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Ruth Rotkowitz short story


by Ruth Rotkowitz

            The road to the breeder seemed to enter another realm. As Edna forced the blue Chevy farther and farther from the highway, abandoning the neatly planted rows of trees which lined the exit ramp like proud relatives standing erect on a receiving line, she nodded at the shiny leaves of lime green sparkling in the light. A cold shadow of darker foliage now surrounded them, and she shivered.

            Squinting into her rearview mirror past her daughter in the backseat, she noted the halcyon autumn scene receding from her vision. She drove slowly, into the fog, flinching as a low branch suddenly smacked like a whip across the hood. Trees whose leaves had stiffened and deteriorated to dull brown now crowded upon the roof of the old car as if to ensnare its occupants.

            Edna had to acknowledge that she never realized how large the state of New Jersey was, since it had always looked so tiny on the map of the United States she’d had to study in school long ago. She’d been driving nearly two hours and they were obviously deep in the boonies, an alien and unfamiliar world, far from their suburban home. As if to echo that realization, Edna’s cell phone emitted a long beep from within her pocketbook, letting her know it had gone dead – no signal in the area.

            Checking the directions on the seat beside her, Edna turned into a narrow dirt road filled with puddles and bumps. A rusted mailbox hung at a menacing angle at the edge of the road, signaling the existence of a home somewhere beyond the thick, overgrown shrubbery. Bits of garbage lay strewn on the ground, and a squashed orange juice container became engaged in a game of tag with a flapping, coverless magazine when a gust of wind sent them both swirling. The whoosh of the chilling wind suddenly caused Edna to imagine her daughter getting sucked out of the back window, lost forever in this alternate realm. She checked the rear view mirror again and closed the car windows.

            “Well, this certainly is what you’d call rural,” Edna chirped, cringing at the squeaky pitch of her voice.

            Eight-year old Allie could barely contain her bright-eyed excitement. “Are we almost there?”

            “I think so, sweetheart.”

            “I can’t wait to see my puppy, Mommy,” Allie chimed, bouncing up and down in her seat as much as the seat belt would allow.

            “Me too, sweetie,” Edna responded, hearing the dark thread snaking through her voice. When will this deserted road end?

            “It’s taking so long. Are you sure you didn’t make a wrong turn?”

            “No, no, it’s right here,” Edna said, checking her directions again. “This is the street we need! Sharp right, and it’s the second house on the left. This has gotta be it!”

            Grinning at her daughter in the rearview mirror, she almost overshot the strip of road that suddenly appeared on her right, wedged between a sprawling bush and a rotting tree stump. She guided the car carefully onto what felt like a forsaken trail as her tires crunched piles of dead, brittle leaves and rose to carry them over mounds and roots lurking beneath them. Through her fingertips gripping the wheel, Edna had no choice but to receive her car’s vibrations and acknowledge its groaning resistance. The vet who’d referred her to this breeder — had he ever driven here? Edna snorted at the thought.

            “Let’s go, Mom,” Allie bounced. “I can hear dogs barking! It’s the right house!”

            Edna blinked several times at the vision blooming before them. A long, sprawling, ranch-style house, painted clean white with royal blue trim and matching shutters, it flaunted a mowed lawn and neat shrubbery in the front. Straight rows of red begonias were planted along the edge of the walk. Normal enough, Edna had to admit. In fact, welcoming. Hand in hand, mother and daughter advanced upon the front door, their sneakers making soft, mushy sounds on the gravel. Wet leaves lay plastered along the walk, evidence of last night’s rainfall, and their pungent aroma, like a bonfire doused quickly, rose to their nostrils.

            The door flew open before the first knock was completed. Harried -though- trying -hard was the phrase that came to Edna’s mind as she looked down upon the short woman with the frazzled, reddish-brown hair — hair that was apparently cut well in a blunt pageboy and was capable of a sleek, bouncy effect but now stood out in untamed waves and straggly ends.

            “Come in, come in,” the woman ordered as she pulled them both towards her by their arms and then slammed the door shut. Distant strains of barking filtered through the house.

            “Hi, Doreen. We finally meet! I’m Edna, and this is my daughter …”

            “I know, sure. This way,” the woman interrupted. Working with dogs all the time might account for her abruptness with people, Edna allowed. Nevertheless, the person she’d been conversing with over the phone for weeks now about philosophies of dog breeding and the rewards of dog ownership had been quite friendly and talkative. Edna had pictured an overweight matron who bustled sideways while walking and wore graying hair in a bun at the base of her neck.  An Earth Mother, in a huge housedress covered by a flowered apron, whose pockets bulged with treats for children and little biscuits for puppies. This trim, petite woman standing before her – whose throaty voice was the same as that of the person on the phone – wore tight, stylish jeans and a dark purple turtleneck. Edna scolded her irresponsible imagination for creating some fanciful storybook character.

