To say they’d messed up would be a generous understatement. Rather, it had become the conglomerate of mistakes akin to the wretched mass at the bottom of a port-a- potty. Even though it was easy to glance over, its presence was undeniable and, on a clear look, made the bile inch closer to the uvula than one was really comfortable with.
Eli wished that a nasty sewage view was all he had to deal with. He didn’t know how their situation got so bad, but he blamed his younger brother Marco for the singed and poorly barbered western terrier in his arms. He had no idea what to do, now that they were out of the mess of an apartment and into the bustle of the city streets. He looked back down at the westie again, and would’ve laughed if he didn’t feel like its owner would be livid at his truly heart-stopping transformation. They could ditch the dog and run, but then they wouldn’t get paid, and judging by the crystal cut glassware filling the cabinets, they would miss out big time. They could tell the truth, but then they would never get hired again.
Eli watched Marco pace up and down the narrow sidewalk, his curly hair bouncing frantically. Marco was starting to freak out; Eli could see it in the way he rubbed the back of his neck. He figured it was best he said what he intended now, when Marco still had some common sense to process it.
“Marco, stop. Come here,” Eli said, readjusting the westie. Marco hadn’t toweled off the dog that well, and the wet spot that was forming on his cotton tee made his skin itchy.
Marco paced quickly up to Eli. “Look, maybe if we go to the Petsmart five blocks down—”
“No, we don’t have enough time. Mrs. Lichen said she’d be back by two, and it’s already—” Eli let go of his two handed grip on the dog, angling his watch against the afternoon glare— “a quarter till.” He sucked in a breath. “We’re gonna have to bs our way through this.”
Eli resisted rolling his eyes at Marco’s reaction. It wasn’t like lying was a big deal; he only got caught like, half the times he lied, and it was only because people expected it from him. Oblivious Mrs. Lichen would believe them if they said the Grinch came through her electric fireplace and stole the recliner from her living room.
“I can’t lie. I’ve never lied about something this big, Eli.” Marco glanced down the street, then back at his brother. He gestured to the dog. “Let me take Butler, and when Mrs. Lichen comes you can tell her what happened. She’ll understand.”
Eli sighed. “Come on, Marco. Don’t be such a baby. Look, we should just say that we were trying to take some initiative with this dog sitting job. We noticed Butler was getting shaggy, so we took him down to the dog salon off Fourth, but a newbie messed up the cut.” Eli shrugged. “Easy peasy. We get paid and she asks us to dog sit again.”
Marco rubbed his chest, taking a deep breath. “That doesn’t even make sense, Eli. There isn’t a dog salon off Fourth; it’s just that World Market, remember?” Marco stopped, digging his fingers into his hipbone. “We need to tell her that we accidentally set Butler on fire. She’ll value our honesty and yeah, sure, maybe she won’t rehire us. But we don’t deserve to get rehired after this mess.”
“Maybe you don’t,” Eli muttered, bouncing the westie on his hip. He smelled pretty rank, which he guessed he couldn’t hide from Mrs. Lichen. Maybe he could say the newbie barber gave Butler a complimentary bath, too.
“Excuse me?” Marco stepped towards Eli, which would’ve been more intimidating if Marco was a kindergartener straight out of arts and crafts.
Eli raised his eyebrows. “Hey, I mean you decided to give Butler a god-awful haircut—”
“After you knocked over the candle that set him on fire!”
Eli’s blood pumped a little at Marco’s raised voice. “Uh huh. That was an accident, while I was trying to put back up Mrs. Lichen’s picture that you made me run into.”
Marco scoffed. “If you didn’t take the broom from me—”
“If you weren’t hitting me with the broom—”
“Well if you weren’t being so annoying, then maybe I wouldn’t have hit you with the broom!” Marco lunged for the dog, and Eli sidestepped, holding the dog behind his back. “Give him to me, Eli! We can’t give Mrs. Lichen her dog back like that!”
Eli stepped back, switching the dog from one hand to the other as Marco tried reaching around him. The dog started to bark, drowning out Marco’s complaints. Eli knew they were making a scene, but nothing short of murder could really gather a crowd. Even then, some people had higher stakes hinging on a lunch meeting. Eli waited for Marco to tire himself out and, once Marco stopped to slow his ragged breaths, Eli walked back into the apartment.
He set down Butler, who immediately shook himself, sending loose fur everywhere. Cursing the dog, he picked Butler back up and walked over to the kitchen, placing him in the deep sink. A small bell tolled in Mrs. Lichen’s room, signaling it was two. Eli wished they hadn’t wasted so much time, but he thought the situation was still salvageable.
