Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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The children’s puppy was run over at the end of May. Not on the main road, which Pam might have expected, but on the dirt track that formed the western boundary of the farm. How was it possible? No one even drove there. But there he was, splayed out in the lush green weeds of the shoulder, his sweet muzzle soaked with blood. Pam wrapped him in her coat and carried him across the field to the house, his body still soft in her arms.
With the kittens, the vet thought it was some sort of congenital defect. The goldfish were from overfeeding — no surprise there, given the twins’ fascination with the food shaker. And the duckling? Who knew? Pam didn’t need to settle on a definite culprit, but the children did. The children needed an explanation for everything.
“What animal ate Duckle?” James asked again. This time he wasn’t looking at her; he was pounding his hot dog headfirst in a puddle of ketchup.
Pam turned back to the sink, unconsciously shutting out the sight of his smooth, too-serious face. He was seven years old and his father was dead. The list of things she couldn’t protect him from had suddenly become infinite.
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” she said lightly. “Maybe a fox?”
“Or a raccoon?”
“Or a raccoon.”
She could not escape. The chicks died, the barn cat came down with distemper, the goats wandered out onto the rotten ice of the pond and drowned. By the time Tommy’s hamster disappeared she was beyond caring; she was in a whirl of fury, like a horse maddened by flies. Besides, she had always hated the hamster.
“How could you hate a hamster?” asked Trish, her best friend.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Pam held the phone with her shoulder as she scooped the warm clothes out of the dryer. She saw again the little curved teeth, the pointed face. “It was just greedy, you know? Greedy and self-serving.”
“It was a hamster! What’d you expect: Gandhi?”
“No, really, I’m telling you, all that thing cared about was eating. It would have eaten its own ass if it could have got its mouth around it.”
Trish laughed and Pam felt the heaviness inside her ease up a little. To laugh, to make a joke, however feeble, restored to her a sense of herself as someone normal — a mother, a woman in the world. She stuffed another load into the machine and let the lid slam shut.
“What’s that noise? You’re not doing more laundry, are you?” Trish said. “It’s late. Go to bed.”
Pam sighed. “I wish. I’ve still got the barn to do.”
“OK, pioneer woman.”
It was their old, half-serious dispute. Why take on so much? Why make life so complicated? Trish kept things simple: one child, one cat, a backyard just big enough for a swing set and a patio.
“Don’t worry,” Pam said. “At the rate we’re going, every living thing on this place will be wiped out by July and I’ll just sit around eating bonbons.”
There was a heavy pause. “Joke,” Pam said, but it was too late: the fact of her situation had loomed up between them.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m OK,” Pam said. She pictured Trish putting the phone down when they were finished and padding down the hall to find Derek, her husband. A bitter envy rose in her.
“You call,” Trish said. “One A.M., whatever.”
“I know,” Pam said gently. “Thanks.” After they had hung up, she lay down on the kitchen floor to wait. The grief came in a surge: savage, shocking. She cried hard for a few minutes; then she wiped her eyes, got up, and went back to folding clothes.
Brian had died six months earlier of a massive coronary. There was nothing Pam could have done even if she had been there, and she hadn’t; she had been inside cooking dinner. When he didn’t come in on time, she had stomped out to the barn, fired up with her habitual annoyance (he dallied over everything), and found him lying face down in the frozen mud of the paddock. He had been thawing the horses’ water. They weren’t even his concern, the horses. He was a lawyer, not a farmer; he didn’t even like to ride. Yet he would do such a thing — to help her out, to mark his pleasure in the crazy, animal-filled circus that was his home life. He had loved all of that: the chickens sneaking into the sunroom; the mice making nests in the horse blankets; the rich, crowing absurdity of having three children and six horses and four dogs and two cats and God only knew how many chickens and goats and ducks. He would come home from work and stretch out on the couch, sated, an only child surrounded by fecundity.
It was up to Pam to say no, to set limits, to buy life insurance and save for the kids’ college. She was vigilant, always. Her father had died young, and she knew how quickly things could go bad. But Brian had believed, if not in God, then in his own good fortune: Pam was the best; the kids were the best; everything would be fine.
But he had been wrong, hadn’t he?
She was bitter and she couldn’t hide it. The last time Reverend Pratt had come by, she barely had been civil. She was cleaning the bridles in the tack room when she saw his car coming up the driveway. For a second she thought about pretending she didn’t hear him or slipping out the back, but she stayed where she was. She answered his call and waited while he followed her voice to the tack room. He came and stood awkwardly in the doorway. The proper thing would have been to take him up to the house and make him some coffee, but she didn’t; she offered him a hay bale to sit on and went on with her work.
