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Invasive Species

"Untitled (Bird)," Painting by Liam O'Gallagher, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kit wants something so small from her weekend away with Cass—just the ocean salt making mermaidlike ropes of Cass's curls. Rum on their tongues. There can even be sunburns, sunburns giving way to new freckles, so she might walk her hands across Cass’s shoulders and say, I gave you this, I've marked you forever. Kit wants it the way it all was two years ago, their first weekend trip together on this very beach in St. Augustine, in this very hotel, when they'd just graduated from college and were loose in their love, sun-sick all the time. She wants the cigar smoke in the streets again, muffled jazz, the pastel houses looking ghostlike in the dark. The feel of Cass's fingers working inside her like a door opening on something beautiful, for Cass to make Kit once more into a sacred thing, like a chapel or a home. They feel small to Kit, and simple, these little wants.

But nothing goes the right way. At the ocean, Cass mostly lies on her back in the waves like a dead body. She doesn’t even open her eyes when, soft as a fish, Kit touches her neck from below. In the hotel, Kit pours them shots to take together, but even the rum they once drank like water now turns Cass's stomach. 

Still, it doesn’t feel hopeless. Kit has planned a dinner shimmering with nostalgia—pink oysters and the fishbowl margaritas they dream of through the long Ohio winters. The dinner will get them back on track, Kit thinks. 

When they’re walking to the restaurant, something in their shampoo calls up veils of mosquitoes. They can’t link arms or hold hands, they must cover their mouths to speak, to keep the mosquitoes out.

They don’t notice the girl at first, throwing her arms open, crying, Oh my god, it’s you! Kit is sure she doesn’t know the girl but, because she has had a drink already, lets her pull them both in for a hug anyway. With the girl’s cheek pressed to hers, Kit hears her whisper: That man there, the man in red, he’s following me—please help me.

So smoothly, Cass says, Shit, how long’s it been? She kisses the girl's cheeks, leads her to the nearest bar. Sits with her, squeezing her hands until the girl’s friends come. Kit and Cass miss their dinner reservations to be with the girl, but Kit thinks this is okay, that it might be the real right thing for them, Cass’s act of heroism, having saved someone. The girl and her friends walk arm-in-arm to a cab, and Kit wants to kiss Cass in their booth, say something like, Maybe Ohio is the problem or Baby, of course we are still fire

But now Cass can't stop checking over her shoulder in the street. She tells Kit she isn’t feeling well, that she wants to turn in early, order pizza in their room. Kit doesn’t know how to put it into words, but she’s okay with giving up on the night. She feels it too, she thinks. What Cass feels. Invaded.  Like something of the girl's vulnerability has splashed onto them, and ruined everything. Back in the hotel, Cass orders pizza, and they sit on the bed without touching. It’s only a full, but there’s still so much space between them. Kit thinks maybe if she can name what she is feeling, if she can wrestle it into words, Cass will soothe her. Tell her there’s nothing wrong, that men are horseshit but the two of them—the two of them. Kit isn’t sure how Cass might finish the sentence, and that’s when the word rises up in her. Dread. What she is feeling is dread, and it has been hounding her a long time. She thinks of what the girl said, Help me, please

Kit says, I feel like there is something you aren’t telling me

Do you want to do this now? Here? Cass asks. 

Kit hasn’t known what to fear, but here it is: an ending. This feeling has been with her such a long time, she forgot the name for it. The worry has taken up so much space in her mind that she forgot things she ordinarily never would: her deodorant, and that she was supposed to shut the bathroom window, the one they leave open to keep mildew from blooming over the ceilings.

Isn’t it remarkable, how one thing can lead so unrelentingly to another? A stalker to a breakup, the open window to what comes next. 

As Cass is ending things with Kit in St. Augustine, a bird in Cincinnati slips into the open air of their bathroom window. It sits first on the sill, and then the sink, the curtain rod, atop the open door. It peers into the dark of the hall, the blue-gray light coming through the open doorways at either end. 

In St. Augustine, as Kit and Cass argue and weep, the bird in Cincinnati is lost in their apartment. Eventually Cass sleeps, but Kit can’t, she can’t stop the thought that they should have told the girl no—things would be different for her now if they had told the girl no, and to face her fate herself. She wants, so badly, to rewind. All night, Kit is lost in heartbreak, and the bird in Cincinnati is simply lost, it flits from the bathroom to the bedroom to the living room to the kitchen, dropping feathers and feces and blood, after a while, because there are many windows in their apartment and only one that offers that small escape, just an inch or two of open air to get out, be free again. By morning, the bird is still trapped. The girls check out of the hotel early, kiss goodbye at the Jacksonville airport, where Kit will return to Cincinnati and Cass has bought a one-way ticket to stay with her mother in Oregon. When Kit can cool down, she says, she’ll come back for her stuff. Until then, she needs space, she says. Room to breathe. 

Kit is in the air alone over Atlanta when in Cincinnati an engine backfires on the street outside her apartment and the noise sends the bird rocketing into the living room wall. 

