by Giorgio Palladino
Annie was given two dogs in the same year. One on her Birthday (partially black, fixed, the Hornbergers’ Mom had decided the kids couldn’t take care of it) and the second on Christmas (blonded, younger, a rescue). The first was meant to curb the loneliness her parents could hear compressing her childhood. The Christmas pet was to keep the loneliness dog company. The dogs would gnaw and grow and get lost on separate occasions. The loneliness would too.
Unlike when the dogs went missing, there were no posters put up in search of the loneliness when it would disappear. Annie’s parents offered no reward. Mostly they made scones and watched as much television as they could together before her fever of optimism inevitably broke. She could stay home from school, was the agreement, if she could produce some proof of illness. Any abnormal excretions were fair game and often she would borrow Birthday’s latest concoction and mix it with the plunger in the toilet bowl. Mom was willingly and nobly deceived.
When things got bad, Annie would lie on her stomach and speak with her dogs: whisper to the Christmas dog things the Birthday dog would likely fail to understand and stroke Birthday’s belly when Christmas was asleep. The secrets she harbored gave her something to tally and possess. At night she imagined pitting the animals against each other, inciting a rivalry or contest within them. She wanted to see their affection played out with violence—a kind of love her home was incapable of producing. Her efforts did not bear fruit, as a dog cannot be against anything. A dog or dogs can only be unconditionally for something, for you, about you, with you.
Her shyness gave off a gentle amber shimmer, it drew people toward Annie, and Annie further into herself. Mom and Dad couldn’t help thinking there were worlds under their daughter’s hair, that each strand was a Rapunzel rope to a different part of her mind. That a boy could discover the ropes and make his life work the exploration of her mind, tirelessly interested in Annie. First she had to manifest herself to a boy, as a girl.
Annie became a woman at the magazine drive assembly in March. The presenter had finished the what and how, and now they were talking about the why: prizes promised if you got your relatives to subscribe. Annie was not considering participation and was instead reading Proust when she felt the warm menstrual creek developing out of her lap. She stayed put, knowing that movement could elicit the attention that could compromise her anonymity. Instead she casually pulled the covers away from the pages and held the protective flaps together in one hand; the pages fanned out in sympathy and sopped up some of the blood from her legs and chair. Under the cover of the torrential cheering for the stretch hummer limo ride to Boomers, she got up, the stained book now closed and, and exited the building. Successive adolescent shrieks escaped the double doors, her blood had been found. Annie was exposed.
The quad was humming with absence. Unoccupied tables with fiberglass umbrellas made up a system of emptiness. She was still bleeding in transit, leaving little red stars—exploding spots of puberty—on the concrete. In the ladies’ room, she wept as she inserted the feminine product. She hated that she was dripping more of herself into the world. She wanted to be picked up early, but a sixth period Ms. Hagishida would not be mocked with excuses. The potential for tomorrow’s embarrassment (and the anxious hours before that embarrassment took shape) eclipsed today’s discomfort. Annie stayed.
At home she wore her backpack while she removed the soiled baton and replaced it with a pad. She walked past the sink and into her room, hungry. From her laptop, she played “Forever Dolphin Love” and surrendered to her duvet. She kissed the silence with open lips, and prayed to God that no one would say her name ever again. Christmas raked softly against the door until he found the lever and broke through. On her bed, she washed him with kisses and wrapped him in the prison of her arms.
“Where is the sun, my present?” Annie pleaded, cupping his ears with both hands. “Where is the light and the morning and the strawberries in yogurt?” Looking into his eyes, she found a question, “do you like being touched?” It had not occurred to her that her concern might smother her pet. The door sighed once more and Birthday made them three on the bed. Synchronized together in the safety of her sheets, Annie wouldn’t have to wake up, she thought, for a month. She could sleep with her dogs until finals and still pass her classes. When she reached for her phone to read them some Rumi (their favorite poet), she discovered a ghost trauma of her menstrual mishap: two bleeding streaks on her bed. She sat up, then off the bed, following the syncopated trail to the bathroom trash bin. Christmas remained in bed with Birthday, licking the sweet crimson. When she realized that Birthday had eaten the cotton soaked in Annie’s insides, she laughed incredulously. “My dogs,” she thought, “know every part of me.”
Birthday and Christmas continued gnawing at spring until it gave way to summer. Before school got out, Mom and Dad became concerned that the generosity they had demonstrated on her Birthday and at Christmas was not curing her disease—the enveloping darkness of her loneliness had expanded, tinting the windows and graying the water. Annie’s father stopped taking baths. Maybe, they thought, Birthday and Christmas only dislodged her loneliness onto another plane. Perhaps they only distracted their daughter from confronting her demons. Annie could sense their concern and looming preparations. She braced for the ambush that took place upon coming back Thursday after tennis practice.
The homosexual her parents had brought into their home was smiling in the living room. He introduced himself wrongly, with his first name. Grown-ups that pretend their last names aren’t important cannot be trusted, Annie had discovered. The only teacher at her school that insisted on going by his first name had to leave in the middle of the school year for inviting one of his pupils to his house during spring break. The rumor that this former teacher had also been a homosexual only bolstered her suspicions.
