fiction: pack animals

The first time Maggie sees the coyotes it’s in the afternoon and there are three of them, a family, their small gray wily bodies just disappearing through the cluster of pine trees at the far end of the yard, where the winter woods begin. At first, she thinks they’re foxes. Then she blinks, and they’re gone. She’s standing at the sink scouring a stockpot–the dishwasher is leaking again–barefoot on the towel she put down to sop up the puddle, an old threadbare one she uses on the dogs. The spray from the faucet splashes the front of her thermal as she stares at the vacant tree line across the long expanse of acreage beyond the barn. Cold air slices through the kitchen. The tenant ambles through the back door.

“Sorry,” Maggie says, startled, turning away from the grimy window and pushing her hair out of her face with one soapy wrist. Some days Maggie thinks she will be apologizing for the brokenness of this house for the rest of her life. She motions at the dishwasher, embarrassed, feeling like some red-faced pauper woman out of Charles Dickens. “I’ll call the guy in the morning to come fix it.”

“It’s fine,” he says, shaking his sandy head and stepping over White Dog, who’s lounging on the floor in front of the oven. He’s wearing baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, the tenant; he looks even younger than usual, which is young. “I can take a crack at it first, if you want.”

Maggie considers this. She doesn’t think of the tenant as handy with appliances, though she supposes there’s no reason he couldn’t be. Last time the dishwasher broke Grant was home between deployments and he tried to teach her how to fix it, but since he died Maggie’s gotten used to calling for one form of help or another, a parade of repairmen in and out of the house. She should have paid closer attention. “Sure,” she says. “Knock yourself out. Thanks.”

“No problem.” The tenant–Sam–shrugs again. He is the calmest person Maggie has ever met. When he first moved into the half-finished space above the barn at the beginning of January she worried he was on drugs but now she thinks it’s actually just his natural state of being, the zenned-out kid in the back of the classroom. Maggie has never, ever been that kid.

She puts the pot on the drying rack and wipes her raw, red hands on her jeans. “Pasta okay?” she asks, opening the fridge and pushing aside the last of Monday night’s chili. Whenever Sam cooks he makes enough for all of New England, which is a thing she sort of likes about him. She’s brought leftovers to work all week. “I can make meat sauce.”

“Pasta’s great,” Sam says, stepping out of the way as Black Dog wanders in from the dusty dining room and heaves himself down on the tile next to his brother. “You need any help?”

“Nope, I’ve got it,” Maggie says, glancing out the window one more time. It’s barely four o’clock but the sun’s already setting, that pale pink light. She thinks she sees some movement, a tail maybe, but when she squints there’s nothing there. It feels alarmist to mention it. “Thanks, though. I’ll yell up before I leave.”

Sam heads out through the back door, his narrow frame receding past the shriveled vegetable garden and towards the barn. Maggie lets out a long exhale, the air whooshing out of her lungs like the intubation bags they use at the hospital. It’s been six weeks now, and it’s actually fine, but it’s awkward, still, like they haven’t quite figured out how to navigate one another. They are very polite. Maggie can never decide how formal she needs to be with him, if he calls her the Widow Porter to all his friends. He knocked on the back door every single time he wanted to use the kitchen until she explicitly told him he didn’t need to.

Through the window Maggie watches the lights go on in the workshop where he builds his chairs and tables, then a minute later in the sleeping loft upstairs. It’s strange, having someone else live here. She’s oddly aware of when he comes and when he goes.

Maggie glances at the tree line one more time, feels a low roll of dread rumble through her like the sound of thunder two towns over. She fills the clean stockpot with water and turns on the stove.




On Tuesday morning she gets done with her shift and finds her old green Jeep completely dead in the hospital parking lot, sitting there like some rusted bit of public art from the Clinton Administration. Maggie swears, a hot spinning panic rising in her chest before she can quell it. She breathes. This happens sometimes now, these waves of suffocating helplessness that never once hit her when Grant was in Iraq or Afghanistan. She was brave, then; she once chased a family of raccoons out of the living room wearing pajamas and a pair of galoshes. She feels like she ought to be more equipped to solve her problems alone.

Finally she pulls it together and calls the garage in Burlington, arranges for a tow she can’t nearly afford. Then she calls the tenant. “I know it’s early,” she apologizes, wrapping an arm around herself to keep warm and feeling that same broken-dishwasher humiliation, like her life is a mess and this stranger is witnessing it. She’s still got her scrubs on under her parka. “I wouldn’t ask, but.”

