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 3 - Monochrome Decor
As soon as Yuina answered the doorbell to her condo, Ashwin didn’t even bother with the pleasantries (his cousin would be impatient with them anyway). He immediately said, “Yuina, don’t put Auntie Nell in a home. She can live with me.”
She stared at him for a long moment, eyes calm, lips calm, face calm. “Ashwin, you shouldn’t have come.” Then she turned and marched back to her bedroom.
He could only stand there, feeling stupid. “That’s your answer?” he called after her as he closed the front door behind him and trailed after her.
She had an open suitcase on the snow-white comforter on her bed. Like the rest of the condo, her bedroom had an almost monochromatic color scheme of white, gray, and a beige that Auntie Nell had told him was called a light taupe.
With her back to him, Yuina paused in her packing, staring down at the partially filled suitcase. “You can’t honestly expect me to give you an answer when you come barging in—after I told you I had to get ready for a business trip—and want to talk about what just happened on the phone when I haven’t even had time to talk to Mom about it first.” Her hand shook slightly as she twitched a corner of a pair of slacks in the suitcase.
Just the sight of that slight shaking made him shrink to the size of a Smurf. Yuina was always in control, never emotional. But she’d innocently tried to mention her thoughts to Ashwin on the phone only to detonate an IED, shredding her already tenuous relationship with her mother.
She continued grabbing clothes from her chest of drawers as Ashwin stood in the doorway to her bedroom.
“I’m sorry, Yuina. I didn’t know Auntie Nell was going to pick up the landline phone at that moment.”
Yuina sighed, pausing in her packing and running a hand through her dark, severely short-cut hair. “She wouldn’t have used the landline if she hadn’t had her phone off. Which she did because I had been calling her.” She turned to face him, her long, gangly arms wrapped around her slender torso, looking more like a lost teenager than an adult woman a couple years older than Ashwin.
“I didn’t realize things were that bad between you and Auntie Nell.”
She took off her glasses and rubbed her knuckles over her eyes. “I didn’t either, up until I found the note today. I mean, I’ve been frustrated lately, but I’ve also been really busy at work.”
And when she got focused on work, she lost track of everything—or anyone—else.
“Frustrated? Why?” he asked.
“Mom hasn’t been watching her blood sugar lately.”
“I thought she was getting more control over her blood sugar. Whenever I ask her about it, she says she’s fine and she’s been eating properly. Was she lying?”
“No, she wasn’t lying, but it’s only because I’ve had to scold and nag her about her diet. If I left it up to her, she’d be crashing left and right.”
Oh. Yuina meant that Auntie Nell literally hadn’t been watching her own blood sugar. Instead, Yuina was watching it for her.
Yuina continued, “If she’d just listen to me when I tell her what to eat or not eat, there wouldn’t be any problems.” A crease formed between her brows, which showed how upset she was, since she rarely showed even that amount of emotion on her placid face.
Ashwin groaned inwardly. Auntie Nell liked having more freedom. “If you’re nagging her all the time, it’s probably making Auntie Nell feel like a child. We’re used to her being easygoing and accommodating, but remember when we were growing up? She wouldn’t tolerate any behavior that made it seem like we didn’t respect her enough.”
Yuina looked surprised for a moment, then she dropped her eyes and her shoulders slumped. “You’re right. I should have known that. But it’s been very tiring because I feel like the parent, telling Mom ‘no’ every time she wants to eat something she shouldn’t.”
Standing there in Yuina’s stark, precise room, Ashwin suddenly wondered if some of his cousin’s nagging was overly strict because she felt the need to control everything around her, even when things were not hers to control. She’d been like that even when they were in elementary school. She would order them around so often that after a while, as Ashwin tuned her out, she’d start to sound more like a robotic duck squawking at her ducklings.
On the flip side, Auntie Nell had the discipline of a goldfish. If she happened to see a pizza commercial, she’d immediately decide they were going to have pizza for dinner that night. When Uncle Ramsey asked why, she would say that she was only obeying what the TV told her to do. (But his uncle would never refuse a pizza, so his protests were always half-hearted.)
“How strict are you?” Ashwin crossed his arms and stared down at his cousin. “Be honest.”
“The doctor gave her a list. It’s posted on the refrigerator.”
Her eyes slid away. “I tell her not to eat it if it looks like it has too much sugar.”
“Yuina, you think everything has too much sugar.” Auntie Nell hadn’t fed them solely junk food, but Yuina had gotten almost fanatical about only buying whole, organic food rather than anything processed or artificial. The problem was that Yuina wasn’t a very creative cook, and all that whole, organic food usually resulted in rather tasteless meals.
Wait … she wouldn’t. “Tell me you didn’t,” he said.
“You know exactly what.”
“No, I don’t.”
