At first, the calls from the dead helped out a lot—parents decades lost to cancer finally able to cry to their kids, you made me so proud. Sure, closure is mostly a bullshit torture device. But tell that to someone who just got their first night’s sleep in months after a sister who died of an overdose calls to tell them, quit blaming yourself.
The ghosts—or whatever they are—are pretty tight-lipped about the hows and whys. We can’t tell you where we’re calling from, is just about as much as anyone can squeeze out of the dead. If we pester too much, they just hang up, so everyone learned real fast the questions you Don’t Ask. Late-night dipshit hosts haha-ed in front of velvet curtains, what kinda data overages are we talking for calls from heaven?
Everyone figured the calls would stop, after the goodbyes. Nope. Once the dead were done dishing out wisdom, the calls were—honestly—annoying. Dead Aunt Melinda, phoning after you moved into her house to tell you not to use any of that Pledge shit on her floors, because vinegar and water worked just fine. One of my friends swore her dead grandmother called looking for help installing a printer.
When Richie called for the first time, my hands were shaking so hard I almost dropped my phone. I didn’t want to try to explain away just how he was even calling, it was just so good to hear his voice.
“Is it you?” I asked.
“Swear on my soul.”
In the backyard when we were kids, creeping through the woods to chuck mud balls at Lily and Louise Patinkin next door, swear on my soul was our promise. Do you like Lily? No, swear on my soul. In high school, after Richie hauled ass out our bedroom window to sneak to some kegger, I hissed down to him. Swear on your soul you won’t drink and drive. I saved him the I’m telling Mom fist-shaking later that night when I picked him up after his ride bailed and he called me, wasted. Even when he was puking out my car window and I drove to the 24-hour diner where I was starting a shift in three hours and wouldn’t leave until he scarfed down a burger and a couple of sodas. When he moved away after college (even though I was the older one, I had a year left. Which turned into two, which turned into maybe I’ll finish up someday)the swear on my soul hovered between us like the exhaust from his car idling nearby. We’ll stay in touch. Swear on my soul.
When my cellphone rattles on my nightstand, I paw at it, holding my breath every time I see UNKNOWN flash across the screen, hoping it’ll be her. It never is.
The ceiling of my stamp-sized studio apartment is the white of cake frosting, cut with bright lines of sunlight from the window blinds. Richie has the decency not to call until the afternoon, since he remembers most nights I close the bar and don’t get home until past three. While our mom, still kicking two towns over, fires up the horn at the ass-crack of dawn to remind me about some family thing, or some way I let her down, or just to wake me up with sentences that start with I know you’re hurting, but…until she putters out, not knowing how to finish.
I hear in her voice every time she calls: It should’ve been you.
The inside of my head is a dried sponge, thanks to the after-shift drink that turned into four, then six as I yakked at the bottles behind the bar while I cleaned. You half-full, or half-empty, Jack? I must’ve dozed on the bus, because I missed a couple stops and had to hoof it home, dodging streetlights.
“Bro!” Richie says. “Wake up.”
Je-sus. For someone who’s dead, Richie is usually so cheery it sounds like he’s got sunshine shooting out of his ass. I scoot up in bed, my stomach lurching a tango.
“I’m up,” I groan.
“I’ve got a mission for you.”
The rules for who the dead can call are pretty fuzzy, from what I can tell. My friend Allie says she’s got three ghosts gabbing her ear off, almost every day. Others, the only word they’ll get from the other side is from a still-living sister that calls, all mom says to tell you you’re being a real bitch. Whenever Richie calls, we catch up on what’s going on with me, which I guess means he and the others aren’t spying on us through some glass floor in heaven. I’m pretty happy about that, especially when I’m on the can or something. When I asked, once, he only told me that he was someplace else. I was hoping he’d say someplace better.
“This mission better involve Gatorade and fried eggs,” I say, “because that’s all I can handle right now.”
“Get off your ass,” he laughs. “It’s important.”
“I want to make sure Laika is ok.”
My stomach drops a few elevator floors at his words. In the six months since he’s been gone, and the four or so since phones started ringing, he’s never made me feel bad about Laika, when I really would’ve busted out the weaponized guilt if I was him. How could you take my dog to the goddamned pound? I know your life imploded on you, but at least you’ll make it to thirty-five.
