GATEWAY PUPPY • by Lia Burnham

On my twelfth birthday, a puppy drowned in our pool. On that cicada-buzzing Sunday afternoon, I lay on a half-deflated raft, my fingertips skimming the warm water. Thunderclouds pressed down, trapping stagnant, rotten-fish-smelling air. Pinhole rays of sun burst through the blackening sky. I pulled my raft beneath the closest one, wondering if God was at the other end and if so, whether I could use the sunbeam as a celestial telephone to call and complain about my parents.

It was darker inside the house where they raged. At least two dishes smashed and the loveseat flew into the sliding glass door which exploded into spiderweb cracks but somehow held together. I pulled the words “crank”, “skank”, “drunk” and “fuck” from the air, weaving them into music, making them my own. But the pounding in my temples spread up into my eyes. I decided to ride out the storm in my raft.

Waiting for the first fat drops to fall, I spotted a white grocery bag bobbing at the surface and flopped off the raft to snag it, expecting to find dog poop. Somebody’s idea of a joke. Instead, a tiny brown and white puppy with long silky ears and a whip-thin tail lay still inside. His filmy eyes were open and his pink tongue lolled out from one corner of his muzzle. I re-boarded the raft with my dead puppy and cradling him under my chin, sobbed as fresh air blew in and rain pelted down ricocheting pool water back up into the sky. I prayed into the storm to where I thought God might be hiding. And I half-kissed, half-breathed into the puppy’s mouth over and over again hoping a combination of CPR and heavenly intervention would bring him back to me.

Even before the puppy, I was strange. A skittish brown girl with deep-set eyes and unwashed hair who seldom ate, scratched incessantly at chigger bites and stared mouth agape when asked simple questions. I lived largely apart, tiptoeing around passed out shadows on couches. I figured things out on my own. Or I didn’t.

The puppy, though. He was my tipping point. That summer my parents lost their will to pretend. Addiction took over and rushed us towards an edge only I could see. My mom stabbed my dad in the neck with a fork at dinner for laughing with his mouth full, turning on me with glittering eyes when I tried to dial 911. Propping him up on the way to the car she tripped on her robe and giggling, dropped him to the pavement in a pool of blood. Old Mrs. Linfield was across the street “if I needed anything”, but I couldn’t tell her what I needed. I had no idea what I needed.

Later, when dad raved in the middle of the night about worms in his eyes we held him down together. She stood naked in the moonlight, taught muscles glistening as she pushed hard on his shoulders. I wrestled his legs, dodging kicks to the face that would have broken my jaw. When he finally stopped bucking, she lay back down at his side and smoothed his hair. I melted away once again.

I would have done any disgusting chore, recited any story to the cops if only I could kiss life back into that puppy. If he had licked my face, sat in the crook of my arm or followed me on my walk to school, it would have changed my life. Instead, I buried him under my next-door neighbor’s spider plant and sat cross-legged on the sidewalk all night, wiping snot against one dirty wrist and baring my teeth at passersby.

The next morning that neighbor, Ricky Mayfield, took what was left of me. I awoke on the sidewalk, my head nestled in his lap and blinked up at him through crusty lashes. A musty-smelling sweatshirt lay over my chest. “You shouldn’t be alone,” he said, his cheeks aflame. Spiteful, rioting acne encircled his face, but he had long soft fingers. I let him pull me upright and brush dirt off my legs.

He offered me lemonade and HBO. I got wine and my first porn. Though his house reeked of urine, he owned no pets. He claimed to be a marketing executive, but wore corduroys to work. As far as I could tell, he never changed his sheets. He put on rubber gloves to touch me. Some type of fetish, I assume. I can’t imagine he thought I was dirtier than he was, though maybe I was.

He crashed my band recital, whistling from the back during my drum solo. I cut his hair. We did math together and sometimes he made me grilled cheese. He listened to me complain about the white girls at my lunch table. I taught him swears in Spanish. Posing as my older brother, he signed me up for Girl Scouts. I think he wanted to see me in the uniform. He brought a boombox to my first meeting and blasted “Welcome to the Jungle”, replacing “Jungle” with “Girl Scouts” dubbed in his own high-pitched voice. I doubled over laughing as they tossed us out.

He was, for a time, my family. Eventually, he confessed. He studied me for months, he said. When I was “ripe”, he selected my gift, wrapped it and popped it over the fence.

“I forgive you,” I said. I listened for his satisfied snores then slipped through the darkened house. The wind whipped my hair and rain pelted my back as I stabbed through his spider plant to exhume my gift. Trailing muddy prints, I slit the bag and nestled its putrefying contents gently beside his rising chest. I called his name softly and spun the knife tip on my finger, rainwater running cold between my thighs.

Lia Burnham writes in the Washington, D.C. area and is a breast cancer survivor, a lucky mom, a hater of diets and a lover of wine.

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