First Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018

          They were an older couple, fifty and forty-nine, and childless when they found me. They’d been told by someone at the agency that it was perfectly permissible to “spoil” a newly adopted child in order to compensate for the time she’d spent parentless, but were never informed when to stop. I was treated like the goddess Athena and every offering—including a sixth birthday party with a full-size carousel professionally set up in the backyard and removed the following weekend—was elaborately planned and kept secret. 
          I didn’t want them. I wanted my best friend Jane Switzer’s parents. Both lawyers.
          “As if you’d ever see them,” Jane said.

          One Christmas Eve, when I was nine, my father came into the house after collecting the morning mail. He handed over an envelope addressed to me, and I noticed the stamp was uncancelled. The return address simply said North Pole. I’d pretty much disregarded the idea of Old Saint Nick but, in the interest of getting more stuff, played along. The folded note inside informed me that “Mr. C” had a special gift; finding it would not be simple. I needed to follow a series of clues. The first was written on the bottom of the note and directed me to proceed to my grandmother’s house in Baltimore to await further instructions.
          “We’d better get a move on,” my father said, and Mom quickly packed a suitcase and made sandwiches for the five-and-a-half-hour drive.
          Of course my grandmother was in on the entire thing and after a huge dinner, I found an index card taped to the bottom of my cake plate. “Sleep well,” it said, “and you’ll receive another hint in the morning.”
          “We won’t be home for Christmas?” I asked. “What about my stocking? What about the presents?”
          My mother explained, “Santa knows you’re here. Maybe this is where the presents will be.”
          Horseshit, I thought. It was my new favorite word, one that Jane Switzer and I loved to use, but I knew coming out with it now would not end the day well.
          And a good thing, too, because Mom was correct. The following morning, under my grandmother’s prefabricated silver-and-blue Christmas tree, were a plastic travel kennel, a matching leash and collar, a pair of metal feeding bowls, and a ten-pound sack of dry food. My red felt stocking, smuggled by my mother no doubt, was tacked on the mantle and inside, along with the standard fare, was another note: “After breakfast, continue south into Virginia. Locate 14 Garath Kennels Road just outside Roanoke. There you will find the companion you’ve always wished for.”
          The photograph is somewhere among the fifteen or so albums that my mother collected and kept on the bookshelf. They recorded my entire life from a shaky referral picture my parents received before we’d even met, to a shot of me leaving for Boston University. The one I’m talking about shows me holding a French Bulldog in my arms, the drab brown outdoor surroundings of Garath Kennels in the background, a large red bow around the puppy’s neck. I do not look all that pleased because a dog was never a thing I wanted.
          On the endless ride back to Connecticut, with this squirming animal constantly trying to loosen itself from my grip, I decided to call her Twist.
          “‘Twist’ is a verb,” my mother said from the front passenger seat. “Are you sure you want “Twist?’”
          “It’s perfect,” Dad said from behind the steering wheel. “‘Twist’ can be a noun. Like licorice twist.”
          “Or the dance,” Mom agreed.
          “Twist of fate.”
          “A twist in time saves nine.”
          This cracked them up for some reason and I was almost reluctant to break the mood by announcing that the dog had just urinated on my new jeans.

          I was the only disciplinarian in a house with few rules. I cautioned Twist against chewing things and begging at the table. I taught her a few simple commands, chief among them being to stay out of my room. I housebroke her. But soon other things intruded: field hockey and sleepovers and cool guys. My dad, who I later learned had initially been opposed to getting the dog, wound up becoming her caretaker. It wasn’t something he disliked. He’d feed the Frenchie too much and too frequently. He’d buy her toys—knotted ropes and rubber bones and squeaky alligators—that lay in a mostly ignored pile in the corner by her “Cozy Cuddle Dream Lounger.” It was during this time that Mom had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and became almost totally housebound. Twist and my father would go on long walks, often coming home with some form of take-out dinner, Dad smelling like the cigars that had been banned from our house. 

          Jane Switzer once asked me about my biological parents. We were lying side-by-side in a daisy-patterned hammock stretched between trees in her backyard. It was July, our last summer before high school, and Jane had her first boyfriend, a guy from Jamaica named Freddie.
          “Aren’t you even curious about who they might be?” she asked.
          “Not really.”
          “Your dad could be an astronaut. Your mom could be a fashion designer.”
          “I doubt it,” I said.
          “Suppose they came back and tried to reclaim you?”
          “That would be different.” 
          “You’d go with them?”
          I shrugged. “What else have I got to do?”

