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Laura couldn't believe her luck when she found a house to rent the first day she started looking. Not only was it within walking distance of her job, the landlord wanted fifty dollars less than what she had budgeted. When Paul came home from work and found her packing books, he paused inside the door, palpable indignation and disbelief rendering him silent for a few precious seconds. Then he launched into a tirade. "You canít afford to move out. You donít know how to live by yourself. Youíll never make it."
She knelt there, hands trembling, and pictured his smug smile and arrogant stance. She knew if she looked up now, sheíd stop packing and heíd win. Just like the other times. She continued pulling books off the shelf and stacking them in the box, but Paul's presence had revived her languishing fears and doubts. Heís right, she thought. My salary at the library won't be enough. I canít afford to move out, but Iíll die if I stay here. Iíll wither up and die.
She hired some local college students with a van to move her things. "You'd better not try to take anything you didn't have when you moved in," Paul said and gestured to the computer. "I've kept records and receipts for everything. I paid for it all."
The two students stood and stared at their feet as he continued to rage. Laura heard one of them whisper, "What a prick." She motioned for them to follow her up to the attic where her old bedroom suite and kitchen table were stored along with some boxes of her things.
As the movers loaded their truck, she went back downstairs and into the bedroom. Paul was in front of the dresser, arms folded and lips pressed in a firm line. "I hope you donít think youíre taking any of the jewelry I bought you."
"But those things were gifts. They belong to me."
"Why are you being such a jerk? What did I ever do to you?"
"You ungrateful bitch. I tried to show you the better side of life. I took you to the best restaurants and shows, introduced you to the kind of people that really matter, and you repay me by behaving like a spoiled brat."
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "But you hit me. Just that once, you said. You promised it would never happen again, but it did, and I stopped counting. I canít live like this anymore."
He parroted her words, his voice full of sarcasm. "I stopped counting. Bullshit. It was a couple of times. I told you I was sorry." He nodded towards the closet full of clothes. "I made up for it." His eyes softened as his words became an appeal. "There isnít anything I wouldnít do for you. Donít leave."
She expected those words, the ones that had sabotaged her plans to leave before. She shook her head and backed away.
"I want you to stay. You won't be sorry."
"No. I can't."
He moved to within inches of where she stood. "Youíll regret this. Youíll be back, begging for help." She felt his warm breath on her face and fought the rush of nausea that made her stomach clench and her mouth water. "Little Lauraís leaving home. What a joke,Ē he said and left the room.
She took three vacation days to move in and get settled. On her first day back to work, she went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and glanced out the kitchen window. Overnight, her yard had been decorated with gleaming bristles of frost. She rummaged through some boxes and came up with a battered old winter coat. Itíll have to do, she decided and then recalled seeing a thrift store nearby. Iíll go there this weekend and see what I can find. She thought of the expensive fleece-lined leather jacket hanging in the closet at Paulís house -- a recent birthday gift from him that he had determined no longer belonged to Laura.
She dressed, packed a lunch, and left the house. I need to find some gloves, she thought, and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. Maybe the guys who helped me move would know where I could get some wood for the fireplace. The occasional car drove by as she walked, but the street remained quiet. The icy stillness added to the air of solitude and neglect. Many of the houses were old, some in need of extensive repair. Laura knew Paul would call the neighborhood a slum, but she didnít care. I'm on my own at last she thought and quickened her step.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a dog lying in the backyard of one of the houses. She stopped and whistled softly. The dog, an ordinary-looking lab cross, looked up. Laura remembered the dog she had as a kid -- an excitable, highly vocal Chihuahua named Penny. It seemed that Penny would live forever, and then one day Laura came home from college to find her father in the backyard with a shovel in his hand. When she saw his red-rimmed eyes, she raced into the house. Pennyís bowls and bed had vanished. Occasionally, Laura longed for another dog or maybe a cat, but Paul had forbid it, claiming that animals were dirty and a source of constant inconvenience.
The dog wore a dirty piece of rope around his neck, the end of the rope attached to a stake driven into the grass. His graying muzzle betrayed his advanced age, and his once black coat had been camouflaged with a layer of dust and matted with chunks of mud. Laura saw no sign of a doghouse. No bowls containing food or water. "Hey you,Ē she said. "Why donít you come a little closer and say hello?" The dog lowered his head and closed his eyes, dismissing her. She took one last look and spent the rest of the day trying to get the dog out of her mind.
It was almost dark by the time she left for home. Fridays usually meant a drink at the Oasis with her coworkers, but tonight she had begged off, insisting that she still had plenty of work to do in her new place. She stopped at the house where she had seen the dog and peered into the backyard. Like a porcelain figure on a shelf, he still lay curled up in a tight ball. "Hey dog,Ē she said.
He lifted his head, but once again, he made no sound, and after a few moments, resumed his pose. She shivered and pulled the collar of her jacket up around her ears. Maybe the dogís owner would take him inside tonight, but somehow she doubted it. Her sleep that night was filled with dreams of a black dog trembling in the frigid darkness, held prisoner by a ragged rope.
