbec blend. Misty scrabbles over to say hello, and I stoop so she can lick my chin while Amit retrieves a box of my one true weakness, a tray of dark chocolate truffles that give way with gentle pressure to a filling alive with sweetness and silk.

“If this was your plan all along,” I say, reclining on the cool leather of his sofa, “you missed your calling as an actor.” Misty retreats to her cushion in a far corner with a rawhide.

“Or a con man,” he says, reaching beneath my skirt with one warm hand, finding nothing and everything beneath.

After passing a pleasant hour beneath a cranberry-colored throw, Amit winds a tendril of my hair around his finger. “Soon you won’t have to sneak away to spend the night.”

“And someday we’ll have a house with an isolated master,” I say, though a picture rises, unbidden, of my mother puttering around while Amit and I freeze under the covers. Sweat drying on my skin makes me shiver.

Eleven finds us dozing on the couch until a passing ambulance breaks the peace. And after it passes, I can’t stop thinking of home.

“Really?” Amit says when I tell him I ordered a Lyft. His voice is choked with sleep. “I thought we’d sleep in, make breakfast . . .” He kisses the back of my neck, traces the hollow between my breasts, makes a cage of his legs and traps me sweetly.

“Next time,” I promise. “If I know him, Griffin woke up for water and is on pint of ice cream number three.”

Amit’s limbs loosen, and I slide into air that pulls goosebumps from my bare skin. He throws an arm behind his head to watch me dress.

“You’re mad,” I say. “I’m sorry, but being a parent—”

“Is a full-time job,” he repeats like a trained parrot. “So I’ve heard.”

He lets me pull him up to sit, and then to his feet where I wrap the blanket around him like a sarong. “You’re always welcome at my place,” I say, and meet his lips on tiptoe.

He twirls. “You think your mother would appreciate this look?”

“It’s just temporary, her staying there,” I say, praying that it’s true.

“If I’d stayed in India,” Amit says, “my mother would want me to live with her until I married. My brother was thirty-six when he moved out.”

“So you do want to live with my mother?” There’s a crushing pressure over my chest that barely gives when I force in a breath. “There are things I haven’t told you about her.” My ride is here and I text that I’ll be right out. Amit draws me against his chest.

“I want to live with you, and with Griffin. I’m saying we should look for a place with an efficiency, or a cottage next door she could rent.”

I pull away but can’t speak. Our house talk has been mostly fantasy, but a back house might buy a peace treaty with my mother, if we can all hang on until then. It doesn’t seem so hopeless set against a lifetime of happily ever after.

“We can still do breakfast. Come over in the morning. I’ll have the pancakes ready.”

“I’ll bring the coffee,” he says.

***

Even if Griffin had been asleep, Duke would have fixed that. He howls at my key, charging to the door, catching air with each vicious bark.

Griffin waves from the floor, coloring something with a red crayon next to a plate heaped with cookies and crumbs—double-chocolate chip, by their look—that hadn’t existed when I left.

“Laura,” my mother says, fumbling his thin book into the couch cushions. “We weren’t planning to see you until morning. Isn’t that how you young people court?”

“Change of plans,” I say. “What have you two been up to?”

“We made cookies with real cocoa, and they’re still warm, and I’ve had four, and we got to watch Wolverine like a real sleepover.” Griffin grins with chocolate caught in his molars.

“When were you planning on the sleeping part?” I ask, shooting for “disgruntled sitcom mom,” until I see what my mother is trying to hide. “What’s this?” I ask, plucking what turns out to be a workbook out of the couch.

“He needed a break from TV,” my mother says, shifting Duke—whose leash is nowhere in sight—onto her lap.

Getting to Know Your Savior,” I read out loud. The first three pages are already colored in. “Griffin, go to bed.” I wait until he trots past me to ask, “Mother, what the hell is this?”

She purses her lips. “He asked where Great-Uncle Rod went,” she says, shrugging.

“And you happened to have some kid-friendly propaganda—”

“Heavens, Laura,” she says. “It’s a coloring book.” Duke strains against her arms, grumbling low. The workbook makes a growl of its own when I tear it, with some effort, in half.

“If I wanted him to go to Sunday School, I’d have sent him. You beat me with church like a bat, but in the end, you were so worried about what your friends would think, your first instinct was to help me kill—”

Her eyes grow wide and I turn to see Griffin hovering beyond the living room, watching me rain paper scraps over the floor.

“You know what you wanted me to do,” I say, quieter now. “And then you kicked me out. If that’s what the Bible taught you, then I read ‘The Prodigal Son’ all wrong.”