          My adoptive parents were romantics—embarrassingly so—and I always found their conduct, well, odd. On Saturday mornings, while still in bed, they would read short stories to one another while I memorized geometric formulas. My mom would copy a poem (I remember her liking Pablo Neruda,) and—before her speech was impacted—read it at the dinner table. They did not come from literary backgrounds. She was a photographer for the Hartford Courant, he was night manager at a country club in Fairfield County. But their love of images and innuendo, puns and palindromes, drove me—a typically rebellious child—toward what I considered more exact: trigonometry, triangulation, the Taylor Polynomial. I was an exceptional math and science student, and although I did marginally well with English and history, I felt much more at ease dealing with problems involving Gaussian elimination or conditional probability.  

          After my mother passed in late April of my junior year, things became really weird. I had just come home from BU for the first week of summer break, a quick stopover on my way to Washington D.C. to work a twelve-week internship with the National Security Administration. My second or third day home I heard Dad in the kitchen talking to Twist. “So, hon,” he said, “what do you feel like doing today?” It was the same way he used to talk to my mother on Sunday mornings, just before suggesting an afternoon of apple-picking or stopping by some tag sale he’d scouted out during the week. I noticed, too, that Dad was now feeding Twist the same food he was cooking for himself, hers sliced into tiny slivers, but served on the same dinnerware we ate from. By now the dog was overweight and sloppy.
          “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” I asked him, pointing to the dish of meatloaf  and peas and mashed potatoes on the floor by the dinette table.
          “Let her enjoy it,” he said. “Poor girl’s not going to live forever.”

          I didn’t return for six months. The university was between semesters, and a boy I’d been dating but didn’t particularly care for had broken up with me. I was embarrassed by what I perceived as a failure on my part and needed someplace to hide out. We had an early December snow that year, just a few inches, but when I got home I noticed that not only had my father shoveled the walk, he’d plowed out a semi-circle from the foot path onto the lawn. From the upstairs hallway window it resembled a giant letter “D.” A “doggie turn-around,” Dad called it. I noticed, too, that my father (no carpenter by any estimation) had built a respectable set of padded steps, a stairway that allowed Twist to forego the twenty-inch leap onto the sofa. Even this was an effort; the dog was mostly being carried around at this point and had either forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the fact that her bathroom was located outdoors.   
          In the garage, next to Dad’s Chevy Volt, was a black three-year-old Nissan Sentra I’d never seen before. I enquired and was told it was mine. “A steal,” my father said. “Consider it your Christmas present.”
          I suggested we go out for pizza that first night back, but my father didn’t want to leave Twist alone. Instead, he made us tomato soup (the dog’s served just slightly warm,) and grilled cheese sandwiches cookie-cut into the shapes of playing card suites. Dad had retired a year earlier at age seventy-one and apparently had nothing much to do other than to nurse the Frenchie and meticulously clean the house. Pots hung from hooks over the stove, copper bottoms shinning. Books were alphabetized on their shelves. Not one window was even slightly smudged.
          He’d even painted my bedroom, the walls a minty green, the ceiling so white is seemed to shine. Virtually everything was still intact from my high school days and I found the effect touching. I could envision him at the hardware store looking through those colored cards, moving my stuffed animals to a place that would be safe from paint splatter, laying down drop clothes and carefully taping off the windows.

          When I woke up the next morning, I could smell bacon frying and hear Dad talking to someone downstairs. I waited in bed until I heard the front door shut then listened as a car pulled away. 
          When I got to the kitchen, my father had some oldies station on the radio and was singing along with the Beach Boys as he gingerly flipped an omelet. Cushions had been set up for Twist all over the house and she currently occupied her favorite, the one in the corner near the heating vent. 
          “Guess who I was just talking to,” my dad said.
          I told him I had no idea and watched as he broke off a half strip of bacon then squatted down and fed it to the dog.
          “Stan Cangelosi. You remember Stan.”
          Stan Cangelosi was a caterer my father knew from his days managing the country club. I’d worked for the man one summer during high school as a server. Mr. Cangelosi was harmless as far as employers go, benign and as bland as banana pudding.
          “He was asking about you,” my father said as he stood and poured me a mug of coffee. “Wants to know what your long-term plans are.”
          I nodded, sat at the table, unfolded the newspaper.
          “Old Stan’s done pretty well for himself,” my father said. “He’s thinking he might even franchise. Come spring, he’ll be looking for somebody to handle his books.”
          It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, moving back to Connecticut, back into this house, working a job I had little interest in.
          “We’ll have to see what happens,” I said, but my dad smiled as if this was the affirmation he was looking for.

