The lake is a place to begin from, large enough to build your life around, as many families have tried to do. When looking on it from a distance, from the pine-draped hills, its shape is visible, a clear, distinctive S.
By day, the lake is just a mirror for the houses and the hills, the pebbled beaches, and a few small boats that slowly drift. The tall white mountain stands above the lake, beyond the hills, beyond the trees, beyond the reaches of the lake's reflection.
A house stands, separate from the rim of houses by the lake. The man inside it is a solitary man. He's built a long grid metal fence around his yard. A pair of large dogs paces back and forth in its perimeter.
The lake is a place to dwell in. Its clear shape fills empty sentences, begins—or, far more often—ends them with its cold, imagined depths. As night falls, outlines fade. The sky turns gray. The lake turns black. The tall white mountain stands, a shadowy suggestion.
A gentle mist gives way to thin, pale strips of fog, which rise into the trees, then hover there, like they are lost within them. The house stands, separate from the lake. The body of the man inside it lies, dead, on a mattress in the moonlight.
The dogs wander the backyard, scanning for their keeper, unsure why he hasn't come out from his house to fill their bowls. He has not done the things they see him do each day: Pour breakfast. Take them for a walk. Pour dinner. Take them for a walk.
Their coats are thick, gray layers over soft, white downy fur. They do not feel the chill of evening as the mist falls. They feel very hungry. They've already shared the last small bits of food left in their bowls, that morning, from the night before.
The younger dog, Orion, pokes his nose into his metal bowl. He scrapes his dish against the concrete slab of porch. His collar tags clink up against the metal of the bowl.
Scrape. Clink. Clink. Jingle. Scrape. Clink. Jingle. Jingle. Scrape.
The older dog, Artemis, looks around the yard. She finds a long forgotten toy, a rope that tastes like stale bread. She brings it to Orion. He licks at it, takes it in his mouth, and takes it to a corner of the fence.
Artemis walks onto the concrete porch slab and she sits. She looks at the glass sliding door, the long, white paneled blinds. She watches them to see if they are moving, or if they have moved, but they remain as still and white as bones.
800 miles away, inside a neighborhood, inside a home in Sacramento, all the kids are tucked in bed. A light, warm, late spring breeze drifts through the open windows, filling rooms with sweet, soft, airy, and unsettled feelings.
In the kitchen, the father sits, sipping iced tea at the counter. The mother stands, making a Memorial Day dinner. The father watches as the mother stirs and scoops, wraps things in cellophane, and shelves them in the fridge to serve tomorrow.
The mother scrapes a bowl of whipped up chocolate mousse into a pre-made pie shell, smoothes it gently with a spoon. She smoothes it carefully. She steps back and observes her work. She sighs. She scrapes the bowl again. She smoothes it out again.
What's that pie called? The father sips the last of his iced tea.
French Silk, the mother says.
It's French? He says.
She says, I don't know.
It is not my favorite pie, the father ventures, cautiously. He reconsiders. It's a bit of an
odd pie. Unusual.
She says, it is, I guess, but it has always been his favorite.
He puts down his glass and he repeats, it is a bit of an odd pie.
The mother goes out of her way to make her brother's favorite things because he only visits once a year. She scrapes a bowl of whipped cream on the chocolate mousse, spooning and smoothing it with even greater care.
He sees her lingering over this task. He recognizes a familiar tension in the muscles of her face. I've never been much of chocolate fan myself, he says.
She says, I'll make a coconut cream, too.
He says, now that's a pie.
800 miles away, the mist turns into rain. The dogs take shelter in their kennels, under plastic dome-shaped roofs. They slowly drift to sleep, still hungry, still unsure why they have not been fed, their ears pricked and tuned-in to every sound.
The rain taps gently, at first, like soft, stroking fingertips. Then, it taps harder, like the fingertips are scratching. Then, it taps hard, like a whole hand beckoning them toward its movement. The rain taps, come here, come here, come here, come here.
They curl up deep into the shadows of their shelters, their own scent, which lines the shadows like a dark, thick sheet of breath. They watch the wet grass shiver in the rain until the moon shades and the shivers blur, and everything turns black.
