Year of the Dog serial novel
by Camy Tang
Mari Mutou, a professional dog trainer, is having a bad year.
While renovating her new dog kenneling and training facility, she needs to move in with her disapproving family, who have always made her feel inadequate—according to them, a job requiring her to be covered in dog hair and slobber is an embarrassment to the family. She convinces her ex-boyfriend to take her dog for a few months … but discovers that his brother is the irate security expert whose car she accidentally rear-ended a few weeks earlier.
Ashwin Keitou has enough problems. His aunt has just shown up on his doorstep, expecting to move in with him, and he can’t say no because he owes her everything—after his mother walked out on them, Auntie Nell took in Ashwin and his brother and raised them in a loving Christian home. What’s more, his brother Dusty also needs a place to stay after being kicked out of his apartment—with a dog in tow. And guess who the dog’s owner is?
But then Ashwin gets a request from an old friend, Edytha Guerrero, a private investigator who also runs a day spa on O’ahu’s north shore. A strange bit of “vandalism” at Mari's facility had led her to find a purse belonging to Edytha’s sister—who had disappeared three years ago. Worried that Mari might be in danger, and finding out that security expert Ashwin already knows her, Edytha asks him to covertly keep an eye on the busy young woman.
Ashwin is reluctantly attracted to the lively, easy-going dog trainer. She reminds him too much of his happy-go-lucky mother, whose betrayal had caused him to keep people at a distance. Mari sees past Ashwin’s cold exterior to a man who is loyal to his family, unlike her own mother and sister, who only criticize her career choice.
In the midst of Mari’s disjointed family and Ashwin’s disruptive home, danger begins to circle around them from people who want the past to remain there. Can they shed light on the secrets moving in the shadows?
Chapter 2 - Pink and Purple Floral Suitcases
Ashwin Keitou never thought he’d say this, but sometimes pricey auto insurance was worth its weight in gold.
As he ended the phone call with his insurance adjustor, the buzzing cloud of stress dissipated from his mind. In a few weeks, his brand new car would be brand new again.
The woman’s face flashed across his vision. She would have been pretty if she hadn’t been dismayed about the accident. She had an expressive face which morphed into all her various emotions, including guilt and regret, but she’d been cooperative and hadn’t devolved into irritation.
He collapsed into the cool arms of his leather sofa, thunking the back of his head against the top of the seat. He’d been such a jerk. He knew why, too. Something about the woman gave the impression of cheerful good humor just like his mother.
Or rather, like his memories of the woman who birthed him.
The quiet of his house soothed him after the chaos of today, just like how Auntie Nell’s shortbread cookies seemed to always make his problems melt to nothing. He ought to call her, but maybe tomorrow—he only had half an hour to get ready for an early evening meeting with a client of the security consulting company he worked for, and he smelled from his workout at the gym.
“Pick yourself up, Ashwin.” His voice echoed softly off of the newly painted walls, but did nothing to make his gelatin legs want to move. He could puddle into the crack of his sofa cushions with very little effort.
He shot up from the sofa as if he’d been kicked. Was that his client? Was he late? After always bugging his younger brother about arriving on “Dusty time,” maybe God was punishing him for his smugness.
He checked his watch. No, he wasn’t late—it was only 6:30.
Ding dong! “Ashwin! Yoohoo!”
He flung open the door just in time to get a tiny set of knuckles clunking him in the breastbone.
“Oh!” Auntie Nell’s unusual hazel-colored eyes fluttered, then that Cherry Blossom Festival Queen smile made the sunlight fade in comparison. “Ashwin!”
“Hey, Auntie Nell.” He wrapped his arms around her, bussing her on the cheek and breathing in pikake flowers and shortbread cookies. And suddenly he was nine years old again, and her solid presence had made his chaotic world stable once more. “What are you doing here?” He usually took her to dinner on Wednesday nights, but today was Tuesday.
The edges of her smile faltered a little before brightening right back up again. “What, I can’t visit my nephew?” She angled around him to enter his home. “Is this your new house? Looks lovely.” Which was a blatant lie, because the fixer-upper was barely livable, much less acceptable to a neat-freak like his aunt.
She also left four matching pink and purple floral suitcases on the stoop behind her. Only then did Ashwin notice the cab driver standing slightly to the side of the walkway.
“Can you pay the driver, Ashwin?” His aunt’s voice drifted to him from the depths of his living room.
After giving the poor man a largish tip for lugging the four brocade-covered elephants all the way to his doorstep, Ashwin sweated through bringing them inside. “Auntie Nell, what’s in the suitcases?” An offshoot of his brain wildly tried to convince himself that if he just pretended ignorance, his fears wouldn’t come to pass.