Kit crushes ice from her vodka soda in her teeth and the bird, overcome with terror, hits the wall again, this time hard enough to break its neck. Kit lands and takes a too-expensive car from the airport, she is climbing the stairs to her second-floor apartment, and the possibility of a bird who’s died in her home is the farthest thing from her mind. Kit is thinking only, Cass, Cass

Inside, she finds first the feathers on the floor, then the spots of blood, then the droppings like threads of tinsel down the back of the couch, and at last, the body.

She doesn’t know how to handle it: the mess or the corpse or the signs of the life she shared with Cass, the dreadful symbolism of finding a bird dead in the home you've shared for two years with the woman who cannot bear to love you anymore. 

She Facetimes her birder friend, who says the bird is a house sparrow, and that they are invasive, and so Kit shouldn't mourn it. That it likely died of terror, quick as a blink, and not to feel bad. 

It’s better than most other ways they die, her friend says. Peregrines will pull their spines clean out! 

After a cigarette in the stairwell and a fast drink of the gin Cass loves, Kit decides to believe her friend about the bird. She scrubs the spots of blood from the floors and tells herself a dead thing after a breakup isn't what it might seem. It is an omen, maybe, but maybe a happy one. She doesn't have to let this break her.

 

Three weeks after the breakup, one week after Cass came back for her things and left her, for real. Whenever Kit goes out, she thinks almost hopefully of returning to more birds. Something she can hook meaning onto like a coat onto a door, but it’s always only her. 

She spends evenings at the bar with friends, her favorite place with the patio draped in ivy and one-dollar-PBR drafts. Tana is there sometimes, the girl Kit has always desired distant and coolly as a cloud. Wanting without wanting, because she was with Cass. 

Tana, too, is freshly single—Tana calls herself this one afternoon, and the abundance of sunshine paired with the buzz from Kit’s second beer allow her to savor the word fresh, imagine biting Tana’s shoulders and tasting oranges. 

Kit and Tana outlast their other friends into dark, drink until Kit can accept Tana’s kiss on her fingertips without laughing. They share an Uber home, kiss in the car outside Kit’s apartment. Come up, Kit says, but Tana shakes her head, says, Not yet. And then, as Kit is walking upstairs, her phone buzzes in her hand with a text from Tana, it says: I like you. I want to make something with you that can last. You don’t have to say anything back, tonight—just think about it, okay? 

Kit thrills at I like you, pleasure rushes through her. With her thumb, she blocks out the emojis that follow at the end, hearts, kisses, many hands with their fingers crossed. In a different world, she’d pass her phone to Cass. They’d roll their eyes together at the lines of emojis longer than the text itself. 

Something Cass never liked about Kit: how drinking could make her cruel.  

And what does it matter, now? Cass is gone, and Kit is the kind of drunk that has her laughing when she looks into her own eyes in the hall mirror. The kind that makes her home unfamiliar to her. 

She doesn’t notice the bathroom window, open wider than its usual inch or two. She doesn't notice the boot print on the toilet seat, or how, in the kitchen, the peanut butter has been left out on the counter, open, a spoon standing straight up inside it. The disarray in the office. 

She takes a sleeve of saltines from the pantry and eats them in bed in her underwear, and passes out remembering the sun on Tana’s shoulders, the orange-red of her lipstick print on the beer glass, the smell of Tana's sweat in the car. 

In the morning, when Kit understands she has been robbed, she vomits in the kitchen sink. She is afraid to look at the vomit, afraid, impossibly, that in the mess there will be tiny bones, a clot of feathers. That whoever was inside her apartment is in her too, now. She feels trespassed upon. Invaded.

It is hard to tell what's missing—her life has been so recently cut in half, and the burglar didn't take what she'd expect. Her laptop and drawing tablet are where she left them, her expensive headphones, her collection of micron pens. She can't find the jar full of laundry quarters or, inexplicably, one of her favorite childhood books about drawing dogs. 

When Kit explains why it took her until morning to realize, and then an extra hour to figure out what was missing, the police suggest that she call Cass. The woman officer touches Kit's shoulder when she says, Look, breakups are hard—and Kit says, No, because Cass wouldn't come back here, will not be coming back, but she can’t explain further because she has begun to cry. 

The officers turn their faces, say, So, you say you're missing quarters? 

Kit must fight not to say, No! Listen! This is bigger than quarters. Someone came into her home, and took the juice from the fridge, and her laundry money, and this book, this small record of her past, the loneliest version of herself, who at fourteen had learned that she could draw herself into worlds she liked better than the one she had.

They tell her to leave the lights and radio on when the apartment is empty. When her landlord comes, he paints a seal over the bathroom window, leaves her a dehumidifier she has to climb over to get to the toilet, and adds an extra deadbolt to the front door. He changes the locks even though Kit doesn't ask him to, no one came in through the door after all. He says it is worth the trouble for a woman's peace of mind.

