The dog in Lucy’s arms was a hideous, shriveled thing. It curled against her, trembling, dismal with rain.
“Look, Mama!” she said, proffering the skinny beast to Lor as if it were an object of great worth. “Look what I found!”
The dog’s snout was buried in the bright red material of Lucy’s streaming anorak. It was Lor’s anorak, technically, so it fit Lucy like a large, plasticized dress. Lor had insisted that Lucy wear it if she were going outside. It was nasty out. It had been nasty for days. There was flooding. Before that, there’d been a drought. Climate change, Lor assumed. She was an environmental lawyer, so she had a better grasp than most of the degradations wrought by human progress.
Lucy seemed to expect her mother to hover there with her, admiring the animal, but Lor was already scrabbling in the cupboard above the washing machine for some old towels. Lucy and the dog were dripping all over the hardwood floor.
“Here,” she said, passing a towel to Lucy. “For you and your friend. Go ahead and take your shoes off.”
“So cold, poor thing.” Lucy said, dabbing absently with the towel, gazing at the animal with love-struck eyes. “He looked so lonely out there. He’s very sweet, Mama. He just needs a home.”
Lor sighed. She knew where this was going. A nine-year-old, a bedraggled mutt: soon there would be pleas and bargaining, then heartworm prescriptions and vet bills and trips to PetSmart. The dog, as if knowing the vulnerabilities of his mark, nestled closer into Lucy’s breastbone, nuzzling like a newborn. He was a small animal, with the lank skinniness of a greyhound but not the height. Lor could see the sharp beads of his spine, each distinct ridge of his ribs. He exuded the odor of malnutrition or illness, or both.
The dog emitted a faint whimpering sound, something that signified relief and contentment. How well-calculated, Lor thought. This dog was good. Lucy looked up, meeting her mother’s eyes with the dazzled look of someone mid-revelation.
“Can we keep him? Can we please, Mama?”
Lor sighed again, pressing one hand to her forehead.
“You’ll have to ask Daddy.”
Lucy nodded, eyes sparkling with either raindrops or grateful tears. Mark, Lor’s husband, was doing crunches. He was always doing crunches, or lunges, or special leg lifts that isolated specific areas of gluteal muscle. He charted the specifics of these activities, a series of daily devotions, mortifications of the flesh, on a specialized app on his phone. He would occasionally offer an update to Lor on some specific of his body as if it were a large nation-state over which he held governance. “Resting heart rate down by five,” he might report, or “Body fat percentage decreased by 2%,” or “LDL down by 20.”
“Daddy told me I could get a pet this year,” Lucy declared. “To teach me responsibility.”
Lor remembered this. She’d hoped, perhaps, that Lucy did not. This animal would surely end up staying with them now. If Lucy were to have a dog, Lor had hoped it might at least be inoffensive—something fluffy and cute. Boring and ordinary—or, to use the term Lucy had coined, bordinary. A bordinary dog. Not this moldering wastrel.
“Well, you still need to ask Daddy,” she said. “But first we need to get you into dry clothes.”
Lucy nodded again, triumphant.
“Can you hold him for me?”
She thrust the shivering dog toward Lor now, and Lor could see how tiny and malnourished it really was. A wave of revulsion passed over her; she could not stomach excreta or odors. She was not an animal person, although this probably indicated something unfortunate about her: some diminished capacity for basic love and connection with other living things, a pinched, circumscribed wariness. She’d never had a terrible experience with a dog; she just hadn’t spent much time around them, unlike the laughing, easy-going dog people she knew—people who drove Subarus with interiors covered in coarse golden fur, people of laughing good cheer and Patagonia fleeces, always engaged in vigorous outdoor pursuits. Dog People, with their clean, strong teeth and Frisbees and penchant for hiking and grilling out, their reckless ease. Being an environmental lawyer, of course she knew plenty of Dog People. She should have been one herself, rather than being so anxious and bookish, so skeptical of the entire human endeavor, so comfortable alone.
Reluctantly, Lor grabbed another old towel, and, wrapping it around the quivering animal, took it from Lucy.
It was only then that Lor saw the dog’s face and she realized: it was not a dog.
The creature bore the face of a tiny, wizened man.
He winked at her.
