July 14th began just like any other day. I awoke to a revving engine, courtesy of my next-door neighbor starting up his vintage Cadillac.
Scott Pemberton has a frolicking, gentle voice, spikes his hair, and always wears pec-hugging t-shirts. Sometimes he just revs the thing for ten minutes and doesn’t drive it. My mom says it might be part of the car upkeep, but I desperately hope that isn’t true since I want to hate him as much as possible. The Pembertons own three other cars: a white Escalade for the mom, a black Escalade for the daughter, and Scott’s other car, a black Maserati with tinted windows that cost 130,000 dollars. I know because I went to the Maserati website and looked it up.
I was sitting in the living room reading my subscription copy of GQ when the doorbell rang. I answered and Scott’s wife, Angela Pemberton, stood there with hardened eyes and crossed arms.
Angela is so tiny that someone could easily knock her over with a pillow. She was wearing white jeans with gold stitches, a tight white shirt, and expensive-looking sunglasses.
“Hi Mrs. Pemberton. How may I help you?” I asked innocently.
“Is Danica home?” She squeezed her arms even tighter and furrowed her eyebrows.
“Probably.” I turned into the house. “Mom? Mom?”
I heard her yell from her room. “What, Dimitri?”
“Angela Pemberton’s at the door.”
I stood on the Persian entry rug as Angela waited on the opposite side of the doorframe. We just stood there for a full minute. I could feel her pencil-enhanced eyebrows seeping into my consciousness. My mom finally burst out of her room wearing her satin paisley bathrobe, wet hair in an uncombed ponytail on top of her head. She pranced downstairs and I ducked into the hallway.
“Why does my tree have a bald spot?”
“Don’t you remember, Angela? Our trees were growing into one another?”
“You don’t have a tree.”
“I paid three hundred dollars to have my tree chopped down in March. I was doing you a favor.”
“You are a liar. A liar!” hissed Angela in her sharp, high-pitched voice. “There was no tree there. And now you have the nerve to tell me that the deformity you put on my tree was some act of kindness?”
I totally get why Scott cheated on her. I remember a couple years ago when they had their first big fight. I was thirteen, and it was the most fascinating thing that I had ever witnessed. They screamed on the front lawn at high noon, mostly Angela. Some people watched from their windows, but others, myself included, shamelessly watched from their lawns. Then Scott got in the Maserati and zoomed down the street, holding the horn down the whole time. He finally let it go after an entire minute, when he must have been half a mile away and the honk was just an echo bouncing around the neighborhood.
Scott and Angela were separated for a while, but now they just live in the same house, trying not to look at each other.
I tried to read my GQ again, this time in my room, but the two youngest Pemberton kids were making a racket outside. There’s Branden, who’s fourteen and looks like he’s eleven, and Corey, who’s nine and looks like he’s seven. They skateboard outside for eight hours a day. Ninety percent of what they say is “you’re so stupid” with the other one saying “God I hate you,” and the other ten is shouting curse words back and forth and laughing about it.
Sometimes I hear the daughter who’s my age, Chelsee, talking with the hordes of dude friends she brings over. She talks loud enough for everyone in the three-street radius to hear. Her typical outfit is a tight lacy tank top with bra straps showing, short shorts, flip-flops, a “hobo” bag, and sunglasses perched on her forehead. She’s looking down at her phone at least 75% of the time, and I don’t think she has hobbies.
About six months ago, she got a Pomeranian for her birthday. That’s one of those small, fluffy breeds that people get if they aren’t actually into dogs and just want one as an “accessory.” She named it Kiwi and I don’t think she takes care of it. It just yaps in the backyard the entire day, as if it wants someone to come over and club it with a baseball bat.
The oldest kid is Rusty Pemberton, who’s probably in his late teens or early ‘20s. My family only talks about him with his full name because his weirdness has earned him celebrity status. He dresses like a generic scene kid with angular hair and snakebite piercings, along with tight skate clothes and a checkered belt. He didn’t finish high school and got his driver’s license revoked in March. Sometimes I get home and police are in front of the house, questioning him.
Recently, Rusty Pemberton got a job at one of the five McDonald’s his dad owns. Now he has to walk five miles each way just to sit in a drive-thru and make sure people get their heart attack meals. In his free time, he plays shitty guitar and skateboards.
After I couldn’t stand the sound of Branden and Corey anymore, I relocated to the TV room in the back of the house to read my GQ. From my peripheral vision, I saw my ten-year-old sister walk down the hallway toward the bathroom. She returned a mere ten seconds later.
“How come the shower curtain is always closed?” Vivian whined.
“I’m the one who always closes it,” I said. “I’m afraid Rusty Pemberton’s going to look at me in the window.”
