“Rare” by Joanne Howard

Two a.m., well into her night shift at the NICU, was never a good time to receive a call on her cell. “He’s gone,” Jason’s slurred words garbled on the line. “I left the gate open. Again.” Before she even clicked off, she was running down the hall for the nurse’s station.

“Something happened at home,” she hissed to the group in the break room still huddled around the rosy sheet cake that was much too big for them to finish. “I don’t know if I’ll be back tonight.” She swung her purse over her shoulder and allowed the tinge of relief that, because of her seniority, that was all she needed to say to go.

There were three other nurses on her ward that night, enough to split the work of the four preemies that were miraculously all in deep swaddled sleep. It was a coworker’s 50th birthday, and she always thought it funny to celebrate a birthday in the same place where so many births happened. You could see a whole room of little beings that shared the same birthday as you. 

The maternity ward—the sacred place of beginnings, of crying grandparents and first photos, visions of the future clouded yet beautifully so with the fleeting newborn smell and fuzzy miniature clothing yet to be grown into. But after decades at this job, the milk-drunk afterglow of birth was beginning to wear off on her. It was getting harder to fend off the sadness each time a newborn went home, a preemie that she cared for and looked after for days and even weeks, never to be seen again. Every birth was an eventual ending for her, and at her age, things were starting to end more than begin. 

Now she was spinning into their neighborhood, the streetlights illuminating pockets in the sleepy dark. What was Jason even doing up at 2 a.m.? Probably still drinking. 

She reminded herself to slow down, she could run into Bandit. But that wasn’t likely. A skittish mutt like him, wild and afraid of cars and people and noises and just about everything on the planet except for her. Last time he’d gotten loose, he’d wound up under someone’s deck two streets away, and the only reason they found him was because a cat had wriggled under and scared him out. She hoped he hadn’t gone far this time. 

Finally, she skidded into their driveway and spilled out of the car, running for the door. Sure enough, Jason was still up, standing in the hallway, empty bottle in hand, empty look in his eyes. 

“DON’T!” she screamed, and if she had had all the time in the world, she would have thrown every last mismatched shoe that littered the entryway at him. But she knew she had to move fast. Bandit was the kind of dog who would bolt and run, chasing freedom like it was something that would run out. 

She scrambled in the kitchen drawers for a flashlight, a squeak toy, and a bag of jerky, the kind that stunk up a whole room. When she ran out the door again, Jason was already back in his recliner with a show about space conspiracy theories on the History Channel. If he had learned one thing in their 30-year marriage, it was that she never wanted any help from him, because he would certainly find a way to make things worse.  

She scattered bits of jerky along her block, hoping the smell would lure Bandit home. So what if racoons would probably find it before he would. So what if it only served to make her feel better for doing something that might help. 

She was halfway down the block when she realized she still wore her scrubs. Her change of clothes hung in the lockers at the hospital, and an unexpected bite on the late summer air nipped through the threadbare fabric. She should have grabbed a coat on her way out. Should have put the dog in the crate before she left for work instead of trusting Jason. Should have told him to just stop the yardwork before he started drinking for the night, so that he’d at least remember to shut the gate before he lost his damn mind. 

But that had been the pattern of the last few years since Jason retired. He spent his time gardening by day and getting drunk on fringe science tv shows by night. It was baffling the way he could so lovingly plant fragrant lavender under her bathroom window just because. It was equally baffling how her same husband could put away a whole case of beer in a matter of hours. It was like he’d started retirement with the goal to see how much he could charm her and disgust her.

Overhead, the new moon hid in plain sight and revealed nothing. Her flashlight illuminated the forgotten corners of her neighbors’ lawns, the cardboard boxes piled next to trash bins, the dustpans and rakes that waited against fences to be useful again. The fogged-up windshields of parked cars flickered red from the antitheft devices inside. Abandoned toys nestled in the dew, waiting for the kids to return in the morning. Up the street sat a cluster of houses mired in overgrown bushes that Bandit liked to nose on their morning walks. For only a moment, she let go of her panic and smiled at the thought of his black nose dappled in dew when he bounded back to her, the elation in his eyes as if he didn’t expect her to still be waiting. But her searchlight over the bramble gave up nothing, as silent and futile as the darkened windows of the houses. 

It was still only a matter of minutes since Jason’s call, which meant Bandit might not have gone far. She squeaked the toy—a plush, mousy thing with torn ears—and prayed he’d come ripping out of the bushes any second. For once, could things be that easy? Could her every problem not be the absolute worst-case scenario? But life wasn’t like that. Nothing was ever easy.

