It Would Have Been Easier if It Had Been an Affair
Taking a friend’s dog for a walk, a case of mistaken identity leads to a conclusion she doesn’t know what to do with.
I didn’t mean to find out.
I swear I didn’t.
I was just walking her dog while she went to that conference out in California or Texas or whatever. I mean, she’s always gone. And normally, her boyfriend takes Beastzilla out to landmine the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road, but he was visiting his folks and he couldn’t make it over there, so I said I’d do it.
No big deal. The big gallumph loves me, and it gives me a chance to go to the park and look cute in front of all of the guys with their frisbee dogs. They don’t talk to you unless they think you’re one of them, and having a Beastzilla does it.
So I was on my third day going to the park with this huge slobbering mess of a dog, when this guy walks up to me and starts talking to Beastzilla. Like, actually, no kidding talking to the dog. Like Beasty-boy was going to answer him or something. And then he looks up at me and says something I didn’t catch and I’m like, ready to walk past him to go to the park and find someone to pretend to know, but Beastzilla acts like he knows this guy.
“You are three days early, Jenny,” the guy says, and I’m like, “Sorry, dude, but I’m not Jenny.”
And he looks down at Beastzilla and up at me and then back and forth again and he just takes off. And I don’t know what the hell to make of that, so I go to the park.
So Jenny gets home the next day and she’s all grateful when I come to drop off the key, and everything’s normal. She had a good conference, he was a good boy, Rafael is going to be home tomorrow, we’re all happy, talking, and I don’t even think of the weirdo on the way to the park.
Until two days later.
Jenny’s just gone. No one knows where she went, no one knows how to reach her. Rafael is beside himself, not knowing what to think, and he calls me to tell me what happened. I don’t know why he calls me, but he does, and I can’t just not talk to him, you know? He’s on the phone. And he’s telling me about how often she’s gone and how he’s afraid that she’s left him for another man and, bingo, that’s when I think of the dude.
I don’t know what to tell him. I mean, that sucks. And to hear it from some chick who used to work at the university with Jenny and who just so happens to kind of like Jenny’s dog?
“What happened to Beastzilla?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Rafael asked. I think she took him with her.
And I don’t know whether to tell him or not, so I tell him to let the police look for her, and maybe someone on Facebook will know something, and I hope she turns up, because what else can I say?
And I’m out running the next morning and I go past the spot where the weirdo struck up a conversation with the Beast, and I stop. I think it was the smell.
We’re talking two days later, here, and the spot smells like ozone.
And when I get to looking, the grass is all mashed down, just right there, and I could swear it wasn’t before, because Beastzilla seriously did his business just right there the first day we went out.
And now I’m thinking… Hell, I don’t know what to think. It’s been four days and Jenny still hasn’t turned up, nor has that big old dog of hers, and I’m thinking… Okay, yeah, they could just disappear, run off with some guy she met online, whatever, but that spot on the ground… The grass is turning brown, and it still smells like ozone.
I think I’m covering for an alien.
Do Mind the Mess Dripping from the Ceiling
They gave him a bug net and a chemistry set. They really should have seen it coming.
Alex was a pretty normal kid. He did normal things, by kid standards.
Well, so long as those kid standards took into account the fact that he was thirteen and had a very independent creative streak.
He’d gotten a chemistry kit for Christmas and a magnifying glass and a butterfly net for his birthday.
And that was really where the problem started.
He’d been outside for about an hour when his mother – preparing to host a party that evening with a group from church – looked out the window to see him peering in a glass jar, laying flat on his stomach on the back deck.
She continued cutting brownies and counting glasses for another minute or two, but there was something about the way he was lying on the wood of the porch and something about her mother’s instinct that told her that this was a good time to intervene.
Her instinct was about a minute and a half off, but she wasn’t going to figure that out for another ten minutes.
She went out to the porch, hands on her hips, and asked him what he was doing.
She loved Alex like the moon and the sun combined, but he was thirteen and she had a group of ladies from church coming over in thirty minutes. You have to walk a fine line between being a champion of creativity and independence and making sure that he isn’t planning on launching mudpies at the ladies as they come up the front walk.
