short fiction

On Burnside Circle

Kate Sowinski

The first thing I notice about the house is the smell. It’s not something easy to place. I know it’s not from cooking, no heavy hand with spices. It’s not the scent of heated pots painting the kitchen walls. I’ve seen her fridge, full of condiments. The hanging copper pots have a layer of dust over them, the tea kettle too. The smell isn’t earthy either. There’s one plastic palm in the living room, nothing alive in the house but her and the dog.

The dog is the reason I’m here. She’s going away, and I’ve been asked to watch it for six days. The dog takes four pills daily and needs to be walked three times a day.

The part that worries me most about the smell is what if I stop smelling it. What if it becomes so familiar to me I confuse it with myself. I wonder if it’s connected with the dog. I don’t let it sleep on the bed with me. What if I woke up and its giant black-brown eyes were staring at me in the dark, the way they look up at me on our walks when its back is scrunched up, watching me watching it during a private moment. We look at each other on opposite ends of the couch, alone now with nothing but days between us. The dog scratches the top of its back leg as best it can.

I use the dining room that she has gated off from the dog to set up a base for myself. I counted three gates in total in the house, and I plan to use each one. I can hear the dog scratching at its yellow comforter laid out across the sofa. I sit down to read and scratch my stomach.

I left for a good part of the day, and the smell assaulted me when I came back. It’s strongest where you enter the house at the kitchen, at the front door that’s really the side door. It weakens the farther into the house you get. The steps to the third floor have cleaning supplies piled on them. She keeps a lot of things in corners so that from the sides of your eyes, you think there’s something else in the house with you. The worst is the almost life-size copper knight in armor in the entryway corner. The real entryway for the actual front door. It feels out of place, jarring in a house where the decor is unobtrusive. There’s a white canvas painting still wrapped in plastic on the wall. The walls are gray, like the color a knight’s armor should be. I think the knight knows it’s not supposed to be here. I imagine it shuffling side to side on its metal feet, politely waiting for its guard to end.

Before she left, she took me into the basement, wanted to show me how to turn the water off in the house should I need to. I noticed the smell didnt follow us down. The steps and walls were painted white. I nod from ten feet away at the handle she points out, my feet still on the stairs. I turn to go back up, and the dog is at the top, staring. She tells me it’s deaf.

I’m itchy now under all my clothes. All the ones I brought in my blue duffle bag are zipped closed in the bedroom. I found a pair of my underwear in the dog’s bed. In my head, I call it a pervert. Now I keep all my clothes in the duffel. But the itch is there under all of them—freshly cleaned clothes from home. I’d thought it was her detergent. Between the sheets of the bed, I was scratching. But it can’t be just that, not with the inside of all my clothes. The dog scratches when it’s supposed to be asleep. I can hear it breathing from below the foot of the bed, its toenails scratching through its thick fur.

It’s dark out here. There’s a neighbor on one side of the house blocked out by large shrubs. When I look out the windows at night, nothing stares back at me but a blackness between the panes.

I came back to the house briefly after work for its third walk and dinner pills. It whines while I’m spoon-cutting the square of wet food into the kibble, not dropping the bowl fast enough to the floor. I leave while the dog is still eating, its name tag clinking against the bowl, metal on metal. I don’t scratch my forearms so much when I’m not here. When I return, the sun is setting behind the trees, so they look like black paper cutouts against a darkening sky. A figure walks across the cutouts, and I stare. How far away, I wonder. I go into the house and lock myself in. The house is dark except for the kitchen light I can’t find the switch for. The dog walks out of the dark and into the kitchen with me. I narrow my eyes at it. I wonder how it knew I was back if it couldn’t hear anything. It stares unblinking back at me. The gate blocking the stairs is knocked down. I pretend I don’t notice.

Another night passes. I’m somewhere between halfway and almost done. My scalp started itching. I hold my shirt up in front of the mirror, squinting at my stomach. It looks redder, I think. I send daily updates to her about the dog with photos. It looks like it’s begging for help in every one, but I send them anyway. Maybe she’d come home sooner. Coming down the stairs, I think the knight is standing more to the left. I don’t have anywhere to go today, but I leave the house anyway. In line for coffee, I feel the person behind me take a step backward. I bow my head to smell my shirt. It’s following me now, I think. What if when I leave and wash my clothes, the smell stays? I imagine my clothes in a metal trash can on fire, and I give the dog a smaller portion of wet food when I get back.

I’m washing a coffee mug, the only piece of her dishware collection that I use. I’m not looking outside, not into the black glass above the sink. I’m not looking outside into the trees, the nothingness at the back of the house. There’s nothing to see out there, so I look at the mug that I keep washing. The trees aren’t moving, encroaching on the house. There is definitely not a figure out there among the trees. There’s a chip in the bottom ring of the mug. I try to remember if it had always been there.

The house is old, it must be, I think, because I’ve always heard that the noises in homes, that wood popping that comes from places inside you can’t pinpoint, are the bones of the house settling. This must be a very old house. I hear other noises, too, when I’m in the dining room behind the gate. Noises that sound like dog nails click-clacking above me. I know it’s not up there. I know it can’t be. I stretch my neck out of the doorway and see that the gate is up on the stairs.

I’ve stopped drinking the water from the tap and started using the water bottles she keeps in the fridge for the dog. She told me they were specifically for the dog, something about water softener. I think again about the switch in the basement and wonder where I should hide my empty plastic bottles.

Testing the dog now, I yell “treat” from different rooms of the house to see if itll come. Maybe it knows what I’m doing. Or maybe it knows I wouldn’t give it one even if it did come. I tried it while we were in the same room together with my back turned to it, just to see.

She called. Yes, everything is fine. The dog stared at the phone like it was asking to be put on with her. Shes checking up on me. I stare guiltily at my growing pile of empty water bottles on the counter. I look down at the dog with an accusation. Tell him I miss him, tell him I love him. I hang up and say nothing to the dog.

I change in the bathroom now with the door closed before bed. I saw it looking at my stomach, which is definitely much redder, I’m sure. The dog pretends not to notice. Its back is to me when I turn out the light. Both of us breathe in the dark.

The door to the basement is an outside door, but it’s on the inside in the kitchen. It has a window and a curtain covering it. I can’t peek through it though, it’s on the basement side. We’re out of water bottles upstairs. There are more in the basement where the handle to turn the water off completely is. If the dog could hear, I’d make a joke about it.

It would be a quick trip down to get a case of water, less than a minute. My hand holds the knob like they’re two strangers introducing themselves. I look to see if the dog is near. The house is silent. A breath of anticipation inhales through the hallways. I’m turning the knob, but my eyes are behind me, waiting for the dog. I open the door towards me. They are in this together, the house, the dog, the copper knight in the entryway. I picture myself walking down the stairs and the dog above me, a paw on the light switch. That’s stupid, I think, and silently I agree with myself. It would much more likely wait until I had the case of water in both my hands, covering my feet. Or it’s already down there, waiting in the dark. Black fur in blackness. It would scoot up the steps, just under my feet. It would trip me, so I fell backward, the case of water landing on my stomach. It’d turn off the light and lock the door and sacrifice me to whatever lives in the basement shadows, and whatever produces this smell will get me. The smell, so putrid, it’s solid down here. I didn’t smell it before, not when the lights were on, but in the dark, the walls are black. In the dark, the smell is so thick and clawing. Just me down here devoured by smell.

I close the door and snatch my hand away from the knob. The dog appears in the kitchen. I leave to buy water from the store, careful to purchase the same brand as hers—only one more day.