Rain pelted the woodshop, thumping against the tin roof, and a brown mutt whimpered in the corner and shivered. Inside, sawdust caked every surface, the countertops, the paint cans, the drills and their batteries on the charger. The plywood walls looked like sponge, mushy and holey. There was just enough room between the clutter and trash to walk single-file.
“Where did you find her?” the tall man said. He peered down at the Australian Shepard over his glasses and rubbed the stubble on his jawline. The dog kept her head down and shrunk into a ball. Her brown fur was long and matted. It bound her legs together like cuffs, so that she couldn’t walk or stand.
“She was tangled in a briar brush next to the haystacks,” the woman replied. “I thought she was dead at first. She was just lying there motionless. But when I walked up, she raised her head. How long was she gone?”
The tall man closed his eyes and tried to block out the flickering florescent tubes overhead. His body was tense since he’d walked into the workshop. He’d flipped the lights to find an army of cockroaches, black like the sky and large as rocks, retreating to the shelves. Cobwebs invaded the shed, taking over any machinery and cabinet that wasn’t in constant use.
“Last time I saw her was probably about two days ago. She was gone for about a week before that. I figured she’d walked off to find a place to die, but then she was back. This time though I thought she’d left for good.”
“Well if I hadn’t found her, she would have died. I had to carry her back here,” the woman said. The dog was wet. The woodshop provided little shelter from the frigid wind that pushed through the cracked windows and the gaps around the door. The woman pulled her rain coat over her hair.
“Where are you going?” the tall man said.
“It’s cold in here, and she’s freezing. I’m going to find a towel to dry her off, some blankets for her to lay down on, and I’m going to grab a hay bale from the barn to keep her warm.”
The tall man shrugged and scoffed. “Why bother? She’s won’t make it through the night. You know she doesn’t even eat the food I put out anymore?”
The woman squatted down and stretched out her hand, but the mutt backed away. She slowly inched towards her and turned her head towards the tall man. The woman opened the dog’s mouth, exposing the gums.
“That’s because she doesn’t have any teeth, ’cept for the canines. She can’t eat the hard food.”
The door was stuck, and the woman pushed against it with her shoulder until it gave, and the wind and rain blew her back.
“Don’t grab any of the nice towels,” the tall man called after her. “Find an old one, and don’t grab any of my blankets.”
The woman came back with a tattered white towel.
“Couldn’t you find a darker one?” he said.
“No, shut up. Why don’t you grab the hay bale?”
“I don’t really see the point. She’s going to die anyway. She’s like fourteen years old. That’s almost a hundred in dog years,” the tall man said.
“Fine, I’ll do it myself.”
The rain droplets swelled to the size of quarters and washed away the dirt road. She sidestepped the pools of water, but the ground sank at every step, letting muddy water leak into her boots. She could just make out the hay barn from between her fingers. As she approached the metal door, the tall man sprinted to catch up. He untied the rope that held the door closed.
“Jesus, it’s cold out here,” he said.
She climbed up the stack and tossed down one of the loose bales. The wind died down. As she carried the hay back up the hill, the strings dug into her joints. Her fingers turned white. The tall man trailed behind her.
“I can’t keep doing this,” she said.
“Resuscitating her. Whenever I come home, she is at the brink of death, and I have to nurse her back to health, and then I leave, and when I come back, I have to do the entire thing all over again,” the woman said.
The tall man walked into the workshop and tensed up.
“You’re exaggerating. Besides, she’s old. Old dogs get sick. That’s just how things are,” he said.
“No, it’s not because she’s old. It’s because of neglect. You don’t look after her. You don’t play with her. Dogs are social creatures. They need a lot of attention. You didn’t know her teeth had fallen out, and you didn’t go looking for her.”
“It’s not my job to check her teeth. She’s not my dog,” the tall man said.
The woman carried the hay bale to the back door and placed it in front of the crack. She carried the dog and laid her beside it and began drying her off with the towel. The dog had stopped whimpering, but her body still shook. She grabbed scissors off the counter and began trimming the fur. She couldn’t quite tell which parts were just fur, and occasionally, she clipped skin. The dog yelped.
