The day after Anna’s ninth birthday, she was going to meet her grandparents for the first time. It was the first truly cold day of fall and the leaves were orange as fire. Anna was excited to meet her dad’s parents, though she was also nervous. Anna’s mom would never say much about them except that they weren’t right. Her dad, Dan, was a truck driver and rarely spent time with her on account of always being on the road and on account of her parents being divorced. Her mom, Maggie, was eight years older than her dad and she never let Anna do anything fun. For instance, Anna had a bike but she was only allowed to ride it down the road behind their house. And Anna couldn’t stay over at her friends’ sleepovers – they always had to come to her.
Anna’s dad was nothing like her mom, and though they were pretty nice to each other, at least around Anna, Anna had never seen them hug, not even when they were married. Since the divorce, Anna sometimes stayed at her dad’s apartment across town. It was small and it smelled like old milk, but it was fun to sleep on an air mattress in the living room and watch TV all night. And Anna’s dad took her to the roller-skating rink whenever she wanted to go and he’d read a book in the concession stand instead of watching her the whole time or trying to skate right next to her the way her mom did.
Anna knew two things about her grandparents. One: her dad had told her that her grandma had been hospitalized when he was a kid and that he was put in a foster home. But nobody would tell Anna why she had been hospitalized or for how long, and her dad wouldn’t talk about the foster home except to say that all his brothers and sisters got split up. The second thing Anna knew came from her mom, who told her that her grandpa had shell shock from World War II. This meant that sometimes he would forget the war was over and think he was still in it, and he would imagine he heard bombs going off or he would get really scared that he was going to die when he really wasn’t.
“And he wants to take you out there in the middle of that chaos,” her mom said that day when her dad was on his way to get her. “He says he wants you to know where you came from – well, as far as I’m concerned, you only come from me and mine. Remember that.”
Anna was a pretty smart girl, or so she’d been told, but she almost never understood what her mom was talking about and she usually didn’t care to try. She was anxious, picking her cuticles and watching out the front window. When her dad’s old pick-up finally pulled in, Anna hopped up, kissed her mom’s cheek that smelled like baby powder from her make-up, and ran outside. She climbed into the truck and glanced at her mom who was watching angrily from the screen door. Anna pushed a pile of sawdust and an oily wrench into the floorboard to find her seat. Her dad gave her mom a wave and her mom nodded his way, and then they were off.
On the way, Anna’s dad started talking aloud, the way he usually did while driving. Anna sometimes had the feeling he was really just talking to himself. She never knew what to say so she just looked out the window.
“Kiddo,” he said, “Life is a balance.”
Anna settled into her seat and shivered in spite of her hat and scarf. The heat in the truck wasn’t on and she was too shy around her dad to ask about it. She really wanted him to like her, so she tried to be tough.
“It’s a battle to survive,” he went on, “I’m driving all the time, and the little time I do have I seem to spend it arguing with your mother. But, and I ought not say this to you, but you just can’t fight all the time, Kiddo. You have to pick your battles. And she just can’t do that.”
Anna stared out the window at their little town, at the Pizza Hut, the mortuary, the laundromat. It was Sunday so nobody was out. The truck moved slowly away toward the country, where most people lived. Circling a mailbox next to the highway were bright red flowers with tall, lanky stalks. Some of the stalks were flowerless and stood naked and shivering. The highway quickly narrowed and lost its lines. Anna’s dad was quiet but he moved his lips a little under the weight of something. It was going to rain soon and the grey sky sat its weighty bottom on the both of them. The road grew grey and then crumbled into gravel.
Anna’s mom worked as a saleslady at the quarry and the crunch of the gravel made Anna think of her office and the chalky dust that coated everything in it. When the gravel on the road disappeared and there was only dirt, two dogs bounded out of a clearing. Streaks of brown and white tails and noses chased the truck, dangerously close to its tires.
“We’re going to hit them!” yelled Anna, pulling her legs up into her chest. She’d forgotten her intention to be tough.
Her dad laughed. “They just want to know how fast they’re goin,” he said, and he cranked down the window and stuck his head out. “Thirty-five!” he shouted, and Anna couldn’t believe it but the dogs stopped running. She laughed too, then, and the two of them looked at each other, all teeth and crinkly faces. She felt a little warmer.
