if he ever came home, Jack would kill him. He would string him up by his wagging tail. He’d hold out the bone, and when Flash came near, force it down his yapping throat. Or worse: pack up one night and leave, so when the dog came back, there’d be nothing left but an empty house, cupboards bare, screen door banging in the wind.
He woke hugging his knees, blue dawn pressing the windows of the truck like cold river water. Legs stiff in his jeans, crust gunking his eyelids. He squirmed in the passenger seat, searching for his last comfortable position. The truck poked insistently, the way Flash did when he wanted to be let out.
Leaping from the cab, he slid over Xeroxed prayer sheets, condolence cards blown into his yard from his neighbors’. Vuelve a casa, Brianna, the Gonzalez family wrote. God will show you the way. Prayer sheets whitened the lawn, heaped in corners like snowdrift. Ink from the cards stained his soles. A Channel 7 news van slept across the street, anticipating some new crisis.
Avril had been looking for him in the crowd last night. When she passed the truck, he slid low in his seat. He didn’t know when the crowd disbanded. He only remembered their drone, the glow of their candles licking the greasy windows. And wishing them gone. Wishing them raptured in the midst of their prayers, clutching their rosaries and beating their breasts. The yard suddenly deserted, street empty, navy blue sky holding everything still.
You’d think the Granados had thrown una fiesta. Jack picked through cigarette butts snuffed out on the sidewalk. He tried on bead bracelets that Brianna’s classmates hung on the iron gate. Families from all over piled homemade dishes on her doorstep. He lifted the tinfoil from trays of arroz con pollo and watched dewdrops race to the edge. The burrito he bit was frozen solid.
The star glowed on the mountain. Spanish daggers hovered, brains on stilts. The air chilled his lungs like a strong mint. When the wind blew, Jack was only a thin wall between the cold on his skin and the cold in his tummy. He was his own ghost, collecting leftovers in the early morning, unseen in plain sight.
It was easier to feel sorry for a girl than a dog. No one left food on his doorstep. No one stood outside his house. Folks said Flash ran away, but Brianna was kidnapped. They couldn’t know that. They couldn’t prove it one way or the other. His neighbors never liked Flash. When he walked the neighborhood with his buddy, parents hurried their children inside. A pound dog, they thought, the chip on his shoulder large as the state.
Jack started at a figure on the Granados’ porch. Flowers woven around a wire frame, bundled into the shape of a girl. She smelled nicer than the real Brianna. Her eyes were black, gaping poppies. Curled rose petals formed her lips, and her red ribbon wound through brown stalks of hair. He wondered who left her there. Mr. Ramirez, the florist? Who returned Brianna as a bouquet?
Jack carried Flower Brianna into his backyard. Tufts of grass dotted the ground, the occasional apple. Dirt so pungent he forgot the lawnmower’s stink. He heaved Brianna over his shoulder, inhaling the marigolds that made her dress. Yellow petals brushed his cheek. Flash’s bone was somewhere under his feet. He’d watched his dog dig the yard many times, rooting around with his nose, eating leaves. He didn’t think his buddy was the smarter one.
He dug on all fours, panting as he shoveled dirt between his legs. He tried to dig like Flash, with Flash’s enthusiasm for digging. He dug until his fingers ached, then hung his head and let his arms dangle down. He would find the bone. His tenacity would make the ground cough it up. Flower Brianna sat mutely on the rim of the hole. The world appeared upside down between his legs.
Sunlight broke over the rooftops. Cars rumbled on the main road. He heard the clang of the trash collector’s truck, the alternating cries of waking birds. The oleander and his mother’s poppies assumed familiar daytime shapes. Sun burned off the morning smells, gasoline wafting from the shed. Carport and swing set revealed themselves, then his squat, one-story house.
The sky brightened, but the moon still shone. Lost in daytime, small and faint like a runt cloud. The Wells Fargo building caught the first light, and the great Mexican flag billowed over Chamizal Park. Off went the Granados’ porch lights. He had to stop digging, assume his daytime shape.
Yet his hands would not stop, and he raised his head to watch his mother’s window. He dug, then raised his head, then kept digging. Wind pushed the swings, their chains squeaking. Soon he couldn’t concentrate on the hole. Every time he looked away, he heard the creak of bedsprings.
Flower Brianna’s legs dangled over the hole. The real Brianna was always talking; her voice inexhaustible as Flash’s bark, each word gaining momentum. He remembered her calling his name: Jaaaaaack! One syllable stretched like salt water taffy, and him running towards the sound. This Brianna did not speak. Her lips pursed with a spittle of glue. Silent black eyes sucking him in. Jack pulled her legs, and she tumbled into the hole.
