1. Immolation

The young woman sat in the leather chair before the huge mahogany desk, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Her shoulders curved forward as if in self-protection as the man across the expanse of polished wood explained the process by which she would inherit the estate of her widowed mother, who had died two weeks earlier.
Regina Stallworth, called Reggie, was a petite woman of twenty-seven, with the honed body of a runner and cropped, straight, nearly black hair. Her small face was dominated by large brown eyes, her nose and mouth delicately shaped. At her best she had an elfin charm, but today she was far from her best. Her olive skin, under the fluorescent lights of the office, looked sallow; her dark brows were drawn together in a worried pucker. She was biting her lower lip.
Given the formality of this meeting, she had dressed as if for a faculty meeting at the school where she had recently taught—navy blazer and black skirt, white blouse, black flats on her stockingless feet. But the clothes hung loose, clearly bought when she was a size or two larger; the blouse needed ironing; the shoes were scuffed.
By contrast, the appearance of her mother’s executor’s spoke of wealth and fastidious attention to detail. His ruddy face was set off by neat silver hair, and his manicured hands rested on the copy of her mother’s last will and testament. A heavy gold watch was visible beneath the cuff of his dress shirt, which bore an embroidered monogram.
“I must say, Regina, your parents left everything in excellent order,” he said. “I don’t often see such care taken. They must have loved you very much. Except for their church and the orphanage, you’re their sole beneficiary.”
“Thank you” was the only response Reggie could think of. The orphanage was her mother’s pet charity, the place from which Susannah and Richard Stallworth, when they were both in their late forties and had given up hope of a biological child, had adopted her at birth. In truth, she had never felt loved by her parents; she had always felt like a disappointment and an inconvenience. But in material terms they had amply provided for her, paying for her excellent education and now leaving this astonishing legacy to her.
It included the mortgage-free house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she had grown up, a sprawling, Prairie-style ranch house, built by her parents on five acres that sloped down to a private waterfront on a six-hundred-acre lake. “Now that the Berkshires have become such a tourist destination, the value of that property has skyrocketed,” the lawyer said, “and the taxes have gone up accordingly. But it shouldn’t be a burden to you. An investment account should generate enough income for you to meet all your expenses, provided you keep your spending modest. And that’s a conservative approach, based on preserving principal. I could also help you prepare a plan for slowly drawing down the principal, if you find that your needs exceed the interest income alone.”
Reggie realized how hard she was gripping the arms of her chair and made a conscious effort to relax her hands. “No,” she said, “thank you. I’m used to living frugally.” Frugal—it had the sound of joyless, even punitive self-denial.
He picked up a sheet of paper and passed it to her. “Here’s a summary of the account.”
The figures made her shrink back a little, dazzled, as if she were gazing directly at the sun. She was comfortable with numbers as a former math teacher, but what she saw on that paper momentarily immobilized her.
She handed it back to the lawyer. “I can’t really take this in right now.”
“Of course,” he said gravely. He went on to tell her that there was also a life insurance policy; checking and savings accounts; the contents of a safe deposit box. “There will be estate taxes,” he said, “quite significant given the value of the total inheritance. But when all is said and done, you will still be very well off. A very fortunate young lady.”
His voice faded in and out like a transmission from a radio station with a weak signal.
“Do you have enough to live on while the estate is being settled? It usually takes six to nine months. I can arrange a loan to cover expenses for the next several months.”
“That would probably help,” she said. Newly unemployed, she had accumulated only the meager savings that a low-paid private-school teacher could afford.
“I’ll take care of that right away,” the lawyer said, “if you’ll send me a list of the household expenses and the monthly stipend you think you’ll need.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sager.”
“I’m happy to help,” he said, his face expanding with self-satisfaction. “Your parents were fine people. It was my privilege to handle their affairs for the past thirty years. And now, however I may be of assistance to you, just let me know.”
She thanked him again and rose. He walked her out and shook her cold hand with his warm, pudgy one. Alone in the elevator, she slumped against the wall and gripped the brass rail behind her, feeling her new fortune weighing on her like a leaden overcoat. She wasn’t sure she could handle it. The one thing she did feel sure of was that she was totally unworthy of it.


