When they were little, on the last day before the fall semester of school started, Abby's mother used to take them to the state park with the glacier rocks. At the top of the park was a huge large beyond her little kid mind grass field. She thought it must have been at least several miles around. They would take the family dog, a black shepherd that used to be a show dog before they adopted her. Pepper was the dog's name, and she would round up all the kids like ducks, because it was how she had been taught to be useful. Mother would pack a picnic lunch, nothing involving charcoal or grilling, but sandwiches and chips and pop, all the things they were not allowed to have at home. Later after lunch, they would walk down the path to the canyons of dark moss colored boulders stacked on top of each other, pushed and shoved out of the earth by prehistoric ice and they would climb like goats through the tight little spaces and slip and slide on the perpetually moist canyon walls. There was a cave, they called it Icebox Cave, and if you stood at the entrance on a hot August day, the frozen breath of god would cool you down. She was a fat little kid, so she liked this part of the walk best, standing in the cold cave wind, daring herself to go back as far as she could without a flashlight. She was also a wussy little kid, so that wasn't very far.
She took her boyfriend here because it was the prettiest spot she knew of, far enough out to feel like the middle of nowhere even though it was only forty minutes from the city. It felt odd coming there without a dog, so they took her mother's dog. He was not a brave dog. She wondered why all the small things her mother raised were so timid when they were younger. Her mother was not intimidating, was certainly loving and attentive. But every dog she had was kind of a lame dog. The one right now was a German shepherd, and she had read somewhere that all German shepherd puppies went through two stages of fear imprinting, one at 8 weeks and one at 8 months. During this time they were easily spooked or startled, because it was supposed to teach them that things which were sudden were not to be feared. It was supposed to make them brave dogs who did not easily frighten on the battlefield or the city street. She thought if she was a puppy, she would go nuts in on these rocks, all these crazy rotting forest smells, all the yummy wetness and crevices and new things around every corner. This puppy was not having it. He refused to go down the steep steps carved into the rock by the park service, she had to pick him up and carry him down, which was not easy . A 7 month old German shepherd is the size of a small child. And really, it just convinced her yet again she should never have kids, if she couldn't muster up empathy for this poor frightened child who didn't want to risk breaking legs or go into the scary unknown things, when all she wanted to do was push him mercilessly into it and force him to have fun. Worst maternal instincts ever.
They went into the Icebox Cave, which never got warm never ran out always stayed cold, and here the puppy relaxed and even got excited for a moment, snuffling his nose into all the pooled cave water on the floor, overthrowing entire protozoan civilizations with his tongue. Every animal is calmed down, sedated by the kind of cold air that only comes from really deep down unknown rocks. It's being held against something bigger than you. Her boyfriend went all the way into the back of the cave, until even he couldn't squeeze between the slimy walls. She wasn't wearing the right kind of shoes to wade through the muddy pools. He said he saw a snake back there in the water, and she got her socks wet trying to see it too, but it was too dark or the snake was gone by then.
It was on the next trail, the one heading back up to the field, that the dog got loose. Abby was holding his leash, but suddenly he wriggled out of it, and ran off into the woods. Billie immediately went off after him, but a puppy is a puppy, and a grown man is not. Within minutes he was gone. They chased him until they lost sight of him, and Abby sat down on a log crying. Mom was going to kill her. He didn't even bother to reassure her. They set off in different direction, both calling his name. It took her away from the canyons into flat Ohio forest - all the deciduous leaves lying flat and colorless in the afternoon heat. She strained her eyes trying to pick out his brown and black fur from all the branches and trees and it was like a magic eye puzzle where if you just focused and unfocused, hopefully you saw a mermaid riding a gingerbread train, or a dolphin doing math, only all she wanted to see was a little puppy, and if she did find him, goddamnit they were putting a bright construction yellow collar on him.
