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In Exam Room 4, La La rubs the silky muzzle of a Labrador retriever named Duck. A woman who looks to be in her thirties pales as she points out a lump on the Labrador’s side, but focusing on the dog, La La barely notices the owner’s anxiety. She takes a history and performs an exam. Soft and moveable, the growth is probably a harmless lipoma.
“What do you think?” the woman says.
La La knows better than to offer a diagnosis before the resident has seen the patient. “I’ll get the doctor.”
With a twenty-two-gauge hypodermic needle, Dr. Mun extracts cells from the lump. Though nowhere near the tip, La La feels the prick as it goes in. The doctor shows her the cells under a microscope, then gives the owner the good news. It’s a benign fatty tumor, just as La La suspected.
Pleased to give the dog a reprieve, La La remembers why she loves her work, even the general practice rotation, which others find dull. Her exhaustion from working twelve-hour days fades.
Color returns to the owner’s face. “I don’t know how to thank you both.”
“We’re glad to help,” Dr. Mun says. When La La is silent, the doctor clears her throat. She turns to La La expectantly.
“Glad to help,” La La parrots, already thinking about her next patient.
An hour later, La La prepares to place an IV in a border collie’s cephalic vein. The dog must have eaten peanut butter biscuits in the waiting room. They make La La’s tongue feel sticky and thick. She shaves a spot on the dog’s front leg and scrubs the site with alcohol and chlorhexidine before inserting the needle. She can hardly believe in less than a year she’ll be graduating and seeing patients of her own. When the phone in her pocket goes off, it isn’t the ringtone for her fiancé, Clem (“Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News”), or her father, Zev (“Run, Daddy, Run”), so she puts it out of her mind.
Treating a nervous, aging poodle, La La scratches above the dog’s heart and feels a pleasurable ache in her own chest. “You’re a champ, Gordie,” she says, after drawing his blood, but the dog doesn’t look at her or otherwise seem to hear.
She walks the poodle to the waiting room, where a man in a navy suit reaches for the leash. “He never greets me at the door anymore,” he says, his voice quavering.
“He’s not a butler,” La La mutters.
“Could be his hearing. He is an older dog.”
In the break room, a tofu and avocado sandwich in one hand, La La finally taps the phone message. Hearing John O’Bannon’s voice, she stops chewing. O’Bannon is an attorney who represented Zev and La La in a burglary case when she was a teenager. “Sorry to tell you this,” he says. “Your dad was arrested. Bail hearing is tomorrow at ten. Why don’t you stop by this afternoon? I’m still at 329 Carson, second floor.”
La La’s throat tightens around a lump of bread. She taps the message again. At the word “arrested,” she squeezes the sandwich, her fingers punching through the whole-grain bread. Zev can’t go to prison. He’s the only parent she has left; she can’t afford to lose him. The sandwich falls apart, avocado streaking the industrial tabletop. Gathering the pieces, she stumbles to the trash and drops them in. She e-mails Dr. Mun that a family emergency has come up and she’ll be out that afternoon. She would tell the resident in person but doesn’t trust herself to speak.
* * *
“They’re charging him with burglary,” O’Bannon says. The lawyer has aged. His cheeks sag. The pores on his nose are big enough to house a fly. “I’ll need a ten-thousand-dollar retainer. But it’s going to cost a lot more than that before it’s over.” Sloppy piles of official-looking papers rise on his desktop. Crime is as popular as ever.
La La’s knee bounces. She wishes O’Bannon brought a dog to work, the kind to lay its muzzle in your lap. “What did Zev say he could give you?”
“When he heard the DA was asking to set bail at fifty thousand dollars because a victim was in the hospital, Zev said he’d have to rely on a public defender. He can barely scrape together the seventy-five-hundred-dollar fee for the bail bondsman.”
La La isn’t surprised. What little extra money Zev had, he gave her to help with veterinary school tuition. Though she can’t afford to pay O’Bannon, either, she hates to turn the case over to a public defender. As a teenager, she watched them in the courtroom while she waited for her own burglary case to be called. They leafed through client files as though they’d never seen them before.
She would ask Clem for the money, but he disapproves of Zev’s occupation, and besides, what he earns as a chiropractor barely covers their bills. There was a time she would have raised the money herself, breaking into the homes of the wealthy—some people have more than they need, more than anyone should—but she promised Clem she was finished with that. La La thinks briefly of her mother. She has no idea where Elissa is or if she’d be willing to help. “Give us a few days to figure something out.”
The lawyer drums his fingers on his lips. “I suppose that would be okay.”
As La La gets up to leave, she sees, on O’Bannon’s desk, a studio photograph of a harried woman and three robust boys. It’s a different family than the one he used to have. Round two, she presumes. Or perhaps the boys are his stepchildren, cared for by a host of mothers and fathers.
Growing up, La La had only Zev. Her mother disappeared when La La was eight. Four years later, La La buried a pair of white cotton underwear at the bottom of the hamper because a constellation of mysterious brown stains convinced her she had an accident. Discovering the panties, Zev said, “You’re a woman now. No need to be ashamed.” Though it was ten at night, he drove to a supermarket and bought sanitary pads. Returning home, he bleached the underwear.
The next day, Zev arranged fruit—two lemons, an avocado, and loose purple grapes—on a table and demonstrated how a woman’s reproductive system worked. “Pretty clever design,” he said. He told La La it was one of the few things his mother had taught him in case he had a daughter. After Zev walked La La through two monthly cycles, they ate the grapes, and Zev made guacamole. “If you have cramps we can warm up a hot water bottle,” he said, while he mixed the garlic and avocado.
La La scooped a dollop of guacamole onto a chip and opened her mouth. “Delicious uterus,” she said, after she swallowed.
“Gourmet,” Zev said.
When La La was thirteen, Zev accompanied her to a department store to buy her first bra. “Treat her nice,” he said to a salesclerk, slipping the woman a twenty.
“That’s my job, sir,” the clerk said, but she stuck the folded bill down the front of her shirt and brought half a dozen bras to La La in a communal dressing room. La La faced a corner while taking off her shirt. She slipped her arms through a bra and struggled to hook the back.
“Here, let me do that for you,” the woman said. She yanked the clasp closed, then turned La La around and tugged on the bra straps to adjust them. Her fingers were clammy. La La selected two bras just so she wouldn’t have to feel the woman’s hands on her again.
As she rode home with her father, she kept her eyes on the department store bag in her lap. She wondered what it would have been like to shop with Elissa, instead. Her mother’s absence, familiar and heavy, squeezed the air from her lungs.