“It’s no problem,” the tenant says, and Maggie doesn’t know him well enough to be able to tell if he’s lying from the sound of his voice. Either way he shows up twenty minutes later in the pickup truck, wearing one of those corduroy jackets with the shearling inside, the kind every boy Maggie knew in high school always wore and Grant never did. There are two Dunkin’ Donuts cups in the console. Sam hands her one. “So this is where you work?” he asks, peering up through the windshield as they turn out of the lot.

“Yup.” Maggie takes a sip of her coffee, surprised at the gesture. For eleven years, she doesn’t add, as a nurses’ aide. She was going to finish nursing school, but she married Grant instead. Both of them gave up so many things. “Up in the NICU,” she says.

Sam looks startled by that. “Lot of sick babies?” he asks.

“Some,” Maggie says. His whole body’s gone quiet and still, an animal in the woods who’s heard a sound. It’s not posture she’s seen out of him before.  “Some of them are just small.”

Sam nods. He doesn’t talk again until they get off the highway, pine trees and the black crust of old snow along the sides of the road. “Dishwasher’s fixed,” he says.

“Oh!” Maggie says, taken aback both by the change of subject and by the repair. “Thank you.” It’s not that she wasn’t expecting follow-through from him, it’s just that–well, yeah, she wasn’t really expecting follow-through. It’s nice.

“No problem,” Sam says again–it’s a thing he says a lot, she’s noticing, like there are bigger things in life for him to worry about. “It was just a belt thing. My brother’s a plumber,” he explains, when Maggie tilts her head. “I used to work for him in high school.”

Maggie nods. It’s warm in the cab of the truck, the wheezy heat turned all the way up and the cup in her hands. She tries to remember the last time anyone drove her anyplace, and can’t. The inside of the truck is cleaner than she might have expected it to be; she’s not very generous in her assumptions about people, was a thing Grant used to say.

“Lot of brothers and sisters?” she asks, more because it seems like the situation demands a kind of benign politeness than out of actual curiosity. She doesn’t know very much about him, is the truth. They haven’t talked a lot since he moved in—it feels cleaner that way —but she finds she likes the sound of his voice as he tells her about his sister in New Mexico and another in Chicago, both way older than him.

“Everybody spread out when I was pretty young, so I stuck kind of close to home, you know?” he says, making the turnoff from the main road onto their narrow, winding lane. “We were only living like six blocks from my mom in Nashua, before I came here.”

Maggie catches that we and wonders who he’s talking about, but it feels like prying to ask and anyway they’re pulling into the long, rocky driveway, the farmhouse slouching into the landscape at the end of it, all peeling paint and crumbling chimney. The barn lists, just slightly, to one side. It’s freezing up in the hayloft, Maggie knows, even with the space heaters; it occurs to her, not for the first time, to feel bad that he’s paying actual money to live here. Maggie grew up in this place, knows all the creaks and groans and shadows. She feels as if she pulled a fast one on this kid.

“Sam, how old are you?” she asks, then hedges. “Is that an inappropriate question? As your landlady-type?”

Sam laughs at that–a new sound, and a nice one. He turns off the truck but doesn’t make any move to get out of it. “Probably,” he tells her. “But that’s okay. How old do you think I am?”

“Eleven,” Maggie says immediately.

“Twelve,” he deadpans, taking another sip of his coffee. “I’m twenty-four. How old are you?”

He’s twenty-four? Jesus Christ. Maggie stalls for a moment. She doesn’t know why it matters–it doesn’t matter, he’s her tenant and that’s all–but God, in this moment she feels ancient. She tucks one leg underneath her in her, shaking her head. A widow in a haunted house. “Older than that,” she finally says.

“Not by much,” Sam predicts. “Come on, I told.”

“You did,” Maggie agrees, and smiles for the first time all morning. “Looks like snow,” she says.



Once she can hear his saw going in the barn she makes herself some breakfast and lets the dogs out to pee, then finishes her coffee and stands at the back door calling their names until they come trotting back home. They’re Husky mutts, both of them, balls of fur all over the house like tumbleweeds. It used to make Grant crazy. Grant wanted a baby, and they got two dogs instead, and now there’s not a single bit of him left in the breathing world. Maggie thinks, with a familiar ache behind her breastbone, that she wasn’t very generous in a lot of ways.

