The ground is hot. Her tiny paws burn with each step and she hops awkwardly, trying to touch the rocky surface as little as possible. But a hard yank on her leash and she stops. Master doesn’t like it when she hops. He finds it an irritating sight, and a quick yank or swift kick to her ribs usually serves as reminder of this.
Penny is not a young dog, almost twelve this fall. There once was a time when she was full of energy and joy, romping through the cool fall leaves as Mistress smiled and patted her on the head. Master was Young Master then, or at least that’s how she thought of him. He was shorter, his hair was lighter, and he rode a bike that he sometimes tried to chain her to. Now he’s older, taller, and heavier in all the wrong places. His hair has become a dull brown, his face is wrenched into a permanent scowl, and Mistress is gone.
“Keep up, yah damn mutt,” he snaps at her and Penny trots along as fast as her spindly legs can manage. She used to be so strong, ran so fast; now her legs shake on a good day.
The crowd is thick and loud, the air is full of smells — plastic, animals, body odors, and the one that draws her the most — food. She can smell sugar, salt, sweet breads and dairy, meat being cooked, corn being popped . . . her stomach growls weakly against her exposed ribs. Master had not fed her again last night. She chooses to believe he had forgotten.
Another yank on her leash and she yelps and stumbles after him. He’s walking fast, barely sparing her a glance. The fairground is filled with people. Some with faces painted white, some on stilts, some leading animals. A clown girl with a headful of red yarn strolls by backwards, juggling half a dozen multi-colored balls in the air, trailed by a group of excited children holding cotton candy. Penny watches those slender fingers move and catch the balls, fascinated by the fast, nimble movements. The clown girl finishes her set, rolls backwards in a neat backflip, and bows to the children. Her eyes catch Penny’s and she winks from behind her blue eyeshadow and red foam nose.
“Hello there,” she says. “Aren’t you a good doggie? Would you like a treatie?”
Then, from nowhere, she produces a brown stick the length of her finger. Penny can smell it instantly. It’s meat, and though she knows Master would be angry, her hunger wins over and she lurches toward it, unable to help herself. For a moment it seems the glorious treat, the solution to the pangs that have been haunting her empty belly for weeks, is about to be within her grasp. Then the sharp yank on her neck sends her flying backwards and she falls with a pained yelp.
“Buzz of, lady,” Master snarls. The clown girl steps back and Penny whimpers. The sausage stick disappears again as quickly as it appeared.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” the clown girl says with a curtsey, though her eyes are on Penny. “I meant no harm.”
Master grunts in annoyance and pulls Penny after him. Resigned, Penny follows.
They’re seated in the second row. The air smells of hay, dust, and peanuts. Penny roosts around on the ground, finds a discarded peanut, and hungrily swallows it. Children are milling about, some reaching down to pet her, but those are quickly driven away by Master’s glare.
Music soon begins to play. Elephants march out and do a little dance in a circle. Two chimps ride a little tricycle around the arena. Master loves animals doing tricks and laughs. Penny wonders if Master would give her more food if she could ride around on a little tricycle, too.
Beautiful slender women and men dance high above, climbing on ropes and swinging to and fro. Penny feels dizzy looking at them so she keeps her head down. The heat, dust, and noises begin to overwhelm her. She lays down and buries her nose in her paws. A child drops her hotdog but it rolls out of reach before Penny can get to it. She wonders how much longer they have to stay.
She flinches at the loud noise, pumped out from black boxes overhead, much like the ones at Master’s house.
“BEHOLD OUR NEWEST ATTRACTION!”
She buries her head down deeper.
“THE BEAST OF THE WOODEN SEAS! THE CREATURE OF UNSPEAKABLE TERROR!”
A flash of movement and Penny looks up. A familiar figure with a headful of yarn passes by. Penny quickly leaps up and peeks through the gaps between the bodies in front of her.
The clown girl who smiled at her outside has appeared on stage. She twirls and bows, and a group of clowns in baggy pants appear behind her, hauling between them a giant, goofy-looking fish carved out of wood. It has been spray-painted blue, its eyes bulging out in a permanent look of surprise and its massive mouth full of dull wooden teeth gaping. It sits on a small platform with four squeaky wheels underneath. The clowns push the fish to the center of the stage and proceed to put on a somewhat confusing pantomime, leaping in and out of its mouth, acting fearful and falling all over themselves, pretending to be eaten, spraying each other and the audience with water, and finally pretending to defeat the fish with rubber harpoons.
As the audience waers itself out with laughter, the clowns wheel the fish back offstage, with the clown girl riding on top like a cowboy who’s just tamed a wild bull. Penny watches her go, and knows the show has ended.
Master does not turn on the light when they enter the house. Penny stumbles and yelps, earning another kick. Storm clouds have gathered outside and they have hurried home, Penny’s poor paws practically dragged up the hard gravel driveway. Master leaves her in the corner and heads for the kitchen. Soon she hears him on the phone, placing an order for dinner. Her food bowl is by his foot, caked with dried food from days ago, and her water dish has been bone dry for ages — thank goodness for the toilet. Tentatively, she sniffs the food bowl and lets out the tiniest of whimpers.