Finally, the truck slowed and her dad pulled it into a driveway. The house at the end of the driveway was tall and old. Its wooden slats had once been white but were chipped and mossy green. The roof dipped in and a row of cobblestones led from the drive to the front porch. The front porch steps were brand-new and the whole porch painted a startling bright yellow, a sign, Anna figured, that her dad had been there recently. “He is handy, I’ll give him that,” her mom liked to say of him.
When the truck died it was as though an electric current floated into the cab and hung around their necks. Her dad took a deep breath and got out of the truck. Anna followed. No lights shone through the house’s windows.
“Uncle Kenny’s back,” said her dad, looking to the side of the house at a small shed.
Anna had met Uncle Kenny, once, at a Thanksgiving party when her parents were still married. He was “obese,” her mom’s word. And he was blind. He walked with a white, plastic stick and liked to tell jokes that Anna’s mom didn’t want her to hear.
Anna and her dad clambered up to the yellow porch, Anna stepping lightly on the cobblestones of the path, her dad shuffling in the grass beside her. The doorknob was a ball of shiny white stone. Her dad knocked twice and then turned the knob. They entered a narrow corridor. No sound came from inside. The floor was covered in dirt and something in the air was bitter. Anna breathed in and it lifted the back of her tongue.
“Anybody home?” Her dad’s voice echoed against the wooden floors, the cobwebs, the dusty pictures on the walls. No one replied.
He flipped a light switch and a bare bulb above them flickered, paused, and then clicked on, hitting the walls with white light. Tiny black shells of something crunched beneath their feet as they walked down the hall. A scrape, thud, crack came from the room in front of them.
“Walnuts,” said her dad.
Anna looked down and saw what he meant. Hundreds of green and black-brown shells covered the wooden floor. Once in the dim living room, Anna saw what was making the noise – it was a metal machine. Seated behind it was an old man that she presumed to be her grandpa. Both he and the machine were the color of dust. Only a half ring of white, downy fuzz remained of his hair. He smiled and the loose skin on his face hung in rivets.
“Dad,” Anna’s dad said.
“Hello!” said the old man, his voice high-pitched and chirpy. He stared at the machine.
“How are you?” asked her dad.
“I’m just,” said the old man, “I’m...” his eyes stretched from one side of the room to the other. Then he looked through the plates of the machine and saw Anna. “Well I’ll be!” he said, “You’ve brought your girl with you.”
In his voice was something tight and cracked, like an old rubber band. Anna’s mom had told her not to be alone with him. “You never know what he’s going to do.”
Anna’s dad and grandpa were waiting for her to say something. “Hi,” she managed.
Her grandpa opened his mouth to say something else when a screen door somewhere out of sight squawked open. The dirt and dust on the floor swirled into tiny clouds with the flat- footed steps of Uncle Kenny. His white plastic stick entered first, tapping the floor from left to right. His giant body came next, and he carried a grimy ceramic bowl full of walnuts. He sat down opposite the cracking machine and Anna stared at his milk-filmed, open eyes. He ate handful after handful of walnuts, not noticing, or not caring, when they fell from his mouth onto his shirt.
“How’ve ya been, Kenny?” asked Anna’s dad as he pulled a tiny soot-colored wooden chair from the corner for Anna to sit on. He dusted it off with his enormous hand.
“Dan! Well I’ll be damned. I’m doin fine. Got me a new dog.”
“Did ya? Where from?”
“Farmer down the road a piece was gettin rid of a litter. I’ll train it up to kill all them foxes always after the guineas.”
Anna’s dad nodded. Anna had no idea what a “guinea” was. “Named him Bo,” Uncle Kenny went on.
“Anna’s here with us too,” said her dad suddenly, “You remember my daughter?”
“Well, yes, a course. How old are you now, hon? Six?”
“I’m nine,” said Anna proudly
“Old enough to train up a dog then. You ever do it?”
“No. We have a dog – well, my mom and me do, but she doesn’t do tricks or anything.”
“’At’s a shame,” Uncle Kenny’s mouth was full of walnuts, his tongue thick and black as mud. “I’ll have to take you out and show him to ya. Got a little somethin else out there too,” he whispered, “but it’s a secret.”
“Okay,” Anna said. She could think of nothing she wanted less than to see whatever “secret” Uncle Kenny could have to share with her.
A steely female voice suddenly announced: “The Time Is... Four PM.”