Lor flinched, holding the creature at arm’s length. Two eyes, beady and mud-colored, blinked up at her. His bulbous forehead furrowed. What hair remained on his head was sparse, mere fluff. His lips peeled back in what might have been a smile, or a growl, revealing uneven, yellowish teeth. Lor’s whole body stiffened. She could not find her voice.
“Lucy,” Lor said slowly, careful to keep her tone even. “This isn’t a dog.”
“Yes, it is, Mama,” Lucy said, shaking flecks of water from her blonde hair, unfazed. “It’s our new dog. I just have to ask Daddy.”
To her credit, Lor did not drop the creature. Slowly, carefully, as if stepping away from an undetonated explosive, she placed the shrunken, man-faced creature gently on the floor in his nest of towels.
The little man studied Lor, holding her gaze with a steadiness that unnerved her. He opened his mouth, as if to offer a greeting, but instead issued only a low, human whine.
“Can you believe it, Mama?” Lucy asked proudly. “I found him.”
Mark held her that night as she was trying to fall asleep. Lor would have believed she was being held by a stranger. It was like this now. His arms felt foreign to her—the hard, muscular arms of a hero.
“There’s a troll sleeping in our garage,” Lor said. She’d said this several times now, rolling the statement over and over in her mouth to make it sound real. The tiny man was humanoid but not quite human—a misshapen elf, a Tolkien reject. Goblinesque. Most troll-like.
“There’s a troll in our garage,” she repeated. “Our daughter has adopted a pet troll.”
Mark had approached the grayish thing on the towel with silent aplomb. To Lor’s consternation, when Lucy begged tearfully to keep the creature, he’d agreed. It had been Lor who had insisted the troll stay in the garage rather than Lucy’s bedroom.
“Did you see the yellow stuff running from its eyes? Pus, I think?” Lor asked. “It’s diseased.”
“We can take it to the vet tomorrow,” Mark said, stroking her hair. She felt herself pulling away. “We’ll get it vaccinated.”
“No,” Lor said, her voice gone angry now. “Vets don’t treat trolls.”
“It does look a little weird,” Mark conceded. “But it’s starving. It’s probably one of those exotics. Like the hairless cats. People get animals and can’t handle them. You’ve heard of Burmese pythons in the New York sewers?”
“Mark, he followed me into the bathroom,” she said. “It wasn’t right.”
And it hadn’t been. After Lucy had gone upstairs, the little gray creature still crouched on its pile of towels, Lor had gone to the bathroom. Right when she’d stood up from the toilet, she had the sense that she wasn’t alone. There, just behind the shower door, stood the troll, watching. He was reared back on his hind legs, mouth agape. When she’d gasped, throwing a roll of toilet paper at him, he didn’t startle. Instead, he merely shifted slightly, cocking his head at her, smug, as if he knew some very private fact about her.
“He was inspecting me,” Lor said. “It was like I was being judged.”
Mark laughed lightly, not unkindly.
“Lor, he’s a dog. He wandered in. Dogs follow people.”
She shrugged, letting him pull her a little closer now. The rain continued on their roof, a steady shushing sound. His body was hard and finely calibrated and deeply unfamiliar to her these days.
The truth was that they’d both become obsessed with their own bodies. It was one way, she supposed, of retreating. Down the long corridors of your own vasculature, into the separate anterooms of your neurons. She was constantly aware of it now: the way they were receding from one another.
He had become a scientist, a sculptor, determined to chip away what was unnecessary, to forge his flesh into the most efficient piece of machinery. It was not about appearance. Mark had never been vain. Even now, of course, he wasn’t in it for the looks, although he’d become, admittedly, a specimen of beauty, a tribute to the male form. Another man might have been having an affair. Mark was not. She knew this. The only affair Mark was having was with data. He lavished a lover’s attention on those numbers, his careful charts, the steady line indicating progress.
He was achieving a form of perfection. She hated him for it.
Lor had become a failed acolyte to her own body, too. They’d wanted Lucy to have a sibling. They adored Lucy. She was their darling, their funny sweetheart. The sibling never came.
Instead, there were a series of false starts—one that lasted, cruelly, almost four months. Always, every time, then, the bleeding. And she would know that it, the false start, the empty promise, had been monstrously formed, ill-conceived, incompatible with life. A wisp of non-viable matter, a smear. It went like this for months; the months added up to nine years. It became, for Lor, a private sort of madness.