He was testing remote trigger mechanisms, and honestly, if any of them had little boys of their own, they would have known to watch their feet more carefully. I mean, anyone who has ever lived in a house with Legos knows that for the rest of their lives. But these were younger ladies, all with precious little girls in pink and gold dresses. Alex’s mother didn’t even try to explain it. They’d get there. Someday.
“I’m looking at my pets,” Alex said. His mother frowned.
“Isn’t that my cookie jar?”
He nodded without looking up.
She shook her head. She had meat in the crock pot that she needed to get out, and a cheese ball to form for chips. She needed to shut this down now and worry about what was actually going on later.
“Come inside now,” she said.
“But what about my pets?” he asked.
“Bring them,” his mother said, looking for the option that got him inside and up to his room as quickly as possible so that she could get back to preparing for her party. She waited, making sure he’d actually picked up the cookie jar and was bringing it inside before she went back to the kitchen.
At this point, she had four minutes left.
But she didn’t know that.
She pulled a sheet of cookies out of the oven, smelling them with a happy smile. Her grandmother’s recipe. She went digging for a trivet out of a drawer and put it on the table, putting a bowl on it and sliding the cookies into it, then she went to check the crock pot. The meat smelled of barbecue sauce and beef, and she went to get the rolls out of the pantry, pulling them apart and putting them into a wicker basket.
She finished cutting brownies and put them onto a serving tray alongside a row of mixed nuts and cubed cheese, setting that next to the cookies, then she got the cheese ball out of the fridge and went digging through a cabinet looking for the serving tray for chips.
She had one. She’d bought it at an after-Thanksgiving sale the previous year, and she loved it. It had festive colors on it that every time she looked at it she had to remind herself that they weren’t *necessarily* fall colors, they were just pretty, but the design was one she loved so much, she couldn’t resist.
“How many times are you going to use a chips-and-dip tray?” her husband had asked, but she’d gotten it anyway, and she was going to darned well used it every single time she had people over, just to prove to him that it had been worth it.
She got out ice, putting it into the ice bucket and went digging through the random utensils drawer for tongs, then went to get the stool out of the bathroom so that she could reach the party napkins above the refrigerator. She lay those out in a fan pattern, thinking for a moment about folding one into an origami shape of some kind – she’d taken a class at the home goods store a few years ago, and she still remembered a few of them – but she thought that it would be a little pretentious, and she didn’t want to waste the good napkins like that.
Drinks. Drinks. She’d gotten them at the store, but for a moment she forgot where they were.
The refrigerator in the garage. They’d run out of room in the refrigerator in the kitchen with all of the leftovers from going out the other night, and she’d had to put them all outside. She needed to get those all out to the table so that she’d be in the house when Barbara rang the doorbell; her best friend usually came over early to help with the parties, but they usually ended up mostly just talking, because as much as they loved having parties and getting together, they never did, and as soon as more than one of them was in the room, they were talking about this or that, and so Alex’s mother needed to get everything important done before Barbara got there.
She was bringing in the glass bottles of root beer and setting them in a tub of ice by the table, one ear out for the doorbell, when there was an odd noise.
Odd noises turned Alex’s mother’s stomach, because if she didn’t immediately know what caused them, there was every chance that she didn’t want to know what caused them.
She drew a bracing breath and started for the front hallway.
“Alex?” she answered.
The explosion hit her in the face.
Wet, greenish, and full of bits and pieces of something.
“Alex?” she asked again, her tone quite different this time.
“I just wanted to see what would happen,” he whined.
“Alex, what was that?”
She was doing her level best not to let it drip into her mouth.
“Well, I found these really big bugs out back and I caught them with my net, and I was seeing what they liked to eat, and then I started trying things from my chemistry set…”
Her brother had promised her that there wasn’t anything interesting in that set. He swore it.
She looked at the ceiling, feeling something run down her hair and onto her back. She hoped it wasn’t alive.
And then the doorbell rang.
The Stew or the Headdress
Getting lost in the woods was bad enough. Adam had to be stuck with the most evil parakeet that had ever lived.
“You’re lost,” the bird said.
“I know,” Adam answered.
“You’re lost,” the bird said again.
“I know,” Adam said again.
Why did parakeets have to talk?
And why had Adam agreed buy one.
Leslie. That was the answer.
She was pretty and funny and had a temper like a rabid dog, and when she’d said she’d wanted one, he’d answered: yes, dear.
