Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
My dog is longing for something just out of reach. He’s lying flat on the floor, ears back, muzzle jammed under the bookshelf, making this weird bark whine noise because he can’t open his mouth all the way. Though I should know better by now, I lie down next to him to peer under the bookshelf too.
“Nothing there, Turnip,” I say.
He isn’t fooled. Even from my cramped viewpoint, I can see the Line shimmering from under the bookshelf.
I stand up too quickly. “Come on, pup. Let’s go.”
Turnip doesn’t move.
“Not even for a treat?”
Nothing, but his nub of a tail is wagging.
“Wanna go for a walk?”
He’s up in an instant. Racing to the front door, pointing at his leash, then looking at me expectantly.
“Yeah, I know you’ve been waiting for one,” I say, clipping on the leash. But it’s another lie. I’m the one who needs to get out of this damn house.
Because under the bookshelf, right behind the glittering Line, I saw the outline of a face peering back.
I make a conscious effort to notice other things as we walk. Like how the tulips and bluebells all have swollen buds, just on the edge blooming. How the sunlight glances off the fresh leaves on the trees. How my 90-year-old neighbor, Mary, has finally found someone to repair her old mailbox since her grandson is, was….
Turnip’s trotting happily in front of me, though he occasionally looks right, to where the Line stretches out alongside us, glimmering and murky. My patients say their pets seem to be drawn to the Line and, a week after it first appeared, in a grief-fueled panic, I barricaded the corner of my house that the Line bisected with bookshelves. Heavy and sturdy enough so Turnip couldn’t push around them.
Find healthy methods that’ll help you deal with the aftereffects, I tell my patients. The bookshelves work but, even three months later, sometimes I still wake up at 2 a.m. convinced I’ve lost my dog too.
As soon as we can, I turn sharply left, away from the Line.
It’s not helping. The fresh air, the exercise. My jaw’s clenched and I can’t shake the image of the face in my house, behind the Line. I have no idea who it belonged to, but I can’t help imagining Paulo. I picture him trying to reach me, but the bookshelves are in the way.
Grief is unpredictable, relentless, and when it comes it’s like a breaking wave, and suddenly I’m missing my partner so fiercely it actually hurts. I crouch on the sidewalk, trying to breathe around the sob in my chest. Gasping.
I feel my elbow lift. Turnip sticks his head under my arm and stares, his face inches from mine, brow creasing in a way that makes him look like he’s frowning with worry.
Paulo always called him a junkyard mutt. Stocky, tan body, long muzzle, soft ears, intelligent eyes. Our best guess was Boxer/pit/German Shepherd mix. But it doesn’t matter to me. It’s moments like these that make him the best dog I ever had.
“I’m alright, pup,” I tell him. “I’m good.”
I scratch his ears and try to do what I tell my patients to do: focus on what I haven’t lost. Like most of my home, my books, and my laptop. Most of my friends. Turnip.
“Good boy,” I say and his nub of a tail almost vibrates with happiness. “Come on, let’s go find a stray.”
We walk the neighborhood for a good thirty minutes before Turnip starts tugging on the leash. I let him lead and we end up by a thick, prickly hawthorn bush. I hesitate, eyeing the sharp leaves, but Turnip promptly dives into the shrubs and starts barking.
It takes me a minute and much swearing to get past the thorns. When I do, I find him standing over a tabby kitten from the other side of the Line.
I know which side it came from because it’s shimmering slightly and looks faded, likes it’s been through a few too many wash cycles. It lets me pick it up and only then do I notice the note in its collar that says: “Please let _ __ I ___ them.”
I sigh, disappointed. I’ve never seen a complete message come through the Line. Only fragments. Yesterday, I got an email from Paulo that said: “Dear Amy, How __ ? I need _ you. Can you __?” What does he need? What should I do? I wasted hours playing anxious ad lib, until I settled on hope. I hope that he still loves me and doesn’t hate me for getting the part of the house with the stairs when the Line appeared suddenly one afternoon and severed our home, our neighborhood, our continent. Our lives. My replies to Paulo are responded with mail delivery failure notices.