Now she climbs upstairs to bed and settles the dogs on either side of her like a burrow, like a place to keep safe. “Sleep,” she tells them both, and they do.


Sunday is her night off so she reads for an hour and goes upstairs early, has a bath in the old claw-foot tub. She cries a bit, which happens now if she gets too warm or cold or tired. She uses the fancy bath salts she got in the Christmas grab bag at work.

When she’s through Maggie puts on sweatpants and an old Pats t-shirt of Grant’s that doesn’t smell like him anymore, rubs vanilla lotion into her elbows and knees. She’s climbing into bed when she catches some movement though the window above the nightstand; she narrows her eyes and there’s the tenant in a slice of pale winter moonlight, kissing a tall blonde-haired woman up against the driver’s side door of his truck.

Maggie gasps, she can’t help it, feeling old and used-up and easily scandalized. She hasn’t been kissed on the mouth in nearly a year. She thinks of her last night with Grant when she’s in the mood to torture herself, how angry she was he was leaving again and how she stayed quiet on purpose as a punishment, sinking her teeth into his shoulder when she came. She should have been better, she should have been easier on him. Sam’s got one hand on the blonde woman’s ass.

Maggie’s heart thumps unpleasantly but she watches them anyway, another full minute before she hears it: the shriek of a coyote in the distance, like the sound of a desperate woman’s scream. Maggie jumps. Sam and his date spring apart, the sound of their nervous laughter muffled by the distance and the glass before they hurry toward the barn, blurry figures holding hands in the darkness. Maggie gets into bed and turns out the light.



Sam turns up by himself the next morning, through the back door with a rattled expression on his normally smooth face. “Uh, hey,” he says, rubbing the back of his head like he’s got to tell her something and he thinks she’s going to be upset about it. He smells like someone who’s been cold getting warm again, a thermal human smell. “Did you know there’s coyotes around here?”

Maggie busies herself at the coffeemaker, pouring a second cup. “I did,” she confesses, not looking at him. “I saw.” She thinks of him out there with that woman in the moonlight, his hands on her body and his mouth on her neck, and feels herself flush warm inside her clothes. Then, when she’s arranged her expression into something she hopes is appropriately neutral, a landlady kind of face: Back by the woods, yeah?” she asks. “Or closer?”

“No, back by the woods.” Sam looks worried, for someone who grew up in New Hampshire. “I’m going to be gone overnight, is why I wanted to make sure and mention it. I’ve got a delivery up in Maine.”

Maggie smiles at the sentiment, like he thinks he’s going to protect her. Like he can. She forgot for a minute—for a night—how young he is. It’s reassuring to remember. “I’ll be fine,” she promises, getting a second mug off the rack and filling it for him. Black Dog, who’s been lying under the table, nudges at her thigh until she opens up the jar of treats.

“What’re you delivering?”

“Bedroom set,” Sam tells her. Then, shyly, as he reaches for the sugar bowl: “You wanna see?”

Maggie hasn’t been in the barn much since he started working out here, the cold smell of snow and sawdust and the dirt half-frozen under her boots. He’s set up a makeshift shop for himself, sawhorses and a long utility bench, pegboards to hang his tools on and a dock for his iPod plugged into the wall. On the far side over by the staircase, the space heater’s whirring ineffectively away.

The furniture’s more modern than she was expecting, a dresser and a canopy bed for a couple up in Bangor. It’s clean and it’s simple, blonde wood and smooth lines. Maggie looks at the slow, graceful curve of a new mother’s rocking chair, then back at Sam, the sudden animal longing so strong she wonders if he can smell it.

He can’t, thank God: “What do you think?” he asks hopefully, his smile crooked and eager. Maggie feels her breath catch behind her ribs.

“S’beautiful,” she murmurs, pulling her jacket around her more tightly, wanting to put as many layers as possible between the world and her traitorous body. She glances out the barn door, squints at the barren trees across the property. She should build a tall fence, she thinks.




The next morning she goes to put the sheets in the dryer and finds his stuff already in there, wrinkled and forgotten, cold to the touch. Maggie drops her sheets and pulls it out. At first she just tosses it all into the basket next to the washer but that feels aggressive so she pulls it back out again and sets to folding, smoothing out his jeans and his t-shirts, all different colors mixed together. It’s been a long time since she touched anybody’s laundry but her own.