They’d looked at pet shops where their birds were clipped, but Leslie had said that that was immoral and unconscionable and so they’d gone to a private breeder who had sold them a parakeet who could fly, not just glide.
Which brought him to where he was now.
With the most evil parakeet the world had ever seen.
“You’re lost,” the bird said again.
“I know,” Adam answered.
It was the same story for most of his bad life decisions.
Leslie had wanted to raise chickens, so they’d built a mobile chicken coop. They keep the grass short, she promised, and they eat the bugs. You hardly have to feed them at all.
The problem was that she wasn’t willing to eat them, and at the beginning she’d said that it was only natural that they keep a rooster, too, and so soon their little mobile coop that they moved around the back lawn during the day – at least two or three times a day, so that they didn’t get bored – was too small and Adam had to build a bigger one.
And he’d done it. He’d sold the rooster, but he’d built a bigger coop for the original six chickens and their eighteen blasted offspring that made it through the first few weeks.
Every time one of the chicks had died, she’d brought it into the house crying and lay it out on the table, germs and parasites and all, and she’d said words over it. Three, four, five times a day. Baby chicks were fragile, it turned out, and mother hens weren’t very good at caring for them.
Leslie said it was because they didn’t have enough space. The other hens attacked each other’s chicks and killed them.
So he’d built a bigger coop. Now it took both of them to move it, but the bloody little things could run around in there like it was recess, and she’d been happy. And they’d sat out on the lawn watching the chicks play and they’d laughed and drunk beer.
But then she’d wanted a goat.
They were clever and funny and they would keep the edges of the back yard clean of long grass and rodents, and she’d always wanted a goat.
And the first goat had died. Coyote, she said. Neighbor dog, Adam thought.
So they’d gotten two more, because there was safety in numbers, and they’d built a shed for them to live in at night. And every morning before he got up for work, he went out and fed them and washed them – because they stepped in their own excrement overnight, and Leslie wouldn’t stand for them having it on their feet all day long. So he became a goat pedicurist.
And then she’d wanted a cow. A good milking cow, she said. Just imagine the breakfasts you could have, with a flock of chickens and a cow!
And the neighborhood finally put its foot down, so they’d moved. They rented a little cabin outside of town where the barn was three times bigger than the house, and they’d moved the goats and the chickens, and he’d been ready to tear down the shed and move it, but she said no, they needed a bigger one. Because they deserved more space, if everyone else was getting more space.
And a more solid chicken coop, she thought, because the coyotes out there in the woods might be bigger and meaner than the ones in the suburbs.
Adam thought that suburban coyotes might be pretty rugged beasts, seeing as how they competed with so many dogs for prey, but he didn’t say it because she wouldn’t have thought it was funny. He just built a bigger chicken coop.
And then came the pets. They’d gotten three Great Pyrranees to watch over the livestock. Never mind that the one killed four chickens before Leslie declared him an indoor-only dog, that was what they were for. They got a cat, and then another, and then another, because barn cats shouldn’t be lonely either, and then all three of them became indoor-only cats when Leslie thought she saw a coyote out in the front yard. They got a ferret, because she read that they were supposed to be really great pets – smart, interesting, creative, and inquisitive – but the blasted thing got stuck behind the refrigerator and when he’d tried to get it out, he’d squished it.
She hadn’t spoken to him for three days.
And then came the parakeet. You were supposed to talk to it every day, and groom it with your finger the way it groomed itself, and never let it sit on your shoulder or your head, because that was the stupid thing asserting dominance, and then you’d never be able to train it.
It only ever sat on Adam’s shoulder. Leslie taught it all kinds of things, and it remembered everything she ever said to him, repeating it in an eerily modified version of Leslie’s voice.
“You’re lost,” it told him again.
He’d opened the window because it was spring and it was nice outside, and he wanted to get some of the animal smell out of the house. He was tired of not having any space in the bed, and if he couldn’t fix that, at least he could get some of the nice woodsy smell in and the dog-and-cat smell out.
And the damned thing had flown out the window.
He’d chased it for hours, from tree to tree as it called down criticisms at him, until it finally got bored and flew down and landed on his shoulder.
“You shouldn’t let him do that,” it said.