Not Richie. He’s always been the best out of the two of us, the whole family, even. All I could blubber to him that first call was, I couldn’t keep her. It was too much, with—everything. I’m so sorry.
All he said was, I know.
“Richie, man, I don’t know if…”
“Have you heard from Nina?”
Bingo. He always shuts down my arguments before they even start, so I don’t have to sprint through the Nina minefield. The sharp lines of sunlight sway on my ceiling, though it could just be my eyes pissed at me.
“Yeah, yeah…” I trail. “I’ll call the shelter. They said she was adopted. I’ll find out who has her now. Maybe they can send a picture or something.”
“No. I want you to really see her. Scratch her behind the ears, tell her she’s a good girl, all that.”
Richie would never say it out loud, but I think, behind the light in his voice, lurks something as close to you owe it to me as he’ll ever get.
“Today’s not great. I have to be back at the bar by seven, and…”
“No, it has to be today. I know you. You’ll put it off. I’ve got time. I can stay on the line.”
I save him the jokes—You have time? What, you’re so busy playing shuffleboard on the tops of clouds with angels or whatever?—because he’ll only snap that I always crack one when I’m trying to shake off something. Which is right.
“Don’t try. Do it, Ronny,”
“Alright. I said I will. Jesus.”
I dodge the creaky floorboards in my apartment even though I live alone. I’m better flying solo, as much as I managed, for a couple of months, pretty decently with Nina. She told me one night over Thai food that she was pregnant. I didn’t say, what are you going to do? Which, I swear, after everything happened, I could picture her wishing I did so she could throw it in my face.
“You don’t have to be involved,” she said.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I do.”
Alright. So we were both scared. Flooring the gas pedal and slamming your eyes shut scared. We’d been together for barely three months. Even together sounded too strong because I met her at my bar and we hung out a few times a week and had sex and made each other laugh, and that was about it. With the baby on the way, we cranked the volume way up. Might as well go all in, we figured. Let’s move in together. Let’s see how this goes.
I didn’t leave dirty socks around or piss all over the toilet, and emptied the dishwasher without her even having to ask. I think I was doing pretty good. I learned all about her, how she scooted around on her tiptoes whenever she was barefoot, how she can turn a jar of jelly and whatever else is in the cabinets into a dinner from one of those restaurants with white cloths and real candles on the tables. Mostly, it seemed like we were almost the same person. Except she had a dirtier mouth and a shorter fuse.
I know things seem back-asswards when you’re falling in love with someone you’re already living with who’s having your kid. I don’t believe in any of that meant for each other bullshit. All I know is that there were nights in our shitty apartment when we held each other in bed as rain leaked through the gap between the window and the wall that I thought, this is it. I don’t need anything else.
We drifted around this outdoor artsy market by our place, the second week we moved in, when Nina spotted this ring that she liked, a curve of copper around a rough blue stone. I went back the next day to buy it. We weren’t registering for blenders and muffin pans or whatever—at least not yet, we both agreed. When I gave her the ring, it was a promise. We’ll try.
“I know you didn’t even want her,” was the worst thing that Nina said to me when everything was falling apart. Like I had no right to be raw. Like the only thing that could make her feel better, somehow, was to make me feel worse.
I know I’m a coward because whenever she put up her walls it was because she was scared of how hurt she was and didn’t want to show it. But it’s hard to want to break through, honestly, when her walls are topped with guns and you’re running through the field towards her, dodging bullets. And if you break through and can actually talk to each other, maybe all you do is teleport yourselves to a hospital ward for a flashback of hell.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t called, even with all the questions I know we both have for each other. Even after a friend of hers drifted into the bar one night and I asked him how she was. He told me, I don’t know, man. She’s a ghost.
When I hop out of the shower, Richie’s still on speakerphone, nagging at me to hurry up as I yank on some clothes that don’t smell so ripe. I call the animal shelter. The bored-sounding intern on the other end of the line says she’s not supposed to spill the info of the family who adopted Richie’s dog. I transfer her twenty bucks with my phone and suddenly she’s all chatty, coughing up the name, number, and address, saying, Laika? I remember her. She was real sweet.