People assumed that they’d simply wanted one child, that they’d intended things to be this way.
Even after they got testing, testing that revealed the problem—a problem they sought in vain to correct, to circumvent with modern medicine, all the while growing older and older—she could not give up. The meanness of hope was that it would not relinquish its grip. She hoped and hoped until she ached with it; she could not stop hoping, even as the door slowly swung closed. Every month, long after they’d officially stopped trying to bend the will of fate, she would assess herself for the faintest twinge. She’d cup the weight of her breasts in both hands, testing whether they felt slightly fuller, looking to see if her areola were slightly browner. She could almost believe, monthly, that she’d suddenly lost her taste for coffee one morning, that there was a different sort of bloating, a new dizziness when she stood up. And then, over time, even these misapprehensions became rare.
At night, after she tucked her Lucy, her light, her gorgeous girl, into bed, kissing the sweetness of her warm cheeks, she would dream of the half-formed things her body had rejected. Her misfits, her unbegotten. The ugly things, like half-formed ideas, that could not be brought forth into the light of day. Once, seeing a particularly large clump of blood in the toilet, she’d wept. It felt like punishment for something. It felt biblical.
In the light of day, there was nothing to be sad about.
Mark, aside from his unrelenting attention to exercise, was funny and smart and handsome. He worked in financial planning. He was devoted to her, to Lucy. She liked her law firm. They did good for the world, or so it seemed on the days things went well.
“Why?” she asked, turning to face Mark so that her breath fell into the crook of his neck. He was warm, and his scent, at least, was something she recognized and had once loved. “Why did you let our daughter keep that thing?”
He sighed, kissing her on the head as if she were herself a child.
“Having a pet is good for children,” he said. “Having a dog will be good for Lucy. I don’t want her to be lonely.”
She tucked her chin downward, raising both fists to her mouth so that she would not cry out. She bit her knuckle instead, her teeth making a perfect imprint. Lonely was a hot knife drawn across her belly, flaying her, one of the deep fears she held. She had not given Lucy all that she deserved, because she herself was undeserving. Her environmentalist friends told her she was responsible, just having Lucy, and she smiled tightly back at them. Little did they know how fruitfully selfish her heart was.
“She’s not lonely,” Lor whispered.
He shook his head then.
“No,” he acknowledged. “She’s not. But having a dog could be good. For all of us.
Lor did not answer him, but turned away to her side of the bed instead and swallowed, dry, a half tablet of Ambien. She slept a groggy sleep, her throat tasting of bitter chalk. All night long, beneath the sluice and ping of rain, she dreamed she heard the troll whispering from the garage. He whispered a strange garble of trollish nonsense, convoluted and curlicued and strange. Her husband tossed in his dreams by her side.
It was true that from certain angles, you could almost mistake Lucy’s new pet for a regular dog. He lapped water up from a breakfast bowl with canine delight. His paws seemed perfectly unremarkable. But it was the face, that weary, puckered, old-man scowl, that gave him away. And, while Lor was careful not to point this out to Lucy, there was something a little raw and humanoid about the troll’s genitals; they just seemed a nudge more prominent than a dog’s should be. And the way the troll studied them, his little face amused and quizzical, as if he were an emissary from a foreign land, a deformed mini-de Tocqueville—it unsettled Lor.
The vet, however, expressed no alarm. According to Mark, he wasn’t sure but guessed the animal was likely a mix of rare breeds. An exotic mutt. No one else was bothered.
Lucy named the dog Clement after her best friend from kindergarten who had moved away. The very fondness of this name, the harmlessness of it, seemed a mild form of disrespect.
“Clement loves me,” Lucy would squeal while the troll licked her happily, his little pink tongue scraping her face.
Lor could hardly watch.
“Dog saliva is cleaner than human saliva,” Mark remarked, noticing Lor’s reaction. “I heard that somewhere.”
“What about troll saliva?”
Mark rolled his eyes.
“Be nice to Clement,” he said. “He’s a good boy.”
Clement, at the sound of his name, trotted over toward Lor, tongue lolling. He began sniffing her ankles, tail wagging. The colder she was to the troll, the more he seemed attached to her, the more determined to win her affection.
