“Sea turtles can live to be a hundred,” Alex said, making his hands into flippers. Sybil’s blonde head shifted on his thigh. She was cocooned in fleece blankets. The unfinished basement was cold.
“People?” she asked.
“People can live a long time,” Alex said. “A long, long time. If they’re smart and if they make smart decisions.” He leaned his head back against the cheery lime green of the one painted wall. The others were still plywood and insulation.
“To be a hundred.”
“Maybe a hundred, like a sea turtle.” Alex showed her his flipper hand. She dug her own smaller version out from the blankets. They slapped at each other.
Java watched, still splayed out on the bare floor across from them. His eyes flickered from one to the other.
“Pets don’t live as long,” Alex said. “Dogs and cats don’t get as old.”
“How old?” Sybil asked.
“Maybe fifteen years,” Alex said. “Actually, only five. Five years. I was wrong.”
“Not even as old as you are now.”
“Oh.” Sybil blinked twice, three times. Alex looked at the dark empty screen of his phone. He wondered what the time was, the real time.
“Don’t fall asleep just yet, honey,” he said.
Sybil squirmed. She grimaced.
“Time for the doctor to listen?” Alex asked.
Sybil bared her small white teeth. “Yes. Listen.”
Alex put his frayed headphones in with great ceremony. He rolled up the bottom of her glittery blue shirt and tickled her stomach. Sybil’s laugh was quieter than it used to be, but she shrieked loud and clear when he pressed the cold metal jack to her belly-button.
Java’s head turned at the noise. He snorted.
“Just a minor tremor,” said Alex. “It’s, uh, it’s point six on the tummy rumble scale.”
Sybil played with the hem of her shirt. “Crackers are for point seven.”
“Can we do imaginary supper?”
“Yeah, we can do imaginary supper.”
“New Year’s supper,” said Sybil. “Sushi.”
“Spring rolls. Fake ginger beef, that vegan kind. But it tasted really good, didn’t it? I was surprised.”
“We watched Up.”
“We did,” said Alex.
“With the talking dogs.” Sybil sat upright, hair floating staticky around her face. She peered at the dead television in its cabinet. “Can we try the power again?”
“I tried it when you were napping, honey.” Alex stared at Java. “Dogs don’t talk in real life, though. They aren’t really that smart.”
“Not really that smart, honey,” Alex repeated, but Sybil had fallen asleep again.
He sat silent for a long time. Then he eased her off his lap and gathered himself. Standing made his knees pop and his head rush. Java looked up. Alex went to the small unfinished bathroom, the highest cabinet. He felt carefully in the dark for a smooth plastic handle. He laid the still-sharp kitchen knife in the bottom of the shallow porcelain bathtub for the third time. Then he went back to the wall, stooping to scratch after Java’s ears. He missed.
“Don’t sleep yet, honey,” Alex whispered. “You make me nervous.” He shook her gently awake.
Sybil rubbed her eyes.
“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” Alex asked, sitting down.
“No,” said Sybil, but she did. She tried to scramble out of the blankets.
She wasn’t so quick anymore. Alex caught her and pulled her into his lap. He tried to tickle her but his fingers were dead things and she didn’t want to be tickled. He stroked her head instead.
“Lots of cultures,” he crooned. “From all around the world. Koreans, too. Lots of them.”
Sybil squirmed again and this time he couldn’t stop her. He wasn’t so strong anymore.
“Honey, the saltine box is empty,” Alex said. “It was empty a long time ago.”
Sybil crawled and laced her arms around Java’s ribs. The tips of her ears were bright red. Alex thought of her mother.
“It’s going to be while you’re sleeping,” Alex said.
“Let’s go outside,” Sybil begged.
“You know we can’t go outside,” Alex said. “The air is still dirty. It will make us sick.”
“Maybe now?” Sybil squealed, face corkscrewed against tears.
“No. We need to keep waiting. And we need to make smart decisions.”
Sybil said nothing, but her jaw was set. Her mother again.
“Only five years,” Alex said again. “You can go to sleep with him tonight, okay?”
“My dog,” Sybil said.
Alex dug fingernail crescents in his palms. “But who gave you the money to buy him, remember?” His voice was syrup. “I did, right?”
“I did, right?” Alex repeated.
“Yes.” Sybil was starting to hyperventilate. Alex had a sudden sharp fear of her fainting, falling, cracking her head on the cement. He stood up again and nearly fell himself.
“So it’s okay,” Alex said, taking an unsteady step. “He was a good dog. Tonight we can say goodbye and you can pet him until he falls asleep.”
“You hate him!” Sybil screamed, making Java and Alex both jump. “You hate him, you hated him, you hate him!”
Alex staple-gunned the smile to his face. “Do you love Java?”
“Yes, but you hate him.”
“You weren’t always nice to Java, were you?”
“No, no, sometimes you were mean to him,” Alex said, hitching a thumb into his belt loop to keep his jeans up. “Sometimes you opened the door to let him out and then closed it on his nose. Sometimes you tried to push him off the porch.”
Sybil was red-faced, shaking.
“One time you came home from school in a bad mood, so you started hitting him with your lunchbox, remember?”
“Is that something you do to someone you love very much?” Alex asked.
Sybil hauled her arms around Java’s neck and the first ugly sob got out.
“We have to make a smart decision, Sybil,” Alex said. “A grown-up decision.”
“No,” Sybil choked.
“It’s a wrong thing, isn’t it?” Alex swayed slightly, feeling helium in his forehead. “It feels like a bad, bad thing, and that’s why you’re upset. But you’re not doing anything wrong, honey. I’m going to do it. Just me. Okay?”
He took a shaky step. Sybil cried harder. He slipped his bony arm under her armpit and lifted her like a feather. She clawed against his stomach, his chest. Java gave a probing bark.
“And then you’ll forgive me, right?” Alex mumbled in her ear. “Because it’s important to forgive people, even when they do bad things, so you’re going to forgive me, okay?”
Sybil wailed. Java’s tail flicked, agitated. His nails clattered on the floor.
Alex wanted to stop. “Because, uh, God. God forgives us for all the bad things we do.” He couldn’t. “He forgave you for being mean to Java, right?”
Sybil smeared snot and saliva all across his shirt, trying to burrow up under his ribs. She was sluggish now, exhausted.
“So you’ll forgive me, okay?”
Java barked and whined.
“Okay, honey? Okay?”