            “Follow me,” the woman commanded, and Allie hurried down a dim hallway after the striding figure, flashing Edna an eager smile first, then swinging her little head so that her ponytail swung with her. As Edna hastened to keep in step behind them, she managed a quick look around and was encouraged to see a bright, airy living room furnished in various shades of beige. The back wall consisted of a large bay window that opened onto an impressive expanse of lawn and woods.

            Where was the invitation to sit in the kitchen and enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee, to chat about the habits of this unusual breed, to be patted on the hand across the table and told that her daughter was wonderful and loving?

            Edna quickened her step to follow her daughter’s ponytail into one of the bedrooms, and suddenly found herself in a beautiful little room, neat and light. Edna unclenched her teeth. A dollhouse world. Miniature china figures stared down at her from a shiny white shelf. Why did this seem so incongruous?

            “Make yourselves comfortable,” said Doreen. “I’ll get the puppies.” Allie lowered herself to the floor as Edna perched on the edge of the bed, noticing the needlepoint pillow on a facing armchair, and a small glass Tiffany lamp on the nightstand. Beside the lamp, beneath the protection of its dangly fringes, a brass frame boasted a photograph of the breeder holding a Mexican hairless dog – a Xoloitzcuintli –  in her arms. Both woman and dog were grinning in pride, the dog’s grin accentuated by the pointy tongue lolling out of the side of its little mouth.  A red prize ribbon adorned the animal’s thin neck. As if to accentuate the unity of woman and dog, both the dog’s bat-like ears and the breeder’s hair were blowing in the same direction.

            A pleasant breeze caused Edna to turn from the photograph toward the window, where frilly white lace curtains fluttered. Through the sheer fabric, Edna had the chance to study the group of dogs outside more carefully. For months, Allie had looked up various breeds, immersing herself in books and websites. Edna, filled with pride in Allie’s resourcefulness, had encouraged the research, allowing her daughter to select the type of dog she wanted. When Allie announced that her heart was set on a Mexican hairless, Edna was stunned. Never having heard of the breed herself, she read some of what Allie showed her. Vets she phoned tried to talk her out of it – the dogs are unusual, develop skin problems, and are not that common so might be difficult to find. But Edna had made a promise to her little girl, and Allie had put in so much time and was now so excited. Finally, one of the many vets she’d contacted had recommended this breeder, out here in the hinterland.

            Watching the scene in the yard, Edna had to admit that the dogs were indeed weird-looking. They didn’t really look much like dogs; they were more like rodents, or some mutant breed. They did play nicely together, she observed, and their movements were those of any other dog. All the literature indicated that they were friendly. Edna nodded, as if to reinforce that belief. The dogs scampered about, the smaller ones tripping over toys lying in the grass. A few large German shepherds were out there as well. They stayed together, ignoring the little hairless ones, as if segregation were the natural order of things in the canine world.

            Turning back to her immediate surroundings, Edna noted that the carpet in the little room was a bright green, a continuation of the lawn outside. French provincial furniture in white — a desk and dresser — stood neatly against one wall. Edna jumped as she felt something pull at the leg of her jeans, and smiled down at a very small hairless pup tugging at her sock. Two more dogs, clones of the one clutching her leg, darted into the room, sniffing intently and leaping about as if the most exciting event in the world were happening right there. As the pups frolicked, the room filled with the sweet, intoxicating scent of baby breath.

            “Oh, they’re so cute,” cooed Allie, leaning over to pet them all as they tried to climb into her lap, tripping over one another in the process. Laughing, she freed one pup’s little paw that had gotten stuck in the lacey trim of the bedspread. The yellow and green color scheme of the room, the matching bedspread and curtains, and the general antique daintiness should, Edna noted, make her feel better. It should.

            “So now I pick one, right?” asked Allie, her hand resting gently on one little puppy’s smooth head.

            Doreen, staring distractedly out the window, nodded. It was then that Edna noticed two suitcases in the corner, a stuffed giraffe lovingly placed atop one, its legs splayed so that it kept its balance against the wall.

            “Oh, my daughter and I are taking a little…vacation,” Doreen said, waving her hand at the suitcases upon noticing Edna’s gaze.

            Edna tried to remember if the woman had ever mentioned a daughter in their conversations. “How nice. Who will stay with the dogs?” Doreen had told Edna, in one of their talks, that she was divorced – a bond they shared.

            “Oh, my, uh, brother.” She coughed. “He’s here a lot, he helps out…” Her voice trailed off, and she scratched at something behind her ear.

            “Where will you be going?” Edna asked.

            The woman turned to Allie, a smile fixed on her face. “Well, dear, have you made a choice?”

            Allie held up one of the pups. It looked like the tiniest one. It could be mistaken for a mouse, Edna thought with a jolt. What was she getting into? And why was Doreen rudely ignoring the question she’d asked? Perhaps the question was too personal.

            “Come, then, let’s get him all ready.” With a big smile, Doreen scooped the puppy out of Allie’s arms and was about to march out of the room when the sound of a door slamming at the front of the house reverberated in the little room.