Mom never let us have pets when we were kids, so Richie adopted Laika almost as soon as he was on his own. He landed a job in the city and bought a two-bedroom in the burbs after a year or so. He’d send out cards every Christmas of him and Laika dressed up as Santa and his elf, or both of them in parkas and ski hats and stuff. Laika was a mutt in the best possible way, all floppy ears and a long coat with a little mane, and a constellation of spots across her belly. When she hit you with those melty brown eyes, you were hers, sneaking her scraps of Thanksgiving turkey under the table.
A couple of boyfriends floated in and out of Richie’s life—not that I’m one the talk, with my shit luck in that department—and Richie always joked that he wasn’t going to let just anyone help him raise his girl. Frank must’ve passed the test, because he and Richie lived together for maybe three years before Frank walked. I drove to Richie’s house to help him pack Frank’s stuff (we should torch this shit on the driveway, I offered, but Richie wasn’t game) since Frank was taking forever to move, and Richie couldn’t stand to look at his ex’s shirts in the closet anymore. Soon after that, Richie bought his motorcycle.
I pop in my earbud headphones so I can talk to Richie without holding the phone, which I stuff into the back pocket of my jeans.
“I keep calling them and no answer,” I tell him through the microphone in the volume toggle of the earbuds.
“So?” His voice is small and tinny, like he’s stuck in a can. “You got their address. It’s been forever since we’ve been on a…”
“Oh, Jesus. Don’t…”
“Road trip! Gas up the car. I’m picking the music.”
As we drive under the green slabs of the highway signs, Richie prods me if I’m dating, even though he knows the answer is always a fat No. My headphones are still crammed in my ears, so I can play music even though the glove compartment of my shitbox car rattles if I crank the stereo too loud.
“At least I’m dating more than you,” I say.
“Whatever, man. I get more tail than you even when I don’t have a body.”
I pull off the highway and onto streets lined with tree branches that sway like octopus arms underwater. The mid-afternoon sun sends shadows from the leaves rippling over the clipped lawns. An actual picket fence pokes up from the edges of Laika’s new family’s yard.
Me and Nina didn’t talk about the future much—especially towards the end, since it seemed cruel to pretend. In the early days, I figured we’d raise the baby somewhere better. I’d sell my half of the bar and put some cash away. Nina would probably stay home for a couple of years. We could get a house with a yard for the baby to run around.
I park in the street and plod over the flagstone path to the front door, trying to plan the speech in my head. Hey, my dead brother wants to know if you were able to teach his dog to fetch.
“I bet she’ll run to the door once you ring the bell,” Richie chirps in my ears. “I’ll tell you what to say. I don’t want you to mess this up.”
“I’m pretty sure I can handle this.”
When I knock on the door, it’s not Laika who peeks up at me. A little girl—three, tops—squats as she pulls the door open. Her big, blinking eyes, her pigtails, the round balloon of her face belongs on the front of a box of cereal.
My throat scratches, something in my stomach twisting.
“Hi,” she burbles.
A woman scoots to the door with a gotcha, plucks up the kid, and plants her on one hip. Must be the kid’s mom with how the same curls frame the faces. The woman’s smile doesn’t light up her eyes—not that I blame her, since I probably look about as beat-down as if was just snoring off a three-day bender in her driveway.
“Is, uh…” I say. “Laika here?”
On her mom’s hip, the little girl squeals with laughter.
“Laika! We loved her when we came to see the house, right, baby?” she nuzzles her daughter’s cheek. “No, she’s not here. We bought the place a couple months back from the Dovers. They moved once their youngest was born.”
“Oh.” In my ear, Richie’s a mosquito, all ask her about… I ignore him. “Laika’s my…or was my brother’s dog. And he wanted to. You know. Check on her.”
“Hmm. Well, I know they moved over to Fulton, somewhere. I have their number. That’s about all I can do.”
She pops into her kitchen, leaving me toeing the straw welcome matt with my dirty sneakers, until she comes back to hand me a torn scrap of notebook paper with a phone number.