          A few days before Christmas I got a phone call from a man named Carl Fullerton who identified himself as a human resources officer with the NSA. He wondered if I’d enjoyed my summer internship with the agency, and I told him I had. He said the research mathematician I’d worked for had spoken highly of me.
          “Is graduation still on for this spring?” 
          I told him it was and he asked if I had any interest in pursuing a career as a cryptanalytic diagnostician once I got my degree. It would mean relocating to “the District,” getting a more than decent salary, and—most importantly—not having to join that rabble of groveling graduates begging for any position they could find in an already saturated job market.
          I admitted I was more than interested, and he promised to get back to me during the first week in February.
          My father did not greet this news with equal enthusiasm. We were decorating the six-foot artificial Christmas tree I’d grown up with when I told him. “Why would you want to live in D.C.?” he asked. “It’s as expensive as Hawaii. Think of the money you’ll save living here.”
          “I think it’s a better opportunity,” I said.
          “It’s dangerous. Have you checked out the crime statistics?”
          “I’ll be careful.”
          “Home invasions. People shot on the street for no reason. I don’t understand why you don’t—”
          “Because I hate it here,” I said calmly. “I feel stilted here.”
          There was a pause. He hung the ornament he was holding—a silver icicle—and said, “I guess I didn’t realize that.” 
          “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings,” I said.
          “No,” he said. “It’s okay, I get it.” And then he put on his coat, harnessed up the Frenchie, tucked her under his arm, and went outside into what the radio had referred to as “a blast of Arctic air.”

          We exchanged a couple of presents on Christmas day, and on New Year’s Eve I went out with Jane Switzer for a late dinner. She was a single mom working in her father’s law office and going to community college at night, and for three-and-a-half hours we found virtually nothing to talk about. I’d invited my dad to join us, but he said there was a late Packers/Bears game on TV and that the dog might be confused being left alone that long. 
          When I came in around one in the morning, Twist was dead. She was on her cushion next to the heating vent, just lying there, mouth open. I didn’t need to check for a heartbeat because I knew, I just knew. I could hear my father upstairs snoring, the television still on. I wrapped her in an old beach towel and got a cardboard box from the basement. I thought about putting her on the front porch but decided to leave her where she was. I went into the living room and stretched out on the sofa. I wanted to be there in the morning when my dad came down.

          The ground was frozen, so I wound up contacting a veterinarian who suggested cremation. “Very dignified,” he said. “Very respectful. And if you wish, we can even give you the cremains.”
          I told him we’d pass on the cremains.
          My father never shed a tear in front of me, but he did get drunk the night after I dropped Twist at the vet. Found a bottle of tequila from what was probably a Cinco de Mayo celebration when my mother was alive. I sat at the kitchen table with him and poured, and I knew he’d reached his limit when he said, “It’s my fault. Giving her all that people food.”
          “She was thirteen years old,” I told him. “The food had nothing to do with it.”
          “This is my problem,” he said. “I can never let go.”
          I was tempted. It would have been easy. Call Stan Cangelosi, I could have said. Tell him I can start in May.
          But I didn’t, thank God. I simply said, “Let’s try and get some sleep,” and I capped up the bottle and poured his unfinished tequila into the sink.
          He didn’t last long after that; I didn’t expect him to. He died that summer, less than three weeks after I moved to D.C.

          “I think I’m incapable of love,” I told a man who proposed marriage less than a year later.
          “That’s impossible,” he said. “You’d have dried up like a fallen leaf by now.”
          I turned him down. Instead, remembering my father’s warning, I bought a dog for protection. A Shepherd-collie mix I named Rubin. I walk him in Montrose Park and around the Rosedale Conservancy, and every so often I’ll throw the ball or play tug.
          He seems to like me, but I can’t—try as I may—figure out why.

Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 nominee for the Indie Award for Best Short Story Collection. Since that time, his work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb, New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, The MacGuffin, LitBreak, and other terrific places. Z.Z. is married to novelist Tricia Bauer and they have a daughter, Lia, currently at Vassar College.