“’At’s my clock,” said Uncle Kenny.
Anna’s grandpa began the steady scrape, thud, crack of the walnut machine again.
Over the noise, Uncle Kenny chuckled and said, “Hey Anna, your dad ever tell you about the lady they found strangled dead in a bathtub of milk and corn flakes?”
“I think that’s probably enough, Kenny,” warned Anna’s dad.
“Said it was a cereal killer!” Uncle Kenny laughed. Walnuts trickled out of his mouth. Anna forced a chuckle and looked at her dad. He wasn’t smiling. The scrape, thud, crack of the machine continued.
“Well, Dad,” he said, “if we’re gonna look at those chicken coops we’d better do it.”
“This is the house I grew up in, Kiddo,” he said to her. “Go snoop around upstairs. Find an old picture of me and tell me if I was half as pretty at nine as you are.” He winked.
“Okay,” she said. Her ears got hot and her stomach twisted. “I can’t come with you?”
“You can,” he said, “but I figured you’d want to explore.”
Anna nodded. She didn’t want him to leave her but she didn’t know how to tell him that without disappointing him. She wasn’t used to exploring, but she was sure she could do it.
“Gonna rain,” said Anna’s grandpa, rubbing his mostly bald head. Then he stared at the wall as though looking through a window that wasn’t there.
Anna was too afraid to go upstairs, as her dad had suggested, so she went back out through the front door instead. She hopped on the cobblestones for a few minutes and then, bored, shuffled around to the side yard where, nestled in some old trees, was a big pile of junk. She’d seen it when they pulled in. Among garbage bags of trash and loose litter was a refrigerator with a missing door, a pile of T-shirts on a rotting wooden chair, and a doll with yellow yarn for hair. Anna stepped carefully and plugged her nose so she could stand to get closer to the doll. Its face was dirty but its soft body and clothes were intact. The doll wore a blue cotton dress, checkered like a picnic cloth, and her legs were round and linked at the knees like sausages. Her mouth was a pink, painted smile.
Anna took the doll’s hand and gently lifted her from the ground, shaking the dirt from her hair. She must’ve been very old. Maybe her grandma had played with her. Anna wondered where her grandma was and what she was like. As she turned to head toward the backyard where she imagined her dad had gone, the sight of her grandpa standing only a few feet away made her jump. His hands were clasped together in front of his chest as though in prayer and a yellow sock cap stretched over his head.
“Bless your heart,” he said as he inched toward her.
Her grandpa didn’t look anything like her dad. He was short for one thing, and half the width of her dad. Anna suddenly missed her dad in a way she never had. She missed the way it felt when they watched a movie together and he let her rest her head on his big, soft belly.
Anna’s grandpa moved quickly toward her. He was so skinny and his shirt was so thin that she could see his bony chest through it. He only ever ate green vegetables and drank whole milk, according to her dad, because he thought other food was unclean. “He thinks a lot of funny things,” her dad told her.
“You know why I’m so happy?” Anna’s grandpa said as he bounced closer to her. “Why?” she glanced over him toward the back of the house, hoping to see her dad. “Because I have a secret,” he said. “You want to know what it is?” He was almost whispering and he kept bouncing, inching nearer and nearer, until his face was a only a foot from Anna’s. Then he leaned in, took a deep breath, and whispered, “I know Jesus.”
Anna took a step back.
“Do you know Him?” he asked, his hands still clasped in front of him, his smile too wide and his breath spoiled.
“I don’t know,” said Anna. “Maybe.”
“The reason for the season!” said her grandpa softly. “The brightest shining star! And the best part, he gives us joy!” He leaned in even closer then, his lips nearly brushing Anna’s ear as he whispered, “You can read about him.” He pulled back away and his gaze hovered over her head.
Anna twisted her mouth into a polite smile and looked again for her dad.
“Joy!” shouted her grandpa, and then he nearly jumped. His hands clapped twice and Anna stepped even further back. His fingernails were blackened and broken.
The sky had grown darker as they stood there and the doll with yellow hair still hung from Anna’s hand. It reminded her that she had been about to find her dad and ask him about her grandma.
“Where’s Grandma?” she blurted, almost shaking. “I wanted to show her this doll.”
Her grandpa just kept smiling at her, saying nothing.
