It was their first Fall in Colorado and their first Fall together. The trees that lined downtown Longmont’s sleepy main street flashed yellow and red when they weren’t watching. John admired the leaves through the floor-to-ceiling windows of their one bedroom, which hovered above the street. The apartment already felt small, though Ella was barely two months old.
John left early, after feeding Ella then Jewel, a two-year old Husky Natalie saved from a shelter before they’d met. He took the road toward Estes Park, planning to photograph Aspens. As the car twisted and climbed, John glanced at Ella in the rear-view.
Natalie’s holistic school was intensive, so he let her sleep-in weekends. It was why they left New Orleans after all. That, plus New Orleans was no place to raise a child.
They did not move for John to work at Cube Graphics – a sweat shop that produced stock photo prints for Wal-Mart and Clear Channel billboards—where he spent workdays fantasizing about some different life that existed inside the pictures that came alive inside the printer.
Ella slept soundly in her car seat when they reached the trailhead. Splotches of Aspens burned yellow across the sides of green mountains. John momentarily considered leaving her behind; the out and back was barely two miles.
Ella screamed as John put her in the backpack carrier Natalie’s mom presented at the shower, where she wept for their leaving Louisiana, though she never visited once before Ella.
The incline proved steeper than John expected. He grew winded not far from the trailhead and leaned against a rock to rest. Two fit young women passed. They smiled, but farther down the trail, John heard them giggle.
Natalie woke to silence. A comfortable terror struck. After peeing and staggering into the living room, she remembered John had Ella. Jewel jumped on her and whined. She grabbed the leash from the hook by the door.
Natalie tied Jewel up by the doughnut shop on the corner. She ordered a bear claw and coffee but was forced to rush outside when Jewel caused a commotion.
A dad held his toddler close. A trickle of blood rolled down the child’s finger.
“She nipped him!”
Natalie grabbed Jewel and apologized profusely. As the dad left with his screaming child, she pet the dog, unsure what else to do.
Natalie wandered around downtown after that. She devoured the bear claw. On a park bench, she read updates and news on her phone until she couldn’t figure out what to look at any longer. Then she went home, dragging Jewel behind her.
John reached the top of the trail. It didn’t seem like much of an achievement. He set his pack down; the pack that held his child. He snapped photos. It was hardly professional, but it represented something. John out in the world doing his own thing.
On the way down, he passed many people. None seemed to have concerns that mirrored his. On the ride home, he blared Tom Petty. He thought about old John. Old girlfriends. He didn’t think much about Natalie.
The Saturday before Halloween they dressed Ella as a pumpkin and watched the town’s Halloween Parade. Costumed children and families lined the streets. It was the first blustery day of Fall. They huddled together on the sidewalk as still as cardboard cutouts. The wind fleeced branches of leaves and sent twirling vortexes through the streets to smash against walls and settle in strange places. Natalie’s warmth felt familiar yet distant. It was all about the child now.
As the crowds thinned, John found himself drinking on the patio of a downtown bar. Natalie labored up with Ella on her back.
“This is what you want to do today?” she asked.
When they stumbled into the apartment, they were both drunk. Natalie sat Ella on the kitchen floor, in her car seat.
They smoked a joint. As the high settled, they tore at each other’s clothes.
Natalie’s playlist blared with music John hadn’t heard. They had sex on the living room carpet—ignoring Jewel’s barking and growling—a brand of sex they’d long forgotten. When it was over, they fell apart in hopeless bliss.
Natalie saw it first, the strange flesh dangling from Jewel’s lips; the confusion in the dog’s eyes. When John realized what had happened, there was nothing left but the unhinged madness of Natalie’s screams and the swelling of reality.
Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. He lives in Denver, Colorado. His work is featured or forthcoming in Pembroke Magazine, Ghost Parachute, X-R-A-Y, The Hunger Journal, The Fiction Pool, Menacing Hedge and Five on the Fifth.