Jo likes home if home is a series of images. The spring wildflowers segregated by color—patches of paintbrushes, spots of buttercups, a lake of bluebonnets. Heaps of pink petals at the base of the crape myrtle. At most, she likes home as unconnected moments. But she doesn’t like what home turns her into. She’s less herself in the place where she should most be herself—if we are what we come from.   

    Her father fills her coffee cup, has left her suitcases and boxes at the foot of the stairs. The two of them sit at a card table, open space where couches and rugs go unreplaced even though her mother left more than a year ago, taking the furniture with her.

    “Stay as long as you want. But you should visit your mom. More life in Dallas than Stearns.” He shifts his eyes to the table. "Better place to settle."

    Jo stirs the weak coffee. “I don’t know anyone in Dallas besides Mom.”

    “New is good. One day you turn around and realize you haven’t seen new in years,” her father says. His hair has gone from salt and pepper to completely white.

    “You exaggerate.”

    “Have I ever?” He sighs and Jo finds it doesn't suit him. "Maybe you shouldn't have come to stay until you had a plan for leaving."

    "Hard to plan when you're suddenly jobless, about to be homeless." Jo stands, smiles too wide. “I’m going for a walk.”

    "Finish your coffee. I promise to speak only when spoken to."

    “Be back later,” she says.

    Jo walks down the driveway, past the split-log fence built by her father not to keep animals in but out, the horses tempted by the monkey grass. Their dog Spider could easily crawl beneath it, free to chase the livestock, disappear until dinner.

    The cottonwood leaves rustle like water, answering the flow of the Brazos. Chicken wire separates their land from the neighbors, broken by a wide metal gate with a rusted latch. She climbs it like a ladder, swings her legs over, jumps. Jo finds herself on the way to Lou’s. Their closest neighbor. Two years since she's seen him, since she sent him home without her. She has lied to her father; she does have a plan.

Six years ago. Jo, seventeen, under the tree outside her kitchen window. She lay on her stomach, propped up by elbows, and read the Houston Chronicle. Spider flanked her, his big brown body occupying more space than her own. A Doberman and Rottweiler mix, Spider took the height of the first and the bulk of the second. In the heat, Jo would inch her body away from his, but he would lean in again. She didn’t notice Lou until he stood above her. He made her speechless, all the years she carried a crush—the pull of proximity.

    Lou's mom had gone to visit her sister when he was thirteen, chose to jump off the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi rather than come home. A tragedy irresistible to junior high girls, especially when combined with Lou’s height, the inheritance of his mother's beauty, and an increasing emotional reserve. Most of the girls in their grade spilled affection for Lou, and despite a childhood full of each other, Jo found herself drawn to him, too. Someone old in a new light was better than someone entirely new.

    Lou hadn’t come over in years but somehow now stood over her as Spider’s tail thwacked her bare leg. He dropped down on the lawn, Bahia grass pressed between their touching calves. He turned the page, smoothed the big inky sheets. He waited, silent. She turned to him, and he kissed her, made her oblivious to her mother just beyond the kitchen window.

Today, halfway across the pasture, Lou’s dog Wyatt struggles toward her. She crouches down and takes the old Brittany Spaniel in her arms. Wyatt licks her chin while she traces the ridge of the scar that outlines his entire chest, evident just beneath his fur. Dogs rarely hold grudges. If they do, the person deserves it, she thinks. Human blame makes a bigger mess.

    Lou’s house—his dad's house—same as always, a stucco ranch with a wrap-around, slab porch. Lou is in the yard, low in a camp chair, his face turned to the sky. He is tracking the cottonwood fluff that slides above him in the wind. It is Lou's self-diagnostic—gauging his reaction to things he normally likes. Lou loves how cottonwood floats in the air. If he can look and feel nothing, it's not a good day. But he is smiling as he turns his face to her. And then his smile grows wider. No one has ever looked happier to see her than Lou sometimes does.

    He gets up and walks toward her, and she rises on her tiptoes for a crushing hug. Holding Lou is like the moment before falling asleep—she always feels both perfectly still and plummeting. The smell of him, his ready forgiveness; she knows she will stay.

Lou's depression started after they left for college—she to Stanford and he to Texas A&M. The vague sadness all those girls fell for was replaced by something very different. Medication helped but he still dropped out in early spring and moved home. He was better when Jo returned during breaks, but she was sad every time she saw him—it was as if his personality had fallen away in chunks.

    The summer before her junior year, she and Lou convinced their parents to let him move to Palo Alto. She overcame her father's grumbling over "defective genes" and her mother's Catholic concerns. She, as always, let Lou deal with his father, getting him to pay half their rent in an overpriced studio apartment near campus.