            “I want to say goodbye!”  shouted a youthful voice tinged with haughtiness. A flicker of annoyance danced fleetingly over the breeder’s pert features, but she called out with composure, “In here, darling! Hurry up, one puppy is being picked up now.”

            A girl around twelve-years old burst in and headed straight for the dog in her mother’s arms. The girl had a lanky build and seemed to have outgrown the clothes she was wearing, which consisted of dirty beige stretch pants and a too-short navy sweatshirt. Her dark blonde hair was long and unkempt, and hung loosely in her face. It looked like it needed a shampoo, Edna concluded, as she stood against the wall waiting for some kind of introduction. One that was apparently not forthcoming. She noted in a stern admonition to herself that she’d come for a puppy, not an exercise in etiquette.

            “MaryAnn feels so attached to this one. He’s our tiniest pup, right?” the breeder cooed, maple syrupy sweetness dripping from her voice.  The woman looked intently into MaryAnn’s face. Too intently, Edna thought. “Now say goodbye,” the woman cajoled in a soft voice, “because these people are in a hurry to get him home to his new family.”

            Did we say we were in a hurry? Edna wondered. The girl picked up the pup and planted a kiss on his little head. As she hugged him tightly to her chest, Edna caught the girl’s profile, the small pointy chin and slitted eyes. She saw MaryAnn gently rub the tiny dog between his eyes and her heart softened towards the child.

            “I’m going to bathe him now and get him all ready to go to his new home.”

            “I’ll help…”

            “I need you to feed the others,” the woman interrupted her daughter, her voice rising slightly.

            MaryAnn stared at her mother, shifting from one foot to the other; finally, she relented, stomping from the room with a toss of her head.

            While Allie accompanied the breeder to the bathroom, Edna paced the hall. The two of them were even giggling in there. Allie wanted a male so she could have a baby brother. She already had a name picked out – Fletcher. It was the name of a boy in some story she’d read for school, and she thought it sounded smart and strong.

            Allie emerged from the bathroom, her cheeks flushed. The door closed behind her.

            “She’s taking him out of the water now,” she explained. “He shouldn’t get a chill. And guess what? She’ll put some clothes on him! I got to pick the outfit! He’ll look so cute! Like a little…”


            Doreen then appeared, holding the dog in her arms. He was completely wrapped up in a green blanket. Only his tiny face was visible; the blanket even covered his head.

            “Oh, the kids get such a kick out of dressing these dogs. They’re so tiny, it’s fun. And they’re such good-natured dogs, they don’t mind, even when they’re older. You’ll love it on Halloween.”

            She winked at Allie, who grinned.

            “He’s awfully quiet,” Edna found the courage to declare. “You have guaranteed us a totally healthy animal.”

            “Oh, he’s fine,” the breeder exclaimed. “I just gave him some medication to keep him calm for your ride home.”

            “Some…what kind of…?” Edna sputtered.

             “Oh don’t worry, I get it from the vet. I’ll even write down the name of it so you can check with your vet. It’s a harmless drug, given to dogs before they travel so they’ll relax and sleep. It will wear off in a few hours,” she assured them.

            “Let me get a good look at him,” Edna proclaimed, stepping forward, her legs wooden poles she had to forcibly activate.

            “O.K.,” answered the woman hurriedly, “but he has to stay warm since he just had a bath, so I can only uncover the blanket for a minute. He’s such a small one, we want to be careful.”

            As Edna reached out to the blanket, she was certain the woman brushed her hand away in what could have been an accidental motion. Edna shrank back, hugging her arm to her side, and watched as the breeder uncovered one side of the blanket. The dog was wearing a long blue shirt with little red pants. His tail curled around him, covering part of his body.

            As Allie and Edna bent their heads forward, squinting, the woman said, “He’s still susceptible to new germs, you know.”

            The little creature’s eyes were closed and Edna reached out her hand and placed it gently on the smooth, hairless head. There was something unnatural about a bald dog, but Edna resisted the shiver that began in her neck and inched its way through her shoulder blades. Realizing that she’d gotten to touch the animal without interference, she decided to consider that reassuring.

            “Just remember that his skin is exposed, unlike other dogs,” Doreen recited as she wrapped the blanket even more tightly around the pup. “So especially in the winter, we want to keep him warm, don’t we?” Allie nodded solemnly; she’d already insisted on buying a little puppy-coat of red wool for winter walks. The breeder looked to Allie with a smile and a tilt of her head, which struck Edna as birdlike, the pointy chin and clipped little motions reminiscent of a sparrow looking nervously about for something to peck.

            “All the instructions for his care are in this shopping bag,” the breeder said as she handed over a brown bag with “Lord & Taylor” emblazoned on it. The letters of the Lord & Taylor name danced teasingly in Edna’s face, daring her to find their presence incompatible with the surroundings. “Also, several items to start you off with for the first few days.”

