Back then we lived near the center of town, behind the cavernous library. Mom worked in the orange-carpeted children’s room, which meant during the summers she could keep tabs on us during her break by walking through the hedge at the end of the parking lot and peeking over the fence into our backyard. Those summers, my brother Jason was our reluctant babysitter.
At sixteen and rising above doorways, Jason was scraggly and thin but seemed to me a giant. He was eight years older than me, and six years older than Jonathan. Despite receiving his license in February, he wasn’t yet allowed to drive past the town borders, so endless days at the beach were out of the question. For that summer at least, Jason was stuck babysitting us in exchange for gas money for his jalopy Geo Metro.
Most days, that meant hours in front of his Nintendo while Jonathan and I amused ourselves. In the mornings, we would stay in the backyard playing soccer (Jonathan’s favorite) or making up dances to Oldies tunes (my favorite) until it got too hot and we wanted lunch. We might walk over to the ice cream shop next to the grocery store for cones of mint chip, or sit in the big chairs at the library, reading the Babysitters Club and Goosebumps in the air conditioning. By Friday we would wheedle Jason into coming with us to the pool, and out of some excess of fraternal affection or maybe just because Mom had lectured him again, he’d sit on a lounger reading a Stephen King novel and ignoring us as we played in the water.
But every so often, just as the languid, heavy feeling of mid-summer boredom was beginning to press at our temples, Jason would appear at the back porch, sit on the step, clap his hands on his knees, and say, “Let’s have an adventure.” We would light up – a mirror to his smile – squeeze into the Geo, and drive around town until we found a park or a hiking trail we hadn’t explored yet that summer. We would play make-believe games – elaborate Westerns acted out in the same brush that Bonanza had reimagined as the Wild West.
That was where we found Raffles.
We had hiked to the ridge, eaten a picnic of leftover pizza, and were on our way back to the car, legs itchy with dust and nails crusted with dirt and sunscreen, imagining ourselves Westward explorers chasing the gold rush. Jonathan had picked up a rock for us to examine, and our heads huddled together as we studied its shininess. Was this true bounty, or fool’s gold? Jason hummed; this was not the riches we sought, and when daring Prospector Jonathan tossed it over his shoulder, the bushes began to rustle.
For a moment, I was distracted by the game and kept looking at the ground for more stones, but Jason snapped to alert and grabbed my hand. “Move, Jessie.” I suppose he was thinking of the bears that came down from the mountains, or the coyotes that howled at night. We rushed forward; Jonathan at the front, clutching our older brother’s right hand, I attached to his left and all but running to keep up. We reached the next crest on the trail but the sound continued, a swish-swish of leaves and brush, and when the path curved we found ourselves face to face with a black mutt, covered in dirt and dust.
Jason stopped, backing us away slowly. “Careful. Don’t spook it.”
But the dog sat down on his hind legs, his tongue lolling out in a doggie smile. Woof.
I gasped. Jonathan tugged at Jason’s hand.
“Walk carefully around,” Jason said. “We don’t know what he’s like.”
I did not turn my head as the rustling steps followed me, looking straight ahead at Jason’s faded red t-shirt. But the panting steps continued plodding behind me, and as we neared the trailhead and slowed, I felt the hot wet tongue of the mutt testing my hand with a Sluuuurp.
I jumped around, and he sat again, a doggie smile up at me.
“I think he wants to come with us,” I said, as my brothers froze.
Jonathan’s eyes were wide. “I don’t think he’ll fit in the car.”
The backseat of the Geo was small; at eight years old I barely fit iwith my legs crushed toward my chest. For most of that summer Jonathan had proudly sat up front, allowing me to stretch my legs across the backseat; this time, Jonathan folded himself in next to me, draping his stinky feet across my legs, as it was impossible to climb over the folded drivers seat any other way, much less to fasten a seatbelt. The big dog settled on the front seat, rocking the car as he jumped in, paws resting on the dashboard as if to say, “Giddy-up!”
