Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Water Off a Black Dog’s Back

“Tell me which you could sooner do without, love or water.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, could you live without love, or could you live without water?”

“Why can’t I have both?”

• • • •

Rachel Rook took Carroll home to meet her parents two months after she first slept with him. For a generous girl, a girl who took off her clothes with abandon, she was remarkably close-mouthed about some things. In two months Carroll had learned that her parents lived on a farm several miles outside of town; that they sold strawberries in summer, and Christmas trees in the winter. He knew that they never left the farm; instead, the world came to them in the shape of weekend picnickers and drive-by tourists.

“Do you think your parents will like me?” he said. He had spent the afternoon preparing for this visit as carefully as if he were preparing for an exam. He had gotten his hair cut, trimmed his nails, washed his neck and behind his ears. The outfit he had chosen, khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt — no tie — lay neatly folded on the bed. He stood before Rachel in his plain white underwear and white socks, gazing at her as if she were a mirror.

“No,” she said. It was the first time she had been to his apartment, and she stood square in the center of his bedroom, her arms folded against her body as if she was afraid to sit down, to touch something.

“Why?”

“My father will like you,” she said. “But he likes everyone. My mother’s more particular — she thinks that you lack a serious nature.”

Carroll put on his pants, admiring the crease. “So you’ve talked to her about me.”

“Yes.”

“But you haven’t talked about her to me.”

“No.”

“Are you ashamed of her?”

Rachel snorted. Then she sighed in a way that seemed to suggest she was regretting her decision to take him home. “You’re ashamed of me,” he guessed, and Rachel kissed him and smiled and didn’t say anything.

• • • •

Rachel still lived on her parents’ farm, which made it all the more remarkable that she had kept Carroll and her parents apart for so long. It suggested a talent for daily organization that filled Carroll’s heart with admiration and lust. She was nineteen, two years younger than Carroll; she was a student at Jellicoh College and every weekday she rose at seven and biked four miles into town, and then back again on her bike, four miles uphill to the farm.

Carroll met Rachel in the Jellicoh College library, where he had a part-time job. He sat at the checkout desk, stamping books and reading Tristram Shandy for a graduate class; he was almost asleep when someone said, “Excuse me.”

He looked up. The girl who stood before the tall desk was redheaded. Sunlight streaming in through a high window opposite her lit up the fine hairs on her arm, the embroidered flowers on the collar of her white shirt. The sunlight turned her hair to fire and Carroll found it difficult to look directly at her. “Can I help you?” he said.

She placed a shredded rectangle on the desk, and Carroll picked it up between his thumb and forefinger. Pages hung in tatters from the sodden blue spine. Title, binding, and covers had been gnawed away. “I need to pay for a damaged book,” she said.

“What happened? Did your dog eat it?” he said, making a joke.

“Yes,” she said, and smiled.

“What’s your name?” Carroll said. Already, he thought he might be in love.

• • • •

The farmhouse where Rachel lived had a wrap-around porch like an apron. It had been built on a hill, and looked down a long green slope of Christmas trees towards the town and Jellicoh College. It looked old-fashioned and a little forlorn.

On one side of the house was a small barn, and behind the barn was an oval pond, dark and fringed with pine trees. It winked in the twilight like a glossy, lidless eye. The sun was rolling down the grassy rim of the hill towards the pond, and the exaggerated shadows of Christmas trees, long and pointed as witches’ hats, stitched black triangles across the purple-grey lawn. House, barn, and hill were luminous in the fleet purple light.

Carroll parked the car in front of the barn and went around to Rachel’s side to hand her out. A muffled, ferocious breathing emanated from the barn, and the doors shuddered as if something inside was hurling itself repeatedly towards them, through the dark and airless space. There was a sour animal smell. “What’s in there?” Carroll asked.

“The dogs,” Rachel said. “They aren’t allowed in the house and they don’t like to be separated from my mother.”

“I like dogs,” Carroll said.

• • • •

There was a man sitting on the porch. He stood up as they approached the house and came forward to meet them. He was of medium build, and had pink-brown hair like his daughter. Rachel said, “Daddy, this is Carroll Murtaugh. Carroll, this is my daddy.”

Mr. Rook had no nose. He shook hands with Carroll. His hand was warm and dry, flesh and blood. Carroll tried not to stare at Mr. Rook’s face.

In actual fact, Rachel’s father did have a nose, which was carved out of what appeared to be pine. The nostrils of the nose were flared slightly, as if Mr. Rook were smelling something pleasant. Copper wire ran through the bridge of the nose, attaching it to the frame of a pair of glasses; it nestled, delicate as a sleeping mouse, between the two lenses.

“Nice to meet you, Carroll,” he said. “I understand that you’re a librarian down at the college. You like books, do you?” His voice was deep and sonorous, as if he were speaking out of a well: Carroll was later to discover that Mr. Rook’s voice changed slightly, depending on which nose he wore.

“Yes, sir,” Carroll said. Just to be sure, he looked back at Rachel. As he had thought, her nose was unmistakably the genuine article. He shot her a second accusatory glance. Why didn’t you tell me? She shrugged.

