SOMETHING HEAVY by Samara Rafert
“YOU'RE JUST A LITTLE BITCH,” Louisa’s mother said to the dog, one bright February morning, a couple of months after Louisa’s sister had stopped eating.
“If you don’t stop meowing, I’ll cut out your eyes and fry them for supper,” Louisa’s father said to the cat.
Alba, the white pit bull, thumped her tail against the side of the chair, and Louisa’s mother reached down to scratch her ears. “You whiny degenerate animal,” she cooed. Blackie, the cat, continued her yowling, despite the scraps of food in the bowl. Louisa gave her a friendly kick. The yowling stopped short with a sputter, and Blackie leapt sideways from Louisa’s foot. When she was settled she began again to cry. Louisa’s mother lifted her fingers from Alba’s ears and sniffed. “She needs a bath,” she said to Louisa. Alba stretched her lips back from her gums. Foamy spit stuck to her flews and her eyes narrowed to happy slits. She was oblivious to the talk of baths. She grunted as Louisa’s mother continued to dig her fingers into the tender spots behind her ears.
It was ten thirty, and the kitchen smelled of the thick, bitter coffee Louisa’s parents drank black. The paper was spread across the table, along with the last week’s mail, school papers, coupons and the newsletter from the Unitarian church her mother attended sporadically. “I should go more often,” she was always saying, and Louisa and Kim teased her about it. Louisa had never thought of theirs as a godly family.
At the sink, Louisa’s father rattled dishes, rinsing them for the washer. Her mother was still in her bathrobe, the old one that stirred in Louisa memories of babyhood, resting her head against a soft breast behind red terrycloth, now worn almost see-through in spots. Or the edge of that bathrobe hanging unevenly across her mother’s calves, her mother standing at the counter—the old one, before the remodel—on the brown-and-yellow linoleum grooved to look like bricks. Her mother stirring something in a big metal bowl, Louisa crawling around her, chasing their old cat, Linda, who was named after her father’s ex-fiancée. Louisa was seventeen now, Kim fifteen. She wondered how far she could really remember back, and how much she was making up, based on photos or fiction.
“What time is the appointment tomorrow?” her father said, wiping his hands on a dishcloth and coming to the table. Kim was to see the doctor tomorrow, and if her weight had dropped any more since her last appointment two weeks ago, she would need to be hospitalized. One hundred pounds. Kim was five foot four, an inch taller than Louisa, and one hundred was the magic number.
“One o’clock,” her mother said. “I told you that. It’s on the calendar. You took off work, didn’t you?” The crease between her eyebrows deepened.
“Of course I took off work,” Louisa’s father said. “I just couldn’t remember if it was one or one fifteen.”
“So what happens if she’s below a hundred?” Louisa said. “They make her have an IV?” She saw her sister lying on a narrow cot, bucking against the nurses’ hands the way Louisa had in the dentist’s chair when he’d tried to give her a Novocaine shot for a tooth extraction. He had finally given up and done it with general anesthesia. Louisa shuddered at the memory of those hands, the needle approaching from the corner of her eye. She saw the nurses holding Kim down, too, subduing her as Kim screamed, until they could put the needle in her wrist that would deliver something clear and nourishing to her veins. Louisa would put the needle in herself, right now, if she could. Anything to get the old Kim—chubby, stubborn, funny and loud—back.
“I don’t know, honey, I don’t know,” her mother sighed. “Don’t ask me that now.”
“It’ll be okay, Louisa,” her dad said. “Maybe she’ll change her mind and eat a chocolate cake today.” He was joking, but that was how they all thought, lately: maybe she’ll eat this today. Maybe she’ll eat that. Maybe she’ll change her mind. As if stopping this course she was on were a decision to be made instantly. Because it hadn’t started instantly. First she stopped with desserts. Then bit by bit the rest fell away. It was weeks before Louisa thought, When was the last time my sister ate? Still, she wondered: if Kim had a little today, or decided she could get one good meal in before the appointment tomorrow, maybe it would be enough.
“How are you on homework?” her mother asked, as if she just remembered that she was supposed to worry about both of her daughters.
