Free Gerbils


YEAH. GREG was gone.

Carter Embree gazed around the house and tried hard to find a trace of the man he’d brought home three months before.

Greg’s DVDs and CDs had been surgically removed from the wooden shelves by the entertainment center, and his clothes had been taken from the top of the dresser. His phone charger was no longer plugged into the strip on the meticulously clean gray marble counter in the kitchen.

It’s been fun, Carter, but I should have left the morning after. Trying to be a couple was an exercise in futility—good luck, though.


The incriminating note sat in the middle of the kitchen table, and Carter just stared at it dumbly.

He barely felt the ache in his chest—but the silence was driving him mad.

Body on autopilot, he hung his suit jacket over the kitchen chair and set his briefcase down on the glass-topped table. He’d already left his shoes on the shoe tree in the hallway, and now….

Well, it was after nine o’clock. He hadn’t done takeout, because he hated it for one, and he’d been planning to cook for another. He was starving. Okay. There you go. Refried beans, some cheese, a tortilla—burrito. A trip to the bedroom to put on black pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt and to hang up the suit, which had at least two more wears before it needed a trip to the dry cleaners.

Which was how he came to fall asleep sitting in front of the TV, eating a minimalist burrito, while the Lifetime channel rebroadcast Two Weeks Notice and he dreamed that Hugh Grant would suddenly become dependent on his opinion and want to take him away from it all. He’d neglected to even remove his glasses.

His phone alarm pinged in the charger at six in the morning, and while he was flailing for the thing to make the noise stop, he forgot.

“Greg?” he mumbled. “Greg? I’ve got to go. This case, man… I’m sorry… when it’s over, we’ll take a vacation….”

He rolled from the black leather couch and onto the floor, sliding on the tan chenille throw and ending up sprawled between the couch and the coffee table, for a moment too disoriented to even get up on all fours.

And that’s when he remembered Greg, with the sunny smile and the careless blond hair, and that unspoken promise to take Carter away from his job, away from his ambition, and to make him a better person, a happier person, a person who would put his boyfriend first and not let him slip away.

All that was left of Greg was a slip of paper and the horrible sense of failure in the pit of Carter’s stomach.

Carter ignored the shrieking alarm for once, took off his glasses, buried his face in the carpet, and cried.

He still arrived on time for work.

Brenda, his paralegal, updated him on his to-do list that day and finished with “You don’t look so good, Mr. Embree. You gotta step up your game, or Jacobsen is going to eat you for lunch!”

Carter looked at the brief on his desk and grimaced. “Jacobsen needs to be careful,” he muttered. “What he’s having me do on this case—it’s barely skirting misconduct.”

“Why?” Brenda asked, concerned. Well, she fed a family on this job. “I mean… this is the settlement for the woman whose dog escaped the fence, right?”

Carter nodded, hating this case. Civil law could be nastier than criminal law. The fence had been shoddily made and shoddily installed by Hausen/Hufsen, and Carlene Clayburgh and her husband, Jed, had been trying to get the fence company to pony up and fix their work. Unfortunately, while Hausen/Hufsen had been dithering about their own incompetence, the Clayburghs’ ten-year-old Labrador retriever, Bowser, had escaped, and the next-door neighbor had shot the dog, claiming he was spooking the man’s horses.

The Clayburghs were suing the fencing company for both a replacement fence up to specs and for pain and suffering, and Carter really thought they would have a chance.

If Carter’s boss were representing them, that is.

As it was, Jacobsen was representing the fencing company, because they had more money. Because they cut corners. Because Marc Jacobsen was a douchebag of the highest order, which was why his firm was on the rise.

God, Carter hated his job.

“This is a settlement cheating the woman with the dog.” Carter hated to disillusion poor Brenda. “If she had a competent lawyer, she could get ten times what we’re offering.” Why? Because the fencing company had sent somebody over to try to fix the massive amounts of incompetent broke that made up the warped boards and mangled carpentry in that multithousand-dollar disaster. In fact, they’d sent somebody on the same day the dog had escaped. And yes, Mr. Hausen, the fiftyish, flinty-eyed man who was running the company into the ground, had spoken in no uncertain terms about how his inebriated nephew had probably left the fence open and let the poor animal out—but that had been in confidence to Mr. Jacobsen and Carter.

