The following is the opening passage from “Searching for Steven,” my 2011 NaNoWriMo project which follows Daniella (Dani) and her estranged mother as they take an unlikely cross-country trip together. The following is the opening passage of this unfinished novel that currently stands at roughly 11.5K words.
“It’s just… she’s not really your dog. I have no idea what Agatha wanted.”
“Well she sure as hell isn’t your dog!” Dani stood as straight as she could, trying to imagine she could stretch taller than Vince who slouched in the doorway. “And unlike you, I do know what Aggie wanted…. It’s really not up to you,” Dani said, striding decisively past Vince and into the house.
It was weird to be in Aunt Aggie’s house now. It was the only place Dani had ever felt really at home and now….
No time for that, Dani thought. I need to find Roxy and get her out of here. Where was Roxy? Usually she was all over Dani every time she walked into the house, bumping her forehead against Dani’s knees and pawing her shoes with excitement, but the house was even quieter than Dani had feared. She let her guard down a second too long, and her eyes wandered over to the kitchen. Dani felt her feet walking in that direction, of their own accord. Aunt Aggie’s not in there, Dani told herself firmly, but her feet were already well on their way.
“Where are you going?” Vince asked still standing in the doorway. Dani didn’t answer. Something was driving her into the kitchen. How she wanted to turn around, wanted with all her heart NOT to see those four walls empty, wanted to remember that kitchen always with Aunt Aggie in it: Aunt Aggie, lighting it up with her smile, Aunt Aggie filling a tea kettle, Aunt Aggie brightening up everything with her unquenchable smile. This was the trip Dani’s feet had made every day after the bus dropped her off from school.
Suddenly Dani felt like she’d walked a mile since she’d come in the house. Her shoulders slumped. Aunt Aggie wasn’t here. She never would be again. Aggie’s bright spirit had indeed left the world last night, was godknowswhere by now, and Dani didn’t even want to think about where Aunt Aggie’s body was.
“Roxy’s in the garage.”
“Huh?” Dani turned blankly back toward Vince. He might as well have just said something in Mandarin or Klingon.
“Roxy’s in the garage,” Vince repeated.
“What are you doing here anyway?” Dani asked, but as soon as the words came out of her, she realized she didn’t care to hear the answer. Whether Vince needed more time to come up with something or whether he was planning on just staring at Dani dumbly didn’t really matter to her now. She turned and headed for the garage door.
“Roxy, here girl.” Dani had expected that Roxy would come bounding up to her the minute she opened the door, but instead she was greeted with silence, no sign of the terrier/bulldog mix and foul urine odor. “Roxy?” Dani stepped down to the concrete floor and began investigating. She followed her nose to the far corner of the garage, turning the corner around a big stack of boxes. There, she found a few yellow puddles and a couple little piles of Roxy poop. “What?” Dani wondered aloud. “Roxy was the best dog ever. She would NEVER poop or pee in the house.
As if in answer, Dani heard a whine from the opposite corner, and when she pulled up the side a plastic tarp, she found Roxy with the guiltiest eyes she’d ever seen on the sweet little dog. The truth registered, and Dani felt the anger start to burn inside of her, but not before she knelt and began reassuring the shaggy mutt. “It’s okay, Rox. That bastard has kept you cooped up in here for who knows how long. What a dolt! It’s not your fault, sweetie!” Roxy’s tail began to thump on the floor at Dani’s reassurances. “Really, it’s okay, sweetie. Come on.”
Roxy sprang up and was ten paces ahead of Dani who quickened her pace to follow the dog back into the house so she could open up the back door for her. Roxy didn’t even wait to get to her favorite spot in the yard. Two step off the back porch the terrier mix sqatted, clear relief and gratitude showing in her loving eyes. Dani knew the poor pup would also need to relieve herself the other way and she wanted to take the time to let Vince receive her rage with the dog mostly out of earshot. Yelling upset Roxy, and Dani knew it.
“You kept her locked up in the garage the whole time?” Dani’s eyes had daggers for Vince, and her voice was stony.
“Y-Ya know, this is hard for me too, Daniella,” Vince stammered.
