Yes, Actually, the Dog Does Talk by Liana Redelfs

My guard was down while I shook pills out of their container, and the old woman’s bony hand shot out from beneath the comforter to grasp my arm before I could flinch out of her reach.

“I don’t feel good,” she whispered, eyes cloudy with distress.

Her nails were sharp, and I wondered if she was going to kick the bucket before I had to cut them again. Clipping other people’s nails is the worst job in the world. I mean, the old woman didn’t bite and curse the way my dog did when I got the clippers, but her yowling was enough to make the neighborhood cats ashamed. She was only better than my dog because she didn’t remember it had happened once it was over. Nazi, on the other hand, still hadn’t forgiven me for the one time I dropped him as a puppy.

I smiled and patted her hand. “Of course you don’t feel good, hon. You’re dying.”

The drooping skin on her face barely moved as her mouth fell open with dismay. “I am?”

“Yep,” I said with a trace of feigned regret. “I’m waiting for it. That and the mailman. I don’t know which one I’m more excited about, though. Want more soup?”

Her face scrunched up with confusion. “Who are you?”

“I’m . . . Claire, hon,” I said. “Your niece, remember?”

Of course she didn’t. Her doctor had estimated that she’d be dead two weeks ago, and even though she looked bad, smelled worse, and remembered less every day, she was still hanging on with infuriating tenacity. Hospice paid me for every day I stayed, but I was more than ready to go. This was the longest stint I’d had to work with one oldie, and between my pending university application and being stuck in the old woman’s hovel of an apartment, I was worried I might die first. The place was as dilapidated as she was, filled with smelly furniture that no pawnbrokers would buy and moldy carpets that I wouldn’t chose to walk on wearing combat boots. Not to mention that she was one of the nastiest oldies I’d ever taken care of, my mother included. She had a host of problems besides the Alzheimer’s; when I wasn’t feeding her vitamin gruel that smelled like shit I was cleaning her actual shit off the bed.

“Drink your soup.” I patted the veins on the back of her hand until she loosened her grip, then stood and left the bedroom, breathing in a lungful of “fresh” air that really smelled only mildly better than the lemon-and-piss of her bedroom.

The living room looked like it had been ransacked; I didn’t have time to clean up after the boys from the apartment next door carted the furniture to the curb for me. There were only a few pieces left, the stuff the used furniture store wouldn’t buy, and it sat next to the piles of old-woman artwork that I’d been destroying to pass the time. Cabin fever in Seattle? I would have gone crazy if I didn’t have Nazi to keep me company.

The dog stood with his front paws on the window seat, snotty nose pressed against the pane as if there weren’t neighbors across the alley who’d call the landlord about violated pet-keeping rules. Fucking Rottweiler. I’d told him over and over to stay away from the window, but the idiot never listened.

“Get down, Nazi,” I snapped.

“Are we going to Phoenix now?” He didn’t even look away from the window. The old woman’s bedroom was the only room with a view of the building’s front door, but he insisted on staring down at the alley as if the mailman would make a special delivery to the back when he came with my letter.

“I don’t know. Now get down,” I said, sharper this time, and after a moment of defiant immobility he dropped his front paws and stalked off towards the hall.

I took his bad mood as a good sign. He always seemed to get particularly antsy before an oldie died; maybe it meant that this one was on her way out. She’d seemed minutes from death when I arrived two weeks ago and she only ever looked “better” when she was sleeping deeply enough to trick me into thinking she was dead. I bet she did it on purpose, just to get my hopes up. Old women are like that, reveling in whatever measly triumphs over younger generations they can finagle. My mother certainly was, or I would have gone to college like I wanted to instead of staying home to take of her in her dying days. “Dying days” that lasted four and a half fucking years.

“Don’t worry,” I called after him. “We’ll be done soon.”

He paused, turning his head to look at me over his shoulder. “When can we leave?”

As if he was the only one who’d been on pins and needles since I applied. “We can leave,” I said, “as soon as she’s dead. Even if I don’t get in.”

His voice was laced with sarcasm. “Really? You sure this time? Because I’d hate to get my hopes up for nothing. Again.”

I ignored him and pretended to clean up by shifting junk around on the floor. There were already new renters lined up for the next month; I’d haggled a refund on her six-month advance to help pay for Nazi’s dog food. But there was less than a week left, and if the woman took too long to die it would take a mess of energy to sort out the damn place. And I wasn’t planning to be around long after the hearse came for the body.

A faint moaning came from behind the bedroom door, so I gave up the cleaning charade and went in. The old woman was trying to sit up, wheezing as she struggled for leverage against the embroidered pillows behind her. Her eyes fastened onto me when I came in, and I flashed a thin smile and went to the window at the side of her bed. No mail truck.

“Who are you?”

“Call me Kimmy,” I said. She stopped trying to sit up and stared at me with open-mouthed suspicion.

“What are you doing in my home? Do I know you?”

“That’s entirely up to you. I could be your daughter, if you want.”

“You can’t be my daughter,” the woman said in a quavering voice. “You can’t. You aren’t.”

“Oh man, you caught me. Gig’s up.” The street out front stayed empty, and the oldie’s eyes followed my every move, widening with fear or something. I was not in the mood for a freak-out. I reached for the container of sleeping pills on her bedside table. Double dose or triple? She leaned sideways and grabbed at my arm.

“My baby girl,” she whispered, “had green eyes. Green eyes like her daddy’s.”

I pulled away. Triple. “He’s dead. That’s what dads do. They die and leave everything to the kids from their first marriage. Then those assholes leave you all alone to take care of their stepmother, who spent all her energy raising them instead of her own kid. That’s how it goes.”

