The trailhead’s gravel lot opened onto a meadow shimmering with red clover, primrose, and fireweed, even in early fall. Most mornings, Meg and her pack of spoiled mutts—their owners too busy, or just too rich, to hike their own dogs—had the ridge to themselves, not a human want or word for miles. The promise of whole days spent with creatures who communicated by snuff and snort, whose basic needs she could both identity and accommodate— it was why Meg took this gig. Unlike the cravings of her sister, the cravings of the dogs Meg could both identify and meet. But parked next to the bleached-out USDA Forest Service map was a blue pick-up with an I Break for Hooters sticker pasted to the bumper at an angle, as if slapped on in a hurry. Meg looked from the truck out into the wilderness before them, the dark grid of pines whose tip-tops shook with the wind in unison, almost like a crowd of heads saying, No. She would need to be extra vigilant today, ready to corral any lickers or jumpers en forte. Should anything happen to one of these animals it’d be her job—at least.
They started across the field. Nellie was already out of sight, gone after the grouse that startled them all with its pull-start sound, but that was typical for the frisky sheepdog. She’d been raised on a ranch just outside of town but proved herself too independent and hard-headed to herd livestock. When she was supposed to come, she’d find an extra soft tuft of pasture and settle in, letting the sun warm her shiny coat. When she was supposed to compel the sheep into their pen she’d just sprint them off axis into nervous circles, eyes crazed. It was almost as if she was playing with them. Almost like she enjoyed it. But she was a beautiful dog, and from a pedigree line, and would one day yield her owners’ considerable investment in the form of a pedigree litter of pups. So for now the ranchers kept her busy with Meg, who’d let her disappear into the woods for hours to do as she pleased because when the dog was tired, hungry, or thirsty, she would always come back. At the end of a hike, there Nellie would be, perched beside the bus’s front tire, a huge puppy smile stretched across her heaving, puppy features. Count on it.
What she could count on from her sister, Grace:
Her long, auburn hair.
Her pale, red-streaked arms.
Her talent for circumventing questions.
That she’d take off for days.
That she’d take off for weeks.
That she’s lying. She loves you. She’s dying.
Meg felt the Chihuahua at her ankles, already whining for a ride in her backpack. The flint-colored great Dane pranced proudly ahead with a huge dead branch in his mouth, the jagged end threatening to clothesline anyone in his way. She watched the white standard poodle trip over herself, caught up by the stupid, shearling booties her owner insisted she wear. “Already?” Meg sighed at the wide-hipped golden retriever whose belly was tangled with black mud from rolling in a puddle. But no point in cleaning anyone off until the end. Just let them be. Meg looked behind her for stragglers, said, “come on, buddy” to the old, blind, pit and boxer mix. He kept up by following the smells of sun on fur, turned-up earth, steaming shit, frothing yaps, and piss on trunks as they all began to wind their way into the thickening pines to go up along the jawline of Blue Mountain.
The air was thick with the trees’ vanilla fragrance. Only bits of light showed through the branches, landing on the ground, on the dogs, on Meg’s own hand, like puzzle pieces. She thought of Grace in a rare moment of selflessness, so worried about Meg out there in those woods all alone that she sent her a canister of bear spray all the way from the Ohio town where she still lived. Never mind that no animal in its right mind would come close to these dogs and their incredible commotion. Still, Meg appreciated the gesture. It meant that sometimes Grace remembered she had a sister. But when the gift arrived in its too-big box it was exiled straightaway to the bottom of Meg’s closet where it still lay, along with wrinkled sundresses, and shoes, and the unused black commencement gown that had been once puked upon, twice peed upon, by Jaba the Cat. Just six more measly credits lay between Meg and her undergraduate degree. In a bout of optimism at the beginning of her final semester, she’d purchased the regalia thinking she might actually pull it off. But in the end she just could not complete her work and her professors wearied of vague references to family problems for which no documentation could be provided.