“It’s fine,” Louisa said, though she had a paper due that week that she hadn’t started, and a math test coming up. She’d get it all done somehow—she always did. “I’ll wash the dog now.” She wanted a finite task, something with a set chain of actions, to move her from one part of the day to another, something she could look back on and think, I accomplished that. That was one way she and Kim differed: Kim saw what needed to be done and did it. Once she decided to accomplish something, she did; she was unswayable. Louisa would never have the willpower to stop eating. She hated herself for finding Kim beautiful like this, for beautiful she was: her eyes were wide and deep in her face, her bones were the finest sculpture.
Louisa opened the fridge and pulled out a scrap of deli meat, hid it behind her back.
“Alba!” she chirped. “Come on! Treat!”
Alba followed willingly at first, but as they progressed down the hallway toward the bathroom she became suspicious and stopped. Louisa fed her some turkey and managed to coax her a couple more feet, until they were outside the bathroom; then Alba stopped again and dug in.
“Kim!” Louisa shouted. Her sister came out of her room. Kim had blue under her eyes, hollows in her cheeks, and limp hair. Her arms were like a heron’s legs, painfully graceful and with exaggerated joints. They were pale; the moles that dotted her body stood out like dark islands on her white skin. Her knuckles and elbows pinkened at their peaks. Like Louisa, she bit her nails till the cuticles bled, but Kim also painted hers bitter colors. Today they were the color of prunes.
“Kim, help me,” Louisa said. Kim bent behind Alba. Wedging her hands under the dog’s rear end, she lifted and pushed while Louisa pulled. The girls managed to heave her into the bathtub. Both of them panted with the effort.
Alba locked her body into place, shivering against the water’s onslaught, but she did not try to leave the tub. She sat, mute and dejected and terrified even when Louisa soothed her. Kim went back to her room.
“It’s okay, darling,” Louisa said, massaging the shampoo into Alba’s neck. Louisa felt a rush of affection and wanted to kiss the dog, hug her and make her feel safe, but instead she rinsed her off. The water from the Tupperware they kept in the tub for that purpose made a foamy cascade over Alba’s squeezed-shut eyes. When the suds were gone and Louisa turned off the water, Alba stayed frozen, afraid to move. Wet, her short white hair looked grayish, almost translucent in the bright bathroom light. Especially at the delicate areas around her ears and at her ankles that seemed constructed of the thinnest, most snappable bone, pale, peach-pink skin showed through. The pads of her toes and the thumbs of bare flesh that jutted backwards from her paws were calloused and hard, flexible in their moorings to Alba’s feet.
In summer when Louisa’s family went on one of their walks at the nature preserve outside Newark, they would let Alba off the leash, despite many reasons not to. The signs at the heads of the paths and in the parking lot said all pets must be kept on leash. If she ever bit anyone, it would be worse than if a Labrador retriever or a poodle or a cocker spaniel bit someone—if Alba bit someone, people would say she’s a pit bull, and therefore a monster, and therefore you, her owners, are monsters. Irresponsible. Insane. There would be legal trouble, Louisa’s mother said. She’d be killed, Louisa’s father said. She’d be incarcerated in a shelter and a death needle would burrow into that thick vein that you can trace with your thumb along her ankle. But all this didn’t bother Louisa the way it might, because she knew her dog. Alba challenged things, yes: Louisa knew how she barked when the mailman dropped off the letters. She had seen the way she jumped at the horses plodding by, riders sitting straight with neat helmets on their heads. But these were challenges, not threats. She barked and growled at people out of fear, a sense of duty to Louisa’s family, but she would never bite. They were very careful when they let her off the leash, they checked that no one was around and they kept scraps of meat or cheese in their pockets to lure her back if they needed to. It was all worth it to watch her run through the grass that was taller than she was, so that the only evidence of her presence was a line zipping across the surface of the field. Then Alba would run back out sneezing and kicking up her feet, with burrs and seeds stuck to her face.
“All done, girl,” Louisa said. Alba remained against the side of the tub, still stiff, still shivering. She always did this. She had to be startled out of her fear.