He stared down at her, limbs akimbo at the bottom. Her face blank, rose lips sealed in a kind of taunt. If dirt and sky switched places, there’d be no limit to how far she could fall. Gravity would take her there. He imagined the poles reversing, dirt spewing from the hole like black rain. Then he too would climb into the hole and follow it to where Flash waited.
Another vigil the next night, and Justin Joiner came to see it. They watched from Jack’s room with the lights off, resting their heads on the windowsill. Candles threw their shadows on the walls.
No one cried at this vigil. Instead of food and condolence cards, people brought signs taped to sticks. Brianna’s First Communion picture hovered over their heads. The signs bore questions in English and Spanish. Me has visto? Have you seen me?
“They’ll find ‘er all right,” Justin said. “Betcha a dollar Avril knows where she’s at.”
“I told you, she don’t know,” Jack said.
“How’d you know?”
“If she knew, she’d tell someone.”
Justin lined jelly beans on the windowsill. He held each one to the light like a rare gem before rolling it into place. All the jelly beans faced the same way, their dimpled sides spooning. He fed Jack a light green bean.
“An’ who’d she tell? You?”
Tart green apple crept into Jack’s cheeks. Justin was like Flash, a bully. He and the dog became fast friends, banding together against him.
He’d teach Justin to badmouth Avril, leave him to sort jelly beans the rest of his life. Every day, millions more would flood his room, and the floor would quake, disrupting his straight lines.
The day they followed the Stray King to Dog Alley, Justin remembered all the street signs, kept the girls and Arturo safe. He held Brianna’s hand and guided her from the ledge when the dog fell in.
“If you and Brie were so close, you’d know yourself where she was.” Jack polished his teeth with his tongue. “Hell, you were the last to see her.”
A man with a Bible and a bullhorn stood on the Granados’ lawn. Feedback whined when he switched on the horn, and people gathered around him. Cameras snaked through the crowd. Jack saw Avril and her brother in their light.
“Brothers and sisters,” the preacher said. “We must be humble and trust. We must have faith and trust.”
“Faith? Confianza?” Mr. Granado shoved through the crowd, voice booming loud as the bullhorn. “Mi hija’s been taken! Secuestraron a Brianna! Hija mía!”
Justin held another green apple to Jack’s mouth. Jack shook his head. Watermelon? Island punch? He shook his head again, finally accepted a tie-dyed tutti-fruitti. Justin’s fingernails scraped his teeth, pushing the jelly bean in. Leave the chucklehead to count beans. Let him dedicate his life to the orderly and the mundane.
Brianna’s father took the bullhorn, his voice skewering the night. “Narcotraficantes asesinan a nuestros hermanos y secuestran a nuestros niños. Sólo un burro would sit and wait!”
“Tell you what,” Justin said, “folks’ll holler up a storm you give’em the mic. Five bucks says that spic took ‘er south.” He held up a pale pink bean, ate it himself when Jack refused. “Bet Brie even asked him to take ‘er.”
Me has visto? Jack repeated the words like a spell to bring her back. Outside, people waved their signs, Brianna nodding in her white Sunday dress. Maybe she’d crossed the border. Maybe she and the Stray King eloped, taking Flash hostage. He imagined Flash eating corn out of the Stray King’s cup, his muzzle flecked with red chili, gleaming with butter and lime. Brianna stroked his face and called him a good dog, rubbing his ears until his eyes closed.
He shut the window, shaking jelly beans from Justin’s neat rows.
Justin once gave Flash a cinnamon bean that made his eyes pop. Stupid dog’d eat anything and love the person who fed him. Jack tasted Justin’s fingers when he licked his lips. He lowered his mouth to the sill and shoveled beans until his cheeks bulged out. How would his friend react? He couldn’t possibly be mad, though for an instant, Jack worried he might be. But Justin only laughed and socked his shoulder. They ate the rest of the jelly beans, kicked off their shoes, and slipped under the serape blanket.
“Quit hogging the blanket.”
Once they settled, Jack heard Mr. Granado say, “Soy hombre! A man must act!” Justin shifted onto his side.
“You think I’m a bad friend?” he asked.
“Don’t think. I know.”
“Couldn’t tell’em nothin’,” he said. “They kept askin’ me ‘bout that afternoon, ‘bout Double Dave’s. Said the smallest thing’d help. But nothin’.”
Flash licked Jack’s fingers with his strong, friendly tongue. Saliva gathered in his palm, congealing into white foam. Flash’s coat glowed in the hallway light. His tail thumped the floorboards to a beat in both their heads. What did that dog think he was eating? Jack’s hands carried nothing but the scent of jelly beans. The tongued places grew clammy and cold. Would Flash return to them? He reached out to cup his buddy’s breath.
