She lived alone, with the exception of a mildly overweight rat terrier mix named Georgie, and seemed happy by all accounts. She rented a small house in an old neighbourhood off the Danforth in Scarborough – Scarlem to all but her.
Her landlady was a stern-looking Polish lady with a thick accent and thicker eyebrows who dressed entirely in black as if she had been in mourning since WWII and had fossilized that way.
She came around for the rent on the 1st of every month with a plate of something flaky which smelled like spices and lard and whatever protein constituted Georgie’s canned food. She always eyed the ferocious, trembling terrier fiercely while she waited at the door and was heralded by muffled barks from the adjacent window. Yet when Melissa received her, there was always a cookie for Georgie.
There was also a plate of something flaky with meat for her, because Melissa was a vegetarian, mostly, except at the end of the month sometimes, but who honestly can make it through their period without ever giving into temptation and chocolate ice cream?
She’d put that plate down and Georgie would look first up at her and then wide-eyed and salivating at the plate, then up to Melissa again, and she’d smile down with those big brown eyes and say, “It’s all yours, girl. That’s the good stuff.” And the little dog would dive right in.
So Georgie was mildly chunky.
Kind of fat, really, but in no way lazy or slow of step. She was a terrier after all – the blood of wolves coursed in her tiny veins and she’d run with a pack of them if she ever had the chance. Or challenge them for supremacy as she tried to do with other dogs five times her size before Melissa stopped taking her to the dog park.
Melissa did not have epilepsy or narcolepsy or any other serious medical issue, to her knowledge anyway, aside from a tendency to get migraines during her period but that was all and it was manageable, especially with caffeine and chocolate ice cream.
On July 12th, she tripped walking up the steps to the library where she worked. Nothing serious, just didn’t lift her right foot high enough. That’s all. Tripped and bloodied her shins, but not before popping herself a good one on the brass railing.
It wasn’t much, as concussions go, hardly befitting the name. Dani, petite and crewcut in an unnatural shade of scarlet, was having a smoke on the steps where employees weren’t supposed to smoke, and let out a startled laugh, unable to stifle it before jumping to her aid. Melissa laughed, too. Great guffaws came out of her as she clutched her forehead, more out of surprise than pain, and Dani helped her to her feet, holding her up close and gently peeling her hand away to look.
It was less an act of altruism and more an excuse to be close to Melissa, to be the one to catch her and hold her, to stare into her eyes, however briefly, as she’d done so often in her day dreams. It might have seemed exploitative or even a little belaboured, but hey, she didn’t trip her, and fate had a way of bringing opportunity to one’s doorstep, everyone knew that. And Dani fancied herself sprite enough to snatch up whatever the universe could throw at her.
She held Melissa against her and looked over the bump, already reddening, and pronounced it nothing big.
“Hardly a mark,” she said, and smiled at her. Maybe a little too long, but Melissa was smiling too, and she had to make sure she was good on her feet before letting her go, of course. Wouldn’t want her to topple over again. And her hand, well…
“Nice bum grab,” Melissa said to her. And the both of them broke into giggles and continued up the steps with mutual glances and smiles.
That was it. An imperfect moment and a perfect beginning. Dani walked on her toes and pulsed with a euphoric high the rest of the day.
That really was it. Just a bump. Hardly that, but it was enough. Unbeknownst to her or Dani – unbeknownst to anyone but the forensic examiner 35 days later – that little jostle of her brain inside her skull had left a minor lesion on one of her frontal lobes. The left one, I believe.
Two days later, with no one around to help her the morning she was to leave for her long dreamt-of, long talked-about vacation – roadtripping around the southwest states, by Goddess, just her and the pup and the grand canyon, antelope valley, the painted desert, a little sun and whole lot of adventure, (and maybe her and Dani might just get together for a movie night when she got back… Sooo excited!) …that morning she experienced her first and only seizure while showering.
She felt it come on, felt her back go stiff and the world begin to turn and she reached out, grasping at the shower handpiece but only brought it down with her. At 8:15, she went down in the fiberglass tub and shower unit, blocking the drain with some harmless piece of wet flesh, limbs locked like steel rods, then slack and unresponsive, eyes wide and catatonic as the water rose.
And there she drowned.
