They both came to Max Urban one June, the dog and the girl. It had been a desolate stretch of life. He had been through nine potential girlfriends in three years; his family lived far away. He spent his days at work, writing code for websites, and his evenings at home, stirring up passions on his blog, watching politics on television, taking a broom to the wide wood floors of his house.

       First came the dog: When he pulled up in front of his house after a late night at work, she sat there, divine, clarified in the porch light. Waiting. She was a husky, light blue eyes, sleek white fur, perfectly moist nose.

       “Come on girl,” he said. In the distance, flashes of dry lightning shattered the dark. He reached out his hand to touch the dog before unlocking the door, and to his surprise, her tongue flitted out to lick his wrist.

       “We need to find your owner.”

       It was impulsive to let her in, this strange dog who could belong to anyone and who could jump for his throat. Did he know otherwise? Inside his house, she was tentative at first, trembling with her ears pressed flat against her head. But then she threw herself into a full-body dash, low to the ground, all legs and skittering nails on hardwoods. He put a plate on the floor with three raw hot dogs, which she wolfed down in three famished gulps. As she ate, her face turned wild—a mean shape to her eyes, her black gums flashing sharp wet teeth. Outside, dry thunder rumbled.

       He came to think of her as Storm. He posted notices online; he called Animal Control and left reports; he went out and bought a chew toy and a leash that he used to walk her around the neighborhood, posting signs on lampposts and boarded-up windows. No one contacted him except for a few desperate souls: Are you sure he’s a she and not a he? Are you sure she’s not a Doberman?

       “She’s yours,” said a woman, a neighbor, watching him post his signs.

       “What do you mean?”

       “People come out here and leave their dogs in the city,” the woman said. “They think they’ll either become street dogs or the City will get them. Anyway, they’ll never have to see them again.” This was only Max’s third or fourth time speaking with the neighbor, but he’d often seen her stooped form walking two tiny black poodles, a routine that now gave her added authority. He liked the sound of it, Storm being his.

       Later that same week, an e-mail came to him from a dating site. He thought it was a prank at first, Eddie from work posing as a beautiful woman, asking if he would like to meet for dinner. But Eddie swore it wasn’t him.

       “I am interested in your ‘life philosophy,’ I suppose,” the e-mail said.

       He checked his profile and read his philosophy: “Even if you didn’t break it, it’s your moral duty to try to fix it.” What drivel! He must have written it in a fit of hope against hope—the world was ruled by hooligans, so any mention of morals by Max was undercut by his own disbelief that they could win out.

       Her name was Rebekah. Max wondered if she would be a moralistic sort, a woman who felt the new century was mired in sin. He wondered if she, like so many in his adopted state, had fallen victim to religion. She was eight years younger than he was, twenty-seven according to her profile. Sometimes Max struggled to identify the difference between himself and those much younger. He still felt twenty-seven or even twenty-two. He was stumped by the concept of age, the reality of thirty-five.

       They met in a cavernous and trendy Asian fusion restaurant. Max wore light jeans, a belt, and, despite the heat, his favorite suede cap covering his thinning hair. As he entered the atrium he heard an uplifting din of happy-hour shrieks and flirtations. Maybe this would be it. Maybe his life would now be littered with good fortune.

       “Max?” A woman approached him in the crowd. Her face was heart-shaped, her hair long and straight like a folk singer’s. Dark eyebrows arched over her intelligent green eyes, and Max felt stunned into muteness. He nodded and extended his hand. She gave him a genuine smile and came in for a hug. As he breathed in the light floral scent of her hair, she whispered in his ear, “You’re exactly who I was hoping to meet.”

       They followed the hostess through a dimly lit room. Max’s chest fluttered; not only had he never been on a date with someone who looked like Rebekah, he’d never even met anyone who looked like Rebekah. He felt waves of hopelessness and fear, hope and lust, all of it circulating around his body so he could barely think.

       “Tell me,” she said when they sat, “all about you.” The corners of her eyes crinkled when she smiled. He was exactly who she hoped to meet.

       “Well, where do I start?” Max’s voice shook as he spoke. “I grew up on the West Coast.”


       “In the Bay Area,” he said. “In Berkeley.”

       “I knew I liked you!” she said, raising her water glass to him. “I love Berkeley.”

       “Well, wonderful,” he said. “I love it that you love it.”

       She was a native of Colorado, grew up in a family that owned a ranch north of town. The family had sold all of their land to developers and scattered—her parents to New Mexico, her brothers to either coast—but she’d stayed for college and was now underemployed at company that sent expeditions to Antarctica. “Basically, I file,” she said. “And photocopy.”

       “Is your office freezing cold?”

       “Total ice-o-rama,” she said, laughing. Her neck and cheeks flushed when she laughed, so it almost seemed she was embarrassed.