The phrase echoes in her head in the days after, when Kit sleeps on friends' couches or begs them to sleep over in the bed with her, buys them drinks and dinner in exchange for their bodies next to hers through the night. She is afraid of the break-in happening again, of course, but the fear is also worse, or larger, more nebulous than that. She feels vulnerable, nearly formless without Cass. No one ever broke in when Cass lived with her, and with Cass’s hand in hers the men’s eyes on the street were lewd or sometimes hateful but it never felt like they wanted to eat Kit.

Don’t leave me alone, she begs her friends, I don’t know what I’ll do. They interpret this as a threat to self-harm, but Kit means this literally—she doesn’t know what to do now, or how to go forward.

Kit’s friends allow her neediness, they sit and drink and listen, but after two weeks they are all nearly ready for her to move on. They ask her to look on the bright side. Remind her how lucky she is—it was so small, after all, so insignificant. We all face storms that we must weather. They like this metaphor. They say, After a storm the sky is always most beautiful and Lightning never strikes the same place twice, as though each person has a certain allowable quota for catastrophes, and Kit has maxed herself out.

Isn’t it remarkable, how one thing can lead so unrelentingly to another?

 

The building across from Kit's is a mirror of her own—when she stands in her living room and looks out on the street, she can lock eyes with the two girls across the way in their own living room. Two years ago, when they first moved in, Cass opened all the windows, and the girls opened theirs. Kit and Cass blasted top 40 pop from their apartment, and the girls blasted the same station. They all danced together in their separate apartments. Cass called them our roommates, as in, What are our roommates doing tonight? and Our roommates got a new plant

The buildings are laid out so similarly, and the street is so narrow, and neither apartment has curtains to close—it sometimes felt like Kit and Cass were the other apartment, like they were watching themselves in a mirror or a dream. Kit knows so little of her across-the-street neighbors, she doesn't even know their names, but she knows they have weekly Bachelorette viewings, and a yellow cat, and that one of the girls is always changing the color of her hair: silver, lilac, sky blue, navy.

The girl's hair is peach the night when, three weeks after Kit's break-in, two men crack the lock on the front door of their apartment, bind the roommates to each other in tape in one of the girls’ bedrooms, and then clear the rest of the apartment out of the expected items. Kit wakes at dawn to the police cars flooding the street. She watches from her windows as the girls hold each other on the sidewalk, as they talk first to the police and then to reporters, and then Kit sees them again that night on TV, closer-up than ever before—their swollen eyes, the band of angry red the tape left around their mouths, how young they look.

In their interviews they say a lot of things that start with the words at least: At least we were together. At least we are unhurt. At least it wasn't worse. At first Kit isn’t sure why the interview leaves her feeling sick, so sick she vomits after, or why her hands shake and all day she feels cornered—any moment the windows might shatter inward, or the doors kicked in by faceless men saying, We’re back, baby! But then that phrase, at least, is a slow beat in her head, she hears the girls say it while she’s brushing her teeth and checking the locks on the door again, at least, at least. Her friends and the police telling her the same thing. At least it wasn’t. At least they didn’t. Don’t think about what did happen, they seem to say. Only about how much worse it could have been. 

 

Kit is out with Tana eating gourmet hot dogs and drinking IPAs when it happens the second time. They go back to Kit’s place and find the mess together. The open window, the bootprints on the sill, the toppled furniture. Toothpaste smeared on the bathroom mirror in a loop like a wrong infinity symbol, the comforter dragged from the bed and trampled. Tana calls for Kit, reports what’s missing: only the bike lock, the bottle of Hennessey from the cabinet. 

And then—god, god!—a few days after the second break-in, there’s the third. The third is most strange, most perplexing, because this time nothing’s missing at all, nothing even looks touched in the apartment except that all the food from the refrigerator has been taken out and lined up on the counter, and much of it eaten, even the mayonnaise, even the brick of miso paste. 

This time the police seem uninterested, almost irritated. Their primary suspect is an addict, and Kit thinks, sadly, of the jar of quarters. She leaves pull-top cans of food lined up on the outside of the windowsill after that, and a note that says, Please stop breaking in to my house. The rain destroys the note and the labels on the cans, and for weeks they stay outside the window like sentinels and sometimes terrify her when she catches glimpses of them in the corners of her eyes.

 

Kit has begun to think of terror as a neutral place, common as the cracked sidewalks, the leaves turning color in the trees. Every man on the street is one who keeps coming into her apartment. Every woman is the one who broke her heart. She is afraid to be alone in her apartment but afraid, also, to leave—the longer she’s there, the more likely it seems that men will come in and stay. She pictures men standing in their boots on her bed, hung by the shirt to the towel hooks on the bathroom door, crawling up the walls like flies.

She wants to leave, not just this apartment or this neighborhood but Cincinnati, all of Ohio. She wants to go to her mother’s home in Florida, she wants her childhood bed—but she's trapped. Her landlord won’t let her out of her lease after already letting Cass go, and there’s school starting soon, her final year of her art program. 

She finds herself weeping often, rarely when she expects—washing dishes or taking out the recycling or in the grocery store parking lot. Slammed doors make her flinch. The wind in the trees is the sound of ladders tipped against her window, grasping hands, someone coming in. 