Mr. Rook said, “I don’t have anything against books myself. But my wife can’t stand ‘em. Nearly broke her heart when Rachel decided to go to college.” Rachel stuck out her lower lip. “Why don’t you give your mother a hand, Rachel, setting the table, while Carroll and I get to know each other?”

“All right,” Rachel said, and went into the house.

Mr. Rook sat down on the porch steps and Carroll sat down with him. “She’s a beautiful girl,” Mr. Rook said. “Just like her mother.”

“Yes sir,” Carroll said. “Beautiful.” He stared straight ahead and spoke forcefully, as if he had not noticed that he was talking to a man with a wooden nose.

“You probably think it’s odd, don’t you, a girl her age, still living at home.”

Carroll shrugged. “She seems attached to both of you. You grow Christmas trees, sir?”

“Strawberries, too,” Mr. Rook said. “It’s a funny thing about strawberries and pine trees. People will pay you to let them dig up their own. They do all the work and then they pay you for it. They say the strawberries taste better that way, and they may be right. Myself, I can’t taste much anyway.”

Carroll leaned back against the porch rail and listened to Mr. Rook speak. He sneaked sideways looks at Mr. Rook’s profile. From a few feet away, in the dim cast of the porch light, the nose had a homely, thoughtful bump to it: It was a philosopher’s nose, a questing nose. White moths large as Carroll’s hand pinwheeled around the porch light. They threw out tiny halos of dark and stirred up breaths of air with their wings, coming to rest on the porch screen, folding themselves into stillness like fans. Moths have no noses either, Carroll thought.

“I can’t smell the pine trees either,” Mr. Rook said. “I have to appreciate the irony in that. You’ll have to forgive my wife, if she seems a bit awkward at first. She’s not used to strangers.”

Rachel danced out onto the porch. “Dinner’s almost ready,” she said. “Has Daddy been keeping you entertained?”

“He’s been telling me all about your farm,” Carroll said.

Rachel and her father looked at each other thoughtfully. “That’s great,” Rachel said. “You know what he’s really dying to ask, Daddy. Tell him about your collection of noses.”

“Oh, no,” Carroll protested. “I wasn’t wondering at all — ”

But Mr. Rook stood up, dusting off the seat of his pants. “I’ll go get them down. I almost wore a fancier one tonight, but it’s so windy tonight, and rather damp. I didn’t trust it not to rain.” He hurried off into the house.

Carroll leaned over to Rachel. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said, looking up at her from the porch rail.

“What?”

“That your father has a wooden nose.”

“He has several noses, but you heard him. It might rain. Some of them,” she said, “are liable to rust.”

“Why does he have a wooden nose?” Carroll said. He was whispering.

“A boy named Biederbecke bit it off, in a fight.” The alliteration evidently pleased her, because she said a little louder, “Biederbecke bit it off, when you were a boy. Isn’t that right, Daddy?”

The porch door swung open again, and Mr. Rook said, “Yes, but I don’t blame him, really I don’t. We were little boys and I called him a stinking Kraut. That was during the war, and afterwards he was very sorry. You have to look on the bright side of things — your mother would never have noticed me if it hadn’t had been for my nose. That was a fine nose. I modeled it on Abraham Lincoln’s nose, and carved it out of black walnut.” He set a dented black tackle box down next to Carroll, squatting beside it. “Look here.”

The inside of the tackle box was lined with red velvet and the mild light of the October moon illuminated the noses, glowing as if a jeweler’s lamp had been turned upon them: noses made of wood, and beaten copper, tin, and brass. One seemed to be silver, veined with beads of turquoise. There were aquiline noses; noses pointed like gothic spires; noses with nostrils curled up like tiny bird claws. “Who made these?” Carroll said.

Mr. Rook coughed modestly. “It’s my hobby,” he said. “Pick one up if you like.”

“Go ahead,” Rachel said to Carroll.

Carroll chose a nose that had been painted over with blue and pink flowers. It was glassy-smooth and light in his hand, like a blown eggshell. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “What’s it made out of?”

“Papier-mâché. There’s one for every day of the week,” Mr. Rook said.

“What did the . . . original look like?” Carroll asked.

“Hard to remember, really. It wasn’t much of a nose,” Mr. Rook said. “Before.”

• • • •

“Back to the question, please. Which do you choose, water or love?”

“What happens if I choose wrong?”

“You’ll find out, won’t you.”

“Which would you choose?”

“That’s my question, Carroll. You already asked yours.”

“You still haven’t answered me, either. All right, all right, let me think for a bit.”

• • • •

Rachel had straight reddish-brown hair that fell precisely to her shoulders and then stopped. Her eyes were fox-colored, and she had more small, even teeth than seemed absolutely necessary to Carroll. She smiled at him, and when she bent over the tackle box full of noses, Carroll could see the two wings of her shoulder blades beneath the thin cotton T-shirt, her vertebrae outlined like a knobby strand of coral. As they went in to dinner she whispered in his ear, “My mother has a wooden leg.”

She led him into the kitchen to meet her mother. The air in the kitchen was hot and moist and little beads of sweat stood out on Mrs. Rook’s face. Rachel’s mother resembled Rachel in the way that Mr. Rook’s wooden nose resembled a real nose, as if someone had hacked Mrs. Rook out of wood or granite. She had large hands with long, yellowed fingernails, and all over her black dress were short black dog hairs. “So you’re a librarian,” she said to Carroll.

