Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2022    poetry    all issues


Joyce McCown

Kristina Cecka

Jeremy Glazer

Richard M. Lange
Night Walk

Eleanor Talbot
The Calamitous Consequence of a Small Thing That Gets Big

Christopher Mohar

Nicholas Darmody
All Those Not Seen

Darcy Casey
A Hard No

Weston Miller
Dystopian Lit

Chelsea Dodds

Michael Sadoff
The Day I Saw Janis

Jeannie Morgenstern

Writer's Site

Darcy Casey

A Hard No

Whenever Kitty ran out of dope and money she counted upon Annie to give her a place to stay. Annie was a better person than she was, so when Annie showed her not to the guest room but to the apartment above the garage, explaining it was more private, Kitty took it to be another display of her friend’s endless kindness. Only later, when Kitty was alone and feeling miserable, did she open the plastic bag Annie gave her to find the note, written on the back of a receipt tucked between a packet of beef-flavored Ramen and a bottle of Ibuprofen: Lock the door when you leave. The finality of the word when made Kitty’s legs cold and her forehead burn. She didn’t have a key to the apartment and felt it must be a mistake. Rallying against the anxiety, Kitty went to the main house and tried the door. It was locked. Peering inside she could see the heads of Annie and her son, Sam, in the living room. Sam’s head turned slightly at the sound of the door’s handle, but Annie touched his arm and leaned toward him. Annie looked straight ahead even when Kitty gave a small wave and Kitty, reeling from loss, returned to the apartment without knocking.

The space above the garage was, if anything, private. It had a bathroom and kitchenette and although it was drafty with spring-time air, Kitty had blankets and a thick black sweater. If she pulled the shades she could die in there and no one would find her for weeks. Annie certainly wasn’t coming to check. To keep her mind off things, Kitty arranged boxes of old magazines and dish sets into a maze and walked it endlessly, trying but failing to sleep, staring at walls that were neither salmon nor red but the ruddy blush of a drunk white man. After four days the worst was over. Not wanting to be seen, she waited until midnight before she put on her sweatshirt, took the last of the Ibuprofen, and locked the door.

At the bottom of the stairs came voices from inside the garage and Kitty was afraid if she went any further, she would come face-to-face with Annie. But the voices were of two men, one very young and the other with the timbre of someone twice her age. Relieved, Kitty hurried forward but could not help glancing inside as she passed. What she saw made her freeze.

A stranger was bent at the waist, rifling through a box in the far corner, speaking all the while in a soft voice to Sam, who stood by the door pulling off a T-shirt, a flush in his cheeks and a nervous look about his eyes.

“Sam!” she said, moving in front of him. “What are you doing?”

The old man turned to look at her with sad eyes and a tart smile. “You must be Kitty,” he said. “Sam did say you were here.”

“I told you we had to be quiet,” said Sam. “Now it’s ruined.”

“Sam,” said Kitty, “where’s your mother? Who is this?”

“Nothing’s ruined,” said the man, waving a flashlight. “It’s all right. But you need to hustle.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” said Kitty to Sam, but from behind her came the telltale shuffle of clothing as Sam peeled off another layer.

“I think we’re off on the wrong foot,” said the man, stepping toward her. “I’m Earl. I live next door. Annie left on business and I’m watching Sam. I told him to change his clothes because he’s wearing white. He could have done it in his room, but he didn’t.”

Earl held out a hand but Kitty didn’t take it. Behind her, Sam had pulled on a pair of forest green long johns. The flushed look had crept back on his face.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“We’re gonna steal some dogs,” said Sam. “Earl knows how.”

“One dog,” said Earl. “We can only do one.”

“The one that’s sick,” said Sam. “I remember.”

“Very good. Now, get in the truck.”

Sam left. Kitty felt as though she were moving too slowly for the world and sat on an overturned bucket, one hand on her stomach. Earl gave her an appraising look.

“Did you lock the door?”

Kitty stared at him blankly.

“The door upstairs. Did you lock it?”

She nodded.

“So you were leaving, then?”

She nodded again.

“Alright. Don’t let us stop you.” He went to the door and paused with his hand on the frame, and when he turned back to her his eyes were rheumy with mischief or maybe glee. “But you could come along, if you want. Your clothes are good.”