The trip home would have been more straightforward if the dog had not been so enthusiastic about the ride. He alternated between sticking his head and tongue out the window, putting a fat paw on Jason’s leg, narrowly avoiding knocking at the gear shift. In one perilous moment, he saw a tan woman crossing the street with her golden retriever and he pushed at the window to bark, his swishing tail shifting the gear to neutral just as the light turned green.
The line of cars behind us braked, but barely, and the dog’s bark was overshadowed by their honking.
“You’re going to have to explain this to Mom,” Jason said, voice high as he calmed down. “This is not my responsibility.”
“Yes.” We both nodded, though we all knew that Jason was equally complicit.
It was decided that the dog – massive and dirty and smelling not unlike a fish market – would not be allowed into the house without a bath, and so after we tumbled out of the car we filed into the back yard to spend some quality time with the garden hose.
This is where our mother found us late in the afternoon, during her daily round of fence-peering.
“WHAT!” She screeched.
“Aagh!” I screamed.
Jonathan laughed. Jason scowled.
“Woof!” The dog added.
“You stay right there!” She yelled, and we could hear her clogs pounding in the dirt as she ran around to the street, to come to the gate at the side of the house.
She burst into the yard, skirt flapping as she ran, hair askew, the look on her face a mix of motherly rage and astonishment. Three steps further and Jason’s ear was in her grip; he was bent double to meet her height, the hose he had been holding abandoned and spurting cold water at their feet.
“Where did you get that?”
“We found him!” I volunteered. Jason shot me a glare, and gestured toward the hose as Jonathan ran to turn it off.
“Found him where?”
“We went hiking,” Jason said, breathless with pain. “It followed us. We were going to make signs. See if anyone was looking for it.”
I had planned to do no such thing, but the look on Jason’s face as Mom loosened her grip on his cartilage was enough to keep me quiet.
“I see,” she said, her voice calming. “And where were you going to keep him?”
“In my room!” I said, at the same moment Jason replied, “Out here, of course.”
This time, Mom turned to look at me, suspicious. “Was this your idea?”
I shook my head and pointed at the dog. “It was his idea. He kept following us.”
Mom sighed. She was calculating. The yard was already a mess – a mix of dirt and yellowed grass, discarded garden tools, a tree in the corner, good for climbing and shade but also a habitat for vermin – adding a dog to the mix couldn’t make things much worse. “Alright. But you clean him up, you’re responsible for feeding him and burying his poo, and after dinner you’re all going out and putting up posters. He’s too big; he doesn’t come inside the house.”
The dog walked up to her then, as if sensing a change in the wind. Woof, he said, and gave a polite lick at her palm. To her credit, Mom only scrunched up her face a little, as she left to return to work.
“We should give him a name,” I told my brothers.
“No,” Jason shook his head and turned off the hose. “You really shouldn’t.”
We named him Raffles, because he was lucky and unexpected. We spent the better part of two days putting up posters, but the weekend wore away and a new week began and still no phone call. Jonathan and I had hauled the old pup tent out from the garage for Raffles to sleep in, since the yard must be lonely at night. I had taken to cracking the old shade at my window when I woke up – always the first in the house to rise – and would see him sitting under the old oak tree, looking straight at my window, like he was waiting.
The longer we waited for the phone to ring, the more he felt like ours. While Mom was at work, we began to sneak him into the kitchen – where the linoleum was easy to clean – to feed him treats. We would sit together on the yellowing floor playing Monopoly while Raffles rested his head on his jumbo paws and huffed. We would go for long walks around the block – and around, and around – Raffles trotting playfully and happily. Jonathan found the perfect sticks for fetch in the park, and they lived in a basket on the porch.
The longer we waited for the phone to ring, the more boring Jason became. “Can we go to the park?” We’d ask. “Sure, take the dog,” he would say, not looking up. “We want to go to the big one, over by the high school!” Driving distance. “Nah.” He’d say, and we would trudge out. If he was paying attention, he would yell “take care of yourselves!” But more often than not, as soon as he saw we were leaving, he headed straight for the phone. “Maybe he has a girlfriend?” Jonathan wondered. “Nah,” I’d say.