       They ordered saucy, overpriced entrees and tried each other’s food. Both asked for chopsticks, which the waiter produced winningly from his apron pocket. It was as if they were a couple, as if Max deserved, by some stretch of logic, to be with her.

       They shared banana spring rolls for dessert.

       “What brought you from Berkeley to Denver?”

       He hesitated. “One day, I just got in my car. It was packed with all my stuff, and I drove. I stopped here because I’d never been here. Got a job, and now it’s been eight years.”

       Her eyes widened. “Why in the world was your car was packed with all of your stuff?”

       Why in the world did he have to say that part?

       “I was angry,” he said, trying to will away the heat rising in his cheeks. “At my roommate at the time, in Berkeley. He was—well, never mind.”

       She leaned forward in her seat, her glass of wine resting fetchingly against the apple of her cheek. “You have to tell me!”

       “Well, we had some political differences, and they flared up around that time. 1998.”

       Just mentioning it got him hot. Ray, his old roommate, with his Republican friends, drinking beers while they watched the Clinton bloodbath on CNN. It all made Max tremble with anger. When the vote to impeach came through, what else could Max do? Nonsense ruled the world. He’d canceled the electricity and water, both in his name, and left Ray with the full rent. And in response, Max was gifted the election of 2000. Now his punishment had reached its full articulation with the eight-year run of George W. Bush. They were only in year six. He shuddered. But he was ashamed. Why couldn’t he just let things like that go, be like normal people who called themselves “apolitical”?

       “Oh, yes,” she said. “I understand. It’s okay.” But did she say it like someone who was forgiving a personal weakness, someone whose tolerance was piqued by the sloppy, uncontrolled passions of people like Max? She would have been just a teenager then.

       Whatever it was that drew her to him in the first place, that mysterious thing, of course it would be fleeting. This was Max’s life, after all. He raised a hand to the waiter for the check.

       “Can I tell you something?” she said. “Something that you might understand?”

       “Of course!” he said. “Of course, please do.”

       She took a deep breath and watched her own wineglass as she spoke. “It started almost three years ago,” she said. She assumed a completely different posture than when she asked Max questions, flirted, or told funny tales about her job as a file-clerk. “And honestly, when I tell you, you’re going to think I’m crazy.”

An hour later, Max returned home, his mind buzzing, and met an enthusiastic flurry of kisses from Storm at the front door. It was too late to call Eddie or any of his friends from work, and the strange thing was, even after what he’d heard, the one residual feeling was a blooming hope in his chest. When they’d said goodbye next to her beat-up sedan, she had kissed him with her delicate lips. And although there was no tongue, she let out a quiet gasp, her breath hot with coconut and wine.

       “Oh, girl,” Max said, fluffing Storm’s ears. She leaned into it and formed what he thought of as a dog smile. Her tongue out, her lips pulled back blissfully, her eyes wide and vulnerable. “Oh, girl, I met someone, and she might be crazy, but if she is crazy, that’s just better for you and me. That’s better for us.”

       Storm wagged her tail and continued licking. Max clapped the dog hair off of his hands and retired to his office, where he began to research immediately.

       She’d said she heard noises—loud guttural noises, and not anonymous noises. Not the noises of some pernicious or even friendly voice telling her to do things. According to Rebekah, they were the noises of the war overseas.

       Stranger, when she heard them, she felt her own disappearance from the world, a slow trickling away; the world was still the same, but the sound was different. Distorted, somehow.

       “How do you know the sound is the war?” Max had asked, his head pounding with intensity. He had a blog, after all,, dedicated to his fulminating hatred of the war. This particular thing as Rebekah’s eccentricity seemed another good sign for him.

       “Because of when it all started,” she said. “In 2003, right when the war started. It began with the shock and awe? It was a feeling of connection to that, to the wrongness of it, and then it just continued from there.”

       If someone asked him to describe the transformation of her face as she spoke of this—from chiseled beauty to a softer, less assured, more generic pretty—he might say she morphed from an intimidating Ginger to a sweet Mary Ann. Clearly, given his own spotty track record in love, it made him hopeful. She seemed less impossible. “And what does it sound like?”

       “At first it was just explosions and screaming. It terrified the hell out of me. I thought it was happening here, outside my apartment!”

       She didn’t elaborate. Max felt an uptick in his skepticism. She called it “disappearing,” but not disappearing. Really, the way he pieced it together, she was still in the world, but removed from it.

       “Like the sound strip pulled away from the film?” he asked.

       “Or like being underwater, hearing the yelps and hiccups of whales.”

       Was he in love with her? He telephoned his father—it was only 11 o’clock in Berkeley, and Max knew he hadn’t even started reading yet.

       “She said she disappears, literally? Or like an epileptic fit?” Max’s father was a chemistry professor. Max supposed he solicited his father’s opinion more than a 35-year-old man should. He told him about the yelps and hiccups of whales. He had a talent for remembering things verbatim, especially things that would replay endlessly in his mind and upset him.