No such luck. “I thought I’d stay for a little while. Ashwin, did you know your bathroom is unfinished? You’ve got tile everywhere.”
He paused in the act of shutting the door. Auntie Nell stating the obvious meant she was more upset than she let on. He very carefully said, “You’re always welcome to stay for a few days, Auntie Nell, but is everything okay at Yuina’s?”
“Yuina is fine.” Snippy. And avoiding a direct answer.
Uh, oh. “Did you have another fight with her?”
Auntie Nell’s petite form barreled back into the living room. “I have always gotten along with your cousin, but I swear, she could annoy the cockroaches out of a shed.”
“Auntie Nell ...” Actually, Auntie Nell hardly ever got along with her daughter, Yuina. The two were simply too different.
“She actually ordered me—ordered me, Ashwin—out of her kitchen when I was just trying to help her out like any good mother.”
He could imagine what Auntie Nell’s version of “helping” looked like. Hoo, boy. The two women had very different ways of cooking and cleaning. He would guess it was the cleaning part that the uptight germiphobe Yuina objected to.
Auntie Nell continued, “But if I just relaxed around the house, Yuina just did her own thing and barely spoke to me! I felt like a hotel guest.”
A headache started pounding right behind the bridge of his nose. Yuina lived for her engineering job and often got so caught up in work she didn’t even remember to sleep or eat, much less “waste” time in stilted conversation with her bored mother. If only Uncle Ramsey were still alive to mediate between the two strong-willed women. Yuina was usually too clueless to deliberately pick a fight with her mother, but Uncle Ramsey would always somehow keep them from rubbing against each other too much.
And now, all they had was Ashwin and Dusty. No wonder they fought like cats and … madder cats.
“Why don’t you show me around your home?” Auntie Nell’s strained smile tried to erase her tirade from the air.
So he showed her the Spartan master bedroom, which only had a futon on the floor and his stuff still in boxes because while he had only just finished repairing and finishing the damaged hardwood floors, he still needed to remove the hideous avocado-and-lemon patterned wallpaper, a relic from the seventies. The unfinished master bathroom was barely usable, since the tub leaked and the handle on the toilet stuck, so he was using the finished guest bathroom. He was rather proud of his work, but all Auntie Nell commented was, “What a plain shade of cream.”
He then showed her the two box-filled guest bedrooms, also in need of new floors, with one boasting purple and pink wallpaper and the other covered in peeling black paint like an emo-goth’s worst/best dream.
The plumber he’d hired had finally fixed the sink in the empty kitchen, which looked out of date compared to the new refrigerator. He was currently forced to tolerate the brown shag carpet and faux wooden paneling in his office, and he hurried her past that to the tiny dining room. It was hopelessly empty since he hadn’t wanted to buy a table when the hardwood floors, in not as bad condition as the other rooms in the house, needed to be refinished, and he wanted to strip the peeling paint from the walls.
They ended the quick tour in the living room, which was the most furnished room in the house with its new leather sofa and a television sitting on a few stacked phone books. Here, he had finished the hardwood floors soon after his bedroom floor, and the light-colored wooden walls had only needed a good scrub and a few spots of repair.
“You could use a bit of decorating.” She sank into the sofa. “Oooh, that’s comfy. That’ll be okay for a few nights.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie Nell. I’ll clean up a guest bedroom and get you a bed in the next couple days.”
“That’s fine. I didn’t tell you before coming, and you just moved in to your new home.”
If “just moved in” meant three months, sure. Before this, he’d been leasing a condo in town, but he missed the beach he grew up next to and so chose to buy this fixer-upper in Waialua. His commute to his company offices in Honolulu was long, but his job involved meeting clients all over the state, so he found it didn’t make much difference where he lived.
“I can help you decorate.” She beamed at him.
That sounded ominous. And permanent. “Auntie Nell, how long … um … Were you … uh … Did you leave anything back at Yuina’s condo?”
“Of course I did. All my stuff is still at Yuina’s place.”
“But I hired the Duellos family—did you meet them? They live a few doors down—to pack up all my things and ship them here.”
Invisible fingers gripped his throat and squeezed. “Here?” he squeaked out.
“Well, I can’t live at your brother’s little apartment. And you have lots of room.”
What could he say? No, Auntie Nell, I want you to march back to Honolulu and try to get along with Yuina, which you apparently haven’t been doing for the past year since Uncle Ramsey died. How had he not known things between them were so bad that Auntie Nell would move out of her own daughter’s home?
He owed Auntie Nell more than he could say. Right after his father died, when Ashwin and Dusty had still been shell-shocked, she had taken them in and showered them with the love they hadn’t known they needed.
