She was re-reading Peach’s email:
“Dear Mother, I REFUSE to enable you any longer to believe that my childhood was HAPPY!!!!”
In the long, long paragraph that followed, Peach recounted Adele’s many failings; explained that with the help of a therapist she’d finally stopped blaming herself for the personal demons of her adult life; had come to understand those issues traced directly to Adele’s parental incompetence.
“Mother a child?” Peach concluded. “You couldn’t even take care of little Carl!!!! At long last, telling you the TRUTH has set me FREE!!!!”
Hurt gave way to anger. Dry-eyed now, Adele hit the REPLY button and pounded the keys:
Here’s some TRUTH for you. Let’s start with the truth about Carl.
She paused, even though she knew exactly what she wanted to write next.
Adele looked through the glass patio door of the home where she’d raised Peach. The yard was green grass. But where the grass left off, sand stretched out like a run-on sentence, punctuated by rocks and wildflowers and cacti.
As a child, Peach liked to explore out there. For fear of stifling her daughter’s curiosity, Adele allowed this. But only in her presence. And only during the day. Most of the desert things that could hurt Peach — especially coyotes, whose howls chilled Adele even on the warmest nights — were nocturnal.
Pointing to a saguaro cactus just a little beyond the yard, she said, “Peach, do you see that part sticking out the side of the cactus like a bent arm? Think of that as a policeman, reminding you not to go any further.”
Then, fearful of making her daughter fearful, Adele smiled and said, “Sometimes, people call this kind of cactus a prickly pear. A pear. Like a Peach. But you’re not a prickly Peach, are you?”
Peach shook her head and giggled.
You wanted a dog for your seventh birthday. I agreed because I thought a pet would help you to learn responsibility. Thinking the way single mothers do, I wanted a big dog that could protect both of us. But at the pet store you fell in love with a little Lhasa Apso named Carl.
It made Adele smile to see Carl jump up and down in his crate and bark. But then she frowned and said to the salesperson, “Not much of a guard dog, is he?”
“He makes a heck of a lot of noise,” the man said. “Lhasas can be fearless, too. They were bred to challenge just about anything, to raise an alarm with all that whiny yapping.”
Adele and Peach walked Carl only during the day. When he needed to go out at night Adele, often accompanied by Peach, held Carl’s leash and stood beside him. When he’d hear a coyote howl, Carl would yip and strain against the leash.
Adele would use those times as teachable moments, reminding Peach to avoid coyotes, and practicing what to do if one ever came near. As Carl pranced and barked and tried to join in, Peach would mimic her mother as if playing a game. They would make loud noises, jump, wave their hands and throw stones. Then Adele and Peach would collapse into giggles and go back inside to share a frozen, sugarless confection.
Peach was responsible for feeding Carl. At first, he often found himself dining late and wouldn’t have been fed at all if Adele hadn’t reminded her daughter. But within a few months Peach was faithfully filling Carl’s bowl on schedule, and Adele thought her daughter was ready to take on a larger role.
One night when Carl scratched at the patio door, Adele handed the leash to Peach, telling her to hold it tight. But once outside, Peach set the leash down for a moment to pull up her socks. Before Adele could pick up the leash, Carl spotted something in the desert and took off. Mother and daughter ran after him, a little past the saguaro. They shouted and searched for Carl until well after Peach’s bedtime. But they couldn’t find him.
It took Peach a long time to fall asleep that night, and Adele never closed her eyes. Once each hour, she went to the patio and called again for Carl.
At dawn, Adele held Peach’s hand tightly in her own as they searched again for Carl. In a part of the desert where Adele herself never had been, she spotted something that made her close her eyes. She grasped Peach by the shoulders, turned her back toward the house, and said it was time to go to school.
After dropping Peach off, Adele returned home. She changed into old clothes, found some latex gloves and took a large plastic bag back to the place that had made her close her eyes. She sniffled, snapped on the gloves and stuffed into the bag something small. Something bloody. Something she wouldn’t have been able to identify for certain, had it not been wearing Carl’s collar. She took him to a place that cremated pets.
Adele never told Peach any of this. She’d given responsibility to a child who turned out not to be ready for it. If Peach blamed herself for dropping the leash, that would be Adele’s fault, too.
Adele apologized to her daughter over and over again for dropping the leash. She continued to apologize until she was sure Peach had come to remember it that way, too.
In the spirit of setting both of us FREE, here is the TRUTH about what happened the night Carl ran away…
Adele hit the CANCEL button.
She wept again.
Ted Lietz is a freelance writer and reformed marketer. His work also has been published in such places as Every Day Fiction and Flashquake. Everyone has to be somewhere. He happens to live in Pittsburgh.