That evening, carrying a bundle, she walked down the gentle hillside that sloped down from the house to the lake. No other houses were visible to the west; the imposing brick Colonial of the nearest neighbors stood behind a thick grove of evergreens. To the east, a line of smaller houses curved up Hillside Road; she could see their lights shining amid the trees that marked the edge of her parents’—now, unthinkably, her—property.
The May evening was mild enough to require only a fleece jacket. The sky was clear, with a few stars beginning to glitter against the deepening blue-gray. She deposited her bundle, wrapped in a paint-stained drop cloth, beside the stone fireplace that her family had always used for barbecues. Inside were three short lengths of wood and a few sheets of The Berkshire Eagle that she crumpled up and put at the bottom of the fireplace, stacking the logs in a pyramid above the paper. To ensure that everything would burn completely, she’d brought an ancient bottle of charcoal lighter, probably untouched since her father’s death ten years earlier. She squirted the liquid liberally into the fireplace, then lit the newspaper with a long wooden match. The flames leaped up with a whoosh.
She picked up the other objects she had brought, holding each for a last look before burning it. A gold satin tank top. A pair of black velvet pants. Black lace underwear. A pair of ridiculous shoes with pointed toes and high heels, which she had been able to tolerate for just one hour before taking them off and going barefoot at the faculty Christmas party, half a year and another lifetime ago.
It took a while for the various synthetic materials to catch; she poked them with a stick to stop them from smothering the flames as they shriveled into clumps of goo. At last only the white struts of the high heels’ inner supports remained, looking like bones among the black cinders.
Next to go on the pyre was a letter headed “The Milbank School.” A fragment of its opening paragraph drew her reluctant gaze like a grisly accident scene: “terminated, effective immediately, in light of the recent incident that has compromised your ability to serve as a sound role model…”
Another letter, handwritten in bold, dark print, followed it into the flames so swiftly that she caught only a glimpse before it shriveled into a curl of carbon: “…deserved better, Reggie. Please forgive me. David.”
She picked up and gazed for the last time at a photograph of a young man, tall and lean, with wet black hair, smiling triumphantly in nylon shorts and a singlet that bore his number placard from the New York Marathon. Looking directly at the camera, his eyes seemed to be fixed on hers. In the months after he had given the picture to her, those eyes had conveyed conflicting messages, ranging from You gave me the strength for this achievement to I’m a winner and you’re a loser. She thrust it into the fire.
Last was a small book, a collection of inspirational aphorisms for runners. She opened the front cover to look at the inscription, written in the same dark hand as the letter: “To Reggie, Christmas 2017: ‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’ Love, David.” She doused the book with lighter fluid, then threw it into the heart of the flames, where it ignited with a thump.
Darkness gathered around her as she sat cross-legged on the grass and watched the fire die down. She poked and crushed the live embers with a stick to disperse them safely, then stared, mesmerized, at the traces of orange pulsating within the blackened fragments of wood, cloth, plastic, and paper, intensifying whenever a stray breeze blew over them.
When the glow had faded and only a smoldering bed of cinders remained, she stood and headed up the hill on legs that felt too weary and stiff ever to run again, or even crawl.

