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"I help people find things," her aunt said. "They call me up from all over the U.S. and Canada. Missing dogs are my specialty"

by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

THE city pool was full of children that day, but I don't think that's what bothered me. I was fourteen and happy to be out with my friends. It was sunny but cool for mid-July in Iowa. A breeze flipped up the edges of our beach towels as we lined them up on the crumbling cement, anchoring them with clogs, a bottle of coconut oil, and a transistor radio that seemed to play nothing but Sammy Davis Jr. singing "The Candy Man." My friends flopped down on their backs and fell asleep, but I couldn't relax. I sat cross-legged in my faded bikini, a hand-me-down from my sister, Daisy.

Daisy was lifeguarding, but she couldn't see me, didn't even know I was there. She looked like a stranger, perched above the masses in her red tank suit and mirror sunglasses, her nose a triangle of zinc oxide. In one month she was going away to college, leaving me to take care of our father. I couldn't let myself think about how dreary life would be without Daisy. I gazed out at the pool, which was circular, with the deep part and diving island in the center. A group of four or five children splashed around at the edge of the deep water, shrieking and dunking one another. A smaller girl in a green one-piece bathing suit dog-paddled near the splashers, barely keeping her chin above water. She wanted to play too, but the other children--friends? neighbors? sisters and brothers?--ignored her. Teenagers were doing cannonballs off the high board, and their waves sloshed over her head. Nobody except me seemed to notice. The girl was paddling as hard as she could, getting nowhere.

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  • See an Atlantic Unbound interview with Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

    More Atlantic fiction by Elizabeth Stuckey-French:

  • "Electric Wizard," (June, 1998)
    "They sat calmly, waiting to hear Jason's poem, and the weight of what had happened to them hung heavily in the room. I hoped they'd start fighting again"
  • I stood up and waded into the water, which reeked of chlorine, and began swimming the breast stroke toward the group of children, holding my head up as a snake does. The older kids moved off toward the slide, leaving the little girl behind. When she saw me, she opened her eyes wide and reached out. I didn't have a clue how to rescue someone. I took her hand, and she clawed her way up my arm. She was on me like a monkey. Her legs swung up and wrapped around my neck, dunking me, choking me. I tried to stand, but I couldn't touch bottom. She kicked me hard, in the jaw. I shoved her away, but she held on to me. I'd had enough of this kind of treatment. My hand gripped her head like a rubber ball. I held her under water and watched her thin body squirming in its green ruffled suit.

    Someone finally screamed, and the lifeguards began blowing their whistles. Daisy dove from her chair in a red flash. Still I held the girl under. It's too late now is the only thought I remember having. A man tackled me from behind, and Daisy jerked the girl from the water. The man gripped me tightly to his thick chest, as if I were trying to run away. Over on the cement Daisy knelt beside the girl and gave her mouth-to-mouth. After a few seconds she stood up, holding the squalling girl, stroking her wet hair. The ruffles on the girl's suit were flipped up and plastered to her body. "Daisy," I called out. When Daisy looked over at me, her face was slack with shock, and I realized what I had done.

    Everything after that seemed nightmarish but inevitable. Daisy and I were taken up to the pool manager's office, dripping wet, to sit in plastic chairs and wait for the police. The detective who came wore a velour shirt and looked familiar, like someone I might have seen at church. Daisy reported what had happened in a businesslike voice, while I stared at the tufts of hair on my big toes, wondering if I should shave them.

    The detective asked me if I had anything to add. "She tried to drown me first," I said.

    "That's not how the witnesses tell it," he said.

    I glanced over at Daisy. "Sorry," she said, ever the honest one. "I didn't see that part."

    At my hearing we sat on a bench in front of the juvenile judge--first the detective, then my father, hanging his head, then Daisy, her arm around my father, and then me. My mother, who had washed her hands of us, didn't show. Because of my previous record--shoplifting and truancy--the judge decided to send me to the Cary Home, in Des Moines, for one school year.