She wasn’t listening to me. Big surprise. “She was so sweet and warm. Oh, she was warm. And soft, too. Like . . . like . . .”

“Like velvet? Or is it soft like a kitten this time? Here, swallow this.”

She had an Adam’s apple like a teenage boy’s, and it bobbed as she downed the pill with a mouthful of lukewarm water, then worked her gummy mouth until she could finish talking.

“You can’t be my baby girl,” she said, eyes watering. “She died. She died so quickly after she was born. I have only sons now. Where are they? I want my sons.”

“Well, they don’t want you, hon,” I said. “Sons just want your money, and this time I got here first. Now go to sleep and don’t wake up, okay?”

The grief-stricken look she gave me was customary, the pleading question in her teary eyes so familiar after two weeks that it didn’t even seem manipulative anymore. Or maybe I was just too tired. She hadn’t let me sleep more than four consecutive hours in days. I glanced towards the window and then forced myself not to look again as I rose.

“Look, just go to sleep, okay? I’ll tell you something nice next time.”

“Kimmy? Kimmy?”

“Call me Kristin.”

“My stomach hurts.” A tear dribbled out of her eye.

“It’ll pass, hon.” I closed the door behind me. “If you’re lucky.”

I stood with my back to the old woman’s room and looked past the mess of worthless furniture and knickknacks to where he was licking himself on the window seat. Irritation rose in my throat.

“Didn’t I tell you to stay down?”

“You told me we’d be gone a week ago,” he said.

I pushed my palms against my eyes and slid down the wall until I was sitting on the floor. The admissions department had said five weeks. It was five weeks to the day. They had to send something. “Grow up, would you?”

“I hit full size at sixteen months,” he said. “I am grown up.”

“Then grow back some balls and act like it.”

He growled. “Fuck you.”

“This is the last one,” I said. “I can pay for it now. If I get accepted, we’re going to Arizona. I’ll go to all my classes, you’ll get to play in the park while I’m doing homework, and we’ll spend the rest of our time exploring the desert.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“I mean it.”

Nazi flicked an ear.

“Come on, boy, give me a—”

“Come on, girl. I’ve heard it.”

My face was hot from anger or embarrassment, but I was too tired to figure out which. “You’re such an asshole,” I said. “Why is it that the only people in my life who aren’t assholes are the ones who forget me?”

Nazi opened his mouth to speak, but another moan came from inside the bedroom. He wordlessly dropped his chin to his paws and looked out the window with a sigh. I pushed to my feet and went into the bedroom. The oldie was thrashing in her quilts, and veins stood out on her forehead against the gauze of her skin.

“Anytime now, hon,” I sighed. “I need to get out of this dump before I go crazy.”

She stopped struggling and whimpered, “Who are you?”

“Kayla. Or Christine. Would you please just die?”

Her mouth was pale and trembling. “I don’t want to die like this, Claire. I want to be with my family. Why are you here? Why are you doing this to me?”

I paused halfway to her bed. “What?”

“You’re so unkind to me. You say I’m dying, that my sons won’t come to the funeral and worms will eat my body. You keep telling me different names and I don’t know if you’re really my daughter or not. I thought my baby girl died. I don’t know what’s going on and I’m scared.”

My hands were cold. There was a rustle behind me, and then Nazi trotted through the door and pushed his nose against my leg, his tail thumping on the doorframe behind him.

“I think I hear the mail truck,” he said. “Go check, okay?”

I didn’t move, and after a moment he went past me to the foot of the bed.

“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.

“She remembers my name,” I said. My voice was weak, as shaky as hers. “She remembers me.”
He stuck his nose towards her, wet nostrils flaring. “You said she had the forgetting like your mom”

“She does.”

“You said she was going to die soon. If she doesn’t, how—”

“I don’t know, okay? Shut up.”

The old woman strained to see over the end of her bed. “Is that a dog? There’s a dog in my bedroom? Claire?”

I ignored her. “She remembers me. What do I do?”

Something in my voice made his ears go flat.

“You promised me we’d go to Arizona.”

“Get out,” I said. He obeyed. I tried to feed her more pills, to calm her down so her mind would ease back to emptiness, but she pushed my hand away and wept and called for her sons and husband and lawyer by name. Her voice was like knives, her tears like acid, and when she was still sobbing and thrashing half an hour later I was out of ideas.

I had the pillow over her face when Nazi came back in. He got partially onto the bed, forepaws inches away from the old woman’s arm. His eyes settled on the pillow, and then trailed up to my face.

“What are you doing?”

I shut my eyes and pushed down harder. “Go away.”

Nazi sniffed the air. “I think she’s dead.”

“She is.”

“Then why are you still—”

“Shut up.” She wasn’t fighting anymore. She hadn’t been fighting for a while. I kept pushing. “Go away.”

“If you’d done this to your mom,” he said thoughtfully, “we could have been in Arizona years ago.”

“Shut up, okay? Shut the fuck up.” My hands trembled. I couldn’t have lifted the pillow if I wanted to. My elbows were locked and my jaw was clenched so tightly I could hear my mother’s reedy voice scolding me for grinding my teeth.

“She’s dead,” Nazi said with satisfaction, and his nails clattered on the floor as he went back to the living room. “Now let’s go to Arizona.”

Liana Redelfs is a freelance editor and copywriter. She graduated from Wheaton College, Illinois in 2011 and has since moved to Texas to recover from the cold. She likes crushed ice, stories told from an animal's perspective, and the idea of making money by doing something you love.