by Shona Snowden

Frustrated by her role of 'saintly carer' for her disabled husband, Maisy tries to win herself more freedom by buying a dog to keep him company.

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'So you'll be all right then? With the puppies?' A rhetorical question for Maisy. The last thing she wanted to hear was that Keith wouldn't be all right.

'We'll be company for one another.' Music to Maisy's ears. Still, she hovered in the doorway of the conservatory. One of the puppies sprawled across Keith's stomach, asleep. The other lay at the end of the Lay-Z-Boy, licking Keith's feet.

The puppy, of course, didn't know Keith couldn't feel the lick-lick-licking of its tongue, however hard it lapped away, and the puppy did look quite determined at times, its little face deep between Keith's toes, its cotton wool bottom waggling with effort.

Nonetheless, it amused Keith. He had laughed the first time he saw what the puppy was doing. 'Look at that, Mais. We could save a mint on those home visits for massage and chiropody. The pup's doing a great job.'

The puppy did seem to like Keith's feet. Maisy was never sure it was the same one, though. It was slightly eerie the way you couldn't tell one from the other. It made it hard to name them. Keith was still thinking about names. He had asked the advice of all his online friends, the ones he 'talked' to on his laptop, tapping away and sniggering over conversations Maisy wasn't party to, usually while she was trying to concentrate on the local news or a detective series on TV. Keith never really watched TV with her anymore, always tap, tap, tap, snigger, snigger, snigger. Hogging the phone line in the conservatory, so she had to go through to the kitchen if she wanted to make a call.

'Church Lady says we should get a digital camera and send photos so she can come up with some names,' Keith said now.

'Well tell her she can pay for the camera then.' Church Lady was one of Keith's regulars.

A while ago, when Maisy was trying, oh she had tried, she had really tried, to take an interest in Keith's new friends, she'd asked what kind of church Church Lady attended. 'Oh, she doesn't go to church,' Keith said. Maisy must have looked blank, because Keith added: 'She runs a site for atheists. It's ironic, Maisy.' Maisy never asked about any of his online friends again.

Maisy did worry about money, sometimes, though. The stupidity of Keith's accident meant no payout from anybody. Their pensions were holding out, along with Keith's disability and the bit they'd put away for holidays when they retired. There would be no holidays now. Too difficult. It was hard enough at home.

At least they had the conservatory, where Keith spent his days, reading the newspaper and snoozing in the sun, waiting for his friends overseas to log on to their computers and chat to him. Maisy wished they could chat all day, didn't have jobs and families and lives of their own, could entertain him twenty four hours a day. Then she wouldn't have to drag him out with her, wheel him around the supermarket with the basket in his lap. It was embarrassing. Like a big baby. She didn't like taking him to the coffee shop in the main street either. All the old ladies tripped over the wheels of his chair, half deliberately, Maisy thought, then they would want to apologise to Keith and chat and coo over him and pity him, and all Maisy could do was look out of the window and sigh loudly until they went away. Old ladies and Keith far too young for them. Not that you'd know it. He'd wasted away in that wheelchair, really, just bright blue eyes in a pale face now.

No, they were better off at home in their own conservatory. Spending time in there was one of the few things Maisy and Keith agreed on now. It was the only improvement they'd made to the cottage when they moved up to Haupton from London after Keith retired. The light shone through the glass set in a pale wood framework, and the room beamed with colour, furnished with a pastel-flowered cane suite that was as bright as the sun. Just beautiful. If you ignored Keith's ugly brown Lay-Z-Boy. An essential, Maisy supposed, because there would be no way she could get Keith in and out of a regular chair. It was all right for Keith. He didn't have to look at it.

All that they had had to replace after Keith's accident was the carpet. It was while changing the light bulb of the conservatory's luxury extra high ceiling, only two hundred pounds extra, that he had fallen off the ladder and broken his back. Maisy blamed the beer he'd had at lunchtime. She had told him not to. And that bulb had needed to be changed. She couldn't see to do her crossword.

The puppies, though, they were working out exactly as she'd hoped—keeping Keith company while she was out. Apart from the awkwardness when they were out, it was just such a trial getting Keith ready. Even dressing him was a challenge nowadays, pulling his trousers up his wax-white legs, over his dimpled flaccid rear, avoiding the harmless pink penis lolling against his leg, fastening the belt around the loose folds of his stomach. His stomach was so soft that Maisy wondered if she pushed too hard that her hand might sink in and keep going until it came out behind him. Sometimes she's been tempted to try.

But no. These things are meant to try us. It was so hard, though. Always changing bags, wiping up some stinking mess. Maisy preferred to keep that kind of thing at home.