Zev caressed the back of her head with his hand. As if reading her mind, he said, “Not many fathers get to help their girls buy their first bras.”
La La clutched the top of the bag, trying to keep from crying. “You didn’t help me. That woman did.”
“I guess she wasn’t your first choice.”
“Sorry about that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” La La said.
The bag slid off her lap. Zev took her hand, and she let him, just that once.
Years afterward, when La La was in high school, Zev pleaded guilty to a burglary they committed together, so that the charges against La La would be dropped. Never mind that it had been La La’s fault they were caught.
He was never exactly a candidate for father of the year, raising her to be a burglar, homeschooling her, and isolating her from other kids, but she can’t afford to think about all that now.
The next morning, Friday, La La e-mails Dr. Mun that she’ll be out again. By mid-afternoon, a bail bondsman has pledged to pay Zev’s bail if he fails to appear in court, and Zev is back in his house. La La pulls up in her Honda and pauses before exiting the car, collecting herself. A dinged-up van with the equipment Zev needs for household rekeys and installations parks in front of the house, HONESTY LOCKSMITH splashed across the side. Between that and his illegal work, Zev eked out a living, though they had never had the kinds of possessions they saw in homes they robbed, designer goods that didn’t come from discount stores.
Topped with a coating of Colorado snow, rosebushes line the flagstone path to the front door of the three-bedroom ranch house. Elissa had cultivated and pruned the flowers every spring, but now they grow wild. Long, barbed branches shoot out in every direction, taller than La La or her father. No longer fertilized, they nevertheless remain hardy. La La has begged Zev to trim them, has even offered to do it herself, but he won’t hear of it. What she really wants is to dig them up, fill the holes with fresh earth, and forget about them, though she knows that would be impossible. If they were gone, she would search for traces of them, stubborn tendrils winding out of the earth.
A fresh scratch from the thorns always marks Zev’s face. In the summer, deep cuts fester yellow and green on his exposed arms and legs. He isn’t lazy. He paints the house every five years, dragging out ladder and drop cloths, mixing the same colors, maroon with white trim. But the bushes are a monument to his wife’s treachery, never to be tampered with. Like the flower box that dangles vertically from a single nail. Zev stuffed it with geraniums every Mother’s Day, when they still observed the holiday instead of ignoring it, boycotting TV and radio with their endless barrage of ads. The soil in the box has hardened to chalk.
La La circles around to the back door, avoiding the bushes. Her childhood dog, Tiny, died seven years ago, but La La still remembers how he’d come bounding toward her. He escaped from the house and was struck by a car while she was in college in Wisconsin. As La La sat in a biology lecture, pain jabbed her spine, so sharp she passed out. She woke on the floor minutes later, her body numb. When Zev called, she was in student health services. “I got him to Dr. Bergman as fast as I could,” he said, adding after a while, “I’m sorry.” La La wouldn’t ordinarily experience the trauma of a creature a thousand miles away, but she wasn’t as attached to other animals.
Oiled and polished, her father’s collection of locks shines on the fireplace mantel and dozens of curio shelves. Antique and state-of-the-art padlocks, dead bolts—single cylinder and double cylinder—knob locks, lever-handle locks, cam locks, mortise locks, wall-mounted locks, furniture locks, vending machine locks, jimmy-proof dead bolts, rim-latch locks, key-in-knob cylinders, Berlin-key locks, disc-tumbler locks, combination locks, and more. Zev has disassembled the locks and reassembled them. When La La was ten, he began teaching her to pick them. It was a skill they practiced infrequently when they robbed homes. Usually it was faster to pry open a door or smash a window.
Mo, a seventeen-year-old cat with brindle fur and a flat, round face, curls up on the back of the sofa. When La La rubs the underside of the animal’s chin, her own skin tingles and her throat hums. But as Mo adjusts herself, La La’s elbows and shoulders begin to throb. “Are you giving her the tramadol?” she asks her father as he enters the room.
Zev resents the question. He’s taken care of La La, after all. “You think I’d let her suffer?” His daughter’s stubby, efficient fingers work Mo’s joints. Her spruce-colored eyes shine, though they often seem dull when she regards people.
He takes her puffy coat, a chill clinging to the outside and La La’s industrious scent—salty and medicinal—emanating from the inside, and he hangs it in the closet. Father and daughter settle on the couch, the beige cotton fabric pilled and threadbare. When she sits back, La La’s sneaker-clad feet barely brush the carpet.
A fat ankle monitor pushes up the bottom of Zev’s clean blue sweatpants. The DA successfully argued for home confinement as a condition of bail. Zev stabs a padlock with a slender pick, his fingers moving nimbly over the metal.
“What happened?” La La asks.
“Started like a thousand other jobs,” Zev says. The lock pops open with a click, a sound that gives him pleasure and satisfaction even in the midst of his troubles. “Big house. Fresh paint. They take care of the outside, there’s good stuff on the inside. I’d seen an RV there, but it was gone, so I figured they were on vacation. But I was still careful. I rang the bell a million times.” Zev squeezes the shackle closed and goes to work on the lock again, telling La La how he jimmied the back door. “It was quiet inside. First thing I see is a painting of an old lady. She’s giving me the evil eye. Should’ve known then the place was trouble. But I was sure I was gonna get a good haul. I grabbed the silver. A block of cash from the back of the freezer. Might as well tie a bow around it, but I’m not complaining. I thought about leaving then, but your tuition was due. I hate for you to take out all those loans.”
“It’s what everyone does,” La La says, but Zev ignores her.
“I started up the stairs. Next thing I know, an old man is at the top. Guy’s yelling. He sounds drunk. Must have been hard of hearing or something to miss the bell. Something’s wrong with him. His face droops. He tries to grab the banister and falls halfway down the stairs.” Zev’s hands freeze. He stares at the lock, which remains closed, then looks up at La La, as if she can explain how things went so terribly wrong in the house.
She would give anything to change the end of the story, which O’Bannon told her, but all she can do is listen until he comes to it.
“I knew I should get out of there. But I couldn’t. Not without calling nine-one-one. I’m not a murderer. I just wanted to rob the guy.” He describes how he pulled out his cell phone, then remembered he removes the battery when he’s working to prevent the police from tracking him. “I called from the guy’s phone in the kitchen. Just dialed and left the phone off the hook so they wouldn’t get a recording of my voice. Then I ran.
“Driving home, I felt good. I was glad I called. I figured the dispatcher would see the address of the house on his screen. He’d send someone and the old man would be okay.”
Zev rests the lock and pick on the polished coffee table. “Didn’t realize until I got home that I left my phone on the guy’s counter.” He takes his head in his hands, clutching the short, gray hair.