“Part-time,” Carroll said. “Yes, ma’am.”

“What do you do the rest of the time?” she said.

“I take classes.”

Mrs. Rook stared at him without blinking. “Are your parents still alive?”

“My mother is,” Carroll said. “She lives in Florida. She plays bridge.”

Rachel grabbed Carroll’s arm. “Come on,” she said. “The food’s getting cold.”

She pulled him into a dining room with dark wood paneling and a long table set for four people. The long black hem of Mrs. Rook’s dress hissed along the floor as she pulled her chair into the table. Carroll sat down next to her. Was it the right or the left? He tucked his feet under his chair. Both women were silent and Carroll was silent between them. Mr. Rook talked instead, filling in the awkward empty pause so that Carroll was glad that it was his nose and not his tongue that the Biederbecke boy had bitten off.

How had she lost her leg? Mrs. Rook watched Carroll with a cold and methodical eye as he ate, and he held Rachel’s hand under the table for comfort. He was convinced that her mother knew this and disapproved. He ate his pork and peas, balancing the peas on the blade of his knife. He hated peas. In between mouthfuls, he gulped down the pink wine in his glass. It was sweet and strong and tasted of burnt sugar. “Is this apple wine?” he asked. “It’s delicious.”

“It’s strawberry wine,” Mr. Rook said, pleased. “Have more. We make up a batch every year. I can’t taste it myself but it’s strong stuff.”

Rachel filled Carroll’s empty glass and watched him drain it instantly. “If you’ve finished, why don’t you let my mother take you to meet the dogs? You look like you could use some fresh air. I’ll stay here and help Daddy do the dishes. Go on,” she said. “Go.”

Mrs. Rook pushed her chair back from the table, pushed herself out of the chair. “Well, come on,” she said. “I don’t bite.”

Outside, the moths beat at his face, and he reeled beside Rachel’s mother on the moony-white gravel, light as a thread spun out on its spool. She walked quickly, leaning forward a little as her right foot came down, dragging the left foot through the small stones.

“What kind of dogs are they?” he said.

“Black ones,” she said.

“What are their names?”

“Flower and Acorn,” she said, and flung open the barn door. Two Labradors, slippery as black trout in the moonlight, surged up at Carroll. They thrust their velvet muzzles at him, uttering angry staccato coughs, their rough breath steaming at his face. They were the size of small ponies and their paws left muddy prints on his shirt. Carroll pushed them back down, and they snapped at his hands.

“Heel,” Mrs. Rook said, and instantly the two dogs went to her, arranging themselves on either side like bookends. Against the folds of her skirt, they were nearly invisible, only their saucer-like eyes flashing wickedly at Carroll.

“Flower’s pregnant,” Mrs. Rook said. “We’ve tried to breed them before, but it never took. Go for a run, girl. Go with her, Acorn.”

The dogs loped off, moonlight spilling off their coats like water. Carroll watched them run; the stale air of the barn washed over him, and under the bell of Mrs. Rook’s skirt he pictured the dark wood of the left leg, the white flesh of the right leg, like a pair of mismatched dice. Mrs. Rook drew in her breath. She said, “I don’t mind you sleeping with my daughter but you had better not get her pregnant.”

Carroll said, “No, ma’am.”

“If you give her a bastard, I’ll set the dogs on you,” she said, and went back towards the house. Carroll scrambled after her.

• • • •

On Friday, Carroll was shelving new books on the third floor. He stood, both arms lifted up to steady a wavering row of psychology periodicals. Someone paused in the narrow row, directly behind him, and a small cold hand insinuated itself into his trousers, slipping under the waistband of his underwear.

“Rachel?” he said, and the hand squeezed, slowly. He jumped and the row of books toppled off their shelf, like dominoes. He bent to pick them up, not looking at her. “I forgive you,” he said.

“That’s nice,” she said. “For what?”

“For not telling me about your father’s — ” he hesitated, looking for the word, “ — wound.”

“I thought you handled that very well,” she said. “And I did tell you about my mother’s leg.”

“I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe you. How did she lose it?”

“She swims down in the pond. She was walking back up to the house. She was barefoot. She sliced her foot open on something. By the time she went to see a doctor, she had septicemia and her leg had to be amputated just below the knee. Daddy made her a replacement out of walnut; he said the prosthesis that the hospital wanted to give her looked nothing like the leg she’d lost. It has a name carved on it. She used to tell me that a ghost lived inside it and helped her walk. I was four years old.” She didn’t look at him as she spoke, flicking the dust off the spine of a tented book with her long fingers.

“What was its name?” Carroll asked.

“Ellen,” Rachel said.

• • • •

Two days after they had first met, Carroll was in the basement stacks. It was dark in the aisles, the tall shelves curving towards each other. The lights were controlled by timers, and went on and off untouched by human hand: There was the ominous sound of ticking as the timers clicked off row by row. Puddles of dirty yellow light wavered under his feet, the floor as slick as water. There was one other student on this floor, a boy who trod at Carroll’s heels, breathing heavily.