“Thank you, Pamela,” he said, lowering himself gingerly onto the prickly surface.
She and the kids hadn’t been to church since the funeral. That was what he’d talked about on his previous visit: he thought the children needed the continuity. But this time he didn’t mention church. Instead he talked of “God’s mercy.”
“God’s plan is something we just can’t know,” he said in his wavering old-man’s voice. He went on: He knew how hard it was; God knew how hard it was. Hadn’t He given His only son? “We just have to trust in His mercy,” he said.
Pam scraped her fingernail along the bridle’s dirty stitching and turned her hand over to study the brownish green gunk that had balled up under her nail. He wanted to talk about God? Fine, let him talk.
When he was done, she let him kiss her cheek and then watched him walk to his car with a piece of hay dangling from his ass.
Reverend Pratt came to defend God, she told Brian. He sat on a hay bale.
That was it? Brian said. Reverend Pratt on a hay bale? No thunder? No whirlwind?
Pam laughed. But the truth was she didn’t know what Brian would have said, and she never would. Staring out at the empty square of gravel where Reverend Pratt’s car had been, she suddenly knew she couldn’t make it through another minute.
But she did, of course. She made it and made it and made it.
Pam finished folding the laundry and put the basket at the base of the stairs so she would remember to bring it up. She glanced at the clock as she pulled on her boots. Trish was right, it was late, but Pam liked the evening barn work. The solitude and quiet were soothing after the hectic pace of the day. She shoved the plastic baby monitor in her back pocket and went out into the fragrant June dark. She breathed in the exhalation of the cooling earth. The crying had released her a little, and now the sensations of the world flooded back: the scent of the linden tree, the damp air lifting the tiny hairs on her arms. She let herself stop inside the barn door to listen to the horses eating hay in their steady, peaceful way. It was the sound of comfort and routine, of everything as it should be.
The farm had been Brian’s idea. If he had to be married to a horse person, he said, why not move to where the horses were? That way he’d at least get to catch a glimpse of her galloping by. It was the kind of quip he used at cocktail parties and barbecues, places where he was likely to meet other beleaguered horse husbands, but the truth was he had been generous about her need to ride, even after the twins were born. “Go ahead,” he’d say, and she would put on her riding boots and go, her body light with relief.
What was it she loved so much? Riding was hard, hot work, repetitive and often frustrating, and yet she always felt better afterwards. It was a language her body understood: the pressure of the legs; the live wire of the reins inside her hands; and beneath — listening, responding — the wild, unknowable horse.
They were down to only six horses now: three boarders, two ponies for the kids, and Ace, Pam’s four-year-old Thoroughbred. Ace was the best she’d ever had, the first with even a prayer of competing at the advanced level, but she had stopped training him when Brian died. He had become just another low priority, like getting a haircut or cleaning the car. She went to his stall and he stretched his head over the door to sniff her face with his soft, whiskery nostrils. He was a beauty, a real mover. Even when he was hacking around in the pasture you could see it — the springing stride, that natural ease. And he had heart. Meaning that he was willing; he would give you everything he had, not because you forced him, but because that was how he was.
People had begun to suggest that she sell him. Her mother-in-law, her sister; even Trish had tried to bring it up. They thought it was too much, caring for all those horses — too much time, too much money, too risky leaving the kids alone every morning. Those were all reasons Pam could dismiss, but there was another, better one: she had no right to keep him if she was going to let him go to waste. She ran her hand along the crest of his neck. Already he had lost muscle.
I should sell him, she told herself. A rush of anger went through her. Trish, she thought. God damn Trish. She had suddenly remembered something that had happened the week before.
It was at a birthday party for one of Alice and Tommy’s friends, a real production, with a dozen three-year-olds, a trampoline, an ice-cream cake. Pam and Trish and Lacey, another mom, had stayed to help. Or that had been the idea, anyway. In fact, Trish and Lacey had disappeared halfway through. Pam hadn’t even noticed; she was rushing around in her usual way, anticipating dangers, fielding demands. When she came upon them talking in the kitchen, she stopped in surprise.
“Every night?” Lacey was saying.
“I kid you not,” Trish said. “We have to order condoms in these boxes, I mean like this.” She showed the size of the box with her hands.
“Oh my God!”