According to O’Bannon, the police traced the phone to Zev. Claude Thomas, the old man, had a stroke. The EMTs got him to the hospital in time to save his life, but he was in a coma, on life support. The DA was threatening to charge Zev with murder if he died.
“I got rid of the crowbar and the silver before the police searched the house.”
Pinching her worn cotton shirt—an old one of Clem’s that swallows her—away from her chest, La La fans herself with it. She should have stopped taking Zev’s money a long time ago. But until yesterday, she believed he owed it to her. “I could pay O’Bannon.”
Zev disappears into the kitchen. “Oh, yeah. How would you manage that?” he calls. Cabinets open and close, and he returns with a jar of metal polish, a rag, and a newspaper.
“The same way you would, if you weren’t stuck in the house.”
He spreads the newspaper on the coffee table. “Nope. No way. You have to finish school.” Dipping the rag into the polish, he goes to work on the lock though the steel already gleams.
La La lifts Mo onto her lap and strokes the cat’s belly. “If a public defender represents you, you’ll end up in prison.”
“I’ll end up in prison no matter what.”
“You saved the guy’s life. O’Bannon will make the DA see that. He’ll get you probation.”
Zev lifts the rag from the metal. “He said that?”
He polishes the shackle. “I’m your father. I take care of you. You don’t take care of me.” He rubs the lock so hard, La La expects the rag to tear. “I’ll see if I can get a loan on the house,” Zev says.
La La sinks back into the cushions, relieved to keep her own ambitions alive, so close to fulfillment she smells sterile wipes when she breathes. She’ll return to the veterinary hospital on Monday as if no call ever came from O’Bannon.
As Zev pads into the kitchen, one white tube sock bunched below the ankle monitor, the other pulled taut, La La eases Mo from her lap and follows. She heads for the chair that has always been hers, the one pressed against the far wall and too close to the table. Its rubber-tipped metal legs have erased the star pattern in the linoleum. The vinyl seat cover is cracked. She sucks in her abdomen and slides in.
On the side of the yellowing refrigerator, below photos of her college graduation, hangs a castle La La drew in first grade. Gray crayon for the stones; blue for the moat; her mother looming over the turrets, a giant stick figure with brown hair; her father holding La La’s hand. She wonders for the hundredth time why Zev never packed it away.
Zev stores the polish and scrubs his hands. A pot of coffee is warming, and he pours a cup, sprinkling cinnamon on top. He adds a spoonful of Nestlé’s, stirs, and hands the cup to La La. Inhaling the rich smell, she takes a sip. “Little-known fact,” Zev says, “I invented the mocha latte. Starbucks stole it from me.”
“Maybe we ought to report the theft.”
Zev smiles, and La La is glad that despite everything, he still has a sense of humor.
“All I had to do to get a visit from you was to get arrested,” he says. “If I had known that, I would have walked into the precinct years ago.”
It’s been weeks since she’s seen him. Veterinary school keeps her busy. She warms her hands on the ceramic mug, whose fading decal reads WORLD’S BEST DAD. When she was ten, he suggested she buy it for him at a mall, and she did, though she was already becoming skeptical, wondering what her life would have been like if he’d just stuck to locksmithing.
His sweatshirt smells of laundry detergent. The floor reflects a muted shine. “Stay for dinner,” he says, as he wipes the counter.
“Sorry, I can’t.” She’s looking forward to eating with Clem and to pretending for a few hours that her life is normal.
“I guess the quack expects you.”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Why not? He pretends to be a doctor.”
“People choose to see him. They’re not always as happy to get a visit from you.” La La stands up and sets her cup in the sink.
“Even the people I rob need me,” Zev says, washing the mug. “I teach them about impermanence.”
“Where’d you pick that up? Some new-age magazine?”
“Maybe.” He dries the cup.
“I’m sure whatever you read didn’t suggest stealing other people’s stuff.”
Taking out a broom, Zev sweeps the pristine floor. “Not exactly.”
He hands La La a dustpan. She lowers it, catching the invisible dirt Zev pushes into it, going through the motions of emptying it into the trash. “I have to get home.”
“You used to call this home.”
She buttons her coat.
“You’re always welcome back. If it doesn’t work out with the quack.”
Annoyed, she embraces him loosely and returns to her car.
* * *
When his daughter is gone, Zev sits on the couch and lifts his right foot onto his left knee to get a better look at the monitor that transmits GPS data so the authorities can tell if he’s left the house. A fiberoptic beam runs through the length of the strap that secures it to his ankle. Cutting the strap would sever the beam, setting off an alarm at the monitoring company. The device makes his skin itch. He pushes his fingers beneath the too-tight band, trying to scratch. The officer at the jail, sadistic son of a bitch, laughed as he fastened it.
As he lowers his foot to the floor, Zev says to Mo, “We got ourselves into a mess this time.” The cat is asleep on the back of the couch. She blinks, then throws a paw over her face. “Believe me, I’d rather ignore the whole disaster, too.”
Mo whistles in her sleep, the only sound in the too-quiet house. Grabbing the remote control, Zev flips to a Sopranos rerun, one of the early episodes, where Tony’s on his way up.
* * *
In the car, La La’s cell phone plays “Honky Cat,” the ringtone for Dr. Bergman. She lets it go to voice mail. As their family vet, Dr. Bergman taught La La how to care for Tiny and Mo. He was the first to recognize her empathic connection to animals, even before she understood it herself. Without his encouragement, she might not have gone to veterinary school. Now and then he checks to see how she’s doing and to ask about interesting cases she’s following. She doesn’t know how to tell him about Zev.
Ash trees with grim, leafless crowns, and tent-like blue spruce line roads streaked with tar, temporary fixes for cracks that constantly widen. In the west, the Rocky Mountains jab the sky. East the land is flat for hundreds of miles, to the Colorado border and beyond to Kansas. Longview is a town in transition. Cows feed in the shadows of packed residential developments. It takes La La ten minutes to reach the one-bedroom bungalow she shares with Clem.
When she opens the door, Blue, a cattle dog mix with one cerulean eye and one brown, clambers up her side. Trampled by a horse, he lost a hind leg and the ability to herd sheep, and the farmer who raised him abandoned him. As if he were a broken tiller or a worn-out plow, La La thought when she learned what happened. Blue steals—socks, belts, keys, Clem’s wallet, untended food—burying the items under piles of snow in the yard or beneath sofa cushions. Her other dog, Black, is so excited to see her, he spins. Feeling dizzy, La La reaches a hand to the wall to steady herself. Black is part Labrador retriever with a short snout that turns up like a pig’s.
