Content warnings: self-harm, attempted suicide 

She feels it the most during time-outs: that awful race again, the sense of hurtling through whatever days she has left. She shivers, and the metal bleachers hurt. Better if she were home.

Yet she has a player on the field, number 85, Sonny Mills, her oldest. High school has done something to him. Given him forearms, darkened his jaw. What have the same years done to her?

A voice comes from behind: ‘Hey Mills, look alive. Almost first down.’

Her husband left years ago, after taking a hammer to her dogs. The only Mills now is her.

‘Come again?’

‘It’s third down and two.’

The team has lost to all five opponents this season. They rarely score. On nights like tonight, a first down is cause for cheering.

Yet the shutouts make for quicker games, so she says, ‘Third and two, lovely.’

‘Don’t be salty, Mills. They need this. Your boy needs this.’

Was she being salty? To the contrary, salt has certain curative properties. If she thought it would help, she, Paula, would fill the volume of her home with salt and never leave. She would live suspended in grains, blinded by them, choking on them. A burning bush of room-temperature granules running through her lungs and trachea.


After the game, a downpour. She cannot stand the sound of car tires over rain, and would rather anything but silence.

‘You played well, kiddo.’

She is feverish and weak. It is the best she can manage.

‘I played well? I didn’t even touch the ball.’

‘And how is that your fault? I see you out there, outrunning the defense.’

‘And I see you up in the stands, pretending to watch.’

She is sick again. Things are moving out-of-time. The exchange feels less like a chat, and more like mother and son writing letters across the months.

‘I’m sorry, baby. It’s always so cold, and I don’t quite get the game. But I always love watching you play. Ever since you were little, crawling on the floor. Having fun doesn’t always mean you win.’

‘We were crawling around on the floor tonight I bet.’

She is not sure what he means. Instead of replying, she brushes his cheek with her fingers.

Sonny asks, ‘You’re not feeling good?’

‘Not really.’

‘You don’t think Christine kept up the rounds?’

‘If I had to guess, no.’

‘Such an idiot.’

The way he treats his sister causes her dread. She begs, ‘Please don’t do that.’

‘Don’t do what? Say she’s an idiot? When she can’t get a Labrador to eat dog food?’

‘They’ve bitten her. I’m sure you remember.’

‘They’ve bitten—’ He does not finish the sentence, but only sustains the last word, like a known hoax he still wants to believe.

‘It’s not the same. I shouldn’t ask this of her. Or you.’

Paula has an unheard-of medical condition. She needs to be sure at least one of her dogs is eating, always, or she begins to die.


It started at age twenty-one. She owned a terrier, Brigitte, who mothered six pups. Paula found herself impatient between feedings. She craved for the dogs to eat, with the intensity of an addict. In between their meals she was exhausted. Better said, her body felt like car exhaust.

In time she married, mothered Sonny, then Christine, and bought three dozen dogs. She fed them bully sticks, peanut butter, anything to slow their chewing.

Her husband built kennels, but left when Sonny was in middle school.

He cited the noise, their stinking yard covered in dog mess, but Paula knew better. What bothered him was how the sickness wasted her. She was younger than him, but her face was crisscrossed in heavy lines. Her hair was white. Her voice, nearly too soft to hear.

Today her friends know of the illness, and take turns delivering food. What she needs more, though, is their labor: someone to open the cans, fill the bowls, clean up. Sonny has no college plans but Christine will move out when she graduates. She has not said it, but a mother knows. She sees it in the girl’s worn-thin eyes, which have aged like barn paint. When her daughter leaves, Paula’s staff will be cut by a third.


When they reach home, Paula is improving. Christine is slow, but working—perhaps she dozed a while, then, a few minutes ago, started the frantic business of catching up. Sonny takes over, seizing the can opener and cart full of food. Paula hears a swatting noise, then Christine’s high-pitch complaint: ‘Sonny, Jesus!’

Whatever the hit, it is nothing like what the boy takes the next home game. Three weeks have passed and Paula is looking off again, watching the time go along. A moan comes from both sides of the stands.

‘That might be eighty-five, Mills.’

She turns around, it is Russell Wynn again, the quarterback’s father. On any other day he is ruddy-to-bronze, yet now he looks pale. A bloodless man in cold clothes.

‘I’m sorry?’

Russell points. ‘It might be yours this time. Sorry, Mills.’

Nothing like high school football to get parents apologizing back and forth.

She looks at the field, sees the team standing around a coach, and a motionless boy. The opposing players, the Saint Paul Bluejays, are on bent knees. Their helmets look like strange, lower lips from here.

‘My God.’

The clock came to rest at 4:52. The boy couldn’t hold out for five more minutes?


The news is unbearable: a neck injury. An emergency room nurse says, —We have to stabilize before we know more.

—But he’ll walk again?

—Like I said, we get him stable first.

—By stable, you mean he might not make it?

Her ex brings Christine to the waiting room. His new lover has come along, with her tattoos on both, warm legs, and a tight cotton shirt.

He and Paula speak briefly, now say goodbye, walking off but letting their hands slide to each other’s wrist, palm, fingertips. His name is Tony. It is unsaid that she has to go feed her pets.

She hates them now, those loud, filthy things which forced her out to the country. She would be married otherwise. She could have watched Sonny’s games without Christine always staying back.

And maybe, with city coaching, Sonny would be breathing on his own tonight.

She opens a peanut butter for each kennel. That should keep them choking on something for an hour, until Tony calls again. The last time they spoke he said, ‘No word yet.’

‘How is that possible? It’s been all night.’

By dawn she cannot suffer the empty house anymore, or its outdated photo albums. She dials Tony for the last time. She hears him send the call to voice mail.

Fair enough, she will have a soak, instead. She draws a bath and an X-Acto knife. The pain is like a stage curtain coming down.

Giving up the ghost starts with fatigue, and some confusion. Now she feels a stifled panic, the same as if she had thrown a blanket over a cat. She cannot raise her head or legs. Nor can she lift the bleeding hand, which, in a last paradox, she would like to protect.

The tunneling of vision is quicker than she would have thought, it takes only moments. She entertains a number of short, pitiful dreams, which shift from concrete to immaterial, now back to concrete. She believes they last an hour.

Soon, impossibly, her vision returns.

She stares at great length—a minute? ten minutes?—until Wheeler, her Airedale, comes into focus. The dog is licking at her cut wrist.

She grins. It is exactly her luck, to spend twenty extra minutes dying because she started nourishing the pets again.

Yet there is no sense of racing time anymore. All is slow and robust. Her blood flows lavishly, even while the dog laps thirstily from her arm. The more it comes, the more the hound is eager to drink.

Did she have it wrong all this time? Maybe the pets’ hunger did not need to sicken her. To the contrary, maybe their sustenance was supposed to be her sustenance.

She pulls the bath stopper, and the spinning discolored water turns into a red toy hurricane.

When the tub is empty she clicks for Wheeler to jump in.

‘Here boy.’

The dog hesitates, and she hauls him up with an arm under the belly. Her strong, one-handed bicep curl makes the animal grunt. Tony would have had trouble with that lift.

It takes her hours to remember the football incident. To be fair, it takes her hours to remember Sonny, Christine. You wonder if she and Wheeler could live years like this, the bleeding mother, her thirsty pets. To her, it sounds less like hosts or parasites, and more like a messiah with her apostles.

Paula nods. All in.

Fred Nolan is a speculative fiction writer from Texas. He has published short stories, technical construction articles and a novel.
Fred lives near McKinney with his wife, two children and their well-fed retriever. Please say hello on Twitter, @The_Fredwords.