    THE Cary Home for Girls was an elegant brick house tucked into a cul-de-sac at the edge of an upper-class neighborhood. From the outside you'd never know it contained six teenage delinquents and their live-in counselors. We bad girls attended classes in the large attic of the house, ate pizza burgers, did homework together, and watched reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show. It hardly felt like punishment.

    At night, though, things fell apart. I had relentless dreams about Lisa Lazar, the little girl from the pool. She came to the Cary Home in her ruffled bathing suit and invited me outside to play. When she smiled, crooking her finger at me, I woke up terrified. I would stare at the buzzing streetlight outside my bedroom window and wonder what someone like me was doing at the Cary Home--someone who until recently had usually played by the rules, was fairly popular, had a semi-cute boyfriend, and tried her best to get decent grades.

    In April, near the end of my stay at the Cary Home, my father called to tell me that his sister, Marie-Thérèse, was coming to see me. "She wants to help out," he said. I'd never met my aunt before. She and my father exchanged Christmas cards and birthday phone calls, but that was about it. "Marie stays on the move--she's a wheeler-dealer" was my father's only explanation for why we never saw her. I wasn't sure what a wheeler-dealer was, but it sounded intriguing.

    On the evening of her visit I stepped into the living room and saw a fattish woman in baggy shorts and huaraches sprawled on the sofa, snoring. I recognized her dark curly hair and sharp features from an old photo I'd once found in my father's desk at the Magruder Times, of which he was the editor--a photo of my father and Marie-Thérèse as children, posing in chaps and cowboy boots in front of some mountains in New Mexico, where they grew up. I said, "Hello?"

    She bounced up, wide awake. "I'm your aunt Merry," she said, shaking my hand. "M-e-r-r-y, as in Christmas."

    We sat down across from each other, and she explained that she'd recently changed her name to Merry because she'd moved to Columbus, Ohio. "Midwesterners don't like anything Frenchy," she said.

    "That's true," I said. I was disappointed that she'd changed her name and looked so ordinary and lived in Ohio. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my roommate, the klepto, in the yard, peering in through the screen window. She was sneaking out to meet her boyfriend, the arsonist. She bugged out her eyes and flicked her tongue. I ignored her. I asked Merry, "Why'd you decide to come see me?"

    "Brother said family could visit," she said. "And I'm family, last I checked."

    "Thanks," I said. My parents had never once been to see me at the home. My father was too ashamed, and my mother was too busy looking after her own father, Smitty, who owned the Times. Daisy, who had postponed college for a year, drove over every Sunday and took me out to the movies or to the Frozen Custard. We always got teary when we said good-bye. She would ruffle my hair and call me Squirt, willing me to be innocent again.

    "Listen, sugar," Merry said, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. "I called Brother last week 'cause I got the feeling something was wrong. He's worried sick. I offered to look after you, just for the summer. Transitional period. Before you go home."

    So they didn't want me back. "I committed a crime," I said. "That's why I'm here."

    "Nice place, too." Merry looked around at our cozy living room, furnished in Early American sofas and chairs that could swallow you whole.

    "I don't want to be in the way," I said. "Don't you have a family in Ohio?" I knew she had been married twice and had stepchildren.

    "Oh, sure," she said. "But we won't be going to Ohio. We'll be staying out at the homeplace, in New Mexico."

    My father had once written a piece for the newspaper about what it was like to grow up on a ranch--haying, feeding livestock, planting and watering alfalfa--but he never talked to us about New Mexico. His parents had been to visit us a few times when I was little, but I barely remembered them. Now his father was dead, and his mother was a sick old lady. "Why do we have to go out there?" I asked Merry.

    She took my hand and squeezed it. One of her eyes was blue, the other green. "I'm a psychic," she said. "You're going to be helping me with a job. Mom has offered us the use of her home."

    "I tried to kill someone," I said. "A small child."