       “It could be that she has fits of overidentification, I suppose. With the warriors.”

       Who used “warriors” to talk about modern soldiers? His father was archaic in his tastes, preferring to read about the ancient Peloponnesian War over news reports out of Iraq. As one of Max’s few readers on, his father often expressed genuine surprise at the updates. “Wow! What a tragic development,” he’d say after Max savaged Rumsfeld’s latest tactical larceny. It filled Max with more gratitude than he would ever admit that his father read and commented on his blog. Maybe someday he’d repay his father with a wider readership.

       Still, in practical matters of love, his father wasn’t so helpful. “Maybe you should suggest she see someone,” Max’s father said. “She might be nuts. Speaking of which, your mom wants to talk to you.”

       Max plotted with his mother about Father’s Day, just around the corner. It devolved into the usual litany of complaints. (Any chance in my lifetime that you’ll have your own child? My grandchild? Why don’t you at least move back here?) Max hung up and stared at his computer. His sister Reya could have saved him this ritual grief by procreating, but she, too, was single and underachieving in Seattle. Maybe their stable, nuclear upbringing sapped them both of ambition. Or maybe they just lacked that extra thing that made people winners.

       Could that be changing now? With Rebekah? With Storm?

       The last blog post on MaxUnamerican sat dead on the computer screen. “The weight of idiocy,” the headline read, followed by unflattering snapshots of obese Republicans. One caption beneath a bloated face: “Blustery talk radio rake reddens with the exertion of …saying something intelligible?”

       The post had set off some internal alarms. Max looked down now at his own paunch. Many nights he lay awake kneading his soft belly, as if to worry it away. He knew what this post signaled. It was the end of hope. His blog had one regular reader outside of his family and friends, and that was a man from Manitoba who regularly posted laudatory comments. Lately, he felt the Canadian’s disappointment in him. The 2004 reelection had dealt a blow to his spirit. Some nights, just picturing his old roommate Ray’s happiness at the new world they shared made him seethe with helpless anger.

       He shut down his computer and called Storm to the stairs. It was time to go up and retire, and Max loved going to sleep to the sound of her even breathing next to him. Storm used the other pillow on his bed, and some mornings he woke up to her head resting on his arm. But now he could barely wait to close his eyes and replay every moment of his date. He’d imagine Rebekah’s face and hear her voice and smell her coconut breath as he drifted off to sleep.

The next morning Max was energized enough to mix up his routine. It started with yard work—the old, desiccated lilac bush in front that had stood neglected from the time he bought this place, an 1896 Victorian, two years ago. He knelt down to see what he had. Lots of old leaves and detritus, but also some buds. After watering and pruning for an hour, Max did the next surprising thing. He changed into sweat pants and a tee shirt, dug out his old tennis shoes from the back of the closet, and leashed up Storm. For a run. Or at least a jog. They stepped off the porch and Max immediately poured sweat. It was good! But for the first couple of blocks, splintering jolts of pain radiated from his knees to his shins and ankles. His other joints felt like sacks of dry rocks. The air smelled of exhaust, garbage, and tarmac. Storm was all over the sidewalk, following her nose from one place to the next and sniffing vigorously, indifferent to Max’s attempts to guide her.

       They jogged past the light rail, through the decrepit, falling-down projects that abutted Max’s strip of gentrified homes. This part of town had seen a golden day of jazz and Black commerce, but those days had long ago come and gone. He thought about real estate values. He thought about utter decay. But after a few more blocks they settled into an easy gait—dog and man. An older black man looked up from where he stood in his yard. He held his thumb over the mouth of a bright green hose, and touched his hat, and Max touched his own baseball cap. He felt a wave of collegial pride. He was running; he was running with Storm.

       And he was exactly who Rebekah had hoped to meet.

For their second date, Max made risotto and bought a bottle of pinot grigio. His place smelled of garlic and baking bread when Rebekah arrived, even more gorgeous in her clingy red blouse and blue jeans than he remembered. Storm seemed out of sorts. It started with a very subtle growl upon Rebekah’s arrival, and then after dinner, as they sheepishly progressed to the bedroom, Storm followed. Rebekah and Max fell laughing onto the bed and began the clumsy ritual of stripping off each other’s clothes, and he forgot all about the dog. But then he reached into the drawer of his nightstand for a condom and instead found his hand in Storm’s warm, open mouth. He shrieked but fortunately, the way things were going, Rebekah took it as a happy shriek and gave extra energy to her grinding hips. Max wiped his hand on the bedspread and then, later, at the moment of no return, Storm’s moist tongue lapped Max’s foot at the bottom edge of the bed, and he made a mental note: kick the dog out of the bedroom. Post haste.

