Susan Wilson

Two Good Dogs

Single mom Skye Mitchell has sunk her last dime into a dream, owning the venerable, if run-down LakeView Hotel in the Berkshire Hills.  It's here where she believes she'll give her fourteen-year-old daughter Cody a better life.  But being an innkeeper is more challenging than she imagined, and Cody still manages to fall in with the wrong crowd. In addition, Cody is keeping an earth-shattering secret that she's terrified to reveal.  The once loving, open girl has now become completely withdrawn, and Skye is both desperate and helpless to reach her.

When Adam March and his pit bull Chance check into the hotel, it becomes the first of many visits. Here in these peaceful mountains he finds an unexpected relief from his recent bereavement.  He and the beleaguered innkeeper form a tentative friendship.  Adam knows the struggles of raising a difficult teenager and Skye understands loneliness.

And then there is Mingo, a street kid with a pitbull dog of his own.  When Cody discovers an overdosed Mingo, Adam takes the boy's dog not just for safekeeping, but to foster and then rehome.  But the dog isn't the only one who needs saving.  A makeshift family begins to form as four lost people learn to trust and rely on each other, with the help of two good dogs.

 

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EXCERPTS

CHAPTER 1

The tip of the fingernail file etches a groove into the laminated surface of the school desk in a less than satisfactory way. What she really needs is a knife, something on the order of the kind that her father carried, a folding pigsticker. Something with a more meaningful edge to it. But all she's got right now is this metal nail file she's taken from her mother's cosmetic bag, so she makes do.

Beneath the barrier of a cupped right hand, Cody describes the arc of haunches, a short back, then the angular thrust of a neck, the meaningful scroll of face and muzzle, curls of mane suggesting motion. Tiny forward-pointing ears. By the time she's ready to attach legs to her creation, she's forgotten to protect her work from the prying eyes of her history teacher and she's snapped out of her creative trance by the wrenching of the file out of her hand, the rasp scraping the skin of her forefinger.

"Cody Mitchell, that's defacing public property." Mrs. Lewis holds the offending manicure tool like a tiny sword, pointing it at Cody's artwork.

Cody sits back, shakes her uncombed hair out of her face, shoves her blocky glasses up on her small nose, and folds her arms across her chest in a show of perfect fourteen-year-old defiance. "It's art."

"It's a detention and a trip to the principal."

Just another day at this stupid school. Perfect.

As she slings her backpack over her shoulder, she hears the derisive giggling, the sotto voce gibes of her classmates, not a one of whom is her friend. Her friends are all back in Holyoke, enjoying their first year of high school together, without her. She's stuck in this rural excuse for a high school.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When her mother announced that she'd put a deposit down on an old hotel, fulfilling a longtime ambition to own her own "boutique" hotel, Cody had been as excited as anyone. She envisioned inviting the girls up for the summer, swimming in an outdoor pool, maybe even horseback riding. It would be fun.

But then everything changed.

Now it felt more like she was in hiding. She knows she should be glad to be far away from what happened that day, far enough away that maybe she's even safe, keeping her word, her exacted promise; keeping the Secret, surely safer at this distance. If he can't find them, he can't touch them. Her mother will never know.

It might have been all right, even though the LakeView Hotel did turn out to be a wreck, a giant money pit without even a pool, except that Cody is the butt of other kids' laughter, the stranger who doesn't share in their communal past. Not one friend.

Cody shoves the classroom door open, but her defiant gesture is foiled by the action of the hydraulic door closer. There's no satisfying slam. She storms down the empty hallway, her unzipped backpack thumping against her spine. The heels of her cowboy boots clatter against the scuffed linoleum of the floor, announcing her solitary presence in that hall of shame.

A figure moves out from the shadow of the girls' room."Where you going" The voice is curiously deep for a girl. It's a girl Cody knows because she's about the only other outsider in this school. She's a junior, but repeated failures have placed her in Cody's freshman English class. Her real name is Melanie, but she calls herself "Black Molly." To illustrate her point, Black Molly wears only black, sports a homemade haircut coaxed into something between a Mohawk and a skunk, which is saturated with shoeblack dull dye. She has oversized holes in her ears, plugged with disks. Her nails, her lips, and the tattoo on her left bicep are black. The tattoo riding her thick arm is unidentifiable; it might be a skull and crossbones or a sunflower, and probably the work of some amateur under the influence of crack. Black Molly might be thought of as a Goth, but Cody knows better. There were plenty of Goth girls in her old school, all black lipstick and eyeliner-rimmed eyes, but there's nothing romantically medieval about Black Molly's appearance. If anything, she looks like the love child of a Hell's Angel and a dominatrix. With the disposition of both. Cody's heard the kids making fun of Black Molly behind her back. No one would be stupid enough to say anything to her face. Black Molly is tough. She's the kind of kid that will think nothing of ripping your arm off and beating you with it. The jokes are best made when the girls' room door shuts behind her.