Hence the puppies. They would manage the expense, and they wouldn't need to be pedigree or anything. Maisy had looked in the local paper and found the ad, stark in its minimalism: 'Puppies for sale. Apple Farm, Tranter.'

Maisy had always disliked Tranter, just a huddle of houses next to the sewage station. She had to drive past it every time she took Keith to the hospital in Luton. 'Why would you want to live there?' she'd asked once, absently.

'Maybe they work at the sewage system,' said Keith, although she didn't really want an answer. 'Maybe they get immune to the smell. Maybe they can't afford to live anywhere else.' Keith, always so reasonable, always an answer to everything.

Maisy had gone alone to look at the puppies. 'We don't know anything about the ground out there. What if the path is rough? I won't be able to push your chair.' She had steered along a narrow lane, through all the visible cottages, right to the back of the village, and down a rutted driveway, following a crudely painted sign: 'Apple Farm'. At the end of the driveway stood a semi-derelict farm, surrounded by crumbling outbuildings. There was no sign of any apple trees and the yard in front was potholed and muddy. She looked forward to telling Keith she'd been right not to bring him, she could never have managed him here.

Maisy stopped the car, but didn't get out at first. She wasn't quite sure what to do. The yard was scattered with dogs of all shapes and sizes, mostly just lying on the ground, barely lifting their heads to look at her. There were lots of puppies, some gambolling, most simply lazing in the weak afternoon sun like their parents. Puppies for sale? A pack!
And what kind of dogs? Maisy was no expert, but she would have recognised a few breeds—labradors, poodles, Yorkshire terriers, things like that. There was nothing familiar about the shape of any of the furry humps that littered the yard. They came in every shade of brown, grey, cream and black, and every carried some strange feature she didn't recognise. A silvery dog, sprawled next to a disconnected coil of hose, sniffed the air with a nose that was almost piglike, perhaps some kind of bulldog cross? A little pack of cream and brown puppies scuffling over a stick waggled long scaly tails, a bit like rats. Under the shadows of a spindly bush lay something giant and as thickly furred as a great dark bear. If Maisy got out of the car—would they do anything? Turn rabid and attack? She pushed the horn, very gently, but its tinny beep made her jump, more than the dogs.

The horn did lead to some activity, though. Something stirred under a tree to the left of the car; a large shaggy dog, Maisy thought, but when he unfurled himself from the shadows she saw it was a man. He loped towards the car, an ugly man, with a face like a dog, all loose jowls and long brown hair. She wound down her window. 'I saw your ad in the paper and I was wondering about your puppies…'

He stopped a few yards away from the car and stretched out his arms, as if to indicate that she could choose from whatever she saw in the yard. 'I don't quite know…' she said. This was ridiculous. She had to get out. She opened the door slowly and carefully. A couple of dogs raised their heads, but nothing else moved, other than a few of the puppies, quarrelling over a stick with low growls. She eased her way out of the car. Left the door open a little. Just in case. She took a step towards the man.

He didn't move. 'I was thinking more of an indoor kind of a dog,' she said. 'To keep my husband company. He needs the company, you see. So I can get out more.' The man's face was hard. Impatient. He had no time for her. Like the nurses and the doctors at the hospital had no time for her. They only cared about Keith, poking and prodding him, confirming that he still had no feeling below the waist, although she could have told them that. They didn't care about her, about her changing the stinking bags, wiping his mess away, touching the cold flesh that had all the response of her marble kitchen counter. 'You'll have to manage,' they said. 'You're still fit and strong.' Like she should be grateful for that. Something that was just normal. Something hat Keith should have been. That was when she found herself crying, in the middle of the stranger's yard, standing between a giant shredded tyre and a rusty plough, with a brindled puppy sniffing at her feet. She told him, this man she had never met before, this man who might not have been listening for all the change in expression his face, she told him as she had told nobody else, how hard it was. How her brilliant, active husband was reduced to a lump in a chair only months after his retirement, only months after they moved to their perfect retirement property, now a trap they couldn't sell because of the slump in the property market, how they had lost their old lives in London forever. No question of the walks on the common they had wanted, the day trips they had planned, the visits to old friends in London, enjoying their retirement. It had all been so modest, their dream, that's what got to Maisy more than anything. The odd day in the city, a few walks around the village, coffee on the green, maybe a weekend in France once a year to buy some wine. They hadn't had grand plans. But now—nothing. Keith in the conservatory, Maisy out at the supermarket every couple of days. 'I thought perhaps, if he had more company, a dog might give me a little more freedom…' Maybe to call Alice, nip down to London, say, of course Keith is doing fine, we've got this adorable little dog for him to look after—well, of course, who looks after who is the real question.' She could hear her own tinkling laugh over the chink of teacups and saucers in the hotel where they would go for afternoon tea, scones with cream, petit fours and crustless sandwiches.