Three and a half years earlier, right after La La and Clem moved into the house with a yard, they visited the shelter. In the crowded facility, barks ricocheted off gray cinder-block walls. La La stiffened. Growls rumbled in her throat. Longing for families who deserted them, the dogs whined, and La La’s eyes burned. She imagined locking their former owners in the kennels to show them what it was like.
Black and Blue were caged together, their water dish upended, soaking a frayed orange blanket. Blue gnawed Black’s neck, the two as comfortable as littermates. La La wouldn’t be the one to separate them. Paperwork showed how long they’d been waiting for homes: Blue seven months and Black, a stray whose muzzle had whitened with age, an astonishing three years. La La wasn’t blind. With his square head, patches of fur lost to mange, and pig-like snout, Black was ugly. He also seemed familiar, an older version of the dog that had called her back from the lake. Yet dogs his size generally didn’t live that long. If she felt drawn to him, it was probably only because she viewed herself as a kind of stray.
“He’d frighten children. Don’t you think?” Clem said.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have any.” From the start, La La had told Clem she didn’t want kids. Elissa had demonstrated that parenting could be a form of cruelty. Zev had done the best he could but still put her in harm’s way. When La La imagined her future with Clem, which she often did, it was in a house overrun with animals. As she kneeled and reached through the bars, something in Black stirred, and he inched toward her, reinforcing a decision La La had already made.
“If we don’t take him, who will?” La La said, looking up at Clem. “They’re good dogs.” He knew about her connection to animals.
Clem reached into a basket of treats kept next to the kennel and fed one to each of the dogs. “She rescued me, too,” he said to them.
In the shelter’s store, they spent more than they could afford on food, leashes, and toys. The shelter manager was so delighted that Black had found a home, he offered to forgo the dog’s adoption fee. La La waved aside the suggestion, never wanting Black to feel any less valuable than Blue, or that he’d been obtained at a discount.
As she contemplates Zev’s predicament, La La sits on her living room floor and buries her face in Black’s neck, savoring the smells of dust and fur and the oils that waterproof his coat. Blue is on to his next adventure, restless energy driving him from one end of the house to the other. She loves them both, but Black is the one she turns to for comfort. With his heart beating alongside hers, she briefly forgets the upheaval of the last twenty-four hours. When she kisses his ear, he gives his head a vigorous shake.
On her way into the kitchen to prepare dinner, she passes a photograph of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, hanging above the dogs’ toy basket. When Elissa used to describe traveling through the Southwest after college, her voice floated up and her eyes lifted toward the ceiling. The only other time her mother seemed that happy was talking about her work as a behaviorist with shelter animals. Instructing La La to get ready for school or to take a bath, her speech was clipped and low.
La La tosses each dog a toy and pours herself a glass of red wine. She sautés mushrooms and chops salad.
When Clem gets home, dinner is ready. Distracted, La La overcooked the spaghetti and burned the roasted garlic and mushroom sauce. Hearing him take off his boots in the entryway, she rolls her shoulders, trying to release some of the day’s tension.
In the kitchen, he leans over and kisses her. Wraps her feathery brown hair around her ears. La La drops her forehead to his chest and closes her eyes.
“Everything okay?” he says. “You’re home early.”
“Clinic was slow.” She’s not sure why she’s lying. She isn’t the one who got arrested. When Clem plucks a piece of cucumber from the salad, La La slides the bowl beyond his reach.
“Rosalyn Baylor stopped in,” he says. “Brought me a piece of pecan pie. Nice of her, wasn’t it?” He has a habit of turning statements into questions, a quality La La finds endearing because its effect is to include her in even the most mundane matters. “And Judge Macy had an appointment. I’m always afraid he’ll find a reason to sue me.”
I know a good lawyer, La La thinks.
While La La tosses the spaghetti, Clem massages her shoulders. “Let’s go to Florida for Christmas,” he says. “Surprise my parents. What do you think?”
“I’m helping Dr. Roeder with clinical trials.” La La’s face is hot, and not from the steaming pasta. She finished her work with Dr. Roeder. But she can’t leave town as long as Zev is trapped in his house.
“Too bad. My mom is always saying how she’d like to get to know you better.”
“I’m your elusive fiancée.”
He brushes aside her hair and nuzzles her neck. “You don’t feel elusive.”
* * *
La La met Clem when she was a junior at the University of Wisconsin, and he was starting out as a chiropractor. His office was in an old Victorian next to the clinic where she worked part time as a veterinary technician. As she left after her shift one day, he was outside the house, a tall man with cropped, curly brown hair and a beard. He dug into the pockets of his overcoat and pants, patted his shirt, then tried the door, rattling the knob without success. He reminded her of a bear that had tried to break into a locked dumpster behind a restaurant back home.
“Problem?” she asked, approaching him. She wasn’t in the habit of talking to strangers, but she was pretty sure she could help.
“Can’t find my keys. Thought I had them. Pretty lame, right?” He raked his fingers through his beard. Then tried his pockets again.
“I might be able to open it, but you’ll have to show me your license.”
“I want to make sure that’s your name on the sign.” La La looked back toward the clinic, concerned she was revealing too much.
“Are you a vet? The clinic seems to get quieter when you go in.”
“I haven’t noticed. And I’m just a vet tech.”
“I don’t know why I said that about the clinic. Crazy.” He pulled out his wallet and flashed his license. Satisfied, she slipped her plastic student ID between the door and the frame, and jiggled it. The door swung open.
Clem raised his eyebrows.
“Party trick,” she said. “You’re welcome. You should think about installing a dead bolt.”
“What’s your name?”
“Louise, but people call me La La.” She was six when she overheard Zev tell someone on the phone the story behind her nickname. “When La La was a baby, she would lie in her crib singing ‘La La La, La La La,’ a fat smile on her face. One afternoon, Elissa complained, ‘Miss La La won’t shut up.’ The name stuck.” La La found it hard to believe she had ever been that happy, and the frivolous name didn’t suit her. She was reluctant to change it, though, because it was one of the few things her mother had given her.
“I’m Clement, but I guess you already know that. Call me Clem.” He dropped his ear to his shoulder, stretching his neck, before putting away his wallet. “Can I take you out to dinner tonight? You saved me. I have a client coming in five minutes.”
La La had never been on a date. Her first two years of college, she hadn’t made a single friend. Her classmates spoke a foreign language of small talk and teasing, bands and books La La had never heard of. What would she talk about on a date? Her father’s work? Her mother’s absence? “I have to study.”
“How about tomorrow night?”
“I don’t think so.”
His fingers combed through his beard again. “I get it. No date. That’s too bad. There’s a new organic steak house we could have gone to.”
