in the Spanish way, "Hooneor," and I loved to hear her say it.
I said, "If you're a real nurse, how come you don't wear a uniform?"
She said, "If you're not a Christian, how come you're talking to Jesus? Twilight Zone is on. Grave robbers. Right up our alley."
DON'T let them leave without him," Merry said on the telephone later that night. "And listen, sugar. About the reward money: Get cash. I'll give you a third."
"I don't want it." Talking to Cyndi, hearing her voice, had made me feel guilty about tricking her.
"I'll start a savings account for you," Merry said. "For college."
"I'm not going to college."
"Escape money, then. In case you get into another jam. You're impulsive, just like Brother."
So this could go on and on, I thought, this getting into one jam after another. "Okay," I said.
"See you on the weekend," Merry said.
"But what if they know I'm lying?"
"Remember: You're not saying he is their dog. You're just saying he could be."
I hung up and wandered into the den, where LeeAnn sat in the recliner, finishing a crossword puzzle, her reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. "Whatever you and Merry are cooking up," she said, "I don't want to know about it."
"It's a losing proposition," I said.
"Six-letter word for nuts," LeeAnn said.
"Insane." I flopped down on the hairy brown couch.
My bare thighs immediately started itching. "What was my father really like?" I said. "Was he some kind of rebel?"
She lowered her newspaper. "Because he held up the liquor store?"
I sank back into the couch, feeling queasy. After a while I said, "How long was he in jail?"
"Not a day," LeeAnn said. "Your grandfather got him and his football buddies off scot-free. They were drunk when they did it, but still. Worst thing that could've happened, him not being held responsible. He slunk off in the dead of night and never came back."
I closed my eyes.
"Didn't you know?" LeeAnn said. "Shoot, I'm sorry. You acted like you did."
"I knew," I said, and I felt as if I had. My father had committed a stupid public act, left his home forever, and was still waiting for his comeuppance. I might be doing the same thing if Merry hadn't come along. It was much smarter to operate in the gray areas of life, the way Merry did. She would never cower; she'd never wait around for anything. And she'd never get caught.
CYNDI called me at noon from Española on the third day, and I gave her directions to the house. Afterward I sat on the front porch in my white sundress, drinking lemonade and telling myself I was the picture of trustworthiness. LeeAnn had gone to the laundromat, and when she got back, I was going to tell her that Junior's rightful owners had shown up out of the blue to claim him.
I gazed down the road. With Junior gone, I thought, I'd be too afraid to go on hikes, and Lisa had grown up and left us. That's what I was focusing on then--how bored I'd be without them.
A dusty gray Volvo pulled into the driveway. Cyndi stepped out first, smoothing down her flowered smock. She was very pregnant. "Tabitha?" she said, starting toward me. That was the name I'd given. My alias.
I set down my glass and jumped up to greet her. Confidence, I told myself. Pretend you're Merry.
Steve climbed out of the driver's side. He wore a sweaty T-shirt and running shorts, as if he hadn't even bothered to change before heading off across the country. He looked at me skeptically and didn't speak. I knew then that this trip was Cyndi's idea.
"Hello," I said, shaking Cyndi's damp hand. Her hair was long and wavy, pulled back in a messy ponytail. She had a large, pleasant face. I said, "How was the drive?"
"Horrendous," Steve said. "Illinois. And then Missouri."
"Would you like some lemonade?" I said.
"Where is he?" Cyndi said. "Where's Crunch?"
I'd shut Junior in my bedroom, thinking they should see him first in dim light. "Resting," I said. "It's his nap time."
When I opened the bedroom door, my knees were shaking. Junior reclined on my bed like a prince. He raised his head but didn't get up. Cyndi gasped and covered her mouth.
Steve crouched on the floor. "Crunch. Come here, boy."
Junior stared at them. "He doesn't remember us," Cyndi said, swaying on her feet. "Is that possible?"
"He's not awake yet," I said. "Wake up, Junior." He leaped up and pranced over to sit on my foot. I said, "I've been calling him Junior."
Junior. Steve patted the floor. Junior went to Steve, wagging his tail. I held my breath. Steve scratched Junior's ears and then inspected him all over, even examining his teeth. Finally Steve looked up at me, but I couldn't read his expression. "Thank you," he said gravely.
Cyndi plopped down on my bed, her face pale. "I still can't believe it. I haven't been able to sleep; my blood pressure's gone up. My due date's in six weeks."
"Sit," Steve said to Junior. Junior licked Steve's face. "Lie down," Steve said. Junior jumped up and put his paws on Steve's shoulders. Steve said, "He doesn't remember anything I taught him."
"Dumb dog," I said.
"Crunch," Cyndi called in a soft voice, and Junior trotted over and hopped up on the bed beside her. "Now he remembers," she murmured, hugging him. "He remembers. Hello, Crunch."
I thought. It could be. Or Crunch reincarnated. I started to cry, and I imagined Merry shaking her head in disgust.
"Are you sad about giving him up?" Cyndi said. "I'm sorry. I've been thinking only about myself."
"He's not Crunch," I said. "He's Junior. Hooneor."
Cyndi frowned at Steve. "Where are your parents?" Steve said.
"My grandmother." I gestured with my head. "She's senile." I wiped my nose on the back of my hand and then wiped my hand on my dress.
"I'm sure you're upset," Cyndi said. "You can get another dog."
"No," I said. "I'm trying to tell you. This dog came from the pound."
Cyndi and Steve exchanged concerned looks. "We're just glad you found him," Cyndi said, scooping up Crunch and handing him over to Steve. Crunch lay awkwardly in Steve's arms with his legs sticking straight out, and they both stroked him under the chin. They didn't care whether or not Junior was Crunch. They loved him no matter what.
"I almost drowned someone," I said. "I was scared and I took it out on her."
Cyndi patted my shoulder. "You'll be okay, Tabitha," Steve said.
"My name's not Tabitha," I said. "It's really Sophie St. John. My parents sent me out here from Iowa for the summer, but my grandmother doesn't even know me." I stopped crying, and my heart began to pound. I could feel their generosity infecting me. "You're not suckers," I said. "You're good people."
"That's nice," Cyndi said. She turned to Steve. "We should get going."
Crunch began to squirm, and Steve dumped him onto the floor. "I hate to leave Sophie here," Steve said to Cyndi. "We could give her a ride back to Iowa. It's on the way."