“Annie, do you know why I’m here?”
“I’m here because your parents are—they love you very much and…” he paused when his prologue produced no visible results. The professional had been a top-rate student, he was bright, idealistic, and handsome. But terrible with children. “Do you ever feel out of place, Annie?”
“Where,” she asked, “at school?”
“At school, or with friends. Or at home?”
“I guess I don’t really have a place I’m supposed to be. So it’s hard for me to feel out of place?”
“Okay then, when do you feel most yourself? Where does Annie feel most comfortable?”
The way he talked about Annie’s feelings was physical, as if he was talking about the curves and the corners of her soul’s body, heretofore untouched and still in the throes of maturation. She did not like his words or his mouth and she wanted out. Annie excused herself without permission to check on her presents, explaining she would return.
In her room, Christmas was alone, damp with mercy and commanding the top of the sweatshirt pile Annie cycled through each morning for school. His eyes were glinting resolute silver and his jaw rocked softly with his panting. Annie looked at her dog and the dog did not look away. Shame is a singularly human phenomenon, sometimes advantageously projected onto other living things to relate better to their own suffering. Remember that it was woman, not beast that broke the rule and ate the fruit. Golden Retrievers and Jackals and Corgis were spectators to man’s curious performance. Man found himself naked and put on clothes. God threw man out of the garden. Toil and sweat were prescribed to man. It didn’t occur to the dogs they were naked or lazy, but they chased after man when they saw how sad he was in his clothes. Dogs might feel pain, but they cannot feel shame.
Annie wiped the blood echoes from Christmas’s mouth and understood: Birthday was now a part of Christmas, consumed out of compassion. The cubist remains of his companion were swallowed up and rolling in festive acid. Though she had not been present, she chose to believe that her pet’s spirit had left this world without a peep. Annie cursed aloud for the first time as she applied baby powder aimlessly to Christmas’ head and spine. The desultory white dust felt like courage on her hands. She lifted the weight of two dogs and carried him into the living room and onto her lap.
The therapist shifted in his seat, reorienting his hips to face his client’s daughter. He asked about the dog. She had lived enough years in silence to know when someone was unwanted and the therapist clearly did not approve of Christmas’ presence during his session. But Annie had also lived long enough to know that this was not a session, strictly speaking, and whatever it was it would happen on her terms. She rubbed her hands on Christmas’ sloping skull, feeling the helmet under his fur speak friction to the joints beneath her skin. She decided not to hear what the stranger in her living room was saying—she had learned to tune out unwanted voices as a way of protecting her autonomy. She ran the underside of her knuckles back and forth along Birthday’s ribbed crypt, feeling out a jagged piecemeal in between cell bars. Christmas would lift his head and groan dryly when Birthday scraped against his stomach wall. The homosexual left and Annie went swimming to wash the layer of tennis salt that colonized the region above her nose. Christmas and Birthday joined her.
The dog trailed Annie in the water, tripling her wake. He excitedly shook in the pool water, splashing forget all over her face. She would go under and Christmas would pull her back up. Their wet friendship produced a clever game: How deep could she get before Christmas stopped her? She would descend and Christmas would nudge her back up. On her fourth attempt at the bottom, Christmas gripped her nylon bottom half in his teeth and swam heroically. Annie could feel the stretch in her suit and extended her right arm out, hoping to make contact with the floor. Sensing danger, he pulled harder—his efforts mirrored her resistance. She broke the surface with her knees and tumbled into oxygen. In the quarrel, she hadn’t touched the bottom and Christmas had taken in chlorine. He began wet-hacking, waltzing in seizures toward the shallow end. Annie, by this time, had recovered her hearing and was bouncing over to him. Every cough birthed economy, exchanging something out for something in. He was drowning himself in Annie’s arms. Red and bones and brown and soft formed an estuary from the river of his body. The protected watershed was breached and fed into the ocean of a Southern California swimming pool. Christmas stopped coughing; Annie floated in Birthday.
From the window, Mom saw Annie battered and buoyant on her back and called to her husband. He left the television promptly and ran to the pool deck in socks. Annie could hear their confused parenting, but could make out no words. The sun sang vespers on her skin. The glowing girl lifted Christmas, now less heavy, out of the pool and laid him motionless on the grass. She took the shovel from the garden steps and knelt on his chest.
“You rescued me,” Annie prayed and plunged the head of the shovel into Christmas’s neck. The animal was alive and muted. She pulled the metal from his throat and with her weight on her foot severed his head. When she had separated the body from his mind, she placed the corpse into the pool and dried off with a towel.
The next day the pool cleaners were paid extra to remove Christmas and Birthday and disinfect the pool. The avocado trees dropped their fruit in mourning and the gum tree tower shed a thousand eucalyptus tears. Annie learned to shave her legs in the summer that soured before it began.
Giorgio Palladino lives and works in Spanish Fork, Utah.