La La cringed. “I don’t eat animal flesh,” she said, and then wished she’d used the word “meat” instead. She didn’t want to alienate Clem, who was attractive in a scruffy sort of way. She might enjoy sharing a meal with another person sometime.
He looked down at his Rockports. “This isn’t going very well. Is it?”
La La changed her mind, perhaps because he reminded her of the bear. “We could go to Serendipity.” A dog awash in relief padded away from the veterinary clinic with its owner. “It’s an organic vegetarian place.”
“Great. Pick you up at seven?”
“I’ll meet you there.” If the date went badly, La La didn’t want him to know where she lived.
Back in her dorm room, she realized she had nothing to wear. Her clothes were worn and practical, ragged jeans and scrubs, clogs and sneakers. When she told her roommate, Althea, that she had a date, the girl let her borrow a black velvet dress and stilettos. She even offered to do La La’s makeup.
“This shadow brings out the ocean colors in your eyes,” the art major said, stepping back to admire her work. “The liner,” she explained, as she held up the pencil, “will give your mouth shape.” Looking in the mirror, La La compared her own lips, which were the color of earthworms and only slightly thicker, to her roommate’s red, heart-shaped mouth.
La La’s loose clothes hid her small breasts, but the dress showed them off. She couldn’t walk in the three-inch spikes, so Althea found her a pair of wedge heels. When La La was ready for her date, she glanced in the mirror again and blanched. She looked like Elissa.
“Wow,” Clem said, when La La took off her coat in the restaurant.
She looked down, as if she’d forgotten the effort she’d gone to. “These clothes wouldn’t cut it in the clinic. I’d get blood on the dress when I assisted in surgery and trip over Simon, the cat who runs the place.”
“You look nice in your scrubs, too. You seem happy in them.”
“I’m happy around animals.”
“Let’s grab a table,” she said.
Artsy photographs of vegetables—a giant radish, a wet head of romaine, chopped peppers—brightened the walls. Their table wobbled. A waiter took Clem’s order for a bottle of imported beer. La La said she’d have the same. At the salad bar, they filled their plates.
Clem spilled dressing on his shirt and dropped his knife. La La didn’t know what to make of his sudden clumsiness. Searching for something to talk about, she discovered they shared an interest in anatomy.
“A dog has one-third more bones than a human,” La La said, drawing a cartoon skeleton in the condensation on her glass. “Isn’t that surprising? Humans have two hundred six bones, while dogs have approximately three hundred twenty. Just one way dogs are more complicated.”
Using both hands, Clem manipulated his neck, releasing a loud crack. “I wouldn’t want to work on a dog. It’s challenging enough to adjust humans.”
“And most people are clueless about how dogs feel.”
Revealing her empathic abilities had caused trouble for La La in the past. She’d been fired from her job at a clinic when a veterinarian heard her mention that a drug he prescribed was making a dog paranoid. College classmates demanded to know what she had smoked when she argued the solitary rabbit one of them kept was lonely. To protect herself, she’d learned to refer to how animals feel only in the most general way. “A dog’s pain threshold is very high. Unless you’re used to treating them, it can be hard to read. Their genetic makeup,” she said, changing the subject, “is more complicated, too. Humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes to a dog’s thirty-nine. People think humans are number one at everything. It’s ridiculous, because dogs have us beat in so many ways. I’d like to see a person sniff a jacket and track its owner. Or predict that a person is about to have a seizure.” The family at the next table had fallen silent and glanced at the young woman making a speech, but La La wasn’t finished. “Not to mention how loyal dogs are, which is more than I can say for some people.”
When Clem put a finger to his lips, shushing her, La La wanted to slug him.
“You’re pretty passionate about animals, aren’t you?” he said, smoothing the tablecloth.
La La sipped her beer, smudging the images on the glass. If he wanted quiet, he could have it.
“You have a calling. I envy you.” He pushed a piece of lettuce around on his plate.
“Don’t you feel that way about being a chiropractor?”
“My dad’s a surgeon. Both of my brothers are doctors. My parents expected me to be one, too, but I flunked out of organic chemistry. Twice. People think what I do is bogus, don’t they?” He tore a roll in half, then seemed to lose interest and dropped both pieces on his plate. “Technically, I’m a doctor, you know.”
“I don’t think what you do is bogus,” La La said.
“Well, it isn’t.”
After the waiter cleared the table, Clem took La La’s hand. Warmth rolled through her fingers into the crook of her arm, traveled from there like a small brush fire to her belly.
Examining a long scar above her knuckles, he asked, “How’d you get that?”
She rubbed the skin as if she could erase the jagged mark. “I wasn’t careful with a surgical instrument.” She remembered the first time Zev had let her break a window, glass shattering and blood pooling on a veneer floor.
After Clem paid the bill, they walked around the college town, his long arm around her small, square waist. La La leaned into him, surprised at how good it felt to be held, even by someone she hardly knew. Outside a falafel joint, she nodded to students she recognized from class, and they looked Clem over and smiled, as though at unexpected good news. Though she didn’t let on, no one was more shocked to find her on a date than La La herself.
When they got back to his car, Clem pressed her against the metal door and brushed his lips against hers, his breath coming in warm, doughy puffs. His beard was infused with the bright smell of a citrus styling cream. He towered over her, and even through his coat, she could feel how strong he was. She liked the sensation of being trapped. Others in her life had held her too loosely or not at all. His heat contrasted with the frigid door, and she pulled him closer, his beard chafing her chin. Desire raised a tumult in her body. His tongue swept her lips, her teeth. La La pressed hard against his mouth.
After a while they separated, the force of her desire rattling La La. Clem reached for his car keys, but they weren’t in his pocket. “Maybe I left them on the table.”
“What’s with you and keys?”
“I wanted to see if you had a trick for opening car doors, too.”
“I don’t,” she said, though she could use a wedge, a wire hanger, and a slim jim, and could sometimes break in through the trunk.
* * *
Clem washes the spaghetti pot, and La La dries. Preparing to take the dogs out, Clem dresses Black in a sweater because lately the dog gets cold. He helps La La on with her coat, then wraps his arms around her. She leans into him, feeling his rib cage and the tendons in his arms, and they remain that way until Blue begins to whine. Outside, the dogs race from one scent to another—coyote scat, a field mouse burrowing under the snow, a yellow hamburger wrapper—pulling the humans along. The air is crisp and fresh, and La La imagines it washing away the day’s corruption. If she focuses on the dogs more than she does on Clem, he doesn’t seem to notice.