Rachel was in a back corner, partly hidden by a shelving cart. “Goddammit, goddammit to hell,” she was saying, as she flung a book down. “Stupid book, stupid, useless, stupid, know-nothing books.” She kicked at the book several more times, and stomped on it for good measure. Then she looked up and saw Carroll and the boy behind him. “Oh,” she said. “You again.”

Carroll turned and glared at the boy. “What’s the matter,” he said. “Haven’t you ever seen a librarian at work?”

The boy fled. “What’s the matter?” Carroll said again.

“Nothing,” Rachel said. “I’m just tired of reading stupid books about books about books. It’s ten times worse than my mother ever said.” She looked at him, weighing him up. She said, “Have you ever made love in a library?”

“Um,” Carroll said. “No.”

Rachel stripped off her woolly sweater, her blue undershirt. Underneath, her bare flesh burned. The lights clicked off two rows down, then the row beside Carroll, and he moved forward to find Rachel before she vanished. Her body was hot and dry, like a newly extinguished bulb.

Rachel seemed to enjoy making love in the library. The library officially closed at midnight, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he was the last of the staff to leave, Carroll left the East Entrance unlocked for Rachel while he made up a pallet of jackets and sweaters from the Lost and Found.

The first night, he had arranged a makeshift bed in the aisle between PR878W6B37, Relative Creatures, and PR878W6B35, Corrupt Relations. In the summer, the stacks had been much cooler than his un-air-conditioned room. He had hoped to woo her into his bed by the time the weather turned, but it was October already. Rachel pulled PR878W6A9 out to use as a pillow. “I thought you didn’t like books,” he said, trying to make a joke.

“My mother doesn’t like books,” she said. “Or libraries. Which is a good thing. You don’t ever have to worry about her looking for me here.”

When they made love, Rachel kept her eyes closed. Carroll watched her face, her body rocking beneath him like water. He closed his eyes, opening them quickly again, hoping to catch her looking back at him. Did he please her? He pleased himself, and her breath quickened upon his neck. Her hands smoothed his body, moving restlessly back and forth, until he gathered them to himself, biting at her knuckles.

Later he lay prone as she moved over him, her knees clasping his waist, her narrow feet cupped under the stirrups of his knees. They lay hinged together and Carroll squinted his eyes shut to make the Exit sign fuzzy in the darkness. He imagined that they had just made love in a forest, and the red glow was a campfire. He imagined they were not on the third floor of a library, but on the shore of a deep, black lake in the middle of a stand of tall trees.

“When you were a teenager,” Rachel said, “what was the worst thing you ever did?”

Carroll thought for a moment. “When I was a teenager,” he said, “I used to go into my room every day after school and masturbate. And my dog Sunny used to stand outside the door and whine. I’d come in a handful of Kleenex, and afterward I never knew what to do with them. If I threw them in the wastebasket, my mother might notice them piling up. If I dropped them under the bed, then Sunny would sneak in later and eat them. It was a revolting dilemma, and every day I swore I wouldn’t ever do it again.”

“That’s disgusting, Carroll.”

Carroll was constantly amazed at the things he told Rachel, as if love was some sort of hook she used to drag secrets out of him, things that he had forgotten until she asked for them. “Your turn,” he said.

Rachel curled herself against him. “Well, when I was little, and I did something bad, my mother used to take off her wooden leg and spank me with it. When I got older, and started being asked out on dates, she would forbid me. She actually said I forbid you to go, just like a Victorian novel. I would wait until she took her bath after dinner, and steal her leg and hide it. And I would stay out as late as I wanted. When I got home, she was always sitting at the kitchen table, with the leg strapped back on. She always found it before I got home, but I always stayed away as long as I could. I never came home before I had to.

“When I was little I hated her leg. It was like her other child, the obedient daughter. I was the one she had to spank. I thought the leg told her when I was bad, and I could feel it gloating whenever she punished me. I hid it from her in closets, or in the belly of the grandfather clock. Once I buried it out in the strawberry field because I knew it hated the dark: It was scared of the dark, like me.”

Carroll eased away from her, rolling over on his stomach. The whole time she had been talking, her voice had been calm, her breath tickling his throat. Telling her about Sunny, the semen-eating dog, he had sprouted a cheerful little erection. Listening to her, it had melted away, and his balls had crept up his goose-pimpled thighs.

Somewhere a timer clicked and a light turned off. “Let’s make love again,” she said, and seized him in her hand. He nearly screamed.

• • • •

In late November, Carroll went to the farm again for dinner. He parked just outside the barn, where, malignant and black as tar, Flower lolled on her side in the cold dirty straw. She was swollen and too lazy to do more than show him her teeth; he admired them. “How pregnant is she?” Carroll asked Mr. Rook, who had emerged from the barn.

“She’s due any day,” Mr. Rook said. “The vet says there might be six puppies in there.” Today he wore a tin nose, and his words had a distinct echo, whistling out double shrill, like a teakettle on the boil. “Would you like to see my workshop?” he said.