“Good luck,” she says.
The baby was born before her time. Not in that nice way that people talk about great leaders. In that strained way that doctors said things to Nina and me about placenta resisting blood flow and emergency C-section. I’ve never been called smart in my life, so I had to chase after nurses in the hallway to ask, what does this mean? They had that same heavy voice when they said things like we’re worried about the baby’s lungs and probably won’t live long outside the womb. The baby was this tiny, pink thing that wriggled in the palm of my hand before the nurses took her away and wired her up to the ventilator. It was only after the surgery, when I helped Nina into a wheelchair, that relief splashed cold water on the back of my neck. I could’ve lost her. My head was so crammed full of worrying about the baby that I didn’t even think Nina could slip away. Never again. We had to take care of each other. This is it. I don’t need anything else.
Nina was weak, but she managed to smile when we visited the baby in the clear plastic shoebox thing the nurses kept her in. We both said things like we can’t wait to bring you home while we shoved our hands through slits in the box to touch her. Nina slid her ring over the baby’s fist, the ring so big that it slipped all the way to the little bump of her shoulder.
We called her Leona after Nina’s grandmother. I liked the name a lot, how it made her seem like she was fooling us all, that she wasn’t this still thing (so, so still) under a tiny hat my mom crocheted her—she was really a lion. My mom snapped pictures of Leona with her cellphone while me and Nina cried off and on, until my eyes were dusted with ground glass. To remember her by, I knew my mom was thinking, already, and I hated her a little for it. By then, Richie was on the road to meet us at the hospital.
Standing outside of the gas station, now, the payphone is cool in my hand. A yellow school bus rounds the corner, the black stink of exhaust floating to me as I dial.
“Oh, Laika,” Mrs. Dover sighs over the line. “That dog was angel. It killed us to get rid of her. We tried to rehome her, but…”
“You put her down?”
“You have to understand. The baby got this rash we couldn’t get rid of. The doctor said he was allergic to pet dander or whatever. We brought her to the shelter in town, a couple weeks back.”
I dig the phone deeper into my ear, gushing out a breath I didn’t know was locked in.
“Is she still there?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to check with them.”
After I hang up, I pop the earbuds back in and tell Richie what I know. The Dovers moved about an hour away, into the sleepy suburbs. I call the shelter in their town and the girl who picks up tells me that a dog named Laika’s been there about two weeks. I almost ask, how is she? Except, she’s—you know—a dog, so I don’t figure I’ll get a detailed answer.
In the quiet over the line when I tell Richie all this, I can hear him locking her in a cramped wire cage in his head. I can hear his heart breaking.
“Can you go see her?” he finally asks.
Gravel mixed with broken glass crunches under my feet as I wander from the payphone back to my car under a picture-book blue sky. I know if I see her, part of him will want me to take her, but I can’t even take care of myself.
“Richie—I’ve got work in a couple of hours, and…”
The word is barely more than a puff. His same crinkled paper voice he’d use to say nothing when I asked why he got off the school bus crying we when were kids. I was in junior high and he was still in fourth grade when I got him to cough up the name of the kid who was calling him a fag, the kid who I saw at the skate park that weekend and only punched one more time after the little shit cried for me to stop. That squashed the name-calling pretty quick.
I plug the phone into my car stereo to keep talking to Richie as I drive under the bright, late afternoon sky, following the breadcrumb trail of the GPS.
“I’ll go if you finally fess up to kissing Lily Patinkin,” I tell him. The car’s engine groans when I hit the gas, like, why are you doing this to me.
“You bet I did.”
“I knew it!” I whoop, swatting the wheel. “Asshole! Even after you swore and everything.”
“No, I swore that I never liked her.” His words are so light that I can see his fat smile on the other end of the line, wherever he is. “Not that I didn’t kiss her.”
Leona got stronger. People clapped me on the back and said things like, she’s a fighter! Nina was released from the hospital and we left the baby pretty much only for quick pit-stops at our apartment, where I managed to wriggle Nina out of some of her armor. I had to push plates of food at her and she had to practically beg me to sleep for more than twenty minutes.