“Or...” Anna’s voice wavered. “What about my dad? Can you... show me where he is?” At this, her grandpa pointed to the back corner of the house. Anna wondered why he suddenly wasn’t talking and remembered that her dad had told her not to “give too much thought to the old man.” Without saying goodbye, Anna’s grandpa walked away toward the house just as her Uncle Kenny appeared, white walking stick in hand.
“Girl,” he hollered. Anna wondered how he knew she was there. Maybe he could see some things. “You wanna come meet my dog?”
“I don’t know,” said Anna, still staring at the back corner of the house. She wished that, just for that day, her dad could be as scared for her as her mom always was.
“C’mon I don’t bite... hard,” chuckled Uncle Kenny.
Anna squeezed the doll. She could be brave. She could explore. She was nine. “Okay,” said Anna. She did like dogs. Besides, maybe she would find her dad on the way. “I’ll come.”
As Anna followed Uncle Kenny’s slow, heavy steps she realized they were heading toward his shed.
“Is your dog an inside dog?” she asked.
“Nah we don’t keep dogs like that here,” he said. He wiped his nose on the back of his wrist. “Dogs got jobs to do like the rest of us.” What kind of job did Uncle Kenny do?
Uncle Kenny kept talking then, somewhat like her dad, as though talking to no one and everyone at once. She stopped listening. She was trying to think of the most polite way to ask why they were going to the shed if the dog wasn’t in there. She wasn’t worried that he would think she had poor manners, but she didn’t know what might upset him and she didn’t want to learn. She kept picturing the woman from his joke, the dead woman, floating in a tub of milk. She felt sorry for him – for his milky eyes and his talking clock, for his body that looked uncomfortable to move around in. Yet she was glad, that if she had to, she could outrun him.
Uncle Kenny’s shed really was just a shed, even though he lived in it. The slats of the walls and rafters of the ceilings were bare. Anna kept her hands snug in her pockets as she watched her uncle bumble around inside, searching for something. He talked the whole time but she didn’t know what about and she only latched on to a few strange things here and there.
“Texas is the safest place for the second comin,” he said. “I was tellin your dad that but he never listens to a thing.” Then a few minutes later, Uncle Kenny mentioned the family dairy cow. “Ain’t givin milk no more so she’s goin to market. No place for useless animals.”
In the middle of the shed rested a double bed on a crude wooden frame. Its blankets were balled at the foot, exposing off-white sheets with patches of dark grime. The skin on the back of Anna’s neck tightened when she looked at them.
“Here it is,” said Uncle Kenny as he found what he’d been looking for. When he turned to Anna, he held a small, rectangular box with a sliding lid. He slid the lid open with his fat fingers and inside Anna saw six perfect rows of white blocks.
“Sugar?” she asked, reading the box lid.
“Yep. Cubes,” he said. “Told you I got a secret for you. C’mon.”
He led her back to the door. As he walked he tripped over an extension cord connected to a lamp. Stumbling, Uncle Kenny jerked his arm with the box of sugar for balance and several cubes flew out onto the floor like dice.
“Godammit!” he yelled.
“Here,” said Anna, nearly leaping to pick up the sugar, the volume of her uncle’s voice hot in her cheeks.
Outside, they walked to the side of the shed, the sun above them threatening to hide itself entirely. Uncle Kenny clicked his tongue and from around the corner poked the head of a young fawn. She stood close enough that Anna could count the white spots on her face – three on her forehead and four outside each eye. Her eyes were huge and black.
Uncle Kenny fiddled with the box of sugar, trying to hang on to his walking stick at the same time. “Take this,” he said, and handed the stick to Anna. It was heavier than she thought it’d be, and it was damp with sweat.
Anna’s uncle held a sugar cube out in his open hand to the fawn and clicked his tongue again. The fawn poked her head out even further and looked from his hand to Anna and back to his hand again. Anna felt sorry for Uncle Kenny again. It was so sad that he couldn’t see how beautiful she was.
Then, as the fawn moved toward them timidly, Anna saw a rope tied around her neck. She was tied to a metal loop stuck in the shed wall itself. The fawn sniffed Uncle Kenny and then filled his hand with her tongue and the sugar cube disappeared.
“Where did she come from?” Anna asked.
“Found it in the woods out with Dad. Somebody’d probably killed the mother. It was near starved.”
