A dog knows not the distinction between excuses for one’s absences or “brief pauses” outside of the house. All they can determine is that you’ve either abandoned them or not. Left them to pine for you for what feels like eternity or chosen to remain faithfully by their side. Claire could certainly relate to this black and white sentiment. Perhaps that’s why her mother had branded her a “bitch” early on in life as a result of her canine empathy–that is, when Elle was around long enough to address her daughter at all. For she seemed to spend most of her time at the local bar seeking the company of men that might replace the void Claire’s father had instilled when he absconded without so much as a warning.
Elle was livid that he had fled, taking that anger out on the recently born Claire, who she naturally blamed for Harry’s “arbitrary” departure. As though he wasn’t already a negligent cad long before Claire entered the picture. A picture Elle wanted only to burn her out of now that she had sacrificed her once pristine body to the “noble cause” of motherhood. Her resentment toward Claire quickly turned to outright despisal, and she would often dose her with cough medicine at night so she could go out without the neighbors complaining of a wailing child.
As Claire grew older, wearily so (possibly because of the cough syrup), Elle had to find new ways to delude her into thinking she wasn’t being utterly neglected by her own progenitor, which, of course, she was. It was thus that Elle decided to take an acquaintance from the bar up on his offer of adopting one of the puppies his Rottweiler had just given birth to. She stumbled home early with it one night, a red ribbon tied around its neck. She rudely awakened Claire, now four, to tell her, “This is your new best friend, Decay.” Though half-asleep and disoriented, Claire could feel the flutters of joy in her stomach. Decay licked her face in salutation and she hugged him in return.
Elle lit a cigarette and added, “He’s a Rottweiler. Rot. Decay. Get it?” She roughly rumpled the top of Claire’s hair. “Of course you don’t. You’re a dumbass kid. Anyhow, it’s also fitting ’cause my life’s been in decay since you came into it.” Decay yipped at her in defense, already aware of who he was meant to protect. Elle glared at him and rose abruptly. “I’m goin’ back out. Keep that thing quiet.” Claire might have cried over her mother’s harshness if she wasn’t so accustomed to it by now. It was her clipped manner and terse orders that would forever be associated in Claire’s mind as what it meant to be “maternal.”
She wouldn’t know otherwise until her own friends started having children and she saw how doting and kindly they acted toward them. This only further corroborated her belief that she ought never to reproduce. For she had far too damaged a template to base motherhood on. Others told her that didn’t matter but she knew they were wrong. It was a wonder she had come out the other side of her childhood with any feeling at all left. And she mightn’t have were it not for Decay. Sweet, loyal Decay who was entirely responsible for teaching her the meaning of unconditional love. That’s why she could feel her heart shrivel up into nothing when her mother informed her, at thirteen, that Decay needed to be “put out to pasture.”
Claire couldn’t believe it, couldn’t bear the idea. Sure, Decay had been a bit slower of late, and hard of hearing, but that did not signify, to Claire, a death warrant. Elle was, alas, to use an unfortunate word choice, dogged in the matter. But Claire wouldn’t allow it, refusing to go to school so she could stay at home and guard Decay from Elle’s evil clutches. It wasn’t until she was declared a truant that she was forced to leave Decay’s side in order to avoid expulsion.
The morning she left him, she could see fear in his watery, docile eyes. She didn’t want to part with him, embracing him fervently and assuring she would be back as soon as the last bell rang. He barked urgently in response. He did not believe her, even if he wanted to. For in a dog’s mind, every time their master leaves feels like it will be the last time they’ll ever see them. Except, in this case, Decay was not wrong. Carted off to the vet by Elle within an hour of Claire’s reluctant departure, he stared out the back of the car window, ruefully searching for the girl he knew would not come. Elle did not bother to stay in the room with him when it happened, treating him like a bag of bones that had served his purpose.
Claire could intuit something was wrong the second she stepped into the apartment and found her mother, who was never usually home, sitting at the kitchen table smoking as she flipped indifferently through a People magazine. Her heart was already about to burst into flames, but she needed to hear Elle say it.
“Officially decayed,” she chortled at her pun.
Claire ran into her room and sobbed for twenty-four hours straight before emerging hardened, resolute. She would play the game for the next few years until she turned eighteen, then she would flee as far and as fast as she could. In the end, that meant Sydney, where she waited until being settled in one place before buying, in keeping with a continental theme, an Australian Cattle Dog. A Blue Heeler she named Baz, in honor of Luhrmann. She would take him to Centennial Park on the weekend so that he might roam with more freedom, but she ultimately wanted better for him. As though he was her son. And one supposes he was. Or at least the closest thing she had to family. For, like her father before her, she had left Elle behind without any notification or trace, though surely she must have seen it coming. Was probably even glad it had finally happened and Claire was no longer her “burden” to bear.
It was no matter now. Claire refused to think of her ever again once she had escaped living under the same roof. It was only Baz she though of, determined to settle on a farm with him somewhere close enough to Sydney but slightly on the outskirts. At last, she was able to fulfill this dream after years of saving up portions of her salary to choose the perfect plot of land.
Baz appeared happy at first, roving over the lands with zeal and glee that she had never seen him possess at the park. But over the course of a six-month period, something in Baz changed. As though he became more feral as a result of being perpetually among nature. Still, Claire didn’t think too much of it, especially as he continued to sleep at the foot of her bed each night. Until one evening when he didn’t return from his usual daily tussle with the fields.
She called and called for him until practically hoarse, blue in the face. Where was he? It was then she understood that a human knows not the distinction between excuses for one’s absences or “brief pauses” outside of the house. All they can determine is that you’ve either abandoned them or not.