Sarah found the dog on a chilly February day. Or, rather, it found her.
After an appointment at the local hospital, she went for a walk on the nearby beach, as she usually did. She spotted the dog as she headed back to her car, a brownish beagle-sized lump huddled on the boardwalk, though it didn’t look like a beagle. She’d never seen an animal with eyes that color before. Like molten lava, or fresh orange peels. They reflected the sky, which had turned a lurid lavender shade that made the lake look sickly.
“Hey you, where’d you come from?” Sarah cooed. She looked around. Nobody on the beach but her. She bent and scratched the fat, curly creature behind its ears, recoiling as an icy breeze crinkled the water and blew sand and brush and powdered snow into her face. The dog closed its queer orange peel eyes a little and thumped the splintery walkway with its tail.
She laughed. “Who do you belong to? I don’t see a collar.” The dog shivered and rubbed against her legs like a cat. Sarah sighed. “I can’t take you home with me. My daughter hates dogs.” She picked it up, even though her oncologist had warned her to stay away from animals that might bite or scratch. This dog seemed tame enough, stolidly nestled in her arms. She let it rest its head in the concave space where her left breast was missing.
She walked to the hospital parking lot. Tame or not, she couldn’t keep it. Her ex-husband had custody of Ashlynn that week and she’d be home in two days. Hopefully the town Animal Control shelter could take the dog before then. Hopefully.
On her way home, she made a quick stop at a mall to buy a few things. Tins of wet and dry dog food, a leash, squeaky toys, and, after consulting Reddit on her iPhone, a flea collar. The creature looked and smelled like it had just been shampooed but she would take no chances. She left it snoring on the heated passenger seat of her Land Rover, chubby body slumped on the creased leather, butt perched in the air. She smiled. Its tail looked rather long, ending in a snake-like point. She made sure to lock the car door.
When Sarah returned from shopping, the dog had disappeared. But how? Her car, still locked and streaked with slush, windows shut and whole and sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight. Maybe someone stole it, or it slipped out when she opened the car door? Filled with unease, she looked under the seats and hunted the mall’s asphalt parking lot. Nothing. Well, she couldn’t do anything about it, though she fretted that the dog would freeze. She stashed her bags in the car trunk and eased into the driver’s seat, briefly resting her forehead against the steering wheel. The beginnings of a headache cramped her temples, a usual side effect from the MRI scan she’d had done at the hospital. She quickly called Animal Control to let them know she’d seen a stray dog in the neighborhood. She’d return her purchases the next day. Now though, she needed a hot, filling dinner and a nap.
By the time she arrived home, the dog had slipped her mind. She’d begun preparing a salad and reheating leftover chicken tetrazzini when Ashlynn called. With no preamble, her daughter bluntly asked if she could come home on Monday instead of Saturday.
“Again?” Sarah winced as she wiped up spilled cream sauce on the counter. “Last time you wanted to stay longer so you could play Stardew Valley, and the time before you needed your father’s tablet to finish your art assignment—”
“—but it’s the Superbowl this weekend and Dad has the big screen TV. It’s more fun at his place. There won’t be another Superbowl for a whole-ass year. I know Dad and Natasha will let me if you say so.”
“I’m sure they will,” Sarah muttered sarcastically, though Doug and his new wife had been nothing but supportive since they married, anxious to co-parent as smoothly as possible. “All right,” she said, too weary to argue. “And please don’t use that language.”
“You’re sure, Mom?” Ashlynn sounded surprised. “I mean, if you don’t want me to …”
Sarah lost it. “Kiddo, I don’t have the energy for this. If you want to stay, stay. If not, come home.”
Ashlynn fell silent and then a plump, buzzy dial tone filled Sarah’s ear, making her headache ten times worse. Ever since Sarah became ill last year, Ashlynn never seemed happy with anything Sarah said or did, a line already forming between the girl’s eyes. She was a good kid, for the most part. She brought home decent report cards and rarely acted out. So why then did Sarah feel like she failed as a mother?
Once Sarah finished dinner, she quickly showered. She emerged from her bathroom in threadbare flannel pajamas and slippers, toweling her damp hair.
The dog waited for her in her room.
It sat on her bed, sphinxlike, staring her down with four flaming eyes. It had grown another head.
Sarah screamed and covered her face. One of the dog’s mouths emitted a guttural whine; the other began to yip. She didn’t dare move lest she startle it.
