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The Dog Had a Glass of Milk Before Bed

by Vida Mikalcius

The street lights were out again as Carmen rounded her apartment block at 3:32 a.m., spotting Bear’s relief.

Mars hung low in the sky above the dog park. Only two other stars shone, despite the clear night, with tens of dots of oil well fires spotting the rolling hills behind the chain-link fence.

Bear pulled, his strides shorter than usual, butt clenched. He’d go, end his constipation, and Carmen would go back to bed. She knew that even though she’d try to sleep, she would lay awake, listening to the upstairs tweaker be a one-man marching band. Her brain would burn heavy until it shut down, and when her alarm would ring, she wondered if she’d be able to pry her eyes open and get out of bed, wishing her ma was still there, dragging her by the ankle, then by the wrist into the bathroom, splashing water on her face to wake her.

But Carmen would have to wake on her own.

Take her ma’s dog out again.

Make breakfast.

Catch the bus to the college.

Ace that final.

Get out of this town.

Find a job in the city.

Start over as a dental technician in a place she wasn’t always having to look over her shoulder. A place where her ma wouldn’t have had to point out different apartments, telling her which ones had paranoid grannies who never turned off the lights, or had babies that were left alone all day, or had “cousins” staying for a while after they’d been released. And, most importantly, which one to run to in case there were uniformed men at the door.

Bear stopped and peed on a blooming laurel. Carmen shut her eyes and breathed in the sweet grape Kool-Aid smell of the purple pinecone blossoms, reminiscing the memory of the scent, of her ma—how’d she’d fill their apartment with all the wildflowers she could find in the roadside cracks on her walk back from working the motel.

Carmen’s throat clenched, imagining her ma now, arranging Black-eyed Susans in a mug below crackling yellow lights, the maize y frijoles growing cold. Every rib in ma’s chest visible, never gaining the strength to try to cross the border again.

Bear launched forward. Carmen’s shoulder screeched in strain. She tried to shout, but the words strangled her. She skidded off the sidewalk, across the street, stopping only when her foot found brace against the curb. She gulped.

Her voice was free. “Bear—Para!”

The dog froze. In the middle of the park an armadillo snorted, searching for critters underground. “Get out of here,” Carmen called out. But the armadillo kept digging and pulled out a grub, never paying head to either of them, except for the one donkey-shaped ear shifted in their direction. “Come on, you stupid ‘dillo,” she said.

Bear wrenched her toward the gate, back rounding, needing to burst. The armadillo catapulted, beelining for the far corner, slipping into a hole, its shell shrilling against the metal fence’s grate.

Carmen lifted the gate’s latch and unclipped the dog. It would all soon be over. She was ready for tomorrow—at least her ma told her she was—ready for the possibility that not long from now maybe she would be living in a small place with a fence and a yard where Bear could run free, where she could send Ma some money with every paycheck, so Ma could fill her home with roses and marigolds and have menudo or chilaquiles or horchata every day, if she pleased.

She gripped the railing, resting her forehead between her hands, rolling it over the cool metal, listening to Bear’s quick breathing as he sprinted behind her along the fence. She sighed, lifting her head, repeating Ma’s words that she could do this, she was strong enough to stand on her own. But it all fell way as the light in the apartment building in front of her turned on. Any hope. All confidence. She was never ready to see him watching her. His nose pancaked against the glass again, his palms up like blinders to leer better.

Metal crashed.

She turned.

Bear hung over the fence by his armpits. His back paws edged, attempting to throw himself over and chase the armadillo. She ran, grabbed onto Bear’s harness, and threw herself back.

He dropped into her chest, bashing all the air in her lungs out. She heaved, her body curling in like a preyed-on grub, watching Bear saunter off, not looking back to check on her once. He could’ve snapped her spine, knocked her out, left her as an unconscious girl sprawled out for him to find.

She rose, flinging her middle fingers toward the sky, toward his window. But the light was off.

Carmen’s breath chocked down into her gut, quashing down the yells for the bueno para nadato stay gone—he was no different than the piece of shit she was picking up. The milk had loosened Bear’s stool just enough for him to pass. She needed to buy him better food, something better than the cheapest food out there. She needed to make more money, move someplace that wasn’t this, that didn’t mean venturing out in the middle of the night to be harassed if ma’s dog got sick. She needed to pass that final. To get into bed and rest.

Bear met her at the gate, lips upturned, smiling, and walked with a loose leash next to her.

“Hey girl—” that voice she knew too well said.

Her throat cinched. He stood in the stairwell of his apartment block, up against the wall, arms crossed, eyes glazed over. Bear stepped forward. Carmen tugged him back, but he stood locked. “Those shorts look tight on you.”

Bear began to hum. His fur rose.

Her face burned hot, vision narrowed as she glared. She wanted to respond, to throw wit like her ma always did, but the only thing she heard was ma yelling at her to relax her forehead, stop squishing her eyebrows in, unless she wanted to look like an old wrinkled woman before she finished college.

“We should hang,” he said.

Bear’s hum morphed into a growl, his nose quivered, lips drew up, canines exposed.

“But lose the lion.”

And Ma’s dog erupted, his bark one Carmen never heard before. Not the high-pitched one when he wanted to chase an armadillo or a rat, but guttural, raining war.

The man stepped back onto the stairs, ready to retreat, palms up, white-flagged.

“Bear—Aquí.” Carmen snapped the leash. “Vamos.” Bear pressed against her thigh, matching strides, his body hot, head cranked back eyeing the stairwell.

Curtains swayed behind dark windows, heads peaking to see the dog with the menacing voice, and Carmen knew, if it was a girl’s screams or a man’s pleas, the curtains would’ve been unmoved. Whoever ventured out at night, or even during the day, should have known what to expect, and a girl like Carmen, wearing those shorts, her pajama shorts, knew it too. Just like she knew what would happen to her if she went into a crowd. The pinches, the hands. Or if she waited at the bus stop. The whistles and calls. Or the leers while walking ma’s dog.

Carmen rounded the apartment block. A granny’s light was on. She rounded another block. Her bed, her sleep, was right across the street. She kicked a crushed beer can. It bounced, came to rest at the curb beside a bluebonnet growing in a crack. It shouldn’t have been blooming. It should’ve withered away in the heat, been trampled down. Carmen squatted, taking her ma’s most beloved flower into her hand.

Bear lowered his nose to the bonnet, and swatted his paw into her palm, cracking the stem. His black-rimmed eyes, dollops of dumb sweetness, peered into her. A burn backed into her eyes, and she fell in, wrapping her arms around the girth of Bear’s chest, burrowing her face into his scruff. She breathed out the shake, and the calm of her dog’s scent in.

Then she felt his body go stiff. Before the entrance to her stairwell, the armadillo stood on its two hind feet. It couldn’t see them but knew the shell it wore could not promise it its safety. Nothing could do that. Coarse hair blanketed its underbelly. Its nose twitched, sniffed, searched for them in the air, aware of their silent presence.

About Vida Mikalcius

Vida Mikalcius holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Her work appears in Mechanics’ Institute Review and elsewhere. Currently, she resides in Houston with her husband and their dog, Sancho Panza.