Grant wouldn’t like it, she knows; it’s exactly the kind of thing small dumb thing he’d get jealous over, that they would have had a fight about before. Maggie balls up a pair of Sam’s wool socks and drops them into the basket. She feels guilty, and tells herself it’s absurd.

Once everything’s folded she crosses the chilly yard with the basket tucked into the cup of her hip, lets herself into the barn. After yesterday it feels empty and private to be in here without Sam. She sets the basket at the bottom of the steps to the old hayloft, up where the bed and bathroom are; she stands there breathing in the wood-dirt smell and imagining Sam’s shoulders, wondering what’s on the other side of the door.

Maggie shakes her head, wanting to clear it. God, she’s a ridiculous old bat. Across the yard she can hear Black Dog barking, scratching at the kitchen door to be let out, impatient. She tucks her hands in her pockets and heads for the house.




At work a set of preemie twins take a turn and Maggie comes home and puts bourbon in her coffee, sitting at the kitchen table watching the sun come up. She never used to drink whiskey, she thinks it tastes like an old shoe, but Grant liked it so there’s a lot of it in the house now with nobody to swallow it but her. White Dog rests his head on her knee, whines. Black Dog paces.

“Rough night?” Sam asks, when he comes in to fix himself some oatmeal. He’s already dressed in his stiff twill work pants, his smooth face ruddy from the walk across the yard. Last night he made chowder and left a pot of it in the fridge like an offering. Outside it’s still bitterly cold.

Maggie takes a sip of her coffee, flinches at the burn. “Something like that,” she says. She feels cautious around him in a different way than she used to. Since he got back from Maine she’s avoided the barn.

“Do you like what you do?” he asks, waiting for the kettle to boil. She never replaced the microwave when it broke two years ago, which makes both oatmeal and popcorn into a production by which he is apparently undeterred.

Maggie nods. “Most days,” she says, tracing the arch of White Dog’s furry eyebrow with one finger. It feels dangerous to tell him more than that, like anything she says might betray her. “Today, maybe not so much.”

“Yeah.” Sam’s quiet; the kettle whistles, and he turns off the range. Maggie watches him. “We had a baby, in Nashua,” he says, looking straight at her. His eyes are much bluer than she thought. “I had a girlfriend, and we had a baby. She was only five months pregnant when he was born.”

Maggie thinks of the morning he picked her up at the hospital, his rangy body gone wary and tense. It feels like the first moment after a gunshot. She remembers every stupid useless thing people said after Grant died, their smudgy fingerprints all over a loss that wasn’t theirs to handle. She thinks maybe Sam’s not such a kid after all.

In the end she nudges a kitchen chair out so he’ll sit down and have his breakfast in it. White Dog lets out a low, snuffling sigh. When she tips the bottle into Sam’s mug he nods and taps his boot against hers under the table, like he understands her. After a moment, Maggie taps his back.




That night she can’t sleep so she comes down into the kitchen for a peanut butter sandwich and finds a woman in boxer shorts, a University of Vermont sweatshirt, and a pair of too-big duck boots standing in front of the open fridge, holding two beer bottles. “Who the hell are you?” Maggie blurts, heart tripping. She feels like a German hausfrau in some kind of farce, the old movies she watches on cable when she’s alone and can’t sleep. Black Dog, who followed her down the staircase, parks himself in front of her and growls once.

“I’m Ellie,” the girl says, sounding alarmed. She’s blonde and tall, the same woman Maggie saw Sam kissing, or maybe not. The boxers are his, in any case. Maggie knows because she folded them while he was in Bangor. “I’m Sam’s friend. He sent me down to get beers, he said it was okay.”

Maggie blinks. That pisses her off a lot more than is really necessary, Sam’s friend, like Maggie’s his grandma or the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She scratches Black Dog behind the ears so he’ll calm down. “Well, now you’ve got them, don’t you.”

Ellie’s eyebrows shoot up, half a challenge. She smells, unmistakably, like sex. “I sure do,” she says.

“Okay then.” Maggie stands there, not moving. She knows she’s being a bitch, but she doesn’t particularly care. She wants this girl out of her house right now, wants it like a physical thing, wants to chase her out the door with a broom. She wants Grant, she tells herself. Most of all she wants to stop wanting. “Have a good night.”

“Yeah, I will.”