“What are ya whining ‘bout, fat-ass?” Master snaps, looking down at her with disgust. He opens a can of beer, sits down on Mistress’s old rocker, and loses himself in the flickering screens. The floors are littered with boxes and papers, stained with grease. However, those Penny does not mind as much as the noise. After all, sifting for scraps from the boxes is what has kept her alive for this long. She huddles into a corner, where one of Mistress’s sweaters had fallen months ago — her last source of comfort — and lays down uneasily, willing herself to become smaller as she curls into a tight ball, and falls into an uneasy sleep.
And she dreams.
Sleeping fitfully, she dreams of her Mistress. Mistress used to take her many places. To the park for walks, to the outdoor cafe for tea, to the shops in her giant purse that was warm and smelled like sweet peppermint. She used to wear a pretty collar and listen to praises of passersby. In the evenings Mistress played the classical station, rocking gently in her old rocker with Penny on her lap. They spent many years in their cozy little house, listening to music and rain. Then suddenly the house, the one that was once a sweet home, is filled with piles of junk, and black boxes with lots of wires that flashed rapid images. Master, once a thin, sulky boy, is now a large, miserable man. His voice is like thunder as he shouts at her, kicks her, laughing as she tries to dodge the bottles he drunkenly throws at her. All the comforts of her home are gone and all that’s left are the smell of rancid food and the sound of thunder.
She wakes with a start.
The bright screen is still flickering, but its noise is being drowned out by claps of thunder from overhead. Amidst the noise, she hears Master snoring. The pizza man has come and gone, as evident by the box on the floor by master’s feet. Giving the rocker a wide berth as she circles around, Penny carefully sticks her head into the open box and roots around. Today she is lucky. There is one piece of greasy meat, a few strings of cheese, and an inch of hard crush left. Quick as she can Penny eats, knowing tomorrow she might not.
Far from satiated but at least a bit further removed from death, Penny hobbles to the front of the house and peeks out the low dining room windows to the streets. Rain is pouring in torrents, flooding the streets and threatening to overrun the raised sidewalks. Thunder roars angrily and lightning flashes, illuminating the gray skies. Even the street lights appear to have been knocked out. Penny watches the storm indifferently. A large shape passes by in front of her. She does not take notice until it passes again.
A fish is swimming in the street.
She perks up and presses her nose against the glass, squinting to see through the downpour. The shape passes by a third time and this time closer to the house. She sees its tail swishing behind it, its huge eyes rolling this way and that, as if searching for something. It swims rapidly through the watery street, floating on the gathered rainwater. It disappears down the street then reappears again, swinging its massive tail as it swims back. As it passes before Penny it slows briefly, enough for Penny to see its huge, gaping jaw and teeth that, though dull and wooden just hours ago, are now glistening sharp like knives. Huge, black eyeballs roll back, then to the front, then toward Penny, and Penny stares back.
That moment seems to last forever, then the wooden fish moves on again. Penny hears the movement of its tail despite the thunder and rain.
Swish, swish, swish
Back around it goes.
Swish, swish, swish
No clowns surround it now. No goofy pantomime or acrobatics. Through the torrential rain it swims. Each time it passes the house it slows to stare at Penny. After a dozen passes it begins to open and close its jaws, massive teeth clacking like clashing swords. Penny imagines it chasing after those clowns now, tearing and grinding them between those teeth.
A groan from behind her snaps her out of her trance. Master is waking. He is drunk, and Penny already knows what comes next.
“Damn dog,” she hears him mutter. “Where the hell are you?”
She hears him kick the pizza box. Would he notice that she pilfered the last bite of food? The glass bottle is clinking against the rocker, then the kitchen counter, then the wall, as she hears him moving about, searching for a target. Would her back leg heal this time, if he breaks it again?
The fish swims by again. Swish, swish, swish
She looks out into the rain. Thunder booms again as Master approaches. The fish pauses to stare at her, then moves on, teeth clacking as its mouth opens and closes.
“Where are ya, ya dumbass dog??”
As if on cue, a gust of wind blows open the front door. She hears master curse loudly and his heavy footsteps coming toward her. Without thinking she runs outside and the wind nearly carries her off her feet. The streets are so filled with rain that her little legs nearly disappear as she runs out into it, trudging forward as the rain strikes down at her shivering spine like bullets. In the darkness she sees the shape of the fish in the distance, turning around at the end of the street and coming towards her.
It’s coming for her. She is sure of it. And when it catches her, she can finally go to where Mistress is.
Bracing her little legs, she waits. The enormous shape come bearing down on her and she closes her eyes. A heavy foot in the water behind her nearly knocks her over.
“The hell do you think you’re doing ya little . . .”
The huge shadow looms over them. She hears “what the—”
Times ticks by. Slowly, hesitantly, Penny opens her eyes.
The rain has slowed. Thunder roars faintly in the distance. The street light next to her flickers on, followed by another, then another, until the entire street is lit in a faint yellow light. She hears the sound of a tail in the distance.
Swish, swish, swish
Though she sees nothing but wet streets.
“Oh, dear,” a voice says evenly. “Such violence.”
She turns with a start and is met with a pair of bright red rainboots covered with stars. Looking up, she sees red foam nose, blue eyeshadow, and burst of red hair, all beneath a flowery pink umbrella. The clown girl looks down at her.
“Hello, little doggie,” she says. “Would you like a treatie?”
Like magic she produces a sausage stick and holds it out. Dazed and starving, Penny devours it. The clown girl slips a gentle hand under her and picks her up, holding the umbrella over them both. Her boots send little ripples through the gathered puddles as she walks. Her hand is warm and smells like peppermint.