The longer we waited for the phone to ring, the more Mom seemed resigned to his growing permanence in our lives. Of an evening, with the television on in the background and a box of dry saltines at her side, you might find Raffles at her feet (“just this once! I don’t want hair all over my house!”). On weekends, she would join us on long walks around the neighborhood, and even contributed to the perfect fetch stick collection.
She would still not allow us to take the posters down. “Not yet, Jessie.” she said. “He came from somewhere; he’s too big, too well-behaved. He wasn’t a stray. Someone is missing him.”
“But he’s ours now,” I protested, but Mom shook her head.
“We’re just taking care of him till he goes home.”
As the summer wore on and Raffles became our constant companion, Jason seemed to retreat more. Relieved of the responsibility of entertaining us, he stopped accompanying us to the pool, instead saying the we could “take the damn dog out.”
“Here’s five bucks for ice cream. Get the dog some too.”
“Stop annoying me, can’t you see I’m playing something?”
“Shut up Jessie, no one wants to hear about Raffles’ shit.”
Jason had long been our disgruntled summer babysitter, but now he had relinquished the position in favor of a large black mutt. I thought it must be a little bit like Peter Pan. Jonathan thought it was a bit more like the Lassie.
Who knew what Jason thought; he wasn’t interested in us. He would send us away any chance he got, groaning “Go do something. Stop wandering around the backyard like babies.” Sometimes when we came back he would be playing his Nintendo in a fury, in the same position he’d been in when we left. More often, he would be lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling and smiling goofily, or on the patio, sitting in a plastic chair, staring hazily at the old Oak tree.
“I think he has a girlfriend.” Jonathan would say.
“But he doesn’t do anything.”
“That’s why he keeps sending us away, so she can come over.”
“But Mom would find out.”
“Not if he timed it right.”
“I don’t think he’s that smart.” But I doubted myself even as I said it. Jason was an inattentive babysitter, but lately he hadn’t even been that.
For Raffles part, he took to the new responsibility remarkably well. He was our playmate, our companion, and our protector. He had a bellowing loud bark, used judiciously – unlike some dogs in the neighborhood – only when someone came to the door or the gate, only when passing another animal on a walk. His preferred sounds were growls and small, amiable woofs. He was nosy, poking his face into everything to smell – my hand, my shirt, the lawnmower, the empty paddling pool, the trash cans at the side of the house. He loved long walks and loved the hose after. He played fetch with the energy of a rambunctious toddler. His favorite snack was bacon bits, though he would happily eat anything offered to him; he was, in this way, the politest of houseguests.
I always thought that Thousand Oaks looked like an old movie set, a remnant of Hollywood from black-and-white pictures. The landscape was a mix of dust and brush and trees, a desert or a forest or the wild moors of England, as need be. It was a town made for the car when tired Angelenos realized they could live out of the acrid, thick smog of the Valley and still be within an easy commute. It was isolated, so it was safe to raise kids there, on over-watered green lawns and in backyard pools, under the thick branches of a hundred thousand oak trees protected by local ordinance from cutting or climbing or corruption. There were miles of unincorporated space rolling to the east, and trail paths on every hill and at the end of every cul-de-sac.
Our house was small for Thousand Oaks; built in the sixties, it was an exact replica of its neighbors on three sides. You could step through a pretty front door with a porch and red swing, but we almost never did; the front porch was a ruse, a calm and fancy life we did not live. We came in through the side gate or through the garage, stuffed to the brim with Christmas decorations and bikes and old clothes and toys we cared little for except when it was suggested we cull them. Inside, the carpet was a dingy grey that needed cleaning and the walls had evidence of old stains from coffee mugs gone flying and sticky toddler handprints never cleaned off, underneath endless rows of family photos – school photos and vacation photos and even the photos from Grandma and Grandad’s wedding. The furniture was those heavy oak monstrosities popular when Jason was born, well-worn and scratched now. Jason and Jonathan shared the large master bedroom, and Mom and I each slept in a the smaller rooms down the hall.