No one had expected her anywhere, hadn’t expected so much as a postcard from her for a month and so the shower flow continued, unabated and draining thru the overflow while half her body floated in the foot of warm water.
As much as Georgie lived for her cuddles, loved her in every way, would die fighting for her, there was simply nothing she could do. By day five she was compelled by hunger and the scent of ripe and soured flesh to move from sipping the frothy Melissa broth, to licking, then chewing, and finally consuming her gassy, inflated corpse, which by then resembled a grey-green sex doll overinflated to comic extent, with the bits and pieces which rose above sea level forming island colonies of maggots.
By the end of week three, the aroma and the pile of Amazon parcels were enough to cause the postman to alert the police. By then, what remained of Melissa had to be removed in buckets.
Georgia O’Keefe, by then five pounds fatter and vaguely resembling George R. R. Martin, was removed first to the care of the landlady, who smelled of equal parts cider vinegar and sulphurous flatulence and who was mildly allergic to the terrier’s short but bristly coat – and then given to Dani, whom the woman had found crying and staring blankly on the steps of the little house.
Though occasionally willing to indulge the dog in cuddles and butt scratches, sometimes even wearing clothing which smelled like Melissa, Dani was not her human. She would hold tight to the dog for long hours laying in bed, swaddled in old blankets and staring at the wall or ceiling, tears wetting the bare mattress beneath her. And though Georgie could smell that something was wrong, she had no control over this human and so she could only sit and wait for the situation to right itself.
It did not.
Dani stopped going out to work, stopped going anywhere but out on the steps to smoke and then with a great suddenness, a great hot anger, and a lot of stomping, they moved to yet another house. This one had several people constantly coming and going, all smelling so different and often leaving bits of things to eat on the floor. Often yelling. Often crying.
They moved again.
This time it was to the outside. Georgie liked that a lot because it seemed like the dog park and there were lots of little things to chase. She knew rats, knew them in her blood. She was a queen of killing rats and had a long lineage of rat killers whispering in the back of her mind. She knew what to do with rats. These were just big rats. And some were climbing rats with tails like pissed off cats. And some were… cats. She didn’t care. Food was food.
And then one day, Dani was gone.
Georgie sat in the grass under the big chestnut tree where they had lived, but now the tent stood empty and broken somehow. Like her toys when she had chewed them too much and the squeaks stopped. The tent sagged and flailed in the wind, gasping and dying, its smells staling with each passing hour. The next day, it blew away.
She caught a fat grey squirrel unaware as it was burying an acorn by the creek, and she brought it back with her to eat while she waited, but no one came. She hunted through the night and returned the next day with half a catfish, which she sat and ate under the chestnut tree. All alone.
She stayed around the area, returning to the tree each day during the hotter hours for a couple weeks. More and more, she hunted the creek banks and ranged out further, and soon she forgot about the chestnut tree, the tent, Dani, and Melissa.
People now were not the same to her. Dark people chased her with poles and nooses. One set traps, but she was no fool. Whatever was in those cans didn’t smell like food, not anymore. She was a wolf now, albeit a small one, and she lived to hunt.
She ran the creeks and tributaries of the Don River, hunting and scavenging like her more distant ancestors, always on the lookout for coons and coyotes, always alert and vanishing whenever people came near. Her short coat offered little protection from the cold, but she quickly found that groundhogs didn’t care for winter either.
By October, she had taken to tracking them down into their burrows, killing and eating them over the course of several days. They were very fatty and quite good eating and she could eat her fill and then nap for much of the day before waking to eat more or go outside.
Finding a large burrow, she would routinely come back to it with the food she scavenged or caught, and began to stash it in the depths, where the cool of the earth would keep it without freezing.
By the time winter finally broke, her summer weight was a forgotten remnant of a past age. She was beyond lean now. She was a wiry ball of fast-twitch muscle and tendons that showed on her bony frame, but she was alive, and fast. An inveterate survivor and the terror of ducks and rodents along the Don.
It was in the late spring when she began regularly picking up familiar scents near that old creek where she had first come to live. Back when she was a dog. A human’s idea of a dog. They were foreign now, those smells, but still they triggered something in her, some atavistic memory. She would slip away, out of sight each time she picked them up, but never far.
Something in her memory drew her back there, every now and then. Something vague and warm. The smells were not of Dani or Melissa or the old lady who smelled like eggs. They were broader than that. Less specific.
