One minute, La La joins a flock of geese, skating across the lake as they fly overhead, and the next, squeak, crack, she plunges into darkness. Her snowsuit inhales icy water and clings to her, weighing her down and threatening to pull her under. Though she tries to tread water, her skates are too heavy. She opens her mouth to scream, and the lake rushes down her throat. Just when she thinks she’ll drown, she sees her mother. “Mama,” she gurgles. But the woman who calls herself Mother turns and skates away. Frigid black water tugs at La La’s ankles, pours concrete into her muscles. She goes under.
Still and cold, it’s the loneliest place she’s ever been. Too dark to see anything that might thrive there. Perfectly silent until the sharp bark of a dog cuts through the water, summoning her back. Maybe help has arrived. Remembering swim lessons her father gave her, La La gathers her strength and frog-kicks to the surface. Ten feet away, a black dog awaits her. She swims toward him, reaching the edge of the hole in the ice. Hands on the white mass, she pushes as hard as she can but can’t raise herself. She frog-kicks again, desperate to stay above water. The dog howls. Urged on by the animal and no longer alone, she presses her arms against the surface of the ice but lacks the strength to lift herself out.
Exhausted, the cold stiffening her muscles, she waits to sink again. But this time, she doesn’t go under. The arms of her jacket have frozen to the ice. That’s all she remembers.
R.L. Maizes’s novel, “Other People’s Pets” was a Library Journal Best Debut of Summer/Fall 2020. Maizes is the author of the short story collection “We Love Anderson Cooper” (Celadon Books). Her stories have aired on National Public Radio, and can be found in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and in The Best Small Fictions 2020. Maizes was born in Queens, New York, and lives in Boulder County, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.
Later she learns: a man and woman arrived to skate. They found the dog keeping watch, La La unconscious, attached to the ice. On her cell phone, the woman called emergency services, who rescued La La. The dog bounded into the woods before anyone could reward him. No one knew whose dog he was or where he had come from. It wasn’t until La La was being loaded into an ambulance that her mother returned. She had gone to get help, she said.
From under warm covers the next morning, La La hears a dove coo-coo to its mate. The bird’s heart thrums with excitement. When her own pulse takes up the beat, La La doesn’t know what to make of it.
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.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
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.
Published by Celadon Books, 2020