The alarm on his phone went off. Seven o’clock! “Um … Auntie Nell, I have a client coming over soon …”
“You had your client come here?” Her perfectly sculpted eyebrows rose until they disappeared in her curled (expensively colored) bangs. Her wide eyes darted around the living room, but they obviously encompassed the ramshackle house.
“We’re meeting here, and then we’re driving to his office building. It’s nearby.”
Auntie Nell flapped a hand at him. “I don’t need babysitting. Go earn your paycheck.” She peered down at his television remote. “You don’t have Tivo?”
He pulled out his cell phone as he headed to his bedroom so he could race through a one-minute shower. Luckily, his client picked up on the first ring. “Phil, it’s Ashwin,” he said as he stumbled out of his shorts.
And then the doorbell rang. He was too late.
He stared down at his shorts puddled around his ankles, then grimaced as he yanked them back up.
On the phone, Phillip sounded like he was eating something. “Ash, what’s up? I’m outside your house.”
At the same time, Auntie Nell called out, “I’ll get the door, Ashwin.”
Ashwin headed right back out of his bedroom, speaking into his phone. “Sorry, Phil, I’m running late.” He was just in time to see Auntie Nell swing open the front door.
Phil stood there, a short Japanese man with a wide face and wider smile, which he managed to do even while chewing a bite of the large burrito in his hands. He swallowed and said to Auntie Nell, “Hi there. I’m Phil.”
“Nice to meet you,” Auntie Nell said. “I’m sorry, I’m the reason Ashwin’s running late.”
“No worries, brah.” Phil held up his burrito. “Me too.”
“Come inside and finish eating,” Ashwin said. “I’m going to shower real quick.” He then remembered his empty dining room. “Auntie Nell, can you show Phil out to the table on the patio?”
“Got any napkins?” Phil asked as he kicked off his shoes at the front door, then followed her through the house.
“I’ll get them.” Ashwin entered the kitchen and rooted out some napkins. Just as he was about to take them outside to Phil, his landline phone rang. There was a phone in the kitchen, so he picked up. More often than not, he got a telemarketer, but his job required he also have a landline phone in his office with a security attachment. “Hello?”
“Ashwin, it’s Yuina.”
What were the odds this was just a friendly chat between (not-so-friendly) cousins? His stomach tightened. “Hi Yuina,” he said slowly.
“I called your cell phone, but it went straight to voice mail,” she said in her usual unemotional tone.
He checked his cell phone. Yup, he had a message. She must have called right when he was dialing Phil. “Sorry, I just got off the phone with a client.”
“Yes, well. I found a note from Mom saying she was moving in with you.”
“Umm …” Ashwin struggled to figure out what to say. He’d never been good at communicating with Yuina because it always seemed like the only emotion her face could make was irritation. Dusty was a lot better at guessing what she was thinking and feeling.
“From your silence, she just arrived, and she didn’t tell you she was coming,” Yuina said. “I’m guessing she hadn’t intended for me to find the note so quickly.” She sighed. “I’ve been trying to call her cell but she won’t answer my calls. Please put her on the phone.”
There was absolutely no way that Ashwin was going to do that, because he simply didn’t have the energy to play referee between two cage fighters—er, his two family members. “You know, maybe a little cooling off period would be a good idea.”
“Cooling off? Why does she need to cool off?” Her voice was its usual flat timbre, but Ashwin thought she sounded genuinely confused.
Yuina, to her credit, honestly didn’t know why she got along so poorly with her mother. And although Auntie Nell tried her hardest, her desire to take care of people and make others feel at ease just wasn’t the type of personality able to understand Yuina’s rather robotic way of thinking.
“Look, I know you’re busy, and Auntie Nell said she wants to spend more time with me and Dusty. That’s easier if she stays with me since we’re both on the North Shore.”
A short pause. “Um … For how long?”
Why did it matter? “However long she wants. It’s not like I don’t have space.”
“Your house is barely hygienic.”
“Hey! Rude! I’m working on it every weekend.”
Something about it made him uneasy. She sounded almost unsure of herself. “Are you all right?”
“I’m … I do need to talk with you and Dusty.”
Something niggled in his chest. “Is everything okay? Dusty’s probably at his part-time job. I have a client right now, but I can cancel—”
“No, there’s no need to cancel your work. I … I guess I’ll email the two of you.”
Alarms started to go off in his head, despite her calm words. “Yuina …”
Well, this was weird. First Auntie Nell, usually always accommodating of everyone around her, just up and left her home and showed up at Ashwin’s doorstep. Now Yuina seemed hesitant. Was there more going on between Yuina and Auntie Nell than what he’d been told?