“Oh, whatever!” Dani cried. “Why? Because you’re losing your free rent and meal ticket?”
“That’s not entirely fair, Dani”
“Don’t you call me Dani! And don’t you try to tell me how this is hard for you. You knew Aggie, what, six months?”
“Nine,” Vince replied quietly.
“Yeah, whatever!” Dani replied, shaking her head in disgust and making for the front door with Roxy in tow. “You really should just go. This isn’t your house.” If Vince tried to say anything else, Dani didn’t hear it. She made sure to slam the front door shut behind her, and once outside, she scooped up Roxy who licked her face incessantly making Dani crack a smile despite everything. She set Roxy softly into the passenger seat of her VW Rabbit and shut the door.
Pulling out of the driveway, Dani wondered if she’d ever be back here and suddenly wished she’d though to strip the comforter off the bed in her old room, wished she’d brought a box to grab some of her favorite things out of there and the kitchen. Too late now. Dani shrugged hard trying to convince herself it didn’t matter. Aggie was gone so it was pointless to stare at those dreamy little girl things anymore.
“Time to grow up,” Dani said out loud. As she pulled out onto the main road, she reached over to scratch Roxy’s ears. Roxy stared up at Dani with her angel eyes and nudged her wet nose on the passenger window. Dani laughed, “Okay, girl,” and rolled down the window obligingly. Roxy lolled her head out the window in obvious joy Dani wished she could share.
Now that she had the dog, she realized she didn’t really know where she was going. She’d been so single-minded in her mission to get Roxy out of Aunt Aggie’s house, that she hadn’t given a moment’s thought to where she’d keep her. The college dorms didn’t allow pets, nor did Dani know anyone in the campus area who could take her in. She shook her head at the ridiculous thought. Of course she didn’t know of anyone in the neighborhood who could take Roxy in. She didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood at all. Maybe one of her professors…. Dani ticked off the list in her head, but the prospects seemed slim.
Dani looked over at Roxy again who was still lolling her face out the car window in the ecstatic way that only dogs can. Dani felt a surge of love and sympathy for the dog. Did Roxy know, she wondered. As if the dog had read her mind, Roxy pulled her head back inside the car, turning to Dani and putting a paw up to Dani’s shoulder. It was too much. The tears were coming all over again, and Dani had sworn she was done with them for today. She had far too much to do to be weeping and wailing any more. That had been her whole morning. Only her determination to rescue Roxy had allowed her to turn off the convulsive sobs for a little while. That was why she’d narrowed her focus so entirely to how things at the house would go, without giving an inch of thought to what she would do or where she would take Roxy afterward.
Now the sobs overtook Dani’s body again, the tears blurring her vision. She’d have to pull over just to be safe. Dani turned into a local city park parking lot and concentrated just long enough to find a safe parking spot before switching off the car and giving herself over entirely to her grief. Her whole body rocked and the choking gasping feeling of the sobs took hold. Roxy crept closer, licking at her tears and whining as she pushed her wet nose and tongue to Dani’s cheek. Dani pulled the little mutt into her lap and hugged her tight. Roxy made no fuss, but kept up the job of licking away Dani’s tears.
“You do know, don’t you?” Dani wept. You know your mama’s gone. Oh Roxy!”
The sharp knock on the window made Dani flinch around and Roxy growled protectively. A boy looking to be about Dani’s age was shading his eyes to see in the window. A look of concern reached through the shaggy curls of his longish hair.
“Hey, are you okay?” His voice sounded muffled coming through the glass of the window and Roxy was still bristling protectively over Dani.
“It’s okay, Rox,” Dani assured her, pushing her gently back into the passenger seat. Dani cranked the window down, finding her calm persona reasserting itself just as it had when she’d been dealing with Vince earlier. “I’m fine. Can I help you?” Dani hoped by asking a question in response to his own that she might get to skip making any long speeches or explanations.
“It’s just you’re crying your eyes out in there….” the boy began. He stopped uncertainly as if he’d almost expected to be cut off mid-sentence and hadn’t planned what he would say beyond those first few words.