She is staring at my dog taking a shit. I can see her lip curling as she looks on, assessing the damage, the viscosity, and fall speed. I watch her while she gapes. I want her to flick her eyes up see me watching her and get embarrassed and stop. But she doesn’t. She keeps staring until she’s staring through my dog at the field we’re standing in.
Part of me is offended on behalf of Tawny. Shouldn’t she be allowed to shit in peace without ugly people staring at her? And part of me is embarrassed that we’re both caught in this tableau––her in full squat, peering over at me anxiously, and me, with a bag around my hand, extending forward to catch her shit. It can’t be helped and I hate myself slightly, but I hate this woman more.
I walk my dog the long way around the park now to avoid the staring woman. Tawny yips at a shih tzu that comes up behind us too fast.
I heard someone say the sky is blue because it reflects the lakes and oceans. I was maybe seven when I heard them say this and even then I knew it was a stupid explanation. Today the sky is a cracked robin’s egg. When you stare at it, you have to blink. It is a bit ocean-like, I have to admit. I can’t look at it even though it’s making my eyes water. A day like this could be good or it could be fine. If only weather determined fate.
I lost my job two weeks ago. It was an embarrassing thing to happen. I told people about it immediately after. I texted my friends and they all offered to take me out for a drink. But when I woke up the next day I was hungover and I regretted letting anyone know. Stuff like that should be kept secret. Tawny was thrilled when I slept in with her the days after. As I exited my bedroom, I’d kick the box full of desk stuff with my toe, nudging it closer and closer to the dark recess of my closet.
This’ll be good, my friends told me. You can finally look for a job that you love. And then we won’t have to hear about you complaining all the time.
I had to agree with them because they were feeding me drinks and I was too sad to say anything else.
But I haven’t started looking for anything yet. I have been taking Tawny on really long walks though. She’s old now with unseeing cloudy eyes, and she walks slowly. I have the impression as she ambles on the dirt path that her muscles are gnarled and twisted under her curly teddy bear fur. Everything looks so painful but she keeps her mouth and eyes wide open as if she’s walked into heaven. There are benches every few feet so if I feel like Tawny’s legs are getting too tight and she’s breathing too hard, we sit down. This park has a way of catching you like a net. We walk up to a bench on a hill. I pick Tawny up in my arms and keep her in my lap while she pants it out. We can see a lot from up here. Joggers. Baby strollers. Tawny likes to bark at the other dogs but it comes out as a strangled yelp. They don’t look up from their sniffing. We are almost totally obscured by the overhang of the willow tree. It’s like a small green room that we occupy together. After a few minutes, she falls asleep in my lap. I consider for a second taking a nap too. I could be Tawny’s egg. No one would find us up here and by the time they did it’d be too late. Instead, I pet her till she wakes up and we continue our walk.
My laptop has a dull blue glow in the dark. I hang Tawny’s leash up on a hook and sit down in front of it. Mechanically I check my emails. There is nothing new except a notification about a clothing sale and my benefits information from my ex-job. Tawny moans until I let her into my lap again. I scroll through want ads till morning, but I don’t apply to any. It’s a process, I tell myself. But finding a calling isn’t, I know. I should have figured it out by now. I’m thirty-five. I live alone with my dog. My shelves should be full, but they’re not.
We go back to the park the next day. When Tawny squats I look around first before scooping it up. There’s no one staring today, and I feel silly for assuming there might be. I don’t remember the path I took to yesterday’s bench so we strike out for a new one. We find one along an empty path. It’s surrounded by trees on all sides, with bushes held at bay by wire fencing. Here we can sleep. The whole way I saw no one. There would be no one to disturb us.
I do drift off, but it’s a restless kind of sleep, like when Tawny yips in her dreams. One foot in this world and one in the other. When I wake up, the sun is fully shining through the leaves and everything has a green glow. A couple is walking down the path. They ignore us and keep talking. When they’re gone, I lift Tawny over the fence, dropping carefully her into a pile of leaves, then I go after her. She follows me happily as we walk through the overgrowth. When we were younger, we’d do stuff like this a lot. Walking down through these fenced off areas was like leaving one plane of existence and entering another, where there were no paths or signage. Sometimes we’d find odd things, like a collection of rotten bananas in a pile at the foot of a tree, each fruit extending out like the finger of a black glove. Or once, we saw a circle of pebbles, a small rodent’s skull, and a candle burned all the way to the dirt in the middle. I hurried Tawny along then, not totally sure why. Today the sun is bright. The sky is brushed blue velvet above us.
After half an hour I have to carry Tawny. I put her in my sweatshirt and hold the bottom so she doesn’t fall out. I can feel her yawn against me. Ahead the trees thin out. It’s a good time to head home but I keep walking. I’ve stopped thinking about walking. My legs know where to go. The air here is clean and pure, sieved through so many leaves. Tawny’s warm, huffing body is a comfort against me. Our hearts sit next to each other, though hers beats harder and faster than mine. I got her when she was a puppy. She came to me like a dream. Just one day she was there, squirming in my hands and reaching for my face with her tongue. My neighbor’s dog had puppies and Tawny was one. She was a baby and I was old enough to be a mother. That’s how we fit together. I hold her tighter against me and she lets out a contended snurf.
