THE TREES, SIDEWALK, AND THE FLASHING lights spun around me as I felt it: the first unmistakable snarl in the delicate fabric of my sanity.
I laughed. I was that crazy.
Then I threw up.
Large hands grabbed my shoulders. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman in a suit and a man in a dark uniform approach, but they were out of focus. Whose hands were on me?
“Great, just great. Get her out of here, Gadsen!” the female voice said. She sounded so far away.
“Shut it, Foley. You could have set up a perimeter just as easily,” said the man’s voice from behind me. He spun me around as I wiped my mouth. He was also in a suit. “What’s your name?” he asked, with authority.
“M-Mara,” I stammered. I could barely hear myself.
“Can you bring the EMTs over here?” he shouted. “She might be in shock.”
I snapped to attention. No paramedics. No hospitals.
“I’m fine,” I said, and willed the trees to stop dancing. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself. Was this even happening? “I’ve just never seen a dead body before.” I said it before I even realized it was true. I hadn’t seen Rachel, Claire, and Jude at their funerals. There wasn’t enough of them left to see.
“Just to take a look,” the man said. “While I ask you some questions, if that’s all right.” He signaled to the EMT.
I knew it wasn’t a fight I could win. “Okay,” I said. I closed my eyes but still saw the blood. And the flies.
But where was the dog?
I opened my eyes and looked for her, but didn’t see her anywhere.
The EMT approached me and I tried to focus on not appearing insane. I breathed slowly and evenly as he flashed his penlight in both of my eyes. He looked me over, but just as he seemed to be wrapping it up, I overheard the female detective speak.
“Where the hell is Diaz?”
“She said she’ll be here soon.” The voice belonged to the man who’d been talking to me a minute ago.
“You want to go and tie up that dog better?”
“I didn’t want to touch it,” the woman said. “I could see the fleas crawling in its fur.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Miami’s finest.”
“Go to hell, Gadsen.”
“Calm down. The dog’s not going anywhere. It can barely walk, let alone run away. Not that it matters. It’s a pit bull, they’re just going to euthanize it.”
“There’s no way that dog did it. The guy tripped and cracked his skull open on the stake by the lumber pile—see? Don’t even need to wait for the techs to tell us that.”
“I didn’t say the dog did it. I just said they’re going to euthanize it anyway.”
“Least it’ll be put out of its misery.”
After everything she’d been through, the dog was going to be put to sleep. Killed.
Because of me.
I felt sick again. My hand trembled as the EMT took my pulse.
“How are you feeling now?” he asked in a quiet voice. His eyes were kind.
“Fine,” I lied. “Really. I’m all right now.” I hoped that saying it would be enough to convince him that it was actually true.
“Then we’re all done. Detective Gadsen?” The male detective and the suited woman made their way over to us, and the man, Detective Gadsen, thanked the EMT as he headed back to the ambulance. Other people milled about around it, some in uniform and some not, and a truck had pulled up, with the words MEDICAL EXAMINER stenciled on the back. A slimy fear coated my tongue.
“Mara, is it?” Detective Gadsen asked me as his partner took out her notepad. I nodded. “What’s your last name?”
“Dyer,” I answered. His partner wrote it down. The armpits of her tan suit were darkened with sweat. So were his. But for the first time in Miami, I wasn’t hot. I shivered.
“What brought you here this afternoon, Mara?” he asked.
“Um.” I swallowed. “I was the one who called in the complaint about the dog.” No point lying about that. I left my name and phone number with the Animal Control office.
His eyes didn’t waver from my face, but I noticed a change in his expression. He waited for me to continue.
I cleared my throat. “I just wanted to stop by after school and see if Animal Control had picked her up.”
At that, he nodded. “Did you see anyone else when you were here this morning?”
I shook my head.
“Where do you go to school?” he asked.
The female detective wrote that down too. I hated when she did that.
He asked me a few more questions, but I couldn’t keep my eyes from searching for the dog. The body must have been moved while I was being examined, because it was now gone. A metallic door slammed shut, and I jumped. I hadn’t noticed that Detective Gadsen had stopped speaking. He was waiting for me to say something.
“Sorry,” I said, as a few fat raindrops pelted the metal and tin scraps like bullets. It was going to pour again, and soon. “I didn’t hear you.”
Detective Gadsen studied my face. “I said my partner will walk you back to campus.” The female detective looked like she wanted to go inside the house.
“I’m really fine.” I smiled, demonstrating just how fine I was. “It’s not far at all. But thank you anyway,” I said.
“I’d be much more comfortable if—”
“She said she’s fine, Vince. Come and take a look at this, will you?”
Detective Gadsen eyed me carefully. “Thanks for calling it in.”
I shrugged. “I had to do something.”
“Of course. If you remember anything else,” the detective said handing me his business card, “call me anytime.”
“I will. Thank you.” I walked away, but when I turned the corner, I leaned against the cool stucco wall and listened.
One pair of footsteps crunched on gravel, soon accompanied by a second. The detectives talked to each other, and a third voice joined them, one I didn’t remember hearing. Someone must have been in the house before I got there.
“Best guess, he died about seven hours ago.”
“So around nine a.m., then?”
Nine. Just a few minutes after I’d left him. I couldn’t swallow, my throat was so dry.