They’d both laughed. Then Trish had looked up and seen her, and the amusement had died away in her eyes.
Now, in the quiet of the barn, Pam saw again their turning faces, bright with laughter and sweat, and herself in the doorway behind them: a figure who stood aside, sexless and drab, like a servant or an old woman. I kid you not.
She jerked back the bolt to Ace’s door as though to shove the image away, and pressed her hot face against his neck. Her brain lurched in the sudden dark. She was tired; she was much more tired than she’d realized. She let herself lean into the thick plane of his neck. She could feel the grinding of his teeth reverberating through his muscle, the quick jerk as he tugged more hay from the net. Slowly her mind went quiet.
In the months since Brian had died, she had lost all taste for the wants of her body. She ate, but she had no appetite, and afterwards she often felt nauseous, as though she had forced herself to do something unnatural. Washing was worse and most days she didn’t bother, so her short blond hair was frequently dark with grease. Dimly she knew this; she knew that people noticed, but she could not bring herself to shower more often. Her breasts, her belly, her thighs, even the sensation of hot water on her scalp — all this had belonged to Brian, or to their pairing. Now to see her own flushed skin, to run the soap over the muscles of her arms and legs, felt like a betrayal. That part of the life of her body was over; she wanted it to be over. And yet when she had come upon Trish and Lacey laughing, she had felt the stab of exclusion.
She didn’t actually decide to start riding again; it just came to her in the darkness: Why not? She opened her eyes and looked at the line of shovels and forks hanging along the aisle wall. The neat row of handles spoke of order and calm: the tools in their place, the children safe. Why not? An hour or so while the kids were in school. What harm could it do?
She straightened up, buoyed; her exhaustion had drained away. She swung open the stall door and let Ace bomb down the aisle to the paddock. Then she put the baby monitor on the windowsill and started mucking his stall.
“Guess what we’ve got for breakfast,” Pam said. “Bagels! Alice, get away from that fish tank.”
Alice’s face had taken on a stony aspect. She reached over the back of the chair she was standing on and touched the dirty surface of the water with one small finger.
Pam suppressed a flash of irritation. “I’ve got cinnamon-raisin!” she said in the singsong, kindergarten voice she despised. Alice spun around.
Bribery and manipulation, manipulation and bribery — really, she was getting worse and worse. But today she didn’t care. She had woken early, not with her usual dread, but with a sense of expectation. She had thought through the logistics as she lay among her sleeping children. (None of them spent a full night on their own anymore; she couldn’t bring herself to make them.) If she put off going to the feed store, if she skipped lunch, if she left Ace in the paddock instead of turning him loose with the others — she could squeeze in an hour, anyway. It was a start.
She put half a bagel on each plate, and a spoonful of cream cheese; then a handful of Cheerios, then banana slices. Food and backup food. She needed ten minutes, fifteen at the outside, to get the morning barn work done. She had it down like a drill: run up the driveway, dump the grain, toss the chicken feed, round of bug spray for the horses, let them into the pasture, shut the doors, run back. Still, ten minutes was a long time; ten minutes was a minefield, and today she’d need a few extra minutes to get Ace set up in the paddock. She walked over and latched the door that led to the stairs.
“Raisin!” Alice said to Tommy, holding up her bagel.
Pam grabbed one of her boots from behind the door and pulled it on.
“Mama,” Tommy said in his slow, deliberate voice.
“Yes?” She pulled on the other boot.
He lifted his eyes to her solemnly. “Can I get a durtle?”
She stopped, pierced.
“He said ‘turtle,’ ” Alice said.
“I know, sweetie, thanks.” She bent down and kissed Tommy’s head. “Sure, we can get you a turtle.” It might live, she thought. And she wouldn’t have to get him another hamster.
She put an extra blob of cream cheese on each of their plates to boost the entertainment value and grabbed the baby monitor.
“James, you’re in charge,” she said, pushing the dogs back from the door with her leg.
“I know,” he said.
She opened the door and the dogs shot out. It was a beautiful clear day; her heart lifted as she ran. She scooped up the dead bluebird by the barn door and tossed it in the trash can without a thought.
Pam was already letting the horses into the pasture when she heard something over the monitor. She rolled the wooden door shut and stopped to listen: nothing, overamplified silence. Ace whinnied frantically in his stall. Pam went back to him and slipped the halter over his bobbing head. Then she led him down the aisle to the door that opened on the paddock.
“I’m gonna tell Mom.” That was James.