He just stared at her. She hated it when anyone looked her full in the face for very long, but Ashwin had perfected the Art of Annoying His Cousin.
Finally she gave a wordless cry of surrender. “Fine! I might have told her that she shouldn’t eat anything with artificial sweeteners.”
He groaned. “Yuina …” Auntie Nell had the biggest sweet tooth, and denying her even artificial sweeteners would be like cutting off her arm.
“They’re bad for you!” she argued.
“Auntie Nell’s sweet tooth—”
“Is what got her in this situation.”
He held a hand up. “True. But you can’t force her to give up everything sweet in her life. At least try to wean her off them slowly rather than making her go cold turkey.”
Yuina wouldn’t look at him.
“You made her go cold turkey?!” Now he understood why Auntie Nell had chosen today as the day to decamp to the Haven of Ashwin.
“It’s been shown to be an effective way to break a bad habit.”
However, he could guess it was more than the artificial sweeteners. Yuina was probably trying to make her mother adhere to strict dietary guidelines that would make even him balk. As a result, Auntie Nell probably wasn’t even bothering to try.
And naturally, the entire situation was causing both women a great deal of stress.
“I wouldn’t worry about Mom’s health so much if she were in a group home with a registered nurse who could monitor her,” Yuina said tiredly.
“It will crush her spirit to be in a home with strangers and have a nurse controlling her food.”
“Ashwin, she needs someone to make her keep to her diet. She won’t listen to me.”
“If her diet is too strict, Auntie Nell won’t do it because it’s too joyless,” he argued.
“Mom needs the structure for her daily schedule or she’d eat mochi every day,” Yuina shot back.
Yuina just didn’t understand her mother. She never had. Illogical motivations and actions just didn’t make sense to her, so she wouldn’t understand Auntie Nell’s thinking or behavior. It probably baffled his cousin, and her typical reaction to things that confused her was to adhere to rules and regulations even more. In this case, she become unbending on her mom’s dietary restrictions.
“How about easing Auntie Nell into a new diet?” Ashwin asked.
“If the food is in the house, she’d cheat, Ashwin. You know she would.” Yuina sighed. “The truth is that Mom needs someone around to watch her for when her blood sugar drops too low.”
“But how often does that happen?”
Yuina didn’t answer, but simply gave him a steady look. He realized it was more often than he’d realized.
“When was the last time?” he asked.
“Two weeks ago.” Her voice was steady, but she had looked away from him as she remembered the incident, and she paled slightly. “I came home from work and Mom was on the sofa in a daze and sweating because her blood sugar had dropped too low.”
“Two weeks ago? Auntie Nell didn’t tell me about that. … Wait, why didn’t you tell me about that?”
“Mom asked me not to tell you because it would worry you—or maybe she felt guilty for not eating properly.” Yuina wrapped her arms around her torso again. “It was really scary, Ashwin. I gave her orange juice and then rushed her to Urgent Care, although the nurses said she was pretty much fine by then. I don’t know what might have happened if I’d had to work late.”
Ashwin swallowed. Yuina worked late fairly often. It might have been disastrous if that was one of those nights.
“It’s why I started thinking about putting Mom in a home,” Yuina confessed.
He understood now why she’d gone to that extreme. Yuina was usually rock-solid, but that situation must have shaken her rather badly. She would have been aware that it could have been much more serious. Seeing her mother in that state would have made Yuina panic, which would feed into her fears and make her feel overwhelmed by an uncontrollable situation.
Ashwin and even Dusty had tried to explain this side of Yuina to Auntie Nell, but she had a hard time understanding it because it was so alien to her own personality. It never occurred to her that some of her actions and words would prompt Yuina to react in ways that completely bewildered Auntie Nell.
“Maybe I can get her to start eating better,” Ashwin said. “I can try a different approach.”
Yuina shook her head. “To be honest, I don’t want Mom to stay with you.”
She put up a hand to cut him off. “You have to travel to the outer islands for client meetings. If she were staying at your house, she’d be alone for days at a time.”
“I only have to travel about once a month.”
“You also work in the evenings. Mom would be alone more than she already is at my condo.”
He couldn’t really argue about that. His work didn’t have set hours, and he was often at the mercy of his clients’ schedules.
“And …” Yuina looked a bit uncomfortable, but she said, “If you eventually marry, we’ll still have to deal with the same issue as now—Mom will have to either go into a home or stay with me.”
“I wouldn’t marry anyone who would kick Auntie Nell out of my house,” he said firmly.
Yuina suddenly straightened and looked him square in the face. “Ashwin, even though my parents helped raise you and Dusty, ultimately Mom is my responsibility, because she’s my mother.”
He frowned at her. “Yes, she’s your mother, but she’s also the closest thing to a mother we’ve ever had.” The woman who birthed them didn’t deserve the title.