“Are you going to call animal control?” the tall man asked.
“No,” she said. “They’d probably just put her down. And as much as I’d like to look after her for you, I can’t.”
“I’m aware,” he said.
“She isn’t my dog either, but I’m still trying to make sure she doesn’t die. You could at least do that,” the woman said.
The tall man decided not to engage her and remained quiet. Sawdust in the air coated his mouth and throat. He headed back to the house. It was as cold and cluttered as the workshop. He walked into the living room and knelt down in front of the fireplace. Piles of white ash rested on the hearth. He loaded the pit with wood and lit the newspapers and kindling underneath.
As the fireplace began to turn bright orange, the tall man scanned the mantle, focusing on the picture frames. His grandmother and great-grandmother, side-by-side, his aunt that died young, his parents, and himself.
“Do you guys have any food in this place?” the woman asked.
The man turned his head and saw her standing in the kitchen, digging through the cabinets.
“They don’t have much here, to be honest. Mostly junk food,” he said. “I can make you some stew if you want.”
“Not for me. I was looking for something soft to give her,” the woman said. She continued to search through the boxes of macaroni, tuna cans, and bags of marshmallows. There really isn’t anything here, she thought. She settled on slices of white bread.
The tall man started making stew regardless, slicing carrots, celery, and onions. “I had a job interview the other day,” he said between cuts. “If all goes well, I’ll finally get out of this town.”
The woman nodded her head. She tore the bread into smaller chunks. The tall man waited for her to say something, and when no reply came, he refocused on the repetitive circular motion of the knife, listening to the forceful thump of the blade on the cutting board.
“You’re a terrible conversation partner,” he said.
“We’re kinda past the point of being friends. You don’t have to pretend to be invested anymore,” she said. “I’m going out to feed her. Keep the porch lights on.”
The rain softened to a drizzle but was dense, like wading through a forest. The woodshop was close to the house, but it looked distant and muted in the night fog. She found the dog leaning against the hay. She fed her the bread pieces from her palm and gently rubbed her head. The dog met her eyes, and they shared a few seconds of understanding. The lights still flickered, but the dog no longer shuddered.
The woman closed the back door behind her. She could smell onions and beef lingering in the hall. The tall man slid the glass lid over the pot. “Is she doing any better?”
“I think so. Hard to say really,” she said.
The tall man poured two cups of coffee. He poured milk in one, turning it a light caramel color, but left the other one black. He handed her the half-and-half cup and eased down by the table. The woman nodded and sat across.
“The stew should be ready in about an hour,” he said. He sipped on the coffee and immediately spat it out. “Ah, shit that’s hot.”
The woman silently laughed at him and covered her mouth to hide her smile.
“It’s not funny.”
“Yes, it is,” she said. The woman fixed her eyes on the steam rising from her mug. “So, job interview, huh?”
The tall man straightened up and rubbed his cheeks. “Yeah, I think it went alright. A friend recommended me, and it pays really well.”
“Anything new with you? Feel like we haven’t, you know…talked in a while,” he said.
She stirred her spoon around the mug. It clinked against the porcelain with no discernable rhythm. “Well, you don’t call. Neither do the parents,” she said.
“I don’t call anyone. Besides, you don’t call either,” he said.
“I guess that’s true.”
They sat in silence, avoiding each other’s stares, and listening to the stew boil. The tall man finished his coffee and set the mug on a pile of unwashed plates. Stacks of letters and prescription bottles covered the countertop. Interspersed in the mess was an old CD player, faded purple and gray.
“This place is kinda disgusting,” the woman said.
“You should’ve seen what it was like before I showed up. There were old newspapers piled up to the roof in the dining room. This place would be condemned if it weren’t for me.”
“What are the parents going to do if you move off?”
The tall man turned on the faucet. The sink quickly filled up with hot, soapy water. He scrubbed the hard-plastic plates and set them aside. They were scratched and warped. His hands were beginning to heat up, and he wished he’d worn rubber gloves.