Kitty ran a hand over her sweatshirt. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“It is,” said Earl. “And dark.” He winked and was gone. Kitty sat alone in the garage, watching until he rounded out of sight. Her palms grew moist with anxiety.

Sam was her son’s age, or at least the age he was when Kitty last saw him, a boy of eight, all awkward bones and stretching muscle. They were on the courthouse steps just after the divorce and her newly-minted ex said Give your mother a hug and he did, his arms a trap waiting to spring. It was over before she had a chance to feel the warmth in his grip and when he looked at her it was with the face of a much older boy. There was no sadness in his eyes, only relief. A relief that Sam would never have cause to feel, for Annie was also a better mother than Kitty.

Outside a door slammed and an engine started. She knew leaving was the right thing to do, but to where? Kitty wiped her palms on her dark-enough jeans and thought of jail. She had been lucky all those years, shooting up in parking lots, coming close enough to feel death’s eyelashes on her cheek. Part of it, she knew, was the town itself. Drugs ran like oil through her fishing community. Drugs hauled the nets, tossed the traps, kept men on their feet through long hours at sea. Tourists refused to see what pulled the boats back at the end of each day and they came in droves each summer, money in fists, thrusting it into the hands of locals who swallowed hard and put a little extra in the tithe on Sunday. Lincoln green prayers for all the lost lives but no one would say the words out loud.

Kitty rose from the bucket and went to stand beside Earl. Sam was in the truck, a restored Chevy that might have been as old as Earl. The sheen on its two-door cab was crisp enough in the flood light to show a scar above Kitty’s left eye she had no memory of getting. Earl opened the door. It was spotless inside and Kitty thought maybe that was his job, fixing things that people were about to quit on. He smelled like motor oil, anyway, and something else, flowers or potpourri, but it was spicy and discordant. A man who smelled like that could be capable of anything.

“Are you a mechanic?” she asked, taking in his ropey arms and calloused fingers, the tips stained dark.

“Isn’t everyone in Maine?” he said with a shrug. But he softened when he saw her face. “I own the shop. But don’t worry about it. I’m just like you.”

He gestured to the seat and said they could all fit if Sam took the middle, but the thought of them thigh-to-thigh was too much. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not even a hugger.”

Earl nodded. “If I didn’t need to drive, I’d be back there, too. A night sky like this will drown you. You’ll see.”

He put a blanket in the bed of the truck and gave her his hand, which she ignored. The tailgate slammed behind her and soon they were on the road, hitting hard against potholes, sending Kitty’s shoulders against the bed’s coated edges. There was no rain but the air was ripe with its promise and little beads of water formed at Kitty’s hairline, ran down her face and into her hood. She was cold but at barely five days sober, she didn’t expect to be warm maybe ever again and so she let the droplets run down her face.

The back window slid open and Sam’s head poked through.

“Earl says are you fine or do you want another blanket?”

“It’s okay,” said Kitty, shivering. “I’m all right.” The window closed and the latch clicked. Kitty leaned her head against the bed of the truck, felt the tremors of motor and earth vibrating the bones of her skull, and closed her eyes. But her new sobriety colluded with the twisting road to summon in her a deep, thick nausea and she leaned over the edge of the truck. In the throes of withdrawals she was ants and skin, wired exhaustion, tanned hide over the wrong carcass but that had ebbed into chills and throbbing joints, headaches and an acid stomach. Worse was the cloud of desire, the shifting fear, but of what? Perhaps life itself, of waking up on the other side of sobriety and feeling something terrible the way it is when one walks into the light from the dark, blinking, rendered immobile from the rush. Fear also that nothing would ever be good again, that her only choices were to spend the rest of her days ignoring the pain of a phantom need or succumb to it.

Kitty wiped her mouth and thought enviously of alcoholics. They had immunity, wrote memoirs, held speeches at schools to warn children of the dangers lurking in their rich fathers’ liquor cabinets. Alcoholics could get sober again and again and each time regain their status. It was easy to see why; drinking was something everyone did, it was only a matter of timing and quantity. Livers died quietly inside a body but needles were feared, their marks visible. Heroin was a dirty word, and if spoken at all, passed from mouth to mouth in whispers and hush.