    The fall went well. Lou enrolled in community college classes, told her the campus made A&M look poverty-stricken. On weekends, they took the train into San Francisco and wandered until they were exhausted. He had bad days, sometimes a bad week, but he joked that the California weather mixed with the proper SSRI made for a winning cocktail. He joked that they would never be able to leave.

    But by the end of February, Jo was worn out. The rainy season turned everything green, but their studio stayed damp and dark. On Lou's bad days, they both stayed in bed, sleeping or watching the rain splatter the plastic skylight, the television always on. Her grades fell. When she sent him home alone during spring break, she reveled in how big three hundred square feet could feel with just one person. She wandered the deserted campus, ate lunches under palm trees, was amazed at her own mood when Lou's wasn't there to color it. When he returned, she found herself avoiding him, quarantining her happiness. She went out at night with classmates, assumed he wouldn't want to come.

    Lou didn't complain, but he stopped going to class. When she started spending whole nights elsewhere, other people's couches and dorm floors, he stopped cleaning or buying groceries. She asked him to leave in late May. He was so thin and sad, she almost convinced herself it was for his own good. She never said they were breaking up, but she didn't return home that summer or all her senior year. Her parents' divorce provided an easy excuse. Jo called Lou less and less often until, after graduation, she moved to San Francisco and pretended she had no former life. When she missed Lou she would walk the city, take the BART back to her apartment, and sleep.

“Rumor is you’re leaving San Francisco,” Lou says as he steps backward.

    “Layoffs. Newspaper’s close to folding.” There’s a silence, but Jo can’t tell if it’s comfortable. “Serves me right for majoring in a dying profession.” She meant to say it jokingly, but instead she sounds bitter.

    “Transitioning economy,” Lou says.

    On the wooden swing under the pecan, they float over the ground: kick, swing, kick.

    “How are you?” she asks. Between them, this question has never been rhetorical.

    “I’m fine.” He presses his lips together into a smile.

    “You’re not.” Too thin, his collarbone sticks out, his face planes into angles it never had before.

    “Guess it depends on your definition.”

    Already Jo feels heavier, her emotional state tethered to his. What if Lou is only Lou with her, but she is only herself without him? She tries to think of it as penance, something they both deserve.

    They watch Wyatt emerge from the pasture and settle on the porch.

    "He looks good," says Jo.

    Lou laughs. "We’re weathered-looking males in this house."

    She doesn't ask after his father.

While Jo and Lou were in high school, Spider fought Wyatt compulsively. Jo's dog was all loyalty and love with the family, different away from home. They sometimes got calls—him fighting dogs a few miles away. Her parents had paid a few vet bills to avoid trouble, but Spider came home every night, rarely a scratch. When Spider targeted Wyatt, he wouldn’t let up.

    Jo and Lou were out in the pasture one afternoon when they heard snarling. Spider had Wyatt’s leg in his mouth, wrenching it at an awful angle and ripping skin. Mr. Pearson beat at Spider’s head with a closed fist and kicked the dogs into separation. Spider ran, stopped at Jo, hair still raised on hackles, blood crushed into his nose. He wagged his tail once then ran toward home. Mr. Pearson said if Spider showed up again, he would shoot him.

That evening, Jo took a long length of chain from the garage, snapped the shank to Spider’s collar, and wrapped the end around the fence. She tried to sit near him, but for an hour the dog paced. Then he started to whine. Finally, he laid down by the fence, listless.

Lou stops the swing with his feet. “Dad wants you to stay for dinner.”

    "The two of us could go to town. Mexican, maybe?" she says.

    “He insisted.”

    Jo wants to see herself as someone who puts the needs of others first. But something in her balks.

    “He asked me to convince you. It's rare for him to ask me for anything. He doesn’t even ask me to come to the dealership every day.”

    “It’s fine.” She turns her body, lays her head on his lap, props her feet on the arm of the swing. She tries to isolate the moment so she can enjoy it: the warmth of his legs through jeans, the sun slicing between the branches as they move back and forth, his face which she wants to see as seventeen. But she can't keep the moment unconnected. Lou has aged ten years in the past two.

    An hour later, the shadow of Mr. Pearson. “Ready to eat?” Jo sees his effort to be friendly. Her plan, so solid in California, feels sketchier, thin. They follow him into the house. All her favorites spread on the table. Chicken fried steak, a bowl of white rice waiting for gravy, biscuits, fried okra, and green beans shiny with bacon fat.

    Bits of small talk lodge between the silences, enough for an air of civility. Lou sits next to Jo at the round table. He picks at his food, stops, fists balled on the tablecloth. Jo cups her hand over his. His shoulders relax as she absorbs his tension. Her head throbs.

    “Your dad told me you’ve left California,” Mr. Pearson says.


    “You should try it here for a while.”

    “Dad. Enough.”

    Mr. Pearson wipes condensation from his water glass. “Lou, I’m just saying coming home can be good. There are reasons to stay.”

