In some American town, there’s a house with a sagging, garage-sale mattress inside a bedroom. On the mattress there’s a girl drinking a milkshake she bought from a lousy diner down the street. It’s thick and strawberry-flavored, like some children’s toothpaste. The windows are painted shut and the AC broke and the girl feels like she could sweat off her body. There’s an electric fan in one of the unopened boxes in the hall, but the girl doesn’t know which box, so she doesn’t look. A colony of ladybugs emerges from a crack in the ceiling, seeking asylum from the heat. They won’t find it here. The girl holds the cold Styrofoam cup to her forehead. Only fifty-two more days of summer left.
Across the road – now a sparkling, squishy mess of hot tar stripes – there’s a blue box house. Its yard looks more like a meadow. No one’s cut it for years. Dandelions and saplings and full beds of poison ivy spill over one another, vying for sunlight or relaxing into rigor mortis. A rabbit hole runs from the lamppost under the lemongrass, all the way to the drainpipe. There’s usually water at the base of the shoot; young rabbits often come up for a drink. But it hasn’t rained for two weeks. If there are young rabbits, they’ve probably died. The drainpipe is rusted-out anyhow. It climbs up the side of the blue box house and connects to the gutter that runs above the second floor’s street-facing windows, one of which is the boy’s. The boy has lived in the blue box house for a long time – seven years? Ten? Twelve? Time stopped mattering to the boy past a certain point. As miserable as the truth was, he understood this is where he would grow up. The boy sits now at the window, scratching a bug bite on his arm; the welt is large and pink, and as the boy’s nails dig into the welt where the mosquito landed thirty minutes ago, a small point of blood appears. The boy squeezes the skin around the point of blood, trying to coax out a small burst, or definitive stream. Nothing happens. Heat thrums in his ears, viscous and apian. The boy wonders if this is what a rotting melon feels like. He stands up – slowly – and goes to make an ice-bath.
As the girl sips the last of her strawberry milkshake and the boy runs cold water in the tub, a gust of wind sweeps through the neighborhood, turning street litter into confetti, kissing the sweaty foreheads of foremen, knocking over paper signs at lemonade stands, and mussing the wiry hair on Waffle’s back. Waffle is a Russell terrier, fourteen years old, twenty-one pounds, brown-eyed, irreverent. The boy got Waffle six years ago from his fifth-grade science teacher, who said that whoever could completely fill in a blank chart of the periodic table could have his dog. He was moving to the city, and had discovered he was more of a cat-person. The boy hadn’t really wanted a dog. He had neither wanted a dog nor to be uncommonly good at science, but there he was, handing in his completed chart of the periodic table and receiving a scowling terrier in exchange.
Waffle had been a remarkably unremarkable dog throughout her stay with the boy. She typically lay silent under the kitchen table for most of the day, occasionally getting up to nibble at fallen English-muffin crumbs or to look out the window. The boy walked her once before school and once after, the same route each time – down Smith to Willow, across the field and back, five to ten minutes allotted for sniffing diversions. The boy would carry Waffle during the cold months if the roads weren’t plowed. He had read once that terriers have sensitive paws, and considered himself to hold some sense of moral obligation.
However, today the boy has been preoccupied with the heat and his swollen bug bite and the muggy, red, thuggish interminability of summer, and has forgotten to fill Waffle’s water bowl. Waffle paces back and forth, back and forth, from her bowl to the stairs, but no one comes. The boy’s parents won’t be home until six, four hours from now. Waffle lets out a whimper. She never barks. Ten minutes go by, then twenty, then thirty. The boy doesn’t come. Waffle begins to hyperventilate. The table blurs into the floor and the world seems diagonal. Fuzzy zigs start to zag across Waffle’s vision and turn the kitchen into a frantic modern art installation. This is it. Waffle ponders her anticlimactic demise, and whether or not the boy would be relieved to find her stiff and lifeless on the linoleum when he eventually came down. He would be surprised, that was certain. The real question is whether he would feign guilt or a convincing sort of sadness, or simply scoop her up as he did on those winter mornings and carry her to the field, this time – of course – to be buried. Buried? Was she indulging herself in that? She would be put in a plastic bag like the leftover fish bones from Haddock Thursday and tossed – gently – into the trash bin. Was the afterlife better than this? One would hope.