They dream of summer, soon to come. They dream of running down hills, walking under trees, the warm light shining in-between them. They dream of slick stones, soft grass, and pine needles underneath their feet. They dream of gray clouds drifting on the cold dark water of the lake.
They dream about their keeper, in the distance, calling, here, come here. They dream of searching for his voice between the trees. They dream of finding things and bringing them to him. The shapes and sounds that form a warm, familiar boundary around their senses.
It's 3 o'clock.
The father says, it's 3 o'clock.
She says, I know.
He says, well?
She says, well, I just don't know.
He sets the table with the plates, the cellophane-wrapped bowls. He reaches for the coconut cream pie. He almost reaches for the French Silk, but he feels a tinge of sympathy. And anyway, he thinks, who needs French Silk?
He remembers a montage of past Memorial Day dinners with his girls, his wife, her brother and his pair of dogs. In each frame of his memory, his wife still makes the pie, still wears her blue-striped dress, her hair in tight-clipped nervous curls.
Each year, his wife retains this image even as his girls grow, bobbing through the yard, two yellow-headed sunflowers.
Her brothers' two small puppies have grown up as well, from friendly creatures playing in the yard, to larger adolescent dogs, kept leashed, to very large dogs hidden in their kennels in the basement. They're not used to kids, her brother always said when they would start to whine.
The kids, the father always said to him, when he'd inevitably cut her brother off from drinking too much beer.
The father says, the kids are starving, and it's 3 o'clock.
The mother says, you go ahead. I'll wait a little while longer.
She stands by the front door, looking at the driveway, watching for the curve around the bend, where she would just begin to see his car.
The father does the dishes.
Walks away. Comes back.
Dries off the dishes.
Walks away. Comes back.
Puts all the dishes in the cupboard.
Walks away. Comes back.
Looks at her.
You're still waiting?
She says, yes.
He says, the traffic, maybe.
She says, do you think I should call someone?
Of course, he does not tell her what he thinks.
She says, I think that I should call someone.
He gets the phone and gives it to his wife.
Orion and Artemis wake to the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. They rush to the edge of the gate. They look out through the mesh. This car is short and flat. Their keeper's car is tall and wide. The man who opens the car door is also short, unlike their keeper.
They hear some crackled noises coming from the man's hip pocket. Artemis growls into the direction of the sound. They hear a distant knocking. Pause. A knock. A voice. A knock. A voice. More crackled noises. More knocking. More crackled noises. Silence.
They hear a distant thud. An echo. Their ears flatten back. Orion barks, confused by the silence that follows as much as the sound.
The silence stretches on. Orion's ears resume their normal shape, but Artemis still listens for the sound. She walks up to the sliding door. She watches for a movement in the blinds. A shadow shifts. A light darts back and forth inside.
The phone rings on the bedside table and the mother picks it up.
Yes, this is she.
Oh. Yes. Oh. No. Oh. God.
Her eyes go wide. She looks straight forward, then she looks toward the father.
They…she hesitates. They found him. In his house.
Of course, she says into the phone. Of course. No, not at all.
No, please, no, thank you, no, no, no, of course, no, no.
She holds the phone away from her. She starts to cry.
The father takes the phone. He says, hello, this is her husband.
Yes. I can do that.
Yes, I will. I will be there.
He rises from the bed. He tells the phone, one moment please.
He takes the mother's hand and holds it for a moment.
He walks into another room. No, I don't mind, he says.
Please don't apologize.
No, I should be the one.
He hears the mother through the wall, still crying to herself. He hears the bed creak and the bed sheets rustling. He hears a muffled wail and a clenching sort of whine, like water trickling at a low pitch through the pipes.
He thinks, I should change my pitch to sound more thoughtful, less detached.
He says, it's easier for someone who is not related, yes.
He thinks, that didn't sound quite right. He thinks about what sounded wrong.
He says, someone who's not related, not by blood.
He thinks about blood, all the liquid flowing through a body.
