Marvin is tap-tapping his foot loud enough Vera can hear him from the porch. She doesn’t apologize when she goes up; she presents him a strand of hair from the girl’s head, and a leaf detached from the father’s shoe, and a tissue wiped across the table the mother touched as Vera described the household life of Marvin Pendergast, great poet. “And the dog?” Marvin asks. His eyes are bright beetle black.
“They didn’t bring a dog.” Vera adjusts the blinds to sit straight, pulls the circular rug to Marvin’s chair, smooths the cover on his bed. She has never seen Marvin leave his chair. He holds each item to his nose and breathes deep before adding them to his cigar box flush with the leavings of previous tourists. His hands fold around the box on his lap.
“Bring me some fur tomorrow,” Marvin says as she closes the door. “I like a dog.”
Did they tell her about Marvin, the trustees? She cannot remember. Dead people are not so frightening, she instructed herself the first time she met him, after hesitating up the stairs to find who was rolling marbles across the floor. He is harmless, she thought.
Vera’s apartment has a separate entrance from the main house, but her bedroom wall sits flush against Marvin’s. At night she presses her ear to it to hear his murmurs and rustlings, his midnight parties. She has a porch, too, and is sitting here when the dog returns at sundown to rest all her weight against Vera’s leg as if she wants to kneel her over. Vera scratches her hands through the dog’s wired yellow fur, opens her fists to let the vanishing hairs float across the lawn. When she presses her nose to the walnut lump between the dog’s ears, she smells mushrooms and rain showers. She has decided to call the dog Vera, because a woman should love her own name. When the sun has ashed completely away, shadows and laughter spill from Marvin’s room. There are too many voices to find a single one out.
Two dozen girls on a school trip, whispering and elbowing each other as Vera leads their tour. “His most famous poem,” she says, “was about a leaf, but of course it wasn’t really about a leaf.” She recites it from memory. After, she wipes the entire house clean, crawling on hand and knee in search of stray hairs and dirt clods.
“Anything else?” Marvin asks when she brings her gifts. The top of his head, when he bends over his box, is stained black like shoe shine, his hair so thin it accentuates its disguise.
“No,” Vera says.
Marvin laughs. He points to her thigh. “There. That.”
Vera inspects her leg to find a single piece of Vera’s fur. “That isn’t anything,” she says as she backs from the room. She is stronger than Marvin, she reminds herself, walking down the stairs with her back to the wall. She can walk, she can leave. She is not a person who must take from other people in order to feel whole herself. “You can leave,” she says as she opens the door, steps outside.
Vera, the dog Vera, stands beneath Marvin’s window that night. “Bark, bark, bark,” she says, ignoring all of Vera’s efforts to pull her away. She lures her with a tennis ball and then a cold grilled chicken cutlet and then a fistful of raw ground beef, cool and tacking to her palm. When the dog finally retreats from the house, Vera holds her close and whispers her own name in her ear. She feeds Vera from the palm of her hand and is pleased at her warm damp tongue.
“Where did you come from?” she asks Vera, petting her. Vera the dog has a lustrous coat and none of her bones show. She’s had a good life, Vera knows, a life she should return to.
In bed, with Vera curled against her side, Vera feels the bodies of all the girls before her curled into the thin sagging mattress. She has felt them since her first day, though she tries not to feel them. Tonight, she presses her face to Vera’s musky chest. She pulls a strand of hair from her scalp and winds it around Vera’s fraying red collar, and then another hair to be safe, and then a third hair because third time’s the charm. She tries to sleep with the dog’s earthy paw weighting her neck, and in the morning tells her, “You don’t want to be here.” She pushes Vera away from the house, shouts at her until she runs into the woods.
“You should organize your box today,” she tells Marvin, a task he undertakes when there are no tourists. She sets the cigar box on his lap and watches him inspect his items one by one. She watches for something of hers, an indication of what is holding her here. Perhaps she will find herself somewhere else tonight, Vera thinks—wine-drunk, being fed by a dog’s mother.
“And my fur?” Marvin asks when he has sorted his items: tissues, buttons, twigs, dirt, hair.
“The dog left,” Vera says. “She was too quick.” She closes the cigar box. Marvin’s head, so close, smells like motor oil and ripening milk. She remembers this as she watches the sun from her porch and waits for Vera to return. If she doesn’t, she thinks, that will mean she has gone somewhere else—somewhere better. But still, she waits, until the sun is gone and the light is spilling again from Marvin’s room, and the shadows are dancing like they have nowhere else to be.
Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip, Story, Joyland, The Adroit Journal, cream city review, and Monkeybicycle. You can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on Twitter @EllenRhudy.
This story was chosen as the runner-up in this year’s Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction contest, judged by Lindsey Drager. Find more information about the contest here.