I am terrified, she says it so often it becomes easy to say, as easy as she might say that she were hungry, or cold, I am terrorized.

In secret, her friends think it’s too much bad luck to be luck. They grow tired of the crying, the again, again, her life has become. They feel bad about the break-ins, but they think also that Kit is lonely, that this is more about the break-up than the break-ins, which were so small. The break-up, though. They understand the break-up. They see themselves in Kit’s broken heart, in her all-night binge-drinking and the way she clings to their arms when they go to pay their tabs for the night. They tell her this is an end but not the end. Love is coming. It could be anywhere, around any corner, waiting for her. It may have already arrived, they say, thinking with relief of Tana.

But Kit doesn't want love, she wants to go back to a time when it was unlikely to come home to someone else's lip prints on a glass of milk in the sink. She wants the smallest, simplest thing, not to wonder whether every item in her house is just as she left it. Whether she’s ever actually alone. 

Kit likes Tana, of course, but she sometimes wonders whether the best part of being with Tana is that there is a body in the bed beside her. Then she feels so ashamed she reminds herself of everything good about Tana in a litany: her hair, her generosity, her lipstick kisses. Kit thinks maybe she could be okay alone, she could be getting on without Cass, take power from her solitude, if only it weren’t for the break-in, the break-in, the break-in. She wants incompatible, impossible things—to be deliciously alone for the first time in her life, and also to never be alone again, to be bound even by tape to someone else so as not to have to face the nights in her empty apartment. 

Kit knows that this is not sustainable. She knows she needs something to give, some rockslide to set in motion.

Then, two weeks before the start of the semester, Kit and Tana are walking back to Tana's apartment after brunch. Kit is radiant from two Bloody Marys and the hope of sex in Tana’s crisp, white bed when she sees the sign. It is literally a sign, a square of cardboard stapled to a fence: a Rottweiler's head with its teeth bared in a snarl, and in furious red letters, BEWARE. DOG.

Kit is so stricken she must make some sound, Oh or God, because a dog they can’t see starts to bark savagely, makes Tana jump, say, Jesus. It feels to Kit like that old, familiar door opening inside herself—the letting in of good, clean light. Like a sigh, the words at last

 

Once Kit decides to get a dog, she can think of nothing else. The dog-who-will-be-her-dog shines in her mind like a temple, like a sacred place. Her lease says no, she knows this—but her research tells her that emotional support animals are protected by law from landlords and flight attendants. Kit doesn’t wait for an appointment with a therapist to write her a letter, she hopes the threat of a letter will be enough. Her landlord is quiet on the phone when she tells him her plan, when she says for what feels like the thousandth time, I am terrified. I am alone

But it works. Her hands shake ending the call. It is hard to do up the three locks on the door or open the car. She thinks to call Tana, one of her friends, her mother. She wants Cass, pictures the two of them wandering up the halls of the animal rescue together, holding hands, making a choice on a dog, a new start. But she calls no one. This is Kit’s. She will begin again. She will be safe. She will not be alone.

 

Kit likes the idea of a pitbull, that even the sweetest says I am dangerous, I could hurt you if I wanted to, but none of them at the shelter are quite right. She loves the look of one with fawn-colored fur and doe eyes, but he already has four applications in, and she doesn’t want to compete, she doesn’t want to wait. There is a brindled boy with one eye, the other always winking. They call him Casanova, for the wink, and for the way he will rub against anyone, but the name is too much like Cassandra, like Cass, so Kit moves on. There are chihuahuas Kit thinks would be too small to make her feel protected, a deaf Great Dane too old and gentle-hearted. 

After a full loop of the shelter, Kit presses her fist between her eyes to trap the sob there. She thought this would be easy, the easiest thing. She thought she would lock eyes with any dog at all and their hearts would shine like beacons for each other. She thought she would know.

She checks her phone to see whether she can make it to the other shelter across town before they close. She tells herself she'll look one more time, that maybe she missed one, or maybe the Great Dane is right for her after all, she could work with a deaf dog, maybe, at least it is huge. Kit is planning, envisioning her life with this old, massive dog, when a volunteer walks by leading a new dog, one Kit missed on her first loop. As tall as the volunteer's waist, large like the Great Dane but leaner, willowy like a dancer.

Kit doesn’t think. She barely breathes. She nearly does not recognize her own voice calling, Wait! Please, can I meet that one? But the volunteer and the dog don’t stop or slow down, so Kit is chasing them down the hall, calling again, Wait! until they stop.

This is Amy, the volunteer says. She’s available for the first time today.

The word destiny thrums in Kit. She says, She’s beautiful, and holds her hand out for Amy to smell.

Amy looks frightened. She leans away from Kit’s hand and turns her head to face the wall.

Almost apologetically, the volunteer says, She’s had a rough go of it. She won’t be the easiest dog.

Kit says, That’s okay, and that Amy doesn’t have to say hello, Kit understands, she is new and strange, in this strange place, they can take their time if Amy wants, they can go slow.