       Thus began the standoff between Storm and Rebekah. Storm lodged subtle complaints, like the night she found Rebekah’s toothbrush next to the sink and dropped it downstairs on the rug in front of the fireplace.

       “Yikes,” Rebekah said, standing over it in her nearly see-through tee shirt the next morning. The toothbrush was unmolested—no teeth marks or anything, but the message was not subtle. Don’t get too comfortable.

       “I have another under the sink,” Max said quickly, admonishing Storm with a raised eyebrow and a shake of the toothbrush. She turned her face away as if afraid he would hit her.

       Later, after Rebekah left, Storm made a point of jumping onto the very spot on the couch where Rebekah had sat last night and this morning. Max would return home from work and Storm would still be sitting there, drooling or shedding. In that same corner of the couch, Storm buried Rebekah’s dirty socks.

       Rebekah was oblivious to the acts of protest. “It’s like she found you for a reason,” she said one night, massaging Storm’s ears. “She was looking for you, found you, and now even though you’ve only been together for a month, it seems like you’ve known each other forever.”

       He’d never met anyone who thought the way Rebekah did. He loved it.

       “You believe in a whole other dimension, don’t you?” he asked. He watched her through the window above the kitchen sink, where he was washing dishes. He’d always called it “the window to nowhere,” but now he was glad it was there—he could get a perfect view of the couch, her socked feet tucked beneath her.

       “I guess I do,” she said. “And to be honest, it’s weird—I can’t really tell what you think of what I told you.”

       “What do you mean?”

       “About what happens to me.”

       He bought time by holding up a soapy finger to her and drying his hands. He had grown accustomed to a certain jokey and fatalistic way of conversing with people—at work, at the café down the street—that didn’t work with Rebekah. If it were Eddie from tech support, he might say, “I think you’re fucking insane, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care for you.”

       But it was lovely Rebekah, and as Max rounded the counter to join her by the fireplace already stocked with logs that would see action in a few short months, he too wondered what would come out of his mouth. He was 35 and single; he had to defy his instincts. How could he express to her how much he truly adored her, the way she nestled her heat-seeking hands into the space between his arm and body in bed, her icy feet pushed between his knees, and yet that he still felt a flood of doubt about her “noises”? Frightening articles had turned up when he searched her symptoms on the Internet—reference to lesions on the brain, schizophrenia, psychosis, narcolepsy. He preferred to think of the entire thing as mysterious, one of the many things about her he may never figure out. To explain this nuance felt impossible to Max.

       “I think it’s so,” and he bought a little more time by fluffing up the pillow, clapping out tufts of Storm’s hair. “So painful, I guess, what you go through. You said it hasn’t happened in a while?” He reached for her foot, which she moved into his lap, and he tried to knead some warmth into it through her thick sock. It was summer, for God’s sake.

       “Last night,” she said, sighing.

       “What? When?”

       She said it happened while he was asleep.

       “Why didn’t you wake me?” He stopped massaging her foot and turned to look at her just as she tried to quickly wipe away a tear. A dark confusion closed over him. “Rebekah?”

       “I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to see me or hear me.” She let out a little laugh. “What if I don’t exist when it happens?”

       For the first time, Max felt afraid for Rebekah. She lived a ration of daily nightmares, all of which she felt personally, where he tended to stew in anger and irritability. Surely he could learn something from her selflessness.

       “Make me a promise,” he said, giving her foot another squeeze. “Next time, no matter what, wake me up.”

       She said she would. And he was afraid of what might happen if she did.

“Demystified Man,” Max’s father said during their weekly phone call, when Max brought up Rebekah’s disappearances again.

       “I’m sorry,” Max said. “What?

       “You didn’t have religion; you were raised by a scientist. This young woman Rebekah has the appeal of the mystical for you.”

       “Are you reading about Chichen Itza again?”

       But as they spoke, a strange coincidence struck Max. Not about Rebekah, but about Storm. She looked like the ghost of his childhood dog, Tugger, and he had felt the same excitement and mystery around her. Mystified? When Rebekah implied that Storm had sought him out, he’d been flattered, elated, and, most of all, validated. The spirit had found him.

       “You loved that dog more than anything,” his father said when Max shared the thought. “But it was one-hundred-percent unrequited, son. He growled and showed his teeth at you regularly. Your mother and I were terrified that he would maul you, like that French woman who had to get the face transplant. But lord knows there were no face transplants when you were a kid. We worried.”

A couple of weeks later, Max had stopped thinking about Rebekah’s sounds. For one thing, she’d streaked her hair and seemed suddenly full of extra sexual oomph. Was it possible to get used to such a thing? It was. Also, he was distracted by his new dedication to running. The roses out front were blooming, the grass he’d planted began to peek through, and a beautiful woman slept next to him in his bed every night, in the city, the state, the house he hadn’t been sure would ever feel like home.