2. Adoption

One year later

Entering the fenced front yard of the animal shelter to a chorus of barking from the outdoor pens, Reggie was surprised by the sight of the worker hosing down a kennel. The woman was so gorgeous that she seemed out of place in this raucous, ramshackle environment. She was tall, with wavy blond hair piled carelessly on top of her head, exposing a slender neck. Her wardrobe of paw-stained jeans, a wet-splotched t-shirt, and high rubber boots could not conceal her striking figure.
Seeing Reggie, she turned off the hose nozzle and asked, “May I help you?” in a low, British-accented voice. Her expression and demeanor, however, didn’t convey a particularly helpful attitude. She had narrowed her eyes—fringed with long lashes that were darkened with mascara— so that Reggie couldn’t make out their color; her full lips were unsmiling.
In the face of her radiance, Reggie felt like a waif, with her overgrown shag haircut, a white polo shirt from high school, and plaid shorts that rode low on her hips because she had lost so much weight in the past year and a half. “I want to adopt a dog,” she said.
The woman kept her hand on the hose’s nozzle, as if impatient to resume her work. All around them, dogs in outdoor pens were barking and scrabbling at the chain-link fencing. “Any particular kind?”
“No, not really,” Reggie said, stepping closer to be heard over the surrounding clamor. “I don’t think I want a puppy. I just want a good companion, who’ll take long walks with me or even run—I’m a runner.”
The shelter worker regarded her, saying nothing. Up close Reggie noticed that her pale, clear skin had a tracery of lines near the eyes and mouth, suggesting she was in her mid-thirties; her eyes, Reggie could now see, were jade green.
She pressed on: “I want an energetic dog, but also one who’ll be happy to hang out without getting into mischief or demanding constant attention. I mean, I’ll give the dog plenty of attention, and exercise, and love, but I also like to read a lot and basically lead a quiet life.” Sensing that she was babbling, she concluded, “My name is Regina Stallworth, by the way.”
“Clarissa Dawson,” said the woman. “Have you had a dog before?”
“No. I always wanted one, but my mother was obsessive about keeping the house picture-perfect.”
“Who’s in your family now?”
“Just me.”
“And do you work?”
Reggie was a little taken aback by this barrage of personal questions, as well as by the woman’s brisk manner. But maybe it was part of her job, to grill prospective adopters on the kind of care they could provide. “No, I quit my job to take care of my mom during her final illness.” That was the story she had decided to offer for public consumption. “I’ve spent the past year cleaning out her house and settling her affairs, and now I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life.”
She offered a self-deprecating smile and a shrug; Clarissa’s impassive expression didn’t change.
“I thought a dog would be good company,” Reggie concluded.
“Well, why don’t you look around and see if you make a connection with anyone,” Clarissa said. “I’ll check back with you after I’ve finished the morning cleaning.”
Reggie walked around the yard, peering into the pens. Some of the dogs came forward to nose her outstretched hand, wagging their tails; some lay on raised sling-beds, watching her; others danced on their hind legs, pawing at the chain-link fence. It was upsetting to see so many animals and realize the likelihood that many would never be adopted. Having been adopted herself, she felt a kinship with these creatures.
After about twenty minutes, Clarissa reappeared. Reggie was standing in front of a kennel in which a dark-brindle young male was hurling himself against the fence. “Is there anyone you’d like to meet?” Clarissa asked.
Reggie hesitated. “I didn’t feel a special connection with any particular dog. Are there others?”
“Come this way.” Clarissa set off toward the building.
“How long have you worked here?” Reggie asked, as she half-trotted to match the other woman’s stride.
“Five years.”
“I would find it hard not to take some of them home.”
“That’s why I do this job, despite the crap pay—so I don’t have to. Besides, I already have three dogs and two cats.”
Inside the building they passed through a cramped office area and down a hallway. Clarissa opened a door into a large ward with kennels on either side. A salvo of barking greeted them. The volume of noise, echoing off the concrete block walls, was nearly unbearable. Reggie jumped as Clarissa let out a shout accompanied by a clap. “Oi! Belt up, you gits.” To Reggie’s amazement, the dogs fell silent, sitting behind their gates and watching the two women.
Clarissa moved down the lines of kennels, handing out treats and praising each dog by name. It seemed that she made up for her coolness toward humans with warmth for the animals. Her easy rapport with them underscored Reggie’s insecurity about choosing the right dog, being able to win its trust, knowing how to care for it properly.
As they approached the last kennel Clarissa said, “Here’s somebody I think might be a good match for you.”
“Rufus” was the name on the kennel tag. Reggie looked in to see a medium-sized dog lying on a quilt with his head between his paws. He was short-haired, his white body freckled with black, his head and tail pure black. His ears stood upright and flopped over at the tips.
When he lifted his head and met her eyes with a dark, searching gaze, Reggie felt a start—something passing between them. “What’s his background?” she asked.
“He was brought in as a stray five months ago, so we really don’t know much about him. We estimate his age at about three. He’s very, very shy towards people, especially men—that’s why he hasn’t been adopted yet. He’s not aggressive, just extremely wary. But he’s sweet. Aren’t you?” she said to the dog, who showed no reaction, just continued to watch them with solemn attentiveness. “In the right home with the right person, I think he’d open up. I also think he’d be the kind of calm companion you said you want.”
Reggie couldn’t stop looking at the dog. He had lowered his head again, but his eyes remained fixed on hers. “I’d like to meet him,” she said.