“Okay,” Carroll said. The barn smelled of gasoline and straw, old things congealing in darkness; it smelled of winter. Along the right inside wall, there were a series of long hooks, and depending from them were various pointed and hooked tools. Below was a table strewn with objects that seemed to have come from the city dump: bits of metal; cigar boxes full of broken glass sorted according to color; a carved wooden hand, jointed and with a dime-store ring over the next-to-last finger.

Carroll picked it up, surprised at its weight. The joints of the wooden fingers clicked as he manipulated them, the fingers long and heavy and perfectly smooth. He put it down again. “It’s very nice,” he said and turned around. Through the thin veil of sunlight and dust that wavered in the open doors, Carroll could see a black glitter of water. “Where’s Rachel?”

“She went to find her mother, I’ll bet. They’ll be down by the pond. Go and tell them it’s dinner time.” Mr. Rook looked down at the black and rancorous Flower. “Six puppies!” he remarked, in a sad little whistle.

Carroll went down through the slanted grove of Christmas trees. At the base of the hill was a circle of twelve oaks, their leaves making a thick carpet of gold. The twelve trees were spaced evenly around the perimeter of the pond, like the numbers on a clock face. Carroll paused under the eleven o’clock oak, looking at the water. He saw Rachel in the pond, her white arm cutting through the gaudy leaves that clung like skin, bringing up black droplets of water. Carroll stood in his corduroy jacket and watched her swim laps across the pond. He wondered how cold the water was. Then he realized that it wasn’t Rachel in the pond.

Rachel sat on a quilt on the far side of the pond, under the six o’clock oak. Acorn sat beside her, looking now at the swimmer, now at Carroll. Rachel and her mother were both oblivious to his presence, Mrs. Rook intent on her exercise, Rachel rubbing linseed oil into her mother’s wooden leg. The wind carried the scent of it across the pond. The dog stood, stiff-legged, fixing Carroll in its dense liquid gaze. It shook itself, sending up a spray of water like diamonds.

“Cut it out, Acorn!” Rachel said without looking up. All the way across the pond, Carroll felt the drops of water fall on him, cold and greasy.

He felt himself turning to stone with fear. He was afraid of the leg that Rachel held in her lap. He was afraid that Mrs. Rook would emerge from her pond, and he would see the space where her knee hung above the ground. He backed up the hill slowly, almost falling over a small stone marker at the top. As he looked at it, the dog came running up the path, passing him without a glance, and after that, Rachel, and her mother, wearing the familiar black dress. The ground was slippery with leaves and Mrs. Rook leaned on her daughter. Her hair was wet and her cheeks were as red as leaves.

“I can’t read the name,” Carroll said.

“It’s Ellen,” Mrs. Rook said. “My husband carved it.”

Carroll looked at Rachel. Your mother has a tombstone for her leg? Rachel looked away.

• • • •

“You can’t live without water.”

“So that’s your choice?”

“I’m just thinking out loud. I know what you want me to say.”

No answer.

“Rachel, look. I choose water, okay?”

No answer.

“Let me explain. You can lie to water — you can say no, I’m not in love, I don’t need love, and you can be lying — how is the water supposed to know that you’re lying? It can’t tell if you’re in love or not, right? Water’s not that smart. So you fool the water into thinking you’d never dream of falling in love, and when you’re thirsty, you drink it.”

“You’re pretty sneaky.”

“I love you, Rachel. Will you please marry me? Otherwise your mother is going to kill me.”

No answer.

• • • •

After dinner, Carroll’s car refused to start. No one answered when they rang a garage, and Rachel said, “He can take my bike, then.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mr. Rook said. “He can stay here and we’ll get someone in the morning. Besides, it’s going to rain soon.”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble,” Carroll said.

Rachel said, “It’s getting dark. He can call a taxi.” Carroll looked at her, hurt, and she frowned at him.

“He’ll stay in the back room,” Mrs. Rook said. “Come and have another glass of wine before you go to bed, Carroll.” She grinned at him in what might have been a friendly fashion, except that at some point after dinner, she had removed her dentures.

Rachel brought him a pair of her father’s pajamas and led him off to the room where he was to sleep. The room was small and plain and the only beautiful thing in it was Rachel, sitting on a blue and scarlet quilt. “Who made this?” he said.

“My mother did,” Rachel said. “She’s made whole closetsful of quilts. It’s what she used to do while she waited for me to get home from a date. Now get in bed.”

“Why didn’t you want me to spend the night?” he asked.

She stuck a long piece of hair in her mouth, and sucked on it, staring at him without blinking. He tried again. “How come you never spend the night at my apartment?”

She shrugged. “Are you tired?”

Carroll yawned, and gave up. “Yes,” he said and Rachel kissed him goodnight. It was a long, thoughtful kiss. She turned out the light and went down the hall to her own bedroom. Carroll rolled on his side and fell asleep and dreamed that Rachel came back in the room and stood naked in the moonlight. Then she climbed in bed with him and they made love and then Mrs. Rook came into the room. She beat at them with her leg as they hid under the quilt. She struck Rachel and turned her into wood.

As Carroll left the next morning, it was discovered that Flower had given birth to seven puppies in the night. “Well, it’s too late now,” Rachel said.

“Too late for what?” Carroll asked. His car started on the first try.