“Do you think it’s because she’s doesn’t want us?” Nina asked softly, poking a finger into a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich I made her, which she still hadn’t bitten into.
Her eyes were webbed with red. Her hands cold and dry, and small in mine. She always snapped that she was fine whenever someone asked how she was holding up. Her silence, her softness worked at my insides with a wrench.
“She wants us,” I said. “She’ll make it.”
Richie kept the cups of coffee coming, back at the hospital. He stayed a week at our mom’s before driving back to his place to check in at work and get some things, but he said he’d be back in a day or two. With his hourly calls, he was basically still there.
Mostly, me and Nina stood by the glass wall of the NICU until my feet were cemented to the ground. We prayed in that way that people who don’t believe in anything do, all about hope. We hope she’ll get better. Honestly, I looked at her pink, squished body through the glass, and cradled her when I could, and all I could think was, sorry. Sorry we did this to you. You didn’t ask for any of it.
And because life, or the universe, or slick, winding roads in the darkness or whatever, loves to pile it on you when you’re already in the shit, Leona lived longer than the couple of days the nurses gave us—and it really seemed like she was doing better—when we got news about Richie.
I don’t know what the fuck Richie, who drove five miles under the speed limit like a mom with a minivan full of snoozing babies, was even doing with a motorcycle—probably some dumb ego-buy after his breakup—or why he was whipping around the streets so fast that when he smashed the tree, the wood and the metal fused into some cyborg plant with broken branches.
And then everything kept piling, and all I could mumble was no, all stupid, like I had a say in anything that happened. Calls from the police looking for my mother and me. No. And then it was Richie’s funeral, and my mom had cried out all the tears she had left in her, so she was just a piece of string on the wind. I had to try to keep it together when I wanted to scream into a hole in the ground. No. Then, Frank showed up at the funeral and we couldn’t look at each other because we were both trying not to crack open. He had Laika with him, and it was so weird that she was bouncing around, wagging her tail. He said he and Richie had been trying to patch things up. He’d been watching Laika since the accident and could I take her for a bit? I said yes when I shouldn’t have because they were throwing dirt over Richie’s coffin and I thought that I owed it to my brother.
So it was me, Nina, and the dog in the apartment. Me and Nina being sad at each other, and awful at each other. Her pissed at me for giving her hope, and me drowning because I couldn’t help her, or Leona, or myself—and every other thing the doctors said was about infection, or surgery, or blood moving from the lungs, like Leona’s body didn’t want to live, no matter everything the doctors did. And there was Laika with her barking to go outside, and her shit I had to pick up, and the prednisone I had to give her twice a day for her doggie adrenal disease, and suddenly Frank couldn’t take her back, because it was too hard to be around her, and my mom wouldn’t (and, honestly, honestly, Ronald, how can you even ask that right now?)and I thought, jesus I can’t do this.
So I brought her to a shelter that could’ve been this one.
“We have some college kids come by a few times a week to take them on walks,” the girl at the shelter’s front desk says. She’s young, she can’t be far out of high school. She’s trying to be nice but whatever’s on her phone is way more interesting. “It’s not so bad.”
Her gray hoodie matches her eyes, matches my insides as I look around the small lobby that smells of lemon disinfectant. On one wall, someone painted a line of furry cartoon animals. Cats in black-and-white tuxedoes. Dogs with floppy ears and bowties. A few shelves with dog leashes, cat toys, and big bags of food crawl across another wall. Cats pace their cubbies in the glass-walled room behind the front desk. To the left of the cat room, a gray door leads to a narrow room with dog pens.
“Can I see her?” I ask.
A chorus of barks hits me when the girl opens the door and lets me into the pen room. She circles back to her desk, leaving me alone with Richie’s breath pumping through my headphones. The narrow cement aisle between the two rows of pens is painted with bright yellow bricks and flanked by the wire fence doors where snouts and paws poke out. Stuck to one wall is a poster of a collie dressed up like Superman, with the words: You can be his hero.
Laika yips when she sees me, a high squeal that ricochets off the walls and spikes my ears. She bounces around her cage and even pees a little, which I think is kind of sweet. I know it’s stupid to be jealous of a dog, but I could never be so happy that I’d lose control of myself like that.