       But then one night he was roused from sleep by a gentle tugging on his boxers.

       “Max,” whispered Rebekah. “Max, it’s starting to happen.”

       Max rolled over, his heart racing, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. He made out Rebekah’s profile. He supposed she was in that moment she described, seconds before disappearing. Soon she would see him but not hear him; she would hear whatever it was she heard. The yelps and hiccups of whales.

       “I’ve got you,” Max said. “I’m here.”

       But he didn’t have her. Max could make out the almond shape of her eyes—they were open. He flipped on his reading lamp. Her hair fell over her face in long strands, and her cheeks appeared hollow. “Can you hear me?” he asked.

       Rebekah didn’t respond; she lay there like she was asleep with her eyes open. A thought flitted through the air: this was a test and he would fail it. Because he didn’t believe in her. The skin at her throat moved and he remembered hearing that if someone swallowed, they were just pretending to be asleep. But what about when disappearing into an overseas war?

       Oh, but that skin at her neck was so soft, so pure, so perfect.

       “Honey,” he whispered again. “Come back. Come back to us.”

       Us! Did he mean himself and Storm? Max shook her gently, as she had just done to him, but her body rocked with his movement and didn’t stir further. Then her eyes closed. Behind her lids, they moved frantically. He shook her again, and finally her eyes opened. She looked at him and winced against the light. “Why?” she said.

       “Why what?”

       “Your stupid hat!” Then she closed her eyes and rolled over, presumably back to sleep. Max turned off the light and waited. Did she mean the baseball cap he wore around, running and gardening? His suede cap. He flushed with embarrassment—he knew he wore it with alarming frequency. He kicked his legs free of the blanket. It was two in the morning.

       Max grabbed his bathrobe from the hook on the door, and Storm happily joined him downstairs. In front of the fireplace he bent down to retrieve Rebekah’s toothbrush, covered in dog slobber, from the center of the rug. He pointed it at Storm and she turned and cowered, ashamed. The gesture seemed automatic. But tomorrow night, Max was sure, she’d do it again. After the first time, Max had taken to hiding this routine from Rebekah. He rinsed the toothbrush thoroughly and returned it to the sink, higher up, in the cup, because he’d run out of spares.

       What could he do? He read some political blogs and shook his head at the Democrats’ talent for self-sabotage (really? Another sordid affair?). Stupid hat, indeed. In the throes of sleep, the truth comes out. He was a balding man, but he hadn’t done enough in life to be bald yet. Writing code for websites? He copied from other, better websites—ridiculously easy to do. No family, no interesting hobbies, nothing. The suede cap couldn’t cover all his failures, and Rebekah had noticed.

       In the morning, Max woke up unrefreshed and testy. He and Rebekah walked Storm to the café for breakfast. Max thought it might cheer them all up. Rebekah had been distant all morning, saying very little, so he was surprised when she spoke up. “Do you think it’s enough?”

       “What?” Max figured she was critiquing his performance last night during her disappearance, which neither of them brought up today, but which seemed to permeate everything, even the flock of geese honking above.

       “It doesn’t seem like enough to me, but I could be wrong,” she said.

       Max stopped while Storm investigated a bed of tall grass and marked it. Littered about were remnants of the fireworks that rocked this part of town with gunshot ferocity, much to Storm’s displeasure, for weeks before and after July 4.

       “It was hard,” Max said. “I didn’t know what to do. You seemed to be sleeping.”

       “Your blog,” Rebekah said, and when he turned to her, surprised, she made a point of kicking at the pavement. Rebekah, gentle Rebekah, knew that she was starting something.

       He could barely talk. “What could you possibly mean?” he asked.

       “I just don’t get it. Why don’t you do something about the war, something that could make a difference?”

       Who was she, suddenly? He couldn’t say for sure, but it felt like the person he adored, the person he felt liked him—she had been replaced with a replica of herself, one who assessed him and found him wanting. Maybe when she disappeared an intruder came back and inhabited her body. The hat critic.

       “Do you think I’m not bright enough to understand you?” she asked flatly.

       “Where did that come from?”

       “You’ve got this whole life, this passion. It doesn’t seem connected to me.”

       Storm pulled on the leash. The quickening slap of Max’s flip-flops on pavement marked his silence. “I don’t like to take things seriously,” Max said. “In life.”

       “Just on your blog.”

       “That’s where I process.”

       She shook her head. “What does that help? What does that do?”

       His mind raced. Maybe he did keep her away from his passions. He told himself it was to keep the topic clear of the war, but he also knew that he felt defeated whenever he tried to put that part of his life into words. His own weakness—nothing about her.

       “If the blog is going to matter, why not go for it? Why don’t you do something to get more readers? You know how you were saying you could do that thing?”

       “Post on other blogs?”


