It took Lily seven years to realize how much she didn’t know. She never could figure out why her mother’s mouth changed into an upside down “U” when Lily tried to help set the table. She sensed, but didn’t understand why, something as simple as being taken to the doctor burdened her mother. Tension electrified the house when Lily’s mother scooped up her purse and keys and commanded “Let’s go,” making Lily feel like trash that needed to take itself out. She didn’t know what made Teddy Elliot’s house feel more like home than her own. She never dreamed herself capable of causing the catastrophe that closed the door to that refuge.
Teddy Elliott and Lily lived next door to each other. Teddy’s house sat at the bottom of a small slope between the two homes. On a small grassy plateau sat an old picnic table. The once blonde wood faded to gray. Splinters seemed to sprout and poke every time their families shared the table for a meal bathed in the cloying humidity of summer. In a time before privacy fences and security systems, Teddy and Lily ran back and forth and shared toys, their moms, and the playground known as their neighborhood.
Their favorite game involved dares. Lily dared Teddy to kneel on his piano bench naked and play chopsticks. Teddy got sent to his room. Lily got sent home when “Auntie” Roz, Teddy’s mom, found Teddy’s small round moons on display in the front room. Lily loved Auntie Roz, a woman with skin so pale it startled Lily to see the chaos of shiny, black curls on Roz’s head and the subtle shades of pink on Roz’s cheek, painted by nature, not make-up. Lily thought of her mom and saw her in black and white, as if the colors of life skipped her because they were so vibrant.
Teddy’s house represented a sanctuary, before Lily knew she needed one.
One day, on her way over to Teddy’s, Lily noticed a stray dog dodging the sun in the shade of the picnic table. She took one deliberate step at a time in an effort not to wake it. She knocked on Teddy’s door. He slipped out. The storm door engaged and freed them for the afternoon.
“I’ve got a dare,” Lily said.
“All right,” Teddy exclaimed. He pumped his fist with excitement and jogged in place.
“There’s a monster under the picnic table,” Lily teased. They both loved to tell scary stories in the backyard at the time of day when dusk turned the sky to black velvet and a thousand pinpricks of light.
“Bull corn,” Teddy said, the closest words to cussing either of them used.
“No, really,” Lily said, pulling him toward the table an inch at a time. “It’s a big old German Shepherd. I’ve never seen it before, but its eyes are burning red. I dare you to run to my house.”
The sun traversed the sky. The houses drenched the table in shadows. The space under the table turned into a cave of gloom.
“The dog with the floating red eyes,” Lily whispered, then repeated in a wavering voice, trying to sound ghostly.
Lily could see Teddy’s mind at work. His lips compressed. The muscles of his jaw writhed. He shifted from side to side the way he did when he needed to go to the bathroom. Lily looked straight in his eyes, so he would know the importance of this test.
“Okay,” he said, “No sweat.”
He took three long breaths and shook his arms.
Lily thought about stopping him. Before she could, he took off. His first step slid on the incline. He scrabbled his way to the flatness where the table sat and sped by without looking.
A blur of gold and black, marred by a pink wet ribbon of a tongue, shot out from beneath the picnic table. The barks, so quick and low-pitched, sounded like rapid gun fire.
Lily saw the yellowed canines pierce Teddy’s calf and bring him down. She shuddered. Teddy kicked and screamed. Red droplets spattered the grass.
“Help,” Lily screamed. She ran and pounded on Auntie Roz’s door.
Lily mouthed words without sound. She pointed and took a step toward Teddy. Water spewed over her shoulder.
Auntie Roz turned the hose on, adjusted the nozzle, and sprayed the dog with a focused force of water. It shagged its head, then released Teddy’s leg, now marked with bites and streams of red.
“Go home, Lily,” Roz ordered. “Don’t come over unless you’re invited.”
Lily wanted to apologize, to explain, to promise to be better. The words remained captive within her.
Stray dogs and dares have consequences.