She glared at him. “Fine. Well then, I’m oldest. And in the Keitou family, the eldest always takes care of the parents. I refuse to let you take that responsibility away from me.”
He stared into her eyes and saw the steely resolve there. Yuina had always had a strong sense of duty, and she had always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Not because she felt she had to, but because she wanted to. It fit with her personality and it helped to guide her actions—she always knew what she had to do, and so she did it.
He knew he couldn’t budge her.
“Okay, you’re right. You’re the oldest, and you’re her daughter. But Dusty and I should still be a part of this kind of decision.”
“Of course. It’s why I wanted to talk to you. But then …” Yuina’s face suddenly molded into an unusually expressive mixture of horror, frustration, regret, and guilt.
“Yeah,” he said lamely. That had happened.
After an awkward silence, Yuina said, “It would be better if Mom handled a shocking transition now and then had time to get used to things.”
“Shocking transition? Where are you thinking of putting her?”
“I’m not going to put her anywhere terrible.” Yuina’s irritation now landed on Ashwin.
He raised his hands. “I know, I know.”
“And we’ll naturally make any adjustments necessary so Mom will be as comfortable as we can make her.”
Yuina’s arguments were all logical, but something inside him cringed at the necessity of doing this. And he knew he couldn’t leave Yuina to handle this, because she’d somehow find a way to inadvertently do the very things that would upset Auntie Nell the most. But he hoped he could help. There had to be—
Suddenly, Yuina’s cell phone rang. She looked at the caller ID and paused, but Ashwin caught a glimpse of the name—Boyd Ingram, her boyfriend.
“Go ahead and take the call,” he told her. “I’ll wait in the living room.”
“No, this won’t take long.” Yuina got along quite well with her boyfriend—they’d been dating since college—although they weren’t what he’d consider romantic. Often, Ashwin thought they treated each other more like siblings. In fact, sometimes he thought Yuina confided in himself and Dusty more than with Boyd.
“Hi, Boyd. … No, I’m still packing.” She held the phone against her ear with her shoulder as she folded a pair of slacks. Yuina’s voice, even with her boyfriend, was cool and matter-of-fact. Ashwin reflected that her tone with Boyd now was exactly the same as when she greeted him at the front door a few minutes ago.
But she suddenly stilled, and her fingers tightened in the slacks, causing wrinkles in the fine fabric. Her face was even a little flushed as she snapped, “No, I haven’t brought it up with her yet.” Her eyes involuntarily slid to Ashwin.
He had already guessed who Yuina was referring to. His temper began rising until his head felt hot and stuffy.
“I’ll call you later,” Yuina said. “Ashwin is here.” She hung up with a curt goodbye.
She’d barely ended the call before Ashwin snapped, “Why does it seem like Boyd knows more about this situation with Auntie Nell than I do?”
Her cheeks were still red, but he couldn’t tell if it was because she took offense at his tone, or if she was feeling guilty. She didn’t answer for a full minute, but then she frowned down at the carpet. “Boyd proposed to me.”
His mouth dropped open as he stared at her. Blinking, he stammered, “Uh … congratulations?” He shouldn’t be so surprised. They’d been dating for years, although Yuina had often said she wasn’t in a hurry to get married.
However, she didn’t look like a very happy bride. She just looked more stressed. “I haven’t given an answer yet,” she said.
“I can’t answer until I know what’ll happen with Mom.” Yuina chewed on her lip before adding, “I know that Boyd doesn’t always get along with her.”
That was the understatement of the year. Boyd was very much like Yuina—logical and steady, although Ashwin thought he was a colder personality than his cousin. He was also impatient in general, whether with incompetent coworkers or oblivious teenagers on the street. Yuina made an effort to understand her mother, while Boyd only ever got irritated with her. Ashwin didn’t like that he seemed to treat Auntie Nell like some lower life form he had to tolerate.
“Let me guess,” Ashwin said in hard voice. “He doesn’t want to live with Auntie Nell.”
“He didn’t say that directly,” she objected. “We’ve only briefly talked about it before, but he did … intimate he wouldn’t want to live with his mother-in-law. His own grandmother lived with his parents and his mom apparently complained all the time about it.”
“Is this proposal what made you start thinking about putting her in a home?” Even to himself, his voice sounded harsh and grating.
“Of course not,” she said, skewering him with a glare. “I already told you I started thinking about it two weeks ago when I took her to Urgent Care. But then Boyd proposed this past weekend.”
“Oh.” He backed down, but he suspected Boyd’s timing on the proposal had to do with what had happened.
She heaved a huge sigh and simply plopped down on her bed. “I’ve been distracted and tense at work because of worrying about all this. I can’t answer Boyd until I figure out what to do about Mom, but I haven’t been able to decide. And then Mom up and left the condo today just when I have to leave for a business trip.” Her head dropped into her hands, and her fingers began rubbing her forehead.
