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'Where’s Joanie?' by Chloe Huttner

LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist 'Where is Joanie' by Chloe Huttner

Where’s Joanie?

Mabel paws at the door impatiently. The frost is leaching up her legs like ivy. Her body shivers and she presses a damp snout against the glass. She peers through to see blue and white flashes lighting up his silhouette. Its lumpy outline wobbles with laughter. When will he stop gazing at that silly box? Frustrated, she paces the four corners of the garden to warm up. Even the smells have shrivelled in the cold. Fox shit and cat piss are almost indistinguishable, which is like saying chocolate and cheese smell the same. ‘Ruff!’ Her bark peeters out in the dull gloom. No stars tonight. ‘Ruff.’ She turns to direct her pleas to the house. ‘Ruff.’ ‘Alright, alright.’ The door slides open, warm air floods out. ‘You silly bitch, I was just in the middle of Strictly. You know how much I enjoy that show.’ Confused, Mabel nuzzles his feet in a grateful apology. He shuffles his hard-soled slippers away. She follows, but he bangs the living room door shut on her snout. The glass rattles loudly, and she sits waiting for it to stop. When it does, she can hear crackling from the box and a drip from the tap behind her. He’s fiddled with that tap already, half-heartedly unscrewing parts beneath the sink. His bald patch kept bumping against the wooden frame above. And then, ‘Blast’, he gave up, clattering tools onto the tiles, and unhunching his shoulders. ‘Joanie would know what to do.’ Which is true, but a bit rich coming from him. He always calls Joanie an idiot. Mabel retreats to her bed, plumps up the cushions, and plonks herself down. A draught licks at her back. He’s forgotten to block the crack with the towels. Again. They lie bundled in the corner, abandoned, forlorn. Just like Mabel. —---------------------------------- Cold air and stinging light wake her up, slipping in her eyelids first. She wriggles onto her side. He’s awake too; floorboards creak overhead. He likes to march around in the mornings with a determined purpose. He always has. She used to join him, happily trailing him from room to room; bathroom, bedroom, landing, study. Bedroom again.

Sometimes, when he was in one of his angry moods, she’d wait outside the bedroom until he was done. The stench of fear was a little too much for her. It twisted her insides, like the strap of her lead, tightening around her neck. Afterwards, he’d saunter out and grin proudly down at her. ‘That’s better, sorted her out.’ He’d tug his maroon jumper down over his belt. ‘Things are back in order. Wish she could behave more like you. You understand me, don’t you Mabel?’ Mabel enjoyed the neck ruffles that came after. She’d wag her tail enthusiastically against the fuzzy carpet. Though the imprint of the lead around her insides never completely disappeared. Now, she’s not allowed to follow him. His morning dance is solitary, more vigorous, and begins earlier. He slams doors erratically, and his route is less orderly. She misses the old times. But at least the bedroom thing doesn’t happen anymore-not as far as she can tell, anyway. The fear smell is much less strong. It smells more rotten now, like when she finds a dead frog floating in the pond. Mabel lowers her head as the bannisters announce his descent. Next, the light pulley in the toilet clinks on. A fan whirs. ‘Just checking,’ he mumbles and sweeps his fingers over the cabinet shelves. Clunk. He’s leaving the toilet now, heading for the kitchen. Mabel buries her snout into the felt edge of her bed. She still catches his scent; sandalwood slathered over stale bread. He grunts as he bends down to pick up the newspaper by the front door. ‘Bloody idiots. This country’s gone to pot.’ The kitchen door swings open. By default, Mabel raises her head to look at him. ‘What are you looking at, eh?’ She whimpers. ‘Don’t whimper. It’s not good manners. Joanie never whimpers. No matter what.’ That is also true. Mabel clamps her jaw shut. He gets on with his routine: kettle, coffee, toast. He likes the edges burnt, the middle browned, and a very thin layer of butter. ‘Got to watch my weight, haven’t I, Joanie?’ he says, patting his stomach. The fridge grumbles in reply. Joanie loves that fridge. It’s her secret love though. She used to creep down in the night when he was asleep. Slurped lemonade, crunched through ice-cream. It would wake Mabel up. Mabel barked hello the first time, hoping for a share of the spoils.

‘Oh no, Mabel, you mustn't tell him. You know I’m meant to be losing weight. What he’d do if he found out....’ After that, Mabel pretended not to notice. Curled up in her bed, she’d listen silently to the gobbles. It sounded like a kind of battle, teeth clanging against the spoon, furtive hands scrabbling at lids and packets. Mabel wishes she’d got involved more; Joanie doesn’t come down any longer, and ice-cream is Mabel’s favourite. Slobber dribbles from her tongue as she remembers. She watches him carefully tip water onto the windowsill. ‘Oh, Joanie. You’re growing beautifully, you know that. Two lovely leaves already.’ Perplexed, Mabel patters over to get a better look. There’s a conical pot on the windowsill. It smells of damp soil. How does Joanie fit in there? She isn’t exactly the smallest of humans. Mabel likes that about her. His foot digs sharply into her side. ‘Stay away from my Joanie.’ Mabel cowers and growls as the pain sets in. ‘I said, stay away.’ Mabel backs away, tail lowered. Her left ribs feel like cracking wood. She doesn’t understand. She used to be his angel dog. Joanie is the one he hurts. —-------------------------------------- At lunchtime, he pops out for his trip to the newsagents, leaving Mabel behind. She longs for the outside again. The proper outside, not garden outside. She likes puddles and pavements and those places called parks. She roams the kitchen instead, from bed, to sink, to oven, to door. Her claws scratch uncomfortably against the tiles. She tries yowling at the pot. Is Joanie inside? ‘Ruff.’ No reply. Angry, she barks at it some more. ‘Ruff, ruff, ruff.’ A water droplet plinks down into the basin of the sink. Otherwise, nothing.

Still curious, Mabel launches herself up onto the counter, paws slipping on the plastic surface. She falls off, backwards, hitting the floor hard. She gets up, wiggles her spine, and tries again. This time, she succeeds. Balancing over the sink, hind legs one side, forelegs the other, she sniffs at the pot. It doesn’t smell like Joanie, of fisherman's friends and warmth. She inspects it. It is round and has a red-brown bottom. She grabs it between her jaws and sinks her teeth into earth and tangy plastic. Then she jumps down onto the floor, bashing her nose against the cupboard opposite. With a toss of her head, she shakes the pot. Clods of soil break free. They don’t seem like Joanie at all; there’s no wool or chubby skin. She shakes some more. The plant itself flies out and slaps against the fridge door. The hairy green stem slides down to the floor, leaving a sludge of dirt in its wake. Mabel tramples over the soil. She is hot, flustered. Where is Joanie? What has happened to Joanie? —------------------------------------------------------------



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