    "I know, sugar," Merry said. "You did an extremely vicious thing." She stood up and slung her purse strap over her shoulder, as if that settled that.

    I was relieved, if only for a moment, to think that it did.

    AUNT Merry and I left for New Mexico the last week of June. In Kansas she insisted that I drive her Lincoln Continental. I had my learner's permit, but I'd never driven on the interstate.

    "Don't sweat it," Merry said. "The Queen Mary handles like a dream."

    I sat up straight, my hands gripping the wheel as we rolled across Kansas at 70 miles an hour. Merry propped her bare feet up on the dashboard, knees tucked under her purple caftan. If I dropped down to 65, she would bark out, "What are you waiting for? A tow?" If I sped up to 75, she'd imitate a police siren.

    But most of the time she talked about herself. "I wear different-colored contacts," she said. "Throws people off balance. They pop out sometimes, but I always find them. I have ESP. Had it since I was a kid. Once Brother lost his G-Man ring, and I led him right to the spot, in the schoolyard, where it fell off his finger. Unfortunately, someone had stepped on it by then. When I was your age, Mom put me on the radio. My own psychic call-in show. I directed a woman right to where her baby had wandered off to--the bottom of a well. Brother was so jealous."

    I didn't want to reveal how eager I was to learn anything about my father. "Was he?" I said in a neutral tone.

    "He was," Merry said. "He got stuck with all the chores. Didn't stand up for himself. Held it all in, till he couldn't take it anymore." She started humming "Rock of Ages" and stared out the window, letting me know she was finished with that subject.

    We passed a muddy lot packed tight with cattle which seemed to go on for miles, bigger than anything I'd ever seen in Iowa. Finally I asked Merry, "Do you still have a radio show?"

    "Oh, no, but I still help people find things. They call me up from all over the U.S. and Canada. Missing dogs are my specialty." She studied her feet and wiggled her red-painted toenails.

    Merry was more childlike, and more self-confident, than any adult I'd ever known. She didn't seem to realize, or care, how weird she was. I said, "How do you find missing dogs?" Up ahead, in my lane, a station wagon was going much too slow.

    "Pass him, pass him!" Merry yelled. We surged around the station wagon and veered back into our own lane. Merry went on in her ordinary voice. "Say, for example, some rich guy calls me from Indiana. He and his wife are missing their yellow Lab, Captain Crunch. Someone stole him right out of his pen. Man and his wife are distraught. Dog's a kid substitute. They've been offering a two-thousand-dollar reward, but no leads. I'm quiet for a while, and then I say, `Your dog is safe. I see a late-model Ford, dark green, with two men in it. They drag Captain Crunch into their car. I see them driving to New Mexico. They're taking the dog to Los Alamos, for research purposes. But they stop at a convenience store in Española, and the Captain escapes.'

    "'Thank God,' the man says. 'Where is he now?'

    "'I can't tell exactly,' I say. 'Put an ad in The Santa Fe New Mexican. You'll find him.'

    "He says, 'Thank you, thank you,' and says he'll send me a check for my commission."

    "Are you right all the time?" I felt as if Aunt Merry and I were aliens, flying through the wheat fields in a spaceship.

    "One hundred percent of the time." She swiveled to face me, the gold trim around the neck of her caftan glittering. "I can guarantee that somebody living with her grandmother just outside Santa Fe will answer that ad, and the happy couple will drive to New Mexico to pick up their dog. My little helper will hand over most of the reward money to me, keeping a bit for herself. All the time I'll be back in Ohio, so nobody can connect us. Not that these people ever try. They might suspect they've been had, but they've got a new dog. Everyone's happy. Even the dog."

    I glanced down at the pavement racing underneath us. "I thought you had a gift."

    "I do," she said. "I know how to make a living."

    "I'm getting tired," I said. "My eyes aren't seeing very well."

    "At the next rest area pull over and take five."

    "What if you can't find a dog that looks like theirs?"