I don’t know why. I don’t know why there’s a Line or why it decided to bisect our house or why I can’t even send a stupid email to my partner. I don’t understand why only animals can cross, yet the ones from my side never seem to come back. The Line is absurd and random and cruel and none of this makes sense.
I’ve accidentally crumpled the kitten’s note, clenching my hands. Guilt pools in my stomach; it wasn’t mine to ruin. I smooth it out the best I can and turn it over to see if there’s an address or name. Nothing.
“Okay, buddy, let’s send you home,” I tell the kitten. It curls up tighter in the crook of my arm, but Turnip knows “home” and leads the way.
We take the route that leads past the neighborhood’s Lost and Found board. It’s covered in unclaimed messages and I scan quickly for Paulo’s handwriting. Nothing. Not surprising, but still disappointing. I pin the kitten’s note to the cork with the dozens of other unsolved riddles. Maybe this will be a lucky find for someone. Maybe it’ll give them enough hope to keep going.
Soon, my home and the Line are in sight again. The kitten wriggles under my arm and Turnip prances and pulls. I tighten my grip on the leash.
“Hold on, guys.”
On my front lawn, kneeling next to the Line, I place the kitten in the grass, but don’t let go. Not yet. I pull out a letter I wrote to Paulo from my jacket pocket. I roll it as tightly as possible and tuck the message under its tiny collar.
“Good luck,” I whisper, but not to the kitten. I let go. It tests the Line with a paw as if it was a puddle. The Line ripples and the kitten disappears, leaving a dark smudge the vague shape of it behind.
The letter I tucked in its collar sits in the grass in front of me, right at the edge of the Line. Unsent.
Disappointment stings, but it’s not unexpected. None of my dozen or so attempts using stray pets as mail carriers have worked yet. Mary, my neighbor, told me that she managed to send her grandson a message with her cat once, so I keep trying.
I retrieve my letter. This close to the Line, I can hear it humming, softly, off-key. I tap once. It reverberates under my knuckles, but stays firm. I sigh, disappointment landing another punch. It’s probably for the best. I couldn’t leave my patients without a doctor when they’ve lost so much already.
Turnip whines. I look over and see his nose touching the Line, making ripples.
“No, Turnip, no!”
I pull him back sharply, my voice hasher than I mean. He immediately staggers back, gives me a guilty look, and tries to make himself small.
“Oh god, I’m sorry, pup. Come.”
I lead us to my front porch and settle into a wicker chair. “Good boy, c’mere.” I pat my knees and Turnip immediately jumps up, squeezing as much of himself on me as he can. I laugh. My sixty-pound lap dog.
The Line is still in my view, even as I scratch his chest. I see silhouettes in the murkiness, unmistakably human. How are they coping, these last three months of this arbitrary divide? I’ve witnessed people’s pain and grief on this side of the Line. We at least get partial letters here. How much worse would it be if we didn’t get any messages at all? I don’t like what I imagine.
I hope Paulo has made some friends, but I worry. I know my partner. Paulo works from home, and is terrible at small talk. Almost all our friends are caught on this side of the Line. Of the two of us, it should have been me in the corner of the house without the stairs.
The email from Paulo yesterday ended with: “P.S. ___ miss Turnip.” There’s only so many ways I can ad lib that. By rights, Turnip is his dog. We adopted him so that Paulo had an officemate during our working hours. They were – are – best buds and, until three months ago, they were rarely apart.
I don’t realize I’ve stopped scratching Turnip until he nudges me with his nose, staring at me expectantly.
“You’re the best boy,” I say and I take the letter from my jacket pocket and tuck it in his collar. “I love you.” Mary had sent her cat over. Not a stray. Though my heart’s breaking, I unhook the leash.
“Go find Paulo,” I say and point towards the Line, hand trembling. “Go!” Turnip bounds towards it, but stops right in front, and for a moment I selfishly hope. He pokes at the Line with his nose, front paws dancing in excitement. Then, he crosses over.
I see his silhouette on the other side, a gray spot against the murkiness. There is no letter in the grass. I can almost see his nub tail wagging with excitement.
“The best,” I say and turn to my home.
Tonight, I’ll dismantle the bookcases and try to touch the things I cannot reach.