            Edna cleared the buildup in her throat. “I want to speak to my daughter alone for a minute, please,” she heard herself mumble. The breeder darted her a startled look.  Instantaneously, the woman managed to transform that look into one of gentleness. Her features actually softened, a smile forming around the edges of her tight mouth, and she nodded in mother-to-mother understanding. “Of course,” she replied, and slipped back into the bedroom.

            Edna grabbed the shoulder of Allie’s jacket and pulled her daughter further down the hallway. Allie looked up at her with wide, questioning eyes. With a sigh, Edna bent to her daughter’s level.

            “I don’t have a good feeling about this, sweetie,” she whispered, caressing the child’s smooth cheek, expecting the further widening of the green-specked brown eyes and the protests that followed.

            “Everything’s fine, Mommy,” Allie whined, glancing back into the room. Her daughter’s earnestness left hot spurts of sweet apple breath swirling in Edna’s face. She pulled Allie closer and looked into her face. “Listen,” she hissed, “something doesn’t …seem right…I feel… he might not be healthy. We can call this off…”

            “No, no…” Allie began to wail, her entire body bobbing up and down…

            “…and,” Edna interjected immediately, “we’ll get a puppy somewhere else. I promise. We’ll go looking tomorrow.”

            Tears were already collecting in the corners of Allie’s round, liquid eyes. “Mommy, no! Please! I want this one!  I love him already! If he’s not healthy, we’ll take care of him and make him better!  You know we won’t find a Mexican hairless anywhere else!”

            “Darling, please,” Edna stammered, feeling tears building in her own eyes as well. “There are so many other puppies, other places to…” she pleaded.

            “Please, Mommy,” Allie choked, “please! I love him so much! This is what they look like – we saw pictures, remember? And I’ll take care of him, you’ll see.” She grabbed Edna’s hand and the intensity and heat from her little hand flowed into Edna’s, shooting right through her arm and across her chest. “And we’ll be having him checked at a vet, right?” she added, ducking her head closer to Edna’s in an attempt to keep whispering despite her agitation. 

            “Well, that’s true,” Edna conceded, groaning slightly as she returned to a standing position. “Mommy, please,” Allie mouthed, looking up at Edna and giving her hand one last squeeze. It was then that Edna noticed a closet door slightly ajar farther down the hall, with something long and brown sticking out. Leaving Allie, she took a few steps toward it and peered inside. What was sticking out was a rifle.

            Edna recoiled as if she’d been struck. What kind of place was this, what kind of house had she brought her daughter to? Looking back at Allie’s expectant face, she told herself that this was a rural community, unlike anything she would find familiar, and hunting was probably a common sport.  She shoved the rifle back in and shut the door. The sooner she and Allie left this house, the better.

            Returning to the now darkened room, Edna watched as the breeder rose from the bed, the bundle still in her arms. The two women looked across at each other.

            “Well, I guess there’s nothing left but to pay you the balance and be on our way.” The woman nodded politely, as if there were never any question that this was the case. As her stomach lurched, she watched the breeder bend gently to a smiling Allie and carefully hand her the little bundle. Edna reached into her pocketbook with robot-like stiffness and handed over the check she’d made out at home, sitting at her kitchen table last night with a hot cup of herbal mint tea and a warm cinnamon Danish. 


            The trees lining the road took on gargantuan proportions in the encroaching darkness. Their branches slithered upward into the waiting stillness of the blackening sky, their menacing silence reinforced by the silence within the car. It gets dark awfully quickly around here, Edna snapped, to herself.  

            “I guess he’s sleepy,” she finally spoke aloud into the darkness, mustering whatever hopefulness she could salvage and directing it into her voice.

            “Umhmmm,” came the response from the back seat, followed by “He’s really cute, Ma..”

            They rode in silence a while longer, the car snaking its way through the darkened world, following the little road that had at one time cut through the forest. Still in evidence all around them, the surviving portion of the forest grasped at their weary vehicle as it bravely forged ahead.  

            At the clearing, Edna hesitated, confused, unable to get her bearings. “Get my bearings,” she muttered. A phrase that seemed to imply that there was a piece of matter that she was missing, something that would lead her safely home. She resolved to purchase a GPS device over the weekend – she certainly could have used one in this place. Instinctively, she turned her head to the right, feeling somewhere within her that she had previously approached this corner from that direction. She imagined herself coming down that way and making the left turn. Yes, it seemed that she had.  An orderly row of flickering lights in the distance, suggesting cars traveling on a regular stretch of highway, beckoned to her from that direction as well.

            But several lights later, no such highway appeared. Where had it gone? Had it been a mirage? Not even a gas station, where one traditionally asked for directions, was in sight. And a sign seemed to be too much to hope for.