Maybe she was walking for an hour or two before she noticed that the sun was going down. She tried calling Billie on her cell, but there was no reception. Probably she should head back, but she didn't want to. Couldn't stand the idea of that poor dog alone out there at night, eaten by coyotes, shot by hunters, hungry and wussy. Probably whimpering. He always fell asleep at 9pm, was upset if Mom went to bed any later than that. She had to stop crying, it was making it hard to see in the dusk. She came upon an open clearing as the last bit of sun was setting, and in the distance across the field were the lights of a house. She figured her best bet was to call Billie from the house and have him pick her up on the road. She started to pick her way across the muddy clumps of wild grass and groundhog divots, filled with failure.
Nobody was answering the doorbell, but all the lights were on. She tried her cell again, and this time it rang through, and oh thank god he had the dog, the stupid thing had run back to the cave. She walked to the mailbox and looked at a piece of their mail to get the address so he could GPS it. The Hunters on Peasley Rd.
Whoever lived here had put up their Christmas lights, but instead of glowing santas and strands of blinking white lights, there were instead four giant stained glass birds. They were positioned across the front yard like soldiers, and were beautiful, radiating jeweled shadows across the yard, their blank black eyes benignly watching her.
20 minutes later, still no Billie. She tried him again, but kept being put straight to voice mail.
When she looked back at the house, all the lights still on, the birds seemed closer to her. She decided no one was home anyway, and sat down next to the blue one, putting her hand on the paper and glass sides. The bird was warm, and she could see from his perspective that he had a very good view of the surrounding road and landscape. You are a guard bird, she said out loud to him, and it seemed like his side got noticeably warmer. I will sit here all night next to you and be safe, right? You will protect me from the trolls and coyotes and giant catfish and 17 yr old homophobic football players, and crazy christian republicans and weird meth head hippies and most importantly keep me safe from serial killers, because I'm sure there are serial killers just roaming the rural country spaces. It seems like the best place to practice murdering people, where the houses are far apart and no one will hear you scream or expect you to already be in their house. I could never live out there, surrounded by just dark field and trees, it's too exposed, it's scary, it's dangerous. And I know, that seems stupid, people think it's safer because it's less people, and supposedly better people right? But I bet, Bird, if they did studies on small places like this, the murder percentage over say, like, a hundred years is higher. I bet more people get away with it too. I feel like in the city at least I have someplace to run to if I get attacked. And there are lights and businesses and cars. I haven't seen a single car go by at all. It is cold too. Cold and dark, and I wonder why no one is answering in the house but they have all their lights on, I wonder if they left them on when they went on vacation, I remember Mom used to do that and she got so much shit from Dad about it, but I'm with her, I think it's better to make people think you are home, they are less inclined to notice you are not.
Still no Billie almost an hour later. Abby looked back at the house, which she had been sitting with her back towards. The porch was so inviting, it would be so much nicer to sit in the light and on the cement steps instead of out here with the lawn decorations in the cold mud, invisible. But something held her back. There was just, what, an invisible tug at her legs to stay put. That's stupid, she thought, this is stupid. If they were home and they find me, good, that's what I want. Also maybe Billie won't be able to see me when he finally shows up, and what the hell Bill, where are you? So she stood shakily, the pins and needles in her calves being sort of a relief after sitting still so long and cold and actually in a state of fear which she didn't even recognize yet but her heart was racing and her muscles preternaturally tensed. The calf which was asleep was terribly painful and awesome. She walked on it hard over to the porch, curling and uncurling her toes in her sneakers. She tried to look in the upper part of the downstairs windows, but she was too short and the windows too high. She listened. It was quiet and still. The curtains were bright yellow with red polka dots in sort of an abstract pattern, which made sense because it would probably be some retired art teacher or graphic designer, to have put out such weird lawn decorations.
Billie did finally show up. The puppy was asleep in the backseat, innocent and fuzzy and dirty. He said the road had been impossible to find on his GPS, so he had resorted to just driving around looking for the birds. He told her that the street name she had given him from the mail was not in fact the street they were on now, was actually Elmira street. That's weird, he said, why would they have a different address on their mail? And why are all their lights on? I don't know she said, there isn't anyone home I don't think. He walked up to the door and tried to knock loudly, peered through the tops of the windows. Shit, Abby, call 911, he said panicked. Why? What? She tugged at his arm, but he was trying to break open the door, so she called 911, and waited in his car like he insisted. Apparently the owners were home.