I don’t want to cry in front of Griffin, but I can’t help it. The morning after she kicked me out, I went to Susan’s. I told her I couldn’t go back home.

“Why not?” Susan asked. It was Saturday and we spooned Froot Loops out of pink milk.

“I’m pregnant and keeping it,” I said.

“Ha ha,” she said, kicking me from the other end of the sofa. “For real, why?”

“For real,” I said, and burst into a series of harsh sobs. We went to her mother after Susan made me swear up and down that we wouldn’t say what she’d done. Her mother thought we’d won tickets to a Rihanna concert in Santa Fe. The story had enough holes to look like fine lace, but her mother had decided not to notice.

“I’m sure your mom’s just upset,” Mrs. Abner said, picking at the tablecloth in the dining room. “I don’t believe she’d put you out in the cold. What mother would do that?” She flicked a glance at her daughter, but Susan was examining her lap as if it contained the map to a treasure.

“I hope you’re right, Mrs. Abner,” I said, “but I think you’re wrong.”

All three of us had gone to my house in their Lincoln, and Susan and her mother watched me cross the lawn to the front door. I had my key, but knocked instead, and my father answered.

“Daddy,” I’d said, reaching for him. He was brittle in my arms and smelled of chemicals and something else bitter and dark. But he was warm and he held me. “Why are you out of bed?”

“Sweetheart,” he said, and I could tell he’d been crying. “Your mother, I’ll talk to her, but she’s not ready to see you. Give it a week—”

“A week?” I took my arms back and wrapped them around my middle. It was brisker than the day before and the breeze made me shiver. “I need books and clothes—”

He slumped against the doorframe. “Your friend’s in that car, honey, right? Could she collect what you need?”

He’d been my rock and now he was eroding in front of me. Soon he would be gone. I wanted to blame him for not standing up to her, but it was impossible.

“Okay, Daddy,” I said. “I’ll see.”

Susan’s jaw dropped when I asked her, but she jogged up the walk and called me from inside so I could tell her where to look for my charger and toothbrush and laptop. My textbooks. Clothes and some makeup. I wanted to ask her for my childhood teddy bear, but hugging it would make me cry, so I told her that was all. My father waved as Susan came out with my things, plus his sleeping bag, which still smelled the way he had before the cancer. I waved back.

Standing before my mother now, too few years later to have erased the sting of my old exile, I step closer and Duke stiffens.

“We had coffee on Sundays while you were at church,” I tell her, “Dad and I, but he was too scared of you to let me in. I’d borrow my friend Mary’s car and we’d drive to Starbucks. He was always cold. Toward the end, he’d bring a blanket. After he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, I put Skype on his tablet. We talked every day. He hated what you’d become.”

My mother’s hands cover her face. “I took you back,” she whispers. “Both of you. You were my miracle. I wanted everything for you. If I had it to do over . . .”

I wait a long time, but she’s out of words.

In the hallway, Griffin sniffles. While I don’t think he’s following everything, I go to pick up his bulk and feel his body shaking in pajamas featuring a faded pattern of Santa’s face. We sway, casting a shadow that ticks over my mother like a metronome.

“I thought you felt guilty. Daddy had died, and you knew you’d been cruel, and that’s why you let us come home. But that’s not it, is it?”

She picks at the sleeves of her cardigan. I can see the crumpled shape of the tissues she keeps up there, giving her skinny limbs the appearance of bulk. “What do you mean?”

“Taking me back made you a martyr. Poor, long-suffering widow saddled with a wayward daughter and her bastard. If you hadn’t kicked me out, you’d just look weak. Too bad no one knew what you wanted me to do.”

“Laura, I’m sorry I wasn’t perfect. Aren’t things better now?” She leans forward, accidentally dumping Duke onto the hardwood. While he struggles to regain his balance, the Bible she’d stashed beneath her thigh falls with a thud, briefly pinning Duke’s tail to the floor. Because I’m close, and because he’s a hateful little thing at heart, he attaches to my ankle, lightning quick. There is pain, but the panic is worse. I know I’m screaming as my injured foot breaks free and then connects with his ribcage, sending him into a bookcase. Duke yelps but stands at attention, ears pricked.

“What did you do?” my mother cries. “Here, Dukey, come to Mama.”

He doesn’t obey, and I wonder if he’s actually hurt. Griffin lifts his head then slides down my side, kneeling a respectful distance away. “Is he okay?”

“Probably stunned,” I say. I bend over to examine my ankle. There’s a long scratch and a smaller one, both dotted with ruby drops, but the sting is already fading.

Griffin’s hands twist in his lap. “He looks so sad. Can I pet him?”

