Puzzled by the barking, Marcia walked around the side of her house and along the property border that she shared with the Grandlers to her front yard. The inside of her scarf was wet against her lips and chin. She found the sensation unpleasant. She kept trying to pluck the scarf away from her face with her fingers, but it was wrapped too tightly and she couldn’t get a good grip on the smooth fabric with her bulky gloves.
When she got to her front yard, Marcia saw the two Grandler kids, Tanya and Rory, frolicking in their front yard with a bounding black and gray dog that looked just like a wolf with its tongue lolling and its ears perked up. The kids laughed and kicked snow at the dog as it leaped back and forth, pausing every now and then to bury its nose in the snow before huffing and jumping back into frantic activity. Mr. Grandler stood next to the family’s silver jeep where it was parked in the driveway and watched his kids and the dog with an expression of domestic satisfaction. Though she was 26 years old, Marcia didn’t call Mr. and Mrs. Grandler by their first names when she spoke to them. At first, she had assumed they would object to her excessive formality and insist that she use their first names, but they never had, and now Marcia suspected that they preferred it even though they were no more than eight years older than she was. When he saw Marcia watching, Mr. Grandler gave her a neighborly nod.
Marcia waved back and the motion drew the dog’s attention. It stopped in the yard and stared at her, suddenly oblivious to the kids’ shouting. Then the dog ran over to Marcia and sniffed at her extended glove. The kids followed the dog into Marcia’s yard.
“It’s a pretty dog,” said Marcia, patting the top of the dog’s head.
“He’s a wolf,” said Tanya, her face red with cold and exertion. “A tame wolf. We named him ‘Wolf’ too.”
“Oh,” said Marcia, not wanting to argue with a child. “Whose is he?”
“He’s ours,” said Rory, kneeling next to the dog in the snow and wrapping his arms around his neck.
“Wolf was abandoned.” Marcia looked up to see Mr. Grandler standing a few feet away. She hadn’t noticed him crossing the yard. His smile seemed slightly strained. “We were out hiking in the game preserve. Just enjoying the beauty.” He gestured around at the beauty, the implication being that if Marcia thought this was beautiful, well, she could certainly imagine the amount of beauty in the game preserve. “Anyway,” he went on, “This wolf was running around loose. No collar but totally tame. Took to the kids right away. He followed us back to the jeep and when we opened the door, he hopped right in. The kids, well, they fell in love with him.” He grinned down at the kids, who were both kneeling next to the dog and vigorously petting his wet fur.
Marcia was impressed with the dog’s tolerance. “Are you sure he’s safe?” she asked. “If a dog has wolf in him, I don’t know that I’d trust him.”
“Wolf’s not a dog,” said Mr. Grandler, his smile now strained nearly to the point of collapse. “He’s a wolf, right kids? A full-blooded wolf.”
“A wolf!” shouted Rory, jumping to his feet and running back toward the Grandler’s yard. “Chase me, Wolf!” Wolf, apparently not offended by being mistaken for a wolf, obliged, and Tanya chased him.
“Do wolves bark like that?” asked Marcia.
“Yes,” said Mr. Grandler. “Clearly they do.” He turned to leave.
“Goodbye,” said Marcia.
“Yep,” said Mr. Grandler.
Marcia looked at all the fresh boot prints in her yard and struggled to keep from hating the Grandlers. The paw prints she didn’t mind.
That night, after spending a few unsuccessful hours online looking for a job that didn’t sound too horrible to even consider, Marcia sat down to a dinner of however many bowls of oatmeal it might end up being. While waiting for her first bowl to cool, she opened up the most recent issue of The Paper, a free newspaper for Multioak residents specializing in local news that often bordered on the outright inconsequential. Marcia liked to peruse the pages for pictures of people she recognized or for news of upcoming events that she suspected some of her elderly friends might enjoy attending with her. But her favorite part was a weekly feature called Speak Out wherein citizens wrote or called in whatever happened to be on their minds, which were almost always accounts of ways in which they had been wronged or ways in which they were certain they would soon be wronged if things kept going the way they were going. The contributors’ inarticulate rage, refusal to stick to one topic, inconsistent sarcasm, and poor grasp of common colloquialisms sometimes reduced Marcia to such helpless laughter that she feared the neighbors might hear her in their homes.
But tonight, just after beginning her second bowl of oatmeal with The Paper spread out and open to Speak Out on the kitchen table and the night settling down in earnest outside, Marcia came across an entry that made her put her spoon down and stop giggling. It read:
I let my wolf dog out to run at the game preserve and I believe a family in a silver Jeep thought I abandoned him and picked him up and took him. He was not abandoned, he was just put out to run. Please bring my wolf dog back. I live near the high school in Multioak. Just drop him at the Runker's Boat Company parking lot and He will be right home. I am sick about this. I definitely did not abandon my dog. Thank you! If you choose not to bring him back and you do keep him, his name is Carl. Please be good to him.
When she finished reading the letter, Marcia had tears in her eyes. She felt terrible for the dog’s owner. It was too sad. And also, she knew Wolf wasn’t a full-blooded wolf. He was a wolf dog, whatever that was. And his name wasn’t Wolf. It was Carl.
The next morning, just after breakfast, Marcia walked over to the Grandlers’ house with The Paper in hand and knocked on their front door. She heard the dog barking inside and Tanya shouting happily. “Hush, Wolf! I said hush!”