He reached out and the fawn let him pet her head. Anna plucked another cube from the box and held it out to her. The fawn’s nose was wet and warm as a cup of tea. She licked Anna’s hand and it felt to Anna like meeting a friend she’d always had.
“Now let’s go see Bo,” said Uncle Kenny, taking his stick back from Anna and leading her away.
The grass came up to the middle of Anna’s shins and the yard was spotted with little mounds of dirt.
“Damn moles!” croaked Uncle Kenny as he tripped on a hole.
They stopped near a doghouse built from plywood, boards with burn marks, and grey roofing shingles.
“Bo,” yelled Uncle Kenny, and out slunk a black and brown dog that was so thin, his rib bones stuck out even more than Anna’s grandpa’s. His head hung low and his tail wagged slowly between his legs.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Anna.
Uncle Kenny patted his own round stomach. “Nothin much,” he said, “Cept he ain’t goin to the bathroom as of late. Had to do an old
dog trainer’s trick.” He leaned toward where he thought Anna was standing, which was a foot or two in front of her, and whispered, “What’cha do is put a match stick up the rectum,” he laughed, “helps em get goin.”
Anna stared at Uncle Kenny. He was smiling and two of his teeth, one on the bottom row and one on the top, were dead. Bo lay down in the thick grass and whined. Uncle Kenny waddled over to his food bowl, found it with his stick, and then reached down to touch the food.
“He ain’t ate anything. Bo! Come here!” he yelled.
When Bo came, Uncle Kenny whopped him on the back with his walking stick. Bo yelped and galloped into his house.
“You gotta eat now,” he said, still talking to Bo. Then he turned to Anna. “Ain’t nothin more dangerous than a dog who ain’t scared.”
“He seems pretty scared to me,” she said in a sudden gush of bravery.
A raindrop left a dark dot on the roof of the doghouse.
Uncle Kenny shrugged. “Hard to get a dog to do what it’s supposed to if it ain’t. Gonna train that one to get them moles for starters,” said Uncle Kenny. “And he better hope he does a good job of it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Anna, staring at the doghouse, wishing Bo would come back and let her pet him. “What happens if he doesn’t?”
Uncle Kenny laughed and shook his head. “Like I said before, we ain’t got no use for useless animals round here.”
Anna shook and clutched the dirty doll to her chest. She had a sudden, strong desire to see her mom again and be back in their living room eating popcorn in front of the TV.
The same robotic voice from earlier in the living room spoke up again. “The Time Is... Five PM,” she said.
“Shit fire,” Uncle Kenny said, “I’m expectin a call at five. Stay here and keep Bo company. I’ll be back and show you the guineas.”
Once Anna lost sight of Uncle Kenny, she nestled the doll into a seated position in the grass. Then she cautiously approached the doghouse and gently leaned against the roof. Bo didn’t come out. Anna wasn’t sure if he was dangerous but he didn’t seem to be. Her shih tzu at home was named Baby and she and her mom spoiled her with their leftovers after dinner. Baby was getting fat, but it made Anna smile to think about tickling her little black paws as she lay on her back after a meal, short legs in the air.
“Bo,” said Anna, and she clicked her tongue the way her uncle had to the fawn. Bo stuck his pitiful head out. “Bo, come on out.”
Bo slunk out of the doghouse and looked at Anna. He tried to sit down but when he touched his nearly bald bottom to the ground he jumped back up again. His fur was patchy around his neck where the rope was tied and the skin showed through, pale pink. Anna reached down and put her hand on his head. It was warm as the fawn’s tongue. She thought about what Uncle Kenny had said about matchsticks and couldn’t hold herself back from untying the knot in Bo’s rope.
It was a triple knot and it took Anna a long time to untangle. Bo wasn’t patient about it either. He moaned and licked her arms as she worked. When he was finally free to go, though, Bo didn’t move at all. He just lay down in the grass and rested his chin on his paws.
“Go Bo!” said Anna. She looked around to make sure no one had heard her. Bo didn’t budge. “I know you’re scared,” she whispered. She knelt and gently touched the dog’s head. “But this place isn’t good,” she said, her chin starting to shake the way it did when she needed to cry. “Go anywhere else,” she told him. Snot dripped from her nose and she wiped it on the sleeve of her jacket. “Go!” she yelled.
