Their daughter Elizabeth wanted a dog, had wanted one for quite some time. Now that she hid away in her room most days, it seemed like the right thing to do. They’d get her a puppy, and she would engage with them again. These days Charley and Jane used words like “engage” in their daily conversations.
But they weren’t thinking engage as they buckled themselves into the car on a sunny October day, snuck glimpses of Elizabeth’s profile as she leaned against the backseat door, tipped her head against the window as if she wished to push herself out. She watched the scenery rush past her with the emptiest deep-blue eyes.
Since early August the parents had begun whispering quietly in their bedroom late at night, sure that Elizabeth might hear every word they said. She seemed to sniff out their every intention. “It’s like she’s psychic,” Jane whispered and then felt a kind of shame shiver down her spine. She didn't like her daughter much these days, and she couldn't admit that to anyone. Not to Charley, not to the women on her tennis team, or the ladies at the coffee shop, who all seemed to adore their children—seemed to find their impossible adolescent behavior amusing.
It did seem though that even they knew things about Elizabeth they weren’t telling Jane. The women talked cautiously over practice volleys or steaming lattes. “How is Elizabeth doing now?” Suzy asked. “A free spirit can be tough,” said Tania.
What Elizabeth did these days when she wasn’t home was a mystery to Jane, a closed-up box. No more dance lessons. No more track team. Graffiti, most likely, since Elizabeth had covered her bedroom walls. And drugs, maybe, too. Elizabeth herself had blossomed and then took a detour; she now fumed and hated everything. Charley’s eyes teared up when he looked through the old photo albums. “Where did we go wrong?” he asked one night when he knew Jane pretended to sleep.
“Charley, we’re the Afterschool Specials we watched as kids,” Jane mumbled from her pillow. “We’re the dumb, clueless parents. Presto.” She immediately regretted her tone, the acid flush all her words had these days. Jane lay awake the rest of the night listening to the house settle around her, wondering if it was the house settling around her. Wondering if she should check Elizabeth’s room again. Feeling old and regretful and older still as each minute inched her out of the dark night into the clear morning that spit birdsong back at her.
They traveled the sunny winding hills of West Virginia to pick up the puppy. The sale was in another state. “An adventure!” Charley announced that morning as Elizabeth brooded over the toaster. Her waffles popped up and she crammed one into her mouth, hunched over her plate like a prisoner. “What sale?” she asked. “Are you guys going out of town?”
They told her about the idea. The puppy. And it’s true her eyes transformed nearly to the child they’d known. Elizabeth smiled and squealed and almost hugged Charley but stopped herself. “You aren’t kidding, right?” she said.
“No, no,” he said. “A dog, a puppy. We think you’re ready.”
They all piled into the car. Silence pushed them forward after they wouldn't let Elizabeth play her rap station on the radio. Later there wasn't any reception anyway.
The puppies in the small inflatable swimming pool set up in Mrs. Francine Edwards’ living room flipped and squirmed. Francine loved dogs, that was clear from her knickknacks and her sweatshirt and the framed cross-stitched sayings lining the walls. “God bless our Hounds,” one read in green and blue. “(Wo)man’s best friend,” proclaimed another.
Elizabeth quickly picked an all-black puppy without too much consideration, Jane thought. Jane thought the dog seemed wise and secretly loved his bright red tongue with one little black spot in the middle. Elizabeth said the dog was cool. She cradled it under her arm. She named the dog Tip. She wouldn't let him out of her sight those first weeks, doting on him, training him in his crate, feeding him, and taking him for long walks.
The parents thought they had finally done something right. Jane even ventured to mention the dog to her friends, and the women all agreed that sometimes children just needed a pal. That maybe the dog would turn Elizabeth around. And Jane wondered—turn her around from…?
After they found out about Elizabeth sneaking out at night, her failing grades at school, the cigarettes, the joint in the back pocket of her jeans, the smeared spray paint on a bandana, they confronted her. The parents entered her room together, bound in love, still. Kind people, really. A bit naive, they realized, but they had never ever meant to screw up so badly. They entered Elizabeth’s once pink room now splashed with a language they couldn't read. Elizabeth was wound into her beanbag chair. The puppy nipped at a dog toy shaped like a squirrel, growling at it and then pouncing and skittering away.
A wave, a minor wave, of terror shot up Jane’s spine. Later she would remember this exact moment as the point when they could not turn back, but just then it was a tiny cold stretch up and down, and then she said firmly, “Elizabeth. You’re grounded. We’re taking your house keys. We’re locking your door from the outside every night.”
Elizabeth looked up at them, past them, her eyes focusing on a time and place far beyond this one. “I'll just crawl out the window,” she sighed, as if this decline was destined. Couldn't they see? Couldn't they just let her fall and fall and fall? Jane involuntarily reached a hand out into the air in her daughter’s direction, and then let it rest again at her side. She instead fingered the stretch of jean across her own thigh. Rubbed the puppy’s neck near his collar.
The puppy pounced its way toward Charley who rubbed its nose, absently tugged on the toy. They stared at Elizabeth. The dog whined, then gave a small bark. Elizabeth’s eyes unfolded from the deep dark nothing.
“Shut up,” she said to the dog, looking at her parents. “God. Why is everything is so stupid?” Elizabeth talked at them as if from a great distance. Her speech slowed and her eyes were a pointed black blank.
“Now, Elizabeth, you love Tippy. Be nice,” Charley said. He scooted the puppy toward Elizabeth, nudging its little black bottom with his big hand. The puppy’s big paws galumped it forward, its head tipped toward Elizabeth, its sleek black fur, so soft—Jane knew this—especially right between his ears.
That's when their only daughter picked up the dog and threw it across the room.
Later, Jane thought the sound it made against the wall should have been louder.