And woke to gunshots across the river, sirens wailing in the distance. It was still night. His wet fingers slid over one another, and something like a seat belt pressed his stomach. Justin Joiner hadn’t made a sound. His arms circled Jack’s waist. His chest pressed to Jack’s back, his feet to Jack’s feet. Everywhere Jack felt himself, he felt Justin there too.
What was his friend doing? Jack wanted to squirm free, scoot to the edge of the bed where only the blanket touched him. But Justin held him tightly. His skin smelled like warm milk.
When Justin smiled, Jack knew he had not been sleeping. Jets of sugary breath cooked his neck. He was scared to move. Scared of what would happen if Justin found him awake. Was his friend what he thought? He couldn’t bring himself to say the word.
Justin’s short hair prickled his ear like Flash’s fur. And suddenly the struggle left him. He was too tired, and anyway, it was only Justin. The Justin who taught him to stand a soda can on its rim. Who shot birds out of the air and stole jelly beans from the grocery store bins. Let him have this thing he wanted. Let him be.
Flash lay in anyone’s lap and didn’t care who hugged him, who rubbed the white patch behind his ears. He accepted love from anyone kind. Pet him once, and he’d roll on his back, offering you his stomach. Jack stroked his belly so his hind leg shook with pleasure. Anyone else could do it too. His buddy didn’t care.
Jack tried not to care. He tried not to turn Justin into Avril Gonzalez. Instead he thought of Flash’s leg shaking like a gift to the person who petted. Flash comforted by being there, by receiving. Wanting to hug back wasn’t required. He was so used to being the one who loved.
The room was dark as the holes he dug. When his eyes adjusted, his skin shone blue and his down hair rose as if stirred by a current. Justin’s hands moved beneath the blanket. He heard a jelly bean hit the floor. It was like there were two Justins: the Justin that talked and talked, and this other, secret one who spoke only with his hands.
Justin brushed the hem of his undershirt. It seemed like an accident at first, then clearly not an accident. Jack felt him hesitating, worrying the boundary of cotton and skin. He held his breath, not knowing which way he wanted it to go. The invisible hands were like Justin’s voice in the dark, asking if he was a bad friend, saying nothin’, nothin’.
Then the hands were under his shirt, petting Jack’s stomach and chest. They felt just like his own. For some reason, he thought another person’s hands would feel different. Those hands would sort jelly beans for eternity, Jack thought, and nearly gave himself away. The jelly beans they ate pulled them together like magnets.
“You sucked your thumb all night,” Justin said the next morning. “What a kid!”
Jack crouched on his knees, searching for the jelly bean that rolled off the blanket. When he woke, his hands were dry and smelled like hands. He crawled on all fours, scanning each wooden plank. Things always fell farther than you thought. Even so, he couldn’t find it under the bed, under the slanted table that was his desk, or the narrow gap between the table and his bed. Silverfish scuttled in circles across the floor, then slipped into the seams of the walls. Justin went downstairs to raid the cupboard. He couldn’t find it anywhere.
Only one difference between him and Flash: when they drove, his mother let Flash hang his head out the window. Jack leaned further and further until she yanked him back against his seat. He wanted everything the same as his dog. Flash’s face drawn taut by the rushing wind, his ears flapping, the spray of foam from his panting tongue.
Now Jack panted, dribbling saliva into the hole he dug. Wind stood the hair on his head. He dug and he dug, hunched over, pitching handfuls of dirt between his legs. He tried to think as Flash thought, and when no dog thoughts came, he pounded the ground with his fists. Dig faster, hands! Stay awake, heavy head!
He smelled Flash in the yard, the intoxicating musk of kibble and action. The swings rattled together, and in the corner of his eye, a shadow skirted the yard’s dark edges. Goose pimples prickled his skin. He saw only his hands and feet; everything else fell away like the bottom of a pool into deep water. The unseen world challenged his right to kneel and dig. Inky shadows grew ears and snouts. They seeped through walls, gliding on four legs.
If he ever came back, Jack would lock him in a car that looped around the block, passing his house without ever stopping. He’d strap the lawnmower to Flash’s tail and watch it chase him down the street, blades nipping at his hind legs. He’d fill the holes with river water and dunk Flash into each one with a large crane.
If only he were Justin or Avril or even Brianna instead of this ungrateful dog’s keeper, breaking ground with a sign post stolen from the vigil. He scooped dirt into his mouth. The dirt he dug, warmed by his hands, freshly unpacked from the hole. His face scrunched at its bitterness, hard grit scraping his teeth. Something tickled the roof of his mouth. Poking his fingers through his lips, he removed a worm fragile as a girl’s hair.