"None of your business." It's a poor riposte, but the best Cody can come up with. Black Molly may be intimidating to everyone else, but Cody holds her ground. She's already mad at the world, so why not get physical? Why not unleash the boiling anger onto this creature of the night?

"I asked you a question." Black Molly eases herself away from the cement-block wall, which is painted a cheery pink to identify the girls' room; the rubber soles of her unlaced boots squeak against the dirty floor. She's a heavy girl, and several inches taller than Cody.

It is that fifteen-minute block in every period where the kids who wander the halls have finally settled in, where the teachers on hall duty have sneaked into the teachers' room to grab a cuppa. Where the principal, head in hands, is studying the budget and the secretaries are gossiping, their backs to the big window that overlooks the main hallway. There is no one to stop this.

"Where'd you come from?" Black Molly suddenly affects a neutral stance.

"Holyoke."

"They got that big mall there, right?"

"I guess so."

"So, why you here?"

Cody shrugs. "Dunno. My mom" She lets the sentence dangle. "It's hard to explain." Cody has enough insight into this poor rural community to know that owning even a run-down hotel might seem like putting on airs.

"They don't like you." Black Molly lifts her chin in the general direction of the classrooms.

"I guess not."

"They don't like me."

Cody, who has not made eye contact, as she wouldn't with any wild animal, finally looks up from under her bangs. "Yeah. I noticed. Sucks."

Black Molly makes a chuffled noise, and it takes Cody a second to recognize it as a laugh. "They all suck. They don't like anybody who ain't like them."

"But you, you grew up here, right?"

"Yeah. But I'm different."

Now it's Cody's turn to chuckle. "You kind of like stating the obvious, don't you?"

"I'm different and I'm proud of it. I don't want to be like them, and if you're smart, neither will you."

“I don’t want to be like them. I just want to go—” She cuts herself off. Home. There is no home, not anymore.

“Go where?”

“Back where I came from.”

“Go. Run away. I’ve done it. Twice.”

“Where’d you run to?”

“Got as far as Greenfield the first time. I got a sister there. She sent me back.”

“And the second time?”

The righteous click-clack of teacher shoes and a quick warning to get where they are supposed to be. Black Molly flourishes a pass and walks back into the girls’ room. Cody unslings her backpack and zips it up, shoulders it once more, and heads to the office.

*   *   *

The bills are fanned out on the reception desk in order of due date. I rearrange them in ascending order of amount owed, then alphabetically. It really doesn’t help. Framed in the plate-glass picture window of the front office of the LakeView Hotel, I can see the Berkshire Hills, which are the chief attraction in this area. The trees, the promised cornerstone of a four-season income, aren’t yet alive with the colors that should attract caravans of tourists this fall; stubbornly languishing more blue than red in the early days of autumn, awaiting some twitch in the calendar to become motivated enough to herald in true fall. The old-timers are puzzled; everyone blames global warming. Summer itself was a disappointing season of too much rain and not enough activity to tempt people northward. As we are a little too far off the beaten path to work as a convenient staging place for cultural forays to Lenox or Stockbridge, and not quite far enough up the Mohawk Trail to get the best views, all I’d had for guests at the LakeView this summer were older hikers and a few tent campers bagging it in favor of a solid—thankfully—roof and a soft bed. Fingers crossed, the rainy summer portends a snowy winter, and skiers will help fulfill my bottom-line expectations. It goes without saying that the LakeView Hotel is just limping along, its glory days in the distant past. My own particular white elephant. Potentially, my second-biggest mistake ever.

My biggest mistake was Randy, my ex-husband. I try to think better of him now that he’s met the end we all feared he would, victim of a drive-by shooting, just another small-time drug dealer who pissed someone off.

So, how does a nice middle-class girl from Agawam meet a renegade bad boy like Randy Mitchell? How else? The mall. The Holyoke Mall at Ingleside, where teens have hung out, met, cruised, and even shopped for longer than I can say. I was a high school senior, feeling flush with the heady power of having my driver’s license, and my mother’s grudging permission to take our car, the only one we had, since she sold my father’s Lincoln after his death. My girlfriends and I were seated outside of the Orange Julius, affecting the ennui of world weariness, casting disdainful looks at the tweens giggling, arms linked, clattering by; the worn-looking matrons dragging toddlers away from the temptations of the toy store. We might have been discussing the college acceptances we were anticipating, or maybe just the latest gossip. What cheerleader was rumored to have had an abortion. Which teacher was caught working part-time at the video store.

