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 5 - Crimson Roiling Emotions
Mari had tried to time this confrontation with her sister carefully, but it looked like Jenessa had been late coming home from her volunteer work, so Mom was still at her sister’s house keeping an eye on the kids. Any other day, and Mom would be long gone back home.
So instead of facing one dragon, Mari would have to face two.
No, Mari, you really shouldn’t think of your family as dragons.
Except that she remembered how Mom had been before Dad’s sudden heart attack, and how her parent changed so much afterward. Mari had been a confused ten-year-old, trying to understand why her mother suddenly found fault with everything she did and everything she was—like she was being attacked by a fire-breathing dragon.
Jenessa, only a year older at eleven, had done as she was told, same as she always did. But she’d also become more bossy, lecturing Mari about their dramatically changed income level, but pretending to her friends that nothing had changed. And getting angry at Mari more often, whenever she did something to embarrass her big sister at school.
And Mari? She’d tried to be obedient and meek, but unable to smother that yearning inside of her to do something different. It caused her mother and sister to come down on her like thunder.
So … two dragons.
Mom spotted Mari’s car on the street outside Jenessa’s house and waved to her to come inside. Even now, Mari wanted to be a dutiful daughter, to please her, to not rock the boat.
Except she was about to drop an S-bomb on the Jenessa and William Carnival Cruise.
Mari got out of her car slowly, drawing out her last moments of peace.
Jenessa emptied groceries from her SUV and passed them to Mom. Arms full, her mother approached her car. “New paint?”
Mari brightened. “Yup. Do you like—”
“It’s so garish.” Mom frowned.
Well, that answered her question.
Mom peered into her backseat. “Where’s your dog?”
“Pepper’s at home.” And probably unhappy that after going jogging with her late this afternoon, he’d been stuck back in his crate so that Mari could go help Lana with training Ralphie at the park. And instead of being let out, he was still cooped up because Mari had to come here to talk to Jenessa. Poor puppy. She’d only had him for three months or so.
“Auntie Mari!” Kendall, her thirteen-year-old niece, spied her and ran out the front door. “We did the most disgusting stuff in biology class today.” She sounded positively gleeful.
Mom gave a visible shudder.
“Why don’t you tell me all about it now, before dinner.” Mari flung an arm around her niece’s shoulders, making sure she spoke loud enough for her mother to hear.
The relief on Mom’s face was almost comic.
Kendall chatted about frogs while Mari made her way to where Jenessa was unloading grocery bags from the back of the car.
“Here, Kendall.” Jenessa handed a bag to her daughter, then one to Mari. “Why are you here?” Not unfriendly, but not welcoming, either.
“I, uh … I need to talk to you.” Mari pitched her voice low.
“Talk about what?” asked Carl, her eight-year-old nephew, who appeared at her elbow like he’d teleported from the front door. Which he might have—he wouldn’t have come out to help his mom, but if he suspected juicy gossip, he always found a way to lurk.
Jenessa dispatched him with a grocery bag, and he shuffled away slower than a turtle.
Mari waited until he was far enough away. “It won’t take long.”
“I bought pizza for the kids. Did you want to stay for dinner?” Again, not unfriendly but also not welcoming. She wasn’t making this any easier for Mari.
There was no way she was going to tell her sister her husband was a cheating turd and then eat dinner with her. “No, I’ve got something to eat at home.”
Jenessa gave her a strange look. “Okay. Well, give me a minute to get these groceries put away.”
Pain started to pound behind her eyes, throbbing in conjunction with waves of nausea in her stomach. You’re doing the right thing. And sometimes, the right thing hurts.
This was going to hurt like a whale landing on her head.
She followed Jenessa into the house, dropping her grocery bag on the island in the center of the minor principality-sized kitchen. Jenessa paused at the sink, so Mari started unloading her bag.
All during the drive to her sister’s house, Mari had thought about what she should say, and she still hadn’t decided on the words. Should she ease into it gently? Jenessa, I happened to be in this parking lot today, and it was a nice day, and there was a Corvette with the top down, and I wouldn’t have even noticed the people in it except that I had to pass them to get into a parking space …
Or maybe she should just come out and say it? Jenessa, I saw William kissing another woman today.
She looked up. Jenessa still stood at the sink, staring at a bill.
“Is everything okay?” She couldn’t believe they’d be in financial difficulties—William made a generous six figure income and Jenessa was a frugal housewife.
Jenessa turned, slowly, like the ballerina doll in a music box. Her face, however, looked like those frighteningly dead-eyed Japanese noh theater masks.
Mari’s heart beat heavy and deep like a Taiko drum. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Jenessa said nothing. She walked around the island like a sleepwalker, straight up to Mari, and then slapped her across the face.
There was a stabbing pain as the blow cut the inside of her cheek against her tooth. “Ow!”
“Jenessa!” Mom stood in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Mom!” Kendall peered around her grandmother, eyes as round as eggs.
“Cool!” Carl took out his cell phone, probably to take video or pictures.
Jenessa raised her hand again, but Mari grabbed her wrists. An unearthly wail erupted from her sister’s open mouth as they struggled, which frightened Mari more than the slap.
Mom stepped between them, getting a few cuffs to the jaw. “Stop it, you two!”
Jenessa reached out, trying to scratch Mari’s face, but she was no match for a woman who spent several hours a week reining in 100-pound labradors and German shepherds.
“Hey!” Carl cried out.
Mari glanced in his direction. She saw that Kendall had snatched his cell phone away from him and held it high out of reach.
Her moment of distraction allowed Jenessa to clamp a hand around her throat. “It’s all your fault!”