Mom often said that we were “falling all over each other” in that house, the four of us. If Jason withdrew from us, it was only as he finally got what he wanted for the summer; to be left alone. With Raffles, we didn’t need constant supervision – one growl or bark and the whole neighborhood would know what we were up to. He walked with us to the ice cream shop, and would get a tub of his own cold cold ice and whipped cream. He ran with us in the yard and in the park, playing fetch and tag and wrapping his makeshift leash around our legs. We would sit to dinner, and Mom would fill his bowl with kibble at the back door (still, always, with the illusion that he was an outdoor dog), and we would commune together; four overheated Californians eating pizza and one big black mutt.
Raffles was boisterous and adventurous and our walks with him often led to Jonathan and I scrambling behind to catch up – up a hill; along an unmarked trail; through the woods. “He has the spirit of an adventurer!” I declared at breakfast one morning.
“Will you shut up about the damn dog?” Jason asked, his head slumped over his bowl of cereal. “Jason!” Mom scolded. She liked to say that teenagers were like that.
Undeterred, I had an idea. “Can we go hiking again? Please? We could take him out to Lang Ranch this time.”
“You know he doesn’t fit in the car.”
Jonathan nodded. “We’re okay squeezing.”
Jason sighed. In front of our mother, provider of coffee, he couldn’t easily say no.
“Why don’t you take that money I gave you yesterday, Jason, and treat the kids to a burger after?” Mom said.
Jason dropped his spoon and mumbled. “Idon’thaveit.”
“Speak up, these ears aren’t what they used to be.”
“I don’t have it.”
“What do you mean you don’t have it?” She turned, hands on her hips. “I gave it to you yesterday morning. How did you spend it already? Jessie said you guys didn’t do anything yesterday.”
Jason raised his head from the bowl to eye me. I shrugged; she had asked.
“I lost it.”
“Well, it has to be around here somewhere. Look.”
While Mom walked over to the library, Jason made up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “I want a burger!” I whined.
“Do you want to spend all day looking for something, or do you want to go hiking?” He asked.
We traipsed out to the car, sandwiches and massive dog in tow. Jason grumbled that we had to be back to the house by lunch.
“Why?” I asked.
“I have a friend coming over.”
“Does your friend have the money?”
Jonathan sniggered and whispered to me, “his girlfriend!”
The hike was refreshing – we could run, and walk, and climb, and the breeze blew just right. Raffles, as if sensing Jason’s mood, never strayed out of eyesight.
By the second crest along the valley trail it was almost as if Jason was starting to enjoy it. He laughed, as Raffle’s romped in a pile of leaves. He challenged Jonathan to a footrace. It was such a wild swing from that morning – almost like we had our old, sometimes-adventurous brother back.
But precisely an hour into the hike, he became strict again. “We have to turn around. We have to go back.”
“To meet your friend?” Jonathan asked in a sing song.
“Sure.” Jason snapped.
Jonathan turned to me. “Girl-friend.”
Back at the house, we were instructed to go to the back yard and hose off. “And stay there!” Jason said.
“Can’t we go to the kitchen? I’m hungry.”
“Eat your sandwich.” We hadn’t been out on the trail long enough to stop for lunch; our sandwiches were soggy now.
“Chin up, Jessie,” He twisted his mouth into a fake smile. “Wait here, and I’ll bring you guys fruit popsicles.”
Whatever friend it was that came round, they didn’t stay long. We could see shadows through the windows – a male voice – a curt discussion. After they left, Jason came to the porch and sat against the step, holding out three popsicles; grape for me, cherry for Jonathan, lemon for himself. He was relaxed, even smiling; such a wild swing again.