An excruciating moment passed. She felt the dog nosing her bare unpolished toes poking out of her slippers. She looked through her fingers. It sat on its hind legs and cocked both heads, yellow teeth and nails curved and twinkling. Who could she call? The police didn’t seem like a good idea. Animal Control wouldn’t believe her, that she’d somehow found a mutant dog that could scamper through walls and metal car doors. And even if they did…
It looked at her again. Hungry, maybe. What could a demon dog eat and drink? Fire? Brimstone? River Styx water?
“No such luck,” she said shakily. She went to the garage and retrieved the pet paraphernalia she’d bought that afternoon. The animal patiently waited for her in the kitchen, front paws raised. She opened the tins and spooned dry and wet dog food onto a large plate, mixed in a few spoonfuls of water, and microwaved it to room temperature. The creature looked young; its tummy maybe couldn’t handle chilled food. She contemplated its new head and molded the mixture into two tidy hills, which she set on the floor with a plastic bowl of water. The dog wolfed it down, each head obediently munching its own portion. At least someone liked her cooking.
“You’re not so big and bad,” she said to the dog, and meant it. If this was a hell-creature, then she’d endured far worse in her lifetime. Like Doug leaving her the year before because of her health issues. To say nothing of her medical bills.
When the animal finished eating, she tried to lead it to her backyard to do its business. But when she opened her patio door it balked and quivered in the cold. “Just a huge softy, aren’t you?” she mused, relaxing. Thinking hard for a moment, she rummaged through drawers and crumpled boxes until she found an old sweater and a few pairs of booties she’d knitted for Ashlynn when she was a baby. She dressed the creature, adjusting the sweater neckline with sewing scissors to fit its two heads and tightening the booties on its paws with hair elastics. Bundled up, the dog seemed happy to romp in the snow outside. It plowed through hills and drifts and chased its tail, which looked more and more serpentine with each passing minute. Hopefully the neighbors wouldn’t see it.
Soon the dog tired out. She let it back in the house and it followed her to her room, daintily shaking tufts of snow from its tail and paws. She washed her face and brushed her teeth and climbed into her bed to watch Netflix on her laptop. The dog settled on a braided rag rug nearby, turning three times before drifting to the floor in a velvety chestnut-hued heap.
Doug texted her in the middle of her favorite true crime show. He’d spoken to Ashlynn. She worried Sarah was mad at her and would come home on Saturday, after all. Which Doug encouraged — he didn’t want to take advantage of their custody agreement.
Right, Sarah thought sourly. She texted back that she’d just had a check-up with her cancer team at the hospital. She was likely fine but couldn’t relax until her oncologist gave her a clean bill of health. It might be best for Ashlynn to stay with Doug until Monday in case something showed up on her test results, to give her time to process things. Doug agreed without hesitating. Sarah felt a trifle guilty. She couldn’t help wanting to punish Ashlynn, a little. If the girl preferred her father and stepmother’s company, she could stay with them. And maybe Sarah wanted Doug to sit in the hot seat, too. She’d had enough of his detached pity, his polite accommodating. He’d never been this civil during their marriage.
“I’m allowed to be demonic,” she said aloud. Just like the dog. On cue, it hopped onto the bed and curled up next to her. “You better not fart,” she warned, knowing that it wouldn’t. It wanted to please, of that much she was sure. One of its heads—the first one, she suspected—pushed against her hand, the other snapping at the frayed edge of her plaid duvet. She scrunched and smoothed the thick varicoloured fur at the creature’s neck. It licked her fingers.
A few minutes later, Ashlynn called her back. “Why didn’t you tell me you were at the hospital today?” she asked in an accusing voice.
“Kiddo, you’re supposed to be in bed. Don’t you have a math quiz tomorrow?”
“Mom, tell me what happened. Are you okay?”
“It was a routine appointment. I have to do one every six months to make sure my cancer treatment last year mopped up all the bad cells. Like I told your father, as soon as I get the test results I’ll let you know. I should hear from the hospital tomorrow, or the day after. It’ll be okay.” She shifted. The creature, drowsing in a tangle of blankets and sheets, abruptly woke. It began to bark.
“Is that a dog? Mom, did you get a dog? You know how much they scare me.”
Wouldn’t she love this one. “Of course not. It’s a show I’m watching,” Sarah lied. She frantically stroked both of the dog’s heads, hoping to soothe it.