At work, her colleague, Owen, noticed a wiry, silver hair on her pants leg. Plucking it off, he looked at her quizzically. Owen was a Dog Person. He was also the one person with whom she would sleep out of all her work colleagues, if she were the type to do such things, a sower of discord. He was the only work colleague she’d ever had such a dream about.
“What’s this?” he asked. It looked, of course, like a human hair in his hands—like the hair of an elderly relative.
“Lucy got a dog.”
“You don’t sound thrilled.”
She shrugged. How could she explain to him that the dog was not a dog? That he made her uncomfortable, this so-called dog-man? That there was something of the uncanny valley about him? That at night she’d heard the click of his toenails at her bedside and had sensed, could almost swear to the fact that he waited there, studying her?
“A new dog is an adjustment,” Owen said. “People underestimate the work involved. But it’ll get easier.”
She offered a tepid smile.
“I could help you,” Owen said. “I’m good with dogs. And besides, Annette took Behr, so…” His voice trailed off, and his hand flickered lightly across her shoulder—a nothing touch, almost nothing, and yet the warmth of his fingertips lingered.
Ordinarily, when he made comments like this, she was careful to brush them off lightly, to ignore his suggestions that they grab dinner together while finishing a case. Owen was going through a rough divorce. Everyone knew that. People said his ex-wife, Annette, was a terror, although of course she’d made the same accusations about him. Lor remembered the only time she’d ever seen Annette, the day she’d shown up at the office, weeping and swollen-eyed, yelling about Owen’s anger issues. None of them at work, Lor included, could imagine this to be true of Owen. Not Owen, with his gentle manner, his delicate, almost womanly hands. He seemed all the more vulnerable now, so wounded and soft-voiced, eager for any companionship.
“You’re busy,” she said, laughing slightly. “This dog is just weird, that’s all.”
“Let me know,” Owen said, face so open and earnest it hurt to see. His hand brushed hers again. “Just let me know if I can ever do anything.”
When Lor got home that evening, she could not find the troll. Mark had taken Lucy to soccer practice, and so Lor had been given instructions to take Clement out and feed him. There was no sign of the troll in the garage. She poked the little pile of blankets he slept on. She could smell him, a musty odor still, even though he’d been bathed and groomed. It was the smell of something long-buried, the oddly sweet scent of rot. It made her gag.
She prodded stacks of boxes, moving the garbage can out, and then the lawnmower, in case the troll was hiding. She did not like calling him directly, but she did.
“Clement? Here, boy. Clement?”
She saw now the tiny sweater that Lucy had insisted on picking out for Clement. It lay on a shelf next to a bottle of synthetic oil, doll-sized and perfect. It was winter, and Lucy had insisted that Clement needed this tiny sweater—better yet, a three-pack of sweaters!
Wasn’t the whole point of a dog, Lor thought, the fact that they did not need dainty clothes?
She turned and headed back inside, wondering if Clement had gotten out somehow. The thought buoyed her. Maybe he’d run away; she’d considered assisting him in this, but the guilt had stopped her. Lucy would be sad, of course, but they could get a new dog. Another coworker had Maltese puppies. She would explain to Lucy when she got home. They would scour the neighborhood, but that would be that. In the meantime, Lor gathered a stack of laundry to take upstairs to Lucy’s room.
It was the smell that caught her first. Something off from the normal mix of Lucy—the sweet, faint yeastiness of her skin and hair and sweat when she slept at night. This new smell was something earthier, something dank and wet.
Lor put the basket down on Lucy’s dresser and breathed shallowly.
There were books and clothes on the floor, of course. She kicked these aside, testing the air as she moved forward, tasting it, like a sommelier. A note of mud, hints of mildew. Lucy’s bed was a mess—a heap of sheets and blankets. The smell was growing stronger.
Lor whipped back the covers and saw him.
The troll was curled contentedly in Lucy’s bed, his tiny head perched on her pillow. A cruel parody. His mouth was parted slightly, like Lucy’s when she slept, while his tiny chest rose and fell, his pale semi-erection pressed against her daughter’s sheets. The whole tableau was so wrong, so egregious, such an affront to everything. Lor felt she might be sick, and yet she wasn’t sure what to do—yank the troll from the bed? Kick him?
At that moment, his eyes popped open and he looked directly at her. He smiled. She would testify in a court of law to this fact: an actual human smile. In another instant, he was asleep again, or so it seemed, the slow up and down rhythm of his chest rising and falling, the faint nothing-sounds of his breathing, so familiar, so disconcertingly human as they issued softly from his mouth. She was repulsed.