    "He's waiting at Mother's. Captain Crunch Junior." She swung her feet back up on the dashboard. "It'll be an adventure, sugar," she said.

    MY grandmother lived in a low brick house with tiny windows, surrounded by ramshackle outbuildings that looked like they were floating in a sea of red dirt. A few cottonwood trees punctuated the gray-green sagebrush. "This is a ranch?" I asked Merry.

    "We used an irrigation system," Merry said.

    When we got out of the car, I saw a dog tied to the corner post of the front porch. He was yellow, but he looked part Lab and part something else. He was smaller than a Lab and had floppier ears. "They'll never believe this is their dog," I said. He strained at the rope and wagged his tail. "Is that the best you could find?"

    "Now, don't speak ill of our canine friend," Merry said. She took out of the trunk of her car the two bags of groceries we'd just bought and thrust them into my arms. Then she leaned farther into the trunk and emerged with a small TV set.

    "What's that for?" I said.

    "For you," she said, and grinned. Her teeth were too white.

    Inside, while Merry unpacked the groceries, I wandered through the house. It was nearly bare of furniture. I could find no evidence that my father or Merry had ever lived there, not even a photograph. There were two rooms with single beds and small dressers in them, and one of these bedrooms was strewn with a woman's clothes. I tiptoed into another room, where my grandmother, balding and feeble, lay in a hospital bed under a pile of old quilts. There was a smell like sour milk. "Grandmother," I said. She lifted her head and yelled out, in a surprisingly strong voice, "Run, run--the Baptists are after you." I backed away.

    In the den Merry was bustling about in one corner, unplugging a TV set and hoisting it from a table onto the floor. A slight red-haired woman wearing a black jumpsuit leaned against the wall with her arms folded, watching Merry. Merry was talking to the woman but not looking at her. "I figured you didn't really need this fancy set," Merry said, "and we can really use it, what with Dick's poor vision." She lifted the little TV she'd taken from the trunk and set it on the tabletop. "There. That'll do fine."

    "Does it work?" the red-haired woman said.

    "Been working for years. Came from a motel liquidation."

    The woman snorted. "I guess it's black-and-white."

    "It's good quality," Merry said, patting the small TV like a pet.

    A little while later I stood out in the driveway. Merry sat behind the wheel of her Lincoln, her elbow crooked out the window. She'd stayed only long enough to unload my things and swap TVs, and now she was heading back to Ohio. I held on to her door handle. It was getting dark. "I can't do it," I said.

    "It'll go as smooth as silk." Merry winked her green eye at me. "Read those want ads every day, sugar. Should be any time. I'll be back before you know it."

    I tried to think of something that would slow her down, if not stop her. "What should I tell Dad?"

    "I wouldn't tell him anything." She started the car. "Considering your track record. And his."

    "What'd he do?" I said, but she didn't seem to hear me. She stepped on the gas, flicking her hand in a wave as she spun out onto the dirt road.

    I watched the red dust settling and thought about Iowa--our two-story white house with its porch swing and sweet-smelling lawn that rolled under my tree house down to the cornfield. At home on a summer evening the air would be full of humidity and comforting sounds--crickets, country music from passing cars, the distant voice of the baseball announcer at City Park. Daisy would be cooking my father's dinner--maybe pork chops and baked potatoes. I couldn't picture what my mother would be doing, because she lived with Smitty in his Victorian house across town. For years Smitty and my mother had eaten breakfast together every morning at the café, and every afternoon she had helped him with his business affairs. Finally, after she'd spent all of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Smitty, my father said to her in a joking voice, "You like him better than you do us. Why don't you just move in with him?" She called his bluff and did just that. Since Daisy had already taken over at our house, it wasn't that much of a change.

    I stood there in the driveway till the sun had dropped behind the mountains. Then I untied the dog and took him inside.

    I GOT into a routine right away. Every morning at breakfast I read the entire newspaper, saving the lost-and-found ads for last. When I'd finished my Grape-Nuts, I put the bowl on the floor, and Captain Crunch Junior stepped up and licked the bowl clean and then some, causing it to roll around the kitchen floor.