“Well, I have to open it because I’m afraid that Rusty Pemberton’s behind the shower curtain.”
“Get a grip, my fear’s more likely than yours. How would he even break into our house?”
“Didn’t you say he went through our garbage can that one time?”
I stroked my chin.
Recently through neighborhood gossip, my mom found out that Rusty Pemberton is actually Angela’s nephew. When Angela’s sister went homeless and the dad landed himself in jail, the newly married Angela and Scott adopted lil’ Rusty. They probably thought they were being so noble and that they would boost him to normalcy. Funny, huh?
Vivian and I kneeled around the coffee table in the TV room, working on one of my mom’s painting puzzles. So far that summer, we had finished The Scream, The Boating Party, and The Garden of Earthly Delights. That night, we were doing one called Massacre of the Innocents. Then we heard muffled fighting from our open windows.
“Chelsee! You spent 40 dollars on eBay? You are to return that right now…don’t use that tone of voice with me!”
“It’s like Angela’s normal tone of voice is yelling,” said Vivian.
“Yeah,” I said. “She gets all mad about 40 bucks yet she spends 300 dollars a week on that personal car washer dude who does special detailing.”
“Speshul detailing,” Vivian mocked. “We come to your house and give you the speshul clean! We should pay him to ruin their cars.”
“Wanna do the bumper sticker thing tonight, speaking of that?” I asked.
“You’ve been saying that for forever,” she said, focusing on the puzzle, snapping a piece of a dead toddler into place.
“Tonight,” I said. Then cigarette smoke wafted through the room.
“Not again,” said Vivian. We mutually understood that it was too hot out to close the windows, so we relocated to our origami table on the other side of the house. I knew we both had the mental image of Angela crossing her arms, leaning against her 7-foot hedges.
“God dammit,” said my mom. “That little Kiwi, always trying to ruin our dinner.” She took another bite of her mung bean sprout salad.
“Yeah,” said Vivian, popping a cherry tomato into her mouth. “It’s like the dog is a symbolism of how messed up they are.”
“That dog is such a little bitch because the Pembertons never let it inside,” I said, taking a large bite of steak soaked in a delicious butter garlic sauce.
“They do too let it inside! You guys are so mean to the Pembertons. Stop it,” said my mom.
“To be fair,” I said, “that thing barks outside all night. That probably means they never let it indoors.”
“Is it potty trained?” asked my mom. “They might keep it outside ‘cause it’s not potty trained.”
“Exactly, mom,” said Vivian. “They’re so lazy they didn’t even train him.”
“Well that’s a shame,” my mom said.
“You know, I bet if Kiwi got lost,” Vivian continued, “they would put up a ton of signs and say things like, ‘we loved him so much.’”
“I’m telling you,” I said to Vivian, “we should put up a lost dog poster, but make the return address for a house ten miles away.” My mom burst into a cackle.
“I told you that wouldn’t work,” said Vivian. “People would take Kiwi to the house on the poster, and the people there would be like, ‘This isn’t my dog.’”
My mom stood up. “Well, I’ve had enough crazy ideas for one dinner. Should I watch my recording of 30 Rock or Glee tonight?”
“30 Rock,” I said. My mom walked away from the table and I heard her slippers tread on the wooden stairs. Vivian and I did the dishes, but mostly Vivian. She looked so precious, diligently washing with her confident smirk. I was like that when I was her age. I thought I was an old soul.
I was yawning at least once per minute, about to pass out on top of my bed sheets. I began to drift into sleep, only to be jolted awake when Chelsee Pemberton and her boyfriend started fighting. Nobody in my family has ever seen the boyfriend’s physical form, but we hear them screaming a few times a week. And it’s always after 10 PM. It’s like Chelsee and the rest of the Pembertons are constantly trying to live in a different time zone. They usually fight about nothing, like if they’re going to see a movie or not. Then it escalates to a two-hour argument where they keep saying “you’re so stupid, God I hate you.” This time, there was breaking glass.
How do you like that?” yelled Chelsee. “Your precious tequila, all over the ground because you fucked up. You’re messed up. Messed up in the head!”
“Why do I even put up with you, Chelsee?” yelled the boyfriend. “You break my stuff, crazy bitch!” Then Vivian knocked on my door and tilted it open.
“Did they wake you up?” I asked.
“Sort of,” she said. “I was playing Animal Crossing.” She rubbed her droopy eyes with the corner of the velvet blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
“You think you can go to sleep?”
“I dunno,” she said. I knew she might have wanted to, but I knew she liked staying up with me. “Bumper sticker?” she asked.
“Sure. You know they’re awake, right?”
“So let’s wait.”
