This story is by Joanna Dunn Samson and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
If there is a gene for nurturing, I didn’t get it.
“Sorry,” I said to my sister Pam, who had asked me to take care of her geriatric mutt Polly for four days while she vacationed in the Bahamas, “no can do—busy weekend.”
“Really? Doing what? Breaking Bad marathon?”
I snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous.” It was Season 3 of Glee, but that was none of her business.
I was in a tough spot, to be sure. Pam is my champion. For 26 years she has run interference for me from a mother intent on molding her youngest daughter into a southern belle whose interests revolve around the junior league, jello molds and perfect grooming. There is almost nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
Except take care of Polly; I detest taking care of little things. I am childless and petless by choice, not by happenstance. To make matters worse, Polly is not just any “little thing.” She weighs 14 pounds and is 14 years-old—that’s a whopping 78 in dog years. Her left eye is clouded by cataracts. She is virtually deaf. Her joints are arthritic, and her hair is falling out. What’s more, she is the love of Pam’s life.
Under normal circumstances, I would never dodge Pam’s plea for help, but Polly’s age and bad health, coupled with my scant interest or experience in caretaking, was a prescription for mishap at best, and catastrophe at worst. At her age Polly could die in her sleep, and I would be the one that had to deliver the heartbreaking news to Pam.
It was a lose/lose proposition.
But Pam was desperate—she would’ve never asked me if there had been an alternative—and in the end, Pam’s desperation trumped my misgivings. I caved.
I was courting disaster, and I knew it, so I had no one else to blame when my prediction of calamity proved true. Pam had been gone less than nine hours when Polly vanished into the damp, cold night during an unattended piddle break. Not only did I leave her out a tad too long while I answered a few emails, I gravely underestimated the arthritic little bugger’s ability to move so quickly.
I searched for hours in the rain before trudging home at midnight. My exasperation had given way to panic, and panic was forming a grim partnership with dread in my chest. After a sleepless night on the couch, I set out to look for Polly first thing the next morning. Working my way through the neighborhood, I rummaged through back yards and garden sheds, checked under cars and peered into open garages. No sign of Polly, not a trace—as if aliens had plucked her out of the yard and beamed her into space.
On my way home, I stopped at Mattie Dooley’s, my next-door neighbor. Mattie is a tough old bird who continues to live on her own despite the efforts of her son, Buddy, to move her to an assisted living facility. After ringing the doorbell several times, I stepped around the old wicker chair on the porch, kicked aside a pile of junk mail, old catalogs and discarded wrappers, and leaned over a couple of wet towels and a grubby blanket on the railing to peer into the front window. Nothing; the house was dark. I scrawled my number on a scrap of paper asking Mattie to call me and wedged the note under the iron pineapple-shaped doorknocker.
At home, I called my friend Allie at work.
She was incredulous. “You lost Polly? Good Lord, how is that possible? Have you talked to the neighbors? Called animal control?” She paused. “Did you check the County Road for, uh, you know…?”
I had. The County road is a busy public highway littered with the sad carcasses of cats, dogs, possums, and other unwitting animals who came to grief while attempting to cross.
“She wasn’t there.” My head began to throb.
Allie exhaled a sigh of relief. She said, “Okay, you remember Margaret Foley?”
I rubbed my eyes and searched my memory. “You mean that big girl with the wild black hair that dressed like a gypsy? From Tyrone High School? I think she went to Emory with Pam.”
“That’s the one. She lives in Old Town now and is a highly regarded pet psychic. Maybe you should call her.”
I stared at the phone in my hand in disbelief. “A pet psychic? You can’t be serious.”
“I am. Remember when Bettianne Michaels lost her kitten last year? Margaret led Bettianne to a UPS truck parked in the fleet yard at the deep water terminal—the little thing had hopped on board while the driver was making a delivery. It was unbelievable. Besides,” she said, “What else you gonna to do? Drive around calling a deaf dog?”
She had a point. I hung up, googled Margaret’s number and made the call. An hour later, nominally refreshed from a hot shower, I headed to downtown Augusta for psychic guidance. What was the world coming to?
Margaret lived in a rambling, three story wooden structure on the Savannah River. I parked in front and trotted up the sidewalk to the steps.
The front door opened. A tall slender figure stood in the door, arms crossed and head cocked. I stopped short; this was hardly the fat gypsy I remembered.
She squinted at me from under a riot of dark curly hair, ““Paige?” she said.
I nodded and cleared my throat. “Hey Margaret.”
She smiled. “Come on in,” she said and beckoned me into house.
Thunder sounded in the distance, followed by a flash of lightning. The wind picked up from the west. Margaret scanned the darkened horizon and shuddered. “These spring storms suck. Last year, my truck was pinned under a utility pole sheared in half by lightning. It took EMS three hours to pull me out of the car. It was a nightmare.”