The volunteer leads Kit and Amy down the hall to a private room with glass walls and cushions on the floor, a basket of soft toys in the corner. The moment Amy is off her leash, she heads to the far wall, putting space between herself and the humans in the room. The volunteer gives Kit a baggie filled with jerky, says to offer bites, that Amy is a good girl but nervous. She says, It will go better if I’m not around, so she’s not overwhelmed. Holler if you need me, and then Kit and Amy are alone together.

Kit slides to the floor and crosses her legs. She speaks softly, introducing herself the way she would to another person, I’m Kit and I’m an illustrator, I love fall best because of boots and jean jackets but I hate the cold, she talks without thinking anything, just to fill the space and be felt by the dog, imagining their life together, how beautiful Amy will be with a wash and a brush, how gleaming in the sun. 

As far as dogs go, Amy is lovely, but strange. Her head is long and narrow like a horse's. Her eyes are different colors, one flat black, the other the soft blue of sea-glass. Her legs are slender as an egret’s, and her fur is long and nearly-black, with patches of gold brindle like rippling water. She moves like water, slow and waving and almost boneless. She is somber, not overeager like most dogs Kit knows. She doesn’t seem afraid, Kit thinks, just intelligent, evaluative, thoughtful. 

After a long time of Kit sitting perfectly still and telling Amy about herself, Amy comes close enough to take the tiny bites of jerky from Kit’s flat, open palm, and eventually, lets Kit run her fingers along the patch of gold brindle on Amy’s throat, under her chin. Amy closes her eyes. 

When she opens her mouth to pant, Kit can see her teeth, shining white, the ridges on the roof of her mouth. A dog’s teeth are longer than she imagined, more dangerous-looking. The thought is a comfort. 

She can feel Amy’s heartbeat through her fur, slow and even. She imagines that it’s her heart too, that the rhythms are indistinguishable. That they are already in perfect sync.

What do you think? Kit murmurs. Do you want to come home with me? 

She reads Amy’s slow blink like a yes, the heavy sigh as she lies beside Kit another yes, every movement then, every soft rustle, yes.

As Kit fills out the adoption paperwork, the volunteers tell Kit what they know of Amy’s past: nearly nothing, except that Amy was found dehydrated and half-starved in a ditch, her mouth sealed shut with duct tape. They say this as matter-of-factly as the rest, that the vet guesses she is four years old, and maybe mixed with German Shepherd, or Wolfhound. They give Kit a packet of information with items to buy and records of Amy’s vaccinations, and then they are wishing Kit and Amy good luck, and a good life, and Kit is taking Amy’s leash in her hand and walking her out through the sliding glass doors and into the sunlight. She is opening her car door and guiding Amy up onto the front seat with her, backing out of the shelter parking lot and onto the road toward home with her new dog sitting tall in the front seat like a person, she is gripping the steering wheel so hard, saying, It’s just us now, girl, and No one’s ever going to fuck with you again, Kit pulls onto the highway, speeding up, she eyes Amy beside her, says, No one’s going to fuck with us.

 

Kit and Amy spend their first day together sprawled on the living room floor. They share a frozen pizza—Kit eats the good parts and passes the crusts to Amy, who eats daintily, crunching each bite for a long time. Kit switches between different shows on Netflix, first a true-crime show and then a sitcom when the crashing cars in the dramatic reenactments make Amy tremble.

Tana texts, Hang tonight? And Kit feels a flash of guilt. She hasn’t told Tana about Amy, she hasn’t told anyone at all. She responds, I think I need a night on my own to self-care and zzz.

Tana texts back a thumbs down, a crying emoji, puckered lips. She says, Tomorrow, then? And Kit says, Tomorrow.

Kit doesn’t know why she doesn’t just tell Tana about Amy, why she doesn’t send a picture, say, Come over, say, I did something crazy

It is partly that Kit wants to be alone with Amy and it is partly also that, with Amy here, Cass feels closer, more present to Kit than she has since the breakup—like at any moment she might step into the room, her hair wet from the shower or stretching after a nap—and Kit wants to sink into that feeling like a bath.

She texts a friend, who tells her, Of course, Cass is on your mind. This is your first big step without her. Your life’s officially on a Cass-less path. It’s over-over.

Out loud, Kit says, I am in a Cass-less world, and Amy tips her head. Kit says, You’re going to live your whole life and never know her. You could see her on the street and you wouldn’t even blink.

She pours herself a cup of gin, drinks it. Pours another. Gets drunk from the gin and on the idea that her life is hers once more to build, or rebuild—she imagines herself smoldering, sodden after some disaster. Amy, too, with her history small and brutal and ringed in duct tape.

She googles renaming shelter dogs on her phone. She reads that a dog’s name is like a cord that binds them to you, it is a leash that ties them to their new life, like love eventually does, and trust, and base need. 

Kit tries out new names, names that echo. She says, Annie? Nanny? Tansey? Name, Tame, Flame, Army, Kit says, and Amy blinks.

Army, Kit says, and Amy tilts her head, and Kit feels the edges of rightness spread through her.

Army, she says.

