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Drama Fiction

“I can’t sleep,” I said.

The coyote standing just 10 feet away stared back at me. I saw him most nights on my walks. 

Like me, he was a transplant from somewhere less domesticated. Three generations ago, my people lived on lard sandwiches during the Great Depression. Two generations ago, my people were farmers who made enough to build a small house and buy a car, but not much else. My parents found their “humble beginnings” embarrassing, and so encouraged me to “achieve.” So I did. Their other capstone piece of advice: Buy property. So I did. And that’s how I ended up here, in a suburb on the northwest side of Chicago, a quiet neighborhood where people took care of their homes and stayed put as long as their health held out. A good place for a wife and kids, not that I had any, though I was in the market for both. 

When they built this housing development, there were three types of model homes. A ranch, a split-level, and a colonial, the nicest and most spacious of the bunch. Ranches were good starter homes. They were also well-suited for folks on the other end of the home-owning spectrum, who needed a place without stairs. The split-levels were good starter homes, too, but from what I could tell they mostly ended up occupied by people whose plans had never really panned out, with too many kids crammed into too few rooms. If you lived in the colonial, you’d arrived. The colonial had the most room to grow, the most potential. 

And like most stable suburban communities, there wasn’t a whole lot of turnover. People mostly stayed where they were, and when good houses went up for sale, locals in search of an upgrade usually scooped them up before they hit the market. So it was unusual for me to land my colonial, though I didn’t know that when I signed the papers. The neighbors could explain away a young bachelor like me living here, though. Once or twice, I heard a couple of women chattering about me as I walked by. “Nice young man,” one of them said. “Hope he fills that house with kids.”

The neighbors didn’t take as kindly to the woman named Jill who bought one of the colonials a block over. She got it dirt cheap in a short sale, and had taken the place from a worn-out dump to one of the gems of the neighborhood. Even so, her presence was an affront to the rhythm of this place. At 40, she was still unmarried and, as far as anyone could tell, she didn’t have anything in the pipeline. “She really should take care of herself,” and “at her age, she’s running out of time,” were popular refrains. Poor Jill had the misfortune of a successful career and plenty of money, but no one to share it with and no way to fill all of those rooms in her big house. Here, Jill was not a person to be befriended; she was someone to be avoided, a flesh and blood cautionary tale the women told their daughters, all about what happens when women don’t focus on finding a partner and instead chase after a career. Which is funny, because these parents, much like my own, also wanted you to “have a good job.” I guess it’s all about doing things in the right order. 

Anyway, it was stuff like this that kept me up at night, thinking. My parents had instilled in me an anxious compulsion to continue moving forward, but since moving into my new place I’d plateaued, and didn’t have the first clue what to do next. The thing about the suburbs is that everyone here is paired off. There’s happy hunting in the city, but out here most of the good ones are already married, and the dating pool is shallow and infested with the kind of girls who never got asked to prom. And that was what got to me … I’d done this out of order. I should’ve come out here with someone. I shouldn’t have bought a house without a wife to pick out the paint for the nursery.

And so I began my walks. Back in Chicago, only a drunk, a crook or an idiot would roam the streets at 2 in the morning, but here the night was calm, quiet. The only thing that stirred at night was the coyote that crossed my path every so often. I hadn’t named him — at least, I thought it was a “him,” but I was never really sure. Suburbanites go batty over these things. One lone, mangy coyote might as well be a pack of rabid wolves for the attention and frontyard gossip they generate. Coyotes ate the rabbits, they defecated in our lawns, they prowled our streets at night hoping to hear the yelp of a terrier let out to do its business.

But this one seemed harmless enough to me, not to mention much smaller than the coyotes I was used to back home. He was the only living creature I came across on my walks until Jill moved in. About a month after the moving vans deposited her and all of her stuff, I started seeing Jill out and about at night, same as me, but only from a distance. The first time, I spied her about half a mile from my place, charging off in the direction of the neighborhood middle school with her little Bichon in tow. 

Another night, I saw Jill as she was locking her front door, preparing to begin her nightly excursion at 3:03 a.m. This time she saw me, too, and I must have frightened her, because she unlocked the door and went back in again. 