One early morning, toward the end of the summer, I woke up and pulled back the blind to peer out; Raffles was not there. I panicked – had he gotten out of the loose slat in the fence? Had he run away? I ran to the kitchen to the patio door, feet pounding against the squeaky boards, waking the entire house in the process.
He was there, lying in the cool against the door, his head slumped on his paws, no longer asleep from the noise.
“What’s going on?” Mom popped her head out, eyes squinting in the dawn light.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Don’t make so much noise this early. Why are you up? Go back to bed.”
I did, but the pounding of my heart had not subsided. I now knew no greater terror than the loss of my dog. On the way back to my room, I saw Jason, standing at his door, just watching me as I passed. He was never up this early, not if he could help it; I had been really loud.
As I got to my room, he raised his voice just a little, “You okay, Jessie?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I just got worried when I couldn’t see him.”
Jason nodded, saluted me, and then ducked back into his room. It was the most acknowledgement I’d had from him in a week.
The day itself was not much to shout about; Jonathan and I made strawberry pancakes, feeding scraps to Raffles out the kitchen door. We walked to the park, spent some time on the swings, and then when we ran out of water walked back home. It was when we got home that things changed; Jason was sitting by the phone, his forehead in his left hand, his right clutching at the countertop.
“You okay, man?” Jonathan asked. Jason looked ill.
“You don’t look fine,” I said. He was pale, sweating.
“Put the dog outside,” he said. “And wait till Mom gets home.”
“Wait for what?”
But Jason said nothing, instead sinking to the couch, ignoring the discarded video game controller.
I would have thought nothing of it, except for the impending sense of trouble that had come over me that morning, when Raffles had not been in his usual spot. I joined him on the couch. “It’s too hot today.”
“It’s always too hot,” Jason mumbled.
“We could go to the mall. It’s air conditioned.”
“We’re not going to the mall.”
“We could play pretend.”
“You can go play pretend. Just be here when Mom gets home.”
Jason put his arm around me, his demeanor changing, “I love you kiddo.”
It was so unlike him. “Did something happen?”
“Why don’t you go with Jonathan and get some ice cream? Leave Raffles here with me.”
The trip to the ice cream shop took all of an hour, because the line was long in the late summer heat, and we had to eat it there or risk caramel and praline dripping down our fingers all the walk home. Jonathan wanted to stop at the park and see if anyone was up for playing a game, but I was on edge. “I want to go home.”
“Fine,” he said, but kept walking with me. It was hot, there probably wasn’t anyone out there anyway.
When we got home, there was an unusual car out front – a shiny, clean white BMW. I poked Jonathan on the arm. “Who’s that?”
“I dunno. Probably Jason’s girlfriend.”
“He doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
“You’re too little, you can’t see it. He’s in loooooove. That’s why he’s been acting so weird.”
“I’m not little! And you’re wrong.”
It sped away as we approached, and the windows were darkly tinted.
Inside, the house was dim and cool. Jason lay on the floor in front of the couch, Raffles by his side, the fan aimed directly at him, the TV dark.
“Jason?” Jonathan wandered over. “You okay?”
“Dizzy. You get ice cream, kiddo?” His voice was croaky and slow, like he’d been crying. Or shouting.
“Yes!” I enthused. “We got caramel praline.”
“Both of you?” It seemed like he was making such an effort to keep the conversation going.
Jonathan nodded, then realizing that he couldn’t see from that vantage point, piped up, “Yup yup yup!”
He paused, as if searching for what to say. “Mom’s home soon.”
She would be, and that meant we had to go wash our hands. It was the same reason why Raffles “wasn’t allowed” in the house; there were too many of us and it would get too dirty and did we want her to have one more thing on her plate, couldn’t we make her job just a little bit easier?
The front door opened while we were in the bathroom washing our hands – I could hear multiple voices. Mom had brought a guest – it must have been a strange day. We almost never had guests, and now there had been two.
“Thanks so much for coming,” she said. “We’d begun to despair of ever finding you.”