       “I don’t know. I will, when I have time.” For some reason, he could not bear to post a comment on other people’s work. Once he got so furious with a post that he spent an hour crafting a response, and when he hit “post” his response didn’t show up. He checked back an hour later and it wasn’t there. The next day it wasn’t there, nor the next. He couldn’t help but feel some of his fire had been subsumed, a part of him swallowed into empty space.

       “Is it enough to write to three people?” Rebekah asked.

       “Well, I suppose it’s not ideal, but I can’t force people to read it.” But even as he said it, he knew it was weak. He enjoyed not being accountable to anyone. The Canadian was enough—he felt there was an inherent generosity to the Canadian. Someone who would be moved in the way he intended, and not challenge his weaker intellectual points. He knew that most of his beliefs were fueled by raw emotion, not reason. But the emotion was right, he was sure of it.

       “Is this about last night?”

       “You left me alone.”

       “I thought you were sleeping,” Max said, disliking the pleading sound of this voice.

       “I wasn’t.” Her face creased with emotion. “And you left, probably down to your blog.”

       Storm pulled eagerly forward to sniff at a hydrant.

       Max’s guilt gave way to a welling irritation. He could press her on “disappearing,” which frankly didn’t even make sense. Wouldn’t her story be more believable if it happened a little more textbook? After last night, he felt less mystified than ever. But no, he didn’t go there, didn’t want to put her on the spot. That Rebekah didn’t share that sensitivity, that she didn’t seem to want him to feel okay about his pathetic blog, delivered Max his first bad feeling about her.

       Rebekah arched her face toward the sun, her eyes lightly closed. “Shit.” Then she blinked at him, her eyes softer. “Sorry. To be honest, I’m haunted, I’m…”

       “No, I’m sorry,” he said, pulling Storm toward him and kneeling down next to her to pet her vigorously. He wasn’t sure what he was sorry for, but maybe it was the loosening of love that, once started, he couldn’t stop. “I shouldn’t have left you.”

       She smiled with sad eyes. “It’s okay.”

Later, Max and Storm ran. The Denver air vibrated with a close heat. He kept feeling that if they ran far enough, fast enough, he could outrun this new, doomed feeling. The sidewalks were dusty and dry, and as they covered blocks and blocks of apartment buildings, boarded up houses, and liquor stores, they saw no one. The sheer idea of the heat exhausted people. Max wasn’t exhausted. Energy pumped through his veins, as it always did when he ran. A few people at work had been noticing his new physique, and the cute neighbor next door, the one who’d always had a boyfriend but had recently broken things off, even said he looked “downright smokin’.” His limbs and body were somebody else’s; he could run all day and night and only needed to find room in the world for more distance. His hat! His blog.

       Storm, who he’d thought was finally trained to heel, was feeling something, too; she began pulling, and as they turned the next corner, he saw why. She had a premonition. There was a clearing, a tiny park, and a chain-link fence around an acre of dirt, which was apparently a dog park. People stood while dogs ran in circles around the dust and shit. In his endorphin rush, even this picture of desolation looked idyllic.

       “Amazing sense, girl! You’re magic, too.” He would fight Demystified Man, tooth and nail! The problems of earlier today were silly. He could do more, he could be more, and he would win back Rebekah’s admiration. Yes, he could. He would take a hammer to all limits.

       In the unleashing area, he unhooked Storm and turned to the bulletin board, a set of flyers behind glass. He blinked, looked away, and then looked back again. One of the flyers featured three photos of Storm at different angles, and a handwritten, misspelled plea for her return. “Please,” the flyer begged. “We are new to Denver and shes our ownly family!” A pain shot through his chest. There was a note at the bottom that read: “She answers to Polly.”

       Max reasoned that many dogs were white with blue eyes, and that a photograph of a dog, like a photograph of a newborn, could be interchanged with hundreds of others. “Storm,” he said, and she made like she would turn, but she remained magnetized to another dog’s nose poking through the fence. Now the air had pressed out of his lungs, and when he tried to speak again, his voice came out as little more than a whisper. “Polly,” he said. Storm turned instantly. She trotted toward Max, her ears erect and quivering. Everything else slowed down. Max felt an aching at his midsection, a diarrheic pull. And then a reflex: flight. He could turn around and run home and never come again to this part of town. Who would blame him? For months he’d made valiant efforts to find her owners, and whoever these people were didn’t put an ounce of effort into finding her. At least that’s what Max had always reasoned. He squinted at the poster one more time, memorized the phone number, clipped the leash back on Storm, and turned to run home. He’d never run so fast.

       As luck would have it, Rebekah was still in the house, had made dinner for Max. “I’m sorry about earlier,” she said, resting her hand on Storm’s head and kneading it, much to Storm’s elation. “Are you still mad?”

       He couldn’t answer.

       “It’s because of last night. No one’s ever seen me like that before. I was awful, right? Was I awful?”