Getting Bandit in the first place wasn’t easy. He’d come to the neighborhood over two years ago, no collar, but with a sense about him like he’d been there before. He prowled the streets and scrounged in the gutters for whatever he could find. For weeks, she had mistaken him for a thoughtless neighbor’s dog, escaped from an open garage. But after enough days of never actually seeing him with a human by his side, she began to knock on doors and ask if the black dog with the white star on his chest belonged to anyone. That one right there? they’d answer, pointing behind her at the pup sitting across the street, panting in the afternoon sun. I thought he was yours.

And that got her thinking that perhaps he could be hers. But when she’d go to catch him, he’d slink away. She had been tricked by his grin, his wagging tail, and had thought he would come willingly. But a baked chicken breast and a couple old tennis balls later, he was on her front steps. 

Convincing Jason was harder. This was while he still worked at the auto repair shop, coming home hours late and blaming it on “difficult jobs” that she knew were really just nights drinking with his coworkers and checking out the latest coupe that rolled in. When he said he didn’t think they’d have time to take care of a dog, she reminded him that they had raised two boys together, and a dog would be easier than that. She didn’t say the other reason, the one she could barely admit to herself. She was lonely. 

And for the next couple years, she and Bandit had slowly grown closer—the look in his eye glinted more and more when he’d turn to her, and before long, his name was on her lips more than Jason’s. Bandit—she hadn’t meant anything by it, only naming him after a dog from the old Hollywood movies, but she’d found out quickly the name fit. He liked to be on the run.

It was a December morning after a good rain. She hadn’t seen him, bolting out the front door when she’d gone to get the paper. Probably chasing some scent her human nose couldn’t fathom. He went around the corner and out of sight, and she waited as the bagged newspaper dripped rainwater on her slippers. It soaked through to her toes before she realized he wasn’t coming back. 

She hadn’t known what to do. After a few turns around the block with no sight of him, she felt like an idiot for losing a dog in broad daylight. When he hadn’t turned up by noon, she was all but certain he was gone forever. 

And that’s why she couldn’t stay mad at Jason for letting Bandit out this time. She had been the first to do it. When Bandit had wandered back down the street finally that day in the late afternoon, she hadn’t been relieved. She’d been heartbroken that he had run away in the first place. Because how could she not take it personally when someone leaves you? 

A dog barked somewhere in the distance, and her heart leapt like it was a sign from above. And while it was more likely some other dog and not Bandit, she had no choice but to follow it. As she sprinted down the street, she realized she didn’t know the sound of her own dog’s bark. Did that make her a bad owner? Like a mother who doesn’t know her own child’s voice? She put the thought out of her mind as another bark sounded. She pulled the squeak toy out of her pocket and hesitated. She’d just about die of embarrassment if she woke anyone up to see her standing in the middle of the street still in her scrubs with a flashlight and a dog toy. She didn’t know which was worse: shouting down the street in the middle of the night like a mad woman or letting everyone know you lost your dog. She swallowed a lump and decided there was something even worse: actually losing your dog forever. She gave the toy an obnoxious squeak, one she was sure would wake the whole street up, and just as she squeezed it again, her flashlight went out.

Where the beam had illuminated a razor-cut lawn a second ago, all turned to black. She stared, dumbfounded, waiting for her eyes to adjust. They didn’t. 

“Shit!” she shouted. The sound of her own voice in the dead air made her jump. Now her neighbors would certainly wake up. She dropped to the curb and held her face in her hands, then let her breath out through her teeth. So what if they opened their doors and saw her. Let them see. But as the silence dragged on, and no doors opened and no curtains pulled back, she felt the stinging surprise of being totally alone.

There had been a time when she didn’t carry such loneliness, when Jason was exactly the man she wanted him to be. He was polite to waiters back when they still went out to dinner. He bought thoughtful gifts at Christmas, things she mentioned in passing back in the spring and that he had remembered for months. He did things husbands of his generation weren’t expected to do, like bake cookies on a random Saturday or walk the kids to the school bus stop. But once the boys moved out of state to their far-flung colleges, a chapter in their life had closed and the pages were stuck on the next.

Over the years, and only when she allowed herself to think about it, she blamed the distance between her and Jason on their jobs and the kids being gone. She had imagined a rekindling once he retired, a pop of champagne on the last day of work that would lead to an all-night burn fueled by the thought of no alarm clock in the morning. But it never happened that way. 

Instead it happened like everyone says: the spark went out. She thought they would escape it—they loved each other—but what if it were inescapable? What if, like a dog grown gray in the chin, a relationship was just meant to die?