“How is she?” Richie asks, crying, now. “How’s my girl?”
“Let me talk to her?”
I unplug my earbuds, put the phone on speaker, hold it up to the cage, and tell him to go ahead. Laika sweeps her warm tongue across my fingers and the phone. Who’s a good girl? I hear Richie ask. Daddy misses you, angel! I wish I could fluff your ears.
I have to turn my head away, not that I can see much, because the tears are making everything all warped.
“How does she look?”
“She definitely knows it’s you.” I’m glad I keep it together. Laika’s ignoring the phone, now, pawing the pen door to get me to notice her. Because of course Laika has no idea what’s going on, other than the fact that I can open the door and let her go, and this is just another shitty situation that we’re trying to shove meaning onto. Instead of that, I tell him, “She’s wagging her tail, all crazy.”
I have to take Richie off speaker because he’s crying too much. After a minute, he bolts the tears in, but he’s still breathing pretty hard into the phone while the dogs whine around me, like take me with you. The quiet in our apartment after me and Nina lost Leona was a heavy blanket. Nothing we could say made each other feel better, so instead we tried crying and screaming and making each other feel worse, until we stopped talking altogether, maybe out of some mercy.
I made the mistake, early on, of telling one person that I buried a brother and a kid in the space of a week and they told me it was unthinkable. Which is stupid, because they’re all I can think about. It’s been two-hundred and nineteen days since I lost Leona, three days after losing Richie, and the grief is a box I take off the shelf every morning, open up, and stare into—adding to the ache behind my ribs.
When we split up and Nina moved out and I moved into my new place, the silence stuck around. The fucking terrible silence, along with all the daily bullshit of wiping toothpaste off the bathroom mirror and paying the electric, when no, no, you don’t understand, everything’s broken.
The same silence must blast through Nina’s apartment, every day. With no calls, no word about Leona—even with all my waiting and bargaining that each drink will be my last and sprinting to the phone every time it rings—which can only mean that whatever someplace the dead go, she’s not there. I’ve wanted to call Nina and ask if she thinks Leona is out there, somewhere. I must’ve dialed her number fifty times but I can never hit send.
We needed each other and we both ghosted. We really are the same.
“Thanks, Ronny,” Richie whispers. “Look—I have to go.”
The line goes dead before I can say anything else.
I lower the phone, Laika whining when my hand drops away from her. She sticks her nose through the wire, then a paw. Reaching for me, this tiny thing with her spots and her liquid brown eyes. Guilt with a wagging tail. What’s she asking for? Not a lot, just enough. All she wants to do is go home.
When the phone rings a week later, I think it’s Richie, at first, because UNKNOWN sparks across my screen in too-bright letters. I pick up and all I hear on the other end is someone breathing—only I have to strain because the sound is so soft. When I hear a little gurgle, I dig the phone into my ear, my head heavy on the pillow, the tears burning down into my ears, because it’s her. It’s Leona. Richie must be holding the phone by her face, wherever they are, letting me know that she’s not alone. She’s not really gone, not all of her.
I’m crying so hard that my bed shakes, waking Laika up from the pillow by my head, where she’s slept every night since I brought her here from the shelter. Laika blinks her sleepy eyes. Then, she bounces up to stick her wet nose in my face.
“Will you love her for me?” I can barely make out the words.
“Swear on my soul.”
“Thank you. Laika says hi.”
“You didn’t have too…”
“I know. That’s not why…This is for me, too.”
Laika’s tongue lolls out of her mouth, like she’s laughing, when I ruffle her ears. She won’t let me stay in bed long. Soon she’ll run to the front door with a yip, letting me know it’s time to go outside.
“Thanks, Ronny. I mean it.” Then, he waits, so long I almost think he’s gone. “You should call Nina. You both need each other.”
Long after Richie hangs up, I hold the phone to my ear.
About the Author
Nathan Tavares writes fiction, sometimes about benevolent frauds, young immortals, and the terrible and/or wonderful things people do for/to each other. His writing has appeared in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. You can find more of his work at nathantavares.com.