Vera was two days late. After she parked her car in the driveway, she threw the door open and scrambled out to face a small dingy house half-sunk into a balding lawn. A gnarly tree in front of the porch was thickly hung with tiny birdhouses, all of them empty and mossy and time-weathered. A vacant dog kennel leaned against the tree.
Praying to all the gods that nothing bad had happened here, Vera ran onto the porch, briefly noticing a large planter with a desiccated geranium in it. Several large bones were piled next to the planter.
Vera knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked again. “Aunt Lisa! It’s me, Vera.”
The door creaked open, revealing a small brown dog standing just inside the hallway. No Aunt Lisa anywhere.
Vera made another attempt: “Aunt Lisa-a-a-a!” Silence. Just the dog in the hallway. Vera looked at it more closely. It was as tall as a milk carton and sort of longish…sort of like a dachshund, but not a dachshund because this was the only breed Lisa could tell apart, and this dog was not it.
The dog looked at Vera too. It was neither friendly nor hostile. It seemed profoundly content with standing in the hallway and facing Vera.
Vera cautiously carried her foot over the threshold. The dog did nothing—neither moved nor growled. Just watched.
Once Vera was inside, the dog pushed the door closed with its nose. Then it walked over to a credenza by the wall. Vera followed. There was a note there, atop of some keys, crumpled receipts, and a piece of opened, but unchewed gum: “Sweet pea, I’m so glad you made it. Dog Number F will take care of you. Love, Aunt L.” There was a thin layer of dust on the note.
Vera swallowed. This was not good. Vera and her three sisters had been taking turns watching their kooky aunt, and the last turn had been Mabel’s, and Mabel had said everything went just fine. She and Lisa played games; for fun, instead of talking to each other, they exchanged the most droll notes; and every day, Lisa spoke to Vera’s mother on the phone in that quavering, breathy voice of hers, you know. Well, that was then, and now it was all screwed up. Because it was Vera’s turn, and Vera had been screwing up everything.
Just to be sure, Vera checked all the rooms, and yes, they were completely devoid of her aunt. Vera returned to the hallway and looked at the dog again. The bones outside seemed too big to have been Dog Number F’s meal. Did they belong to Dog Number E?
The phone, an ivory-colored, vintage-looking affair with an actual rotary dial, rang like it was paid to make as much noise as possible. Vera picked the receiver. “Hello.”
“Lisa?” said the receiver in Vera’s mother’s voice. “Lisa?”
Vera had to place her hand on the credenza not to fall down. If Mother learned about Lisa’s disappearance, she might not survive the shock. The doctors had said so. Vera closed her eyes. Well…maybe…maybe…Lisa would show up. Yes, that was it—an eighty-year-old woman couldn’t be gone for long—and in the mean time Vera would just pretend to be Lisa…for just a bit. It wouldn’t really harm anyone, would it?
“Lisa?” the receiver pleaded.
Vera put her sleeve over the speaker and said in a quavering, breathy voice of her aunt, “Speaking.”
Dog Number F smiled.