I’m not going to worry about any of this right now. Because I’ve finally reached the point in the night when it’s my time. Pearl is asleep, my chores are done (or done-ish, ‘cause they’re never done-done), and I can actually do what I want. I can choose the smart, responsible option and go straight to sleep while it’s still possible to get those elusive eight hours (that whole sleep when the baby sleeps thing stays relevant). Or I can grab one of those sour beers out of the fridge and stream last night’s Bachelor in Paradise now that it’s available without commercials. The options are thrilling.
Ultimately it’s Polly who makes my decision for me, though. There’s a flash of movement in the corner of my eye, and when I turn, she’s mid-crouch, about to leave another little present on my dad’s favorite rug.
“No! No, Polly!” I hiss, which seems to have no effect. She continues to lower her booty to the ground, looking away as if that makes her invisible.
“Walk! I’m gonna take you for a walk!” Her ears perk up at the W-word, and she quickly pulls herself up and trots to the front door, where her pink leash is hanging from a hook. I clip it on and quietly open the door, so I don’t wake up Dad, who’s still snoring on the couch.
Outside, the humidity has finally broken, and instead of hot and soupy, there’s a breeze and just a hint of a bite in the air. It won’t get truly chilly until December, maybe November if we’re lucky this year, because that’s how it goes in Southern California.
Polly stops to sniff a tree and do her business again, and I realize we’ve wandered all the way to the school. I’ve somehow found myself back here for the third time today, like some sort of messed up homing pigeon. I tug on Polly’s leash, so we can start back, but of course she’s laying on the grass, all comfortable. I’ve definitely taken her too far, and I’m probably going to get stuck carrying her butt for the last block, which is right on track with this too long, too difficult day.
“You get five minutes,” I say reaching down to rub her belly. She rolls over some more to help me get a better angle.
I didn’t bring headphones — I watched too much Dateline and Law & Order, Dad’s favorite shows, at a young and impressionable age to make that mistake. So, instead of music I listen to the sounds of the neighborhood: hushed barks, crickets chirping, cars on the distant freeway. It’s surprisingly peaceful, and I can see why Polly is ready to turn in for the night right here.
“Okay, Polly, time to go.” She lays her head on her paws to let me know she’s perfectly content where she is, thank you. “C’mon, girlfriend. We are both too tired for this.”
All of a sudden, Polly hops up, ears perked, and I think she’s decided to do me a solid. But, no, her body goes rigid, pointed in the direction of the school’s front gate, just around the corner. It takes me a moment, but then I hear what she’s hearing. A thud — maybe something big being set down or a heavy footstep? — followed by the long, scratchy sound of something being dragged. It repeats a couple more times, and I start to brush it off as something mechanical. Maybe they’ve got some giant Roomba going around the place or a loud, busted sprinkler system watering the rose garden in the courtyard. But then there’s an erratic clattering that sounds like items falling onto the concrete, followed by a sharp, whispered, expletive.
Someone who sounds like they’re having as bad a day as I am.
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Should I help? Would that freak them out to just appear out of the darkness like this?
I start to make my way closer, as another chorus of curses echoes from around the corner.
That makes me pause. It’s late. There’s no one else around. Well, except for my puppy, who’s only barked, like, six times in her life, so if something happened to me, she wouldn’t even alert the neighborhood. I should probably just turn around and go home. This is not my business.
But now, I’m also curious.
I carefully peer around the corner, hidden by the bougainvillea that creeps up the side of the building. And I see the back of the clumsy, cursing person. They have a dark bob and a royal blue shift dress. It’s…Trisha?
I don’t realize how scared I was feeling until my chest loosens with relief. It’s just Trisha having a really bad day. First Principal Smith threatens her Knoll Elementary monarchy in a public setting and now this?
And…what exactly is this?
I squint in the darkness to take in more of the details. Her minivan is waiting at the curb, with the trunk open, but the lights off. She’s wearing the same outfit as she was earlier in the night, but now it’s accessorized by yellow rubber gloves and the kind of blue mesh booties that they make you put on at bougie open houses. The clattering sound I heard earlier was a collection of plastic bottles. They look like…cleaning supplies? She reaches down to grab the bottles, putting them in a black trash bag. Near her are two more giant black trash bags. They’re bulging, stuffed to the very top with something.
So Trisha was, what, cleaning the school? That doesn’t fit in with the Trisha I know. Trisha doesn’t even clean her own house.
But what else could be in the bags? All the contents of Principal Smith’s office because she’s already ordered his transfer. Or no, probably Principal Smith himself. Better to dispose of him altogether so there’s no chance of him coming back and thwarting her gifted school plans. Ha!
Just then, Trisha turns around, killing whatever laughter was bubbling up in my chest. Her face is unlike I’ve ever seen it before — instead of cool and composed, it’s transformed into a mask of fury. I can feel my legs backing away before I’ve even made the decision to go. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I don’t want to be here anymore.
I take a few steps back, keeping close to the wall of the school, but Polly doesn’t follow. Instead, she reaches her snout high in the air and lets out a piercing howl so loud they probably hear her clear across town.
Trisha, only yards away around the corner, definitely hears her.
“No,” I whisper to Polly. “Stop.”
And she does. But it’s only because she drops down and flips onto her side, her paws limply in the air.
She’s playing dead.
“Hello?” Trisha calls. “Who’s there?”
I lean down and try to turn her over, but she doesn’t budge. And now I can hear Trisha’s footsteps, coming to investigate. My heart races, thinking about her finding me here. Something insistent, something instinctual, tells me I don’t want that to happen.
So, I scoop Polly up in my arms and take off down the sidewalk, not looking back.