It’s hard to be mad at Blue. You stare up at the ceiling and listen to the sound of a long, hissing fart as your body slowly lowers itself to the ground. It’s seven in the morning on Saturday and Blue’s oddly lethal nail has just punctured a fatal wound into your new blow-up mattress. Your friend is oblivious and only mildly annoyed as he crawls closer to you, a move that changes the air in your floatation device and quickens your descent to the floor.
Your new apartment at the Montauk Manor, which at first seemed regal and serene, now looks morose and kind of sad as light crawls through the barren windows. And it was only a week ago, after two stiff drinks and an inspiring wave of revenge, that the Manor seemed like the perfect place for a strategic retreat. “Strategic Retreat”: your new favorite phrase. Retreat, Refuel, Revenge. Or something like that. Some of the bravest men invented the strategic retreat. George Washington did it. You’re pretty sure.
“Prepare for landing,” you say as the hard wood nestles against your shoulder blades. Blue snorts softly and rolls onto the last pocket of air which takes the floaty’s fart up an octave.
You leave him there and check your phone. You’re already dressed, a perk to sleeping in your clothes. It was a habit you became accustomed to during the end for reasons you’re still not sure of. Either to be ready to make a dramatic exit (i.e., slamming drawers and packing bags in a swift, bitter fashion), or just to annoy her. You had done it once so you had to do it again. Then it became a thing that you didn’t know how to get out of.
There is a text from Amber. Not the actual villain of the piece but she comes pretty close. You hit the call back button. “Hey Amber, it’s Jack.”
“Jack! Oh my god. I’m so glad you called. My friend Cecilia is in desperate need of your help.”
Your ears perk up. “Oh yeah? Does she have a house out here?”
Amber pauses. “A house?”
“In the Hamptons? I’m currently only doing renovations out here but I can make an exception, if the place is really cool, in the city.”
She pauses again, this time for two beats. “Right. Well, she doesn’t exactly need an architect.”
Now you’re the one that pauses. “Then what does she need?”
She takes a deep breath. “There’s been a dognapping.”
“Yes! Someone swiped her dog yesterday. She was walking around Sag and tied him up to go get body wash or something and when she got back he was totally gone. She’s had him for, like, three years.”
“Well, she called the police and they did nothing, of course. So, she needs your help. You don’t understand, this dog is her life.”
An inappropriate yawn starts to curl into your mouth. You try your best to suppress it. “I understand.”
“So, can you help her?”
“Amber, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t really know how I could help.”
Panic starts to seep into her voice. “But didn’t you find K.C. after three days in Central Park?”
“That was a fluke,” you say. “Dogs like parks. It was an easy guess. Plus that dog was scared shitless of cars.”
“But you found him! You and Blue. Is he out here with you?”
“Yeah,” you say. “He’s here.”
“Okay, I’m actually having a doggie birthday for Annabella, and Cecilia will be there. You should come. I mean, I was totally going to invite you before but I just wasn’t sure you were up to it, considering. Anyway, I think this will be good for you. The party is at 1. Okay, bye!”
She hangs up and six hours later you’re being shuffled into the party as a sea of women, couples, and their animal children loiter around the living room. An older woman extends her hand to you.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m Amber’s mother. Are you friends with Nick and Amber?”
“Yeah, I actually did some work for them in this house.”
“Ugh,” she says. “This house is too expensive. Would you like a drink?” You nod and she passes you a glass of champagne. “Your dog,” she says. “He looks so old.”
You pat Blue. “He’s still pretty young.”
“He looks like the Dalai Lama,” she says.
You shrug. “He’s low energy.”
“Excuse me?” A beautiful creature in a white dress interrupts your riveting conversation. “Are you Jack?”
“Yes!” you reply loudly. “That’s me.”
She exhales deeply and smiles. “I’m so glad you came.”
Mrs. Dalai Lama eyes the both of you suspiciously and moves on.
“Yes, I’m Jack,” you say. “I heard your dog was stolen. That’s so terrible.”
Tears immediately well up in her eyes. She quickly waves a hand in front of her face. “I’m sorry. This is so embarrassing. It’s just. . . .” She pauses and dabs her eyes with a pink napkin. “I’m just going through a divorce right now and there’ve been a lot of changes in my life. I’ve had him for three-and-a-half years.”
“It’s okay,” you say quietly. Before you know it, your demeanor becomes more professional. You stand a little straighter and cock your leg to the side. “I’m going to help you find your dog. Don’t worry.” You pull out your phone and hit the notebook app. “What’s your dog’s name?”
Cecilia also straightens up and pulls her shoulders back. “Um, Rambo. R-A-M-B-O.”
“Okay. Last seen yesterday in Sag Harbor, correct?”
“Yes!” she says. “In front of the Bloom store.”
“Okay. Now, did you notice anything suspicious when you were walking around? Anyone looking at you? Or the dog?”
“Everyone loves Rambo,” she says. “People fawn over him all the time. I mean, I think a couple of little girls came up to him but that’s all I really remember. I’ve had a lot of things on my mind lately. I’m afraid I wasn’t looking that closely at anything.”
“That’s okay. Do you have any enemies? Anyone that would want to hurt you in any way?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe my soon-to-be-ex-husband but we’ve sort of hurt each other enough for a lifetime.”