As they walked, Meg’s jeans began to feel thick and constrictive. Trickles of perspiration dripped from her rear onto the backs of her legs. For a while she’d kept up with her running routine from high school, but with this job there never seemed to be enough time; she couldn’t resist stopping at one of the local breweries on her way home which meant mornings were too slow and foggy to go out then. She loved the local IPA’s—burly with hops—and had become friendly with some of the locals, most of whom worked out of nearby ranger districts. By beer number three, she’d have to make a keen effort to avoid her own, clear, image staring back from behind the bar, that woman’s frizzy hair and big, flushed cheeks. The zits she no longer bothered to conceal. Most of all, she wanted to avoid the family resemblance; that crystalized sadness.
The boulder patch, a few miles in, was always a good place to stop. Meg took a big chug of water from her Nalgene then poured some into her palm for the golden retriever, tired now and by her side. “Nerds,” she said to her crew, taking a headcount as the dogs circled about her, “goofballs.” She’d been keeping an eye out for people, but all they’d come across so far was some old bear scat, dry and corrugated with undigested Huckleberries. Now she noticed a bloated raccoon carcass half-way collapsed into the nearby stream. “No!” she scolded the dogs preemptively, having learned the hard way that they love nothing more than to roll in the foulest find. Indeed, it was here, in this same spot last spring, that they’d found a newly-dead fawn with its body buckled into the water, almost as if someone had tried to fold it up the wrong way. The animal’s eyes were fear-frozen and its belly split apart so that its flutter of guts released into the current where they oscillated like tentacles above the palate of river stones—pearly ochres and clarets. In her mouth, Meg had managed to contain the belch of hot vomit as she’d used a stick to unfasten all the entrails caught in the golden retriever’s fur.
The dogs swarmed to the stream. Wafts of their florid perfume. Meg found a rock to perch on out of view of the dead raccoon so she could try to eat something. From her pack she took out a squished PB & J, warmed by her back. She noticed the poodle pulling at her booties instead of romping in with the other dogs and called her over for a bite of crust. The dog scarfed it from Meg’s hand eagerly, leaving her palm coated in a snotty slaver which she dried along the thigh of her jeans. The mess reminded Meg of her twin nephews, their perpetually runny noses. She thought of her sister and her aptitude as a mother—her seemingly innate preparedness. How, until she started with the pills, she seemed ready to deal with anything.
Unlike their own mother, not once had Meg seen Grace grab a floor sock or even use her own t-shirt to blow a nose or wipe pizza sauce from a ducking smirk. She was always equipped—be it with a silly song, animal fact, Band-Aid, wet wipe, wholesome snack, soothing tone, or Kleenex. When Meg would come to visit the boys, they’d congregate in the kitchen to fry up three-cheese quesadillas and turn on Prince and Madonna at full volume, the sisters belting the memorized lyrics into spatulas. Sometimes, Grace’s husband would come home early and join in, spinning his wife using the salsa moves learned in their weekly lesson and Meg and the kids would circle round them until they all collapsed into a heap of silliness on the tile floor. This was before Grace began to get the headaches—the same ones their mother had suffered—so severe there was nothing she could do but retreat into her dark bedroom for days on end, an ice pack nestled onto her forehead. “Meggie,” she’d whispered over the phone after one episode, “Meggie, now I know why mom…” but she couldn’t quite find the words to finish the thought.
The bottles of Meperidine and Oxycodone left over from her husband’s shoulder surgery. They helped. What glorious relief. They really seemed to help.
Meg finished the rest of her sandwich. The dogs, having romped themselves into exhaustion, lay scattered around, panting. From a hole through the trees Meg could see the Mission range, its queue of jagged peaks lengthening from the horizon. She told everyone at home she was moving the 1,500 miles to Montana for school, for this one particular botany program offered at UM and this one particular professor who discovered a new species of fern in the Marquesas Islands whose fronds appeared fire-dipped. But really, Meg wanted to travel west for this landscape, in all its clichéd majesty. They called it Big Sky country. The term suggested a kind of openness—that one should to be able to see what was coming from any direction.