We walked down to the living room, watched our Family Feud recordings for a while, then made a brownie recipe from one of my mom’s raw vegan cookbooks. Once we slid them in the freezer, I told her,
We went outside and our driveway pavement warmed my bare feet. The Pembertons’ garage doors were open as usual, illuminated by a single bulb sticking out from the wall. The Cadillac, shielded by its protective tarp, took up the left half. The right half was cluttered with boogie boards, baseball bats, and batons.
“Go on,” I said, handing Vivian the bumper sticker. We had bought it at the Leucadia farmer’s market a few months ago. We were collapsing with laughter, saying, “We should stick this on a Pemberton car.” It said,
Let’s eat, grandpa. Let’s eat grandpa. Punctuation saves lives.
Vivian went over to the white Escalade in the driveway and smoothed it on. We both knew that we wouldn’t mess with the $130,000 Maserati unless we were positive we would never see Scott again. Vivian came back to where I was hiding behind my mom’s dirty Audi.
“I tried to lay it on right, but it has an air bubble.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
I asked her if she wanted to go in the Pemberton’s garage. She said yes, and we went in. My bare feet could feel grains of sand on the cement floor, sending shivers up my spine.
“What should we take this time?” I asked.
“How about that?” She pointed toward a purple exercise ball.
“Good call.” I went over and picked it up.
As we walked back toward our house, I thought out loud, “We should let Kiwi out.”
“Yeah, let’s do it.” We hid the ball in our own side yard and made for the Pembertons’. The heavy wooden door was unlocked as always. Their side yard was a near copy of ours, just a bit different in a frightening parallel universe kind of way. We walked past a window; I could see Scott shirtless in his man cave, pumping his guns with a thick 50-pound dumbbell. The floor lamp dimly illuminated his sweat and made his biceps wiggle, and his anchor tattoo looked like a fluid, sexy pole dancer. The cave also had a leather couch and a DVD setup.
“Come on,” said Vivian, hooking her arm around my elbow.
We turned the corner into the backyard with the pool, unlit tiki lamps and fire pit. While the Pembertons went on vacation in June, Vivian and I opened their gate, which they left unlocked, and used their fire pit a few times. We also started throwing our garbage into their pool from our backyard, keeping score on how many times we heard a splash. When we realized they would know it was us, we dumped a bunch of garbage into the pool of the house two away from theirs and three away from ours. This way, we could frame the family on the other side of the Pembertons. We never heard anything about it again, which probably means it worked.
Vivian and I were making our way toward the fire pit when a ball of blonde fluff perked up and ran toward us, nametag jingling.
“Here comes the little fucker!” I said.
“Let him out! Let him out!” said Vivian.
Kiwi, probably desperate for social interaction, followed us through the side yard. We opened the gate and then watched it scamper into the street like a wild horse. Vivian and I high-fived, uncontrollably giggling like maniacs. Then, a car with subwoofers blaring Pitbull turned the corner, massive headlights casting the street in artificial light.
“Wait, what if Kiwi—” I quickly pulled Vivian back inside the Pemberton’s side yard before the headlights could shine on us. I shut the gate, knelt down, and pulled Vivian’s wrist so she would do the same thing.
“Let’s stay here,” I said to Vivian, sitting against the gate.
“Okay,” she said, her voice quivering. We heard Chelsee park, get out of the car, and start talking in her usual yelling tone. Her horde of dude friends talked back in a normal volume.
“Is Kiwi dead?” she whispered.
“I have no idea,” I said. Chelsee and co. finally went inside after over 20 minutes, her Escalade locking with a loud, too-cool-for-you beep.
We left the side yard, crept over to the far side of the road, and scanned for Kiwi. After thirty seconds of searching I noticed that Vivian was standing still, and I knew she had found it. Kiwi’s mouth was splayed open and blood and guts leaked from its flattened torso. My heart jumped into my throat.
“We gotta get a garbage bag now,” I said to Vivian. She stood there, trembling.
“Come on!” I said, and eventually she started walking with me toward our house. She stood at the doorway as I went inside and found a bag under the sink. While I was at it, I grabbed a spatula.
“What are you waiting for? Put it in the bag!” She took the spatula and shuffled the dog off the street under the moonlight, like she was prodding an old potato pancake off the floor of the kitchen. I imagined eyes boring into us from windows, and I kept checking if anyone could see us. There was nothing—there were two lit windows on the second stories of two separate houses, but no silhouettes. No cars turned onto our street, either. I held the bag open and she dropped Kiwi in. Afterward, she let go of the spatula. I was petrified, knowing that we could get away with this if we tried, but the panic was still eating me. All previous notion of life fell away: my grades, my sock collection, what I ate for breakfast. All that mattered now was getting away with it.