       He sat down at the table across from her. She watched him and when he didn’t respond, she said, “I need to know. I’m dying to know, actually, what it was like to see me. There’s stuff I haven’t told you yet, stuff that might explain—in fact, I think that’s why earlier I was so—”

       “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have to make a call.” He stood and reached for the phone. And then, at this solitary moment of Max’s greatest chivalry, his self-sacrifice, he burst into tears.

       Rebekah stood up from the table and put her arms around him, as if she’d been waiting for this moment of consolation, which only made him feel worse. But it strangely gave him courage, too. He pulled away gently and dialed the phone.

       The person who answered sounded like a teenage boy. “Yeah?” he said.

       “I was at the dog park today. I saw a sign.” Max paused to allow the boy to say, “Oh, that old thing? We already found her,” or to tell him he had the wrong number. But the other voice was silent, so Max continued. “A sign about a missing dog and, well, several months ago I found one.” He let out a laugh meant to express implausibility. Rebekah, whose face had hardened, now softened again and put her hand to her mouth. Max turned away.

       “Really? You’re kidding!” the voice said, clearing up, growing bolder. “You got Polly?”

       “Well, that’s not a certainty,” Max said, his speech tightening with formality. “I mean, Storm bears a resemblance to the animal in your poster.”

       Animal. Who was he kidding? It was a dog. It was Storm.

       “That’s awesome! We thought Polly got hit by a car! We were going to get a new dog next week. My wife will be so stoked. I can’t wait to tell her.” The voice paused, and in that space of time, Max allowed himself some hope connected to the new dog. The voice continued more tentatively, “We don’t got no money.”

       “Let’s just ensure that it’s the same dog.” Max felt a rising anger. He wanted to throttle the kid for his ungrammatical phrasing. “I don’t want any money.”

       The boy asked when he could come by, and Max said in a couple of hours. Rebekah took pictures of Max and Storm, which Max instantly uploaded to his computer so that he could print them. He avoided looking at Storm. He sat on the couch and tried to read, and when Storm curled up at his feet, he seethed in misery. After forty minutes of this, his phone rang. It was the boy. “Can we come now?”

       “Please do.”

       Within minutes, the boy and his young wife appeared at his door. The wife, Ashley, started crying instantly when she saw Storm. “Oh, Polly! Polly! I can’t believe it!” She collapsed to her knees and hugged Storm and accepted kisses from her. Max averted his eyes. Rebekah made small talk with the couple, learned that in May the kids had moved to Denver from Texas, that they were living with a relative near the fateful dog park, that the relative’s fence was broken and that Storm had escaped. They’d lost her collar and tags at some rest stop outside of Wichita, and she was too new to Denver to find her way back home. They kept insisting that home was with them and that she would want to be with them.

       “She’s our only family,” Ashley said.

        Max and Storm locked eyes. “So it said on your poster.”

       “I feel weird,” said Ashley, still on her knees next to Storm. “It seems like Polly’s part of you guys’s family, now. I feel weird taking her.” She looked around the living room. In preparing for their arrival, Max had placed the new photos of himself and Storm on the mantel, hoping the kids would glimpse them and feel tortured by the injustice of the reclamation.

       “Of course you’ll take her,” Max said. “She’s your dog. And this, too,” he said, disappearing to the back hallway and then emerging with a gigantic bag of dog food, bones, the red leash, and Storm’s favorite toy, a stuffed duck. He needed it all taken away, now. “You should go,” he said. Rebekah added, “I mean, if you’re ready! Sorry. Max grew pretty attached to Polly.”

       He didn’t look up because he didn’t want the kids to see him crying. He had no trouble distinguishing his own age from theirs. They were children. He was a man, a man who could rightly provide for a dog. But they took the box and Storm and filed out Max’s front door. The boy turned and said, “Would it be all right if we brought Polly back to visit you?” And with that small act of grace, the boy turned the knot that was already constricting Max’s chest.

Things went predictably downhill from there. Someone turned up the heat on the cauldron of August, and Max’s front bushes, like the rest in the city, were once again desiccated husks. He stopped jogging—it made him too sad—and without jogging, he re-immersed himself in his blog. His entries turned maudlin, and a three-word comment from the Canadian—“Are you okay?”—sent Max into cataclysmic bouts of sobbing. Before and after work each day, he drove by the dog park, slowing down in front of the house where he’d spotted Texas plates on a rusty pickup truck. Surely Storm would escape again and come home to Max. In the back of his mind, there was a possibility that he would find Storm so neglected and distraught that he would have no choice but to rescue her. He could take her and move to a new house, a new neighborhood, a new state.

       Max came home to Rebekah sitting on his porch. As he parked behind her car, he regretted he hadn’t showered, and that he’d stopped wearing his cap, that his baldness was showing. She’d love that. When he emerged from his car, he felt the air and sun on his skin, a coating of misery. Rebekah stood. Bless her: she held out her arms to him.