“Come on, baby, come on!” Louisa said, and she scrabbled her legs against the enamel tub, jumped out, and shook herself. She looked fresh and clean. Louisa opened the bathroom door and let her run out.
Downstairs, Louisa’s mother still wasn’t dressed. Her father was going through some mail. Louisa knew that someday—maybe even year after next when she went to college—she would miss these times, with her family around the table. She knew it, but didn’t feel it. Instead, she was restless, scattered. She studied each of them. Without makeup, her mother’s eyes looked small, red, and receded into her face. She was a frowner, one of those people everyone was always asking what was wrong. “I’m just thinking,” she’d say. “This is just my face.” She frowned now at the News Journal.
“Another accident on 896,” her mother said, shaking the paper. “Someone trying to pass on a curve.”
Louisa’s father wore a wool sweater with holes in it. His blond-gray hair was thinner than Louisa had ever noticed before, and combed across his bald spot. He sighed to let them know he was concentrating.
“I hate people,” Louisa said. “Idiots who can’t drive shouldn’t own cars.”
Louisa’s father cleared his throat.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” her mother said. “I just want to drink my tea.”
Louisa swallowed. “You brought it up.” She felt warm, faint. She should be working on math, or the history paper that was due next week. Across from the kitchen, Alba writhed on the carpeted living room floor, rubbing away the smell of shampoo.
Kim came downstairs. Her hair was pulled back now, and she was wrapped in a long cardigan.
“Hi sweetie,” her mother said. She set down the paper. This was what her parents did now with Kim. They stopped and looked up. They called her sweetie. They followed her from room to room, asking her how she was.
Kim said, “Hi, Mommy,” and began to pull baking supplies from the cupboards. This was what she did now. Every weekend, something new. She’d begun with biscuits and moved on through brioche, with muffins and cookies in between. Now she took out a large bowl, and a smaller one; she took out flour and sugar and eggs. Louisa thought it was fucked up. She thought her parents must think so, too, but wouldn’t say it. Kim and food had become terrifying subjects, best avoided, but unavoidable. It hurt Louisa to see her ghostlike sister making things she wouldn’t eat. The tears came back into her throat. She thought someone should remind Kim this was wrong, idiotic, pathetic.
“Louisa,” her father said.
“I like baking,” Kim said. She opened another cupboard and pulled out baking soda. She set the oven to 375.
“Are you going to eat any of it?” Outside, the light snow from yesterday seemed to have returned. If she looked hard enough through the kitchen window she could see small flakes darting across the silver sky. She felt imprisoned in a static layer, the hopefulness of the weekend about to make its regular shift to the dread of Monday morning, the disappointment at another two days that felt wasted, underused.
“Louisa,” her father said. Kim didn’t say anything, but flipped through the stained copy of Joy of Cooking. Louisa noticed the way her hand-me-down pink corduroys hung off Kim’s hips. She felt her own waistband bite into her stomach.
“Fuck it,” Louisa said.
“If this is how you’re going to be, I don’t want you at my table,” her father said.
“Gregory,” her mother said. “For god’s sake.”
“I’m not the problem here,” Louisa said. She started to cry. She hated Kim. She wanted to hold her down and smack her face, pull her hair, bite her arm till it bruised, until purple-brown circles spread like oil stains across her skin.
Alba had sensed the tension in their voices and was huddling on the defense, in the corner. She leaned into the wall, drawing her body into itself. Her eyes darted. Louisa’s father’s voice got soft and high as he spoke to her. He went and knelt beside her and stroked her back.
“Oh honey dog,” he said. “Honey honey honey dog.” He looked up.
“I’m taking her out,” he said. “On a W-A-L-K.” Alba was a smart dog. She leapt on him, wagging her tail.
“Kimmie,” their mother said. “Remember your appointment is tomorrow.”
“I know,” Kim said. “You reminded me twenty times.” She must have sensed that their mother was deflating as she spoke, sinking into her chair, her head drooping toward the table, for Kim turned from the counter. She went to their mother and bent over her, wrapping her in her arms.