Kit likes that it is strange, not a name just anyone would choose for a dog. That it implies brutality, and multitudes. Softly, she presses her thumb between the dog’s eyes, draws down the muzzle. Imagines she can feel a difference in the fur there, a coarseness, where the scars hide. 

Army, Kit says, and Army blinks.

"Coyote on the Road" ca. 1936-1939 by a WPA employee, courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Everything is new for Army, everything. It’s as though she’s never lived in the human world before, and then Kit thinks, Maybe she hasn’t. 

But Kit feels also that she is acquainting herself with her new life. The way the space is being altered, filled by Army. The sound her nails make on the hardwood like falling rain, the dark mass of her in the corners of Kit’s eyes. The heat of her head pressed against Kit’s thigh on the couch, her soft and piteous whining outside the bathroom door when Kit closes it to pee. Kit learns the focused stare of Army signaling she has to go outside, the vulnerable way Army looks into Kit’s eyes while Army shits.

It’s all so vulnerable, Kit opening her world to Army, and Army teaching Kit in every action and reaction how to understand her language. What happy looks like, and excited, and love, and need, and hunger, and also discomfort, and anxiety. Fear, too, and terror. 

Army is terrified of so many things. The sound of the chip bag unfurling, and the trash can lid as it swings. The soft thump of her bags of shit falling into the overfull dumpster. Kit’s phone as it vibrates on the table. She is afraid of a woman huddled under her umbrella in the rain and she is afraid, also, of the rain. She is afraid of other dogs passing on the street and Kit’s sudden laugh when the apartment is quiet. She is afraid of Kit, when Kit finds Army chewing a t-shirt Cass bought her and says, too loudly, No! 

Kit cries after that, for Army and also for herself, trapped in an apartment she never meant to live in without Cass, this place teeming with ghosts who want to hurt her—behind every door there’s Cass, lying on her back on the bed or buzzing her head in the tub, and there’s also all the faceless men digging through the fridge, they all want to take her laundry money and kiss her neck so softly, tell her she is difficult to love, she makes it impossible to love her.

Kit puts Tana off the first days with Army, telling herself she needs time to figure out how to live with this dog. She is ashamed of her impulsiveness—she is suddenly afraid Tana will take one look at her and Army together and say, You’re so much more fucked up than I thought

The truth is that Kit spends her first days with Army considering whether she’s simply made a mistake, and on the fourth day, when the microwave pings and Army flinches as though from a kick, Kit considers taking Army back to the shelter. She is in over her head, incapable of helping this animal or teaching her to help her, help Kit, which was the whole point of Kit becoming a dog-mother in the first place. Kit wanted something so easy, so simple. It felt simple to her before.

She begins to imagine her life again without Army in it, testing how it would feel to drive her back to the shelter, leave her there again. Are there the edges of relief, green, and shimmering? But she remembers Cass, saying, I can’t with you anymore. She remembers Cass leaving their apartment for the last time, her car packed full of her things, so many things they’d collected over their two years together. How she didn’t even have the decency to cry, saying goodbye, she was dry-eyed and grave, she said, You’d rather be unhappy with me than have to face anything alone.

Kit sends Tana, finally, a text that says, I did something crazy, and a photo of Army asleep on her back in the bed, her toes pointed in the air looking luxurious.

 

When Tana is outside knocking, Army barks like a mad thing. Her eyes roll white. A crest of fur rises between her shoulders. Kit covers her face with her hands, fights not to cry. When she opens the door, Army urinates for the first time inside, Kit finds droplets down the hallway and into the bedroom, under the bed where she hides. She comes out after an hour of Kit’s soothing voice, a cold hot dog ripped to pieces and tossed across the bedroom floor, but even then she’s not relaxed on the rug with Kit, she watches Tana like Tana is a loaded gun. 

It takes hours, but eventually Army relaxes enough to let Tana pet her. By the end of the night both women are sitting on the floor with Army while she dozes, running a brush through Army’s fur, kissing the rough pads of her paws.

I can’t believe you didn’t tell me, Tana whispers.

Kit says, We’ve been getting settled, and I didn’t want to stress her out. Really, I’m the one who’s stressed, she says. I’m sorry.

Tana leans over Army’s body on the floor, whispers, You’re just a bad bitch with a past, like any of us.

With Tana, Kit is reminded that Army is only a dog, a beautiful one. Having Army can be pure and good and simple: Army on her back in the grass after a long walk, looking sleepy and sated as a woman after sex. Army’s head tipped to the sky, watching a cluster of little birds—house sparrows, Kit tells Army, remembering the corpse on the floor, her first Cass-less night. Army pouncing to chase golden leaves as they tumble down the sidewalk in the breeze. On their walks together, Tana is always saying, Let’s stop to take a picture, and poses Kit and Army together, Kit with her arm around Army’s back or with her face buried in Army’s fur. Army reminds Kit of what’s terrible, yes, what’s fearsome and vulnerable, yes, but Army also makes her stop, and breathe, and look around her. The happy couple, Tana says, holding her phone out to Kit, and Kit agrees. They do look happy in the photos, Kit and Army together. Easy. In love.