       “Are you still sad?” she said as they hugged.

       He forced a smile. “No, not anymore. She’s with her family.”

       But the question isolated Max’s shameful self-absorption. “Oh, my god!” He pulled away and looked at her. “You were going to tell me something, something about your spells.”

       “It was nothing,” she said softly. “Really. I don’t even remember.”

       They made love that night in what seemed to be a state of mutual absence. When he finally fell asleep, Max dreamed that Storm was sitting on his welcome mat at the front door, just like that first night, looking up at him. He got out of bed, put on his old tracksuit and jogging shoes and a light jacket, grabbed an old rope and ran. It was easy, the cover of night, climbing the ramshackle fence. Her tongue flicking out to lick his hand as he silently laughed. When they returned, he let Storm into the hallway, untied his improvised leash from her collar, and silently closed the door. He filled up a mixing bowl with water and placed it where her food had been served. He left her three raw hot dogs for old time’s sake, gave her another gentle pat, and tiptoed back to his room, buzzing with joy and relief. Halfway up the stairs, an ochre pool of light by the doorway revealed that the reading lamp was on.

       “Where were you?” Rebekah sat in bed.

       “Just went for a run.”

       Max came closer, unzipped his hoodie, put it on the chair. He took off his sweat pants so that he stood before her wearing only his tee shirt, boxers, and baseball hat. He neared the bed just as Storm ran up the stairs to her spot on the landing.

       Rebekah’s eyes widened with disbelief.

       “What’s that sound?”

       The clinking of Storm’s collar—the oldest sound they knew. The kids had not replaced the heart-shaped tag engraved Storm Urban.

       “Is that Polly?”

       “Okay.” Max knelt on his side of the bed, turned his hat around on his head. The band was wet and uncomfortable, but he needed it. He had an argument to make. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I had all this nervous energy. And, yes, I had a premonition. I felt she was in danger, and I was right! It’s like when I used to hold up your toothbrush to her to say, ‘No,’ and she turned her head like she expected to be hit? I think she’s abused. She was left outside!”

       He waited.

       “She what?”

       “Listen to reason, Rebekah,” he said. “They didn’t even replace the tag or my number!”

       “She took my toothbrush after that first night? What the hell, Max! What if I got some sort of disease or something? I can’t fucking believe this!”

       Rebekah never cursed. Max looked down at his own hands. They were red and wrecked from lifting his body over the rickety fence. He had been dishonest about the toothbrush. That was true.

       “Take the dog back.”

       He’d never seen Rebekah’s face so hard, so angular. It was not attractive. He knew what was happening, here. The ultimatum was about what he wanted more—girl or dog.

       “But you don’t understand,” he said. “She was outside. In the night! That’s dog abuse.”

       “Take her back, Max.” She got out of bed and began dressing. Pulled a sweatshirt over her tank top, tugged jeans up over her narrow hipbones. She grabbed her bag, left his room and started down the stairs, stopping at the landing to pet Storm gently. “You’ve already proven your undying devotion to her,” she said. “A girl could wait her whole life for half as much.”

       He followed and watched dumbly from his porch as she threw her duffel bag in her trunk, got into her car, started it. Good, he thought. Be gone. She was the one who made him a dog-napper. Anyone else would see he was doing what was just, what was fair, what was best for Storm.

       But she didn’t drive off. Instead she tapped her brakes nervously, an irritating habit she had, washing the dark street in throbs of red. He wondered if her fits would stop if the war ended. Would it ever end? Like Max himself, like Storm, everything would someday end. He started to go after her, but stopped. Stopped because he was making a choice? He should go after her. He went back into the house. Storm watched him, her tongue hanging from her mouth like a limp banner.

       “What do I do, Storm?”

       She panted and cocked her head, her ears quivering like they did when he looked at her, talked to her. She indicated with her eyes, those beautiful eyes, she was happy to be back with him. He was sure of it. On the subject of Rebekah’s car on the street, she was unforthcoming.

       “Storm, what do I do?”

       Max walked to the front window, lifted the blind, and saw his car bathed in the red glow of Rebekah’s taillights. It looked lonely but peaceful, his car, like it belonged to a man who had simple dreams. The light extinguished itself and the street went gray. He could barely make out her shape, or maybe it was not her shape at all but his idea of her shape. Indecision felt like a rope pulled taut between them. Then the street lit up again, Rebekah’s car pulled out, and within seconds she was gone.

Andrea Dupree’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Confrontation, The Normal School, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and She received a MacDowell Fellowship to work on her novel in progress, The Terms of Our Survival, which is progressing at a slower rate than seems reasonable. She runs programs and teaches fiction at a literary nonprofit in Denver, Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

Back to Freight Stories No. 8


Andrea Dupree