“We’re just so grateful you found him,” said a gravelly male voice.
My mind moved at a mile a minute, and my feet stormed their way into the living room, hands still dripping. In the doorway stood a middle-aged man in a suit, and a tall, blonde woman in a sundress. They were holding hands – a couple – and while he was smiling at Mom, telling her about the long day, the woman was just staring at Raffles, who had come forward to sit at her feet, his tongue lolling out.
“Mom!” I screamed.
She turned, “Jessie.”
“You’re giving him away? No!”
“Jessie,” she said. “Calm down.”
“He’s ours,” the man said, with the loud confidence of men with spray tans. “We’re here to pick him up.”
“No,” I said. “You left him and he’s ours now and… you can’t!”
“Jessie!” Mom’s face was getting redder and redder; she was angry.
I didn’t care; I rushed forward to put my arms around Raffles in a protective hug. Raffles – agitated by the noise but uncaring in his general, affectionate way – happily accepted the hug, but remained at the feet of the strange pretty woman.
Jason stepped forward. “Jessie, get off.”
He tried again. “Jessie…”
He stepped forward to grab my arm, pulling but missing. It was sudden, swift – as I felt Jason’s failing grip I felt Raffles shift out of my hug, a growl in his chest. Then it happened in slow motion – Jason’s yell, Raffles’ lunge. I didn’t feel the pain at first. It was that familiar wet tongue, the one that had soaked my hand that day out on the trail, and something else – teeth. I could hear a gasp in the background – from the strange woman or from Mom, I couldn’t tell. The man’s voice, commanding now, “Off, Jasper! Off!”
Jason, in his frustration pushing at the dog but missing, mumbled “Move!” I felt a tearing on my arm and that was when the pain began.
My arm was free but I could feel an immense pressure behind my eyes; I desperately needed to cry. The commotion continued. I couldn’t see, but I felt Jason draw back. “Your idiot… bit me!”
“You shouldn’t have – “
“My sister!” Jason managed to get out.
Jonathan, emerging from the bathroom. “What’s going on?”
They separated us in the emergency room; Jason for an x-ray, I to have my wound cleaned and sewn up, a tetanus shot administered. Mom stood at the edge of the curtain from where I sat. Usually, in situations like this – like when I had broken my arm playing kickball, or when Jonathan had been swinging on his chair and smashed his nose, she would be holding our hands, telling us to be brave, soothing us with stories.
This time, she spoke in hushed tones to another doctor.
“Listen, ma’am, I’m sorry. Do you have any idea how long he’s been using?”
“No.” Mom’s voice was weak, shaky. I figured she was as shocked as I was over the loss of Raffles.
“No idea who supplied it? We’re concerned about potency.”
“Any unusual behavior? Withdrawing, perhaps?”
“He’s a sixteen year old boy. He’s moody. I didn’t think…”
“Any new friends?”
“No. He’s watching his brother and sister this summer.”
“Ah,” the doctor said, knowingly, though about what I don’t know. Apparently, they were talking about Jason.
The doctor working on my arm shifted my hand a little, and the angle pinched at the wound. I yelped.
“Oh, sweetie!” Mom came through the curtain now. “How are you holding up? My brave girl.”
I didn’t feel brave. Raffles was gone. The thought was overwhelming.
“Why is he gone?” I asked.
Her mind was otherwise occupied. “Jason is going to have to spend a little time away from us. But Jessie, my little Jessie-girl, I promise, everything is going to be alright.”
Mom put a reassuring hand on my cheek, and I could see that her eyes were rimmed with red; she had been crying. She missed Raffles too. Maybe she was punishing Jason for calling those people. He deserved it for being weird all summer.
“Can we get another dog?” I asked. “It would make me feel all better.”
“Oh sweetie,” she said.
Judith Newlin is a Scottish-American writer and editor, raised between Scotland and California, now residing in Queens. In 2012, she served the editor-in-chief of California Lutheran University’s Morning Glory literary magazine.