The small yard taunted him. Flower Brianna crept underground, banished to the world beneath his feet. Flash was there too, curled at the end of some tunnel, waiting for Jack to break through if only he could find the right hole. The ground gave him rug burn; he dug circles without stars. Caliche and creosote stung his nostrils, as if up close, everything was dying.
Daylight morphed the animal silhouettes into cactus and trees, the pink-blossomed oleander stepping out of darkness. Jack felt a pit in his stomach like hunger, but not. His missing scissored through the yard, leaving a dog-shaped hole. What if Flash heard his thoughts? If you come home, I won’t be mad, he promised. I don’t have a car that drives forever. I don’t even have a crane.
Dogs were supposed to be the loyal ones. The ones who loved blindly, who stayed. Maybe this was all a test, Flash watching and waiting until the bone was found, then bounding from the bushes with an apple in his mouth, making him forget his dirt-caked nails, licking the burning pads of his fingers, his face.
He did not want to need Flash more than his buddy needed him. Birds flew from the Mexican elders, looping and scattering into the sky. Sprinkler runoff glazed the road through the fence. He thought of disappearing then, the lure of a place that wasn’t here.
“Todo el camino? A pie? Oh snap!” Arturo Gonzalez squeaked with a dog’s admiration. It was almost noon and the sun beat down. Jack lurched towards the shaded porch. His shirt clung to his chest; heartbeats pounded the balloon of his skull. His feet swelled in his sneakers, burning like they’d been soaked in Tapatío.
He moved unsteadily up the front walk. Avril’s house seemed like a mirage. The dream of a house, large and majestic with white trim and an automatic garage door. Bermuda grass carpeted the yard instead of dirt and weeds. He knew she was rich, but now he agreed with Justin: the girl was loaded like a piggy bank on payday.
“Avril home, Artie?” His mouth was dry. His tongue pushed out the strangled words. “Got any agua?”
Arturo nodded. Speechless with excitement, he looked more like Flash than Jack had ever seen. Black hair jutted from his Miners cap. The strand of blue yarn around his wrist trailed down the hallway. Jack wanted to rub the pudgy kid’s ears.
“Don’t care much for baths myself,” Arturo said when they hugged.
Jack patted his head. “Buddy boy.” He needed a drink. He needed to sit and piss. He flexed his jaw, trying to pop his ears. Inside the house, the phone rang.
“Artie, quién es?”
Jack steadied himself on the porch rail. No doubt the lilting voice was Avril’s, not Brianna’s. They were voice twins: what came outta one girl’s mouth came just as easily outta the other’s. Still, once the thought got in his head, he couldn’t shake it out. Could Brianna have been here all along? He squinted over Arturo’s shoulder.
Avril appeared at the door holding the shuttle of yarn. Arms slashed with pen marks, glitter in her hair.
“Oh,” she said when she saw him. She glanced at the driveway, the street. “Did your mamá drop you off?”
“Caminó,” Arturo said. “A pie!”
“Con este calor?” Her concern made him realize just how odd it was. He didn’t have a reason. He only started walking and ended up here, on the shaded porch she owned, with its bright red door and brass knocker, no bullshit screen. The lawn seemed too green to be real. He tightened his grip on the railing, its thick, even coat of paint. Again, the phone rang.
“You better call tu mamá. She’ll worry.”
She leaned towards him, but Arturo darted in front of her, pulling the leash between them. Avril rolled her eyes and Jack laughed, pecking her cheek. It was warm with delicate wisps of hair, tempting as an apple to put his mouth to. When they remembered Arturo, he’d dropped to all fours, butting his head into the crook of Jack’s leg.
“Stop it,” Jack said. “Just—sit!”
Arturo sat on his haunches and grinned, cap sliding forward on his face. Jack wondered, did all lost things end up here? If he walked far enough, would he circle back into the life he wanted?
“Artie’s decided to be a dog again,” Avril said. “I told him he better learn: obedece.”
“Seems trained good to me,” Jack said.
She pulled the leash taut, winding yarn around the shuttle. “You’d be happy with any old dog.”
He’d never seen a bigger feast. Aluminum trays and saran-wrapped platters covered every inch of counter, stuffing the fridge like bricks in a food wall.
“Where’d all this come from?” Jack asked.
“Brie’s mamá asked us to help her store it.” She handed him a plate, grabbed the phone on its second ring. “Sírvete!!” she mouthed.