Mari twisted away as Mom tried to hold Jenessa back, but she still felt the pain of her fingers against her throat. She’d have bruises tomorrow. What in the world had she done? “What is wrong with you?!”
“Don’t yell at your sister,” Mom reproved her.
The old frustration roared up inside of her, the feeling of being slammed by a huge wave of misunderstanding and blame. For years, her mother had been quick to assume Mari was always in the wrong—why should it be any different now? “Me?!” Her voice was louder and higher than she intended. “I’m not the one doing the slapping here.”
Jenessa suddenly dissolved into violent tears. She collapsed onto the marble floor in a heap.
Mari felt a squeezing pressure around her heart, and it took her a moment to realize it was panic. What should she do? Would Jenessa attack her again?
Carl and Kendall had stopped fighting over the phone and stood staring at their mom in silence. Even Carl looked a little pale.
“Now look what you’ve done.” Mom glared at Mari just before she bent over Jenessa’s form. “What’s wrong, honey? Talk to me.”
Mari stood to one side, only a few feet away, but the distance between her and her sister and mother was more like a yawning canyon. This is how it always was. Dad had understood her. Dad had taken her side. Now that he was gone, she was just the screw-up daughter who never lived up to expectations.
“It’s all her fault,” Jenessa moaned. “Everything’s her fault.”
The accusation made a few of Mari’s vertebrae suddenly fuse together like molten steel. “What’s all my fault? What have I done?” She wasn’t going to take this like a punching bag.
“You had to go snooping. You had to stick your nose in other people’s business.”
Mari flung her arms out. “Again, clueless here.”
“Why’d you have to spy on them?” Jenessa rocked back and forth, mascara tears streaming down her face. “If only you’d never found out. You’ve ruined everything. I’d have been happy to turn a blind eye for years.”
The pieces slowly clicked—Jenessa standing at the sink, looking at a piece of paper. Oh, no. That hadn’t been a bill she’d been reading. “He wrote you a note?!”
“Don’t yell at your sister,” Mom scolded.
Why did her mother always feel the need to participate with Jenessa in a two-pronged attack against Mari? Mom didn’t even know what Jenessa was talking about.
Come to think of it, Mari wasn’t sure even she knew entirely.
She dropped to her knees in front of her sister and spoke low. “Unless you want to say it out loud in front of your children, give me that note so I can read it.”
Jenessa thrust it at her.
By now, Mari has probably told you she saw me with Bambi today. I didn’t want to tell you because you’d only be hurt, but I’m in love with Bambi.
So keeping a secret from his wife and children was so much better?
(And what was up with the name of his girlfriend? She sounded like the ditzy heroine in a bad 70s horror movie.)
I have left the house for now and will start divorce proceedings immediately so Bambi and I can be together. I won’t make a fuss about your keeping the kids, since Bambi doesn’t like children much.
The paper trembled in her hand, and Mari had to put it down before she lost it and shredded the horrible thing.
“What’s that?” Carl piped up, reaching in to grab it.
Mari snatched it from him and handed it to Mom. “Out!” she ordered the kids.
“Aw, Auntie Mari …”
Ignoring his whining, she treated him like a recalcitrant dog and body-blocked him out of the kitchen. Her alpha dog persona worked just as well with eight-year-olds as with puppies.
Kendall followed in his wake. “I’ll challenge you on the PS3,” she said to her brother.
Bless that girl. Mari honestly didn’t know how Kendall and Carl were related.
Mari returned to Jenessa and knelt on the floor in front of her. Jenessa’s wailing had muted into shuddering sobs.
She was so defenseless. It reminded Mari of eight years ago, the last time she’d seen her sister like this. Mari had accidentally interrupted Jenessa in the midst of her pain and tears, and it felt like she’d done the same thing all over again.
Strangely, the sight of Jenessa curled into a ball, suffering so intensely, made Mari want to reach out and give her a hug like Mom was doing. But no matter her good intentions, she’d be more likely to be pricked by thorns. “I wasn’t spying, Jenessa. I happened to see them when I went to visit a client. They were in the parking lot in broad daylight.”
“Don’t lie. You always hated William. You just wanted to prove to me how bad a choice I made.”
Mari flinched. The words stung more than the slap had. “What? I would never—”
“It’s all your fault. And her fault. He was happy with us the way things were. But now you ruined everything. Now he feels like he has to marry her instead of just keeping her on the side.”
“What? You would rather he cheat on you?!”
“You made him decide to forsake his own children. He’d have been fine just the way things were. Why can’t things go back to the way they were?” Jenessa dissolved into a fresh round of crying.
The way things were? Jenessa had been happy with a two-timing husband as long as they both pretended it wasn’t going on?
She didn’t know her sister at all.
“You’re only making things worse,” Mom hissed as she clutched Jenessa closer. “Just go.” It was like a physical shove.
Mari stood up. She glanced down at Jenessa and Mom, suddenly detached from the crimson, roiling emotions there on the floor.
She walked out of the kitchen, into the living room.
“Auntie Mari?” Kendall’s face was calm but her wide eyes betrayed her fears.
“Just keep Carl away from your mom. Your dad’s not coming home tonight. Call me if you need anything.”
“What?” Carl piped up. “Dad’s not—”
Kendall shushed him and whispered something in his ear.
Mari exited the house and got into her SUV. She sat there in the dark of early evening, feeling the quiet seep into her bones and freeze there. Her emotions were cold, too—dead and still. Her mind was blank except for one phrase repeating over and over:
Nothing I ever do will ever be good enough for them.