The next sound came through in a burst of static. A crash? An explosion? Pam let go of Ace’s halter and whirled around. She heard him clatter out the door into the paddock as she ran the other way, toward the house.
She found them standing on the chairs, unhurt, above a flood of greenish water. She swallowed a wild urge to laugh: it was only the fish tank, and it wasn’t even broken.
“It fell!” James said. He was trying not to cry.
She splashed over to the table and pulled them into her. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, you pumpkins.” They were soaked, all of them; they stank like a pond.
She pressed her nose into Tommy’s head and waited for the adrenalin to stop chattering in her veins. She could have been thinking of how lucky she was (the tank could have landed on one of them; it could have shattered), or feeling guilty for leaving them alone, or trying to recall whether she’d finished everything at the barn. But she wasn’t; she was coasting on a surge of relief and well-being. Everything was OK. She could still ride.
© William Carter
Pam drove the back way to James’s school, taking the curves low and fast. The air coming through the window was laced with the smells of summer: new hay, warming asphalt, the secret damp of the woods. She would start Ace off with some basic dressage, she thought — halts, extensions — get him back into the habit. She held her hand out the window like a wing and let it fly up on the sudden lift of air.
When she came home from the grocery store two hours later, she found Ace with his nose in the grain bin. Fear shot through her: she had forgotten to shut the paddock door.
That terrible night, when Pam had spotted Brian lying so strangely on the frozen ground, her mind had refused. No was what she had thought. Not a plea or a prayer but a command: No.
Even as she ran to call the ambulance; even when the EMT turned away in defeat; even the next day, when she was making the funeral plans and relatives were arriving, she was secretly refusing. The blows that came after — the animals dying, the children’s bewildered grief, the nightly jolt of waking and finding him gone — these were nothing somehow, or rather they were more of the same, water poured into a torrent of water. She stood there and took it.
But now her resistance deserted her. She had done this. If Ace died, if he foundered, it would be her fault alone.
For a few seconds, she stood there, too shocked to move. Ace raised his fine-boned head and looked at her; then he burrowed his nose back in the bin and began eating in a frenzy, tossing grain against the metal sides. She made herself step forward and grab his halter; then she jerked his head out and backed him into the aisle.
She clipped him into the cross ties with shaking hands and went to get the thermometer and stethoscope. A strange weakness had come over her and she leaned against him to steady herself while she took his vital signs. She had seen a lot of colic over the years but only two cases from grain: one in her first pony, another in a dressage horse at the barn where she had trained. The horse had died when the swelling grain ruptured her intestine. The pony had survived, but afterward he had foundered: his hooves curled back on themselves like elf shoes, and he could never be ridden again. They had kept him anyway, as a pet. You could do that with a pony.
She put Ace in his stall and took the water bucket out. Then she went back to the house to call the vet.
“Oh boy,” he said. It was Leland, the younger partner, the nice one. “Any idea how much he ate?”
“No,” she said. “A lot, I think.”
“Pulse and everything fine?”
“Well, get him walking and let me know how things progress.” He told her his cellphone number and she wrote it on her arm. When he had hung up, she called Trish to ask if she could take the kids overnight.
“Of course,” Trish said. “Oh, Pam, I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” Pam whispered. She stopped to get control of her voice. “You still have their sleeping bags, right?”
She walked Ace on the driveway: down to the mailbox, then back up to the house, then again. He was bright-eyed and frisky, and every time he caught sight of the other horses, he tossed his head up and whinnied. Pam looked away, sick with guilt. He didn’t know what was coming. She had forgotten to change out of her riding boots and they were blistering her heels, but this seemed to her justified, so she did nothing about it.
Around two o’clock Ace started nipping his sides; by three he was trying to go down on the driveway. She put him in the paddock, where he wouldn’t hurt himself if he thrashed, and went to call the vet.
She waited for Leland in the scant shade of the linden tree, watching Ace paw and turn and bite at himself. He went down and rolled, and she pulled him up by the halter — if he twisted a gut it would be all over. He stood for a while sweating, his eyes anxious; then he went down again. The dogs came by, sniffed the air, and slunk off. When the vet finally arrived an hour and a half later, Pam’s relief bordered on elation. But Leland’s face went still when he saw the horse, and he performed the examination in silence.
“Is there an impaction?” Pam asked.
“Yes, in the colon. I’m not sure if the cecum is involved or not.” Leland rubbed his jaw. “Well, we can give him mineral oil, see what happens with that.”