“I know,” Adam had answered, taking out the leather tie he’d grabbed from the back of the sink that you used to keep it from flying when you weren’t actively holding its feet. They’d gotten the leather thing after the parakeet had mauled one of Leslie’s friends in one of their rare human visits.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Leslie had said. “He thought he was in danger.”
Adam thought that generally birds that thought they were in danger flew off, but what the hell did he know?
He tied the bird to his shoulder, because it would attack him with its beak if he tried to tie it to his wrist, and he’d started back to the house.
That was four hours ago.
He had no idea where he was.
The sun was going down, and the weather was fine, but he was well and truly lost, and the bird telling him so didn’t help anything.
He sat down next to a tree and folded his hands across his stomach, resigning himself to sleeping out here.
At the end of the next day, he’d begun feeling weak and he hadn’t found a road, any sign of civilization, or a drop to drink. As he settled down against a tree, brushing the parakeet off of his ear as the bird bit him again, he looked up at it and he smiled.
He didn’t know if he was going to get rescued and he didn’t know if he was going to find his way home. But as far as he could tell, what he had now was one final decision.
The next spring, a pair of hikers stumbled across a rotted corpse laying against a tree. They’d heard about the missing man the year before, so they weren’t entirely surprised to find him, but neither one of them could figure out the odd arrangement of feathers he was wearing around the crown of his head.
He took a pill. The rest of it was an accident.
Okay, so it had been stupid.
He could admit to that.
It might have even been more than stupid.
And he hadn’t been drunk or anything.
Beef woke up the next morning feeling like he’d been hit by a truck. He didn’t remember much of anything from last night, and that might have been normal, but he hadn’t had anything to drink. The warning on the label said not to.
He held his hand to his head, wincing at the headache, and shook his head, swearing once more that he would never, ever, ever do something again just because someone offered him five dollars to do it.
Especially not if they’d offered him five dollars to do it.
He sat up and looked around, and realized that he didn’t know where he was.
He’d seen the inside of most of the interesting places to end up after a bender: jail, his parents’ basement, the lawn of the frat house, like that, but he was laying sprawled across a desk, his face slobber-plastered to a stack of mussed papers. He snorted and wiped his face, prying the paper loose and trying to tidy it in case whoever owned this office came back and found him there.
He checked his pocket, but he didn’t have his keys. Good chance he hadn’t driven here. No way in hell he knew how he had gotten here, but at least it hadn’t been with his own car. Now he just had to figure out how to get out of wherever the hell he was and go find someone from last night to tell him what he’d done.
Five lousy bucks.
For this headache, he wouldn’t have done it again for twenty.
Someone had left a bottle of pills on the windowsill of the frat house, and the guys had been playing catch with it all night. Someone opened it up and found that they were a kind of psychadelic purple and pink color, and the dares had started flying for someone to take one.
The bottle didn’t say what they were. It just said don’t combine with alcohol and don’t operate heavy machinery after taking it.
Beef had always wondered how many people had access to bulldozers, that they thought they had to put a warning like that on there.
He swallowed, finding that his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and the back of his throat, and he thought that maybe he’d go looking for a water fountain on the way out.
Fancy-schmancy offices like this always had water fountains, didn’t they?
He finished straightening the papers as well as he could, considering he’d unleashed a flood of drool on them in the last hour or so, judging by how much drying had happened and how much spit he had in his hair, and he started to push the chair in under the desk when two things caught his eye.
First, that was his handwriting.
Not his normal, I don’t want to do my homework handwriting. It was neat and well-ordered, actually legible, but it was without a doubt his own.
Second, he saw that there was an arithmetic error at the bottom of the page.
He swallowed again, just about choking on his own dry tongue, but he couldn’t leave until he’d fixed the math.
The problem there was that the page was soaked.
He dug through the desk, finding a new ledger and pulling a page out of it, lining it up next to the slobber-covered one and beginning to copy the numbers from one page to the next.
He didn’t even have to look more than a couple of times to memorize all of the numbers on the first page, and then he just wrote them all, like it was nothing. He’d never seen his hand move like that, like it was comfortable with a pencil in it.
He played football, he played baseball, and he played basketball. He was a coordinated guy, but he’d always felt like a full-grown man on a tricycle, when he held a pencil.
But he couldn’t go until the numbers were right.
There. There, he was done. He crumpled up the spoiled page and threw it away, re-sorting the pages and putting them where the guy whose office this was would find it, and he bolted for the door.