Randy Mitchell drifted by with his posse. We feigned not noticing them. They rolled by again, blatantly checking us out. These were the boys your mother would warn you about, the ones who meant trouble, the kind of boys who were after “only one thing.” We pretended that we weren’t flattered, that their silent, predatory attention wasn’t kind of thrilling. They were older. At least twenty. Clearly from the rough part of town. And that was a powerful attraction, being the object of an older boy’s interest, a boy outside our social strata. When we didn’t move away, they grew bolder and sat on a bench close by. There was a swagger to them, a fearlessness.

Randy was the first to speak, and within moments he’d cut me from the herd and he and I were having our own conversation. And then, as if I were Elizabeth Bennet’s younger sister Lydia falling under the spell of the contemptible Wickham, I was smitten.

How I fell for that handsome Welsh charm, his certainty that he was invulnerable. I became Bonnie to his Clyde Barrow, without the bank robbery. Kid stuff, not sociopathic, simply rebelling against my middle-class upbringing. But I can’t really blame my mother. For me, Randy was the perfect self-inflicted wound. And, despite everything, he was Cody’s father.

I open up the computer, log in to my bank account, and play a round of deal or no deal with the bills at hand, balancing interest rates against relationships with the vendors I have to meet face-to-face, like the exterminator or the guy from the oil company. Bank of America will take another pound of flesh, but Berkshire Oil and Gas needs to be kept happy. I have to be able to meet the eye of the delivery guy when I bump into him in the grocery store. I dole out what I can, fiddle a little with payment dates, and log out of the Web site. It’s been just six months, something I have to keep reminding myself when I think back to my original business plan, one that had breezily forecast a better cash flow, complete with college-fund contributions on a regular basis. Just for fun, I open the reservations window on the computer and stare at the empty slots, willing each one to miraculously fill. Each empty line represents an empty room. I extend out to the weekend and see two names listed. Two rooms. Two nights. Enough to pay down another of these bills.

My most current revised business plan skims along the edge of solvency; not quite insolvent—yet—there is just enough cash left over each month to keep us fed and clothed. There is no fat, no juicy bubble of impulsivity. Pizza is budgeted. Health care is at the mercy of Mass Health’s sliding scale of contribution. Most important, as I continue to tell myself, I’m providing a good place for Cody, a place where she can breathe in fresh country air, and stay out of malls. Away from the influences of life in a poor city, a place to start anew. Oh, wait, maybe that’s just me. Cody has never said it out loud, but it’s clear from her descent from a bubbly, happy-go-lucky kid to a sullen, angry, silent, petulant, et cetera, et cetera, teenager that this move from Holyoke’s mean streets to a classic New England village in the Berkshires has ruined her life.

It’s a beautiful day and the rooms are done, the laundry is in the washing machine, and Cody is at school. I pull my hair back into a loose knot and go outside to the porch, pull up a rocking chair, and plant my heels on the railing. The view, even at this lower elevation, is spectacular, and it’s all mine. Regrets aren’t given much headspace. Buying the LakeView might be considered a little impulsive, but I still have, six months in, a deep-seated belief that if something is meant to be, it will be, so I’m not going to let the crushing worries of my middle-of-the-night wakening persuade me it’s not. I will make this work no matter how hard it gets. But you know what? It’s okay. It’s the dream realized. It’s the living embodiment of be careful of what you wish for.

*   *   *

“Are you staying after for a club or something?” Skye is eternally hopeful that her daughter will finally adjust to life in this backwater.

“No. I’m in detention.” Cody doesn’t add, again.

“Should I ask why?”

Cody thinks, Yes, duh, but says nothing more.

“Do you need a ride home?”

“I’ll take the late bus.”

“Okay. We’ll talk when you get home.”

Cody hangs up the office phone without saying good-bye. She looks at the secretary, who is minding her own business, as if Cody is no one important enough to eavesdrop on. A nonentity. Just another skinny jeans and T-shirt–wearing adolescent, braces on her teeth, backpack humped against her spine. There is a countertop that separates kids from office staff, a barricade of last defense against the uprising. On it, a ceramic jar filled with pens and pencils. With an artful swing, Cody manages to knock it off the counter with her backpack as she leaves the office. The pottery smashes against the ugly tile floor of the office with a satisfying sound of destruction; just as satisfying is the bellow from the secretary: “Cody Mitchell, get back in here!”