Backing slowly out of Lucy’s room, she shut the door.
Later, when Mark and Lucy were home from soccer practice, she was out of sorts, shrill, accusatory.
“Who let Clement into Lucy’s bed?”
Her voice was shaking. She could feel her words rattling inside her own head like an old wooden roller coaster ascending the tracks, the whole of her body readying to plummet.
Mark’s forehead crinkled slightly. Lucy shrugged.
“Not me, Mama,” she said. “He probably just got in. I told you, it’s too cold in the garage.”
“Someone must have left the door ajar.”
The problem, of course, was that when Lor had come home, the door to the garage had been closed and locked. The troll had found a way in.
Lucy patted Clement’s head where he stood, tail wagging, beneath the kitchen table, in that instant seeming very innocent.
“We could move his bed to the spare room,” Lucy suggested. “We could make it Clement’s room!”
She’d suggested this before, but something in Lucy’s voice now made it seem like a foregone conclusion. Of course it was Clement’s room. It always had been.
Lor sank into one of the chairs. There was nothing to do but nod. Taking this as an invitation, Clement leapt into her lap, tail wagging. He looked at her with his little, quizzical old-man face and smirked, nestling against her. She recoiled but did not brush him away.
“He loves you, Mama! Clement loves you best of all!”
It would be a dodge, an abnegation of responsibility, to blame anyone other than herself for what ultimately happened. Lor knew this to be true. And yet, in any other version of reality—one in which Lucy had never found the skinny creature shivering in the rain, one in which Mark hadn’t been busy tracking his micronutrients, one in which their little boy, any version of him, sat, fat-cheeked and healthy, in the family Christmas card beside Lucy—it seemed unlikely that Lor would have found herself sharing leftover wine from the holiday party at work with Owen.
It was late. They were working together on a Saturday in order to meet an upcoming deadline, and Lor had, on impulse, decided that drinking wine might not be a bad idea. They were giggling now, over something so trivial, so unfunny, so unmemorable, that it could only be attributed to the effects of the wine itself. Lor recognized this as a dangerous giddiness. There was a tension between them, unmistakable now, and a sadness in Owen’s eyes, loosened in their sockets, wide and honest with the wine, that slightly terrified her.
Earlier that day, Lucy had insisted on holding Clement in the family Christmas card. Mark had gotten him a little Santa hat. Clement looked so ugly, so wrong in this ridiculous hat and his tiny sweater. She couldn’t explain why it bothered her so much to see Lucy there in her smocked dress, beaming, with this goggle-eyed monster on her lap, leering like a little old man.
Mark was taking photos of Lucy, laughing, holding the little gray troll up. They were oblivious, both of them, to all of it—how wrong it all was, how none of this was what she’d envisioned. And, in that moment, it occurred to her that it was all pointless. None of it mattered anyway. The world would end soon, despite her measly work with the law firm. Carbon emissions would keep going up. The EPA would be run by someone who opposed the very existence of the EPA, who scoffed at global warming. Fossil fuels would burn and burn, the earth soon dotted with black pyres, everything hellfire and brimstone. Thick, noxious gases would choke the sky, and hot, seeping rivers would churn and burble with run-off. Soon—it was already happening!—everyone, everyone would cough with each breath, drowning in the impenetrable smog of unchecked human advancement.
And here she was worrying about her Christmas card, worrying about the sheer wrongness of her one precious girl holding a shrunken monster. Her Lucy, a single flicker of light in a dying galaxy.
Lor started to cry.
And that’s when the troll spoke.
She’d gasped, looking to both Mark and Lucy to see if they’d heard.
Clement had never barked before, had never made any of the normal dog sounds a dog ought to make, but still, this was something different, something distinct. She couldn’t have repeated what he said; his words were little more than soft mutterings, but still they were recognizable as the sounds of human speech. A prophecy she alone was meant to understand and interpret. He spoke with intention, reaching his two spindly forepaws toward her meaningfully, repulsively. Like there was something she must know and consider.
“This is stupid,” she’d said brusquely. “I have to go in to work.”
Clement’s little mouth twisted mockingly.