Pam managed a nod. Mineral oil seemed to her a remedy from the nineteenth century, like cupping or leeches — well-intentioned but useless. She held the twitch on Ace’s lip while Leland slipped the tube down his throat. When he was done, she trailed him out to his truck.
He opened the door and put in his bag. “Do you have insurance on him?” he said.
She nodded. What he meant was could she afford surgery, but she knew that if it got that far, Ace’s chances would be slim.
“You might want to go ahead and hook the trailer up just in case we need to take him in,” Leland said. “If he hasn’t passed anything by nine or he gets noticeably worse; you know, pulse over fifty, an increase in distress —”
“Sitting like a dog,” she added, grimly. That was what the dressage horse had done.
Leland paused. “Well, yes, of course, if you see that,” he said. He put his hand on the truck door. “So, anything changes for the worse, call the answering service and they’ll page Norton.”
“Oh,” Pam said, “Norton.”
Norton was the other vet, and he did not like Pam. He was a homely man, with large, squarish limbs and the bitter arrogance of someone who expected to be slighted. His wife had left him, very publicly, for the local dentist a few years before. Pam would have felt sorry for him, but his dislike for her had been so immediate she never got the chance. When she brought in the dead kittens, he had just raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Congenital would be my guess,” he had said, and he had crossed his arms and waited for her to go.
She had stood there for a moment feeling frivolous, spoiled, shallow — whatever it was he disliked her for. Then she had picked up the box of kittens and left.
“Norton’s good, Pam,” Leland said. “He’ll do a good job.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. She watched his truck until it disappeared from view.
The hours dragged on. Dusk fell and she brought the other horses back to eat. Later she went to the house and called the children to say good night. She made a peanut-butter sandwich, but her throat felt closed, and she threw it out and went back out to the paddock. Ace stood by the fence, his head sunk. He had extended his legs in an effort to ease the pain, and it made him look swaybacked and broken, like an old nag. She went up and put a hand on his dirt-crusted neck, but his eyes reflected no awareness of her or anything else in the outside world. The horse she knew had disappeared.
She turned away, sickened. A terrible pressure was building in her head. She walked around to the back of the tree and sat down where she wouldn’t have to see him. The things she had done were coming back to her: Dragging the bloated goat bodies from the pond. Carrying the bloody puppy. Stacking the dead kittens in the shoe box. Not the doing but the fact of it: herself, too late, holding their ruin in her useless hands.
She gripped her head. She had the feeling of something cracking, of a tremendous force bearing down. What good had she been? She hadn’t even been there when Brian died. And when she had gotten there — her mind recoiled at the thought of her exaggerated gasping, her stupid fingers fumbling to get under his scarf. There was something monstrous, something treacherous and insincere about the ordinary way she had gone on functioning while Brian lay there cold. And the dumb show of running to call 911 — running, when she already knew it was too late.
Ace’s hooves scraped wearily against the dirt. She put her hands over her ears and shut her eyes. She didn’t mean to fall asleep; she was just going to spell her eyes for a minute, but the relief of giving up was too strong. She let herself sink.
Pam was floating in a green dream, in the sleepy, droning calm of a summer afternoon. A horse took shape and went galloping, galloping, bright as a penny. Not lame, she thought. She could hear the hooves in slow motion, rising up and coming down on the dry, solid ground. But the rhythm was off; the hoofbeats were too far apart.
She woke with a start. It wasn’t galloping she’d heard; it was Ace, rolling. She jumped up and went to pull on his halter, but he lifted only his chin; when she let go, his head flopped back into the dirt. Her watch said 11:05. She should have called the vet two hours ago.
She phoned the answering service and then she went back to the paddock and sat down in the dirt with Ace’s head in her lap. Now it seemed right that it was Norton who would come — Norton, who had seen through her right away.
He was there in less than a half-hour. She stood unsteadily when she saw him walking up along the fence. He didn’t bother with a greeting; he took a stethoscope out of his bag and went straight to the horse. “How did he get into the grain?” he said, crouching down to take the pulse.
“I had him in the paddock — I was going to ride,” she began, but it was too much effort. “I left the door open,” she said.
Norton took the stethoscope out of his ears. “And what time did you find him?” He went over everything: when the symptoms had begun, what Leland had given him, how he’d been since. She answered blindly, hardly knowing what she said.
“What was his pulse when you called?”
Pam flushed. In her panic she had forgotten to take it.
