It was nothing but a drafty living room, cramped bedroom and stained kitchen, with a mold-infested bathroom, carved out of a musty Victorian on the outskirts of Atlanta. The industrial-grade carpet was so dirty that if you went barefoot, the soles of your feet turned black and there was a smell like death in the coat closet. My friends said maybe bat shit, because the building was infested with the flying rats, but, who knows what might have been boarded up in the walls!
There were four apartments in the house, two downstairs and two up, separated down the center by a once-grand entry hall. The only story I ever heard about the house was from the guy who ran a deli down the street. He said that, back in the 70’s, a cop who rented the apartment above mine had offed himself over Christmas holidays and, since all the college students went home, no one found him until January. The students in the apartment beside his noticed his cats wandering around unfed and charged in to find him dangling from an electrical cord by his desk, hands and feet purple-black from the blood that had pooled there. Whether it was true or not, for the 18 months I lived in the Victorian, people never spent longer than three months in 2A. Maybe it was the bats – or maybe something else remained.
Thre was no security there. The front door was never locked. Once inside the entryway, the only light fixture was a single, bare bulb dangling from the ceiling that was expected to illuminate the entire expanse of dark-paneled walls and staircase. The landlord was an old guy who only visited on the first of the month, you know, when the rent was due, so if the bulb burned out, you just had to plunge into the darkness beyond the screen door, keys in hand, and grope at your door to find the keyhole before falling breathlessly into your apartment and slamming your door on the darkness behind you.
The neighborhood had once been beautiful but it had, how shall I say it, turned. College slums, flop houses, you’d hit the locks on your car in a hurry if you accidentally drove down my street. The yards were full of trash and the houses full of decay but the rent was $250 a month and that made it worth my while. That is, until a girl got mugged a few doors down from me. The dark hallway suddenly looked a lot darker so, I bought a dog.
The landlord didn’t want animals but I didn’t really give a damn. She was just a medium-sized lab, her coat black and shiny except for the white patch beneath her chin. Because of that, and her adoration of Kentucky Fried Chicken, I named her Colonel. She was the best dog I have ever owned. She loved to chew, all labs do, but she was smart and sweet and made me feel safer.
The minute Colonel heard my key in the lock she would be at the door scratching and whining. If we were in the house together and someone clomped onto the rickety porch she barked. If they stomped too loudly up the stairs she barked like mad. I didn’t mind it, although my housemates probably did, but, I was glad she was telling me what was moving around out there, and glad she was telling them that there was a dog in that apartment, a decent-sized one with claws and teeth so back off!
One night near the holidays I got off work late at the bookstore and drove home. The damn light was out in the entry hall again so I laced my keys through my fingers and hurried to my door. As I scrabbled in the darkness to find the lock I realized Colonel wasn’t barking on the other side. Had she fallen asleep? It was late but it wasn’t like her at all.
I stepped into my living room cautiously and glanced around. The soft glow from a lamp by the couch showed nothing out of place. But where was my dog? I turned on the overhead light and closed the door behind me. The house was small so it didn’t take long for me to find her. She was on her side on the kitchen floor, her breathing labored. A small amount of blood had run from her mouth and she coughed and rolled her eyes up at me when I came near her. She wasn’t injured that I could see, so I knelt down and that was when I realized she was choking. I pried her mouth open and tried to dislodge whatever was in her throat and, although I could just feel it, I couldn’t get it. I gathered her in my arms and rushed out to my car. I had to get her to a vet!
There was an emergency vet clinic not too far away, so I sped there. Their diagnosis was quick – yes, there was a foreign object stuck in my dog’s throat, yes, they would have to remove it to open her airway, but they were going to have to do a tracheotomy. Colonel would be fine, but she wouldn’t be ready to come home until the morning. I hesitantly left the office and drove home, then walked wearily back into the dark entry hall for the second time that night.
As I stepped into my house my phone began to ring. Glancing at the caller ID, I realized it was the vet's office and quickly snatched up the receiver.
“Is this Miss Morgan?” the vet’s voice was very anxious.
“Yes…is everything all right?”
“Miss Morgan, I need you to get out of your house right now. Just get out. The police will be there any minute but you need to get outside.”
Before I could ask why, the vet had hung up. I thought surely he must be confused, but the concern in his voice convinced me to do as he asked. I hurried back out the door and sat in my car with the doors locked until two police cars pulled up.
I hopped out at the sight of their blue lights.
“What is going on?” I demanded.
“Which apartment is yours ma’am?” one of them asked me.
“1A,” I answered “But, what…” my voice trailed off as they drew their guns and crept carefully across my porch.
I leaned against my car in confusion as the vet from the clinic pulled in behind me.
I ran to his window. “Is everything o.k. with Colonel? Why are you here?”
“Your dog is fine. I removed what was choking her and she’ll be fine.”
“Why the hell are you here then? What is going on?”
At this moment, there was a commotion inside my apartment and the police soon came out the door. Between them was a shirtless man. His face was pale and his chest and arm were covered in blood that had seeped through the tee-shirt he’d wrapped around his hand. He howled in pain as the police handcuffed him at their car.
“How did he get in my apartment?” I asked them in horror and then turned to the vet. “How did you know he was in there?? “
The vet put his hand on my shoulder. “When I opened your dog’s throat, I thought you might be in danger. I found two fingers wedged in there. You certainly have one brave dog, honey.”
Glancing back at my apartment, I thought “It is definitely time to move out.”