They’re at it again—fighting. Money. What else? The credit card balances are multiplying like rabbits. Brian’s betting on sports and Patti’s getting cash advances for the medical marijuana dispensary. Except for the financial hit, it beats the hell out of tranquilizers for her anxiety.
To muck the dirty straw out of her head, she’s taking the dog over to the reservoir for a walk. It’s become an early evening ritual, just her and Ollie, a Corgi Shepherd mix with a taste for the finer things in life, like deer scat and Canada geese poop. Her friends and coworkers warn she shouldn’t go alone.
“We’ll be seeing your picture on a billboard. Some lunatic, some perv, will get you. You’re going to end up on one of those true crime shows,” they say. She’d be willing to bet it never dawns on Brian that when she walks out the door, he might not see her again. She likes to imagine the dirty looks he’d get if she were to go missing or worse, at her funeral, smack dab in the front pew, next to her parents and sister, across from the brass urn.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” he’d say if she were to mention her friends’ concerns. Tomorrow is Saturday and her father’s seventieth birthday celebration. Brian’s informed her he’s not attending. He’d rather go to a football game with his brother. In this instance, she can’t blame him. Her family talks over each other as if conversation was a race, a competition, a grueling triathlon, instead of a mutually rewarding activity.
To be honest, she’s never had what she would consider a close call while hiking around the long crescent shaped lake in the center of a vast quasi-wilderness. She carries pepper spray—supposedly it’ll stop a bear. Although she wouldn’t want to be the person test marketing it on a grizzly. Patti sees herself as tough, yes, a tough customer, although there’s nothing in her background to substantiate the attribution. She’s not a cop or a district attorney. She’s never served in the military. She’s just an office manager for a large luxury car dealership.
Ollie sits quietly in the back of the SUV for the short ride to the reservoir. They pass a sign for a golf course, the back of which is lined with starlings on the supports. It reminds her of music, the bars, the notes. She’s listening to a college radio station out of Philadelphia. Staying current, relevant, not falling back on the post punk and grunge of her youth is important to her, essential. She thinks of these new artists as blooms best picked and appreciated while fresh, unlike most of the crap out there. Cheap, plastic and prolific like the crop of artificial flowers at the memorial garden where her grandparents are buried.
The parking area’s empty as she nears the end of the road, turning on to a circular drive and coming to a stop under a canopy of tulip poplars. Ollie falls out, nose glued to the ground. Patti sets off, keys in one hand, Ollie on his braided leash in the other. Because coverage is spotty, she rarely takes her cell phone. But the pepper spray’s in the pocket of her sweatpants.
She decides to jog a bit. They begin slowly, then pick up the pace. Sometimes, on days like this, the bad days, she wishes she could move faster, quickly enough to run right out of her life, away from Brian and his sour moods, away from Randy Coleman and his wife, Davia, at the dealership and the artsy local television ads Patti listens to people (mostly older folks) gush over when she tells them where she works. Back in the early-aughts, before he inherited the family business, Randy went to film school in California. A huge fan of the French New Wave, he writes and directs these homages to his favorite directors, shot in black and white. The latest is a close up of a pretty girl, with a bouffant hairdo, climbing into a sexy convertible driven by a man you don’t see. You know it’s a man because you can see his hand. Then it jump cuts to the rear of the car speeding off into a pyramid of macadam. Thanks to streaming and Covid, Patti hasn’t been to a movie in several years, though she considered herself a film buff in college. And the last few times she went, it was more the anonymity of the theater experience she craved, the sanctuary, sitting in a dark space with her thoughts, the movie itself not much more than an intermittent distraction.
Patti and Davia used to be best friends, but lately Davia’s grown distracted, self-conscious, obsessed with aging. As chief financial officer she’s a big part of the business but out on a medical leave right now—bunion surgery, she said. However, according to the scuttlebutt around the water cooler, it’s a boob job. “It starts with a b, but a little higher up the totem pole,” one of the salesmen was snickering the other morning. What was up with people? she wonders. It seemed you couldn’t help but trip over stories about some tech bro or influencer trying to reverse time. Modern day conquistadors, plunderers, they want more than gold. They want immortality.
