We watch. The dog cocks a scraggy yellow ear behind him, listening for the door. Waiting, probably, for Tala to return. So we have this in common.
I kneel so slowly it’s hardly movement, but the dog drops his head and backs toward the front door, eyes locked on mine. Is it anger or fear? I don’t know dogs, and seeing as Tala has left him in my care, she doesn’t know me. I hold out my hand and his nostrils flare. He cranes his thick neck a few inches forward toward my fingers –
A muffled ring:
my body understands the sound before meaning registers, a hot surge through my arms. I shriek "NO!" and the dog darts behind the couch. On the second ring, I turn and tear past piled papers and boxes and plates and books, pull the keyring from the side table drawer. On the third ring, I scramble with the tiny key, fiddle with the padlock on the door to the hidden cupboard beneath the stairs. The padlock pops, on the fourth ring, I throw open the door, duck and crawl, and as the fifth and final ring begins, I reach for the old yellow phone –
"This is a collect call from Lisa Daniels. Do you accept the charges?"
"Please hold for the connection."
A crack of static. "Hello?"
"Yes. Are you there?"
"Anna?" Aunt Linda’s voice is faint.
"Yes, it’s Anna. It’s me." It’s me and not quite me. Anna is the name she has chosen for me, to keep me safe.
"I was afraid you'd be out."
"Out?" I resist the need to scream. "You said it wasn’t safe."
"Yes. Well." A clearing of her throat, somewhere far. "How is the money holding up?"
"Are you eating enough?"
"I get boxes delivered." I unwind the cord from around my ankles, peek out from my place beneath the stairs, and the dog crouches next to the coffee table, licking at an eggy plate. I lean back against the dark wall, rest the phone in the crook of my neck, the way I would when she called me back when I was in school. "You know, it’s fine."
"Good, OK. I’ll put more money in the account next week." Aunt Linda coughs, and even through the static, I can hear the strain: "That’s not why I’m calling."
"What’s going on?"
"I don’t have much time to talk."
She coughs again, a wheezy rattle, and I already know what’s coming, the agreement we made, this thing that’s held me in this place, the thing that will release fire and fury the likes of which –
"Anna, it’s time."
Time’s up. I see it all in motion, the steps we planned, the end of my seclusion. "How long?"
"Two days, maybe three."
The phone receiver slides from the crook of my neck into my lap. I find a hangnail and tear at it, and the pain is sharp enough to stop my hands from shaking. Blood pools around the nail bed and I hum the prelude until the rushing leaves my head.
"Anna, are you still there?"
"Yes. I’m here."
"Get the package ready and wait for my call."
Ludwig (as I have decided to call him) listens from beneath the coffee table while I play the Pathétique. The key is to repeat the motions so often they no longer feel like a drill. I work the runs, slowly, and patiently, curling my body toward the keys until the notes have lost their surprise. Of all the things I have tricked my body into accepting, this one thing is of my own making. Soon the mind forgets.
Halfway through, Ludwig pads over and leans up against the piano for eight or ten measures, settles on the floor, and rests his head on his paws. I play the first movement three times, four, and by the time I’ve got the run at the bottom of the first page, I’m ready.
With the keyring in my pocket, I climb the worn carpet to the second floor. The dog is a warm humming energy behind me after so much time alone, alone since the day Aunt Linda asked me for this favor, telling me it won’t be long, we’ll have what we need in no time, the idiot has left a trail the size of Russia…but he’s still there, isn’t he? Longer than any of us could have imagined, so long that we’re beginning to think he might stay, that he might be so comfortable there in his bed and his robe that he’ll find a way to undo all of this, bit by bit, like a cancer that begins life as a fragile little mole, grey and flaked at the edges, spreading a little more each day, while underneath the cells are multiplying, festering and rotting at the insides.
I climb the staircase to the third floor, the vinyl flowered wallpaper of my childhood stretches from floor to ceiling. I used to lick it, loved the slippery feel of it against my tongue. It’s yellowed and peeling at the edges now, I pull at it with one finger and a sheet comes off the wall in an easy tear, I pull it with me as I climb the stairs to the landing, down the dark hallway lined with record albums and books to the last door. The padlock is in place, I reach for the keyring, place the second key in the latch. The room is as we left it, the old grey mattress leans against the the closet door where we hauled it that day two Novembers ago. The dog jumps when I wrap my arms around the mattress, nose tickling with dust, and haul it into the corner.
I try each key twice, jiggle the lock, tug at it, kick at the closet door with my boot and the panic floods me, because on the other side of that door is the thing that could change everything. I bash my hand against the padlock and the dog yelps and scrambles down the hall. The cat blinks at me from the corner. I pick up the old typewriter from the floor and smash it against the door until my knuckles are gouged and bleeding, but the lock is unmoved.
What stands between me and the fate of democracy?
I reach into my back pocket and pull out my phone.
When Tala rings the doorbell, Ludwig barks like he’s going to tear apart whatever’s on the other side, and I love him for it. I throw open the door and press my mouth against hers like it’s the most natural thing to do. She tastes like cinnamon, her dark hair a cloud around us, her hands find my waist, my mouth on her throat, the smell of rain outside the open door after this long winter is the promise of beyond, of an ending and a beginning.
When we pull away, her mouth is flushed and smiling. She tucks a strand of my hair behind my ear, kisses the place where she leaves it. Then she reaches inside her jacket and holds it up where I can see it:
Tala grins at me. Her expression is so natural and unguarded that my stomach twists, and her face shifts – a split-second of doubt. Even though I shouldn’t do it, if I’m letting her in, I want her in all the way:
"I’ve got the pee tape."
Leigh Hopkins is the Curator of Corporeal Clamor. The latest installment of her ongoing column, "Secret Circus," is a 6-month hybrid series of serial fiction and music. In 2010, Leigh left a career in public education reform to move to Brazil, where she founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Her writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and on her website. Leigh has written a memoir and is literally minutes (ok, maybe days) from completing a novel. She may or may not have the pee tape.