School had not exactly worked out, but for now she liked this gig. She even liked driving the yellow short bus with the hokey name, Dog Gone Hikes, painted on its side and the huge papier-mâché tail fastened to the back that wagged side-to-side as she drove through town collecting and delivering her canine passengers, like schoolchildren. Their barks and yelps made a hilarious ruckus, and delighted kids, co-eds, and tourists would often stop and wave, as if it was a parade float going by. Most of all, Meg liked Nellie riding shotgun beside her, the happy slobber collecting on the sides of her black lips like sea foam.
A sudden crack.
Meg knelt to tighten her boots, ready to start on the second leg of the hike and then heard the sound a second time. A fallen limb? A squirrel? No. The dogs bounced to their feet as ahead two figures came into view beneath a thick patch of Aspen, shards of gold leaflight flashing across them.
“Dogs over here!” Meg called out, in her thickest sing-song voice, “They’re friendly!”
A cloud of downy vape smoke appeared, and the strangers walked through it as if emerging from some other world. Meg noted their thin, angular bodies and the cephalopod quality of their limbs, which seemed unable to quite catch up to their torsos. They were younger than she—teenagers. The girl wore an oversized off-the-shoulder t-shirt and cut-offs so astonishingly short she appeared to be wearing no pants at all. As they approached, Meg could see that the shirt read: Not Now, I’m Busy. A mass of bleached hair sat atop the girl’s head in a messy, leaf-adorned, knot, and her cheeks were acne flared and crusted up with orangey concealer. Thumbprints of deep purple pressed beneath her eyes. The boy was outfit in vague athletic attire—mesh shorts, sleeveless mesh jersey, and a backwards-turned Griz cap. He was doughy, sweaty, and as they walked closer gave off a vinegar man stink, laced with soured liquor. Meg smelled the booze on the girl, too—even girls drank whisky out west.
It was more Bacardi Silvers and Mike’s Hard Lemonades that had characterized Meg’s youth. She’d spent one whole night puking in the bathroom she shared with her sister after drinking an entire bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry Hill. Grace had been so beautiful, so fresh, so resplendent in her white cotton nightgown, as she stood in the door shaking her head at her younger sister offering up the scrunchie from her ponytail and a glass of bubbling Alka Seltzer.
“Here, dumb-dumb,” she said, bringing the glass to Meg’s lips.
“I am,” Meg said when even the bile was gone. “I am dumb.”
And all the bubbles kept going, Shushhhhhhh… Shushhhhhhh… Shushhhhhhh…
The teenagers were most likely on their way down from what was simply known as, The Rock—a deep overhang where local kids would meet to drink and smoke and fuck. The place was trafficked mostly in the summer months, when teens had hours to spare and new drivers’ licenses, thus the means to access the area by some make-shift paths off the highway. Meg usually only encountered the detritus they left behind—a splay of empty Rainers or a used condom paused its wormy skulk across the trail. The cans she’d crush and carry out— sometimes there were so many, the Chihuahua lost his special spot in her pack.
“Oh my god! Like from the Taco Bell commercials!” the girl exclaimed zeroing in on the smallest of the dogs who started to run figure eights through the girl’s pale, mosquito-bitten legs. Her dilated eyes were cartoon-wide as she lunged for the pooch who promptly nipped her, hard, on the back of the hand. She looked at the red mark as the tiny dog bared his tiny teeth. “Shit!” she said, recoiling, “bad dog!” Meg noticed a sparkly piercing above the girl’s lip where a mole could be.
“Sorry,” Meg said, “they’re kind of jacked up.”