Mrs. Grandler answered the door in jeans and a sweatshirt displaying a picture of a snowman reclining in a deck chair on a cruise ship. She did not invite Marcia inside.
“I just thought you should see something,” said Marcia. “I talked to your husband and your kids about the dog yesterday, and-”
“Wolf,” interrupted Mrs. Grandler.
Marcia couldn’t tell if she was correcting her or simply stating the dog’s name. “Yes, well, anyway, I just thought that you should see this,” said Marcia, handing Mrs. Grandler the paper and pointing out the relevant entry, which she had drawn a box around with a lime green highlighter, a decision she now regretted.
Mrs. Grandler read the paper in silence. Marcia could hear the kids and the dog thumping up and down the staircase inside. Mrs. Grandler handed the paper back to Marcia and said, “What’s your point?”
“Well, uh, I….I think your husband picked this man’s dog up by accident yesterday. And I thought you’d want to return it to him.”
“Wolf isn’t a quote unquote ‘wolf dog,’ whatever that is,” said Mrs. Grandler. “He’s a wolf.”
“But you have a silver jeep. Your husband said he got…Wolf…from the game preserve. Regardless of what term you use for the animal, I think it’s clear you have this man’s pet and he misses him very much.”
“Marcia. Listen to yourself. It’s Speak Out. It’s anonymous. No one checks facts. The people who call in are silly, stupid people.”
She was about to close the door, when Marcia wedged her foot in the way and shouted, “Carl, come!”
Almost immediately, there was the wolf dog, standing stock still and looking at her with an expression of curious intensity. “Good boy,” said Marcia and she pulled her foot away, finally allowing Mrs. Grandler to slam the door.
As she made her way carefully down the front sidewalk so as not to slip on the ice, Marcia looked over her shoulder to see Carl watching her from the front window with his paws up on the sill and the same expression on his face. Then small child arms pulled him back out of sight and the curtains swung closed.
That night, just after one a.m., with all of the lights in her house turned off, Marcia bundled up and went out her back door. During the summer the Grandlers had asked her to water their houseplants for them while they were on vacation, and she had used a key that they kept in a magnetic case on the underside of the gas meter on the back of their house. Tonight, Marcia was banking on it still being there. If it wasn’t, she didn’t know what she’d do. Maybe nothing. If she waited much longer, she might lose whatever it was that was driving her to act.
She crossed her back yard and into the Grandlers’, all too aware of how loud her footsteps were in the snow. Even though the sky was overcast, the whiteness of the snow made the night much brighter and Marcia was afraid of what might happen if the Grandlers woke up and saw her prowling around their house. She found the gas meter and ran her fingers along the underside, her heart leaping when she found the magnetic case. She took it over to the Grandlers’ back door and bit the middle finger of her glove, pulling her hand out so she could take the key out of the case. Then, breathless with anxiety, she put the key in the lock and turned it. The door swung open on the Grandlers’ dark, clean kitchen without a sound.
Marcia crouched down in the doorway to make her silhouette less recognizable and composed herself as best she could, listening for any sounds coming from upstairs that might indicate that her intrusion had been noticed. There were none. The house was silent.
In a voice one degree louder than a whisper Marcia said, “Carl” and waited.
She was about to say it again when Carl materialized out of the darkness, looking at her with his head cocked to one side and glittering eyes. Marcia held out her hand. Carl licked it and padded past her out to the yard, stopping to look back at her, ready to go.
After Marcia closed and locked the Grandlers’ back door again and returned the key to the case and the case to the gas meter, she hurried back to her house with Carl trotting beside her. Marcia was afraid he would bark and ruin everything but he didn’t. He seemed to understand that quiet was crucial.
In the garage, Carl got right into the front seat of Marcia’s car without hesitation. He sat upright on the seat as she backed the car out of the garage with the headlights turned off. “Carl,” said Marcia, just to say it. He looked at her as if waiting for more. “That’s it,” said Marcia. She thought about how sad Tanya and Rory would be when they woke up tomorrow and Carl had disappeared. None of this was their fault, but they didn’t deserve to benefit from their parents’ dishonesty any more than Carl’s real owner deserved to suffer for it.
Driving slowly on the slick, empty roads, it took Marcia ten minutes to get to the Runker Boat Company parking lot. The lot was half-filled with the trucks and worn out minivans of the night shift employees. Carl put his front paws up on the dashboard and let out a low whine, seeming to know where he was.
Marcia drove to the far edge of the lot and stopped, shifting the car into park but leaving the engine running. She could see the black shape of the high school just up the hill and the dark houses sleeping nearby under the bare branches of giant trees. Marcia unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned across Carl to pull the handle on the passenger’s side door and push it open. Carl sprang out of the car and was gone, streaking through a patch of yellow light from one of the lot’s few streetlights before being engulfed by the darkness.
Marcia sat there with the door open for a minute longer, the dim dome light illuminating the cluttered interior of her car. She didn’t know exactly what she was waiting for. Some sign that she had done the right thing. Then, from somewhere out in the winter night, there came a long, ecstatic howl. It was a full-blooded wolf howl without a trace of dog in it.
When Marcia got home, she parked her car in the garage, but she couldn’t make herself go inside the house. She was too exhilarated to sleep. And she knew that once she finally slept, the night would be over and all she’d have left would be a day filled with upset neighbors, friends who sometimes forgot her name, and mounting pressure to take a job she knew she’d hate. Marcia walked down her driveway and set off down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.
She regretted belonging to a species that sounded silly howling. Just one deep, wild howl would have felt so nice.