She stood up and pushed his side a little with her foot but Bo stayed still. She marched over and grabbed the doll and then walked toward the woods clicking her tongue the whole time so Bo would follow. Anywhere would be better for him, even alone in the woods. “C’mon Bo! C’mon!” Finally, Bo followed, his tail drooping between his legs.
“Go!” yelled Anna once they reached the tree line. She patted the dog’s back, and he cocked his head but didn’t move. “GO!” she said more loudly and slapped his back haunch.
Bo yelped and cantered lopsidedly into the woods. Anna watched him disappear into the dried honeysuckle. It would be quiet out there and he could find a squirrel to eat, the way her dad said he had to when he was little. Or else maybe Bo would find a new family, a happy one. She closed her eyes and pictured him lying next to a nice lady’s garden even though she doubted many nice ladies lived way out there. She was going back to Uncle Kenny’s shed next to let the fawn go too. She didn’t like to think about what kind of “use” he had in mind for her.
A drop of rain fell on Anna’s cheek. Another on the back of her hand. Then they fell more and more quickly. Anna thought of the doll and was afraid she might fall apart if she got wet, as old as she was. She shoved the doll under her sweatshirt and then heard her uncle’s voice.
“Bo!” he yelled from over the hill. “Godammit Bo! Where are ya?”
Cheeks hot, chest drumming, Anna ran toward her grandparents’ house. She didn’t know what she would do when she got there but it seemed the safest place. Her dad wasn’t by the chicken coops so he had to be in there.
As she ran she looked up and saw an unfamiliar silhouette against the side of the house. As she got closer, Anna could see it was a large woman and that she wore a man’s white T-shirt and a long navy blue skirt. She was slowly taking down clothes from a line, folding them, and placing them into a wicker basket beside her.
Anna stopped short of the clothesline. She looked back up the hill. The rain had picked up and her hair was sticking to her forehead.
“Grandma?” she asked. The woman didn’t look up. “Grandma?” she said more loudly.
Still, the woman reached up slowly, pulled down a pair of men’s white brief underwear, folded them, and placed them in the basket. Her shirt was wet and her gray hair matted on her head. Her arms were pimpled with goose bumps and an old green bruise spread across her chin like a tiny beard. Anna began helping, taking down clothes from the line and tossing them into the basket. Her grandma didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s raining!” Anna shouted over the sound of the first thunder. “We need to hurry.” Her grandma kept working. Was she deaf? Anna didn’t remember anybody telling her that.
“Dan!” Uncle Kenny’s voice boomed. “Where’d ya get to? Where’s that damn girl of yours?”
He walked toward the back door of the house, then must have heard Anna’s grandma click one of the clothespins pulling it off the line, because he stopped and turned toward them.
“Ma?” he said, “Anybody else here with ya?”
Anna’s grandma did not respond, nor did she stop removing the clothes from the line. After a moment, Anna convinced herself that he already knew she was there. “Me,” she said.
“You huh? Well, did ya see my dog? He ran off.”
Rainwater spilled down the lines of Uncle Kenny’s face and his bottom shirt button was open, showing a belly as pink as a pig’s and covered in curled, springy hair.
“No,” she lied.
“You’re lyin,” he said. “I felt that rope. The knot was untied. What’d ya do with him?”
“Nothing,” Anna said.
Her grandma continued to fold the clothes that grew wetter and wetter.
“Liar!” he yelled, and holding up the front of his pants with his left hand, he used his walking stick as a cane and stepped forward fast.
Anna backed up and clutched the doll in front of her. Uncle Kenny swung his walking stick and just missed her stomach by an inch. Anna gasped and dropped the doll. Uncle Kenny regained his balance, pressing the stick so hard into the ground it sank. Then he lunged forward, nearly stepping on the doll’s face. He bent over to catch his breath and rested his hands on his knees.
“Your dad was a damn idiot for stickin around,” he wheezed, his head a mere foot from Anna. She held her breath. She should run, but what about her grandma in the rain? “He was too old to have a kid,” added Uncle Kenny, rising up to stand. “Too old and too soft.”
Uncle Kenny stood back up and jerked his left arm up high, his palm open and ready to meet Anna’s face. He jerked forward and let out a grunt as his hand sliced through the rain, but Anna had ducked and covered her head, shielding herself with her forearms. With her eyes closed, Anna heard the smack of skin on skin and a cry as sharp as a blade, but it wasn’t hers and it wasn’t her uncle’s.