She upset a nest of baby rabbits one morning and snapped up the slowest of them and found herself taking it back up under the oak tree to sit and eat. There was no one else around and she sat for several minutes, chewing and crunching, gorging herself and then sprawled out in the grass and grew drowsy in the warmth of the sun that angled in on her.
When the smell came back to her, quite faintly, on a tumbling eddy of air, it roused her softly, but she didn’t bolt. She would get up soon and go off back to one of her adopted burrows, but she saw the smell clearly now. Not a human, not a thing. It was a place, a feeling of quiet warmth. Some of the scents surrounding her old life. It was the smell of comfort, and she almost longed for it. She almost got up to search it out.
But then she woke up further, came to full alert – as any little wolf must always remain – and trotted off back down the creek.
Two weeks later, after having grown far more accustomed to the scent again, and even being so brazen as to wander out into the parts where the humans often went, up to a bench where the scent was strongest… Two weeks later, she met Liv.
She was trotting up into the clearing, angling this way and that with every bob and turn of her head, drifting like a feather on the currents of interesting scent, when she stopped and froze.
There was a human on the bench. A girl with dark hair like Melissa’s…
She stood absolutely still, waiting, watching, with only her nose pulsing as it drew in the overwhelming library of scents that billowed off of this girl. Something dark and savoury and burnt, but sweet, rose up stronger than the rest. She didn’t blink, didn’t bob, but took two cautious steps toward the bench.
It was the cup. The girl had a cup – no, two cups – one in her hands and one on the bench. They both steamed tall, mushrooming plumes of the smell and it crept back into her mind that she was drinking what Melissa drank. What Melissa always tried to keep Georgie from getting into… That was the good stuff, in those cups, and she would bury her face in one and slurp up the pasty remnants before Melissa caught her and then she would bounce off the walls.
She crept closer, slowly, sampling the low, close-in air and reading the other scents. The girl was nice. Not upset or sad or nervous, just relaxing. Two worn-out shoes were laying under the bench and she had her bare feet tucked up under her. The smells were there and easy to pick up, not covered by overwhelming chemical flowery stink like with most people. And her hair was stronger too. No fruity smells. She smelled like Melissa did after she’d spent a weekend in bed, not feeling well.
Georgie stopped reading the air when she realized that the girl was looking at her.
She trembled for a moment, dropped her ears and moved her head away, all eyes and pacing in the hind end, with her front feet planted.
The girl had a kind face but almost no eyebrows. She swiped a curtain of long, dark hair out of her eyes with one hand and sniffled, then spoke, very soft and sweet.
“Hey there little monster.”
It was such a meek and quiet voice that it barely registered as words to Georgie, which was just as well, because she was already on the verge of bolting, and had the words been more prominent, she might have done just that. But instead she waited and watched as the girl extended a long thin arm down low and rubbed two fingers together.
She didn’t know what to make of it all. The girl’s fingers were a little dirty and smelled of cigarettes, like Dani. Her fingernails were black and chipped and chewed nearly out of existence.
The girl kissed to her and Georgie fled.
It wasn’t utterly terrifying, like the first time the dark men with noose poles came for her… She didn’t feel like the girl would catch her, or even could catch her, but it was all just too much at once.
She booted off a dozen yards, turned to look back at the girl – who was still sitting, brushing her hair away – and then she continued running until she was back into the trees and away and safe, back in her own world. Back to hunting.
A half hour later, she returned. A fat grey squirrel in her jaws, she crept slowly towards the bench where the girl now sat with an old man, both drinking from their cups. She moved boldly the last few steps, all eyes on Georgie, and dropped the squirrel at their feet, then retreated a yard to safety and paced nervously with her tail wagging her entire ass.
She felt safe enough now, to be sure, but this skinny girl needed to eat.
The girl didn’t speak, didn’t move to take the squirrel, just sat watching the little dog with a soft uncertain smile. The old man leaned over, smiling, and said something to her but the girl didn’t react.
Liv and Georgie just sat regarding each other. They’d both led equally difficult and pained lives up to that point, each having run and suffered and struggled and barely skidded by in their own way. And now at this confluence, both seemed to see that their paths were entwining. That things were going to be different.
Georgie, anyway, could sense that this was the good stuff.