Ron Holbrooke was strangling her. He held Devin a full foot above the deck, cradling a half-empty beer bottle in the crook of his arm, spilling it over his white t-shirt. “I told you,” he hissed through faintly-yellowed teeth. “I warned you.”
Devin gasped. Somehow, she could breathe again. She sat up in bed — only a dream. It was only a dream. Then why did her neck still feel the heat of that choking grasp?
It was all over her, actually, the heat. That was why she’d felt strangled. She peeled the sheets off her skin, untangled her feet from the sheer blanket, and stood. It was barely seven in the morning, but already the day was sweltering.
Relief flooded her. She felt herself growing calm. Devin crossed the bedroom and flipped the ceiling fan on, eager for the cool trace of a breeze on her skin.
She trod the darkened hall to the thermostat and dialed the temperature down. Nothing. She waited, but the house was quiet as it was when she’d risen. She checked the display: 86°, and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. Devin groaned. It looked like her AC was broken.
She called a repairman, who told her it would be two days at the earliest to come out and fix it. Then she called Lamar.
“I dreamed about Ron Holbrooke,” she said when he answered.
“Nothing like that! It was a nightmare. I feel like I’m forgetting something important, something I need to do. Something he’s going to be angry about. Oh, and my AC is out. I’m dying over here.”
“Come over my way,” he said. “I got something to show you, anyway.”
Two mugs of coffee and a cool shower later, she was on the road. Her chest had felt heavy when she left, legs and arms filled with the unpleasant jittery warmth that lingered whenever dread weighed her down. But the morning light was clear and cheery, and something in her softened, lightened. By the time she arrived at Lamar’s apartment, a new calm had taken the anxiety’s place. She hummed as she knocked on his door.
“All right!” he crowed, letting her in. “I can’t wait for you to see!” He rubbed his hands eagerly.
She followed him to his studio, where the clutter seemed even greater than her first time here. Brushes clustered in plastic cups and coffee mugs burst like sprays of palmetto all over the room.
“Um…” Lamar swallowed, momentarily unable to speak. Instead he waved his hand at a new canvas still mounted on an easel. The paint was dried, but she could tell it had been newly finished. He turned it so it caught the full light of the morning, and stepped back to let her look square on.
It was an ocean wave in hues of blue and green, endless facets of light on water. Seafoam rode its buoyant crest, ecstatic and free, not held back or pulled down by anything, expressive and serene.
Devin breathed. She tasted lead in her throat. What had she expected? Whatever it was, not this. A dense, tangled, sinister forest maybe, dreary and gothic. But not this.
“You. It’s you,” Lamar found his voice, beaming at her with pride. “I told you I’d paint you when the time was right. I just needed the right glimpse.”
But she shook her head. “It’s not me. That’s not me. I’m not that.”
Lamar tried not to look hurt. “Okay,” he said, voice lowering. “Well, it’s fine if you don’t like it. You don’t have to—I can—”
He fell silent. She wanted to sigh but didn’t dare. Who was she more disappointed in, she wondered. In herself, for making him feel bad, or in him, for completely failing to see her for who she was? She’d said it herself, hadn’t she? No one could reveal another person’s true self. It was presumptuous. This is what she got for expecting something special, something good.
She felt it again: the crushing need for space. It had been a while since she’d needed it, especially from him. Or it felt that way. She let it ride over her in waves, determined not to leave now.
Instead it was Lamar who left. He passed out of the studio wordlessly, vanished down the darkened hall. She stared at the empty corridor for a long moment, then followed. He was in the kitchen, making a glass of iced sweet tea. A single slice of lemon, the way he knew she liked it. He offered it to her.
“No, thank you,” she said.
He nodded and set it down on the counter, then trudged to the living room sofa. Collapsed backward into it. “Whew,” he said more than breathed, eyes forlorn.
She stared at the tea. Took a drink, and carried it with her to sit beside him. “Whew,” she said.
Lamar looked at her and softly laughed.
* * *
It was only a day later when the repairman came, just before Devin had meant to leave for work. She held down a part-time gig at the record store to supplement the meager income from her photography, which still wasn’t taking off as much as she would have liked. Any day, though. Devin thought of Lamar’s friends, Sasha and Drew, who still hadn’t called her about their wedding.