            “This road doesn’t look familiar, Mommy,” Allie whined. Edna swallowed hard and slowed down. No one was behind her. Or in front of her. Or anywhere. Was she supposed to have turned left at the end of that dirt road? While inching along, she shuffled among the papers on the seat beside her with her right hand but could not find the index card containing her handwritten directions, the ones she’d followed to find the place. It must have dropped or gotten blown out of the car when she’d opened the door. Either that, or it was wedged beneath one of the seats, keeping company with candy and gum wrappers and an overdue library book or two. Edna pulled over.

            “What are you doing?” asked Allie. Edna could feel that her daughter was leaning forward towards her, a worried, intent frown on her little face.

            “Just let me think a minute, sweetheart,” she responded, making the effort to sound breezy and carefree as her eyes lighted on a rabbit hopping across the road in front of her headlights, hopping in no particular hurry from one clump of dense bushes to another. “I’m trying to remember, in my mind, which way we came from when we approached that little street that led to the breeder’s house. Then, if I can remember, I can figure out how to get back and go the opposite way! Okay? You close your eyes for a minute and try to help me. Think back.”

            A few moments later, Edna was back on the road, more hopeful that she was heading in the direction of the highway. But casually glancing at her watch, she nearly jumped when she saw the time. It couldn’t be. They could not possibly have been on the road forty minutes already. The breeder’s house had not been more than ten or fifteen minutes from the highway. Did time progress at a different rate out here? She ran her dry tongue along the inside of her mouth. Allie must surely be hungry for dinner already, unless the excitement of the day had supplanted that. If she could just get them home, Edna told herself, everything would be all right. Safe in their snug house, on their friendly street, the dog will look like a dog, and she and Allie will return to their peaceful life.

            Driving more slowly, squinting into the windshield, Edna was suddenly relieved to see she was passing the rusty mailbox she remembered.  As she settled back, a bit more confident, she heard a familiar-sounding noise emanating from the back seat.

            “What is that sound?” she demanded, hearing her voice louder than it should have been. “Is it — no — is it — sucking?”

            “Yeah,” Allie responded matter-of-factly.  “He woke up and looked hungry so I’m giving him a bottle.”

            “A bottle?! A bottle of what? What do you mean, a bottle? Where did you get a bottle?” She screeched to a halt.

            “It was in the bag, Mommy,” Allie explained, her voice small and fearful. “The bag of supplies she gave us.”

            Ah, that elegant ‘Lord & Taylor’ bag. Of course.

            “She told me in the bathroom that when these pups are first taken from the mother, it’s comforting for them to get a bottle. Just at the beginning.”  Allie was pleading, on the verge of tears.  Edna took a deep breath. It was then she looked around and began to suspect she’d made a wrong turn.


            The eerie quiet of the surrounding woods and the darkness within the car made it impossible to ignore the persistent sucking sound from the backseat punctuating the stillness. Edna knew that she should look back there. But how could she dare, before they were out of here, someplace safe?

            But now her job was to get them to such a place. “Of course, I had to go to a breeder,” she mumbled, giving in to the anger that she was trying to save for later. “Had to do it right.  The only way to make sure to get a purebred, with the right disposition. It’s well worth the trip.” Who had said that, anyway? Some sophisticated know-it-all at her office? Or had she read it in some stupid book?

            She snorted. Why couldn’t she have gone to a plain old neighborhood pet store, like any other idiot buying her kid a puppy for the first time? In broad daylight, a regular store, with bright lights and bubbly, talkative sales people. No, she had to do it the complicated way. So here she was, lost in some back woods, alone with her daughter who trusted her and that tiny, weird-looking creature. Maybe…no, she couldn’t let her mind go there…but just maybe…that sneaky Doreen – probably not even her real name! How could she, Edna, have been so stupid, waiting in the hall like a dutiful child? What if …she couldn’t even think it.

            She smacked her hand on the steering wheel. The sucking sound halted for a second, then resumed, picking up its rhythm immediately. Yes, they were all alone here, all alone in the world, she and Allie. No one to lean on.  It was up to her to protect them both. She could not sit here whimpering in self-pity. She had gotten them into this; she would get them out of it.

            This couldn’t wait. She had to know now.  She turned on the car’s overhead light.

            “Let me see the puppy, Allie.” She kneeled on the seat, facing the back.


            “Allie.” Her voice quivered as she held out her arms to receive the green bundle. She felt Allie’s eyes boring into her as she placed the blanket on the seat beside her and slowly unwrapped it. The tail came off in her hands. With a gasp, she flung it to the floor. His little bottom was so wet that the “tail” had become unglued. She pulled down the pants and peeled back the diaper. Well, it was a male all right; that promise had been kept.

            Her heart was beating in her ears as she pulled the blanket back from his head. With a slight tug, the ears came off. Where had that woman gotten this stuff – a costume store? Or had she shot and skinned some wild animal with her trusty rifle?

            Edna could not breathe.  She could see Fletcher’s chest rising and falling, so he was clearly breathing. She patted her own chest, and then began to gag.