The next morning she woke up to an icy bedroom. I know I turned up the heat last night, she thought. She turned over and looked at the clock on her night table. Only seven. Sheíd phone the landlord in a couple of hours, but right now she had to summon the courage to abandon her bed. "One, two, three,Ē she said, and threw the blankets off.
She scurried to her dresser, grabbed a sweatshirt, and a pair of thick socks. She snatched her jeans off the floor and raced into the bathroom to get dressed. Downstairs, she checked the thermostat and felt the radiators. Nothing. Breakfast in a kitchen cold enough to hang meat held no appeal, so she decided to go to the little coffee shop around the corner.
The frozen ground crunched under her feet and the fallen leaves crumbled into dust as she walked. Iím not going to look at the dog. In fact, Iím going to forget about him. Thereís nothing I can do. She paused mid-step. There is something I can do. I can phone the S.P.C.A. when I get home. Right after I call the landlord.
Her resolve evaporated a few steps later as she reached the dogís yard. Before she could remind herself that she wasnít going to stop, she found herself standing at the fence, staring at the motionless, black form. "Hey dog." Nothing happened. She raised her voice. "Hey dog." Still nothing.
A voice from the front door startled her. "What the hell you doin' yellin' at my dog?"
Laura turned to see an old man staring at her, a cigarette dangling from his lips and his arms raised in an angry gesture. He wore a thermal undershirt, yellow with age. Red suspenders hung like limp rubber bands from his waist, and his green pants were covered in oil stains, the knees shiny with wear.
"I wasnít yelling at him. I was just talking to him. Iím sorry I disturbed you."
The old man flicked the cigarette into the yard. "Well, stay the hell away from my dog."
The front door began to close. Why am I being so polite to this creep? "Wait,Ē she called out, and the door opened again.
"What do you want now? Itís fuckiní freeziní out here."
Laura walked towards the man. Repulsed by his appearance and manner, her steps slowed as she got closer. "It is awfully cold,Ē she said.
"Colder than a witches tit. Now tell me what the hell you want." He stared at Laura for a few seconds, and then grinned. She shuddered at the sight of the tobacco-stained teeth. He gestured inside the house. "Maybe youíd like to come inside and warm up. Then you can tell me what you want."
"No. No, I donít want to come in." She took a deep breath. "I just wanted to know if youíd be interested in selling your dog."
"That worthless mutt?" The man laughed for a few seconds, then abruptly stopped. "I was just jokiní about the worthless part. He's a pretty good dog. Yeah, I might be interested."
"Well, heís the kind of dog Iím looking for, and it doesnít look to me like youíre too attached to him and all. I mean heís tied up outside. I donít see any food or water."
The man jabbed the air with his index finger. "You just wait a minute. I take good care of that dog. The guy I got him from said he was a trained guard dog. Trouble is the stupid thing doesnít even bark when strangers come around. But then I guess that wouldnít matter to you. Youíre probably just lookiní for a pet, huh?"
"Yeah, well hereís your chance to get rid of him. Iíll give you twenty dollars."
He snorted. "You expect me to sell a purebred guard dog for twenty dollars? Fifty dollars. Thatís my price. You bring me fifty dollars, honey, and you got yourself a dog." The revolting smile reappeared. "Sure you donít want to come in?"
Laura shook her head. "Iíll be back with the money." Breakfast forgotten, she searched for and found a cash machine four blocks away. I canít afford this, she thought as she punched the numbers into the machine. The dog will need a vet and where am I going to get the money for that? Her apprehensions faded as she pictured the dog, curled up, not outside on the cold, hard ground, but in front of a glowing fireplace. Blue ceramic bowls filled with food and water sat in the corner of the kitchen, and she saw him, head held high, matching her stride on their daily walk.
With the money in her purse she hurried back to the manís house -- the last thing she felt like doing. I could go the rest of my life without seeing those teeth and that undershirt again, she thought. It'll be worth it, though, to save the dog.
The front door opened as soon as she knocked, and the man held out his hand. "Got the money?"
She dropped the bills into his palm. The man's fingers curled around the money, reminding her of a snake constricting a rat. He stuffed the bills into his pocket and grabbed a sweater from a hook by the door. "Come on, letís go get your dog."
He opened the back gate and whistled. The dog didnít move, and he whistled again. Laura followed a few steps behind him as he made his way across the yard, muttering curses. "Wake up, you piece of shit,Ē he said and jabbed the dog with his foot. It was then she knew. The man shrugged. "I donít fuckiní believe it. Must have been sick or somethiní." He winked at Laura. "Guess you bought yourself a dead dog, honey." He nodded several times, obviously amused. "Be a hell of a lot easier to look after." He laughed and began to walk towards the house.
"Hey, I gave you fifty dollars. I paid for a living dog."
He stopped and turned around. "Prove it."
She straightened her shoulders and looked down at the dog. Without saying a word, she pulled the stake out of the ground. Then she picked up the dog, staggering for a moment under the weight as she stood up.
The manís eyes widened in amazement. "What the hell are you doiní?"
"Iím taking my dog home to bury him."
"You won't be able to bury that dog."
"Prove it," she said and headed for home.
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