“I guess they’ll figure it out. Not really my problem anymore,” he said.
The woman pushed the coffee mug away. He could feel her staring at the back of his head, but he ignored her and continued wiping down the dishes. He drained the water from the sink, relieved to have his hands in the cooler air.
“I don’t see you moving here and carrying the weight on your shoulders,” he said under his breath. The timer buzzed, and he moved the pot off the flame.
The woman grabbed two bowls and poured the stew. “I’m just worried is all,” she said. She spooned the soup, swirling the potato chunks and chopped celery. The temperature outside dropped, and frost grew across the kitchen windows.
“I’ve already sacrificed a good chunk of my life. I put everything else on hold,” the tall man said. “I can’t stay here forever. I’ve got my own life to live.”
They could hear the wind chimes ringing from the front porch. The tall man glanced over his shoulder. “It’s getting pretty late. You should stay the night. I’ll make you a bed later,” he said. She stared off into the distance thinking about the offer.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
They ate the rest of their stew without talking. Their spoons clinked against the porcelain bowls. The fire roared in the living room, and the wind chimes rang louder.
The woman placed her empty bowl in the sink and moved close to the fireplace. The tall man stayed in the kitchen, cleaning their dishes and wiping down the table. After he finished, he grabbed some spare bedsheets from the laundry and started making the spare room.
“You don’t have to do that,” the woman said. She was lingering in the doorway. “I can make my own bed.”
“Knock yourself out,” the tall man said. He left the sheets half off the bed and headed to his chair by the fire. He grabbed his sketchbook from the coffee table and flipped to an unfinished ink drawing of the farmland behind the house. The woman’s steps echoed in the hallway. She peered over his shoulder.
“It looks nice. You always were really good at drawing,” she said.
“And you were always jealous.”
“Maybe. Are you going to miss this place once you’re gone?”
The woman walked outside to check on the mutt. It’s getting worse out here, she thought. She wasn’t sure if the woodshop would even be standing by morning or if the wind would pick it up and drop it ten miles away. The dog was shivering. Her eyes were open and unstrained. The woman could hear labored breathing. There wasn’t anything else she could do, so she sat in the shed and kept the dog company. It was late; she went back inside the house and locked the door behind her.
The tall man was finishing the shading of his drawing, the silhouetted tree line at the far edge of the fields. The tip of his fountain pen scratched the paper as he made long diagonal strokes. His movements were quick and practiced.
“Can I have that when you’re done,” the woman asked. “It’s a nice reminder. Makes me a little nostalgic.”
“Yeah…sure,” he replied. “If you’re that nostalgic, you could always move back.” The tall man kept focused on his task. Thick lines with the flick of his wrist.
“I don’t think there’s anything here for me anymore,” she said.
“They’d probably let you move in.”
The woman walked to the mantle and glanced over the framed photographs. She twisted a ring on her finger repeatedly and squeezed her eyes shut.
“You know I can’t live with them. They have a lot of opinions and expectations that I don’t quite live up to, to put it lightly.”
The tall man gently tore the page from his sketchbook and walked over to her. He held the drawing out, and she held it in her gaze for a second before taking it from his outreached hand.
“Signed and dated by yours truly.”
The woman ran her hand over the drawing, tracing the linework with her fingertips.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m still kinda mad at you.”
“About the dog? Look it’s not my responsibility, okay?”
The woman turned her back towards him and walked to the other side of the room.
“You could at least have some compassion.”
“She’s old. If she has a seizure and dies in the middle of the night, it’ll be sad, but there’s nothing I can do about it. And if she dies, I’ll be the one that finds a ditch and buries her,” he said.
The woman exhaled loudly and grabbed her temples between her finger and thumb. She headed for the door.
“I don’t think I’m going to stay,” she said.
“Hey hey don’t go don’t go,” the tall man said. “Just stay the night. It looks terrible outside, and the parents will want to see you in the morning.” She stopped with her hand on the doorknob, and she leaned her forehead against the door. The man placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Look, I—uh, do you think that, she’ll make it…through the night?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”