Then there is not a gust, but a breeze – the sort of breeze that could pass as the universe sweeping through you, an invitation to The Great Beyond. It comes through the screen door, past the newspapers and TV, knocking over the empty Chinese cartons on the coffee table, finally reaching the drowsy black nostrils of Waffle’s pointed snout. Her eyes widen. The breeze calls to her like a mother or a messenger or the raison d’être, if there is such a thing – Waffle intends to find out.
The screen door needs only a soft nudge. Waffle makes her way out and across the yard, through the lemongrass and the saplings and the dandelions where the rabbits sometimes gather, to the road. The breeze – that calling to The Great Beyond – has somehow dissipated or slid into the next neighborhood. Which neighborhood, exactly, Waffle is unsure. She pads slowly onto the blacktop and winces as sticky bits of tar burn her paws. The sky looks sickeningly blue and garish. Waffle can hear the shrill tune of the ice-cream truck song. The metallic melody is distant at first, but grows louder, and louder. Soon enough, the song is deafening.
The kid driving the truck somehow hasn’t made a cent today, and he’s already been out three hours. His sandals are sopping with sweat. The zit on his nose is throbbing. He could have been lifeguarding this summer, but he forgot to attend the lifeguard recertification seminar, and shortly thereafter lost his chair at the community pool to some pudgy kid who at this very moment is probably wiping his greasy, swine-like fingers on the ice-cream-truck-kid’s rightful armrests. In envisioning this atrocity, the ice-cream-truck-kid is barely paying any attention to where he’s going. The blaring jingle has become hypnotic. He can see himself striding across the chlorine-stained concrete, past the plastic deck chairs and bin of floaties, past the squawking moms and squealing children, to the chair – the throne. Ready to take back his perch, the ice-cream-truck-kid can feel his toes curling around the rungs like a condor’s talons. Then a bark punctures this nearly victorious moment and the reverie deflates. The truck rolls forward several yards. The kid hits the brake. He looks at his rearview mirror.
The dog lies in a heap on the road, slack-jawed, tongue out. A moment passes. The song finishes. The ice-cream-truck-kid considers parking the truck and getting out and finding the owner and apologizing profusely and going to the community pool and tearing the pudgy kid out of his chair and reclaiming what should have been his summer job. But he doesn’t. He does none of things. Instead, he puts the truck back into drive and continues down the road. The song recommences.
In the kitchen, the boy is emptying cubes from the ice tray into a plastic bowl when he hears a knock at the door. He places the ice tray down on the counter and starts to make his way across the kitchen. Then he notices Waffle’s empty water dish; he’ll fill it in a minute. The boy realizes he hasn’t eaten since he last fed her – three, maybe five hours ago – so he opens the fridge and grabs a slice of last night’s pizza and closes the fridge and saunters through the living room, past the empty take-out cartons and strewn newspapers, to the door and he opens the door, and there – standing on his porch – is a girl. She has nimble, green eyes. Her hair hangs by her collarbones in two unraveling braids. She is holding a bundle of checkered flannel sheets in her arms.
She taps her foot. “The lady next door told me that you had a Russell terrier.”
Her voice slips swift as sunshine through his ears and down into his chest. His heartbeat quickens. “Yeah.” He pauses. “Her name’s Waffle.”
The girl hands the bundle of sheets to the boy. The boy takes the bundle. He doesn’t unwrap it. He looks up, and her cheeks are flushed, her eyes apologetic. There is no good place to put down the pizza, so he balances the slice on top of the bundle.
The boy’s eyes are now watery and he wonders if the girl notices.
The girl has no idea what to say, but saying anything would be better than standing silent. “I found her on the road.”
“Oh.” The boy wishes he had something better to say to the girl.
“Are you going to bury her?”
The boy shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it.”
He wonders what he’s supposed to do next. The girl is still standing there, and his dog is dead and his parents won’t be home for another three hours and there’s nothing good on cable on Friday afternoons. “Do you like pizza?”
The girl’s foot stops tapping. “Yes.”
“I have some more in the fridge.”
“To repay you, you know, for…” The boy gestures to the bundle.
The girl nods. She hasn’t found a reason to leave, and her grandpa is out at the casino again and won’t be home until tomorrow morning, and it’s hot and harrowing, and she might as well find something other to do than lie on her mattress, soul draining and sweat soaking into the musty fibers.
She follows the boy in.