The time after that, Jill found me. For once, I was out in the daytime, taking care of a fallen tree limb that came down in a storm the night before — a storm that had prevented my usual ramble. Halfway through the job, I turned off my chainsaw and was about to take a coffee break when I saw Jill standing on the sidewalk in front of my place. I waved. Taking this as a sign that it was safe to engage in conversation, she walked up the drive and stopped next to me. 

“I’m Jill,” she said. 

“Keith,” I replied. I looked her over, noticing that beyond the chin-length blonde bob and athletic frame I’d been able to make out from a couple of blocks away in the dark, she also had a milky complexion and dark brown eyes. Today, she wore an Oxford shirt underneath a wax jacket, khakis and white walking shoes more suited for my 80-year-old neighbor Sal. Her cheeks were pink from exertion and the cool fall wind. She wasn’t bad looking.

“How long have you been here?” 

“I’m a newcomer,” I said. “I moved in about a year ago.” 

“A newcomer? But a year … that’s a while. Doesn’t feel ‘new’ to me,” Jill said. I noticed her hands, which she wrung together. At first I thought she was just trying to keep warm, but then I noticed her picking at her cuticles and fidgeting with her dog’s leash.

“Are you liking it here? Where’s your place?” I said, deciding to feign cluelessness.

“My house is great,” she said. “I work from home, so all of the space means I can finally have a proper office. And I love to cook, so I’m in the process of redoing the kitchen.”

We spent a few minutes bemoaning the outdated interiors of the homes here. This neighborhood popped up in the 1950s and it showed, from the “monochrome rooms” — where the wall color and carpeted floors matched — to the wood paneling on the walls in the den, to the compact, cramped floor plans. It was nice to talk to someone who had the same intentions as me … namely, to gut the place and start over. We’d bought these houses for the location and the good bones. New construction didn’t stack up compared with the care and quality of older places, but the problem was the older generation had put the pieces together all wrong. 

As Jill and I continued talking, several neighbors walked by. The last was a woman in her 50s I thought I’d seen before. She was dressed for summer, and her athletic shorts revealed varicose veins that looked like great purple worms trying to escape the flesh of a decaying pig carcass. Her face wore the look of a pig, too, with a small nose and dark little eyes. I waved and so did Jill, but Miss Piggy turned her head and kept walking. 

“Friendly.” I laughed, but Jill’s expression grew serious.

“Have you met anyone else out here?” She said. “Because I keep trying to get to know my neighbors and it isn’t going well.”

Jill didn’t stop to let me reply. If she had, I would’ve been able to reassure her that I’d had roughly the same experience. Nobody had any time for a 30-something bachelor in between hauling their kids to and from school or practice, or paying special attention to the perennials in their front garden. Jill told me stories about the cold reception she’d gotten. The couple in the house on her right was a treasure trove of hostility and passive aggression.

“Mark and Mary,” she said, “are particularly cruel.” And, if Jill’s stories were true, she wasn’t wrong.

She told me about countless attempts to make conversation, about the time just recently when Mark had blown all of the leaves from his lawn onto hers the day after she'd spent hours raking for the first time. How Mary had accused her of breaking the contents of a package that the postman delivered to Jill’s place by accident, and which Jill had thoughtfully returned.

“And I'm convinced they're the reason Muffie got out last week,” she said. I took muffie to be the Bichon’s name. “He got all the way down the end of the block and ran out into the street. I can't imagine what would've happened if I hadn't caught up to him.”

She was right to worry. Cars always zipped down the end of Busse Avenue, the street that bisected her own. 

We parted and Jill walked on. That night, a clear sky found me walking once more, this time at 2:30 in the pitch dark. 

Weeks went by, and the fall breeze turned to a winter chill that settled over the neighborhood, coating lawns and the last of the season’s flower beds in heavy frost. The nights were cold, too, cold enough for a warm bed to drag me down to sleep instead of trudging about the empty streets at night. My mother was a pediatrician, and one of the biggest problems she dealt with among new moms was babies who refused to sleep. What most people called a “bad sleeper” was usually the result of clueless parents who thought the later you let the baby stay up, the more tired he or she would become, a strategy that almost always results in an overtired infant rather than a sound sleeper. Her golden rule was “anything you do for three nights in a row, good or bad, becomes a habit.” I could hear her that morning after waking up from three nights in a row of somewhat decent sleep. Maybe I was cured. Maybe all I needed was winter weather and a warm comforter to break the cycle. Maybe I finally felt like this was home — which it did, at least while I was indoors. 