 

Three weeks pass, then four, and there are no break-ins, not one. Kit finds herself checking less often for items out of place or spoons in the sink she didn’t leave herself. She feels shielded by Army’s presence in the apartment, her body next to Kit’s in the bed as they sleep or sprawled on the sofa. And she feels protected, terribly, wrongly, by Army’s fear. She knows that she should stop Army from going crazy every time they pass someone on the street, that it’s cruel to let Army live in fear. She is ashamed of what’s true, that Army’s terror is so indecipherable from rage that it feels, to Kit, like a shield. A loaded gun. It’s true, what she promised Army the day she brought her home: no one will fuck with them, not when Army is the way she is, her eyes rolling back in her head, her teeth bared, lunging and barking. She won’t actually hurt anyone, Kit reasons, not as long as I’m there. And if she isn’t there, if Army is home alone, and hurts someone—then she’s served her purpose. She’s kept them safe, like Kit wanted. 

But then, just before fall break, when Kit is in class having a critique of her latest painting (a woman rather like Cass, surrounded by falling house sparrows), her apartment is not being broken into. Her front door is unlocked, with a key, by the maintenance man who has worked in her home for the last two years, the man to whom Cass gave glasses of ice-water in the summer, coffee in fall. The landlord told Kit he was coming, and she forgot, and now he is here, coming inside. He doesn’t hear Army barking over the music on his headphones, and when the body coming in through the door is not Kit’s, Army lunges. 

The man will be alright, he promises not to press charges, and he isn’t even too unhappy about his wrist, the scar the thirteen stitches from Army’s bite will surely leave behind. It’ll look death metal, he tells Kit in the hospital when she brings Army’s vaccination records, when she promises to cover his hospital bill. 

The maintenance man may be okay, but Army isn’t. It takes Kit hours to get her out from under the bed, to calm her down enough to let Kit wash the dried blood from her face, her ears, her legs. She is too afraid to go outside, she trembles when Kit offers her the leash, and pees instead on the floor by the door, where Kit has just finished cleaning the man’s blood. 

Kit closes herself in the bathroom to call Tana, so she will not have to look at Army when she cries, I thought we’d both be safe. I just wanted to feel safe

Listen, Tana says, Maybe we should get out of here. Like, a mini vacation.

A vacation, Kit says, remembering the night with Cass on the couch in spring, saying, Let’s get out of here, offering the plane tickets and the dream of Florida. How she had wanted to cross the country and go also backward, through time, back to when Kit saw herself reflected in the way Cass moved through a room, as though she was in Cass, a part of her, every movement, and love had changed them at some molecular level. 

Tana says, There are caves, a couple hours south of here. I’ve camped there a couple times, I know dogs are okay.

It could be good, she says. Clear your head. Figure out what to do.

Tana says, And, it could be sweet, you know? For us.

But Kit does not hear her, Kit is not thinking of sweetness around a fire or the sunlight in the snow, she is imagining the cool dark of the caves, she and Army in them. How close they’d be then, how remote. Impossible to find. She can almost taste the mineral wetness, she can nearly feel the luxury of solid stone at their backs, closing them in. 

Kit’s heart is a song, it says, Go, go. She can’t bear it anymore: Army’s anxious shits too soft to scoop up, her horrified eyes every time a neighbor comes or goes on the stairs. 

Tana says, Babe? You there? but Kit isn’t here, on the phone with Tana anymore, in her head she’s already with Army in the woods, in Kit’s mind it’s all decided, she’s already gone.

Kit says, Okay, yeah. You said south of here?

Kit says, This will be good, you’re right, you are the greatest, I’ll see you when we’re back.

Oh—but, Tana says.

Kit says, You won’t even know us when you see us.

 

Leaving is easy when getting out matters more than where you’re going, Kit decides, and of course Cass is on her mind, Cass is on the street with her as Kit tosses pillows and blankets into the car, food for her and Army, Cass is watching from the bed as Kit fills her arms with leggings and coats to layer in the cold. Everything is as it was in the break-up, only the roles are reversed, Kit is the one who’s packing, and also, of course, nothing is as it was, nothing will ever be. Kit must focus. Within an hour, she has food, she has clothes, she has Army. She’ll stop on the way out of town at a friend’s house to borrow a tent and sleeping bag, a lantern and firestarter bricks. Her only hesitation is the apartment—leaving her home unguarded. She imagines dozens of men, hundreds of them filling her home, lying stacked like boards in the closets or floating up the walls.

She has the thought to set up a webcam at the kitchen window, but finds, remarkably, that she doesn’t care. After everything. She’s packed her valuable objects with her, she’ll keep them in the trunk, and anyway, what could they do that they haven’t already? 

It seems to Kit that almost every month, every week, she has thought: I can’t take anymore, I’ve reached my limit, I’m done, and she never is, or the world is never done with her, and it is always worse. 