“Never mind,” Rachel said gloomily. She didn’t wave as he drove away.

• • • •

Carroll discovered that if he said “I love you,” to Rachel, she would say “I love you too,” in an absentminded way. But she still refused to come to his apartment, and because it was colder now, they made love during the day, in the storage closet on the third floor. Sometimes he caught her watching him now, when they made love. The look in her eyes was not quite what he had hoped it would be, more shrewd than passionate. But perhaps this was a trick of the cold winter light.

Sometimes, now that it was cold, Rachel let Carroll drive her home from school. The sign beside the Rooks’ driveway now said, “Get your Christmas Trees early.” Beneath that it said, “Adorable black Lab Puppies free to a Good home.”

But no one wanted a puppy. This was understandable; already the puppies had the gaunt, evil look of their parents. They spent their days catching rats in the barn, and their evenings trailing like sullen shadows around the black skirts of Mrs. Rook. They tolerated Mr. Rook and Rachel; Carroll they eyed hungrily.

“You have to look on the bright side,” Mr. Rook said. “They make excellent watch-dogs.”

• • • •

Carroll gave Rachel a wooden bird on a gold chain for Christmas, and the complete works of Jane Austen. She gave him a bottle of strawberry wine and a wooden box, with six black dogs painted on the lid. They had fiery red eyes and red licorice tongues. “My father carved it, but I painted it,” she said.

Carroll opened the box. “What will I put in it?” he said.

Rachel shrugged. The library was closed for the weekend, and they sat on the dingy green carpet in the deserted lounge. The rest of the staff was on break, and Mr. Cassatti, Carroll’s supervisor, had asked Carroll to keep an eye on things.

There had been some complaints, he said, of vandalism in the past few weeks. Books had been knocked off their shelves, or disarranged, and even more curious, a female student claimed to have seen a dog up on the third floor. It had growled at her, she said, and then slunk off into the stacks. Mr. Cassatti, when he had gone up to check, had seen nothing. Not so much as a single hair. He wasn’t worried about the dog, Mr. Cassatti had said, but some books had been discovered, the pages ripped out. Maimed, Mr. Cassatti had said.

Rachel handed Carroll one last parcel. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag, and when he opened it, a blaze of scarlet and cornflower blue spilled out onto his lap. “My mother made you a quilt just like the one in the spare bedroom,” Rachel said. “I told her you thought it was pretty.”

“It’s beautiful,” Carroll said. He snapped the quilt out, so that it spread across the library floor, as if they were having a picnic. He tried to imagine making love to Rachel beneath a quilt her mother had made. “Does this mean that you’ll make love with me in a bed?”

“I’m pregnant,” Rachel said.

He looked around to see if anyone else had heard her, but of course they were alone. “That’s impossible,” he said. “You’re on the pill.”

“Yes, well,” Rachel said. “I’m pregnant anyway. It happens sometimes.”

“How pregnant?” he asked.

“Three months.”

“Does your mother know?”

“Yes,” Rachel said.

“Oh God, she’s going to put the dogs on me. What are we going to do?”

“What am I going to do,” Rachel said, looking down at her cupped hands so that Carroll could not see her expression. “What am I going to do,” she said again.

There was a long pause and Carroll took one of her hands in his. “Then we’ll get married?” he said, a quaver in his voice turning the statement into a question.

“No,” she said, looking straight at him, the way she looked at him when they made love. He had never noticed what a sad hopeless look this was.

Carroll dropped his own eyes, ashamed of himself and not quite sure why. He took a deep breath. “What I meant to say, Rachel, is I love you very much and would you please marry me?”

Rachel pulled her hand away from him. She said in a low angry voice, “What do you think this is, Carroll? Do you think this is a book? Is this supposed to be the happy ending — we get married and live happily ever after?”

She got up, and he stood up too. He opened his mouth, and nothing came out, so he just followed her as she walked away. She stopped so abruptly that he almost fell against her. “Let me ask you a question first,” she said, and turned to face him. “What would you choose, love or water?”

The question was so ridiculous that he found he was able to speak again. “What kind of a question is that?” he said.

“Never mind. I think you better take me home in your car,” Rachel said. “It’s starting to snow.”

Carroll thought about it during the car ride. He came to the conclusion that it was a silly question, and that if he didn’t answer it correctly, Rachel wasn’t going to marry him. He wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to give the correct answer, even if he knew what it was.

He said, “I love you, Rachel.” He swallowed and he could hear the snow coming down, soft as feathers on the roof and windshield of the car. In the two beams of the headlights the road was dense and white as an iced cake, and in the reflected snow-light Rachel’s face was a beautiful greenish color. “Will you marry me anyway? I don’t know how you want me to choose.”

“No.”

“Why not?” They had reached the farm; he turned the car into driveway, and stopped.

“You’ve had a pretty good life so far, haven’t you?” she said.

“Not too bad,” he said sullenly.

“When you walk down the street,” Rachel said, “do you ever find pennies?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Are they heads or tails?”

“Heads, usually,” he said.

“Do you get good grades?”

“As and Bs,” he said.

“Do you have to study hard? Have you ever broken a mirror? When you lose things,” she said, “do you find them again?”