She looked at Lucy, but Lucy’s mouth was shut, a tight line of stubborn concentration. She was fastening a tiny bowtie around Clement’s neck. Neither Lucy nor Mark had noticed.
When Lucy held Clement up, Mark laughed—an open, easy laugh. Meanwhile, all around them, the polar ice caps were melting and the sea levels were rising and the earth was irrefutably and irreparably toxic and bad.
“I’m leaving,” Lor said.
“Loren,” Mark said, but the word slid over and off of her, oil on water, oil on birds, not oil enough, the Exxon Valdez.
Clement the troll continued to whisper gibberish words, witchy sounds of dark accusation, but it was like no one could hear it but her.
And now, here she was, getting drunk at the office with Owen.
“There’s something wrong,” Lor said, at last.
At this point, they were still engaged in some pretense of work. Owen looked up at her, taking another sip from his plastic cup.
“With what? The brief?”
“No, no,” she shook her head. How would it be possible to explain the sick certainty she felt? Whatever it was that was wrong with Clement? The fact that Mark and Lucy both were blind to it?
Her eyes welled up. She was at the precise point in the course of drinking red wine at which a person may still cry prettily—not yet to that red, raw beyond where all is snot and terror—and she was aware of herself now as appearing attractively in need. Owen looked at her, frowning, and bit his lower lip.
“Lor,” he said. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.”
She could kiss him, she thought. Her disappointing flesh might still be put to use.
And then they were fumbling towards one another. At first, they held each other in a way that could still be construed as friendly—a friend comforting a friend. But quickly and unmistakably, it was something else. Lor’s mouth was against Owen’s mouth hard, almost violently, which was strange and new and slightly surreal, and then they were mashing against one another and the long conference table, awkward but intent. And there was discovery, and a pleasure in being discovered. It had been so long that Lor had been this close to another person in this way, and she realized now why people had affairs: to be made new again, after so long, however briefly. It was wrong, but thrillingly so, at least for a moment. A thumb in the eye of the spiteful universe, because what did it matter since they’d all soon be dust anyway? What did anything matter, the stream of human history about to run dry?
They lay twisted against one another on the sticky floor of the boardroom. Owen, looking pleased but sheepish, proud yet half-scared, ran a hand through her hair. Her mouth was beginning to taste sour now, and she was experiencing an old mix of post-party feelings she recognized from her twenties: embarrassment, regret, disdain.
“I have to confess. I’ve wanted this,” Owen whispered to her. “For a long time. Here. Take my sweater.”
She was shivering, she realized. His solicitude, his sincerity, made her irritable now, for some reason. This whole scene, the two of them here at work on the boardroom floor; it was maudlin.
“I have this problem,” she told him. “You’ll laugh. It’s my daughter’s dog. There’s something wrong with it. I want it gone. I wish it would disappear.”
He propped himself up on one elbow, frowning now.
She felt the words bubbling up now and pouring out.
“It’s not really a dog,” she said. “It’s something else. Some other type of creature. They don’t get why I can’t live with it. It’s not that I don’t like dogs in general—I mean, they’re okay—but it’s this particular one. It’s not really a dog. There’s something so wrong with it.” She was rambling, she knew, starting to cry harder. Her nose was beginning to run.
Owen was nodding at her now, nodding in the overly serious way one might to a crazy proselytizer who is grabbing the arms of passersby on a street corner, his face saying, I hear you, but his eyes revealing uncertainty.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “It’s really hard to feel that way. My cousin got bitten once, and he was always nervous after that. Even with small dogs.”
“No,” she said, sitting up and rubbing the feeling back into her arms. She was already buttoning her shirt, suddenly sober, suddenly desperate to pretend none of this had ever happened. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
“I want to help,” he said, pausing, patient, gazing at her expectantly as if awaiting further instruction. “Listen,” he said finally, after she had offered no response. “This really meant something to me. You. You really mean something to me.”
She stood, grabbing her bag. “I should go.”
“That’s it? You’re leaving?”
He was hurt. She was hurting him. She thought now of his divorce, screaming Annette who had taken their dog, all their vacation photos, the watch she’d given him two Christmases prior. He’d told her all about it. She should be kinder to him, to make up for this. But there was enough trouble in the world. Everyone got an allotment.
“I really should go,” she said again, pausing, almost sorry for him, for herself, for all the other pathetic humans skittering like ants beneath the increasingly hot beam of some perverse entity’s magnifying glass.