Ellie goes. Maggie makes her sandwich. She stands at the kitchen sink for a long time after she eats it, peering through the dark at the tree line. Waiting to see if something moves.




In the afternoon she’s getting in the car to go to work when Sam comes out of the barn, like he’s been waiting. “Talk to you for a sec?” he asks, squinting in the watery sunlight.

Maggie nods, feeling caught and defensive. Her head hurts. She didn’t get to sleep until almost five and she’s had that hungover sensation all day even though she didn’t drink anything, fuzzy and dull. “What’s up?”

Sam shrugs, rubbing some invisible scruff on his chin. It’s more than he usually fidgets. “Would you, like, rather if I didn’t come into the house during the night?”

Maggie blinks. It wasn’t you, it was a woman in your underwear, she thinks and doesn’t say. She can just imagine what the girl told him. “Mm?” she says, raising her eyebrows. She thinks of when she and Jessie were kids and about to get in trouble, of playing dumb like that, hoping the other person will draw any conclusion other than the obvious one. She’s a widow, she wasn’t jealous. She’s not. “No, of course not. You live here too.”

“Mag,” Sam says, in a voice like he doesn’t believe her. He’s never called her that before. “Look, if you didn’t like it, I wouldn’t—”

Oh God, that’s dangerous. Maggie shakes her head. “It’s fine, Sam,” she tells him. “Really, of course it is.”

Sam frowns. “Okay,” he says slowly, in a voice like it’s not at all. “But—“

“But nothing, Sam,” Maggie interrupts him. “You pay rent to me, you and your friends can come in the house when you want to, all right?”

For a second Sam—the tenant—just stares at her, hands in his pockets. There’s an expression on his face like she’s out to break his heart. Maggie almost apologizes—that would be the sensible thing, to apologize and escape, but then she just says it: “I’m thirty-three,” she tells him, and it feels like ripping a scab off. Her husband has only been dead for nine months.

Sam laughs out loud at that, sounding delighted, like she’s given him something. “You’re right,” he says, grinning. “You are old.”

Maggie rolls her eyes and scowls. God, this is a terrible idea. “I’m going to work,” she tells him.

“Uh-huh.” Sam keeps smiling, a secret hanging there between them like a summer fruit. “I’ll be here when you get back,” he says.




Wednesday morning Maggie gets home just as it’s turning light out, the dawn dripping up cold and blue behind the barn. She lets the dogs out, fills the coffeemaker, turns on the radio. Opens the door and calls the dogs back inside. She’s halfway through her cup of coffee before she realizes there’s been no scratch and whine at the screen.

“Black Dog!” she calls, slipping her boots on and letting the door slam behind her, crossing her arms against the frozen March wind. “White Dog!”

She shouts for a couple of minutes before she hears barking; Maggie feels a physical rush of relief in the moment before Black Dog darts out of the woods, looking abashed. White Dog isn’t with him. The fear is hot and immediate then, same as opening your front door and finding an Army Chaplain standing on the other side of it, the danger dull and general until the moment it’s not at all. Maggie’s raised these dogs since they were puppies, and not once have they ever come home separately.

She herds Black Dog into the kitchen and takes off at a tear across the long spread of slick, muddy yard screaming White Dog’s name the entire time. Dimly she’s aware of Sam coming out of the barn but she can’t hear anything, the taste of pennies in her mouth and her own heartbeat pulsing thickly at the back of her throat. He’ll come home, she thinks with surprising clarity. He’ll come home, he’ll come home, he’ll come home.

Then she sees the coyotes, and she knows.




In the afternoon the ground’s just thawed and so they bury White Dog under a naked tree on the north side of the barn, Black Dog pacing on his lead where they can watch him. It takes a long, hideous time. Maggie does most of the digging, though Sam offers. Her palms are a bleeding, blistery mess. When they’re finished, dirt filled in over White Dog’s stocky body and nothing left but a scar in the winter grass, Maggie lies down on the wet brown earth.

“Maggie,” Sam starts, so quiet. Maggie shakes her head so he’ll go.

She lies there by herself, mud seeping through her jeans until she’s shivering. She could have stopped this from happening, and now it has. Finally she gets up and brings Black Dog inside, feeds him and changes his water. Then she crosses the yard under a pale gray sky. Inside the barn she passes Sam’s half-finished beds and three rough-hewn table legs with no top to them, things that used to be and aren’t yet. She takes a deep breath, climbs the stairs to the loft, and knocks.