He thinks about how this is going to be a fucking mess.
So much liquid.
So much flowing.
So much blood.
He thinks about the things a body holds inside, unseen.
He thinks a silent wave of wordless, tired, pissed off static.
In a softer voice, he says, out loud, I'm really not surprised.
The sun rises. A long car and a van pull up into the driveway. Neither is the shape or color of their keeper's car. Orion barks as three men step out and move toward the house. Artemis braces herself, letting out a low, deep growl.
They hear rustling and crackled noises like the night before. They see the mens' movements inside the house, behind the blinds. They see the men move up the stairs, lifting a long, flat plank. They hear soft bumping sounds. Orion barks. Artemis growls.
After awhile, they see the men move down the stairs, even more slowly, lifting up the flat plank with a long white sheeted form. They hear the door close, then, a harsh, metallic rattling. They see the men lift up the sheeted form into the van.
One of the men moves back into the house. He pulls the blinds back from the window. They can see him towering above them from behind the glass. Orion's ears fall flat. Artemis bares her teeth. The man jumps away from the window, pulls the blinds back into place.
A moment later, the glass door slides open slightly, just a crack. A hand juts through the crack, sets down a bowl of water, slides it shut.
Another moment later, the door cracks again. A hand sets down another smaller bowl beside the bowl of water. Artemis looks into the small bowl while Orion drinks the water. It is filled with two wet brownish cylinders of food.
The father calls the office in the morning after emailing the form. He checks the empty box that says bereavement. He is careful to adjust his voice, when speaking, so it sounds a little quivery, like maybe he is holding something back.
The HR Manager asks him about his girls, the 6 and 10 year-old, as he refers to them in office conversation.
He says, they are both good kids, but don't tell them I told you that.
Haha. Ok, the HR Manager replies.
The mother hasn't changed out of her nightgown. She's still on the couch, surrounded by her stacks of photo albums. He glances at her lap and and sees a page of Kodachromes: she and her brother, side-by-side, in matching sweaters.
It was so long ago, she says, as though she doesn't quite believe herself.
He doesn't know how to respond, so he says, yes.
It's how I think of him, she says. How I remember him.
He says, I think it's good of you to think of him that way.
Upstairs, 6 and 10 stand in full dress at the sink. Their long blonde hair is pulled up into fuzzy yellow rubber bands. They both take their respective brushes—6 is pink and 10 is purple—and prepare them with their strips of blue mint paste.
He stands behind the doorway, watching their blue foaming mouths, their busy little movements, and he thinks, they really are good kids.
He says, be good, kids.
10 spits and she says, we will, Dad.
6 spits and she smiles, flecks of toothpaste sticking to her teeth.
They eat the strange brown cylinders. They still feel hungry. Small, wet flecks of food stick to the edges of the bowls, and dry. The dogs lick at the dried bits unsuccessfully. They pace around the yard. They peer between the mesh grid of the fence.
No cars. No people. No new sounds or movements.
No colors, shapes, or smells signal the presence of their keeper.
Orion hunches on his elbows with his tail in the air. Artemis humors him and chases him around the yard. They tire of this quickly, and Orion takes his stale rope, lies down, and chews it by his corner of the fence.
Meanwhile, Artemis keeps pacing the perimeter. At first, she looks through all the openings, observes the lack of change, but as the day grows brighter, warmer, bringing no new sounds or movements, she moves faster, and the walls fade into blurs of light.
He cannot help but feel a sense of satisfaction as the city fades behind him, as his car becomes part of the highway's forward movement, a part of this shining current filled with metal bodies, filled with people, yet, entirely alone.
This is a feeling that he cherishes, a feeling that is typically confined to 10 weekly time slots from 8-9 and 5-6. When traffic halts, he glances at his fold-out map, the long blue vein of highway, flowing upward, flowing north.
The tall gray towers with their large white letters dwindle into short gray blocks of buildings, smaller roads, and smaller signs with smaller promises of places to refuel, places to rest, places where food can be purchased quickly, inexpensively.