He bent down to pick the candle off the floor and placed it on the table, then relit it. Its sickly lavender scent sort of masked the wet dog smell settling into the carpet, which Eli took as a win. He then went over to the front door and opened the small closet, pulling out a compact vacuum. He was halfway through cleaning the living room when he heard the front door open.
“It smells like wet dog and lavender in here,” shouted Marco. He emerged from around the corner, his shoulders slumped. “So, you’re going for the full suck-up treatment, huh?” Annoyance itched in Eli’s chest as Marco got in his way, collapsing onto the leather recliner.
“Better than the whiny loser treatment you’ve got going.” Eli rammed the vacuum into Marco’s feet. “Get out of the way and finish drying Butler or something.”
Marco looked around, craning his neck towards the front door, then behind him towards the kitchen. He let out a single laugh. “You left him in the sink?”
Eli switched off the vacuum. “Where would you have liked me to put him? The backyard?” He gathered up the vacuum’s cord. “Oh wait, Mrs. Lichen doesn’t have one.” He shook his head. It was in situations like these that he hated being the older brother. Marco had the luxury of giving up when a situation felt impossible. But Eli didn’t have anybody else to rely on, at least if he wanted to stay out of trouble. He placed the vacuum back into the closet, then went back into the living room to pull back the heavy curtains and open the window. He walked over to the kitchen, wedging himself next to Marco in the small space, and pulled open the window in front of the sink as well.
“That’s as dry as he’s going to get,” Marco said grimly. Butler somehow looked even worse than he did before; all the drying had left his fur frizzy and upraised. Eli tried patting the fur down, but his fingers got caught in the mess. It took a while to untangle all his fingers, which detached with a layer of long white hairs.
Eli heard the front door unlock, and quickly scooped Butler out of the sink and onto the ground. He crossed his fingers as the dog ran towards the front door to its owner. Marco threw the hairy kitchen towel in the cabinet under the sink, closing it quietly behind him as Mrs. Lichen walked into the room. She held thick paper bags in each hand, mercifully incapable of picking up Butler. “How did it go, boys? Hopefully Butler wasn’t too rambunctious for you.”
Eli shook his head. “Not at all. He’s the calmest dog I’ve ever met.” He could feel Marco go rigid and tried not to look at him as Mrs. Lichen placed her bags on the recliner.
“Oh, were you a good boy, Butler?” She bent down to pick him up, bringing him eye level. She paused. “Now, what happened to you?”
Eli elbowed Marco, making him gasp. “We took him down to this pet salon, some new up-and-coming business. Probably should have looked at the reviews first.”
He waited tensely, watched as Mrs. Lichen surveyed her dog from all angles. He was usually a good read of character, but she had gotten just the right amount of Botox to look on the cusp of human and alien. He repressed a sigh of relief as she finally smiled, giving Butler a kiss on his nose.
“Aren’t you so handsome! What a modern-day style. The angles, the texture. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” She put Butler down, then looked at Eli and Marco. “What was the name of the place?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Eli blurted. “It was one of those ones in a truck, you know? It moves around everywhere.” Eli grabbed Marco’s sleeve and began walking towards the front door. “Anyways, we should get going; we’ve got another job at three.”
Mrs. Lichen reached into her purse. “Of course. Here, for doing such a good job.” She pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, which Eli quickly grabbed and pocketed. “And keep your phone ringers on, boys. After today, I have to tell my friends about what you did for Butler.”
Eli smiled. He imagined this is what it felt like to hit jackpot, if he were old enough to gamble. Marco pulled open the door, barely managed to push a thanks past his lips before he was out on the street. Eli grabbed the knob. “Thank you, Mrs. Lichen. We’d love to help your friends. Have a good day.” He waved, then closed the door behind him.
Eli turned, laughing when he saw Marco. He looked like a cardboard cutout version of himself, stuck in state of shock and ready to be knocked over by a breeze. He clapped him on the back, then began walking back home.
He heard Marco follow him after a few steps. “We got so lucky—you got so lucky.”
Eli smirked. “Luck? Please. That was skill.”
Marco caught up to him, knocking his shoulder into Eli’s. “Yeah right.” He shook his head, chuckling a little. “God, wait until we tell mom about this.”
“We aren’t telling mom about any of this. What are you, crazy?”
“Well, we can’t lie to her. She’s mom.”
Eli shook his head. Oh, Marco. Even though it was more work, he hoped Marco never changed. What was mischief without a little struggle?