Her voice had petered out. She wasn't quite sure when. The farmyard was silent, other than the twitter of the birds and the odd 'floomph' of breath from a weary dog turning over. It was as if Maisy hadn't said anything, hadn't spilled out all her pain into the dusty air that smelt slightly of dung.

Then the man moved. Just a little. A shift from foot to foot. 'A dog that will give you more freedom.' His voice was low and even, more cultured than Maisy had expected from his rough features. 'I can help with that.'

He turned and walked away, and Maisy followed, not sure if she should or not, but, with her eyes stinging from the tears and her sides still heaving, she wasn't ready to get back in the car and drive back to Keith just yet.

She trailed the dog man to a little shed at the side of the yard; a shambles of wood and corrugated iron. He took a piece of rope off the door and went in. Maisy followed. She heard the growl before she saw anything. She blinked hard and made out some shadows, then, on the floor of the shed, a football-sized ball of white fluff. Where the growling was coming from. As Maisy's vision cleared, she saw slitted blue eyes in the fluff, and… were those teeth? The man stooped and grabbed the dog by the neck. 'She's not real friendly,' he said. 'Not in her nature.' He pushed her aside, revealing underneath two more balls of white fur; these ones only the size of a clenched fist.

'Two this time. That's unusual,' says the man. 'For this bitch.' Maisy started at the use of the word, but remembered, of course, this term was quite benign in the dog world, although the man did seem to spit it out with unnecessary venom.

'What breed are they?'

The man shrugged, still crouched down, holding firmly on to the neck of the mother. 'A little bit of this, a little bit of that.'

The puppies tumbled towards her and suddenly Maisy didn't really care. Such adorable little things, stumbling over cotton bud feet, eagerly lapping at her fingers with their rough little tongues. She couldn't decide between them, couldn't tell between them, and so she took both. 'Thought you might,' said the man, and he grinned at her through long yellow teeth. She felt uneasy then, just for a moment, then silly, he had been so kind. Hadn't even taken much money for the puppies. Two puppies. Well, why not? They were small; it wasn't like they would eat much. They'd be company for one another, company for her and for Keith, one for each lap. As she bundled them in the back of the car, popping them on the old blanket she had brought to protect the upholstery, one of them positively grinned at her, his little pink tongue dangling out between the most fascinating little pointed teeth.

For the next two days, Maisy felt almost close to Keith again as they watched the puppies frolic about the conservatory. They would play for an hour or two, then fall asleep suddenly, curled in a single ball, or nestled either side of Keith, who they took to immediately. The made tiny messes on the floor that Maisy cleaned up without resentment. Sometimes she took the puppies outside on to the tiny lawn, where they would sniff about, do nothing, and then do their business on the conservatory tiles as soon as they got back inside. 'They'll learn,' Keith said, and Maisy didn't mind, a moment with a wipe and the messes were gone.

Her only concern was that the puppies wouldn't eat. They turned their button noses up at the puppy biscuits she'd bought. 'They'll eat when they're hungry,' said Keith. 'Don't worry.' But Maisy thought they were hungry, the way their beady little eyes shone when they saw her with the china food bowl. They would scamper over, only to slink away sadly when they saw, once again, biscuits.

Two days after their arrival, as she threw away another untouched bowl of biscuits, she decided she really should go to the supermarket to buy them something more tempting. Perhaps she would go for a coffee, too. She hadn't been out for days and, delightful though the puppies were, the idea was that she should go out every now and again.

Keith, admitting defeat on the feeding issue, delivered instructions about a special puppy food Church Lady had said was available in America, and should be in England too, something that she couldn't quite remember the name of, but it was in a red and green tin, called 'Puppy something.' Maisy resented the intrusion of Church Lady and almost snapped at him, well go yourself then, but of course he couldn't. So that was when she left them alone for the first time.

The puppy asleep across Keith's stomach woke as she picked up her handbag, looking at her, panting eagerly as if it knew she was going to bring them something back, although, of course, it couldn't possibly. Then it shook its fur and tottered down Keith's leg to join its friend, licking at his feet. 'Perhaps I need a shower,' said Keith with a laugh. 'Did you wash my feet in the bath yesterday?'

Maisy turned away and left.

She returned—two hours later, longer than she had planned, but it had been so nice, just having a quiet coffee on her own with no wheels for old ladies to stumble over—full of triumph, having discovered the exact puppy food Keith was talking about (she hoped). She walked into the conservatory holding out the can—red and green—'It's called Puppy Protein Push,' she was saying and then she stopped.

Keith and the puppies were still in the chair. But something was different. It took her a moment to realise what.