As traffic thins, his stomach growls. He feels very hungry. He cannot remember the last time he felt so hungry. He pulls into a drive-through and he orders something that he never orders, something that his wife would neverlet him eat.
He pulls back out onto the highway and drives onward, north. The gray blocks dwindle into sparse, gray houses, rise up into hills of trees. The houses grow fewer and fewer as the trees grow thicker. He peels back the crinkled wrapper, bites down into hot, bland meat.
He drives awhile, chewing, thinking, yes, it's good to be alone. It's good that I am getting something out of this.
He sees a dark, broad-winged bird, drifting gracefully above the trees.
He thinks, an eagle.
He looks closer. No, it is a vulture.
He drives past a group of vultures, drifting, all with equal elegance.
He thinks, I never knew that vultures were so beautiful.
He thinks, I'm only thinking that because the eagles aren't around.
He thinks, haha. Don't worry, eagles. I won't tell them.
He crumples up his fast food wrapper and he thinks about the eagles and the vultures and the beauty of the world.
He pulls around a curve and he's surrounded by great, blueish mountains, filled with darker blueish shadows from the clouds.
The shadows sweep across their smooth slopes in a feathered way, like the reflected strokes of many distant wings.
He passes by a murdered mound of meat, a mangled, tarry mess of broken bones and blood and splattered organs.
He tries to think, just road kill, like he normally would think, but in these blue majestic shadows, normal thinking is impossible.
He thinks, a bird. He thinks, a car. He thinks, a person, driving.
He looks at his fast-food wrapper and feels guilty.
The flame pink sky burns down to cinder blue, then black.
The dogs sit side-by-side beneath the stars.
The grass grows cool, then damp.
The crickets chirp.
An owl calls.
Who who—who who—who who
Eventually, they tire of watching for new movements, listening for new sounds, waiting for something to happen. They drift to sleep inside their igloo shelters, comforting themselves with fading traces of familiar smells.
Artemis dreams of running through some endless, mystic hills, just running, through green slopes, gold valleys filled with silver springs.
Orion dreams of lying, as a puppy, nestled up against the warmth of some strange mother he will never know.
He stops for the night at a motel in the mountains. His room smells like stale smoke and old wood paneling. He stands inside a dingy plastic capsule underneath a moaning pipe, a rust-tinged trickling of water.
He towels off and lies, still damp, on top of all the sheets, closes his eyes, and thinks about his family at home. He thinks about his wife wearing her sweatshirt, with her hair pulled back, beneath the covers, reading from a story to the kids.
He thinks about 6 and 10, nodding off against her shoulders. 10, in her purple nightgown. 6, in her pink nightgown.
He thinks about himself, sitting across from them, or, far more often, listening in on their voices from his chair downstairs.
He thinks about their low, hushed murmuring.
He thinks about his wife in bed, her low, hushed tears, her muffled whine.
He thinks of 6 and 10 with their covers tucked up to their chins, their sleeping faces hidden underneath their hair.
He thinks about her brother's dogs. He wonders what they're doing and he tries hard not to think about that sound.
That awful crying from the basement.
Whimpers buried into whispers.
Into little quakes that rise up through the floors into his head.
They dream they hear the sound of the door, sliding open. They dream they see the outline of their keeper in its entrance. They dream of padding toward it, losing track of it within the shimmer of the dust that rises in the air.
They dream the sounds of footsteps, scraping, shuffling around.
The sounds of rustled paper.
Tall gray stacks and towering black piles.
All the sour smells that come from them, within them, and around them.
Sour fluids pooling out across the floor.
He drives along a road surrounding a blue, serpentine lake, curving out from—then into—green forest hills. As he curves out from them, again, he sees the white slopes of the mountain, rising up through clouds like curling strands of steam.
The house sits just beyond the homes around the lake. To reach it, he must pull up through a long, deep shaded gravel drive. At the end of the drive sits a small, white paneled ranch home, set within a frame of tall, dark pines and long, lush plumes of fern.
His heart beats sharpen with the crackled sound the tires make as he pulls to driveway's end and slows down to a stop. The wood around the single-car garage looks rotted. The house's roof is covered in crude patches, which are sagging in.