The truck’s headlights winked off and they stopped so slowly Kitty was only aware of their stillness when the engine cut. They were against a deep, living woods, the outline of a dirt road cleaving its stomach. Trees the barest memory of green pulsed in the wind beneath a galaxied night sky. Earl came around to let her out, night erasing the lines on his face.

“Where are we?” asked Kitty.

“You’ll see.”

Earl extended a hand and she took it. Gravel chirped under her sneakers, blending with the sound of summer crickets. From the cab Earl pulled a toolbox so rusted it could have been the color of blood or carrots or dirt. Its opening lid gave a piercing squeal that shivered down Kitty’s neck.

“Jesus,” she said.

“Don’t get cold feet,” said Earl and Kitty knew what he meant but she thought of bodies behind dumpsters, needles still in their chilled arms. She knew three people found that way, their lifeless faces frozen not in pain but in ecstacy, and she knew that would be her way, too, only she did not know when.

Sam’s face, angled toward the shifting trees, was a twitching, shining nerve. Kitty thought dimly of the marching regularity of Sam’s life in a predictable, safe world—a life like her son would have now that she was gone from it—and instead of wrapping an arm around Sam to comfort him threaded her fingers through the belt loops of her jeans.

Earl pulled from his toolbox a pair of wire cutters, two wrenches, and a crowbar. From a long way off echoed the barking of dogs, dozens or more, and something inside Kitty clicked into place.

“Earl,” she said.

“Zip these into your pockets,” he said, handing the wrenches to Sam. “Don’t let them fall out.”

“Earl, we shouldn’t be here.”

“Don’t turn this on unless I say,” said Earl. He handed Kitty a flashlight. She took it and held it like something alive.

“We should go,” she said.

At last he looked at her. “No,” he said. “We’re doing this.”

There was a silence in which even the crickets seemed to still.

“I—I don’t want to,” she said.

“Then stay in the truck.”

“What if someone sees me?”


He turned and Sam followed him up the dirt road until they were swallowed by the trees. Kitty got into the truck and stroked the seams of the seat, which was brown and leather and smooth. The distant barking of dogs was the murmur of voices and it seemed that if she focused enough she might understand something that had, until that point, been lost to her. Her fingers tapped out a rhythm as she strained and strained, but nothing came, and she could no longer hear Sam or Earl. It was that easy. They had gone on without her.

She got out of the truck and it was like slipping into cool water. For those first few steps Kitty held her breath and then, lungs burning with the effort of walking, exhaled. At last she saw the flash of Earl’s hand, the back of Sam’s neck, their skin rendered mushroom white by the dark. When she reached Earl’s side he said to her, “Remember, don’t turn the flashlight on unless I say. The house is there.”

Rising at the top of the hill was an ill-used trailer thrown onto a foundation of unmortered cinder blocks, a sagging panopticon guarding rows of wire cages. In them were dogs, some with muscles Tyson-chicken plump, others mere slivers. The chain link fences, hardly able to contain them, rattled as the dogs lunged and dipped, their bodies a heaving mass of feet and rigid tails. Some had swollen bellies sagging low, tits worn hard from litters of puppies surely born right there, on four by six patches of thirsty yellow earth that absorbed their afterbirth and blood and urine alike. Kitty felt she could taste it, not just the defecation but the fear rolling off them in waves, and it was familiar and primal and raw. Kitty knew this place for the twisted crevice it was. So much of her life had been formed or wasted in places like this, the ones other people pretended didn’t exist.

“Okay,” said Earl. “Which one?”

The boy faltered.

“Sam,” said Kitty.

“I think—this way.” He went slowly at first, looking back over his shoulder every few feet. Soon he stopped looking, and after a time he darted forward, his body a minnow between the cages. “I remember!” he called. “I remember!”

Earl disappeared after him but Kitty lagged behind. The din of the dogs was savage; their barking muted her steps, drowned the beating of her heart. This was a place for disappearing, the night a smothering blanket of stars shielding her from the rest of the world. The guilt of things she had done, of choices she had made and would make again, couldn’t touch her here, were rendered suddenly harmless. Although the place was familiar in its stench and despair she wasn’t a part of it any more than Earl or Sam and, freed of a weight she didn’t know she carried, Kitty jogged, slow at first and then faster. Her body had forgotten what this felt like; she had always slipped from one periphery to another but now she was right there in the middle of it, a moving part of something, impossible to miss if only someone chanced a look.