“I know you’re worried, Mom, I just don’t need to be reminded all the time,” she said. Kim had always had a mothering side to her, a need to care for those around her.
“Thank you, sweetie,” their mother said, and Louisa wanted to shake her: what are you thanking her for? She got up and walked over to them, hugged them both. Her mother smelled like sleep-bathed skin and yesterday’s shampoo. Kim’s shoulders were sharp and her hair, the color of long-steeped tea, mixed with their mother’s graying dark bob. Louisa hugged them tighter and tighter, drawing her mother and her sister in, until they were all a tight knot. She was so afraid of when they would all disappear, of being an old woman and remembering her family this way.
She tried to focus on her homework. She turned up the music. The singer wailed over sad guitar. She looked at the graph she kept taped to the wall at the head of her bed. The graph showed how many hours of sleep she got each night. She should get at least nine, she felt, to feel like herself. According to the graph, she averaged about six. She drew a neat line connecting Friday night’s dot to last night’s. The line slanted up with the weekend, but she had a feeling that it would make a big plunge tonight. She was jittery. She needed some way to slow herself down.
Slipping her fingers into the gap between the bed frame and the mattress, she pulled a pack of cigarettes from its place against the wall. She locked her door, pushed some clothes against its bottom, and opened her window. After she lit the cigarette, she pressed her lips against the screen to exhale. She couldn’t tell how much of what came out of her mouth was smoke and how much was her breath condensing in the cold air. The air was absolute against her cheeks and around her ears. It smelled damp and clean. Her eyes watered with the cold, and the cigarette smoke in her throat was scorching, bracing. It tasted dirty, but made her feel solitary and brave, wrapped in a secret.
Someone pounded on the door. She ground out the cigarette and turned down the music.
“It’s me,” Kim said.
Together, they sat at Louisa’s window. Louisa watched Kim strike one match, and then another, until she got her cigarette lit. Kim’s lips looked pale and dry. The smoke masked it now, but Louisa had noticed lately that her sister’s breath smelled faintly of nail polish remover. It was a symptom of starvation, she read. Metabolism changes led to acetone build-up in the blood.
Kim and Louisa started smoking together last year. Kim saw Louisa smoking behind the school with a friend, and then later that night she asked Louisa if she’d walk the dog with her. Once they were out in the starry sharp air, she pulled out a pack. They smoked and didn’t talk much, but having the cigarettes allowed them to be around each other without making each other angry. So they talked and walked, trading off the leash that Alba tugged at, sniffing the ground. When they got back to the house, Louisa produced a pack of gum. They bent over the dog and petted her vigorously. “You’re such a stupid little creature,” Louisa said sweetly. Kim didn’t approve of insulting the pets. So she said things like, “Darling little bunny dog,” but Louisa thought this was silly. Rubbing her hands all over the dog to get rid of the cigarette smell, no matter what words she uttered while doing so, was using Alba all the same.
“What did you bake?” Louisa asked Kim now.
Louisa imagined that by measuring out the sugar and oil, mixing everything together and adding spices so that it smelled good in the oven, was like eating for Kim. How stupid did you have to be to think you could be satisfied by some smells, some measurements and stirring? Kim thought it was enough for her. But she was tricking herself. Louisa was angry that Kim didn’t admit it to herself, that the baking was a trick. But then Louisa brushed up against the uncomfortable thought that she was angry not because of Kim’s hypocrisy, but her own: the truth was, she couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to keep herself from eating. The willpower it would take. The ability to soldier through constant hunger.
“Kim,” Louisa said. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I’m worried about tomorrow.” When they were younger, they never could talk like this, never be anything even approximating friends. They played together, but then they fought: nothing out of the ordinary, but sometimes Louisa thought she was underestimating how cruel she could be to her little sister. Slamming the door and locking it in her face when she had friends over. Pinching her when their parents weren’t looking. Calling her an idiot, laughing at her when she cried. It wasn’t that Kim didn’t fight back, and at the time—even now this is what she thought most of the time—she thought it was what older sisters were supposed to do. But ever since Kim stopped eating, if Louisa thought hard enough about all the things she might regret, her stomach spun.