    "You kids stop that racket!" my grandmother screamed from her bedroom.

    The red-haired woman, who turned out to be my grandmother's live-in nurse, sat across the table from me, reading Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. She was half Mexican, her name was LeeAnn, she was forty-two, and her hair, she told me, was naturally red.

    The first morning I was there, she'd said, "Aren't you going to get bored? How long are you staying?"

    Merry hadn't warned me not to tell LeeAnn about our scheme, but I knew I shouldn't. Besides, having a secret made me feel important. Merry had chosen me to help her, and since I was in a position to help, why shouldn't I? "I'm here on a rest cure," I told her. "For my mental health."

    "Well, then," LeeAnn said, "you'll fit right in."

    After breakfast I would grab an apple from the fridge and make three peanut-butter sandwiches. In the living room, which was totally empty, I tied a rope to Junior's collar and we set out for a walk down the dirt road toward the mountains. Strange-looking houses lined the road--adobe houses with scraggly yards from which dark-skinned people stared at me. Sometimes I pretended that Lisa Lazar skipped along beside us, barefoot, in her silly green bathing suit. The air was clear and dry, and the sky was so blue it almost hurt to look at it. We strolled past cactus plants and lizards sunning themselves on white rocks. To the south were rounded hills with ribbons of pink running through them. The mountains loomed straight ahead. We walked and walked until I let myself realize that we must be miles from my grandmother's house. Nobody knows me here, I thought, and nobody knows where I am. That thought was a signal that we'd gone far enough for one day. Junior and Lisa and I found shade under a pine tree and split the sandwiches and the apple.

    When we got back, worn out and thirsty, we napped till dinnertime--frozen dinners and Purina Dog Chow that Merry had left. In the evenings I watched the little television in the den with LeeAnn, who was always doing something else at the same time, like sewing a hem or balancing her checkbook. At seven she spoon-fed my grandmother her applesauce, and at nine she gave her a sponge bath. During commercials we talked about all kinds of things, including the existence of God. Neither of us believed, although we both wanted to. I couldn't bring myself to tell her about Lisa.

    One night, while we were watching Nightmare Theater and LeeAnn was knitting a Nordic sweater, she told me she thought Merry was a sleazebag. "She's sold off every antique, everything of value, in this house."

    "What's wrong with that, if nobody else wants it?" I said, realizing I sounded just like Merry. "Merry looks out for herself," I said. "I kind of admire that."

    LeeAnn shook her head, clacking her needles together. "I think it's disgusting. At least wait till the poor thing's dead."

    "So why do you work here?"

    "I won't be here forever," she said. "Besides, I always liked Mrs. St. John. I grew up down the road."

    "Did you know my father?"

    "He used to let me ride his pinto pony." She held up the front of her sweater and admired it. "Merry used to make us kids march around in a parade just so she could be the majorette. Your father was always helping people, fixing things."

    This didn't sound like my father. Whenever he was home from his job at the newspaper, he spent hours sitting in his chair, staring out the living-room window at the cornfield behind our house, tapping his empty pipe on the edge of the coffee table. Daisy would bring him fresh glasses of iced tea and rub his shoulders, and sometimes he remembered to say "Thanks, honey." Their behavior sickened and infuriated me, but I knew better than to let on.

    LeeAnn resumed her knitting. "You seem like such a well-adjusted kid," she said.

    "Young adult," I said, and we both laughed.

    Later that night Junior hopped up onto my bed, settled himself on my feet, and fell asleep. I lay awake, wondering what LeeAnn would think if she knew the truth about my family and the horrible thing I'd done. I wondered if she'd think I was crazy. Other people thought I was.

    After the incident with Lisa my father took me to a psychiatrist in Indianola. He wore a hearing aid and kept asking me how I felt. "Fine," I kept saying, feeling sorry for him.