“That’s my guesstimate. The heat and the rain don’t help. You know how it is.”
“I know how it is.”
I heard something then about temp and lividity and tripping and trajectories over the loud rush of blood pounding in my ears. When the footsteps and voices faded away, I chanced a peek around the wall.
They were gone. Inside the house, possibly? And from this angle, I could see the dog. She was tied loosely to a tire at the far end of the yard, her fur blending in with the dirt. The rain now fell steadily, but she didn’t even flinch.
I ran to her without thinking. My cotton T-shirt was quickly soaked through. I dodged garbage and car parts, stepping as gingerly as I could, grateful for the rain that masked the sound of my steps. But if anyone in the house was paying attention, I’d probably be heard. And I’d definitely be seen. When I reached the dog, the sky opened vengefully as I knelt and untied her lead from the tire. I tugged on it lightly. “Come,” I whispered by her ear.
The dog didn’t move. Maybe she couldn’t. Her neck was raw and seeping where they cut away the heavy collar and I didn’t want to pull on it. But then the voices grew louder as they approached us. We had no time.
I snaked one arm under the dog’s ribs and lifted her into a standing position. She was weak, but stayed up. I whispered to her again and pushed gently on her rump to urge her forward. She took a step, but went no farther. My cells buzzed with panic.
So I lifted her into my arms. She wasn’t as heavy as she should have been, but she was still heavy. I lurched forward, taking huge strides until we were out of the yard. Sweat and rain slicked my hair to my forehead and my neck. I was panting by the time we rounded the block. My knees shook as I set her down.
I wasn’t sure I could carry her all the way back to Daniel’s car. And what would I do then? I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but now the enormity of the situation I’d stepped in hit me. The dog needed a vet. I had no money. My parents weren’t animal people. I’d stolen something from a crime scene.
A crime scene. An image of the bright watermelon insides of the man’s skull spilling over into the dirt appeared again in my mind. He was definitely dead. Only hours after I wished it. Exactly the way I wished it.
A coincidence. Had to be.
Had to be.
The dog whined, snapping me back to reality. I reached down to pet her and took a tentative step forward, careful not to let the leash rub against her neck. It looked so painful.
I urged her forward and reached into my pocket for my cell phone. I had one new voice message. From my mother, at her new office. I couldn’t call her back yet; I needed to get the dog to an animal hospital. I’d call 411 to find a vet close by. Then I’d figure out how to break the news to my parents that—surprise!—we have a dog. They had to take pity on their screwed-up daughter and her pathetic companion. I was not above milking my tragedy for a higher purpose.
The rain stopped again as suddenly as it had started, leaving only a fine mist in its wake. And as we turned the corner before the parking lot, I noticed the particular lope of a particular boy as he headed in my direction. He raked those fingers through his rain-drenched hair and fiddled with something in his shirt pocket. I tried to duck behind the nearest parked car to avoid him, but the dog barked at that exact second. Busted.
“Mara,” he said as he approached us. He inclined his head and the shadow of a smile made his eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Noah,” I replied, in the flattest voice I could muster. I kept walking.
“You going to introduce me to your friend?” His clear gaze settled on the dog. His jaw tightened as he took in the details—her knobby spine, her patchy fur, her scars—and for a second he looked coldly, quietly furious. But then it was replaced by a careful blankness.
I tried to appear casual, like I always went on my afternoon constitutional in the rain, accompanied by an emaciated animal. “I’m otherwise occupied, Noah.” Nothing to see here.
“Where are you going?”
There was an edge to his voice that I didn’t like. “My God, you’re like the plague.”
“A masterfully crafted, powerfully understated, and epic parable of timeless moral resonance? Why, thank you. That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me,” he said.
“The disease, Noah. Not the book.”
“I’m ignoring that qualification.”
“Can you ignore it while getting out of my way? I have to find a vet.”
I lowered my eyes to the dog. She was staring at Noah, and weakly wagged her tail as he leaned down to pet her.
“For the dog I found.” My heart pounded as my tongue formed my lie.
Noah raised an eyebrow at me, then checked his watch. “It’s your lucky day. I know a vet six minutes from here.”
I hesitated. “Really?” How random.
“Really. Come along. I’ll drive you.”
I debated the situation. The dog needed help, and badly. And she’d get looked at much, much sooner if Noah drove. With my sense of direction, I could end up driving aimlessly around South Miami until four in the morning.
I would go with Noah. “Thanks,” I said and nodded at him. He smiled, and the three of us walked over to his car. A Prius.
He opened the back door, took the leash from my hands and, despite the dog’s patchy coat and the fact that she was infested with fleas, scooped her up and placed her on the upholstery.
If she peed all over his car, I would die. I had to warn him.
“Noah,” I said, “I just found her two minutes ago. She’s … a stray, and I don’t know anything about her or if she’s housebroken or anything and I don’t want her to rui—”
Noah placed his forefinger above my upper lip and his thumb below my bottom lip, and applied the slightest pressure, cutting me off. I felt lightheaded, and my eyelids might have fluttered closed. So embarrassing. I wanted to kill myself a little.
“Shut up,” he said quietly. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s just get her checked out, all right?”
I nodded feebly, my pulse galloping in my veins. Noah walked over to the passenger side and opened the car door for me. I climbed in.