            “Mommy, are you sick?” came Allie’s worried query from the backseat. Edna opened her door and stuck out her head, waiting to retch. But nothing came, except the emptiness and blackness of the unlit road. She pulled her head back in and slammed the door shut, hitting the lock button. She sloppily rewrapped the bundle and returned it to Allie, then pulled back onto the road, tires squealing, and executed a sharp U-turn, hitting an unseen bump in the process.

            “Change of plan,” she announced loudly. “We’re going back there. There’s been a mistake. A huge mistake.”

            “Mommy?” came Allie’s tiny voice. “I…do love him.”

            “I know, honey. But this is something else. That lady did something wrong, something she’s not allowed to do. We have to go back, and Mommy is going to do the talking. I will make it all right. Do you understand?”


            She’ll make it up to Allie, she vowed. But first things first.


            “Okay,” she announced, a little too jovially. She was a general with a plan to execute, and she was eager to get to it. “I think we weren’t supposed to turn yet. If I remember correctly, we went straight on that road, past the corner where I turned. So, if we were going home, I think I would now go back to that corner and turn left, which would take us onto the same road, only we would continue until the next intersection, and turn then. But since we are not going home…yet…we need to reverse that. Right?”  She didn’t really expect an answer as she steered in the direction back to the breeder.

            Several dirt roads later, with perspiration forming on her upper lip, Edna silently cursed herself. They could end up going in circles all night. She had been sure this was the block – even the rundown homes visible beyond the bushes looked familiar. But there were much more woods here, and no neat little ranch house was in sight.      

            Suddenly, a huge animal leaped out in front of the car and Edna skidded sideways, letting out a scream as she slammed on the brake. She thought it was a wolf, then realized it was a German shepherd leering into her headlights. The large ears pointed upwards, stiff and alert, and the wolf-like features jutted sharply from the brownish-gray fur. Edna, hands clenched on the wheel, could smell the animal’s tensed muscles. The stillness was suddenly broken when a voice, a child’s voice, confident yet definitely belonging to a child, called from a distance, and the dog, casting them a last, regretful look, trotted off.

            Edna caught her breath and eased her foot gently back onto the gas pedal. “That dog looked mean, Mommy,” Allie commented. Something gnawed at Edna and she slowed even more. That child’s voice — it sounded familiar. She shifted its cadences through her agitated brain, hovering over the slightly lispy “s” and the hint of arrogance.

            Yes, she had it. It was the voice of that girl, the breeder’s daughter!  So she had turned merely one block too soon, for this road must back up to the breeder’s property, which stretches farther than she’d realized. Maybe that woman owns the whole damn county.

            Edna coasted to a stop, pulling over by the trees, and peered into the darkness. Squinting through the denseness of the woods, the remains of the old forest, she tried to follow the meandering of the road with her eye. In the distance, she perceived a large clearing. Beyond, yes, a house, definitely the back of a long, low ranch house. White. It had to be.

             Fine. She was doing fine, she reminded herself.  Despite her confusion, she had found the house again. It was fate. She now had the opportunity to bring Fletcher back. One way or another, it would be over. Edna would be able to erase this entire day, and head home with her daughter. Perhaps the presence of… him… in the car was some kind of jinx, preventing them from getting out of the area. Once he was no longer shackling them, so to speak, she would find the highway and they’d be free.          

            She leaned her head back and felt, in the darkness, Allie’s face leaning close to hers. She turned and kissed her daughter’s smooth button nose.               

            “Listen, honey, we’re going to leave the car here, hidden in the trees. Then we will walk through these trees together and then across the lawn beyond them and we’ll be back at the breeder’s house. It’s that house over there.” She pointed in the direction of some faint lights through the trees.

            “Now, Allie,” she added, being sure to convey seriousness, “we’ll be approaching from the back of the house and we’ll have to be very quiet until we get there. Okay? We don’t want to scare anyone away. Anyone who…might not be expecting us.”           

            “Okay,” Allie answered softly, frightened by her mother’s tone. “But we won’t leave Fletcher alone in the car, right?”

            Edna looked back at the innocent sprinkling of freckles dotting her daughter’s nose. “No, we’ll take him along,” she said. “You can carry him.” 

            She held her breath as Allie sat silently, looking down. Then, without a word, the child gathered the bundle to her chest and shuffled over to the car door, opening it.

            Placing one foot out onto the muddy road, Edna briefly entertained the idea of leaving the motor running. A series of movie scenes flashed across the screen of her mind:  fleeing victims, hotly pursued by criminals, pounce upon their car hiding in the woods, scramble into it, and discover, to their horror,  that the engine will not even turn over. The camera zooms into their faces, which register terror and panic, as the car continues burping out that choking sound, and the pursuers close in….

            “Stop it!” Edna hissed through clenched teeth, shaking her head as if to rid it of an annoying tic. She turned off the car. Grabbing Allie around the waist, she steered her away from their parking spot, over bulging tree roots and mounds of dirt, grateful that her daughter had nearly covered Fletcher’s face with the blankets.