We arrive suddenly. So much so I don’t believe what I’m looking at at first. Just a few feet beyond me is a wide black expanse. It separates us from the rest of the path, like a dark cloud or like someone dragged a paintbrush down between the trees and blotted this whole area out. It dawns on me slowly then all at once that we’re standing in front of a giant, gaping hole. My stomach lurches inside of me dragging me forward even as my legs stumble me back. All around it the trees bend outward, like they’re leaning away from it. When I start into it, it darkens. I am suddenly scared and I bunch up the bottom of my sweatshirt in a tight knot to hold in my fist while I squeeze Tawny with my other arm. I don’t want to accidentally drop her. She scratches at my chest in discomfort. We move backwards, back towards the trees, away from the giant mouth ahead.
About fifteen feet away from me is a rope ladder. It hangs off of metal hoops nailed to stakes driven deep into the ground. I am not surprised by it. When I look away I don’t remember it. It is natural to its setting and it calls to me. I trace carefully over to where the ropes are anchored. My imagination runs ahead of me and shows me an image of the ground suddenly giving way and the two of us free-falling into the ether.
I know I’m going to climb it. But I can’t take Tawny with me. There’s no way I can hold her and the rope at the same time. I have no idea how deep this hole goes. I loop her leash around a thin tree just to the side and tell her, in a quiet voice, that I’ll come back, don’t worry, just take a little nap in the leaves. There’s bush and ground cover here. I don’t know how deep the hole is but I figure I’ll be back in an hour, at least because it’ll be too dark to see anything. As soon as I put one foot on the ladder though she begins yelping. It’s a strangled chirp as her leash constricts around her neck. She’ll get over it once she can’t see me, I imagine, so I keep climbing. I’m fifty feet down or so and I can still hear her. The sky reels overhead like a dizzy, dusky parabola. There is only darkness under my feet. I still can’t see the ground from here.
At about 200 feet, I can’t make out the top of the rock face. I have to stop. My arms are sore from holding me steady and my shins are scraped up. There’s a kind of dull red glow under my feet at the bottom of the hole. It’s haunting and might be a trick. I focus on my breathing. I can’t hear Tawny anymore, but I can’t hear anything else either. A wave of grief hits me. I realize if I keep going I may not return, and Tawny will be all alone in the dark, crying for me. She’s old and can’t break the leash. I imagine her dead wiry body among the undergrowth. I push the image down and keep climbing.
My mind goes numb as I descend. The red light grows bigger like an opening eye. It’s all black above me now. The ladder sways aggressively. When I look down I see grass. It’s only maybe five or ten feet away. I jump. And I land in soft dewy green. Above me is the open hole, climbing upwards into the sky. The ladder I just climbed down quakes by my side, blown by an alien breeze.
I’m winded. It takes maybe a minute for my brain to catch up with the rest of me. I reach down to touch this new grass. It feels like grass and I rule out, without thinking hard, the possibility of this being another world. This place looks remarkably like the park I just left, though the sky is red and growing deep purple. A path leads through the trees to the side just as it did in the park above. I pause as I walk back through the new park, memorizing the way I’ve come, in case I come back. My legs carry me down the same windy ways and hatchbacks so I’m seeing a fence twin to the one we hopped over.
The path spits me out at the entrance of the park. Everything looks the same, caught in the dulling hellish glow of this bizarre new sky with its orange, dipping sun. The people here look the same. On a whim, I walk the roads back to what would be my apartment building on the surface. It’s clean, almost power-washed, so the white stone looks practically new. The garbage cans are neatly lined up in the front. My key works in the lock so I go inside. What else am I meant to do? What would an explorer do on a different planet?
I step into apartment 4B. My things are all here, where they all belong. Is there another me here? Or is she at work? Soft mauve light filters through the window and lands upon the floor. The chair is pulled out from my desk just the way I left it and the email for the person who lives here, my email, is open. There are no messages here from the office informing me my dental is gone and my medical card will expire soon. There is nothing scheduling an exit interview. Next to where my hand rests naturally on the keyboard is a framed picture of me in the arms of a man I do not recognize. And beyond that is another with the two of us cradling a small child. There is no one home yet though the red sky outside is dimming. I pace through the house looking for clues. There are children’s toys and books with puffy covers. There are men’s clothes hanging in one of the closets and extra blankets on the couch in front of the television. There is no small dog sleeping under a windowsill. I cannot find the hook for her leash or her food bowls. Outside the cars are sounding off in annoyance. The day on this plane is winding down. People will come home.
The smallest, tiniest voice inside me says offhandedly you don’t have to go, you know. You can just stay. The craving runs deep as I finger the soft, brushed textiles of this woman’s home. The gold picture frames. The stocked fridge. The fresh smells of laundry and light cooking. The sensation of a husband who takes the baby out for walks in the park next door. But it does not feel like home. It belongs to someone, not me. There is no Tawny. We do not live here.
I go back to the park and climb back up the ladder, slower now. The red underneath me falls away till it’s a pinprick and finally till it’s gone completely.
Tawny strains at her leash when I come back over the edge. She barks and screams and jumps to my face when I unhook her leash. I set my eyes forward until we can hear children again. We stop by the bike lane. Commuters race each other up the hill. I take off my shoes and lay down with my back in the dirt. I am nothing under a sky so big and blue.