She came upon Earl and slowed, her body bursting with life and the struggle to breathe. Sam crouched in front of a kennel, hand extended through the chainlink fence. A dog lay on its side, moonlight highlighting canyons of ribs.

“Oh!” she said, grabbing Earl’s wrist before releasing it and rubbing her palm where her skin touched his.

“I see him, Kitty. I see.”

“He doesn’t remember me,” said Sam. “I was here, but he doesn’t remember.”

Earl had the wire cutters but the kennel’s latch lifted easily; there were no locks, no chains or bolts, nothing at all stopping them. The dog regarded them with slow, unfocused eyes.

Earl took Sam’s shoulder. “Let him come to us,” he said. From a pocket he took a bag of cheese crackers and when he shook it, the dog rolled to his side and stood, his massive head too large for his emaciated body. He came forward with tail and ears tucked.

“He’s sick,” said Sam. “He needs saltines.”

Earl extended a cupped hand and the dog ate, watching them with white-rimmed eyes.

“Give him more,” Kitty said. On the third handful, the dog’s tail gave the smallest wag and he shoved his nose into Earl’s hand, eating greedily, when a sudden light illuminated the ground behind them. The windows of the trailer were lamp yellow, and behind the curtains moved a person. Dogs went wild with barking as a face appeared, squinting beyond the reach of light.

“What do we do?” said Kitty. “What do we do?”

“The woods! Go!” Earl gave Sam a shove and Sam ran past the kennels and beyond, through a vegetable garden, and into the bushes. Kitty followed. She stumbled over a cabbage but didn’t slow until she was deep in a hug of pine boughs and bramble. Then she turned, thinking not of the person in the trailer but of Earl, who was in the garden, cracker by cracker coaxing the dog between rows of corn. The dog crouched low, scarfing crackers and periodically glancing back. A shout carried from beyond the pens.

“Deer in the garden again!”

A door slammed and the dogs grew quiet. Two chugging clicks echoed off the trees. Kitty saw Earl through the eyes of these people: a moving mass in the corn, little flashes of white skin like the underside of a bounding deer’s tail. A shot rang through the forest and Earl’s head dropped out of sight.

“Earl!” cried Sam.

Kitty turned Sam’s shoulders around, told him to run and he listened, he actually listened. Stunned by the effect of her words, she hesitated—and that was all it took. The bushes beside her shook to life and through a shimmy of leaves and light came Earl, crawling, the dog behind him.

Kitty dropped to the ground but Earl shook her off.

“Are you numb? Put your head down! Go!”

They ran, hunched, thorns and branches tearing and slashing at panicked limbs. Time fuzed into open-mouthed breathing, the movement of body against the resistance of forest, and the world was nothing else until in front of them was Sam and then, mercifully, Earl’s truck. When they reached it they stood, panting and blinking, listening for sounds of chase. There were none. They were alone, gasping in the wake of what they had done.

“I thought—I thought you—” but Kitty couldn’t say it, and bent forward, waiting for the nausea to spill over. When it didn’t, she straightened and patted her torso and legs, tenderly touched her face. Earl rubbed his knees and she searched him for signs of injury, heart leaping at every scratch and scrape. The dog pawed at Earl’s hand for more crackers and Sam made a sound that was part sob, part laugh, and said, “We did it.”

“Let’s go home,” said Earl. He dropped the tailgate and hoisted the dog inside.

“I’ll sit in back,” said Sam.

“You won’t,” said Earl.

“Mom lets me.”

“I’m the sitter, so my rules.”

“But Mom—”

“I won’t have you falling out of a truck on my watch.”

Their bickering was so utterly normal that the fear which gripped Kitty dissipated, and she smiled, and then laughed, hard and reckless until her sides ached and her stomach threatened to burst. When at last she wiped her eyes and blinked, Sam was in the cab. Earl raised his eyebrows.

“Because you won’t let him in the back of the truck,” said Kitty, “but you’re okay with a great, grand dog heist.”