The kitchen was roughly divided: fajitas, enchiladas, beans, and rice by the sink; chili con carne, tortilla soup, and casseroles on the stove; apple pie, churros, and tres leches cake on the center island. Even the frozen burritos ended up here. Popular dishes were made in triplicate, so if you didn’t like steak fajitas, there were tangy chicken fajitas with bacon or shrimp fajitas with cinnamon and lime.
Avril only took one fajita. She held the phone with her shoulder, twisting the cord. “Señora Perez! Sí, necesitamos más posterboard. Yes, I’ll be here. Muchas gracias, señora. Okay. Hasta luego.”
She took half a spoon of rice and half a spoon of beans. No dessert. Jack told himself to take no more than she did, but his hand was not shy. Sometimes it took three scoops, or four. It sampled every dish, every delicious variation. After circling the kitchen, he had to hold his plate with both hands.
“You can always get seconds, you know.” Avril covered his plate with a paper towel. The beans soaked through immediately, a dark brown spot.
Jack slurped ice water until the pounding in his head subsided. It felt so good to sit. Blisters bit his heels, and something seeped from his toes. At the kitchen table, Arturo scribbled wildly with Magic Markers.
“Jack, look what I made! Mira!”
He waved a hot pink posterboard with Brianna’s photo pasted in the center. Me has visto? Llama a la policía inmediatamente. 0-6-0 written in glitter and glue.
“Pink calls their atención,” Arturo said.
“Boys, clear the table, por favor.” Avril snapped her fingers at them. “Not you, tío,” she said into the receiver. “Arturo y mi amigo. Yeah, I’m the new switchboard operator. Right. Bring it with everything else. Besos.”
Each time the phone rang, Jack made a tally. Did people call to hear Brianna’s voice? He gathered posters, trying to ignore it. Hasta mañana? Brianna hummed. Six-thirty? She giggled and breathed right here in this room.
“Cuidado!” Avril said. “They’re still drying.” She untangled the cord, tucking the phone under her arm. It rang in her armpit. “Un momentito!” She laid the posters side by side until the cord yanked her back. “Do it like this,” she said, then snapped the phone to her ear. “Lo siento, señora.”
He laid the last poster beside the others. Brianna stared up at him, replicated like the platters of food. Nine times the phone rang. Avril returned to the table, tethered by the cord. He stood just outside her reach.
“For the vigils, we made giant—”
“We saw the signs,” he said. “Me and Justin watched from my room.” Mistake. The microwave door slammed shut.
“That burro! I remember everything,” Avril said. “Su ropa, sus planes—” She opened a drawer, fetched forks and knives. “That burro has a crush on you, you know.”
Jack pinched his thigh. He twisted hard.
“The food smells good,” he managed.
“Cocinan cuando no tienen nada que decir.” She set his plate in front of him.
He attacked his food. Why not? There was more than either family could eat, more than he’d ever seen outside a grocery store. Mexicans did everything in excess. A girl disappeared and they spent days in their kitchens, baking condolences into churros and sopapillas. If she died, they’d cook until their arms fell off.
Avril hung the phone on its hook; he felt her eyes but didn’t look up. He deserved this, didn’t he? Flash was gone too, though everyone forgot. He wished he could make signs all day and talk about his buddy with the gazillion people who called.
“It’s like a competition,” he said, “who makes the best dish.” His mouth stuffed with fajita and beans. None of this food would help Brianna or Flash.
His girlfriend traced the grain on the table. The lag in conversation deepened like a hole between them. At last, she cleared her throat.
“We’re flyering down south this weekend. Wanna come?”
“Sure,” he said. From now on, he only wanted to agree.
“Yo también!” Mickey Mouse squeaked. “Six a.m., right Avie?”
“Más o menos.” She picked at her plate. “Is six OK?”
“Oh.” Jack caught himself. “I don’t think I can be out all day.”
“Why don’t you ask your mamá?” Avril pointed to the phone on the wall. “Go on. Llámala.”
He’d lose the morning for sure. The afternoon too if his mother did laundry in town. At least three holes where the bone could be. And what if Flash returned while he was gone? The night before, he ate silently while his mother stripped chicken from the bone. “Ay Dios mío!” she said. “El idiota que dug up mi jardín es gonna get it.”
He wouldn’t be able to dig much longer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “My mom, she...”
“She’s probably worried sick.”
Jack carried his plate to the sink. The phone hung in arm’s reach. He knew Avril would be listening to every word, dissecting each breath and pause.
“I’ll ask her when I get home,” he said finally.
Avril dumped her plate in the sink. “Fine,” she said. “God forbid you help anyone but tu perro tonto.”