His interest peaked by the commotion, the great Dane loped on over, his long tail wagging in slow motion. When he got to the girl he paused for moment, as if considering some sort of canine etiquette? Then he crammed his nose, like a shot torpedo, directly into the girl’s barely-concealed crotch. Repulsed, she stepped back. But the enormous dog, undeterred, just pushed harder into her groin. Some of the other dogs seemed to think this was a good idea, too, and before long she had three or four upon her. The boy had been quietly watching the scene unravel, sucking on his Box Mod, but now he starting to snicker. The snicker turned to shaky giggles. Then he began to make the strangest in-between noise—two-toned and mean—like a duck call issued from the underworld.
“Alright, that’s enough buddy,” Meg said, chuckling, pulling the great Dane off the girl. “He’s still working on his manners,” she apologized a shrug.
The boy’s pleasure amplified.
“Girl, I told you” he began, addressing his companion through something like uncontrollable cackles. “I told you,” he tried again and trailed off with a wheeze. Then finally, spewing huge clots of mist he shouted, “I told you your pussy stinks!” His face switched between red and blue as he doubled over, revealing spiked and frosted hair like a crown of bared claws as his cap fell off. Scabs and scratches across his scalp, similar welts along his forehead and cheeks. As he brought his torso upright, Meg saw the familiar red, pocked marks along the insides of both arms.
Meg last visited her sister alone at the fusty apartment she was renting a few towns away from her children and husband. On the couch, Grace lay horizontal before the spell of daytime television, her un-brushed hair half-way hashed into a fountain on the side of her head and her body cocooned into the multi-colored afghan their grandmother knit for them when they were children. She’d barely looked at Meg. Likewise, Meg avoided her sister’s gaze, choosing, instead, to solve with her eyes the pirate maze on the back of the open Frosted Flakes box which reclined, likewise parallel, upon the coffee table.
As long as Meg kept dead-ending into the maze’s crossbones she could ignore the stratums of Grace’s stare; how beneath its vacancy buzzed a flatline of simple—but, sure—pleasure.
The poodle was a metronome, yelping in high, even beats.
The rest of the dogs were silent, waiting for what would come next.
“Fuck off!” the girl yelled as tears took clumps of mascara down her cheeks. Without make-up the girl was remarkably plain. Plainly pretty. Plainly much younger than the eighteen or nineteen she looked to be at first.
Plainly in trouble.
Be careful out there out there in those woods, Grace had warned.
“Dude,” Meg said to the boy, before she gathered enough sense not to, “What the fuck is your problem?”
“What?” The boy snarled, “What the fuck is my what?”
“Your problem,” Meg said, “leave her alone.” Disbelief took over boy’s face as she added, “She’s coming with me, son.”
The boy showed his yellow his teeth. “Bitch, she ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
Just as the girl was younger than she seemed at first, the boy was clearly older. Mid-twenties, even. His startlingly huge ears cocked forward, as if trying to hear Meg correctly when she calmly announced, “Yes. We are.”
They had done all the things they were supposed to do. Every last bit of preparation had been made. The intervention was scheduled smack in the middle of the semester and Meg would have to reschedule two midterms, but she still made the long flight home, charged with grave optimism. Breathing in air recycled from all the other breathing bodies, she scanned the in-flight magazine inspired by the idea that every problem has a solution. Grace’s situation was serious—dire, even—but it still seemed like nothing that couldn’t be fixed with the right tools, the right attention. Take, for example, the solar-powered mole repellent, the Bug Vac with appendages to reach any corner, the Ice Ball Press that could make a perfectly translucent sphere of ice. On the back of an air sickness bag and using the pen she’d kept after writing the receipt for her gin and tonic, Meg began her version of the letter they were all supposed to write, the letter that would edge her sister one step closer to sobriety.
Outside the tiny plane window all the clouds held their breath.
A reflex, Meg reached for the girl. A sharp cry shot through the sky and they all looked up to see the silhouette of a single Mountain Jay as she went to defend her nest against an eagle flying at it, talons first. The shadow the birds made kept their dark spot in Meg’s vision as she found the girl’s arm, gripped it, commanding, “Come on!”