She opened her eyes and saw her grandma lying on her side in the wet grass, still clutching a white T-shirt. Her cheek was pink. She had stepped in front of Anna. Behind her lay the basket, overturned, spilling wet, folded clothes onto a mound of mole dirt.
Anna screamed, “Grandma!” and knelt down beside the old woman. Uncle Kenny realized what he’d done and tapped his mother with his plastic stick.
“Get outta the way, Ma!” he growled. He smacked the stick against her exposed knees and nudged her middle with his boot.
Anna screamed again and started crying. She couldn’t help this woman but she couldn’t just leave her either. “Dad!” she cried, “Daddy!”
Her dad must’ve heard her first scream and started coming her way because before she could yell for him a third time, he had thrown open the kitchen’s screen door. He stopped and stared at his brother, his mother on the ground, a dirty doll with yellow hair next to her, and Anna, soaking wet and crying quietly on her knees.
“Wh' going on here?” he asked low and loud.
“Your damn girl let my dog go!” said Uncle Kenny.
“Let your dog go?” asked Anna’s dad. He stepped from the porch onto the ground. “’At’s right,” Uncle Kenny yelled. “You do a goddamn nice thing for somebody and the rat runs your dog off!”
“Well, hold on there, Kenny. How do you know it’s run off?”
“It’s gone and the rope’s untied for Christsake!”
“Did you untie the dog?” Anna’s dad asked her as he knelt to help her grandma up. Anna nodded her head silently but said, “No.” She had never liked to lie.
“She’s lyin, Dan. Christ, you oughta get your belt out.”
“I’ll take care of my kid, Kenny,” said Anna’s dad, “You go call your dog a couple of times and if you know the neighbor’s number then call them and tell them what he looks like.”
“Well, I don’t damn well know what he looks like, do I?” said Uncle Kenny, heaving his body around and humping toward the kitchen.
“He’s black and brown,” said Anna, “and he’s skinny and his tail is bald.”
Uncle Kenny grumbled something she couldn’t hear and walked inside, crunching walnuts underfoot.
“We’ll talk about this later,” said Anna’s dad. She’d never seen him look so sad. “Help me get Grandma up.”
Anna picked up the doll and pinned it against her body with her left arm. Then she and her dad stood on either side of her grandma, knelt down, and linked their arms with hers. They lifted in unison, getting the old woman off the ground and onto her feet. Then they tried to walk her into the kitchen but she resisted.
“You wanting to stay out in the rain?” asked Anna’s dad. Her grandma didn’t answer. “Well, let’s at least get you on the porch then,” he said.
Then he and Anna walked the old woman through the yard, past the chicken coop, and past the old, doomed cow. They dodged the mole holes and trudged by the fawn with its neck tied to the shed. They walked Grandma all the way around to the house’s front porch, up its bright yellow stairs, and onto a porch swing with a rusted chain.
“Here Grandma,” said Anna, “sit here.” Anna sat down next to her.
Her dad walked to his truck and left Anna and her grandma on the swing. Anna was glad to let go of her grandma’s arm. It had felt stiff and rubbery, like cold Silly Putty. Looking out at the dirt road from the swing, Anna remembered how far away she was from town and from her mom. She stared hard and tried to pretend that nothing at all existed beyond the old house and the rainy fog surrounding it. That the only people in the whole world were those four other people there with her, that she was the only kid who existed, that she would never again see her toys, her TV shows, her favorite books. The thought was almost too terrifying to imagine, but Anna imagined it. She let herself feel it, and it turned her heart into a black walnut.
Anna’s dad dug around in the floorboard of his pick-up for something. When he walked back to the porch he carried a hammer and a nail. He knelt down beside the swing, placed the nail, and said to Anna, “Cover your ears. I need to take care of this wobbly board.”
Anna placed the doll on the swing between she and her grandma and cupped her ears with her hands. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. The hammer’s crack split the air. Anna jumped and her jaw clenched, but her grandma didn’t move.
The hammer cracked again and her grandma turned her head and looked at Anna. Her eyes were green, like Anna’s, and they were so bright against her pale face they looked like stained glass windows in a church.
The hammer cracked a final time and Anna took a deep breath. Her ears rang but her thoughts were slow for the first time all day. The yellow porch. The settling dark of the sky. Raindrops trickling from the roof. Her grandma’s eyes. She wouldn’t tell her mom about any of it. She would never tell anybody.