My mother looks to me. “Better not, Griffy. Hurt animals are unpredictable.” She clicks her tongue and shifts to a high-pitched croon. “Here, sweet Dukey. Here boy.”

This time the dog obeys, springing musically to the sofa with some effort.

“I’m sorry for hurting him,” I tell Griffin, a borderline lie, “but he shouldn’t have bitten me, or you, sweetheart.”

Griffin swallows, quiet but nodding. He lets me lead him to the bathroom to rebrush his teeth, where I swab my ankle with alcohol and plaster a Power Ranger bandage over the worst scrape. It’s almost one in the morning, and Griff is mostly asleep on his feet.

“’Night, Gamma,” he calls. “’Night, Duke.” Flooring me again with all he can forgive.

***

Instead of waking to make pancakes with chocolate chip eyes, Griffin shakes me into consciousness. “Mama,” he says. “Duke’s sick.”

I don’t know how I could have ignored the possibility that if Duke actually did pass, Griffin might be the one to find him. I’d found Alistair, after all, and curled up around his stiff limbs until my father came to wake me. I pry myself out of bed, pledging to dump the gum and beer, which neither Amit nor I would drink, and to make sure the rest is secured. I also vow to find a good counselor. Maybe my mom would even go with me. Maybe I can’t see her for who she is anymore because of who she was. And maybe it’s the same for her.

In the living room, Duke’s in his open crate, peaceful except for the puddle of vomit under his jaw. Red brown, the color of blood, or chocolate.

“What happened, Mama?” Griffin asks. “Did his heart rip when you kicked him?” He strokes Duke’s head with two pale fingers. I grip Griffin’s good shoulder, but Duke is still.

“There he is,” my mother says, shuffling in behind us. “Little scamp never came to bed.”

“He’s gone,” I say, wiping hands on my shirt though I haven’t touched anything dirty.

“Gone?” She stoops to peer in the crate, and then falls hard to her knees, crying out.

I leave the two of them so I can fetch a cardboard box from the garage. Out the small, square windows, I watch Amit park on the street and lean into his Jeep for a tray. A tea bag flutters from one Starbucks cup, and the shortest one, I know, is hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream. I open the big door. “Morning,” he says, kissing me before pausing. “What’s wrong?”

“What isn’t?” I say, surprised by the break in my voice.

Like Clark Kent at the first sign of trouble, he transforms. Fetching gloves from beneath the kitchen sink, he slides Duke from the crate onto his sheepskin pad. “He’s in rigor,” he says. “Passed in the night.”

“He bit Mama and she kicked him,” Griffin says, neither angry nor accusatory. Just stating a fact.

Amit turns to me. “How hard did you get him?”

“Pretty hard,” I say, palms damp. “I was holding Griffin. A knee-jerk thing. Duke got on the sofa after, though. Seemed okay.”

“But he didn’t come to bed.” My mother sets her glare on me, turns it up full force.

Amit examines Duke’s side. “Nothing broken. Did he eat anything unusual?”

Griffin goes rigid then, lifting up his empty plate from the night before. “Oh no, oh no, my cookies,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry, Gamma. So, so sorry. I didn’t mean to leave them out.”

My mother reaches for the arm of the sofa. “He was an old dog.” I should help her, but Amit beats me to it, setting her on the sagging cushion where she looks wrung out as a rag.

She does not say it was just an accident.

She does not say she loves him regardless.

“Griffin, it’s not your fault,” I say. “Right, Amit?” Real cocoa, though—I know from my research what that can do.

“Accidents happen, buddy,” Amit says, palming my baby’s bent head.

“I’m sorry,” Griffin says, dissolving, pressing his face to his knees. “So, so sorry.”

Then I am kneeling, drawing him onto my lap, rocking as if we’re back in the hospital’s glider, the two of us each other’s everything.

“It wasn’t you,” I tell him, swaying and squeezing. “I promise, baby, I promise.”

Amit’s head hangs as if the patient had been his to lose, and Griffin clings to me, wanting to believe. Even if it makes him hate me, even if it scares Amit away, I can’t let Griffin carry this, accident or no, life lesson or no, screw accountability.

I set him down gently and go find my purse, extracting the Ice Breakers. Amit’s eyes narrow as he glimpses it, then widen with a question he seems to answer on his own. Griffin hasn’t put it together yet, but he’s watching me closely, as if awaiting a magic trick. Stroking her dead pet, my mother won’t look my way, but I know she’ll have no trouble believing. Too late, I see how alike we are. She crossed her own lines trying to lift my burden once too.

As Amit works his calculations, as my mother draws another tissue from her sleeve, I sink down to hold my boy close, tighter than ever before, in case it’s the last time he lets me.

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