You give a kind laugh. “I understand.”
“Yeah.” Her eyes seem to dry up. “I heard that you were separated too.”
“Guilty,” you say and pause. “Or not. I mean, it wasn’t my idea.”
“Really?” she says. “Well, it was definitely my idea. We actually hadn’t been living together for a long time.”
“Oh yeah? I just moved out about a week ago. I left the city. I mean, I love New York and I don’t want to leave it forever but I just needed to get out. I just needed some goddamn green, you know?” You take a nervous sip of your champagne. “Are you staying with Amber?”
“Yeah, just for a while,” she says. “I just need to cut out a lot of drama in my life. I need to cleanse myself of toxic people and toxic situations. You know, I’m in my thirties, I’m living in Brooklyn, and I’m trying to get this knitting business off the ground. I just want to grow up, you know what I mean? I don’t want to be like my parents.”
“Exactly!” you say. “My parents have hated each other as long as I can remember.”
“Oh, are they divorced too?” she asks.
You pause. “Not really.”
She nods her head but seems confused by this. “Yeah,” she says. “I mean, what was I suppose to do? Keep making it work? What does that even mean?”
“Please,” you say. “I just went through it all and still don’t know what it means.”
She nods and you keep going. “I mean, we did counseling and the whole thing. You know how it goes, first you think it’s going to work and you get really into it, then you feel like you’re just talking and talking and nothing is getting better. Well, I sort of hated my therapist, which might have been part of the problem, but I can’t tell anymore. So then you try to push through it and start going to double sessions at, like, three hundred bucks a pop and then before you know it you’re taking salsa dancing lessons as homework and your big bonding ritual consists of watching ‘American Idol’ for a straight hour without bickering. Then, your wife gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which you’ve always suspected she had and now she’s in a low cycle and doesn’t even want to see the therapist anymore and now you’re going to the sessions alone and talking about your father and then after three months of this, one day she waltzes into the apartment saying she needs to move to Queens to be closer to her roots and you don’t even know what that means! Then, like, out of nowhere, you’re sitting alone in your apartment and half of your shit is gone.”
You put your hand in the air. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I moved to Montauk. I’m actually at the Montauk Manor. The one up on the hill. It’s a really gorgeous place. You should see it.”
But she’s not looking at you anymore but instead is looking down into her plastic champagne glass, and it only then occurs to you that you really blew it. Your mental Rolodex spins as fast as it can thinking of something, anything that could turn this around. And, of course, it’s then that the sidekick of all villains appears at your side.
“Oh, there she is! Annabella!” Amber says as her Pomeranian trots into the room.
Another guest suddenly appears beside you. “Aw! Isn’t she just so cute!”
Before long, a traffic jam of tiny dogs start crowding around Blue. He backs up tentatively as Annabella brazenly tries to sniff him.
“Look at all the puppies! And some dressed up for the party!” a third guest adds. “Oh, and look at this one. He looks about a hundred years old! Look at those wrinkles.”
You think your dog was just offended but you try to brush it off. “Yeah, he’s a good guy.” You try to tuck a hand under Blue’s ear but he becomes distracted by a plate that is being lowered to the ground.
“All right guys,” Amber says. “I went to Bark and Biscuits today and got some doggie cookies for our little guests. They are organic and gluten free.”
She places the cookies on the ground and Blue wrestles his way to the front. He opens his mouth and tries to swallow the cookie in one bite.
“Easy, Blue,” you say, but it’s too late. Snuffing and gagging sounds start coming from his mouth as he throws back his head repeatedly to swallow the cookie. “Blue!” You try to laugh. “Easy!”
The gargling and gagging noises startle the other dogs and they stop eating to watch him. As do the other guests.
“Is he okay?” Amber’s mother asks.
“Yeah. Blue! Jesus Christ, slow down.”
The cookie disappears and Blue puts his face low to the ground and slows for a second. There is a brief moment of silence and then the noises return, but this time the gagging has turned into heaving.
“Oh my god. Is he choking?”
The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Blue’s heaving turns deeper and repetitious. He pauses for another second and then groans. He gives one good hack and the cookie falls out of his mouth in a soggy patty. Annabella and the other dogs move backward toward their owners.
“What happened?” Amber asks.
Everyone, including the toy dogs, seem to turn up and look at you. You put your hands in your pockets. “Um, I think he ate it too fast.”
“Oh god,” another guest says. “No!”
Everyone looks down as Blue begins to re-eat his regurgitated cookie.
“Ew!” Amber says. “I can’t watch this.”
“Oh god!” says another.
Most of the guests put a hand to their face and move away from you and Blue. Annabella and the other dogs are picked up and shooed away with their owners. You look up to see Cecilia walking away with Amber, both talking in hushed tones. Amber’s mother smirks and turns away. You look down at the floor and watch Blue eat the sopping, disintegrating patty with such conviction that you find yourself admiring it. It takes him awhile to re-eat the cookie and the wet, slapping sounds of his chewing carry throughout the room. You patiently wait for him to finish. He had worked so hard for it anyway.
Stephanie MacLean, a resident of New York City and Montauk, studied creative writing and English at Moravian College. A former literary agent at Trident Media Group, she is working on a collection of short stories.