Kim looked her straight in the eye. She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another, and shivered as the frosty air from outside stirred her hair. “Sissy,” she said, using the nickname they’d had for each other when they were younger. “You think I like being like this?”
“But then why do you do it?”
“Because I can,” Kim said. “I don’t know, I can’t explain.” She wrapped her sweater tighter around herself. You can explain, Louisa thought. She didn’t understand how a problem could co-exist with an obvious solution. But that was how her family was. They all ran around in a panic about everything. At their best the Jacobsens were sparkling and funny, spontaneous. But then there was Louisa’s dad with his temper and her mom with her crying and Louisa with her constant refusal to take the logical course of action, though that didn’t stop her from seeing the courses of action everyone else should take, and being infuriated when they didn’t do what they should. And that was where the ugliness of the situation came in: Kim could control what she put in her mouth. Louisa couldn’t control anything.
The snow kept falling. There was a lull in the music and the girls could hear the whistle of Amtrak coming through town, a long, sad sound. It blew one long tone, and then a couple of short blasts, then a longer one, not as long as the first. Usually it was just one long tone, and now to Louisa it sounded like a supernatural creature calling out: “Help. Help.” The sound used to frighten Louisa at night. She had a dim memory from when she was four or so, of a 13-year-old girl who got hit by a train right outside the park near their house, which had only a thin band of woods and a holey chain link fence to guard it from the tracks.
“Where’s Mom?” Louisa said.
“She’s going through boxes of old papers. I think she’ll be awhile.” Their mother organized things in spurts.
Their cigarettes were smoked down to the filters and the butts looked debased in the tuna-can ashtray. The snow was heavier now and piling up quickly on the crust of old snow, so everything was white again. Louisa wondered if they would have a snow day tomorrow. She could really use the break. She thought again of the math homework she was avoiding. Everything seemed logical and doable in her head, but then when she tried to start she was lost and it was impossible.
When they opened the door everything smelled like banana bread. They went downstairs together.
Their mother had gotten dressed. She smiled. “Hello, my girls,” she said. Papers were spread across the table and she had a plate of banana bread next to her. Louisa didn’t think she should eat it. It was like taking blood money.
“You’ll never believe what I found,” Mom said. She picked up a yellowed piece of paper. “It’s a report about you two from an observer at the preschool.” Louisa and Kim had gone to the university laboratory preschool, where education and child development students watched the children from behind a two-way mirror. Louisa was four and a half and Kim was almost three.
“Kim approaches her sister and hugs her,” Mom read. “She tries to kiss Louisa’s stomach and Louisa pushes her away. Kim looks sad and appears about to cry. Louisa takes her hand. The girls lie down on the floor and begin rolling around, grabbing each other, and giggling.”
“Oh my god,” Kim said. “Like puppies.”
Louisa thought. Is there any satisfaction more fraught and acute than comforting someone after you’ve hurt them?
“That was around the time Marcus died,” their mom said. “Remember that old shaggy beast?”
“Marcus,” Kim said. “I loved that dog.”
“I know it,” their mother said. “You asked about him every—”
“We know, Mom,” Louisa said. “You tell that story all the time. Kim was the good daughter. I didn’t notice he was gone.”
The front door opened, then closed, and they heard Dad stomp the snow off his feet. He walked past the kitchen in his socks and stood in the living room, over the woodstove, brushing snow from his jacket and gloves onto the hot surface. The snow sizzled.
“Gregory,” Mom said. “You’ll never believe what I found.” She told him about the observations of their daughters. Louisa felt self-conscious, but giddy. A new record of herself had been discovered. She watched Dad’s face. He looked distracted.