She and Clem have a good life. They rarely fight, and when they do, the sex is rough and inspired after, and lasts till nearly morning. They like the same TV shows—reruns of Grey’s Anatomy and House—and the same classic country music. Clem has agreed not to eat meat in the house and La La looks the other way in restaurants. He listens when she talks about her work in the clinic, and if it bothers him that she never asks about his clients, he doesn’t mention it.
They furnished their house with a castoff sofa; an overstuffed chair, velvet worn in the center of the cushion; bookshelves and a desk they found on Freecycle; a scratched oak kitchen table from the Salvation Army. The used items gave the place a lived-in feel and a bedbug problem. La La hated to call an exterminator—insect life was life, too—but Clem pleaded with her and she gave in. She’d had the same problem deworming puppies, but in the end, she couldn’t avoid it if she wanted to be a vet. “Try to live a perfect life, you’ll live no life at all,” Dr. Bergman had counseled.
How far, La La wonders, can you stretch that logic before it breaks?
Clem clasps her gloved hand in his. “Thinking about school?”
“Something like that.”
Black lies in the snow. Older than Blue, he tires faster, despite having a complete set of limbs. Lifting the fifty-pound dog to his chest, Clem carries him back to the bungalow.
When they get home, Clem reads the new post on his One of a Kind blog to La La. The blog is supposed to be for unusual acts of kindness. Clem started it months before, telling La La he wanted to do something about the decline in civility he had noticed and how quick people were to anger. He hoped the posts would remind people of their better nature. Like the one from last May about a woman who sacrificed her chance to win a marathon, carrying her exhausted friend across the finish line. And the story a month later about a man who intervened in an assault, though he made himself a target. He’s looking for heroes. But today’s post is more like what he usually gets and not what he wants to highlight: a teenager in Denver helped a man carry groceries to his car. “With all these posts about groceries, a supermarket chain should sponsor me,” he says. La La knows that despite Clem’s disappointment, he’ll reply, thanking the visitor for his inspiring message, though it will just give others the wrong idea about what the blog is for. He has only ninety-five followers. Often the same people write in. “I should shut the thing down. Don’t you think?” he says, but he won’t. He’ll keep it up, hoping for more posts like those early ones.
On the bed later that night, television playing in the background, Clem unbuttons La La’s shirt. She’s as attracted to him as ever: his arms ripped from working on patients; the single crystal earring he never removes, a gift to himself—the only gift he received—upon graduating from chiropractic school. His chin sticks out like a fuzzy shelf. In her more devilish moments, La La wants to balance a biscuit there, the way she does on Black’s snout, the dog waiting for the command to eat it. Clem knows her the way few others do, from her connection to animals to what her life was like growing up. Knows her and loves her anyway. And she doesn’t have to worry about him getting picked up by the police.
He kisses a spot between her breasts. La La buries her fingers in his hair, but she’s preoccupied. She slips off her clothes. Goose bumps rise on her skin, not from cold but apprehension. Though Clem prefers to see her face, La La turns toward the wall. She bends over the bed and guides him from behind.
“Hey, slow down.” He kneels and grasps her thighs, turns her around, and presses his mouth to her. Desire wracks her body, but her mind is elsewhere, until he pierces her with his tongue and she gasps, forgetting about attorneys and prisons. He draws from her guttural sounds and shudders. When he rises from his knees, she lies back on the bed, and he lifts her legs and enters her. She rocks into him, her hands grasping his forearms.
Later, he falls asleep, one arm around her. As he snores, La La nestles closer. The thought of losing him makes her feel as frightened as she did the morning she awoke to find her mother had disappeared without giving a hint of her intentions or bothering to say good-bye.
It was a school day. Elissa always roused La La, shouting from the bedroom doorway, “I don’t want to have to explain why you’re late.” But on that day, Zev shook her shoulder. “Hurry up. I’m taking you.”
“Where’s Mom?” La La asked, still half asleep.
“She went away.”
The words jolted La La. “Where?”
“I’m sure she’ll call and tell us,” he said, the uncertainty in his eyes more frightening than Elissa’s mysterious absence.
La La stayed under the covers where it was warm, refusing to accept her father’s news. Zev parted the shades, letting in weak light that illuminated a small bookcase filled with puzzles and next to it a wicker chair on which La La had arranged stuffed animals. At one end was a lion Elissa had brought home from a thrift store, fur matted and eyes hanging from fuzzy sockets. Her mother washed and sewed it, and it became La La’s favorite. La La held out her arms toward the lion, and Zev delivered it.
“I’ll help you get dressed,” Zev said.
“I don’t feel well.”
Zev sat at the edge of the bed. He touched her forehead. “You’re not hot.”
“I’m waiting for Mom to come home,” she said.
“You can’t stay here alone.”
La La buried her face in the lion’s neck. “Stay with me.”
They remained at home the next day, too, and the day after that. One by one, Zev took apart the locks in his collection and showed La La how they worked. He sprayed the moving parts with powdered lubricant before putting them back together, wiping his hands with rags he changed frequently. He contacted La La’s school and said she was sick. Still, Elissa didn’t return.
Each time the phone rang, La La was sure it was her mother. “I can’t make it today,” Zev said to one caller, and La La squeezed the lion so hard a seam popped. “Yes, sir. In half an hour,” Zev said to another. “Get dressed,” he said to La La when he hung up. She rode in the van with Zev, as she occasionally did on weekends, to a home where a man had locked himself out.
When a full week had gone by, Zev told La La she had to go back to school.
La La began to tremble. “What if you disappear, too?”
“I’ll be here when you get home.”
She clutched his arm. “What if you’re not?”
“I have to work.”
“I’ll go with you.” She liked how customers thanked him when he unlocked their doors.
“Don’t you want me to come along? I can help.” La La thought about things she had done for Elissa: setting the table for dinner, pairing warm socks out of the dryer, not crying when her mother combed her hair no matter how hard Elissa yanked. The memories hardened inside La La like clay after it was fired; they were heavy and impossible to set down. “I can hold your tools,” she said, barely loud enough for her father to hear.
Zev smoothed a wrinkle from his sleeve where she had gripped it. “Okay. But never, ever talk about what we do. Okay?”
La La didn’t understand—what was so secret about being a locksmith?—but she agreed.
Later that morning, Zev had her get into his car. “Why aren’t we taking the van?” La La asked, but he didn’t answer. In a strange neighborhood, he handed her a clipboard with a yellow form. “If anyone answers the door, we’re selling magazines.”
Over the years, La La would sell hundreds of subscriptions. They received dozens of complimentary issues at the house, from Time to Southern Cooking to the Journal of Criminal Justice, magazines Zev read and quoted freely. Zev made her put part of her earnings aside for college, though she complained. “You don’t want to end up like me. Do you?” he said. La La didn’t argue about the money after that.