Suddenly Ace lurched up and sat on his haunches. Norton stiffened. The horse’s ears were back and his eyes had suddenly focused, as though attending to something they couldn’t see. For a long minute nothing happened. Then his back legs jerked. Please, God, Pam thought, but she was alone; she knew that. No one was going to help her.
The horse’s legs jerked again. With tremendous effort he dragged them under himself and scrambled up. He lifted his tail.
“Here we go,” Norton said.
It was the sound of the manure falling that made her understand: he was past it; he was OK.
She stood at the horse’s head while Norton talked. Something had made him friendly — the horse’s recovery or maybe just the late hour — and he was chatting away: about other cases, about founder, about a prank in vet school years before. She listened in a daze, not following. She would have liked to speak, to show her gratitude, but she couldn’t. The terrible knot of the day had unraveled; she had been spared. It made no sense.
When Ace had passed the rest of the impaction, Norton folded his stethoscope into his bag and clicked the clasp shut. “He should be OK,” he said. “Leland will be out in the morning to check his feet again, but they seem all right now.” He pointed a finger at the horse. “Next time don’t eat so much,” he said.
“Oh,” Pam said, “there won’t be a next time.”
Norton slung his bag over his shoulder. “Well, everyone has to eat.”
“No,” she said, “no, I mean I’m going to sell him.” She could feel Norton watching her. “I can’t, you know, I obviously can’t take care of him properly anymore. So . . .” She kept her brimming eyes focused on her hand, which was stroking the wide, flat bone of Ace’s head.
“Everyone has to eat,” Norton said again.
She did not understand his words; she couldn’t even attach them to the conversation they were having. But, like an animal, she understood the tone. Not forgiveness, not liking, but a kind of permission. Something rushed loose in her. She stood very still, like someone holding an overfilled glass of water, while she listened to Norton’s feet turn in the dirt, the slap of the fence boards as he ducked through. When she heard his truck door slam, she put her head against the horse’s neck and cried in bewilderment and relief.
Later she got a couple of horse blankets and lay down in the paddock, where she could hear Ace breathing. She gazed up at the dizzy, patternless sweep of the stars. Brian had died here, alone on this dirt. Her exhausted mind summoned up the shape of his body with startling clarity: the weight of his arms, the smell of his chest where her face had reached. He was gone; she would raise their children alone. She thought this; she felt the iron truth of it in her mouth, and at the same time she felt herself drifting away — into comfort and sleep, into the electric hum of her own pumping blood.
Pam woke before dawn to the silvery fluting of the wood thrushes. Ace was up, eating hay. The air was cold, but she could see that the light was coming; a bluish green band hung over the eastern hill. She threw back the blankets and stood gingerly on her blistered feet. She wanted coffee and a hot shower and an egg-and-sausage breakfast; she wanted the children back. She put her hand on Ace’s neck, and he bent around to sniff her. Then she climbed stiffly through the fence and started for the house.
The valley lay quiet under the changing sky. She turned her head to take in the whole of it: the three dark hills; the broad swath of the pasture; and in the middle, hidden, the running stream. Soon the sun would break over the hill, and morning would come. A thrill passed through her. She would take the kids for a picnic, she thought, or maybe to the lake. She would get her hair cut.
She stopped at the car, which was still parked the way she’d left it, with the horse trailer hooked up. Better to put the trailer away now, she thought, when she didn’t have the children to watch. As she reached for the door handle, a flicker of movement caught her eye. She froze. Something was in there.
Warily, she put her head through the open window and squinted into the gloom. For a long moment she saw nothing. Then, in the dim light from the windshield, she caught the unmistakable gleam of an eye.
It was Tommy’s hamster. It was sitting on the passenger side, holding one of the shrunken French fries that collected in the cracks of the seats.
Pam stood very still, putting it together. It must have been Tommy, carrying it around in his pocket; he must have brought it into the car one day without her noticing and accidentally let it go. The hamster had been there all this time, living off the food the kids had dropped.
Her eyes had adjusted, and now she saw it quite clearly: the twitching nose; the shiny, bulbous eyes. The old revulsion rose in her throat. And yet it had survived; she had to give it that. She stared, wonder and disgust battling in her mind. Reassured by her lack of movement, the hamster raised the fry to its mouth and began to eat.
Mandeliene Smith is a wonderfully evocative writer. Her short story “Mercy” [May 2006] kept me in a perfect state of dread, anticipation, and admiration all the way through to the beautiful ending. This is what good writing is, and there is far too little of it in mainstream publishing circles.