“My god,” he said. “Isn’t that funny. I love it.” His voice punctured the bright air that had risen momentarily in the room, brought it down. It was only three o’clock but it was almost dark outside. Everything was heavy and gray through the windows, and the light in the kitchen was yellow. He picked up the knife from the counter and sliced off a hunk of Kim’s banana bread. He ate it without sitting down, snow still dripping onto the kitchen tiles. Kim melted away to her room. Mom looked disappointed. Louisa wanted to tell her mother how much she loved her, how grateful she was that she found things like this, that it wasn’t her fault her daughters were distracted this afternoon by other things. The worry about Kim was a miasma. It paralyzed Louisa, and all of them, maybe Kim more than anyone. Louisa walked over to Mom and squeezed her shoulders, warm but bony under her thick sweater. Mom put her cool hand over Louisa’s. The finiteness of her mother’s palm over her hand struck Louisa like something hard and heavy, and she knew she could not save any of them. She kissed Mom’s head and said she had work to do.
Instead of working, she scrubbed the tub out, sending the last of Alba’s dirt down the drain, and filled the bath with the hottest water she could stand. As it tumbled from the faucet, she took off her clothes and stood in front of the full-length mirror. She squeezed the rolls of her gut. There was enough flesh in her fists to make a small loaf of bread, and she imagined just lopping it off, sewing up the hole and going on as usual. She turned sideways, grabbed the upper towel rack with her hands so that her torso stretched out, and admired how she could see the shadows of her ribs now, the sculpted line that led up to her small breasts. What if she could take some of her body and give it to Kim? But that wouldn’t solve anything, would it? Kim would just starve it away again.
In the tub she let her thoughts slide around. If there were a snow day tomorrow, which seemed more and more likely, she wouldn’t waste it inside like she had today. Tonight, after her bath, she would finish her homework and tomorrow she would reconnect with the world. Her parents might not have to work, either. They could do something as a family. She pictured Kim, how delicate she’d look in her winter coat, with the mittens Mom had given her for Christmas. Maybe tomorrow Kim would go to her appointment and she wouldn’t have gone below that hundred, but the scare would be enough to bring her to her senses, and she and Louisa would bring the dog out to celebrate.
Watching Alba in new snow was magic. She wasn’t a big dog; it often reached her chest. When let out in it for the first time she would twist her body through it like an unkinking rope, writhing and leaping, huffing and biting at the flakes. Her few black spots like something exotic, her back a prized pelt, and her black eyes above her snow-fuzzed muzzle, drops of water on her whiskers. Louisa loved watching her leap and snap and tumble. She was an eight-year-old dog but in the snow she was like a puppy.
The water had cooled and Louisa flipped the lever to let it drain. As it did so, she lay still and noticed the water retreating from her skin. The cool air drew goosebumps and finally she hauled herself to sitting.
She remembered the conversation about Marcus. It was all tangled up with Kim in her mind. It infuriated her that her mother brought it up over and over, claiming she didn’t realize how many times she’d told the story before. Louisa knew the story, she didn’t need to hear it again, but now, of course, she couldn’t help but replay it.
The Jacobsens had bad luck with pets. There was Linda, the cat named after her father’s fiancée. Linda the cat was a ragged, smoke-gray, grouchy lady with one ear notched from a fight. Louisa used to try to pet her, and Linda scratched. Linda ran away one winter night when Louisa was ten and Kim was eight. They looked for her and put up signs and thought that was that—someone had fed her and she decided she liked them better. But then when the weather warmed Louisa’s dad noticed a smell in the shed. Louisa still remembered that stench. “I dream of it,” her mom said. “That poor girl.” Her father sobbed when they buried her. Kim had to be held back from petting her; their mother had wrapped her in a towel to protect the girls from the sight.
Then there was Marcus. A big yellow lab mix, he developed kidney failure when Louisa was four and Kim was two. All Louisa remembered of Marcus was a shadow, a warm presence, the heavy smell of dogs. As she’d been told so many times, she hadn’t noticed when Marcus wasn’t there that day. He had been so far on the periphery of her little world that she didn’t notice. But Kim did, her mother always said, with the kind of rueful grin parents assumed when telling stories about back when their kids were cute.
“Kimmie asked about Marcus every day for weeks,” the script went. “Meanwhile, Louisa went on her merry way.” The story was meant to be funny, or charming, but somewhere along the way Louisa swallowed that story and it stuck in her, a flaw that burned as her growing self accreted around it.