Earl sighed and looked troubled but Kitty felt no shame. Hours ago Earl was a stranger, but now they had done this thing together, and the result was her standing with him at the bottom of a long dirt road, skin and clothes torn and dirty, a strange dog in the back of a pristine antique truck. It occurred to her they were friends—they had to be after doing a thing like this—and even if they never met again they would always have this between them and if she ever needed to, she could summon the memory of this night and it would mean something.

Earl cleared his throat. “Let me tell you something, Kitty. Kitty—that’s your real name, yeah? Never mind it, never mind. When I was Sam’s age I had a cat. A one-eyed, earless tabby king. Flea-ridden, shabby, you name it. Scars. But every night like clockwork he would come into my bed and stay ’til morning. He was my cat, you see? He knew his name and came when I called. But one night he wasn’t there. Lord, did I search for him. Called him. Made flyers. Left out food. Christ, I set clumps of tuna fish from my own sandwiches by the front door. And it worked. One day I looked and there he was. I’ll never forget it. I was out the door so fast I bet I flew. Yeah, I flew. But that cat . . . well. My pop said he must’ve crawled into the neighbor’s tractor and got stuck. Ma said owls. But there I was, Sam’s age, looking at this cat who somehow made it back to me and was looking up like here I am, see? Here I am.

“A low like that stays with you. All these years and I still close my eyes sometimes and see him laying in the dirt, and I get a good dose of the feels like it just happened. Probably always will; I’m pushing seventy, anyway. So there’s a difference. Truck beds are a hard no. And I could’ve said no when Sam told me about the dog. But the thing I asked myself was, if I said no, could I look at that boy again, knowing he’d see that dog until he’s my age?”

Earl shook his head. “That’s a hard no, too. It’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s whether you can live with yourself when you could have done the hard thing but chose the other.”

Earl looked off into the woods and there were the sounds of dogs, of Maine. Crickets and the hum of plants. The gentle snapping of twigs beneath unseen, midnight paws.

“It’s Katherine,” said Kitty. “My name, it’s . . . .”


“Kitty is short for Katherine. From when I was a girl.”

“Katherine. All right.” A pause. “Are you coming back with us?”

Kitty nodded and climbed in beside the dog, feeling the healthy ache of muscles well-used, a certain tenderness in her lungs. Earl handed her the crackers and she saw he was limping, just a little. After he closed the tailgate Kitty said his name, softly, and he didn’t hear and maybe it was better that way. When the truck started moving the dog settled down, pressing into her side. His bones were hard and warm and he smelled of bog and shit and she fed him crackers and they were peaceful. Down the road Sam opened the back window, summoning a cyclone of crumbs, of dog hair and saliva. Sam’s face was glowing and eager, and in the truck’s lights it bloomed a happy pink. Kitty gave him the crackers and he contorted his arm so the dog could eat.

“Look at you,” whispered Kitty. “Just look at you.” She peered around the side of the cab, squinting against the wind and night bugs. The bottom of Earl’s face hovered above his folded arm, reflected in the side mirror. His lips were moving in conversation with himself or maybe prayer. He was taking them back to the house, but Kitty felt it didn’t matter, that he could take her anywhere. She stretched onto her back to watch the stars zip by and it wasn’t at all like drowning. It was like flying, or something better. There was a time long ago, when she was still good, and she’d been swimming in the ocean at night and all around her was this electric blue shine lighting up the droplets and waves and she felt like she could dive into it and swim on forever, right to the center of the earth, and that nothing could ever hurt her while she did. But she had to leave the ocean and that night and in doing so had forgotten all about it. But there in the truck, looking up at the stars, it all came back to her, that feeling of a great big world curled around her own smallness. And there was a safeness in it she knew would fade like a dream, and she was afraid of forgetting, and wanted Earl to stop the truck and climb in back with her, and Sam too, so they could sit there looking up at the sky while she still had the words to tell them.

Darcy Casey is a writer and artist from Maine. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, Newfound, Yemassee, CutBank, and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the Fractured Lit micro fiction contest in 2021 and her flash CNF piece, “My Sister and Other Big Things,” was a runner-up for the CutBank Big Sky, Small Prose contest in 2019. Her work has been supported (or will be supported by) Jentel Arts and Oak Spring Garden Foundation.

Dotted Line