“Ashwin, I didn’t want to tell you on the phone, but tomorrow I’m leaving on a business trip to the main branch in Arizona. I’ll be gone for two weeks.”
“You’re leaving? When did you find out?”
“Today. My manager needs someone onsite to supervise the new build. It’s why I got home early from work today.”
And found Auntie Nell’s note. “Oh.” But it still didn’t explain why she was so nervous. She’d gone on builds before. Ashwin and Dusty made sure to take Auntie Nell out for lunches or dinners more often while she was away.
“I had been planning to tell you before I left.”
Tell him what? “Just spit it out, Yuina. I’m a big boy.”
Suddenly, the phone clicked.
“Ashwin, I’m thinking of putting Mom in a group home.”
A sledgehammer hit him square in the chest. A group home? But Auntie Nell didn’t have any major medical problems, did she? And her mind was still sharp—
“You’re what?” a woman’s voice demanded.
Bam! His gut backfired like Uncle Ramsey’s ancient pickup. “Auntie Nell! What are you doing on the phone?”
Yuina’s sputtering “What?” was drowned by Auntie Nell’s screeching, “What do you mean, group home?”
“Auntie Nell, why are you on the phone?!”
“Why is Mom on the phone?!”
Then Auntie Nell started to cry, loud wails that drowned out Yuina’s next words.
“Yuina, hang up!” Ashwin had to yell to be heard over Auntie Nell’s crying. Yuina disconnected the call.
Ashwin dropped the phone in the cradle and rushed out to the living room, which had one of the landline extensions. Auntie Nell was sitting on the couch, crying.
The sight struck him with panic and horror and concern all at once. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen Auntie Nell cry. She was habitually cheerful and kind, although he’d also seen her firm, and he’d rather often seen her annoyed (at his pre-adolescent self).
But now, her pain and vulnerability reached out to him and grabbed him by the throat. He didn’t know what to do. He just knew that the sight before him was all wrong.
He sat down next to her. He wasn’t as touchy-feely as Dusty, but now he wrapped an arm around her awkwardly.
He must have done the right thing, because her hand came up and gripped his tightly.
Movement from outside the patio door caught his attention, and he saw Phil with a sympathetic look on his face. He silently mimed that he’d call Ashwin, and then snuck off the patio to exit the backyard through the side gate.
Ashwin belatedly realized he still held the napkins he’d been intending for Phil, and he gave them to Auntie Nell. She cried softly into the dampening napkins for several minutes, then at last she used them to loudly blow her nose.
“I’m sorry for eavesdropping.” She heaved a few quick breaths. “I only picked up the phone to call Dusty to tell him I was here. I didn’t know you were talking with …”
“Don’t worry, Auntie Nell. I’ll talk to Yuina.” He sounded shaky, so he tried to infuse more confidence in his voice. “You won’t have to go into a home.”
“You shouldn’t have to get involved between me and Yuina.”
“What are you talking about? Auntie Nell, you’re the closest thing to a mom that Dusty and I have. Yuina’s like our sister. We’re a family. We decide these kinds of things as a family.”
The silence was both weighty and comforting at the same time. He was glad, suddenly, that Auntie Nell had arrived here to be with him rather than being only with Yuina when she heard the news. He didn’t want her to be alone. He wanted her to know that he was her champion.
Auntie Nell didn’t say anything for several minutes, and when she did speak, her voice was a thin, delicate thread. “I don’t want to live with strangers.”
He tightened his arm around her. “You won’t live with strangers. You’ll live here with me.”
They sat in silence for several more minutes, but then Auntie Nell’s eyes began to flutter closed.
“Auntie Nell, why don’t you go lie down?” Ashwin asked.
She yawned. “That’s a good idea.”
“Take a nap on …” He was about to say, my bed, but Auntie Nell simply pulled away from Ashwin to immediately go prone on the sofa.
He stood and tucked her legs up, then went to rummage in one of his boxes for a blanket to cover her with. She was already fast asleep, but her face looked more lined than he remembered.
He had to talk to Yuina to clear all this up. Why would Yuina have decided on a group home rather than at least talking to Ashwin and Dusty about Auntie Nell moving in with one of them?
Actually, as soon as he thought of the question, he knew the answer. Dusty’s rented apartment was too small, and Ashwin’s house was a wreck. Still, if he’d known she was thinking about a group home …
No, there must be more to this than he was seeing. He wouldn’t get answers unless he talked to her.
And while Yuina’s emotions might be hard to read, her no-nonsense way of thinking was reliable, almost soothing, in a strange way. He never had to guess with Yuina, never had to read between the lines. He could count on her to be logical and detailed.
He’d get to the bottom of this. There must be some major misunderstanding somewhere, and once they talked it out, everything would go back to normal.