As she toweled herself off she heard a wail and thought, somebody’s freaking out again. She covered her ears, but the wail got louder, until she threw on her clothes and left the bathroom.
Kim and her mother sat on the couch. Kim had tears running down her cheeks, and as Louisa approached them all, she noticed her dad was crying too.
“I called for her,” he said. “But the train was too loud, and she would have ignored me anyway.”
So that was how Louisa learned that she hadn’t registered the way she should have the fact that her father had come home alone. None of them had. They had all been too wrapped up in their anecdotes, their worries. As her father told them what happened—he started again at the beginning for Louisa’s sake—the snow kept falling, and the world around the family’s house took on that reflected half-light that would last long past sunset, that light that seemed self-generating, and only came with heavy snow. Her father explained that when he and Alba got to the park the snow was too pretty, the dog too wound up, and he just wanted to do something nice for her. It made him happy to see her run. But when the dog ran onto the tracks she decided the right thing to do was to challenge the train. She stood there, on the tracks, facing it head on and barking, tensed in fighting pose. The noise of the train and the whistle—which the engineer blasted a few short times, to try to get her off the tracks—drowned out her barking. Dad said she was so determined not to back down, to face that train down, that she looked like a small white statue, unmoving except for the thick muscles of her neck and jaw as she barked. Even though he knew she couldn’t hear him, he yelled for her at the top of his lungs, but of course she didn’t stop and come to him. And then the train moved into the frame and Alba disappeared.
When Louisa first heard the news, she didn’t register it, despite Kim’s tears. Her mother sat with her fist over her mouth. Her father’s voice was mottled and thick. Of course, Louisa thought. I shouldn’t have expected one of our pets to make it all the way through, to die a good death. She believed Alba had died in this horrible way, intellectually, but she didn’t feel it. Then maybe ten minutes later something kicked in, and she screamed as loud as she could. She grabbed a pillow from the couch and screamed into that. She knotted into herself as her father grabbed her and said, over and over again, “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”
Louisa tried to focus on other things that night, but every time she managed to forget, something would remind her and she would start to cry again. She could feel broken glass churning around in her throat, her stomach. In the morning she woke to the clock radio telling her that a snow day had been declared.
At first their parents explained to her and Kim that they would have to have a memorial service without anything to bury. They could make Alba a garden, when the ground warmed, by the graves of the other lost pets—Linda, Marcus, and other small animals who made their way there, hamsters and goldfish and so on. And Louisa and Kim said that would be nice, that was okay.
Later that afternoon, though, their dad left for a while. He came back maybe half an hour later and said that he had gone to get Alba from the tracks, even though it meant searching under the snow and wondering when the next train would come. And then, when she saw what he had brought back—or rather, not seen it, but seen the plastic bag she was in, how small it was, a lump dangling like a pendulum from his hand—everything that had been abstract to Louisa was now real. They pulled the edge of the bag back and Alba’s face was untouched, and Louisa petted her there, on the diamond between her eyes.
When they realized they’d forgotten Kim’s appointment and would be late if they didn’t leave right then, Kim stared her parents down and said, “I’m not going. I already called to cancel.” Her mother said, “My god, you can’t do that,” and Kim said, “I can, I’ll prove it.” She went to the refrigerator and took out a can of Ensure, the chalky nutritional drink the doctor had recommended. Until then the cans upon cans of Ensure had lined the shelf like soldiers, blank and malevolent, but Kim cracked open a can and took a sip. She choked and gagged, went to the sink and spat it out. A dribble of the stuff slicked her chin.
Outside, Alba’s bag sat in a neat heap in the corner of the yard. Louisa’s dad had put an old shirt over it, whether to cover it from view or protect it, Louisa didn’t know. The winter air stung their fingers through their gloves as they chipped at the ground with old garden shovels. Louisa jumped on hers and it hardly budged, and for once she felt light and delicate, like Kim. But it was only the frozen ground.
SAMARA RAFERT graduated from Ohio State University's MFA program. Her fiction has appeared in The Hopkins Review. A freelance writer and editor, she lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two small daughters.