I kept sleeping nights, but it turns out Jill just kept roaming. She carried on with her late night strolls well into the depths of a brutal Chicago winter that saw lots of snow and a handful of sub-zero windchills. I was always amazed Muffie tolerated walks in such biting weather, but that little puffball did it, over and over again. 

At the end of February, winter began to thaw and it started to get warm again, and I began to feel the itch. Each night, it became a little bit harder to sleep, until I was back at square one, up all night once more. I considered moving to Alaska, or opening all the windows at night, or turning on the air conditioning, anything to get some sleep. But that seemed ridiculous, although in retrospect none of those options was as foolhardy as opting to accept insomnia and renew my nightly walking routine. 

That first night back out, I saw the coyote. I wondered how his winter had gone, if he’d been out here this whole time. With his matted, dirty fur and frail body, it certainly looked like he’d endured harsh winter weather.

“Hey there,” I said. He looked at me for a moment and then trotted off. I kept walking, letting my thoughts wander, hoping they’d land somewhere more interesting than work assignments and household chores that needed doing.

After a couple of blocks, my wish was granted, though not in the way I’d hoped for. I’d been considering how best to tackle the kitchen cabinets when a series of high-pitched screams tore through the air. They were faint enough that I could tell they’d come from a block away. After the first screams, silence fell, making it difficult to know exactly where they’d come from. But then the screaming returned, more frantic this time and closer than before. I started running, searching for the source of those screams. I headed west on Franklin Street, went one block and checked to the left and right on Winter Street but saw no one. I went another block, and when I reached Weller Drive and looked to my right, that’s where I saw her. Jill, all alone on the sidewalk, screaming, seemingly without taking a breath. Her screams droned on and on and became louder the closer I got to her. She had her back to me, and when I reached her I stopped, winded, and put a hand on her shoulder. She turned, and though her screaming stopped I could see tears running down her face. Her eyes pleaded with me, do something, do something. She gripped my arm and began whimpering. 

That was when I saw it — the limp white body at Jill’s feet. White except for a streak of red that ran from Muffie’s neck down the underside of her stomach. The moonlight shone down and the dog lay still. 

“That animal,” Jill said. “That animal got her. I couldn’t save her, I couldn’t catch up to her in time.” 

That was all she could manage to say before collapsing into me. I held her for a few minutes until she calmed down again. Eventually, I walked her home and got her to rest. But I couldn’t leave Muffie’s body there like that, and Jill was in no state to scoop up the corpse of her beloved companion, so I headed back to Weller Drive with a burlap sack I’d found in Jill’s shed out back. Our neighborhood ends at Weller Drive, giving way to a creek surrounded by low trees and brambles. The sun was just rising as I got to the spot where Muffie’s body had lain, but the dog was gone. All that remained was a little splatter of blood from her wounds. I looked around and couldn’t find a trace of her, but I did spot my old friend, the coyote. I watched as he trotted toward the creek, holding Muffie’s body in his mouth, and I guessed he’d waited to make a meal of her until the coast was clear. 

I stood there after he’d gone and thought about what to do before deciding to fill the sack with a few large stones someone had placed around the base of an old oak tree, making a pile I hoped looked roughly the size of a small dog. 

When I got back to Jill’s place she was leaning against one of her front porch columns, and she watched in silence as I approached. She took one look at the sack, started to cry again, and walked back inside. I went to the backyard and buried the bag under the apple tree by Jill’s new white fence. I put one of the stones over the burial site to mark it. As I turned to leave, I noticed Jill standing in one of the back windows, and I guessed she’d been watching the whole time. 

Then I walked home and went to bed.

November 17, 2023 15:22

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2 comments

Tracy Phillips
06:58 Jan 23, 2024

Nice capture of suburbia- drew me in and I really wanted to see what happened further with these two- nice job!

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Wade Douglas
02:29 Nov 25, 2023

This story went from 0 to 60 at the end. Very powerful technique. Really grabbed my attention and having personally lost pets to coyotes, I can relate. The varicose vein simile a bit nasty but, hey, Keith is a guy, what can I say? definitely read more of hilary's stories in the future. Thumbs up, I say.

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