            The walk through the wooded area seemed longer than it should have been, especially with Allie being so careful not to trip. The darkness of the sky was weighted and complete; no moonlight would bother to penetrate this particular small section of the world. Trying to ignore the pounding in her temples, Edna kept glancing backwards, marking landmarks in her head, so that she would find the car again. Quickly, if she had to. She could have used a knife, to mark the trees. Yes, she should have brought a knife, put it in her pocketbook with the lipstick and checkbook.

            She swallowed hard, but the lump wouldn’t go down. Each time she looked behind her, the trees seemed to crowd more closely together and to metamorphose into a row of huge, amoeba-like faces, taunting her. If bread crumbs were in her pocket now, she realized, she could leave a trail of them, like Hansel and Gretel. Gripping Allie’s waist tightly as they stepped out of the woods and into a clearing at last, she stared across the back lawn of the breeder’s gingerbread house, the house that had only recently held out such sweet promise to her little girl.

            Together, they tiptoed across, although the grass was so deep that tiptoeing was not necessary. A few dogs barked in the distance but the barking seemed listless, futile; the dogs all knew they’d been called in for the night and couldn’t do anything to anybody right now.  Suddenly, a pair of little eyes appeared at Edna’s feet, staring up at her. She drew back with a gasp, instinctively pulling Allie with her, and the eyes were gone. A skunk? raccoon? It could be anything around here. She squeezed Allie’s upper arm and forged ahead.

            Edna knew she needed a plan, a prepared speech. Perhaps it would come to her when she and Doreen were face to face. She had to do something to obliterate this nightmare and buy her and Allie’s freedom. She was here, not running away. She meant to stand up for her rights, and that meant something would have to be settled.

            Before she could formulate a more concrete scheme, her wet, sneakered feet froze in the ground, and Allie’s, in syncopation with her, stopped short as well. The voices coming from the side of the house were raised, angry. Edna strained, but could not make out any actual words. Her heart beating against her shivering chest, she inched closer, noticing that Allie, alert, was moving like a cat, bending one leg at a time forward in slow, exaggerated motion, like a sleuth from one of her television programs.

            One voice was Doreen’s; the other, a man’s. Although Edna had never heard the breeder speak in an angry tone, it seemed natural to hear it now, more natural than the cloying sweetness that had oozed from her earlier. Edna pressed herself into the white shingles, leaning her body into the frame of the house as closely as possible, and Allie, imitating her, did the same.

            The voices were near to them now, just around the corner of the house. Their sharpness cut into the dense night air.

            “That’s right, we’re leaving. So let go of me, and give me back…” a scuffle of some sort was taking place. She was leaving. Shit! The suitcases! She meant to be out of here by now, Edna realized. Something…or someone…was preventing them.

            “Where’s MaryAnn?” the male voice demanded. “She in that cab over there?”

            “How dare you even mention my daughter’s name to me!” the woman’s voice sputtered, its fury shooting out into the placid thickness.

            “You are my sister,” the male voice, deep and insolent, almost bored, declared. Edna immediately pictured him as tall and lanky, with dark, wavy hair, wearing a dirty trench coat and mud-covered boots.

            “Your sister!” the breeder screamed. “After what you did to my MaryAnn?! You are a monster, not a brother! Now let go of me this minute. Or I’ll…”

            The man chortled. “You’ll what? You’re really going to shoot me with that thing?”

            “Get the hell off my property!” the breeder screeched. “or I swear, I will…”

            The sound of a body slamming against the side of the house reverberated, followed by grunts and curses and more shoving. Edna remained frozen, her eyes fastened on Allie amid the sounds of arguing. Suddenly, to her horror, Edna saw the bundle begin to stir. Allie put her face into it and crooned something, then jiggled it gently, lovingly. 

            “You gonna at least tell me what you did with it?” the man’s voice snarled. “Is it buried somewhere back here?”

            Edna clutched at the top of her jacket, accidentally pinching her neck with her ice-cold fingertips. Her teeth began to chatter, as if electrified wires had been set in motion inside her jaw, and she feared the sound from within her mouth would give them away. She looked down at Allie, innocently hovering beside her, hugging the…Fletcher…to her thin chest. Why had she come back, put her daughter in danger? Why hadn’t she gone to a police station, presenting her story along with the…Fletcher? The police might not have believed her, of course, and she could be accused, imprisoned, leaving Allie… Tears were forming somewhere but she blinked them back. There was no time for that.  And there was not much chance they could sneak quietly back to the car now.

            Edna’s panicked mind groped for options. Keep the money and we won’t say a word – just take him back? Give me a real dog for my daughter and I’ll drop this bundle at a hospital for you? But with that brother, standing right there…

            The frantic jumble of Edna’s thoughts was suddenly interrupted by a sound — a clear, distinct, loud — sound. Everything froze. It was the very real and unmistakable cry of a baby, a human baby. Edna’s hand shot out and pushed the bundle upwards onto Allie’s shoulder, shoving it and holding it there by what she felt was the little buttocks. But the cry persisted. He had had enough.