“Time to go,” said Anna’s dad. He bent down to her grandma. “See you soon, Mom,” he said. Then he kissed her forehead the same slow way he kissed Anna’s cheeks.
“Bye,” said Anna. And then, thinking twice, she placed the yellow-haired doll in the crook of her grandma’s arm. Her grandma pulled it in close to her with her arm and Anna thought she saw her smile.
Back in the truck as it pulled away, Anna watched the dark grey shadow of the house fade. After several silent minutes, she said, “Uncle Kenny’s got a baby deer tied up to his shed.”
Her dad didn’t say anything.
“Well?” asked Anna. She wasn’t worried about whether or not her dad would like her anymore. She wasn’t so sure how much she liked him. “How can we just leave her there?”
Anna’s dad let out a sigh through his nose. “Remember what I told you about picking your battles, Kiddo,” he said.
Anna knew what he was talking about but she didn’t want the conversation to end so quickly. He had left her alone and the fawn was still there and her grandma was still sitting all wet in the cold. She reached up to the dashboard and turned the heat on high and then leaned back against the truck seat, crossed her arms, and said, “No, I don’t remember.”
“Well, let me tell it to you a different way then,” he said. “Your grandma grew up even further out in the country than I did and she and her brothers had an old tabby cat. They called her Momma Puss because she had kittens two or three times a year.”
They ambled back onto the highway and as a semi-truck passed them loudly, Anna could see that her dad’s eyes were squinted and his forehead was wrinkled seriously.
“Well, your grandma had three brothers and the way she tells it, those brothers were awful to Momma Puss. They would hide her kittens from her. Or else they’d throw rocks at Momma Puss and try to hit her. They’d chase her around and just terrorize that poor cat.”
A bead of sweat rolled down her dad’s cheek so Anna reached out and turned down the heat. In spite of herself she was interested in his story.
“One summer,” her dad went on, “your grandma got tired of her brothers beating up on poor Momma Puss so she caught her and walked for a long time. She took her about five miles away to a friend whose parents needed a barn cat. She said she never forgot that day she walked with Momma Puss. When she got to her friend’s house, she sat on the porch and held little Momma Puss and scratched her ears until she purred. Your grandma didn’t want to say goodbye, but she knew it was best.”
They were almost back to town then. They’d be passing by the Pizza Hut and the mortuary and the laundry mat anytime.
“Well, two weeks later,” said her dad, “your grandma and her brothers were playing in the front yard when a tabby cat appeared across the gravel road and limped right up to the house. You want to guess who it was?”
“Momma Puss,” said Anna.
“Yep,” said her dad, “She had walked that whole way. Her paws were bleeding and some of her claws were broken, but she was alive. And your grandma says when she saw that cat she decided she’d never try to keep Momma Puss away again.”
They would be back at Anna’s house in just a few minutes and Anna didn’t really understand. “That poor cat,” she said. “I’m glad she was okay. But what does that have to do with picking my battles?”
“Oh, that’s right,” said her dad, laughing. “Maybe I got off track a little. But maybe I was thinking you can’t always fix everything the way you think you should. Maybe it was that.”
“You think Bo will go back to Uncle Kenny?” asked Anna.
“Could be,” said her dad. “Who knows. That’s one of the things that separates people from the animals. We can sometimes keep ourselves away from places that aren’t good for us.”
Anna considered this. The “we.” The “sometimes.” The “places that aren’t good.” She shook her head. No, that wasn’t what made animals different from people. It was that people had so many ways to make places bad.
When they pulled onto the gravel driveway of her house, Anna’s shih tzu Baby poked her flat face through the front room curtains and barked. House lights came on and Anna’s insides thawed and detangled. “Home again home again jiggety jig,” her mom liked to say.
Anna leaned over and kissed her dad’s rough, prickly cheek. She forgave him, even though she didn’t know why.
Samantha Atkins is a writer from southern Indiana who is accidentally migrating further and further north. A Butler University alumna, she received her MFA from Purdue University and is a current PhD candidate at Western Michigan University where she studies and teaches creative writing. Samantha’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can be found in Beecher’s Magazine, Booth, Tahoma Review, Bayou Magazine, Appalachian Heritage, and Humanize Magazine. She is pleased as pie to be included in the first issue of Peatsmoke.