At least someone knows her name. The office door eases shut with a gentle thunk. Cody strides toward the exit, in the opposite direction from the detention room, making her heels click as loudly as she can. Black Molly stands beside the water fountain. Cody doesn’t look directly at her, but she gets the sense that Black Molly is smiling.

There was a time when she would have died to have been caught being destructive, mortified not to obey every rule, every directive. But that was the old Cody Mitchell. This one, the new and improved version, delights in anarchy. It feels so good. And in honor of that new power, Cody sticks her thumb out and hitches a ride. She doesn’t even consider herself lucky when her Good Samaritan is a middle-aged woman on her way to North Adams. The price of the ride is a short lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking. The woman buys her story of her mother’s being home with a sick child and her needing to get to her art lesson. Which is sort of true. The art, not the mother with a sick child, unless you consider the Bates Motel as sick. And—technically—she’s not taking lessons, but she is learning a great deal.

North Adams, home of Mass MoCA, has turned modern art into the last hope of a town whose industry has fled. Cody asks to be dropped off at a former factory, now an art studio complex. There are a couple of guys in there who don’t seem to mind her hanging around, although she knows they think of her as more of a pet than an art groupie, but that’s okay. Cody does coffee runs and cleans brushes, keeps quiet and doesn’t ask stupid questions when she does speak. Kieran and Mosley, a pair of hipsters in ironic black glasses and paint-spattered skinnies; the one building installations that defy gravity and the other, Mosley, working in what he calls mixed media, which looks to Cody like anything he feels like doing. Cody just likes the smell of paint, the pungent scent of an acetylene torch.

“What up, Cody?” Kieran is standing on a three-step stool, wire cutters in one hand. “Hand me that coil of wire, would you?”

Cody finds what Kieran wants. The reel of thin copper wire is surprisingly heavy and it takes both hands to lift it up to him. He measures a length, snips it, and begins weaving it into his sculpture. Even though she has yet to discern the actual subject of this wire and felt and found-object sculpture, Cody has to admire the way Kieran seems to know exactly where he wants to attach the wire, with never a moment’s hesitation, as if he has this blueprint in mind. His stuff reminds her of a bird nest she once found, filled with bits of dog hair and paper. Her own feeble attempts at creativity are more organic. Certainly less interesting.

Mosley saunters in, his blue eyes at half-mast. “Buffalo Bill, how you doin’?” His flannel shirt carries the lingering scent of his afternoon joint. Mosley suffers from some illness that allows him to use medical marijuana. He prefers his dose in the old-fashioned method, forgoing the edible for the combustible. Cody thinks that it’s a little strange that the scent most reminds her of the old guy who owned the fruit stand near their old house in Holyoke. He’d sit outside all day, smoking tiny black Italian cigars that looked more like licorice than a White Owl and stank like sin.

“Hi, Mosley. I’m good. Can I help with anything?”

Today, Mosley is good for a couple of make-work tasks, and pretty soon he has Cody set up cleaning brushes and sorting them into proper coffee cans. He’s older than his studio partner, and kind of looks like more of an old-school hipster, like Elvis Costello, than the trendier-looking Kieran. He sometimes slips Cody a buck or two for her help. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he barely notices she’s there, and other days he takes a real interest in her—talks about how he stuck to the dream, how he’s going to have the best collaborative around, how he’s just waiting for that right patron to discover him. Cody shakes back her lank hair and jabs a handful of brushes into a can.

“I’m going to need a ride home. That okay?”

Neither Kieran nor Mosley say anything for a moment. The LakeView is hardly on their way anywhere, a better-than-twenty-minute ride into the hinterlands. Cody holds her breath, but she doesn’t look at either man, pretends an unconcern she doesn’t feel. She really doesn’t know what she’ll do if they say no, that they can’t cart her home today. In the summer, when the light persists into late evening, it’s no big deal to walk the hour or so it takes to get back to the hotel, but now, well, it’ll be dark in an hour and those blind curves and sidewalkless country roads are scary. Not like the well-illuminated city streets she grew up on. These Berkshire roads are treacherous and still foreign.

Worse-case scenario, call Mom. Suffer the lecture. Get a ration of shit from the old lady. Hope that she gets distracted by something and quits yelling. Even Cody knows that the tone of voice her mother uses couldn’t really be called yelling. She kind of wishes that she would raise her voice, give Cody a proper tongue-lashing. Skye falls mostly into the world-weary, hands-up-in-surrender tone of someone afraid of really saying what she means. Cody hates it that her mother treats her like a child, like a delicate, ego-sensitive kid, not wanting to inflict bruised feelings on her by speaking her mind.