    He sighed. "Is anything bothering you?"

    "Well," I said, "I keep wondering where that girl's parents were when she went out into the deep water. Why weren't they watching her?" The psychiatrist wrote something down in his notebook, and I knew I'd said the wrong thing.

    At night, after my father and Daisy were asleep, I would pace around our house, shredding tissues and gasping for air. During the day, while they were at work, I lay on the couch watching soap operas with the sound off. Once, my mother dropped by, dressed in her pale-pink suit, my favorite, the one she wore to Garden Club meetings. She sat down beside me on the couch, trying to appear calm, but her eyes were fixed and tense, like a cat's. "The whole town knows what you did," she said. "Do you realize your father had to publish an article about it? In Smitty's paper?" My father had worked his way up to editor-in-chief, but my mother never let us forget that Smitty owned the paper. She grabbed my ankle and shook it. "Why would you attack that little girl? What were you thinking?"

    I couldn't stand seeing my mother, the president of the Magruder Garden Club and Ladies' Literary Society, behaving like this. I couldn't stand her helpless hand-wringing. I said, "I hated that girl's frilly bathing suit."

    My mother burst into tears. "What's wrong with you?" she said, but she didn't wait for an answer. She got up and ran out of the room.

    Junior, a hot weight at the end of the bed, let out a loud snore. I jerked my feet out from under him, but he didn't wake up. I knew what was wrong with me, and my mother did too, even though she pretended otherwise. I had become a delinquent because I did not intend to take my turn as Daddy's nursemaid. I did not intend to make myself useful.

    AFTER my first day in New Mexico I didn't go in to see my grandmother again. It was too depressing. I never called home, and when they called me, I said I was having a very educational experience. I told my father that Merry was off on a short business trip--going to some motel liquidations--and that she'd left me in the care of Grandmother's nurse, LeeAnn, and that LeeAnn had taken me sightseeing on her days off. I mentioned some places I'd read about on the back of the New Mexico state map.

    "How's Mom?" he asked me.

    "Sweet," I said. "But kind of confused." I told Daisy I'd bought a square-dancing dress with the fifty dollars she'd given me, and she pretended to be horrified.

    Once, my mother called and said that she'd seen Lisa's mother in the Jack and Jill, and that Lisa was doing fine. "Outwardly," my mother added. Every night Junior slept at the foot of my bed.

    The ad appeared after I'd been in New Mexico nearly a week. "Lost: Yellow Lab, from a convenience store near Española. Two years old. Goes by Captain Crunch. Reward. Call Steve and Cyndi Richardson."

    That morning Junior and I walked past the horse pasture, past the school bus converted into a house. We kept following the road when it turned and climbed uphill through some pine trees. A hawk circled overhead, screeching. We'd never gone this far before. Lisa turned and ran back down the hill. I realized that the real Lisa no longer looked like the girl in the bathing suit. For one thing, the bathing suit wouldn't fit. She was a year older. She was bigger, taller, and smarter.

    Junior stopped and gazed back at me, questioning.

    "Lisa may not ever want to swim again," I said. "Did you know that?"

    He sat down on his haunches, his eyes fixed on my sack of sandwiches.

    The phone number in the ad was busy till 8:30 that night. "He showed up at my door hungry and weak, like he'd walked a long way," I told Cyndi. "Does your dog have a little white spot on the crown of his head?" Merry had coached me on what to say.

    "Yes!" Cyndi shouted. "You're the first person who's mentioned the spot. I've gotten four calls already, and nobody's mentioned the spot. It's him, Steve. We found him!"

    "I'll send you a picture, so you'll know for sure." I tipped back in my chair, feeling cocky. Merry had taken a picture of Junior, a tad blurry, and it was already in an envelope with the address and a stamp on it.

    "You don't have to," Cyndi said. "I can tell by your voice that Crunch is right there in the room. We'll be there in three days."

    "Three days?" I rocked my chair back down with a thud, which startled Junior, who was sprawled out in front of the screen door.