Her phone trilled from the pocket of her scrubs. She lifted her face from her palms and swiped her fingers across the screen, and there in the glossy light was not a text or missed call, but a calendar notification. One single word: Perseids. She stared at it so long the screen went black again. It was only when she caught a glimmer in its dead reflection that she remembered. Tonight was the peak of the meteor shower. 

She had caught the newspaper headline on her way out the door one morning, an article in the lifestyles section about fun date ideas. She hadn’t thought about “fun date ideas” for decades, but there was something so heartbreaking about a sprinkler-sogged newspaper giving her dating advice that she decided to make a note of it, just to show they were still capable of doing fun date ideas. She’d even made another note to request the night off work, though she’d put it off so long she forgot. 

A laugh escaped her lips. So she’d missed their fun date idea. What had Jason ever done? It wasn’t so much that he had let the dog out. It was that he had let everything out of their marriage. She watched two meteors bolt above the atmosphere, imagining herself decades ago when it was just her and him, no kids, no house, no responsibilities but a wide-open future, and how she would have thought it so glamorous to stargaze together. But alone on that curb, watching the meteors burn, she felt nothing at all.  

Eventually, she took her dead flashlight and uneaten jerky back home, mentally listing the next steps. Call the local ASPCA. Print “missing” posters. Check Nextdoor for camera footage. So she almost didn’t see him when she approached her darkened doorstep. Indeed, she might not have spotted him from the shadows if it weren’t for the faithful tail that wagged at the sight of her. Her breath caught as if on a thorn, and she realized how incredibly tired she felt. The dull ache in her feet from the workday and the running around, the traitorous summer chill around her shoulders that felt like a weight, tightness in her jaw from holding back all the venom since she got that call from Jason. But underneath that too was a different kind of tired, the kind that had been building for ages, the kind that only hurt once in a while, like a broken bone when it rained. 

“Damn you,” she whispered, and it was good enough a command for Bandit, who left the shadows and came to her side, jerky on his breath, his nose inquiring to see if she were all right. If she were all right. Once that was determined, he turned his attention to the bag of jerky. She sat on the steps and let him have it.

The Perseids continued their silent course overhead like raindrops that never fell. She imagined once that comets and meteors were rare, rare enough to wish upon. But this sky belied the old nursery rhymes. Wishes were in abundance tonight. And yet, she could not think of anything. She reached a hand next to her and ran her fingers through the coarse fur, combing back and forth along Bandit’s shoulder and feeling the muscles and tendons and bones of a living being who sat with her in this darkness. Maybe there wasn’t anything to wish for, because what if she already had it? 

“Come inside,” Jason said from the doorway. He could have been talking to either one of them.

She sat still in the dark and summoned the word she had wanted to say for a long time. “No.” 

He hadn’t seemed to hear her. “I can make you a pot of coffee. It’s almost sunrise.” Jason always knew the wrong moment to be charming. When she didn’t say anything, he tried again. “Come inside.”

She felt a heat rush through her veins at the thought of it. And she realized in that moment that she didn’t want to go back inside to that house they had called theirs for over thirty years, though it had always felt split in two, a his-and-hers house of separate sinks, separate armchairs, separate bedtimes, separate alarms. She didn’t want to go back inside to his day-old sandwich left on the counter and the empty roll of toilet paper he was never going to change. As if sensing this rage emanating from her pores, Bandit licked her face concernedly. 

It was late in life, and wouldn’t it be easier to just go inside, back to the way things were? It would be so hard to pack up and leave, to separate, to tell the boys, to find somewhere else to call home. But wouldn’t it be even harder to live another day like this? 

After a while, Jason gave up and went back inside, probably thinking she was crazy for sitting out in the dark still. It didn’t matter. They could have the conversation in the morning. Or this evening. Or maybe she would put it off again and again, bury it, go on living like this was all fine. It would be enough to tell herself she could leave if she wanted. She could do it. She stroked Bandit’s soft head and looked into his eyes. The anger cooled. The resentment subsided. Meteors passed Earth without collision. And here they were, hiding in the bushes, stealing warmth from each other while the neighborhood slept.

Joanne Howard is an Asian-American writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds an MFA in writing from Pacific University. Her poetry received an honorable mention from Stanford University’s 2019 Paul Kalanithi Writing Award. Her fiction has been published in The Catalyst by UC Santa Barbara and her nonfiction has appeared in Another New Calligraphy and The Santa Barbara Independent. Her idea of fun is long-distance backpacking, and she hopes to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety someday.

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