Yuina looked small and frail as she sat there, and Ashwin began to feel ashamed of his anger. He’d come here expecting to beard a dragon in her den, but she was just a tired, stressed young woman being pulled in a dozen different directions. All he’d done was bring drama in the door with him.
“I’m sorry, Yuina,” Ashwin said. “I didn’t realize how full your plate was.”
She glanced up at him. “It’s not your fault, because you didn’t know. I didn’t tell you.” Her voice was reasonable, but it also sounded weary.
When Yuina was faced with a problem, she usually went into problem-solving mode to figure out a solution, kind of like a computer doing computational math. But she also wasn’t the type of person to share her burdens with anyone, even with the cousins who had been raised with her.
One of the ways in which she was very much like her mother was her tendency to bottle up her stress. Auntie Nell would then explode out in a fit of anger or outrageous behavior—such as moving out of the house and leaving only a note for her daughter.
In contrast, when Yuina was stressed, she was suddenly assailed by an inability to make decisions—any decisions, not just the decisions involved in whatever was troubling her. This would seriously impact her work, which made her even more stressed.
He realized that this was the true reason she hadn’t talked to Ashwin or Dusty about Auntie Nell—she herself didn’t know what to do, and couldn’t even make a decision about the best ways to investigate her options. The problems were just piling up and making her more frazzled.
He’d spent years living with her, but he’d never seen her falter like this. It made her seem much younger than her thirty years.
She exhaled long and slowly. “I don’t want you to think that I’m only putting Mom in a home because of Boyd’s proposal.” She tucked a brown strand behind her ear. “Ashwin, I didn’t feel an urgency to get married right away, but I’ve always wanted to eventually be married. I don’t want to be single forever. I’m just unsure because Boyd and Mom don’t get along, and I don’t think I could handle the two of them living under the same roof.”
Privately, he didn’t think Boyd would give an inch on this issue, but he didn’t say so. Instead, he knew exactly how to help her settle down—by appealing to her logic centers. “Look, you have too many things to do that are both important and urgent. This thing with Auntie Nell is important but not urgent.” Dusty always could tell what Yuina was feeling, but Ashwin always knew how to translate things into equations that made it easier for Yuina to understand them.
She didn’t say anything, but her stiff shoulders seemed to relax a fraction.
He continued, “Since it’s not urgent, just let Auntie Nell stay with me for the short term.”
She gave him a pained look. “Ashwin, your house …”
“Granted, I didn’t plan to have it ready for guests so soon,” he said with a wince, “but it’s not a pigsty. It’ll do Auntie Nell good to distract her by letting her spend hours deciding on colors and curtains and … stuff.”
“She’s going to think the matter is dropped.”
“You never know, since she’ll be living with me, maybe I can help her get used to the idea. Maybe she just needs time.”
She sighed. “Too much has happened too soon. I’m afraid I’ll make a decision just to solve the problems of the moment, but end up making things worse in the long run.”
“It won’t be just your decision. We’ll talk this over as a family.” Her words caused a twinge to his conscience. She was always unfailingly dependable, whereas Auntie Nell and Dusty were the queen and king of Drama. He should have been there to help her shoulder things rather than being caught up in his own career and buying his house. “Everything seems worse because it’s all happened at once. It’s bad timing, sure, but there’s nothing wrong with making a short-term decision just to give you some breathing room.”
It sounded more like a business proposition than anything else, but he knew this was the way to calm Yuina down. Her life had become so crazy that he guessed she might be desperate for some rationality and cool judgment right about now.
She still didn’t answer, but her face had lost its anguished tinge and now just looked thoughtful.
“Just let Auntie Nell stay with me for a few months.” He highly doubted he’d be able to uproot her at this point, anyway, and Yuina was probably too tired to even want to think about tackling that battle. “It’ll give us time to figure out what to do and for Auntie Nell to calm down so we can talk to her without devolving into a cage fight.”
“All right,” she said.
Despite the fact he’d been hoping for it, her acceptance took him by surprise. “Yes? Really?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “Thanks, Ashwin.”
“You don’t have to do everything yourself,” he said in a gentle voice. “I’m here for you. So is Dusty.”
“Thanks.” She stood and reached for him.
She’d never been touchy-feely at all (whereas Dusty gave a friendly hug and kiss on the cheek to every woman he met, young or old), so the action seemed alien to Ashwin. He was caught by surprise, which made him automatically open his arms, as he would if pretty much any other woman in his life seemed to want a hug.
But then he felt stupid when she instead turned him around and marched him out her bedroom door.
“Now you really have to leave. I need to pack for my trip.”