The dogs begin to bark as soon as he opens the car door. He opens the trunk and takes out a bag of food. Their barking deepens into growls as he comes closer to the gate, holding the bag up like a shield against his chest.
The dogs are poised behind the gate door, backs arched, skin snarled up around their bright, pink gums, black lines of lips, their sharp, white teeth.
He murmurs, hey, dogs, hey.
He cracks the gate. The dogs continue growling.
He says, Artemis, Orion, in a firmer voice.
Orion's ears perk at his name, but Artemis waits til the gate is opened, til she sees his face, to soften from her pose.
He nods with great relief when they stop growling.
Hey, dogs. Hey.
He shifts his body through the gate in the order of its most replaceable parts.
They walk along with him, sniffing the bag of food. They lunge into the bowls, eating almost as fast as he can pour.
Good dogs, good dogs, he says.
He folds the empty bag beneath his arm. He watches, cautiously, to see what they will do.
Orion licks his mouth, then slowly creeps toward him, sniffs his hand, and looks up at the father with his warm, brown eyes.
Orion's old enough that he remembers springs spent with a man who looks, and sounds, and smells just like this man. He's old enough that he has some sense of the seasons, how a man who looks like that seems to accompany this time of year. Yet, he is young enough that he also forgets things, easily. He trusts most men. He trusts the moment, as it comes. Artemis has a more developed sense of history, of loyalty—toward their keeper—mistrust—toward men.
He'd planned to spend the first day looking through the house, through his belongings, to see if there was anything of value he could save. He quickly learns that anything that was of value—once—has been so long neglected, it is no longer of use.
In the garage, he finds a box of dingy tools, a wall of rusted bike frames, and some falling-over stacks of dusty cardboard boxes. Inside of them, he finds thick piles of water-damaged magazines and books, their curled, stiff pages stuck together. He finds a once red car, now brown, a crust of dirt and withered leaves. When he approaches it, he hears an ominous, low hum. He peers in through the glass and sees a round, gray nest of hornets. He decides, there's nothing I can save in the garage.
He steps onto the porch. An indescribably bad smell drifts from the house. When he opens the door, it overwhelms him. He fishes through his pocket for the paper mask that he was told—over the phone, in careful, measured tones—to bring.
The entrance hall is filled with more tall stacks of cardboard boxes, which were carved into a shaky, narrow walkthrough. The hall becomes a larger space, no easier to walk through, filled with neck-high piles of leaking garbage bags.
The walls: cracked, bleeding with tea-colored stains.
The ceiling: filled with brown and yellow blemishes.
Sick bubbles, burst.
Accumulations, wept into a sort of skin.
Long, peeled strands that shimmer with the wings of flies.
The man fulfills the duties of their keeper, pouring food and water, calling for them, calling out their names. He offers them crisp braided biscuits when they come to him. They let him place new collars—blue and pink—around their necks. He never touches them, except to place the collars on, or clasp them to the metal edges of a leash.
His voice is soft, but he stands, stiffly, and he shifts from side to side.
His grip around the leash is very tight.
The man walks with them, down the hill, down through the trees, until they reach the winding path that leads around the edges of the lake. He walks with them, past pebbled beaches, past the houses shadowed in the trees, past hundreds of bright, golden, blinking eyes.
He fills three dumpsters with the garbage from the house. As he begins to clear the surfaces, the smell grows even stronger.
The smell comes from a thick, black sludge. It's in the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the bath tub, and, of course, the toilet.
He smoothes a mound of vapor rub into his palm. He paints the skin around his nose with its protective glaze.
He scoops the thick, black, sludge out into buckets. He carries it out from the house, one bucket at a time.
He fills a garbage bag with beer cans, crushed into a sharp, metallic barricade around a bare, blue mattress.
He thinks, how can a person live like this?
He thinks, how does a person live like this?
Then, he remembers how this man would crush his beer cans at their table, sweep them to the side, and just continue eating.