Vivian tied the bag by its built-in yellow strings—I was surprised I didn’t have to ask her. Then she stood up and stared into nowhere. I tried to take a few steps toward my house, but she remained still, holding the strings of the bag. I picked up the spatula, tugged on her sleeve, and she began to follow me. She looked like she was about to puke the whole time.
“We killed him. What if people catch us?” she said on the porch. “I feel sick.”
“I think I can dump this off of a pier somewhere and it’ll be fine,” I said. But then she started to cry.
“Please stop,” I said. Her tears became more hysterical, and she let go of the garbage bag with the flattened dog-shaped lump inside.
“I need to tell mom,” she cried.
“You’re not going to do that, okay Vivian? Don’t tell. Please, I’ll never drag you into any of this Pemberton stuff ever again.” She descended further into tears, losing control of her own crying.
I smacked her across the jaw and felt a surge of regret run through me. I sort of thought about how that might have damaged her, but I was more so thinking of how she might tell our mom. Then, in a truly frightening moment, I thought of CPS. Vivian looked so pathetic with tears streaming down her face.
“Shut the fuck up. Please, just stop crying and forget I did that, just for me.” She kept crying. “Remember that trick where you hold your breath?” I said.
Suddenly, she ballooned her cheeks, refusing to breathe. She looked surprised, almost petrified. She had stopped crying, and she looked right at me, so I knew she was listening.
“Now listen,” I said, “I’ll get rid of the dog, and I’ll give you the easy job. Make sure all the blood is gone from the street. Just pour a bucket of water on the asphalt or something.”
“Okay,” she said quietly, sniffling and breathing again.
“Don’t tell mom,” I stressed, drawing my finger extra close to her face. We went inside; she went for the kitchen, and I grabbed the car keys from the entryway table. As I walked outside again and picked up the garbage bag, I decided not to worry about how Vivian felt. She was probably going to calm down and want to hang out again, just like she had every other time. She’d cried before at our other pranks, like when we stole all the hoses from the neighbors’ driveways and put them in the storm drain.
I turned on my Subaru, sunk the windows until they vanished into the car door, and sped off. It felt better to be alone. I was breezing on a sublime California summer night, humidity and swaying palm trees and all, but with someone’s dead Pomeranian in my passenger seat. No turning back now. Finish the job.
I had already decided that the ocean would be a prime dumping ground. But I needed to be far. I drove North for an hour and exited in San Clemente, some sleepy town my family always passes on our way to Disneyland. I remembered my biology teacher saying it had a pier.
I knew I could park right by the water since it was 2 AM, so I zoomed right past all the cute boutiques and gimmicky restaurants with their curbside parking meters. Once I had secured my prime space, I held my breath and wrestled off the final obstacle: the bone-shaped dog collar on Kiwi’s smashed-in neck. There was blood on my hand, I could have thrown up, didn’t, saw old surfer dudes in my peripheral vision and became dizzy. I thought about the likelihood of policemen arresting me for curfew and opening up the bag. I tried to steer my mind somewhere else, but I could only replay the mental image of the bag hitting the water. I alternatively imagined it floating and sinking.
I put the collar in my glove compartment. Remember to take it out when you get back! I made sure Kiwi was secure in the bag, and I stepped out into the humid summer night. I breathed rapidly, realizing that was the longest I had ever held my breath in my entire life. They’ll blame Rusty Pemberton. I traversed the pier, so detached from the dark, sparkling ocean and all the little houses dotting the coastline behind me. At that point, I just felt tough and determined to get it over with.
I reached the end, an expansive square of wood. I went to the edge, swung the garbage bag over the fence, and I watched my fingers go limp. I leaned over and watched it fall, fluttering like a windsock. The humid breeze whipped my hair and I felt like a figurehead on a ship, pressing my weight into the wooden fence. There was no splash as the bag landed; the fierce black waves just swallowed it up. My heart hammered and I felt a cloud of guilt cast over my existence. For a moment, I felt as if I didn’t deserve to feel happiness ever again. But I shifted my mind to basketball statistics, and by the time I got back to my car, I felt pretty decent.
While driving home, that’s when I thought of it. “The Dog Days are Over” by Florence and the Machine. It was inevitable.
When I went out to get the mail, my heart leapt when I saw Angela and Chelsee screaming at each other on their driveway. I picked up the paper and walked back toward my house, pretending to ignore them.
“Do you know how much this car cost? Do you even care about what I do for this family? I buy myself something that’s mine to enjoy and you deface it!”
“I didn’t put that on the car, mom!”
“You are a dirty liar, Chelsee, I can see it in your face!”
– Catherine Sinow
Catherine Sinow is a graduate of the fiction writing program at Colorado College. Find her other art at catherinesinow.com.