“What is this, an interview?”

Rachel looked at him. It was hard to read her expression, but she sounded resigned. “Have you ever even broken a bone? Do you ever have to stop for red lights?”

“Okay, okay,” he snapped. “My life is pretty easy. I’ve gotten everything I ever wanted for Christmas, too. And I want you to marry me, so of course you’re going to say yes.”

He reached out, put his arms around her. She sat brittle and stiff in the circle of his embrace, her face turned into his jacket. “Rachel — ”

“My mother says I shouldn’t marry you,” she said. “She says I don’t really know you, that you’re feckless, that you’ve never lost anything that you cared about, that you’re the wrong sort to be marrying into a family like ours.”

“Is your mother some kind of oracle, because she has a wooden leg?”

“My mother knows about losing things,” Rachel said, pushing at him. “She says it’ll hurt, but I’ll get over you.”

“So tell me, how hard has your life been?” Carroll said. “You’ve got your nose, and both your legs. What do you know about losing things?”

“I haven’t told you everything,” Rachel said and slipped out of the car. “You don’t know everything about me.” Then she slammed the car door. He watched her cross the driveway and go up the hill into the snow.

Carroll called in sick all the next week. The heating unit in his apartment wasn’t working, and the cold made him sluggish. He thought about going in to the library, just to be warm, but instead he spent most of his time under the quilt that Mrs. Rook had made, hoping to dream about Rachel. He dreamed instead about being devoured by dogs, about drowning in icy black water.

He lay in his dark room, under the weight of the scarlet quilt, when he wasn’t asleep, and held long conversations in his head with Rachel, about love and water. He told her stories about his childhood; she almost seemed to be listening. He asked her about the baby and she told him she was going to name it Ellen if it was a girl. When he took his own temperature on Wednesday, the thermometer said he had a fever of 103, so he climbed back into bed.

When he woke up on Thursday morning, he found short black hairs covering the quilt, which he knew must mean that he was hallucinating. He fell asleep again and dreamed that Mr. Rook came to see him. Mr. Rook was a black Lab. He was wearing a plastic Groucho Marx nose. He and Carroll stood beside the black lake that was on the third floor of the library.

The dog said, “You and I are a lot alike, Carroll.”

“I suppose,” Carroll said.

“No, really,” the dog insisted. It leaned its head on Carroll’s knee, still looking up at him. “We like to look on the bright side of things. You have to do that, you know.”

“Rachel doesn’t love me anymore,” Carroll said. “Nobody likes me.” He scratched behind Mr. Rook’s silky ear.

“Now, is that looking on the bright side of things?” said the dog. “Scratch a little to the right. Rachel has a hard time, like her mother. Be patient with her.”

“So which would you choose,” Carroll said. “Love or water?”

“Who says anyone gets to choose anything? You said you picked water, but there’s good water and there’s bad water. Did you ever think about that?” the dog said. “I have a much better question for you. Are you a good dog or a bad dog?”

“Good dog!” Carroll yelled, and woke himself up.

He called the farmhouse in the morning, and when Rachel answered, he said, “This is Carroll. I’m coming to talk to you.”

But when he got there, no one was there. The sight of the leftover Christmas trees, tall and gawky as green geese, made him feel homesick. Little clumps of snow like white flowers were melting in the gravel driveway. The dogs were not in the barn and he hoped that Mrs. Rook had taken them down to the pond.

He walked up to the house, and knocked on the door. If either of Rachel’s parents came to the door, he would stand his ground and demand to see their daughter. He knocked again, but no one came. The house, shuttered against the snow, had an expectant air, as if it were waiting for him to say something. So he whispered, “Rachel? Where are you?” The house was silent. “Rachel, I love you. Please come out and talk to me. Let’s get married — we’ll elope. You steal your mother’s leg, and by the time your father carves her a new one, we’ll be in Canada. We could go to Niagara Falls for our honeymoon — we could take your mother’s leg with us, if you want — Ellen, I mean — we’ll take Ellen with us!”

Carroll heard a delicate cough behind him as if someone were clearing their throat. He turned and saw Flower and Acorn and their six enormous children sitting on the gravel by the barn, next to his car. Their fur was spiky and wet, and they curled their black lips at him. Someone in the house laughed. Or perhaps it was the echo of a splash, down at the pond.

One of the dogs lifted its head and bayed at him. “Hey,” he said. “Good dog! Good Flower, good Acorn! Rachel, help!”

She had been hiding behind the front door. She slammed it open and came out onto the porch. “My mother said I should just let the dogs eat you,” she said. “If you came.”

She looked tired; she wore a shapeless woolen dress that looked like one of her mother’s. If she really was pregnant, Carroll couldn’t see any evidence yet. “Do you always listen to your mother?” he said. “Don’t you love me?”

“When I was born,” she said. “I was a twin. My sister’s name was Ellen. When we were seven years old, she drowned in the pond — I lost her. Don’t you see? People start out losing small things, like noses. Pretty soon you start losing other things too. It’s sort of an accidental leprosy. If we got married, you’d find out.”