“Please turn it off. That sounds like a whole pack. It’s creeping me out.” Sarah patted the animal’s back until it quieted. “You don’t even care, do you?” Ashlynn said. To Sarah’s surprise, she sounded close to tears.
“What do you mean? Of course I do.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t care about anything. That I didn’t want to come home on Saturday or that you were at the hospital. You don’t even turn off the TV when I call.”
Sarah grew exasperated again. “Ashlynn, I’ve got a lot going on right now. I’m doing my best. You just turned thirteen. You’re not supposed to like me. Otherwise I’m not doing motherhood right.”
“Then you’re doing a good job,” the girl retorted. She hung up once more.
Sarah groaned. Even when she tried, she said the wrong thing. No wonder her daughter didn’t want to be around her. She turned to the dog for comfort. Again, it was gone.
The next morning, she dressed and ate breakfast early. She went to her study and remotely logged into her job from her laptop. She worked from home as a bookkeeper and office manager for a lighting manufacturer. Thank God her boss hadn’t joined the backlash against “Quiet Quitters” that had been all over the media lately. So long as Sarah finished her work and did it right, she could do what she pleased until she clocked out each day. Today though, she ignored her co-workers as they messaged her funny pictures of cats and viral TikTok posts—the kind of humor Ashlynn sneeringly dismissed as “boomer stuff”—and shared their weekend plans. Sarah devoted herself to her daily tasks with more concentration than usual, replying to emails and filling out invoices and reports with efficient precision.
The text message she didn’t want to receive arrived late in the afternoon during her coffee break. It signaled its landing with a cheery ping. The results from her MRI scan. She swallowed her bite of cream cheese Danish and called the number on her phone screen, a queasiness settling around her heart. With affected indifference, she spoke with a nurse. Her oncologist had spotted something on her scan. A “non-mass enhancement” near her right nipple. Likely nothing serious. Fibrocystic tissue changes or a random flow of blood, they guessed. MRIs tended to be oversensitive. Sarah dispassionately made arrangements to visit the hospital again for a biopsy and more scans. Bile gathered in her mouth, as bitter and watery and stinging as the residual coffee drips in her mug.
She washed and dried her dishes without thinking and wandered to her study, one hand protectively hovering over her remaining breast. Deep down she knew what the hospital tests would reveal. For all her oncologist’s dismissive attitude. She knew.
She had cancer again. When she’d finally grown back her hair and felt reasonably healthy and fit. She’d been told she could only have radiation therapy once and had used up her shot. What would her doctors advise this time? More blood draws and tests, hushed consultations and procedures with impatient technicians and nurses with rough hands, humiliating and invasive surgeries, feeling tired and nauseous all the time from chemicals pumped into her bloodstream, swollen arms and blown-out veins…
Sheer torture. She couldn’t describe it any other way.
In between the appointments and hospital trips, she’d pretend to be normal. She’d drive Ashlynn to and from school and her gymnastics and swimming lessons. She’d push through her fatigue, the growing dread that her body no longer belonged to her. She’d prepare Ashlynn’s lunches and dinners and remind her to set the table and empty the dishwasher and finish her homework. And, again, as Sarah grew weaker from cancer treatment, she would ignore the growing panic and frustration in her daughter’s eyes. Her pain.
Ashlynn, Sarah thought with a silent moan. She was far too young to endure a sick mother all over again. How would she cope?
She checked Ashlynn’s printed class schedule pinned to her corkboard. She should be finishing school by now. Natasha would pick her up shortly. Sarah resolved to call her and have her come home that night for company. Doug would let her. They’d cry together as they’d done when she was first diagnosed with cancer and order Ashlynn’s favorite Korean takeout and Greek honey cake. They’d watch the silly anime shows her daughter loved and fall asleep on the living room couch.
Try as she might, Sarah couldn’t make the call. She set her iPhone on her desk.
A hissing noise. She looked up as the dog padded into her study, claws clicking on the dustless parquet flooring. It had grown another head — now it had three. The latest, smaller than the others but with the same eager golden retriever expression. Its tail had lengthened and sharpened into a long scaly snake with a forked tongue and a spaded head. It grinned at her with needle teeth and exhaled puffs of dissipating white vapor.
One head carried a bundle in its mouth, which it dropped at her feet. The lead she bought yesterday and Ashlynn’s baby sweater and booties.
Resigned, Sarah kneeled and dressed the creature in her daughter’s clothes. Its serpent-tail playfully coiled around her fingers and nipped at her jeans. She left the study and headed to her backyard, the dog at her heels.