By law they weren’t allowed to tell the Clayburghs any of that. And if the couple could afford a lawyer of their own, their lawyer might have put together the date of fence inspection with the date Bowser had gone missing and kicked the lawsuit into high gear.

But the Clayburghs were in late middle age, happy to finally have their youngest out of college, and in that stage of life where they wanted to improve their big stretch of horse property so they could someday move off it and into an apartment, where they might never have to mow another lawn for as long as they lived.

And, Jesus, had they loved that dog.

Carter didn’t get it himself. He’d grown up an only child of parents who’d had him in middle age. He’d been groomed to be a good boy, to have ambition and steadiness and aesthetic pleasures, like his parents had. His childhood consisted of museums and libraries and parks and gardens, but never the zoo. Just not in his folks’ purview, that was all.

So he didn’t get the attachment to the dog, but Jed and Carlene had struck him as nice people, and Jacobsen’s client had struck him as a complete and total asshat. He loathed that he had to exploit some nice people’s innocence of the law to benefit an asshat.

He really loathed that this was the case that had cost him his boyfriend.

And telling his paralegal that they were the bad guys was icing on the fucking cake.

“Wait.” Brenda’s eyes searched his face. “All the time we just put in researching—my Christmas money overtime—that came from….”

“From finding a way to not tell the Clayburghs that Hausen/Hufsen let their dog out,” Carter confirmed, ripping off the Band-Aid. “Yeah.”

Brenda wasn’t really a pretty woman—she had a broad face with hair she scraped back from her forehead into a sparse ponytail bobbing at the back. She wore no makeup, and basic Walmart office clothes—big boxy ones that did not scream “sexy” any more than her hairdo.

But she had three kids—three—and each one of those kids had some sort of furry creature. Even the husband had a fat house cat that camped out on his chest during TV time—she had the picture on her desk. The family vacationed with the dogs and found a sitter for the cat, and at least ten times a year she had to leave early to take some living, breathing creature from her household to a vet’s appointment or a groomer’s or an orthodontist appointment, or to stock up on Ritalin.

And he’d just told her that her place of business was shit-stomping someone much like her—someone who could care for an animal as much as a human being, and care for a human being enough to make them want to stay around her.

It was a skill Carter had never mastered. Sometimes he daydreamed about offering Brenda grooming tips if she could only show him how to make a man stay. He’d seen her husband come in to pick her up sometimes. That man gazed at his wife like she was J-Lo and Gwyneth and Angelina all rolled up in a polyester skirt with sensible shoes.

Carter would settle for a guy who wouldn’t desert him like a rat deserting a plague ship—or who would look at Carter like he didn’t have the plague.

Sort of like Brenda was looking at him now. “But Mr. Embree,” she said, almost near tears. “They really loved that dog! You don’t have to talk to these people like people, but they sit in reception and make conversation with me!”

Carter closed his eyes. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. They….” He wasn’t supposed to make judgments—he was supposed to let the law do that. “They got a raw deal,” he said, hating himself. “And I didn’t say it, and you didn’t hear it.”

“If you loved something,” she said, voice wobbling, “something not yourself, you wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Carter grimaced. “I wish I was a good enough person to do that.” He left her before he could see her homely, sincere face crumpling and growing blotchy with tears.



“GOD, WHAT’S Brenda blubbering about?” Marc Jacobsen demanded.

“I have no idea.” Carter avoided eye contact. Jacobsen was actually a good-looking guy—blond and blue-eyed, like the name implied. He had a pool and a tan and liked to brag about making money by the pool while tanning. Since it had been in the eighties right up until the end of October, he still had evidence of making money on his face, and a lovely smile to glint against it too.

He was possibly the most amoral man Carter had ever met.

Oh, he worked within the letter of the law, it was true. But Carter once watched him take a full fee from a dying woman who was suing her doctor for not spotting her cancer sooner. The suit was bogus—the cancer had simply moved very fast and poor Mrs. Sandford would never live to see trial—but Jacobsen took the retainer and then forgot about the case until the funeral notice.