    “I'm changing the subject—"

    “Have you even asked her? Maybe she wants to stay.”

    Jo feels as if she has faded from the table. But then Mr. Pearson checks her face, tries to see what’s brewing there. She turns to her plate, uses a biscuit to wipe all the gravy away, but can’t bring it to her mouth. “What I want makes a difference to you?" She’s surprised by her anger. She’s relieved the anger blots out the guilt.

After a few days on the chain, Jo’s father said it wouldn’t work. He wouldn’t make the dog a prisoner.

    “We could build a better fence,” she said.

    "He would be miserable. That's never been his life."

    “Just wait. A few more days.”

    That evening, Mr. Pearson was in his driveway changing the oil in his truck. The reddish brown muck stained his fingernails. Wyatt lay under a tree, nibbling the bandage on his leg. She didn’t know how to start. Reasoning was for equals, and she knew she was only a girl to him.

    “Lou’s at track practice,” he said.

    “I wanted to talk to you. Ask you.” She faltered and he waited. “Not to kill him.”

    “Thought you had him chained up.” He wiped a towel to his hands.

    “My dad says we can’t keep him like that.” Jo stuffed her hands in her pockets, forced herself to look him in the eye.

    “Then the dog better stop the fighting.”

    “It’s not like I can reason with him.”

    “My point.” He turned back to the house.

    “Mr. Pearson, please. Help me think of a solution.” But he didn’t turn around, kept walking.

    The next morning, Spider was off the chain when she got up. She ate breakfast with her parents, all of them grim and quiet.

    For a week, Spider avoided the Pearsons'. Then on Saturday evening, Jo heard a gunshot. She ran down the stairs, but her father stopped her and said he’d go himself. He came back in fifteen minutes.

    “Where's Spider?”

    Her father shook his head. “He’s gone, Jo.”

    “Did you bring him back?”

    He wouldn’t look at her, stared over her head at the blank wall. “Pearson put him in the river.”

    Jo ran, found Mr. Pearson at the edge of his garage. Anger stopped up her speech.

    “Lou, your girlfriend,” he said. "I'm calling the vet to meet us at the clinic."

     Lou sat in the garage with Wyatt. “You see what he did,” he said quietly. He held a blanket, heavy with blood, to Wyatt’s chest.

    “Still,” she said.

    “You see what he did.”

    For a week she watched the pasture but wouldn’t cross it. Her mother kept telling her it wasn't Lou's fault. Finally she went. Lou worried over torn stitches, fluid build-up. They sat in the garage, the buzz of dirt daubers overhead. She fondled Wyatt’s ears until they reminded her of Spider’s. Wyatt struggled to stand, and puss bulged from underneath his fur. A small stream trickled from an opening, stained the concrete floor. Lou took a dirty towel and wedged it between Wyatt’s paws. He pressed the dog’s swollen chest gently. The liquid poured out, leaving the white towel a bloody mess. Wyatt settled back down with a whine. Lou took her hand and led her outside to the swing.

    “I’m not mad,” Lou said. Jo flinched. “Are you?” She shook her head.

    “And my dad?”


    “What else could he do?”

    Jo stretched her arms up, grabbing the chain of the swing and blocking her face from Lou. “Something else.”

After dinner, Mr. Pearson sends Lou to town to buy ice cream. He asks Jo to help him with the dishes, but then he blocks her way to the kitchen, takes her plate, and gives her a beer.

    “Let’s head out to the porch.”

    They sit in the dark without speaking. Jo sees the river through a gap in the trees. In the moonlight, the water doesn’t look muddy brown, but absent of color. She has missed the noise of the river, meeting it whenever she opened a door.

    “Lou won't ask you to stay," he said.

    "I haven't decided yet."

    "Then why come home at all? You’re going to make him worse."

     "You don't know that." She envies Mr. Pearson, his assurance he sees things as they are, the decisiveness it creates. "You don't know Lou any better than me."

    “He’s a different person when you’re here. All yesterday, after you called, he was happy, knowing you were coming.” Mr. Pearson pushes back in the rocking chair, his toes planted. “If you take yourself away again—"

    "It's a fucked-up feeling. Being so invested in something you can’t control." She has made him angry, and even in the dimness she can see his hands squeezing his knees.

    Mr. Pearson drops his heels, rocks in silence. Jo tips up the beer bottle and drinks half without stopping.

    “I don't understand why your father let the goddamn dog loose." He says it without anger, almost gently.

    But that was something Jo understood even then. There will always be things we can't keep ourselves from doing, no matter who it hurts.

Stacey Swann’s fiction has appeared in Epoch, Memorious, Versal, The Saint Ann’s Review, and The Good Men Project. She lives in Austin, Texas, and is a Contributing Editor for American Short Fiction.

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Stacey Swann