About two months ago, the dog started following me on my nightly walks. She’s some sort of mutt, so ugly she’s cute; I don’t know where she came from, or where she goes when we’re not walking. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a home because she doesn’t have tags, just the raggedy remnant of a collar. I have no idea why she follows me; I never feed her and didn’t even acknowledge her at first. When I realized it would be a regular thing, I almost gave her a name, but decided not to. Names are placeholders, and I didn’t want to open a door that would be impossible to close once she stopped coming around.
My walks are the only time when I have space to breathe. The house I live in is small, and I share my room with two foster ‘sisters’; two ‘brothers’ share the room across the hall. Everything’s noisy and claustrophobic.
The night the dog first appeared, she fell into step behind me. She came up closer to me each day, until she was walking by my side. She follows me home but never tries to get inside; she just turns around and heads back to wherever it is she comes from. Lately she’s started waiting for me under the bushes that line our yard each night…our own little ritual.
My real parents and sister died in a car accident 10 months ago, just before my seventeenth birthday. Strange how it feels like they’ll walk through the door at any minute, but at the same time also like they were only a dream I had; this foster reality has taken over my life so completely. But they were very real, and so is the hole they left.
Mom. Dad. Miranda.
I have a folder on my laptop with about a hundred family pictures in it. Mom and Dad at Disneyland. Miranda on her tenth birthday. I’ve spent so much time staring at those pictures and their captions that they’ve become the scaffolding that holds up my memories. Dad’s surprised face as he opened a gift on Father’s Day. Miranda looking anxious at her school recital.
My foster ‘parents’ do everything they can for us, and I appreciate it. They’re always kind, always have good intentions. So I do my chores and I get good grades, and I try not to cause them any stress. But I know they worry about me, and none of us know how to fix what’s wrong. It’s hard for me, but I know it’s hard for them, too.
Especially at Christmas, the season of Family and Magic and Comfort and Joy. The weight of everything that should be just hangs on you, like too many layers of clothing you can’t take off. The constant constriction slowly suffocating you.
They tried their best tonight. They’re feeding and housing five of us, and extra money doesn’t fall from the sky. Our presents were a new outfit each for the coming year, and we were lucky to get even that. They made us a huge roast beef dinner with potatoes and candied yams and asparagus au gratin, even pecan pie with eggnog for dessert. But I kept counting the minutes until the day was over, until I could breathe again.
I tried not to be in an obvious rush, but left as soon as I politely could. The dog was waiting; she trotted over to me and we set out together along sidewalks lit by the reflection of holiday lights. I described the day for her as we went, and told her about my other Christmases. I’m not sure when I started talking to her during our walks, probably around Thanksgiving; now I tell her about my day, and anything lurking in my mind that needs to come out. She’s a good listener. She doesn’t ask questions I can’t answer.
I stopped at the nearby park and sat down on a bench. She sat beside me, and we looked out over the grass and through the trees. I hesitated for a moment; then I pulled out the Ziploc bag I had sneaked out of the house.
“Don’t get used to this.” I told her. “Today’s a special day.”
I pulled out small pieces of food and fed them to her one at a time. She took them gently, and in between bites, we watched the squirrels darting here and there. Her dessert was a roll dipped in gravy.
When the food was gone, she put her head on my leg. I stroked her ears, and thought for a while.
“Nadia.” I said, finally. “I’ll call you Nadia.”
She sighed, and closed her eyes.
Photo credit: “King of the Road” by Gary Burling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Michelle M. Chouinard has a Ph.D in developmental psychology from Stanford University. She enjoys writing when her large dog and four cats relinquish her desk and chair. She is currently shopping her first novel, Hazel-Green. Find her at http://www.michellemchouinard.com on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michellechouinardauthor and on Twitter: @mishka824