I followed her into the house and down a long hall into a large sitting room with floor to ceiling windows facing the river. Motioning me to sit in one of the leather wing chairs facing each other in front of a large stone fireplace, she lit two candles and a stick of incense on a wooden butler’s tray positioned between the chairs. She opened a red silk-covered box embroidered with Japanese pagodas and pulled out a cut crystal pyramid about 6” high, a tuning fork, and something that resembled a rubber hockey puck. Setting the crystal in the center of the tray, Margaret struck the tuning fork against the hockey puck and waved the humming fork slowly around her head, then around my head and in the space between us.
I was baffled. “What . . .?”
“Shush,” said Margaret, holding up her index finger, “your aura is highly restricted, indicating some serious energetic blockage. I’m cleansing the space of negative energy.” After two more strikes of the tuning fork and more cleansing waves, she sat down, pressed her fingers against her temples, closed her eyes, and began to inhale deeply through her nose and exhale slowly through her mouth.
Outside, the sun ducked behind an ominous cloud suspended over the river. The wind kicked up a notch. Eyes still closed, Margaret caught her breath. Then, with a slight toss of her head as if she was casting off a bad thought, she resumed the controlled breathing.
“Tell me the dog’s name and age.”
“Polly. She’s 14, and she’s . . .”
“Stop,” said Margaret, holding out her palm. “Too much information will infect the energetic projection of my soul to hers.”
I sighed; what a bunch of new age hooey. Outside, the tea olives danced in the wind and scraped against the windows.
“Hmmm,’ she said after a couple of minutes.
I sat up. “What? Can you see her?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. I pick up images visible to the animal, and then I try to figure out their location from those images. Animals think in pictures, you know.”
I didn’t. “And…?”
“And, well…huh. I see a very large zebra and a big body of water, maybe a watering hole?”
I slapped my hands over my face and groaned. “Jesus Christ, Margaret! A watering hole? A zebra? What the fuck?”
An enormous bolt of lightning crossed the sky, accompanied by an ear-splitting clap of thunder. The wind roared through the oaks, slamming gravel-sized hail against the house. The air turned an unearthly shade of green. The urgent wail of the City siren joined the chaos of lightning, wind and rain.
Margaret froze, eyes wide with fear. “Margaret,” I screamed over the pandemonium, “quick, the basement! Where’s the basement?”
Margaret pointed to the hall. I grabbed her arm and dragged her into the corridor, yanking open doors until I found the entrance to the cellar. The roar of the wind grew louder. We scrambled down the wooden stairs and collapsed against the wall on the dirt floor.
The room was pitch black. I couldn’t see Margaret, but I could feel her next to me, trembling convulsively. I took a deep breath and wrapped my arm around her shoulders—my scrawny “concern for others” muscle was getting some workout. After what seemed like a lifetime, but in fact was probably no more than six or seven minutes, both the wind and Margaret’s quaking began to subside. I closed my eyes and exhaled a sigh of relief.
Then it came to me, unbidden—the way an answer to a question lost in the minutia of daily mind activity pops into your head as you drift off to sleep. Capital of Kansas? Pop! Topeka. Cher’s second husband? Pop! Gregg Allman! Just like that, there it is.
And so too, in that momentary pause of sound and motion in the aftermath of the storm, a picture of Miss Mattie’s porch flashed across the screen of my mind in astonishing detail. When I had stepped around the chair to look in Mattie’s window, I had kicked aside some junk mail, old catalogues and discarded scraps of paper. On top of the pile had been a partially crinkled receipt with a Piggly Wiggly logo on the top, and just underneath the receipt was a torn piece of cardboard, like a box top, with the partial word “KIBB” printed across the top. Kibbles and Bits! From the 24-hour Pig in town! Dog food, plus wet towels and a dirty blanket hanging on the railing, equals … Yes! Polly!
I whispered “Thank you Jesus!” into the darkness, threw up a quick apology for taking his name in vain earlier, and made a solemn pledge to read the New Testament.
Thirty minutes later, after the storm had passed and the sirens had silenced, after I had tucked Margaret into bed with a Xanax and a promise to call later, I picked my way through fallen branches and up-rooted garden plants to my car and raced home. I pulled into Mattie’s driveway, killed the engine and surveyed the front porch. The note was still pinned under the knocker; Mattie had not come in or out of the front door since my earlier visit.
I slipped out of the car and made my way around the side of the house to the back. Stepping softly up on to the wooden porch, I peered into the kitchen window.
Mattie was stretched out on a worn recliner next to a potbelly stove, sound asleep, mouth open. On the floor beside her was a blanket and a large glass mixing bowl filled with water, and on the blanket was Polly, also asleep on her back with her tiny pink tongue hanging out of her mouth.
And here was the most incredible thing: the pattern on the blanket? A bold black and white zebra print.
I leaned my forehead against the glass and cried.