    "Give him our love, will you?" Cyndi said. "Tell him we're on our way."

    "Would you like to tell him yourself?" But she'd already hung up. "Jesus H. Christ," I said. Junior flopped his tail.

    "What was that all about?" LeeAnn stood in the kitchen doorway with her hands on her hips. She wore gym shorts and a T-shirt that said ART WON'T HURT YOU. She said, "What are you and Junior up to now?" She pronounced Junior 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."

    What if it really is 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."

    Cyndi slipped her arm around Steve's waist and sagged against him, but she didn't protest. I sensed they were playing some sort of game, a game in which they took turns leading valiant, ill-conceived rescue missions. One proposed a course of action that most people would consider absurd, and the other went along as though it all made perfect sense. Their game, the kindness and futility of it, and the way it bonded them together, made me like them even more.

    "Why don't you call your parents?" Steve said. "We've got room in the car."

    I sat down on the edge of my bed and blew my nose, remembering the last time I'd been home. Merry and I had swung by Magruder on our way to New Mexico. She stayed in her Lincoln, listening to the radio, while I went inside. My mother was there for the occasion. One by one they came forward and kissed me, blank-faced, as if I were in my coffin and they'd already cried themselves out. Daisy slipped me a fifty-dollar bill. "Buy yourself a summer dress," she said. My father hugged me with one arm, his face turned away. "See you soon," my mother said, opening the door like a hostess at a party. They seemed united, more like a family, with me gone.

    Steve and Cyndi were watching me, waiting for my decision. "Thanks anyway," I said.

    I followed them out onto the front porch, Junior trotting between them like their long-lost son. Cyndi and Junior climbed into the car, but Steve stopped in the driveway. "Is a check okay?"

    I had forgotten about the reward money. "Don't worry about it," I said.

    "That was the agreement," Steve said, turning toward the car. "I'll get my checkbook."

    DURING the night my grandmother died in her sleep. LeeAnn discovered her in the morning and called the funeral home. After the coroner pronounced her dead, the funeral-home men took her away, wrapped in one of her quilts. LeeAnn and I spent all morning on the phone. We couldn't reach Merry. She was already on the road somewhere between Ohio and New Mexico. My father said they would come out to New Mexico as soon as they could get a flight.

    In the afternoon I asked LeeAnn if she wanted to go for a walk. The sky was clouding up behind the mountains, but we set out anyway. "We get storms every day in midsummer," LeeAnn said. "No biggie."

    "I never got to know Grandmother," I said. "I wish I felt sadder. I'll miss Junior more than I will her."

    LeeAnn, striding along beside me in shorts and hiking boots, just nodded. It had never occurred to me that LeeAnn would own a pair of hiking boots. It was odd seeing her outside, in the daylight, moving along with such assurance that she seemed to leave an impression in the air behind her, like an echo. I realized she'd been walking on this road for years. "What are you going to do now?" I asked her. "Where will you go?"

    "I've got a husband in Santa Fe," she said. "I need to make amends and move on."

    I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn't. "Me too," I said. Someday I would have to talk to Lisa, the real Lisa, face to face. A gust of wind kicked up the dust around us, sending a plastic cup flying past our feet. We bowed our heads and kept walking. Clouds rolled over us, and I felt the first drops of rain. LeeAnn stopped and pointed to an adobe house with a rail fence around it. I'd gotten used to seeing it every day on my walks. "That's where I used to live," she said, and we stood there in the rain looking at the house, which was for me transformed again into something mysterious. The windows in front were open, and white lace curtains whipped in the wind.

    WHEN Merry pulled into the driveway that evening, I left LeeAnn in the kitchen and went out on the front porch to get it over with. Merry nosed her Lincoln right up to the steps as if she were docking a boat. Then she climbed out, brushing her hair from her eyes with a bejeweled hand. She was wearing the purple caftan, which was stained between her breasts. Coffee or chocolate. "I'm beat," she said.