“Magazines,” Zev whispered, tapping the clipboard, as they stood in front of a stranger’s door. Inside, a dog began to bark. “Let’s go,” he said. “You never want to mess with Fido.”
“Wait,” La La said. Since she’d been pulled from the lake, dogs were always happy to see her. All animals were. “It’s okay, boy. We won’t hurt you.” The dog quieted.
Zev glanced up and down the street. “You’re a goddamn secret weapon.”
La La squeezed the clipboard to her chest. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.
On Saturday, while Clem lifts weights at the gym, La La calls Zev and catches him while he’s cleaning drapes. She pictures him on the stepstool, unclipping the sailcloth fabric. He’s barely taller than she is, wiry and pale, and no match for the people he’d meet in prison. “After you left yesterday, I called the bank,” he says. “They won’t give me a loan against the house because it’s already pledged for bail.” His voice cracks, and she wonders how much coffee he’s had, whether he’s eaten anything. Zev’s mother died when he was in his teens. He and his father don’t speak, and he has no brothers or sisters. No one willing to put up the kind of money he’s going to need for O’Bannon. When she hangs up, La La throws on a jacket and yanks on boots. She thinks about leaving Clem a note, but what would it say? It’s rare for her to visit Zev this often. Yet she doesn’t know what else to do. Maybe together she and her father can figure out a way to pay the lawyer.
Fresh snow coats the street, bends evergreen branches under its weight. Driving toward a property surrounded by thick hedges, La La senses distress inside. It’s not unusual for animals to suffer behind locked doors. She can’t imagine what their owners are thinking. She hates to pass such pets by with merely the hope their ailments will heal or their owners will become more observant. But she can’t treat every one, least of all the ones on private property.
The house is large, two stories topped by a fancy tile roof. Reached by a long circular drive. A rich family’s home. The kind where she and her father did well. But all of that is in her past. If she stops now, she tells herself, it will be only to make sure the animal is okay.
She brakes, swerving left and right, her Honda pinballing off the curb before she manages to park and walk up to a window. A yellow Labradoodle lies on a rug, panting. When he scratches his ear, pain slices through La La. She shuts her eyes and waits for it to pass.
If she can’t help Zev, perhaps she can assist some other creature. She’ll advise the owners the dog needs a vet and be on her way. They might think she’s crazy, or maybe they’ll finally pay attention to his scratching and panting. When she rings the doorbell, no one answers. She presses the button a few more times and knocks on the storm door. Inside, the dog whines.
She looks around. The hedges provide good cover, but it’s the weekend. No counting on people—the home’s occupants or nosy neighbors—to be at work. At least for now, the street is empty, and the owners don’t seem to have bothered with a security system. La La doesn’t see any stickers on the windows or signs. If she were suffering as the dog is, she’d want someone to help. She’ll be quick, she promises herself. From the trunk of her car, she grabs her veterinary bag.
She tries the front door. Though she and Zev got lucky sometimes, it’s locked. Lifting a welcome mat sprayed with snow, La La uncovers a thin layer of displaced earth, crumbling leaves that escaped a blower, but no key. She sifts through damp, brown mulch in a large planter sheltered under the eaves. Bingo.
Tires hiss through the snow. She wonders whether it’s the homeowners returning. If you don’t count the key in her hand, she hasn’t done anything illegal—yet. A fire has lit beneath her wool coat. When the car passes, she reconsiders and starts back toward her Honda.
She’s taken only two steps when pain shoots through her, and she clenches her jaw. He must be fussing with the ear. Her eyelids sweat. Opening her palm, she sees the key.
In the entryway, a sign above an oak bench reads KINDLY REMOVE YOUR SHOES. La La’s boots drip onto the bamboo flooring. The sign isn’t meant for her. The Labradoodle approaches and sniffs her, his collar embroidered with the name “Clyde.” La La scratches his chin, her fingertips disappearing in soft curls, her pulse slowing. Animals are incapable of deceit. They don’t say, “I’m making a run to the grocery store,” while secretly planning to leave you. Crouching, La La offers the dog a biscuit and observes while he chews.
The house is quiet, except for a furnace that breathes like a dragon. Outside, the wind twists tree branches, brushing them against a window. A thump behind La La revs her heart. She wheels around, scrambling to her feet, but it’s only a cat. He knocked her bag from the bench and scratches his claws against it. Reclaiming her property, La La pulls out an otoscope and examines the dog’s ear. A foxtail is embedded in the canal. The barbed seed heads lodge there when people take their dogs hiking and can lead to serious infection. In rare cases, death. It’s unusual for it to happen in the winter but not unheard of. Why didn’t his owners—who must have heard him cry and seen him scratch—take him to the vet? She’d report them for animal cruelty if she weren’t in the house illegally.
She wipes sweat from her forehead onto the sleeve of her coat. “I can’t sedate you, but you’ll have to hold still.” The dog plants his paws as if he’s appearing before a judge in the Westminster Show. With a pair of alligator forceps, La La removes the foxtail. “That’ll be eighty-five dollars,” she says, holding out her hand. The dog places his paw in her palm.
As she’s about to leave, she notices a white envelope on a coffee table, Donella written on the outside. She picks it up and opens it, revealing a stack of twenties. Payment for a housekeeper? Without thinking, she stuffs the envelope down the front of her jeans and rushes to her car. It will make only a small dent in the payment for O’Bannon, yet she feels relief having taken it.
Anxious to get away, she drives too fast, her tires slipping on snow. As she pulls over in front of Zev’s house, she has trouble stopping and nearly slides into his van.
Inside, Zev takes her coat.
“I would only do as many jobs as it took to pay O’Bannon. I’d finish school next year,” La La says, as she sits on a kitchen chair.
Zev sets a mug before her. “What if you get caught?”
La La’s chest tightens. “Only one out of every eight burglaries is solved. Aren’t you the one who told me that? Sloppy jobs done by drug addicts and kids on crime sprees. Amateurs. You worked for years without getting caught.”
“It’s gotten trickier,” he says. “People have doorbells that send video to their phones. Don’t know why they have to make it so tough.”
“Terribly unfair,” La La says, laughing despite herself.
“It’s not funny. We’ll figure out something that doesn’t involve you.”
“If I knew, we wouldn’t have to figure it out.” He sits opposite her. “Maybe my father will lend me the money.”