“Oh snap!” Arturo scampered upstairs, the shuttle unspooling behind him.
“You put your brother on a leash!” Jack’s voice echoed through the house. He suddenly felt like shouting. He wanted to run home and leave his voice to fight.
His girlfriend sighed like a balloon deflating. She put her head in her hands. Her nails had been bitten to the quick. Dried blood lined her cuticles. There was a hangnail on her pinkie she’d either missed or stopped herself from biting. Jack began scrubbing the plates.
“You didn’t even ask about her,” she said.
“Avie, there’s been no news.”
“I know it was him. Yo lo sé. That’s why we have to go,” she said. “You saw the way he looked at her.” She stopped. “Or maybe you didn’t.”
Jack concentrated on the dishes, pretending Brianna had come back, that he’d found her. Bits of rice and beans gurgled down the drain.
“When that perro drowned, she squeezed my arm con fuerza. She wrung my bones, chico, terrified of what he made that dog do. She knew he could do terrible things.”
The phone rang, but Avril didn’t move. She stared at her hands. The phone rang and rang and rang.
Jack heard a yelp and a splash when the dog plunged in. He surfaced far from the bank, black fur plastered to his head. Barking to his friends, he paddled towards land, but the current carried him off, swirling brown water.
“Enough!” Brianna Granado had cried. “That’s enough!” The roaring storm drains drowned her voice.
Jack watched the dog disappear into the river. The Stray King shrugged. His black mustache twitched, skin dark as the current. All the dogs lifted their heads when he shook out his tray. They jockeyed for position, coats greased with butter and lime. Dogs no one cared for. Dogs who died without ceremony, became wild again. That wasn’t Flash, he told himself. That wasn’t Flash. So why, in his dreams, did the dog look like his?
The bone called to Jack from the ground. It used Brianna’s voice: the lullaby hum swaying his mother’s poppies, animating their roots like static on black hair. The hum grew louder as he dug, stabbing the ground with his fingers. A white speck shone at the bottom of the hole: a single, luminous star. He knew it by touch alone, before he felt its shape. The bone thick and cold like the handle to a door in the ground. He yanked it hard with both hands, dirt crumbling away. In his hands, it gleamed purple and pink and green with the faint luster of a shell.
Now he didn’t need a town. He didn’t need signs or the police or neighbors bearing food. The bone sprung Flash from his cave, freed him from the tunnel that dulled echoes, without even worms for company. Flash heard the hum as he heard it. He floated from darkness into light—
Jack lay in the yard beside a hole. Groggily, he squeezed his hands, felt fingers in his fists. Shot up, blinking, hands sweeping the ground. Hair wet. Dew on his cheek like everything else. He shut his eyes, saw only more darkness. Embers of the dream refused to ignite. Flash. The bone. Brianna’s lullaby in his head. He swiped at his face, hands chalky with dirt.
A frog squatted in the shade of the oleander. Frogs hardly ever came this far from the river. Summer heat dried them out like week-old biscuits. The frog sat like a heavy rock. Slate-gray skin, speckled legs poised to jump.
Jack held its gaze. He crept slowly and deliberately, head angled forward, concentrating stillness to pinprick attack. His focus amplified everything. Pink blossoms sighed under his feet. He smelled his own sweat, the frog’s earthy tang, silence building like thunder.
Like Flash, who heard sounds Jack missed completely, barked at strangers before they knocked. The dog was always elsewhere, engaging a world he could neither hear nor see.
The frog was a master of stillness. When Jack lowered his head, its eyes did not shift. They stared straight through him, glassy with indifference. Couldn’t he tell he was being hunted? That Jack was king of this yard, arbiter of life and death? The frog’s skin pulsed with its tiny frog heartbeat. Moisture dribbled from its mouth.
His father told him a bullfrog’s call could travel a quarter mile on quiet nights. Jack longed to hear it, but the frog defied him, sitting mute as a dirt clod.
He punched the air above its head. Yah! Yah! He stuck out his thumb, pretending he’d run the frog through. Croak, froggie, croak! Stand on your webbed feet and dance! Jack slipped on the grass, hands splayed in front of him.
His thumbnail pierced the frog’s skin like a spoon through Jell-O. He heard a soft squelching sound, felt the slickness of the skin, the slickness beneath the skin. He didn’t mean to hurt it. He thought it would leap away—flinch, even—but the frog remained motionless, dreaming, not minding he had his thumb in it. Organs squirmed around his finger, awakened in their dark recesses.
Retracting his thumb, Jack made a thwop like Justin Joiner flicking his finger across his hollow cheek. Maggots erupted from the hole in the frog’s skin. Millions of them, white with no faces, squirming little pills.