“Good morning Mr. Edwards,” a woman said, passing him in the hallway.
He looked back at her.
“What?” he asked. She gave him a teasing smile that wasn’t entirely kind.
“Sleep here again?” she asked.
He turned and ran, finding a sign for the men’s room and going in to splash water on his face, then he looked up in the mirror.
Some bastard last night had cut his hair while he was out.
He patted his pockets again, looking for his cell phone, but he didn’t have that, either.
He slurped water out of his hands, then wiped them on his jeans and started for the door, passing three more people in the hallway who all acted like they knew him.
It was creepy.
He at least recognized the street the building was on, and he ran all the way to the frat house, finding Pete in the front yard.
“Beef,” Pete called. “We were wondering when you’d get back.”
“Dude, what happened last night?” Beef asked.
Pete shook his head.
“Nothing, man. Why?”
Beef frowned, feeling his chin. He hadn’t shaved in days. He’d shaved the night of the party.
“Ricky paid me five bucks to take a pill last night,” Beef said. “I owe that guy a pounding.”
“You owe him more than that,” he said. “That party was last weekend.”
“What day is it?” Beef asked.
“Thursday,” Pete said.
“What the hell happened to me?” Beef asked. Pete laughed again.
“You went nuts, man. Like, thirty minutes after you took that thing, you went and got a bunch of paper from your room and you started writing on it. Talking to yourself and stuff.”
“This is a prank.”
Pete shook his head.
“I swear. Ask anybody.”
“Where have I been for the last four days?” Beef asked.
“Hell if I know,” Pete said, slapping him on the back. “Glad you aren’t dead, dude.”
Beef watched him go, then went into the house, going up to his room.
He stopped dead in the doorway.
There was paper everywhere.
He never used paper. Not unless someone made him to do homework, and then he had to scrounge to find some, and he wrote small so that it would all fit on one page, because he didn’t want to go looking for another one. Sometimes he just stopped when he got to the end of the page and didn’t do any more.
The little folding table he used as a desk when it wasn’t covered in laundry and his backpack was an inch deep in paper, and he didn’t see his laundry.
Oh, yeah, he did. It was there on his bed. Which didn’t look like he’d slept in it since the paper had taken up residence, because it was covered in paper, too.
What had happened to him?
He looked at the pages, and his mind checked the math like he might have recognized color or a face, before. It was just obvious. And the math was all right. Page after page of it.
“Where are those pills?” he yelled.
No one answered him, so he went out into the hallway.
“Where are those pills?”
Ricky stuck his head out of his room.
“Dude!” he called. “You’re back.”
“What did you do with the damned pills?” Beef asked. Ricky laughed.
“We saw what they did to you and we flushed them all, man. Think Bumpy put the bottle in the microwave until it melted.”
“Why did he do that?” Beef asked. Ricky shrugged.
“You know Bumpy, man.”
He was going to have to go back to the office.
“Where are my keys?”
“Think Michael took them when you took that pill,” Ricky said. “You feeling okay?”
Beef shook his head.
“I owe you a pounding.”
“Gotta catch me first.”
Beef found Michael and got his keys, driving back to the office and going in. A woman looked up.
“Hello, Mr. Edwards.”
“You know me?” he asked.
“Of course,” she answered.
“We hired you on Tuesday.”
“Who hired me?”
“Phillip did,” she said.
“And where is he?” Beef asked.
She showed him back to an office, shooting him strange looks, then left him standing outside of it. He knocked.
“Mr. Edwards,” a man said. “What can I do for you?”
“You gave me a job,” Beef said.
“Yes,” the man called Phillip said.
“Why?” Beef asked.
“Because I’ve never met a young man with such a gift for numbers as yourself. You came in here, and I must admit that it was a bit of an odd way to get a job, but you took a look at our accounting ledger and in three minutes, you’d identified six problems with it. What more could I want out of an accountant?”
“Accountant,” Beef said.
“Of course,” Phillip said. “That’s what it says on your door, isn’t it? I need to get back to work. Did you need anything else?”
“Um,” Beef said, shaking his head.
Phillip smiled and patted him on the back.
“Welcome to the team, son.”
Beef watched the door close, then, very bemused, very confused, and without any choice in the matter at all, he went back to his office.