Carroll heard someone coming up the path from the pond, up through the thin ranks of Christmas trees. The dogs pricked up their ears, but their black eyes stayed fastened to Carroll. “You’d better hurry,” Rachel said. She escorted him past the dogs to his car.

“I’m going to come back.”

“That’s not a good idea,” she said. The dogs watched him leave, crowding close around her, their black tails whipping excitedly. He went home and in a very bad temper, he picked up the quilt to inspect it. He was looking for the black hairs he had seen that morning. But of course there weren’t any.

The next day he went back to the library. He was lifting books out of the overnight collection box, when he felt something that was neither rectangular nor flat. It was covered in velvety fur, and damp. He felt warm breath steaming on his hand. It twisted away when he tried to pick it up, and when he reached out for it again, it snarled at him.

He backed away from the collection box, and a long black dog wriggled out of the box after him. Two students stopped to watch what was happening. “Go get Mr. Cassatti, please,” Carroll said to one of them. “His office is around the corner.”

The dog approached him. Its ears were laid back flat against its skull and its neck moved like a snake.

“Good dog?” Carroll said, and held out his hand. “Flower?” The dog lunged forward and, snapping its jaws shut, bit off his pinky just below the fingernail.

The student screamed. Carroll stood still and looked down at his right hand, which was slowly leaking blood. The sound that the dog’s jaw had made as it severed his finger had been crisp and businesslike. The dog stared at Carroll in a way that reminded him of Rachel’s stare. “Give me back my finger,” Carroll said.

The dog growled and backed away. “We have to catch it,” the student said. “So they can reattach your finger. Shit, what if it has rabies?”

Mr. Cassatti appeared, carrying a large flat atlas, extended like a shield. “Someone said that there was a dog in the library,” he said.

“In the corner over there,” Carroll said. “It bit off my finger.” He held up his hand for Mr. Cassatti to see, but Mr. Cassatti was looking towards the corner and shaking his head.

He said, “I don’t see a dog.”

The two students hovered, loudly insisting that they had both seen the dog a moment ago, while Mr. Cassatti tended to Carroll. The floor in the corner was sticky and wet, as if someone had spilled a Coke. There was no sign of the dog.

Mr. Cassatti took Carroll to the hospital, where the doctor at the hospital gave him a shot of codeine, and tried to convince him that it would be a simple matter to reattach the fingertip. “How?” Mr. Cassatti said. “He says the dog ran away with it.”

“What dog?” the doctor asked.

“It was bitten off by a dog,” Carroll told the doctor.

The doctor raised his eyebrows. “A dog in a library? This looks like he stuck his finger under a paper cutter. The cut is too tidy — a dog bite would be a mess. Didn’t anyone bring the finger?”

“The dog ate it,” Carroll said. “Mrs. Rook said the dog would eat me, but it stopped. I don’t think it liked the way I tasted.”

Mr. Cassatti and the doctor went out into the hall to discuss something. Carroll stood at the door and waited until they had turned towards the nurses’ station. He opened the door and snuck down the hallway in the opposite direction and out of the hospital. It was a little hard, walking on the ground — the codeine seemed to affect gravity. When he walked, he bounced. When walking got too difficult, he climbed in a taxi and gave the driver the address of the Rook farm.

His hand didn’t hurt at all; he tried to remember this, so he could tell Rachel. They had bound up his hand in white gauze bandages, and it looked like someone else’s hand entirely. Under the white bandages, his hand was pleasantly warm. His skin felt stretched, tight and thin as a rubber glove. He felt much lighter: it might take a while, but he thought he could get the hang of losing things; it seemed to come as easily to him as everything else did.

Carroll thought maybe Rachel and he would get married down by the pond, beneath the new leaves of the six o’clock oak tree. Mr. Rook could wear his most festive nose, the one with rose-velvet lining, or perhaps the one painted with flowers. Carroll remembered the little grave at the top of the path that led to the pond — not the pond, he decided — they should be married in a church. Maybe in a library.

“Just drop me off here,” he told the taxi driver at the top of the driveway.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” the driver said. Carroll shook his head, yes, he was sure. He watched the taxi drive away, waving the hand with the abbreviated finger.

Mrs. Rook could make her daughter a high-waisted wedding dress, satin and silk and lace, moth-pale, and there would be a cake with eight laughing dogs made out of white frosting, white as snow. For some reason he had a hard time making the church come out right. It kept changing, church into library, library into black pond. The windows were high and narrow and the walls were wet like the inside of a well. The aisle kept changing, the walls getting closer, becoming stacks of books, dark, velvety waves. He imagined standing at the altar with Rachel — black water came up to their ankles as if their feet had been severed. He thought of the white cake again: if he sliced into it, darkness would gush out like ink.

He shook his head, listening. There was a heavy dragging noise, coming up the side of the hill through the Christmas trees. It would be a beautiful wedding and he considered it a lucky thing that he had lost his pinky and not his ring finger. You had to look on the bright side after all. He went down toward the pond, to tell Rachel this.

Kelly Link

Kelly Link

Kelly Link is the author of the story collections Stranger Things HappenMagic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters, as well as the founder, with her husband Gavin J. Grant, of Small Beer Press. Her latest collection of stories, Get in Trouble, is out from Random House.