“I got two rules for you,” Alice said to the dog. “Don’t harass my chickens. Nobody loves an egg-sucking dog. And you watch out for my Stella.”
“Rules have changed,” Stella said.
Upon their first extended stay with Aunt Alice, Stella and Casey were given three rules which were enumerated on individual arthritic digits. “Eat or don’t eat. I ain’t gonna tolerate picky eaters. You look after each other. That’s what sisters do. If you get into trouble, I’m the first person you call.”
They stood side by side and watched as Karma ran circles around them. Stella surveyed the farm as she hadn’t been out here for months, maybe even a year. Everything was the same, but so much had changed. The chicken coop was now a bright shade of green and the peak of the roof was now lined with metal sculptures of cats playing on the roof. She’d planted hostas around the Bur Oak trees scattered around the property which made it feel more like a manicured park.
“That damn dog is happier than a lark with a song,” Alice said as she watched Karma run from tree to tree sniffing the ground and following the scent and specter of squirrels. “Skinny though.”
Even though they hadn’t seen each other since the divorce there was still a comfort and familiarity between them as they passed long minutes in silence watching the dog and listening to the world spin.
“Do you want this place when I die?” Alice asked and picked at fuzz on her calico dress. “Maybe turn it into a bed and breakfast.”
Stella studied Alice and looked into her wrinkled face and the curve of her mouth. Stella cupped Alice’s callused hands in her own and traced her aunt’s lifeline and heartline like a palm reader at the county fair.
“You okay?” Stella asked. “Anything I should know about.”
“Christ. Nothing that dramatic. A friend offered to buy the old homestead.”
“Do you need the money?”
A tractor rumbled to life in the distance and a cloud of dust rose over the line of trees that separated the house from the cropland. Karma sprinted to the bordering trees to investigate with tail swinging in wild and curious circles.
“Sell the land, if you want.” Stella had never thought about inheritance or family legacy, except for mom’s collection of Grateful Dead bootlegs. She’d always believed it was up to her to make their own way in the world. The small scrap of land at the end of the lane that they called the old homestead had never been a part of their history other than warnings to stay away. The house and acre of surrounding land covered in her aunt’s art was what Stella would want should that time come.
“Does Casey want a graduation party?”
“If she wanted one, she would’ve planned it by now.”
From a far corner of the yard Karma barked and howled. These weren’t the playful barks like discovering chickens for the first time, but intentional warning, bordering on viciousness. Stella jogged out to the side yard to see what was upsetting her dog, but as she got closer Karma turned on her. The dog sprinted headlong at Stella. Stella stutter-stepped backward, lost her footing on a tree root, and crashed to the ground. The dog stopped short and snarled at her new owner. What the hell had gotten into the dog? Maybe this was the dog’s trauma response: some deep-seated hatred of tractors borne from experience. Stella rolled over onto all fours and bowed her head to the dog.
Karma sniffed at Stella’s ear. Stella thought it was affection until the dog took a large bite of hair, and started tugging her back toward the house. Stella screamed as the dog dragged her several yards before letting go. Karma sprinted back to the edge of the cropland and then back.
Stella held her hand to the side of her head to quell the throbbing. Karma stuck a wet nose in Stella’s face. Stella grabbed the dog’s collar in case this turned into another tugging match, but Karma was content to love on her new mistress.
“What the hell’s gotten into you?” Alice said and swatted at Karma’s rump.
“That was strange,” Stella said.
“As most good deeds are.”