    I sat down on the top porch step, wishing I didn't have to give her bad news.

    She came up and sat on the step beside me. "Run get the money," she said.

    I forced myself to look in her eyes, which were both brown. "I've got a check, made out to me. I think we should split it fifty-fifty." I'd practiced saying this in front of the mirror, but even so my voice lacked authority.

    She sighed dramatically and dropped her head. "And I've got a funeral to pay for."

    "How did you know about the funeral?"

    "I picked up negative vibes all across Missouri," she said, "but I didn't want to believe them. Finally I pulled over and called Brother."

    We sat in silence, looking out at the sagebrush. My mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow. Merry glanced at her watch. "Holy moley." She stood up and jumped off the steps. "Help me get my stuff in, sugar," she said, dashing around to the rear of her car. "Then we need to carry the furniture out of the house. A man's coming for it in half an hour." She opened up the trunk and peered at me around the lid. "We have to do it before Brother gets here. He'll try to lay claim to the whole kit and caboodle." Her face disappeared and I could hear her rummaging around in the trunk.

    I remembered what LeeAnn had said about Merry the majorette, making all the kids march behind her in a parade. I could see there would never be a halt unless I called it. "You're on your own, Aunt Merry." I hadn't practiced saying this, but it sounded as if I had.

    Just then LeeAnn yelled through the open window, "Fried chicken!"

    Merry slammed her trunk shut and blew past me into the house. I went in behind her, walking at a leisurely pace.

    THE following summer, when I was sixteen, I got a part-time job at the Magruder city pool. They put me down in the basement of the rec center, next to the locker rooms. I sat on a stool behind a battered wooden counter, collecting admission fees and handing out wire baskets and locker keys attached to large safety pins. Most of my earnings I put in a savings account I'd started with my half of Steve and Cyndi's check. Escape money.

    One Saturday afternoon after a heavy rainfall, when the pool was virtually empty, Lisa and her mother came through. Lisa's hair was cut in a bob, and she wore a Speedo bathing suit. Her mother, a beautiful, haggard-looking woman, trailed behind her, wearing thongs with big plastic daisies on them, smoking a cigarette.

    "Hello, Lisa," I said. My face flushed, and I wished I'd kept my mouth shut.

    Lisa looked up. She didn't recognize me or even seem to wonder how I knew her name. "Hi," she said. She grabbed her mother's hand and tugged. "I'm going off the high dive. First thing."

    Her mother smiled at me and rolled her eyes. She didn't recognize me either. "We got a show-off here." She slid some change across the counter. "The diving board at the club isn't as high as this one."

    I held out their baskets and keys, and Mrs. Lazar took them. I had to say something more to Lisa. "I'm the one who held you under water. Two summers ago." I smiled idiotically. "Sorry."

    Lisa nodded. "Okay." She started running down the hall toward the women's dressing room. "Cowabunga!" she yelled.

    A line was forming behind Mrs. Lazar. She glared at me, gearing herself up to give me a piece of her mind, even though, I could tell, she'd rather not be bothered. She took a drag of her cigarette. "I sincerely hope you got rehabilitated up in Des Moines," she said.

    "I did," I said. "Completely."

    Kids in line were pushing and shoving. Mrs. Lazar kept glaring at me, waiting for me to grovel. The ash on her cigarette was ready to drop onto my counter.

    "But then again," I said, "I might do the same thing any time. Or worse."

    "I see," she said. She turned and addressed a suntanned woman behind her. "I guess they let anyone work here. This place used to have some class."

    "Hurry up," the suntanned woman barked.

    Mrs. Lazar shook her head in a world-weary way and flip-flopped off down the hall, flicking her ash on the floor as she went.

    The suntanned woman handed me a crumpled dollar bill. "Some folks think they run the world," she said. "If you know what I mean."

    "I do," I said. "I certainly do."

    Copyright © (1996) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1996; Junior; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 91-102.

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