We didn’t have forests or fields, so we played in the sump. It was Becca’s idea to borrow a pair of pliers and cut the wires that circled the depression, peeling away steel to reveal a way in. In summer we jumped in puddles deposited by runoff, circles of liquid with a vague chemical scent. In winter we brought sleds, slipped down the edges and landed in the gray snow, where we licked its wetness from our thin gloves.
The sump had been ours for months before we found the first paw print. It was near the hole Becca had cut in the fence, the indentation large and clearly defined. We stood over it, staring, silent, at the four small holes that crowned it, a halo punctured by the creature’s nails. They must have been sharp.
Dottie started to sweep the print away, dragging her tennis shoe over the animal’s path, but Becca kicked her away, told her to leave it.
“It’s important,” she said, chewing on a strand of her greasy blonde hair.
“Why?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was stupid, so after that I didn’t say anything.
Each day we counted the paw prints, which were multiplying. They appeared each afternoon, always bigger than the day before, as if the animals—dogs, we decided, because there were no forests near us, no wild places at all—were growing. Becca named them. Geronimo was the largest, Alfred had the sharpest nails, and Winston was nervous. He took mincing steps along the edges while the others sauntered through the sump languidly, as if they owned it.
We made up stories about the dogs, pretended that we could turn ourselves into them. Becca was always Geronimo, mostly so she could to bat us around when we misbehaved. Once she bit Dottie’s ear. It bled, and at first the bright red bloom shocked us, especially since everything else in the sump was gray and faded. Then we howled, Dottie loudest of all, and ran in circles until we were hot and sweaty. We striped off our sweaters, threw them in the shallow puddles of water, knew our parents would be angry and didn’t care.
The dogs were like so many other things we’d heard about but didn’t believe in. College. Vegetables. Checking accounts. So on the day they finally appeared, shaggy and mottled, yellow eyes ablaze, we froze. Our mouth hung open and I was suddenly conscious of our teeth, useless flat nubs.
The dogs stood on the rim of the sump, gazing down at us. Geronimo snarled, as if we weren’t worth the effort of an actual bark. Alfred’s nails glistened in the sunlight, pinpricks of twitching silver.
Becca and Dottie began to cry, but my eyes were dry as I scanned the sump for the third dog, nervous Winston. And then I felt his snout pressing against my back, his paw on my leg. I remembered Dottie’s ear, how red the blood had been. When I imagined this moment, I pictured myself running, scrabbling up the sides of the sump, reaching for something different, a future I’d never seen and couldn’t describe.
But the walls were steep and my friends were crying and everything was already dirty and damp. Instead of running I turned around to face the dog. I opened my arms wide.
Christine Hennessey’s writing has been appeared in Bodega, Heavy Feather Review, Switchback, Prime Number, and LIT, among others. She has been awarded fellowships to Aspen Summer Words and the Vermont Studio Center. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and is currently at work on a novel.