Patti and Ollie are just walking now, about a mile in from the parking area, beyond the acres of open fields that are planted with corn and soybeans, in the tunnel, as she likes to call the trail, that narrows down and bores through the dense woodland that surrounds the lake. It’s a pleasant, windless, late-September evening and the temperature drops a degree or two as she approaches the water. Her gaze is trailing Ollie, who often pulls her off balance by nipping at a blade of grass or something less palatable. She glances up and sees a woman approaching, also with a dog, a massive Chocolate Labrador off-leash. It takes Patti by surprise to see another person here because the parking lot was empty. This is as much of the situation as she can process because the Lab is now crashing toward them, a living breathing boulder of energy while its owner plods behind screaming, “Buster, Buster!”
Buster arrives, a cage of teeth, opening and closing on and nearly swallowing Ollie’s head. Patti has the leash in one hand, her keys in the other. The woman, a stocky brunette in pink shorts, is yanking the Lab’s collar with all her strength, but zero success. It’s going downhill and fast.
“Get your dog! Control your dog!” Patti yells, pinned by an undertow of confusion and worse—helplessness. There’s blood on Ollie’s ear, dripping on what little she can see of his face. Will he lose an ear? Oh my God, he’s going to lose his ear. For his part, Ollie has gone limp. He’s not resisting, but he is whimpering and trembling.
“Buster! Buster!” the woman continues to shriek.
“Get your dog, you fucking bitch! Don’t you know dogs are supposed to be leashed?”
Now the woman moves into position over the Lab to pry his jaws open as if they’re a steel trap. Finally, she manages to extricate Ollie’s head from the Lab, snaps a nylon leash on him and begins yanking him in the opposite direction. Initially the dog resists, twisting his immense head and shoulders toward Ollie and Patti, but the woman continues tugging and calling him by name. Stunned, Patti watches as they simply run away, putting more and more distance between them, until they disappear over the ridge that opens into the fields.
“Ollie, you okay?” Patti says, falling to her knees next to him. There are puncture wounds and patches of blood. Remarkably his ear is intact and now that he’s been freed from his attacker, his demeanor is calm, as if nothing’s happened. Given this, and not wanting to risk another run-in with the Lab, they continue the fifty yards to their turnaround point, albeit walking not running, stopping at an old pump where Patti fills her palms with a drink for her battered pooch, then splashes some water on her face and neck. It feels good, brings her back on point. It’s only now, as she’s drying her hands on her pants, that she realizes she had the pepper spray in her pocket the entire time. What an idiot, she thinks, but it all unfolded so quickly.
By the time they reach the parking lot, the shock is subsiding, going out like a tide, leaving shards of outrage in the wake. She’s been violated.
The first house she encounters beyond the reservoir is a boxy white ranch with faded green aluminum shutters and a perimeter planting of yews.
“No, I can’t think of a dog like that,” the woman who comes to the door tells Patti. She’s bald and pale as if undergoing some kind of cancer treatment. She’s got an accent as well. English? Irish? “You might ask at the riding stable,” she says. “They have dogs.”
The stable is a boarding operation: two large rings with jumps set up, a motley pack of dogs milling about. There’s a pit bull, a German shepherd, and a couple of beagles. A teenager, reclining on an iron bench, is nibbling on a fingernail and spits something out as Patti approaches. She has red pixie cut hair and a peach face—round and fuzzy. Her tall black boots are dusty, as are the jodhpurs above them. Patti asks if there are any other dogs. Labs?
“A black Lab? No,” she shakes her head.
“Nope, these are the only mutts I know of,” she yawns and points. “That’s Trudy, Kelly, Rambo, and Jones. You can ask at the house though.” The house in question is a rambling brick affair with ivy strangling one end and a cement fox guarding the stoop. There’s a fake sunflower wreath on the door and a calico cat in the window. She can hear music coming from inside, deep within the interior, death metal. She doesn’t bother to get out of the car.
The last property in this stretch sets well off the road, the home isn’t visible, only a set of stone pillars on each side of the gravel drive. Each wears a set of NO TRESPASSING and KEEP OUT signs. “Screw that,” she says, entering the tree-lined lane. About a half mile in, she notices a clearing to her left with some sort of markers, footers in the field. She continues an eighth of a mile or so, arriving at another clearing. A building comes into view. It’s the shell of an old stone farmhouse. The roof is intact, but the windows are missing. There’s a rusted tractor off to one side and another piece of farm equipment she can’t identify. In other words, it’s a dead end.