If only Skye knew just how fragile Cody really was, how vulnerable. She thinks that, six months after the fact, Cody is still upset by the death of her father, that her behavior is from grief. Randy was murdered less than a week before they moved into the LakeView. Cody’s let her mother believe that she’s mad only because Skye went ahead with her plans to move, as if Randy’s death were of no importance. Skye offers half-felt apologies, explanations for why it had to be that way, explaining over and over that they had to stay the course and the freight train was unstoppable, the handoff from the previous owners needing to take place on the arranged day. The Closing, always spoken of with a capital letter, couldn’t be put off. She doesn’t say it, but Skye implies that Cody and Randy weren’t all that close, that maybe some of this angst is just from being a thirteen-, now fourteen-, year-old with a sense of drama. She is grieving, of course. But it’s for her life before the Secret took control.

It’s not that. No, Cody’s whole being is brittle from the Secret. The weight of fear. Of pretending. The Secret is kind of like her shadow. Like Peter Pan, who freaked out when his shadow was stolen, Cody grips her secret close, knowing that if it becomes separated from her, she’ll die. It’s become an entity. A physical part of her, like her stomach or her eyes. As she can suddenly be aware of her heart beating or her stomach gurgling, or her intestines cramping, she is made aware of the Secret hiding within her.

“Can you? Take me home?” Cody folds her arms across her middle. Throws Mosley a beseeching look.

“Yeah. I’ll take you. But you’ve got to make arrangements for transportation home before you come back here again.” Mosley passes her another handful of brushes.

“I will, I promise.” It’s a lie, but, really, what choice has she? Cody can’t imagine not coming here to this studio, soaking in the atmosphere of creative juices, the adult companionship. Her peers are idiots. Pink-loving, Hello Kitty–toting, anime-fixated children. Innocents. Here she listens to the music of grown men who have evolved: Springsteen and Costello, Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. Radiohead. Pearl Jam. Old stuff, ancient history, but still surprisingly enjoyable when set as the backdrop to the work itself. Wire and found objects are defined by a sound track of classic rock and heavy metal. Swashes of color on a rough plank informed by vintage grunge.

“But I can’t take you all the way. I’ll drop you close, but not at the door.”

“Of course.” Cody rubs the sable tip of a fine brush against her cheek, smiles. Mosley’s reluctance to get close to meeting her mother seems so understandable. Why would he want to get caught up in Mitchell family drama? Or be assaulted by the well-meaning but clueless friendliness her mother has been known to thrust on unsuspecting strangers; her professional friendliness.

*   *   *

The late bus has passed by the LakeView without stopping. I’m standing at the window, staring out to where the road curves around the property and up into the hills. No Cody. No surprise. The phone call from the principal, Mrs. Zigler, also came as little surprise. An afternoon driving around, wasting precious gas on searching for a daughter I knew full well would make herself impossible to find, has left me with heartburn. Not actual heartburn, but an all too frequent emotional sensation lodged in my chest that makes me wonder if I really could treat it with Tums. It is the sensation of losing control of a fourteen-year-old. A child who has grown from being a sunshiny charmer into a sullen renegade. It goes beyond—well beyond—ordinary adolescent hormonal acting out. Cody simmers. She’s that old-fashioned pressure cooker sitting on a too-hot burner, the release valve rattling noisily. Except that Cody isn’t noisy. She’s quiet. Very quiet.

It’s closing in on dark now and I have no idea where she is or when she will return. I’ve learned long ago that repeated texts and phone calls go unanswered, like throwing pebbles into the sea. Nothing. Unlike so many of her generation, Cody disdains the cell phone culture, and today it’s clear that she’s left hers home. My one allowable call alerts me to the abandoned phone caught in the tangle of sheets on Cody’s bed, with its singular ringtone identifying me as the caller. I’ve gotten over being miffed at the Wicked Witch theme, choosing instead to think it funny. Too clever by half. Surrender, Dorothy!

What kid doesn’t cling to her phone? It was the consolation prize I bestowed upon her when we moved so far from her friends, a way to keep in touch; a way for her to have some freedom of movement without my abnegating parental authority. All I ask: Just keep me informed. Her disdainful reply: Of what? I have no life here.

Today, as so often, words, like those pebbles, plink beneath the surface and disappear.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Wilson

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