INSIDE THE DOG • by Jill Kronstadt

I’m going to get inside that dog. That way I’ll know where to find him. He was the family dog and now he’s my father’s and my dog. My dad takes him everywhere. Mostly he just sits in the front seat of my dad’s truck, or behaves himself on the front stoop of wherever my dad is, but sometimes he just goes off somewhere.

My dad says my mom is a bitch, and my mom says my dad is a shit-eating mutt. When they were together they mainly yelled. Then my father left a piece of himself inside Mrs. Poppy and my mom took me to my grandmother’s, right in the middle of third grade. My mom and I have to stay here till everyone finishes yelling at each other. The first time my dad came to see me our big brown dog slapped everything in the truck with his tail, and one swipe of his tongue covered half my face. “Look who I brought you,” my dad announced. But when my dad dropped me off he took the dog.

I can’t tell where he’s been. I have to look for clues when I’m at my dad’s, like muddy footprints next to the garbage, or dug-up dandelions in the lawn. Even then I can’t really tell whether it was him or somebody else’s bad dog, or the two of them together. A TV detective could track him remotely, or find his hair to prove where he’s been. I would just like to know what he’s doing when I’m not there.

People are always leaving parts of themselves around, too. When my dad left a piece of himself inside Mrs. Poppy he took a little piece out of my mom, and she says she’ll never get it back, which is how I know she agrees with me that pieces of people can fall off and be carried away. Now she cries whenever we go to a movie.

Besides being seven months pregnant, Mrs. Poppy has a five year-old son. My grandmother says I’m too young to ask questions. She also says I’m too old to hide in the hallway closet or the pantry, but sometimes I still do. The fact is, I’m very small. That’s how I heard her tell a friend on the phone that Mrs. Poppy’s son is really my half brother, but I won’t believe it till I hear it out of my dad’s actual mouth.

Back home, Libby was my best friend. When I left we promised each other that we would be best friends till the day we died. We bought one of those necklaces that splits in half, and we poked our fingers with a safety pin and made ourselves blood sisters.

You’re too young to make promises, my mom told me. Things change, or you meet someone you like better. For a second I thought she was going to cry again.

It turns out my mom was right, though, and I’m going to have to break my promise. Before the Band-Aid was even off from becoming blood sisters with Libby I met Lauren, who lives up the street from my grandmother and is an even better best friend than Libby. So when a couple of months went by and I asked my dad about Mrs. Poppy’s five year-old son and he answered, Now, what would make you think that? If you had a brother, don’t you think I’d tell you? it was Lauren’s yard I bolted to.

My grandmother has a yapping puffball of a dog she calls Butter. Butter likes me because I always throw things for him, or sneak him food under the table, and otherwise show him a good time. But he’s little. And he’s cute, which I’ve always thought is a sign of uselessness in a dog.

Every time I play with him I miss our real dog. Our dog is very big. When he stands up on his hind feet he’s taller than I am. Maybe he isn’t any more. Sometimes he puts his big paws on my shoulders and I fall down. Sometimes I don’t. I’m pretty strong. But not strong enough to move that dog. I can’t even budge him. If I’m watching TV and he stretches out on my lap, the only way to stir him is to throw a shoe or something so he chases it. Then he comes back with a soggy shoe in his mouth and that guilty look in his eyes. I don’t even know if he misses me.

I think maybe Libby has a new best friend, too, though she hasn’t said so. Last weekend she came to visit me at my grandmother’s and she was so polite my grandmother kept saying what a nice girl she is. The trouble was that she was polite to me too. I wanted to go back to the way things were, before my dad got himself a new family I’m not supposed to know about. Libby and I sat on the swings and threw sticks for Butter, but we don’t have any secrets together any more.

Once in a while I realize I haven’t even thought about that dog all day long. And other days I wish he’ll run all thirty miles, the whole way out here, just because he misses me. I bet he could do it. I would like to get inside him before I get too big. If I were there inside him right now, I’d be seeing through his eyes. Walking around with dirt between my toes. Pressing my nose against the neighbor’s chain-link fence, digging up her pretty azaleas.

But then I hear a click of toenails behind me, and there’s cute little Butter, wanting to play tug-of-war with his toy.

It’s like that hope you had before it died and turned into an illusion. Like those dandelions in my dad’s yard, turning to puffs of gray. You blow on them. You make new wishes.

Jill Kronstadt has an MFA in fiction from the University of Washington in Seattle and is currently teaching at Montgomery College in Germantown, Maryland. Her fiction has been published in New South, Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999 and the Wetlands Review. In addition, she was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open March 2011, won Second Prize in the New South Prose Contest 2011, and was an honorable mention for the Charles Johnson Fiction Award.

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