“What do you mean Ollie was attacked?” Brian explodes. “Whose dog was it? Does it have its shots?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they ran off. That’s what I mean.”
“And you didn’t go after them?”
“And do what? Have him bitten again? Get mauled myself?”
“Call the vet.”
Ollie is on antibiotics following the assault, which gives him a ferocious bout of diarrhea. For the most part, he makes the urgency to get outdoors known, nevertheless there is an unfortunate accident on a hooked rug with the logo of Brian’s favorite hockey team. The weight, the recollection of the incident, has a bite, a grip every bit as strong as the dog and it won’t let go. Patti just cannot give up searching for the rogue Lab. She speaks with the State Police and they agree to ask around, but never get back to her. Even Brian steps up to the plate, occasionally accompanying her to the reservoir. On the way in and out they slow the vehicle to a crawl in front of the properties strung out beyond the parking area, the phone ever ready to capture the offending canine. But their diligence turns up no leads. Like the weather, the case is growing cold.
Fall sneaks in. The days are snipped short. Business is strong at the dealership. Patti’s staying until six most evenings because Randy is talking year-end bonuses for everyone. He’s planning a Truffaut inspired commercial for the Christmas season about a man who falls in love with two cars. Now with the days shorter, she and Ollie must settle for weekend hikes at the reservoir. And they’re seldom alone: it’s a parade of families with French bulldogs, mountain bikers, occasionally even a horse or two.
Ollie’s lucky to be a dog, she thinks, no memory of what happened, while her heart still races whenever they get close to the point where the attack occurred. And yet, she’s come to terms with what happened, to a degree, little by little; she’s been letting go of it the way she imagines the terminally ill must gradually let go of life.
It’s a crisp clear Sunday, just past two, and Patti’s heading home from the reservoir after a walk. She’s getting over a cold and thought it best to take it easy, but needed the fresh air. Ollie’s riding in the front passenger seat. Brian would throw a fit if he knew. She’s sucking on a bottle of flavored water when she spies a brown Lab by the long drive with the stone pillars. His fur is mangy like a bison losing its winter coat.
“Is that him? That’s him. Oh my god, that’s him. The dog,” she says to Ollie who’s whining and standing on the console, his face quite close to her own.
The Lab glances over his shoulder and begins trotting down the gold fringed road—it’s planted on both sides with mature Gingkoes. She doesn’t recall his coat being so ratty, but he’s as big and broad chested as the assailant. Patti turns on to the lane and begins following him slowly. The Lab pauses to sniff at a log adorned with lichens and then lifts his leg. She is next to him now and cracks her window a few inches. Ollie is practically in her lap. The dog’s lip curls, he growls, showing his teeth and then abruptly bounds off.
They continue on and she hears voices as she approaches the clearing, the area she recalls from her trip here after the attack. A convoy of massive trucks and SUVs sit cockeyed on the right berm. A Rover wears the silver Coleman dealership license plate frame. The dog stops up ahead. Catching up, Patti does too. Suddenly she’s staring at a ring constructed of rebar and rope. On the ground is a row of small blue boxes, off to the side a small hut, inside a man in a plaid shirt. A short distance away is a line of people, men and women holding rifles, shotguns she thinks. The first person in the queue, a tall blond man, steps forward.
“Ready,” the blond man yells, raising his gun.
“Ready,” the man in the hut responds.
“Pull,” the blond man says and a pigeon rises into the sky.
BOOM. The bird tumbles to Earth within the circle. Another shot rings out.
“Killed,” someone announces. The Lab starts to howl, long plaintive cries, and then short bursts of barking. Ollie joins in. The shooters put their weapons down and divert their attention to Patti. The dogs are yapping incessantly at this point. A kid on the perimeter of the ring glances up, scowls and begins heading toward Patti’s vehicle.
“Hugo, come here. Now,” he says to the dog, who shuts up and starts digging in his ear with a rear paw. Ollie too has grown quiet.
“Hugo? Hugo?” she repeats quizzically. “Buster?”
The kid begins running, getting closer, and Patti throws the car into reverse, crashing down off the roadbed, grazing one of the Ginkgoes before tearing out toward the main route, dust rising, stones flying. Behind her the guns are blasting again like thunder at her back.