The farmland in Kidlington is public property. It grows out of the back of a residential estate and down to the River Cherwell, where the dog walkers go. Once, when Owen was young, the fields flooded, and he nearly drowned in the waterlogged grass. His Grandma had to fish him out and made him promise not to tell his Mum. She carried him back to hers on her back, his body clinging to her like a limpet. That evening, he didn’t want to go home, but Grandma said she’d see him again soon, sooner than he could count. That was three years ago, and since then he’s noticed his parents don’t talk to her anymore, and he thinks about how lonely she must be.
As his Mum drives the two hour journey there, Owen can remember the houses that line the way there, how they look in the dark when he sees them through sleepy eyes and rain speckled windows. His Mum deposits him at the door, waits until he is inside, then drives away. Grandma fills the room when she sees him, lifts him up to hug him. Her house smells of cigarettes and vanilla, and something else Owen can’t recognise.
I have a surprise for you.
She puts him down onto her sofa, still warm from her, and disappears from the room. When she comes back, she has an animal in her arms, tiny and ginger, with eyes deep in its skull.
This is Bella. Bella say hello. Look Owen, she likes you.
Grandma waves the dog’s paw.
The dog snorts when it breathes. Owen hasn’t figured out how to smile yet when he doesn’t want to, so he sits with his arms crossed tight across his chest.
Now, don’t look so scared, she won’t bite. She likes people.
For the rest of the night, Bella is squeezed between Owen and Grandma. Every now and then, he feels her belly press up against his leg, before it recedes, and she lets the air back in. At one point, he tries to be brave for Grandma and goes to stroke Bella. As soon as his fingers touch her fur, she snaps, bites the knuckles so they bleed. Owen runs off the sofa and into the bathroom, hearing his Grandma shout after him, tears hot in his eyes, nose stinging with the effort to hold them in.
Washing the blood from his hand, and bundling it with tissue paper, he calls the dog Pyscho Dog to the mirror. He knew he was scared of them for a reason. It’s why they don’t have one at home, not after what happened in the fields.
He doesn’t say goodnight to Grandma before bed, and when he walks upstairs to the spare room, he sees Bella watching him from her lap. Later, Grandma comes to pull the blanket over him, promises they can go on a walk tomorrow, just like they used to.
In the morning, Grandma doesn’t wake up. Owen waits outside her bedroom door, chin resting on his knees. After what feels like an hour, he knocks.
Grandma, are you okay? Grandma?
He pushes open the door and sees her still on the bed. She pries her eyes open.
Oh, I’m sorry my love. I’m not feeling too well today.
Owen climbs onto her.
Don’t be silly, I’ll be alright soon. Can I ask you to do something for me?
Can you walk Bella please? You’re old enough now, and I can’t do it today. You know the fields, don’t you?
Owen shrinks back.
It’s alright, she won’t hurt you. I’ll order some nice food for when you’re back and we can watch a movie, okay?
Owen walks the length of her bed.
But what if she bites me?
She won’t, I promise.
He decides to be brave again, show Grandma he can do it. Maybe that way he can come and see her more. It’s only a dog, and now he’s growing up, he can’t be scared of dogs anymore.
Grandma helps him put the lead on Bella, and he sees how shaky her hands are, smells the strange smell he noticed before.
Are you going to be okay Grandma?
Of course, Owen. Can’t leave you alone, can I?
On the way there, Psycho Dog pulls the lead for Owen, the more she pulls, the further away from him she is. If the whole walk goes this way, he’ll have nothing to worry about. When they reach the gate, Psycho Dog whines. He unclips her lead from the back of her neck, so she can’t bite him again, and she runs into the grass.
The fields look different today. Populating the sky is a series of baskets with bulbous bodies falling down from the sky, deflating, sinking into the ground. Behind them, Owen can see cracks in the sky where the clouds look torn and the sun slips through. To him they glow like light bulbs when they start to lose power. He climbs to the middle of the tree, and here he can see the balloon landing better. They groan as they go down, whales in the sky. He feels small as a krill.
He can’t see Psycho Dog when he comes down. He trawls the field, and all of them before he hits the river. He asks the balloon shepherds if they’ve seen her. A ginger dog with curly hair. He imitates her face. They ask him if he’s sure he brought one with him. They don’t remember seeing one. It’s getting dark now, you’ve been here for a long time, and aren’t you parents worried?
Owen walks home alone, lead wrapped around his hand, glancing back to see the balloons setting with the sun. His heart feels big in his chest. He can’t tell Grandma he lost her.
It’s dark when he knocks on the door. Nobody answers for a while, and when it opens, it isn’t Grandma he sees, it’s his Mum. She crushes him into her, and he can feel her heart beating in her neck.
Oh God, you’re safe. You’re safe.
Owen feels his tears on her shoulder, says he’s sorry over and over.
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