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by Jill Sisson Quinn

Two Hours

They had spent three days under the rubble, and during that time her mistake of letting the dog get fat suddenly became an asset.  The warmth emanating from Silas’s back, which was pressed against her left side, countered the coldness of her urine-soaked jogging pants that first night.  Gradually the pants dried out, and as the time passed, needing to relieve herself ceased to be a problem.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like to exercise.  She had run two half marathons, one in her home city of Boston  and one during her semester abroad in London.  But Silas was more of a lolly-gagger.  He liked to walk a few steps and then stop and sniff what looked like nothing to her for an impossibly long time.  “That blade of grass,” her friend Agnes explained once, “is his Instagram.”  But Lila wasn’t a stroller, or a scroller, and more often than not her desire for a run took precedence over Silas’s need for a 45 minute meander.

Silas didn’t seem to mind.  And in all other respects—aloofness, waking hour, noise level, the occasional need for cuddling, and the number of times a day he needed to pee–they agreed completely.  He was her companion, not too needy and fully committed, the way a good dog should be.  But without regular walks, in a few years she had an obese Golden Retriever mix sharing her bed.

She had started to walk him more just before the building collapsed though the effects were yet to be seen.  On the coldest days, she would chuckle at Silas patiently waiting at the apartment door while she layered herself in snowpants, a fleece, a puffer jacket, a neck-gaiter and hat, and gloves under mittens.  She got so cold ambling at such slow speeds.  Yet there stood Silas, with his unironic gaze, in the same seamless fur coat he wore year round, ready to face the elements.

She learned to become interested in his rambling.  Most of the walk he spent with his nose to the ground. Sometimes he would sniff under the corridors of bent grasses with the exuberance of a lover in the curves of their beloved’s body.  He would then jump high and pounce with both front paws and come up with a tiny, panicked pygmy shrew or meadow vole, which he would carry for a few yards after its capture, set down, nose once in its wet, creased middle, then leave woefully behind as she tugged him away.  Dogs could smell a single drop of liquid, she had seen on a poster at the vet’s, in a body of water as large as 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Their noses had up to 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to humans’ 6 million.

Once, on a walk, Silas had looked up for a second, and the full sturgeon moon, a supermoon that year, caught his eye.  He stayed transfixed, in a pose not impossible for his species but also not usual–dogs don’t spend a ton of time looking at the sky.  There he stood, neck craned upward, seemingly enamored, gazing at the spectacularly large moon as if he were Homer or Sappho.

That summer, she and Agnes had taken Silas with them to Agnes’ parents’ cabin in the Berkshires for a weekend and she had been amazed at the many hours he spent sniffing and hunting along the forest’s edge, catching nothing 95 % of the time but persisting, nevertheless.  It was as if his usual, apartment-dwelling, hobbit-like self were a farce.  When he finally scampered up onto the deck where they sat eating lunch and made eye contact with them, wagging his tail gently, Agnes looked down into his amber-colored eyes which evolution had trained him to keep on her face.

“It looks like he loves us,” she said.  But really he just wants a hamburger.”


*          *          *


The building had collapsed three years ago.  Afterwards, she threw herself into work and therapy, eventually just work.  Her job as an accountant required a kind of non–abstract hyperfocus that was in itself a sort of therapy.  She thought about the collapse once a day, every morning upon waking, as she did on this morning, as she felt Silas’s warmth against her in the bed, just as she had felt it for those entire three dark days, while the calories burned off of both of them and her mind lived an entire other life she had neither prepared for nor desired, until the firefighters finally heard Silas’s whimper and her weak, crazed help and brought in their drills and axes and  jaws of life and pulled them both out and wrapped them in those crinkly emergency blankets and gave them water and energy bars.

There had been international newspaper articles about the rescue, of course–three days is a long time to remain under all that concrete on a succession of cold Boston nights.  Some reported her unconscious, and exaggerated Silas’s bark, making the dog Lassie-like in his efforts for both to be rescued. It was the kind of story everyone likes, one punctuating mark of survival at the end of a very long sentence of unimaginable horror.

She let herself think about the collapse only once a day, and then as the therapist had encouraged, left it all behind for the other 23 hours and 59 minutes, until it would rise up inside her again the next morning just as she gained consciousness, as she felt Silas’s warmth, as she woke up, first feeling traumatized, and then relieved, and then happy, and then guilty.  Ninety-eight people had died in that building collapse.  Three had survived.  And also Silas.

On this day the waking guilt was shrouded by an incredible headache.  She managed to pop two Advil from a value sized container she kept in the nightstand, and which she took  for menstrual cramps once a month.  She didn’t normally get headaches.  She hoped the Advil would last through her meeting at 9:00.

Silas leaped from the bed when he heard the nightstand drawer open.  He stood at the bedside, eyes fixed on her eyes, tail pointed straight out, wagging it a hair to the left and right when she glanced at him, let her gaze rest on him for a moment.

“Good morning,” she managed to say, reaching down to cup his snout in her hand, rub the fluffy fur on his chest, a gesture she had read made dogs feel proud, and then gently tug each of his ears, something he tolerated but didn’t seem to particularly like, just so she could enjoy their velvety feel.  “It’s time for your walk, I suppose.”  Christ, through her pounding temple, she could hardly get the words out.

She walked him every day now, twice a day, and it showed.  He’d gone from 65 pounds to 45 pounds, an acceptable weight for a dog of his breed and stature, and maintained it for the past two years.  She’d grown to enjoy the walks.  It was true; they were both pack animals and walking together, even in the city with a leash binding them, even with his occasional stubbornness and her occasional impolite tug to get him moving, had cemented their bond.

She pushed the covers off and rose out of bed, but as she did so her headache became unbearable.  She vomited, reached for the bed to sit down again but missed and hit her head on the corner of the nightstand as she thumped to the floor.  Head wounds, she had read once, but wasn’t thinking now, bled a lot.  A pool of pulpy syrupy blood began to form like a shadow, the wrong shadow, behind her temple.

Silas walked back and forth alongside her body a few times.  He licked her on the nose.  He barked once, softly.  He lay down beside her, sphynx-style:  his hips unrelaxed, ready to jump into action.

He waited two hours.

Then, when he could smell the putricine and cadaverine of her decaying body–dogs can pick up this scent within minutes of a death or as much as decades later–he began to lap up the blood until he was so close to her head he was licking the wound itself, his incisors hitting the soft wrapping of flesh around her skull, her scalp-hairs looping his tongue, so that when Agnes retrieved the spare key hidden under the flowerpot and unlocked the door that evening to check on her friend, she found her still on the ground upstairs with half her face gone.





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