They were on his hand. They were on his hand. Jack jerked backwards, furiously shaking his hand. He flicked his thumb against his index finger, flicking and flicking and flicking. Maggots shot off like sesame seeds, frog guts wet and sticky and brown. They splattered the ground like snot from a sneeze, rolling over one another, clumping near his fingertips. He covered his nose with his free hand. The frog’s gaseous spirit filled his mouth and throat. Its body deflated like an untied balloon, organs rising like presents.
Flash would’ve known the frog was dead, but Jack was just a boy, unfamiliar with the secrets dogs knew. He strained to hear more than his ears could hear, to see more than his eyes could see. If he sacrificed, became more than a boy, would Flash receive him in the world beyond?
He heard a car pull into the driveway. Brianna Granado called his name. She was coming for him, finally, sprouting from the hole where he’d planted her. Her voice seductive as the bone itself, earthy and humming, drawing him near. Jack? Jaaaaaack! Roots twined around his fingertips, billowing and impatient, the red ribbon threaded through. The frog seeped into the ground, its pupils like watermelon seeds in honey. Humming from the hole made the whole yard shake. Maggots rocked over the edge, Jack stamping the porch with his feet, as if that would make Flash come. The ground split open and a great voice issued forth. Brianna’s black hair flew straight up.
She found him balled under the cotton candy tree, rocking himself beside a dead frog, crying for Flash. His cheeks bulged, and when he spoke, brown crumbs fell from his mouth. What was he doing eating cake so early in the morning? Then she realized: él comió tierra.
“I didn’t mean to,” he said. “You gotta believe me.” He repeated himself over and over, dirt smearing his chin.
Avril masked her nose with the crook of her arm. The frog’s smell so podrido it would stain you for life. What did Jack have to do with it? Just because he found it there, he thought its death was all his fault.
“Oh, Jack,” she said. “Ven conmigo. Let’s go inside.”
She offered him her hand, and he hesitated, then took it. His wordless obedience cemented something in her then, an adult authority that Brianna’s disappearance awakened. She was someone to be listened to now, una mujer who knew what was best. She helped him up, inhaling the tree’s pink blossoms. Jack’s hand was cold and slimy, exactly how she imagined the frog to be.
He remembered standing on the front porch, calling for Flash. He stood on the porch calling with a voice that didn’t know yet. This time Flash would not come. This time, the boy standing in the front yard would call and call and not be answered. This was the last time he’d call expecting his buddy to come. The last time he’d take Flash for granted, his voice rising with impatience. Where was he? What was the hold up? Jack wanted to shake that boy on the porch. The boy who squeezed the handrail and stamped his feet. The boy with the voice that thought it could command. The voice that thought the dog was his.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His face burned. They were sitting in his room, on his bed. Avril rubbed his shoulders through the serape blanket. She got up to close the door.
“Did my mom see us?” he asked.
“Yeah. She’ll be here in a minute.”
Avril secured the blanket with the prowess of a nurse. Her composure surprised him. She no longer sneezed or rubbed her eyes. She didn’t twist a Kleenex around her finger. Every effortless breath rebuked him. Flash’s scent, the part of him in the air that made her sneeze, was gone. It was his fault. He’d opened the window when he and Justin watched the vigil. He obeyed his mother when she told him to clean. These things he thought harmless, without consequence, had driven his buddy away.
She watched him from the corner of her eye, as if his actions needed to be monitored and assessed. Her eyes neared his, then skittered away. Her forehead frowned, eyebrows deeply furrowed.
Had caution replaced all tenderness between them? Would she always think of him the way she found him, needy and unstable, rocking on the ground?
He searched the room for something to show her, to distract her from what she saw. What in his room would interest her? Not his clothes, heaped in the corner like smelly forts. Not the mess of papers on his desk, his aborted attempt at creating signs. There were rocks he hammered open, hoping for geodes. Maps of Los Angeles and New York; a Mexican flag draped over wood panels. Pictures of him and Flash everywhere, but none of her yet.
She walked to the window where one picture lived. Jack wore a cowboy hat and rode Flash like a horse, the dog miserable between his legs.
“The van’s gone,” Avril said.
Dust streamed into the room where her finger pulled the blinds. She peeked through, gray and silhouetted like the trees in the yard. She looked so beautiful watching the Granados’ house. Light illuminated the fine, dark hair on her arms. The orange flowers on her shirt curved around her shoulders and sides. Sadness rooted her to the window. Her back was the most beautiful back he’d ever seen.
“They found her ribbon,” she said, “and strands of her hair in Chamizal Park.”