“They will,” Lamar had assured her the last time she’d asked him about it. “Trust me. Drew’s a procrastinator, but Sasha will hold his feet to the fire.”
So she waited for their call. And now she was waiting again, rather than working, for the repairman to finish on the outside AC unit. She lay on the floor of her bedroom, her turntable spinning out the final song of a Muddy Waters LP. She basked in the cool of the fan, a fleeting pleasure. Heat still hovered over her, a felt weight. Lush, rich, all but oppressive.
Not for another hour did the door open and the workman’s boots trample the foyer’s wood floor, announcing he was finished. He wiped his brow with a khaki sleeve as Devin returned to meet him.
“You’ll never guess what it was killed it,” he snickered. The corners of his mouth yawed wide.
“What was it?”
She blinked, not understanding.
“Got into the unit, short-circuited the thing. You’re lucky it didn’t cause a fire. Seen that before.”
His smile stretched wider, a rubber band. He spotted the glass of ice water she’d brought him when he had arrived, sitting forgotten now on the coffee table. He scooped it up and drew a deep gulp.
“Might want to get the place sprayed,” the man offered.
“I’ll do that,” she said, inwardly cringing. There was a bottle of insect killer in the garage that she used to use every month. She had forgotten it since meeting Lamar. “So…it’s working now?”
“See for yourself.” He gestured to the register below the window and she crouched over it, held out a hand. Cool air. Faint and slow and approaching frigid.
After he left, Devin went outside to look at the unit. It seemed no different to her eyes, and yet there had been something toxic inside till just the past hour. Interesting how peril could slip inside of something so easily without your knowing.
Inside again, she checked the messages on her phone, glancing over the weather update. The heat index was well over a hundred. Sweat was drying on her brow now, soothed by the chill stream of newly wakened air. Devin paced the living room. Should she head into work now? But no, it was too late, she’d already called in. There were recent photos on her laptop that needed editing, but there was too much energy in her veins for that. She felt anything but calm.
She texted Lamar. What are you doing?
Rather than replying, he called her back. “What’s good?” he answered. “You need anything?”
“I was just thinking,” she said. “About—about Taurus.”
“Taurus?” he laughed. “What about him?”
“Well, that dream I had about Ron Holbrooke? Right before my AC broke? What if it was really about him?”
“Was it? Was he even in it?”
Devin shook her head, impatient. “Listen, the point is that he’s out in that kennel on the porch all day, right?”
“And he never brings him in?”
“Not that I ever noticed when I was over there. Casey used to take him for walks every once in a while, but… Taurus was really her brother’s dog. And her mother’s. And both of them are gone.”
“Sam Holbrooke died in Iraq. The mother got cancer year after.”
Devin fell silent. She thought.
“What about Casey?”
“Uh…well, Casey ain’t ever been a dog person. Feel me? And she don’t live there anymore.”
“Then we have to do it.”
Lamar chuckled. “Hold up, hold up…slow down. Have to do what?”
“We have to steal Taurus.”
Her heart beat. She heard a sound like something shuffling over the phone, and the line fell silent. “Hello?” she murmured.
“I’m here. Listen—don’t do anything. Don’t go anywhere. I’m coming over right now.”
He arrived at half past five, good timing considering the hour and the traffic. He looked agitated but not angry, his cool, dark skin mirrored by the calm of his blue shirt. Now that he was here, ironically, she felt relaxed. She offered a bowl of popcorn and he finally sat down beside her on the sofa and took a few pieces.
“I’mma tell you straight up, because I know you’re serious,” Lamar’s eyes bored into hers. “This is not a good idea. This is not going to end well.”
“You don’t know that,” she returned his gaze.
“Listen, I know you feeling some kind of way about Taurus. I get that. It’s admirable, you know? But you’re talking about stealing someone’s dog. Breaking the law. Do you know what you’re asking me?”
“Do you know what you’re asking Taurus if you say no? He’s got no one. No one but us. We’re the only ones willing to help him. What if he dies in the heat? What if he’s got fleas and heartworms?”
“What about Dr. Holbrooke? You don’t think he’ll come looking for his dog?”
“What if he does? He won’t know it was us. Anyway, you said yourself he neglects him. He might even be grateful for taking Taurus off his hands.”
Lamar leaned straight ahead, elbows on knees, brow furrowed.
“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Devin insisted. “I promise you.”
He shook his head. “Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”