Eat if you’re hungry, Kit says to her apartment, to the ghosts still filling it, almost like a prayer. Rest if you need it. I don’t care anymore

 

On the highway it’s beautiful enough that Kit can dissolve in her dreams of the next day with Army, and the next day, and everything improving. Her and Army, sprinting fast as their legs can carry them across an open field. Wading into some stream, bracing against the cold. Remarkably, the car is one of the few places Army is perfectly calm. She sleeps on the seat beside Kit or steams the window with her breath as the sky deepens and darkens, and by the time they pull into the campsite, Army’s fog on the glass is the brightest thing Kit can see.

Kit makes two loops of the whole campsite to check for other cars or tents, but there’s no one. She has the thought to build a fire, she’s never built one before but she thinks it would be easy enough, she pictures the firelight gleaming in Army’s blue eye, and the smoke funneling up with their breath in the cold like they’re all breathing together. Carrying the heat from the fire into the sleeping bag together, being warm till morning. But a fire would feel celebratory, Kit decides, and this isn’t a celebratory trip. They’re fleeing. They have fled.

She builds the tent in the light of her car headlights, fills it with all the blankets and pillows from her bed, and beckons Army inside. It takes time. Army is suspicious of the vinyl walls, the shrill zipper in the quiet of the woods, the rustling of the leaves under them. She gives Army bites of the cold hot dogs she planned to roast. She feels so much as though they have been shipwrecked together, she eats one, too, cold and wet, they share the pack. 

Kit knows she is alone at the campsite. She drove the loop, twice. But she feels more vulnerable at that fact, rather than less. Nothing but the thin fabric of the tent between her and everything else, nothing but a zipper keeping the world out, and no one to hear her. 

She lies blinking in the dark a long time, trying to separate the sound of the wind from the sound of Army’s breathing. The tiny, horrifying noises of animals scuttling sound so close. 

It’s cold, and Army climbs into the sleeping bag with Kit. Their combined heat in the close space makes Kit feel swaddled, too-warm. Lulled. Army lays her head across Kit’s chest, blinking up at Kit, her eyes gleam in the dark. Despite her nerves, Kit sleeps, briefly, but wakes to a sound. 

Army is stirring in the sleeping bag with her, Kit knows she hears it, too. In the nightmare her life has become, somewhere in the valley, Kit and Army can hear a woman, screaming. 

Kit claps her hands over her mouth, she cannot tamp down the whimper that rises out, sounding just like Army when Army cries. The woman screams a long moment, and then, somewhere else, another joins her, and another, and Kit thinks of her mother, and Cass, and what will happen to Army once Kit’s been killed or died of fright. 

But then she looks to Army, she really looks at her, and for the first time since Kit has known her, it’s not terror in Army’s face. It isn’t even fear. Her head is tipped to the sky. Her eyes are wet and wide, her mouth softly open. It looks, to Kit, like surprise. Like awe.

Coyotes, Kit thinks, and then she’s certain, she remembers a video discerning coyote song from wolves’, the aaaah coyotes make, the ooooh of wolves. Army knew before her. Army knew what she didn’t.

Kit pulls up her phone to text Tana, she wants to make a recording and send it to her, say something about the wild, or about wonder, and Army as her hero. But she already has a text from Tana, one she didn’t see before. It says: I would have come with you, if you’d asked me.

Kit texts back, I know.

Tana answers so quickly, it is as though she had been up, waiting: When you get home, we should talk.

Kit texts back, Yeah, we should.

Kit doesn’t know why, but she is thinking of the girl in St. Augustine, asking Kit and Cass to save her, and how Kit got so drunk the night after Cass moved out that her eyes felt bruised the next morning. She is thinking of Army that first day on the couch, blinking slowly to accept her new name. 

Kit doesn’t love Tana. If Cass was love. If Army is love. 

Kit already knows what she will say: I can’t love you the right way, or maybe, I have to focus on myself, meaning Army—Army, this very moment pressed against Kit’s body, her nose cool against Kit’s neck, her breath heating Kit, clouding Kit’s vision in the cold. 

It’s so easy still, to call up her and Cass’s last night. Their apartment half-empty, and Kit gloriously, terribly drunk, on her knees, begging. Saying, What is the world without you in it? How powerful Cass must have felt, to be loved like that. How burdened by it. How powerful Kit feels now, and unworthy of Army’s devotion.

Kit can see now what she has done, choosing Army. Hitching their lives together. She has made herself the world for Army, its fullness and its edges.

Kit feels sick with love. She feels burdened and holy. I am the world, she says into Army’s fur, but Army doesn’t stir. Army is still listening rapt to the coyotes. She positions her body over Kit’s body like a shield, and watches the tent walls like she knows what’s beyond it, like anyone could come in.





Katie Knoll

Katie Knoll has had stories published in Ploughshares, Catapult, the Missouri Review, and other places. Her stories have received such honors as Narrative’s Top 5 Short Stories of the Year, first place in The Masters’ Review Short Story Contest 2016, runner-up in the Missouri Review 2019 Editor’s Prize, and as a finalist for a Shirley Jackson Award. She holds an MA from the University of Cincinnati and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.