            “What was that?” growled the man’s voice.

            “You wouldn’t know,” retorted the breeder as the crunch of stomping feet rounded the bend of the house. Face to face with Doreen again, Edna, backed up against the house with her hand on Allie’s shoulder, managed to note that the breeder’s pert little hairdo was now totally out of control, the ends wilting and dangly.

            Then came the laugh. An hysterical, non-human, madwoman’s laugh was springing forth from Doreen’s open mouth. Edna peered into the depths of that widening mouth, mesmerized by its darkness. The abyss deepened as the laugh grew more piercing, and the darkness seemed to extend into a tunnel. She and Allie were careening madly through this tunnel, trapped in a wild roller coaster ride, hurtling through an infinity from which emerged longer and louder shrieks of insane hilarity. Edna’s breath burst forth in frenzied pants; she and her little girl were in danger of crashing into the walls of this tunnel and flipping over onto their heads.

            “I want to go, Mommy,” Allie wailed in a low, terrified whisper while pulling at her mother’s sleeve. Paralyzed by the maniacal shrieks that continued, mercilessly, to pour forth from the open mouth, Edna stood rooted, her sneakers melding and intertwining with the heavy tree roots reaching upwards through the earth beneath her feet.  She never even saw the man slink around the corner, never saw that he now held the rifle. Edna’s trance broke when Doreen turned away to lunge at her brother. As they scratched at each other’s faces, each grabbing for the rifle, Edna thought of the dogs in Doreen’s yard fighting over toys. But she could not connect those playful dogs with the ear-splitting blast that suddenly shattered the thick veil of night silence.


            She had never felt so light and quick before — her feet were not even touching the ground. Gotta run – gotta keep running, running from that loud, crashing sound still echoing in her head. Running and running and running and never stopping, even for a second, the clean cool night air charging her lungs with the extra energy she needed. She could see clear across the field into a wide vastness that became another field where lights flickered, perhaps from a farmhouse, or a road.

            The moonlight glowed over the open green space, lighting her way. She could even see better at night, with the moonlight illuminating the path. There were no distractions. She was never afraid of the dark, the way Mommy is. Mommy. She hesitated, almost stopped, but then made herself run even faster.

            She clutched her bundle tightly against her heaving chest. He is really being good now, very quiet, she commented to herself proudly. He knows he is safe. She would protect him and take care of him, no matter what.

            She wouldn’t go back to where they’d parked the car. What good would that do? She’d have to run through trees on bumpy ground, which would take too long, and then she couldn’t drive the car anyway. She thought of the car keys in Mommy’s jacket pocket, where she always put them, and then of the cell phone in the purse Mommy wore slung over her shoulder and which was now lying crumpled in the dirt, and this momentarily slowed her pace. So she pushed it all out of her mind for now, and kept going. No, she would stay where the ground was smooth and open, where she could go really fast, and where one lawn probably led to another and another and she would head for the first house she saw.

            She knew exactly what she’d do then. She would knock on the door, and even though she’d be panting and upset, she would be real polite and nice and calm and tell the people that she needed help and could she please use the phone. She could dial the emergency number Mommy had taught her, and she could call Mommy’s best friend Susan, who would definitely come and get her.

            They would never catch up with her. She’d had a good head start and when she’d shot out into the clearing like a rocket being launched, she’d left the two of them, those two horrible people, fighting with each other over that gun, and she knew that would keep them busy for a while. And poor Mommy –– lying on the ground with her face in the dirt.

            But Mommy would want her to run, to run as fast as she could to get away and be safe. Mommy loved her more than anything, she always told her that, especially at bedtime when they were saying goodnight. When she reached that house, she’d make sure she got someone to go back and get Mommy and take her to a doctor.

            Her breath was coming out in little cottony puffs that she could see right in front of her eyes, and it felt good. It was leading her to the right place. As she flew over the thick grass and open fields, Mommy’s love propelled her forward, filling her head and chest and traveling down through her legs, even to her toes — filling her up like a balloon fills with air.  She’d won the first place ribbon in the 500-meter dash two years in a row at her school’s field day, with Mommy standing on the side cheering for her all the way.

             It was almost the same now. Only now she had both Mommy and her puppy-brother. They’d be there for her; she’d be there for them. She nodded her head, taking a solemn vow as the soles of her sneakers skimmed the surface of the soft green earth, its spongy bounciness hurtling her into flight.


Ruth Rotkowitz is the author of the novel Escaping the Whale (2020) and the novella The Whale Surfaces (2021). She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a number of literary journals and anthologies. For several years, she served as a staff writer and member of the editorial board of the (now defunct) Woman’s Newspaper of Princeton. Feature articles of hers for this publication garnered awards from the National Federation of Press Women and New Jersey Press Women. In addition, she has taught English on both the college and high school levels.