He nodded, his eyes blurred with a desperation she did not want to witness.
“I’ll text you!” he called, but she was already out the door.
In the days that followed, she did not answer Owen’s texts. She avoided him at the office, although he followed her, moony and forlorn. Eventually, she blocked his number. He’d been texting too much, then calling, wanting some explanation, wanting to meet for coffee. “To discuss.” There was nothing to discuss, Lor knew. It was too much, his gaping neediness, on top of Mark and Lucy and Clement. Her clients. Everywhere, she sensed a thousand pairs of eyes, watchful, waiting for her to make some very necessary and long-awaited move. Great spires of smoke rose upward while bees pinged to the ground, dead, and everyone seemed so oblivious, so unbothered. It made a person lonely; it made a person heedless of consequence.
What she should do was so obvious, really. The thought that had existed from the beginning, only she’d been too righteous then, still a follower of rules, but not now. No longer. It was simple: she would leave the door open often. The troll could run away. Get hit by a car. A harmless accident. Lucy would be sad, of course, but they would get a new dog. A normal dog. It would be so easy.
“You’re different,” Mark said, touching her arm that morning before they left to go to Lucy’s big soccer game. Her team was in the playoff.
Lor laughed lightly. She was different. It wasn’t the affair—a stupid idea, a foolish indiscretion—but rather her incipient sense of hope. She would soon be free. Soon, she would be unencumbered by the troll, who always seemed to be underfoot. He had a very calculated way of following her and her alone.
“That’s just what dogs do, Mama,” Lucy had explained. “They bond to one person. You’re Clement’s alpha.”
“I don’t know about that,” Lor had said. She was doing her best to pretend that Clement did not exist, just as she’d practiced pretending a great multitude of horrible things did not exist. Maybe that was just adulthood. Why not laugh as one hurtled into oblivion?
Lor kissed Mark. She could not remember the last time she’d kissed him this way.
“Wow,” he said.
“I’m excited to see Lucy,” she said. “They’re going to win. I’m living in the now.”
He nodded with approval. She repeated the kind of things she repeated inside her own head now. Practice mindfulness. Live in the now. The Arctic is already 36 degrees warmer.
All that morning at Lucy’s soccer game, Lor did feel, mostly, a sense of imminent peace, a peace she had not known in years. Things would be better soon, and then, she would reclaim them. Her little family. Together, tiny figures clinging to a raft as the ocean levels rose. Wasn’t that just life, after all? Gathering a few people you cared for onboard and pushing off? Mark, with his protein shakes, his bad puns, his way of leaving whiskers on the sink after shaving. And Lucy, of course. Lucy. It seemed improbable there, in the cold March sunlight, that she could have failed to recognize such goodness. Soon, things would be back to normal, as they should have been all along, and this time, she would appreciate it. This time, she would make good on the time they had even while she, along with everyone else, spiraled into ruin.
So when they got home from the game, Lucy wearing a medal around her neck, Mark singing as he pulled into the driveway, Lor exited the car with a buoyancy to her step. She was the first to enter the house, the first to notice an eerie quiet, the first to see muddy foot prints and the florets of blood on the kitchen floor.
“I wanted to help,” said a male voice she recognized in such an instantaneous way it was like wind rushing past her ears as she plunged down, down, down.
“Wait,” she called behind her, breathless, choking on her own words, hoping to stop Lucy outside. “Oh, God. Wait.”
But neither Lucy nor Mark seemed to hear her, Lucy chattering on about her team’s big win as they meandered up the front walk.
“Wait outside. Give me just a second,” Lor called again to her family, and then, to the man standing before her—a stranger, she realized now, someone about whom she really understood very little despite having worked so long with him—she said, “What are you doing?”
He shrugged, gesturing to the small, unmoving lump that lay between them.
Lor felt her knees give way gently, like she was offering a long, slow curtsy.
When the door opened and Lucy and Mark entered, they both fell silent at the sight: a strange man standing there, expectant, his arms crossed, Lor kneeling over the small, broken body on the floor which, at that point in time, looked—even Lor would admit—like nothing more than an ordinary dog.
She lifted the dead animal up gently, so gently, it was an act of propitiation, and the room narrowed around them until it seemed they alone existed, the only life left on earth.