The white balls of fluff weren't white any more. They were red. Soaked in red.


He lay still, his face tilted back and away from her so she couldn't see it. Dozing again. But what had happened to the puppies? Keith, too. His arms were streaked with red, his trousers saturated. Streams of crimson ran down the sides of the chair and pooled on the tiles beneath. She would have to wipe that up before it dried.

One of the puppies was perched on the top of the chair above Keith's head, almost like a kitten. It looked at her with its round blue eyes and wagged its tail. Drops of red flew off, spattering the window behind. The other puppy crouched in its favourite place, down by Keith's feet. She looked at it for a moment. Something wasn't right. With Keith's feet.
His toes were gone. Just gone. All that was left was a row of five round red holes, neatly lined up along the top of his feet. Where his toes used to be.

Now Maisy's eyes moved slowly up Keith's body. She didn't want them to, didn't want to look, but her eyes wouldn't stop moving, dragging her brain slowly after them. Up his blood-sodden trousers, up to his hands. Now his not-hands. Now fingerless, thumbless mittens. Bloody, pulpy mittens.

She took a step closer to the Lay-Z-Boy. 'Keith?' She moved forward again, until she was standing next to the chair. Which was when she saw Keith's face for the first time. His face, oh god, his face. His face was gone. No, it was if he had never had a face. All that remained was a slick expanse of blood and bone. Every extremity, all the skin, all the flesh, everything was gone. The place where Keith's face had been looked like a flat, bloody steak, flecked here and there with white, and topped with a broad, pale stripe, like the fat above the meat, but greyish. As Maisy watched, the stripe bulged outwards, pulsed for a moment and then burst. Her hand flew to her mouth as Keith's brain slid slowly down the bloody plain of his face in a giant, oozy blob.

The puppy at the top of the chair hopped down, bouncing off Keith's shoulder, stomach and knee, to join the other at his feet. They wagged their tails, eager for praise, their blue eyes gleaming through their bloody fur. Under the chair, the pool spread wider.

Really, she should get the mop. If she didn't, the blood would dry and stick and then it would take forever to get it out of the grouting between the tiles. The laundry as well! Keith's trousers were quite past saving and would brain matter wash out of a white shirt? She'd have to soak it for sure, but in what? Perhaps one of those stain helplines the washing powder companies advertised would have a suggestion. She should call now, before the stain got set in. A funny little giggle rose in her throat, but she pushed it back down. Keep things practical, Maisy. You've got to just manage. Like always. Maisy would manage everything.

She started a mental list. Clean up. Do the washing. Call Alice, and let her know about Keith. In fact, she could get the train up to London! Go shopping, go to the theatre, like she used to! She could call Leonora and they could meet for lunch. Did Leonora still live in Butterworth Street? She couldn't remember. She was sure the number was in her address book. No time like the present.

Maisy turned to go through to the kitchen where her address book lay, next to the phone on the wall. Only one step, but it was an unfortunate one. She had forgotten the pool of blood on the floor, until her foot slid away from under her. Maisy fell backwards, twisting to the side and landed sideways across Keith's cold, hard legs.

Winded, she could only lie there for a moment, looking down at herself. Her clothes were streaked with blood, her hand covered in it. She couldn't possibly look up anything in her address book like this. The blood would leave stains. She would have to wash her hands first. Maisy pushed herself up from Keith's bony legs and on to her feet, only to feel herself slip again. This time one leg went one way and the other went the other and she heard, rather than felt, her hip crack. She also heard the sound of her own head, slamming on to the tiled floor.

Perhaps she blacked out for a few minutes. Or whited out, because she woke with a pale cloud of confusion spinning inside her head. Her cheek felt cold. It took a moment to realise that it was pressed against the tiled floor. Maisy blinked. She couldn't see through the white fog, like it was outside her head as well as in. Soft and fluffy and smothering. She could smell, though. Something salty and metallic. She licked her lips. And tasted the smell. She couldn't seem to move her head.

Maisy tried to move her feet. Then she realised she couldn't feel her legs. Oh, is this how Keith felt, she wondered. Her fingers worked, though, and she wriggled them a little bit. They felt sticky.

That was when she felt a rough little tongue lick her hand. Gently at first, as if tasting. Then with determination.




Copyright © 2009 Shona Snowden

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Shona Snowden lives in Sydney, Australia, where she works as a freelance copywriter. Her stories and articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines in Australia and overseas, including 'That's Life', 'The
People's Friend' and 'Fresh'. Her short story 'Werewolf Running' will appear in 'Midnight Echo' later this year and she has just completed a novel, a dark thriller entitled 'The Woman in the Wall'. In between writing tasks, Shona looks after her two young children and loves cooking and reading.

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