It’s been nearly two decades since La La saw her grandfather Sam, a man quick to anger, who’d broken two of their dining room chairs, raising them up and violently reintroducing them to the floor. Eventually, Elissa moved meals to the kitchen, where the chairs had metal legs, when he visited. He used to join them for Thanksgiving, complaining about the healthy side dishes she made—whole roasted yams, stir-fried string beans, and the tofu he called “soy paste.”
Yet he always had a Hanukkah present for La La: a key-chain light, a notepad shaped like a duck, chocolates wrapped in foil and stamped with Jewish stars. Small things she kept on her nightstand, or in the case of the chocolate, devoured. But after Elissa left, he visited only once. When La La told him Zev was teaching her at home, he said to her father, “You? A teacher? Tell me another one.”
“I’m not that bad,” Zev said, without conviction.
“You’ll ruin her life.”
“Like you ruined mine?”
Their voices rose, and La La ran to her room and shut the door.
She can’t imagine Sam giving Zev money, though there’s no harm in asking. The cash meant for Donella presses against her stomach. She intended to tell Zev about it but changes her mind.
* * *
That afternoon, La La joins her friend Nat at a reservoir for their weekly hike. Fifteen years La La’s senior, Nat enrolled in veterinary school after a career in finance, and La La was immediately drawn to her more mature classmate. They met in a large-animal anatomy lab their first year. Nat wore rubber boots, while La La, still trying to impress her classmates, sported new tennis shoes. Formaldehyde soaked the sneakers by the end of their first session dissecting a horse Nat named Secretariat. La La’s favorite scrubs were ruined, too.
They share more than veterinary school. Once, after they drained a pitcher of beer at the Longview Tavern, Nat confided that her husband, Tank, had done time for drug possession. La La confessed her own criminal past and Zev’s. She was tired of keeping secrets, and it felt good to return Nat’s trust. Just as she hoped, Nat didn’t judge her, just made a joke about Zev and Tank both having a thing for stripes.
Even now, when La La says, “Zev was arrested,” and tells Nat the story, her friend frowns sympathetically. But La La doesn’t really expect Nat to agree when she blurts out, “I’m considering doing a few jobs.” Perhaps what La La actually wants is to be talked out of it.
A gray mist hovers beneath the sky. Nat pulls a bright wool cap over her ears, hiding her pixie cut. “Risky.”
“I haven’t told Clem.” La La struggles to untangle the dogs’ leashes, but they’re pulling in opposite directions.
Nat grabs their collars. “Could be hard on the victims.”
Freeing the leashes, La La hands Blue’s to Nat. “It’s just stuff. They have insurance.”
“You could lose Clem and your career as a vet. And you still might not save Zev. Is your father worth it?”
“Impossible to say.” Snow blankets a layer of ice above the water, and a child chases a silvery green duck until, annoyed, the bird takes flight. The scene excites Black, whose gaze follows the bird into the ether and then returns to La La. Remembering another frozen lake, La La tightens her scarf and looks for the child’s parents. “At least Zev never abandoned me.”
“That’s a pretty low bar.”
A spot of yellow peeks out from between Blue’s lips, and La La reaches into his mouth and extracts wet keys on a damp fabric chain. “Yours?”
“Thought they were in my pocket.”
La La drops them in her friend’s palm.
“Seems to run in the family,” Nat says.
She means it as a joke, but it’s true. La La has crime in her blood as surely as the Flying Wallendas have acrobatics, and the Kennedys, politics. Maybe it’s pointless to resist it. Especially now that Zev needs her. The mortgage on his house isn’t going to pay itself while he’s under house arrest.
The boy chases another duck. “Hey!” La La shouts, and waits for him to turn around. “Better watch out. A duck pecked a boy’s eyes out on this lake. Might have been that very bird.”
“I never heard of a duck doing that.” The boy glances over his shoulder. The bird is getting away.
“They don’t brag about it. They might honk now and then, but they’re actually pretty shy.” She’s caught his parents’ attention. Seeing a strange woman shouting at him, they corral him. “Anything interesting happen in the hospital on Friday?” La La asks Nat.
“Litter of pug puppies came in for their first checkup. It was all I could do not to slip one into my pocket.”
La La removes a glove and feeds each dog a biscuit, uncertain if her friend is acknowledging the impulse to steal or simply filling her in on the happenings at school.
Back in her car, La La wonders what she’ll do if her grandfather won’t help.
* * *
After he rehangs the clean curtains, Zev takes out the smartphone La La bought for him to replace the phone the police kept as evidence. He reads everything he can find online about ankle monitors. He’ll give O’Bannon a chance to keep him out of jail, but if it begins to look like the lawyer can’t, he wants to be ready. He orders a duplicate of the monitor because he never really understands a device until he’s taken it apart and put it back together. Approaching his foot, Mo twitches her nose. She rubs her cheek against the plastic edge of the apparatus, marking it. “Don’t get used to it,” Zev says. “I don’t plan to wear it that long.”
He photographs the device from above and below, front and back, only the side pressing his flesh still hidden. He zooms in to capture features he might otherwise miss. “Aren’t many new locks,” he says to Mo. “Haven’t been for years. Just variations on old ones. This one’s got high-tech features, which means they’ve been lazy about the physical ones. Better for us.”
That night, he phones Sam and leaves a message. “It’s been a long time. I’m in trouble and could use your help.” Zev keeps his phone close for the rest of the weekend but doesn’t hear back.
Monday morning, when Zev calls La La to report that he’ll have to use a public defender, La La insists on taking a leave from school and paying O’Bannon herself.
“That’s not what I want,” he says.
“Then you shouldn’t have taught me.”
“If I could take it back, I would.”
In the hall of the veterinary hospital, the flow of care all around her, La La types the name of the registrar into an e-mail on her phone. It’s hard to believe she’ll be leaving this place. Giving up, however temporarily, the life she’s imagined for herself since she was a child. Leaving it forever if she’s caught. Doctors and veterinary students stride past, bringing animals to and from examination rooms, their patients’ needs elevated above everything else. The perfect environment for someone like La La, and the only place she’s ever felt she belonged. Yet Zev has no one else.
My father’s sick, she writes, and then pauses to reconsider. Accompanied by a nurse, a dog limps by. The animals need her, too. But the hospital is full of staff. The dog won’t go untreated. None of the patients will. I have to take a leave, she types.
Leaning against a light blue wall, she doesn’t know if she can continue. She highlights the message, intending to delete it. She should take more time to think about it. But she doesn’t know how long O’Bannon will wait. And she’s afraid if she doesn’t do it now, she won’t do it at all. That she’ll choose herself over her father. I’ll be back next fall, she writes. I hope you understand.
She reads the e-mail a dozen times before she can bring herself to send it.
Copyright © 2020 by R.L. Maizes.