He would look down, then, at his own, half-finished can, and feel strange, and feel guilty, as though he had done something.
He recalls thinking, I should say something to stop him.
But, from doing what? From being rude? From just behaving strangely?
His wife would come by, then, as though on cue, as though she knew his thoughts, reach out and wordlessly take all the cans away.
The sky turns pink.
The man calls out their names.
Orion trots up to him as he pulls the biscuit from the bag.
He nuzzles up against his hand. The man stays stiff, at first, but when Orion's finished eating, he puts out his hand. He strokes his head.
Artemis joins them, and she nuzzles up against the man. He strokes around her mane and she moves closer to his side. For just a moment, though, she loses track of where his hand has gone. She makes a deep sound he interprets as a warning.
He puts the collars on their necks. He clasps the leashes. They move together down the hills, toward the lake. He doesn't seem to move as stiffly, now. He doesn't hold their leashes quite as tightly in his hands.
The crickets chirp. Orion sniffs a small, thin tree. A spider spins a dewy little web within its branches. Another man and a young girl are walking toward them, just a set of distant human shapes that barely register.
Beneath the water, strands of yellow grass twitch from a darting fish. A light breeze makes the long reeds quiver on the lake. The flame pink of the sky burns bright against the mountain and its mist of clouds, the colors of some strange emergency.
Suddenly, the girl breaks from the man. She runs with hands outstretched toward the dogs. She shouts out with excitement, small and fast and loud. The young girl and her smallness and her fastness and her loudness frighten them. As she runs near to them, the dogs begin to growl.
She reaches out a clumsy hand toward Artemis, who arches back defensively, then snaps into the air.
The distant man shouts and the young girl runs back toward him, crying.
The man they know pulls back the walking strings so hard they cannot breathe.
From his hotel, the father calls a purebred rescue center. A woman answers with a warm and calming voice. He asks her if someone can come to take the dogs. He tells her they are beautiful and very well-behaved.
She asks their breed, their age. She winces when the father tells her. She apologizes, but she says she cannot take them. If they were younger, it might be a possibility, perhaps. But not that breed, and not that age. They won't adapt to a new family.
The father says, I think that there might be a chance. They're good and they're so loyal. They are very loyal dogs.
But sadly, that is just the problem, she explains. The dogs are loyal to the lives that they have always known.
She offers to contact an animal technician who will come to pick them up, to put the dogs to sleep. She says, I'm sorry, once again. She really means it. They will be there by tomorrow morning, she says. Free of charge.
He hangs up.
Shuts his eyes.
His chest is filled with that familiar sadness that he felt, hearing the dogs, their whimpers rising from the basement.
He tells himself this sadness is the same, strange guilt he felt whenever he would watch his wife come take her brother's cans.
He tells himself he's doing nothing wrong.
He's doing nothing wrong.
It's not his house and they are not his dogs.
He's doing the right thing for them.
The woman on the phone agreed.
He thinks, her voice was warm and calm.
She sounded very kind.
Orion and Artemis drift to sleep inside their shelters, dreaming ordinary dreams of running, playing, grass, and trees, and lakes.
The grass is soft.
The trees are tall.
The lake is wet.
The air is crisp.
Their lives are what they are.
And they are what they are within them.
When he arrives that morning, he waits for the animal technician's van to pull up in the gravel drive behind him.
He walks through the gate.
He pours their food as usual.
He pets Artemis behind her ears.
He pats Orion gently on his head.
He leashes them. He leads them out onto the driveway, where the animal technician waits to lead them to the van.
He does not watch as they are led into the van.
He does not watch the van as it backs down the driveway, then pulls out and drives away.
He walks around the house, now empty, with its filthy, mold-encrusted carpet, yellow, brown, and black stains on the walls.
He stares into the stains.
Imagines islands on a map.
Small, stony bodies.
Shapes emerging from the darkness of a lake.
This story is dedicated to its muse: Kathryn Davis's beautiful, kind, and noble Alaskan Malmute, Lucy. I also dedicate this story to my father, who took on the task of cleaning up after the death of my uncle.