Carter had refused to put his name on any of her documents and refused any money that came as his due for the research he’d done on the case. Jacobsen had been careful after that—Carter was reasonably sure Marc had kept his most morally bankrupt files off Carter’s desk since then.

As it was, Carter would never be a lead courtroom attorney or, really, anything better than second chair, because Jacobsen didn’t trust him enough.

I gave up Greg for this?

Greg had wanted a cruise. He’d asked for one for Christmas. Greg waited tables, and Carter had enjoyed giving him things. Apparently giving him the wrong things.

Maybe you should have given him a blowjob once in a while.

Carter thought wistfully of the last time he’d had sex. Maybe it would have benefited both him and Greg if it had been recent enough to recall.

“Well,” Jacobsen said irritably, “whatever it is, could you make her stop? I mean, she keeps looking at me with cow eyes, and it’s pissing me off.”

“Our client killed the plaintiff’s dog,” Carter said, not able to keep the truth to himself on this day. “I think you need to invest in a thicker skin.”

Jacobsen smiled at him with smarmy charm. “Why wear a thicker skin when you can invest in a better suit?”

Carter rolled his eyes—but he didn’t say anything.

He didn’t say anything for the rest of the day, in fact, and the weight of what he didn’t say, coupled with the weight of getting little sleep the night before, tripled with hating Marc Jacobsen with all his heart, sent him to the grocery store after work that night for Advil and antacids, and maybe for some chicken soup and possibly for a soul.

He felt as though his own soul had been sucked out of his body, and the grocery store was his last recourse.

Until he saw the boy, the box, and the thing inside.

The boy was sitting outside the grocery store, huddling in a windbreaker made for an adult. He was a basic late-model white suburban child—brown hair, brown eyes, freckles, uneven teeth in unfortunate sizes. He wore an orange baseball hat with Giants emblazoned on the front, and until he saw Carter’s approach, he’d been slumping disinterestedly against the stucco wall of the Safeway, engaged in some sort of electronic game.

But the long November shadow hit his feet, and boy, did that kid pick up his shtick.

“Hey, mister, do you want a dog?”

Carter blamed what happened next on the distraction of his miserable day.

“Do I want a what?”

The kid jumped up then and reached inside the box, retrieving something so small his hands hid everything but white wisps of fur. On God’s bones, Carter would have sworn the kid was selling gauze and other medical supplies.

“A dog! It’s part chow, part Samoyed, and it’s gonna be about forty pounds. It’s my last one and….” The kid’s eyes grew limpid, and his lower lip began to tremble. “My dad, he says if I don’t give away the last puppy, he’s going to send her to the pound.”

“Puppy?” There was a puppy in the kid’s hands?

“Here, we call her Tuffy, but you can call her whatever you want. Just stick out your hands and—”

Carter put his hands out automatically, and the thing that landed in them started to drag something warm and wet along the inside of his wrist.

“Puppy?” he said again, incredulously. If not gauze, he would have assumed it was a gerbil. He tried to look the thing in the face, only to be hampered by a long set of dog-bangs that completely obscured any visual ability whatsoever.

Startled and puzzled, he wrapped his hands around the thing’s body and held it up so he could actually see its face.

It gazed back for a moment, black rubber nose wiggling in its squashed little snout, little beard vibrating with every breath.

Like magic, a pink tongue came out and swiped across his lips. He gasped in surprise and it swept inside.

“Oh, ew! Dog! What have you been eating?”

The kid’s voice came from far away. “Probably cat shit—I wouldn’t let her do that!”

Carter looked up in time to watch the kid jump into the passenger seat of a sky-blue Mustang Fastback, puppy box left behind.

“Oh my God!” Carter muttered as the car took off in a rumble of smoke. He looked at “Tuffy.” “Oh my God!” he said again.

His reward was a more cautious lick on his nose.

“Oh,” he said, mesmerized by the wide-set dark eyes darting under the dog-bangs. “My God.” He pulled the bangs back and fondled the little ears. “Lookit you. You’re not a gerbil, are you?”

The dog started licking his cheek again, and he swallowed. Then Carter spotted it, the tiny brown six-legged nightmare crawling underneath the fur.