Her tone confused him. They found her ribbon—wasn’t that good news? Now they had a lead; they knew where to look. He imagined squadrons of dogs sniffing her ribbon and hair. The scent filling them with purpose, a mission aerosolized. Ranks of dogs and their masters, marching through every barrio, down every street.
When Avril slumped on the bed, he knew this image was a lie. It had something to do with the other side. Brianna Granado crossed the border, and now she was nothing. Not a victim. Not a girl you could find and bring home. Her fingers grew like Bermuda grass. Her bones turned to branches, and clumps of her hair tumbled through the park.
She lived only in Avril’s voice.
Should he touch her now? Would that be taking advantage? Avril sniffled and shifted closer, the springs in the bed creaking. Jack looked away. Be cool, he told himself. Her white-socked feet swished the floor. Her hands made the sound of skin on skin, fidgeting, cracking her knuckles and wrists. Every moment she grew more distant, moved further and further out of reach. Air became the border; her body off limits, on the other side.
He didn’t say a word. What would he say had he thought to speak? The only speech was the rustle of sheets, the blanket falling from his shoulders. Avril’s skin hotter than the summer air. Heat rose from her shirt. At the nape of her neck, wispy hairs grew like mesquite. His ears crackled like power lines along the access road, fingers and forearms electric. Wind rushed in both ears, and he waited to be yanked back, on the brink of something fatal.
Her breath warmed his neck, a breeze from Juarez, from beyond. Her bottom lip grazed his throat, leaving the skin cold and wanting. He was the rubber band snapped from Justin’s finger. He was a jelly bean on her tongue. Where should he put his hands? At any moment, his mother would barge in to take her away. Avril rested her cheek on his shoulder, and he stroked the crown of her head. Flash’s fur here was white, not blonde. You had to look close to see it. He rubbed her soft flank.
“Hi,” he said.
Avril’s eyelashes tickled his neck. Flash too closed his eyes when Jack stroked him. The dog bucked against his hand, shutting everything else out. Jack traced a slow, deliberate curve from Flash’s head to his rump. When his buddy’s hind leg shook, he listened for the whine, a sound so ecstatic it was almost pained.
This was his safe body. This dog’s body allowed him to be close. Flash’s head and flanks were extensions of Jack’s own. Their limbs buried and uncovered; their noses rooted through leaves. Jack would gladly give up life as a boy. He would disappear into dog fur, grow a sensitive black nose and a tongue to lick the nose.
Avril smelled like oranges and shampoo. His scent mixed with hers. Would Flash recognize this new, hybrid scent? Remorse filled him like a red balloon, crowding his insides out. It expanded behind his eyeballs and cheeks, burning his nose bridge, bursting at last from the holes in his head. He screwed his fists into his face.
Avril pulled his hands away. She lay in his lap with her legs hanging off the bed. “Está bien,” she said. “Estaremos bien.”
Some mornings he woke in the truck and remembered looking forward to something, his anticipation as abounding as the weekend, full of promise and adventure to come. And though he knew he’d been dreaming, he listened for sounds from the other country—the language, the cantantes, the clatter of shells—but all he heard were birds peeping, the static grumble of cars. The seats were cold to the touch. His buddy snored in his lap.
No one ever needed him more than Flash did those silent mornings they spent together. It was reward enough—how Flash fit in the cup of his lap. How his tail thumped the dashboard, frantic with excitement, and swiped Jack’s legs. He was never careful with his tail, no matter how many times they told him.
Was his buddy truly happy? Was he happy even in that picture: distressed, put upon, ridden by his crazy boy? It was impossible to remember with any accuracy. With Flash curled in his lap, Jack thought he was the luckiest boy in the world. He ran his fingers through the dense fur, unable to imagine anything better.
But something stopped him. Another hand held his, twining their fingers together. He felt its crusted cuticles and ragged nails. Avril. He was petting her head.
She reached up to wipe his cheek.
“I’m not Flash,” she said.
He no longer had the strength to argue, so he licked her fingers. His girlfriend was richer than the Mint; she lived in a house with a yard and an upstairs. Yet somehow they’d been handed matching fates.
When would he find the thing that told him to stop looking? When would be the thing that said, Enough?
Flash never looked back. He never turned to see if Jack was following him. Que será, será. He was his own master. Did the dog expect him to wait forever? One day Jack would be the one to leave, and his leaving would make this all past, escapable, memory.
Avril stirred, fast asleep in his lap. The weight of her head numbed his thigh. She would not disappear. She would not be taken. Pale yellow stars decorated the ceiling. His model airplanes swayed in the draft. Jack stroked her gently, not wanting her to wake.