“Get off!” the girl hollered as Meg tightened her grasp, “Let go!”
But Meg was not going to let go.
The more the girl struggled, the surer Meg’s grasp became. How familiar, the scent of her fruity shampoo.
Meg’s brother-in-law sent the twins to a friend’s house so they could all gather in the living room to wait for Grace, to whom he’d promised money. Untouched meats and cheeses sat sweating on a platter, as if taking on their share of the room’s nerves. Someone kept blowing his nose. The awfully cheerful ding of a phone followed by the embarrassed rummaging to silence the device. When the intervention therapist finally arrived, he was tall and slim in that way of tall slim men with Adam’s apples that moved along their necks like high strikers. He spoke in a calm, deep, voice as he said to the woman stumbling in the door who only slightly resembled Meg’s sister, “Have a seat, dear.”
Meg had expected her sister to appear stunned, or angry, or ashamed. Desperate? Something. But instead she was simply gone. Disappeared. Perched on the too-short stool they’d pulled in from the kitchen, Grace seemed to connect only with the ivy pattern whirling along the wallpaper she’d so recently chosen, with the blank television not tuned to the twins’ cheery programs, with the broken grandfather clock that no longer ticked. Frozen, she remained in her seat while a neighbor, and then a friend, then a former co-worker, read their carefully composed letters, pausing now and then to cry politely or take a small sip of water.
A leaf-blower started up next door. As if its rumble was some sort of signal, Grace rose from her little stool and walked out of that place into the sun, leaving only the sear of the person she had been—her dark spot—behind.
Meg had her.
They were on the edge of the most dangerous stretch, best traversed by bum. But despite the girl’s cussing and flailing, Meg took her down the rooty shoot at an impressive speed. The dogs continued to wag and bark, as if this was all a really fun game. Meanwhile, the man, who was a lithe and able runner, closed in, closer and closer, until he suddenly leaped onto Meg’s heels from behind, pulling them to the forest floor.
“Get off me!” The girl yelled to Meg, their heads pressed to the dust.
Wild-eyed, wheezing, the man appeared over Meg. She braced herself for the pain of whatever blow—or, worse—she knew must be coming next. As she waited, she felt her body relax into a kind of relief. Perhaps this was what her sister had found—the numb buzz of giving up. Meg would let it happen. She would just go on and let it.
But then, leaping on the scene, came that itinerant dog, Nellie. Unlike the other dogs, she took her place at Meg’s side with hackles up and teeth bared. This was going to go a different way.
“Shit!” The girl shrieked. The man startled, too, taking a huge leap back into the brush where he tripped into a patch of thorns. He did not move, perhaps he didn’t even breathe, as the rest of the dogs circled around, snarling at last, taking their cue from the sheep dog. “Let go!” the girl yelled once more, finally twisting out of Meg’s grip. She ran to the man and pulled him from the weeds. Meg watched as the two clambered back up the slope, holding hands somehow, yelling all kinds of foulness at Meg, the dogs, each other. “Crazy bitch!” echoed through the hills. Then it kept going on past the hills, lodging in the cracks and crags of those white-topped mountains.
Meg felt the strength of her legs return—stretch and push, strong and fast—as they took her closer to the trailhead and the bus waiting for them there. The Chihuahua bounced, poking out of Meg’s backpack where she’d stuffed him between sprints. The exhausted golden retriever scampered along at her side. Nellie yelped, as if with pride, as the rest of the lopsided herd bound through the yellow fluorescence, and coral colors, and red-dappled green. Meg could still smell that girl’s fruity, perfumed hair, but mixed now with the even stronger stench of exquisitely ripe dog excrement. She was not going to save that girl, she was not going to save any person on this earth. Down and down she flew, surrounded by the perfect, brainless joy of animals.