Clarissa opened the kennel gate, took a leash from around her neck, and hooked it to Rufus’s collar. He balked at first, then seemed to realize the futility of resisting and, as Clarissa led the way out of the building, trotted along beside her, every now and then glancing back mistrustfully at Reggie.
As they crossed the paved yard, he tucked his tail under him and pulled on the leash to get past the outdoor pens of lunging, vociferating dogs. Clarissa opened the gate to an enclosure the size of half a soccer field. Razor wire coiled along the top of the chain-link fence gave the place the feel of a prison’s exercise yard.
“Are you comfortable hanging out here with him for a while?” Clarissa asked. “I have to take care of a few things.”
“Sure,” Reggie said, with more assurance than she felt. Rufus was looking at her warily.
Clarissa unclipped his leash and picked up an air horn from the toy basket. “If there’s any kind of emergency, you can use this and one of us will come out right away.”
What kind of emergency might there be? Was Rufus unpredictable? Could he turn aggressive out of fear? He certainly seemed fearful, panting and licking his lips, his tail still tucked under.
“We’ll be fine,” Reggie said.
“Good.” Clarissa turned and left the enclosure. “I’ll check back with you in a bit.”
Rufus had gone to the far end of the yard and was nosing along the fence as if looking for a way out. In the quiet of the morning, Reggie gazed at the landscape beyond the enclosure. Past the shelter grounds rose a large, weed-covered landfill with white plastic vents sticking up from the soil. The proximity of the shelter to a garbage dump made her sad; some people, it seemed, considered the animals themselves to be refuse.
Turning her attention to Rufus, she went to the toy basket and picked out an orange rubber lion with googly eyes; when she squeezed it, the lion squeaked and a long black tongue popped out comically. “Rufus!” she said, laughing. “Look.” She approached him slowly and stopped about eight feet away. “Look at this funny guy.”
She squeezed the toy, out popped the tongue—and Rufus hit the ground, making himself as flat as he could and looking up at her with his head held low.
“Oh, I’m sorry, boy.” She tossed the toy away. Off to a fine start already, she thought ruefully.
She decided that the best way to reassure him would be to get down on his level, so, after inspecting the grass, she sat with her back against the fence, legs stretched out. He watched her and then, once she was settled at a safe distance, lowered his head to rest it on his front paws.
The day was quiet, except for the repetitive beeping of a truck moving back and forth in the landfill. Reggie began talking to the dog softly. She told him about growing up here in this town, how she had loved the woods and the lake but was never very easy with people—“kind of like you.” She told him she’d often felt alone, even though she had had two parents. “I was adopted too. I never really felt like I was wanted. But I’ll try to make you feel that you are.” Sudden tears stung her eyes. Even after more than a year, her emotions were still raw, unstable.
Rufus seemed to be listening; his ears moved from time to time, swiveling to pick up the sound of her voice, the caw of a crow, the slam of a car door.
“It must have been tough being a stray. How did you find food? That’s something you won’t have to worry about anymore. I’ll always make sure you have plenty. We can take walks and maybe even run together. I can teach you to swim if you don’t already know how, and maybe you’ll go out in the canoe with me.” The fantasy was coming alive in her mind, vivid and enticing.
Then, for some reason, she remembered a song from her childhood, a song her babysitter Nana used to sing to her as a little girl. She sang it now: “How much is that doggie in the window, the one with the waggly tail? How much is that doggie in the window? I do hope that doggie’s for sale.”
Rufus sighed, but it seemed to be a sigh of relaxation, not annoyance. Reggie scooted a little closer to him, humming the song again. Still he kept his head down on his paws.
She extended her hand, nervous that he might bite out of fear, and touched him. His flesh gave a slight quiver. Resting her hand on his head, she stroked the glossy black fur, hot from the sun, then the tip of the ear nearest her, the velvety part that flopped over. She thought it might be the softest thing she’d ever felt.
With her hand on his head, she looked toward the shelter building. And there she saw Clarissa, standing on the other side of the gate about twenty feet away, smoking a cigarette and watching her.
“All right?” Clarissa called. She dropped the cigarette, ground it out with her boot, and opened the gate. Rufus stood and went to greet her, his tail tentatively wagging.
Embarrassed, Reggie wondered how long Clarissa had been observing her, whether she’d heard her one-sided conversation with the dog and her silly song.
“I didn’t want to interrupt,” Clarissa said. “It looks like you two are getting along.”
“I think so.” Then, with a feeling of momentousness, Reggie said, “I want to adopt him.”
But Clarissa didn’t seem impressed. Turning, she said over her shoulder, “Fine, let’s go do the formalities.”

Author’s Statement

During the confinement of the pandemic, I was given the gift of a story that transported me for the better part of nearly every day during the year it took me to complete it. Writing this novel allowed me, through my fictional character, the freedom to find a fulfilling new vocation; fall in love; spend summer days with friends at a beautiful lake; meet new people (some wise and good, one fascinating but treacherous); and perform a daring rescue of a loved one in peril.
The resulting novel, Invented Lives, shows how the intimacy of women’s friendships, often so powerfully sustaining, can turn toxic after a breach—especially when one of the women has a skillfully concealed psychological disorder.
The story: shattered by a failed romance and a lost job, Regina—Reggie—Stallworth, twenty-seven, has come home to western Massachusetts, hoping to rebuild her life. She meets Clarissa Dawson, a thirty-something Englishwoman who works in an animal shelter and helps Reggie find her canine soulmate in fearful, gentle Rufus. The two women become inseparable friends, bound by their shared love of dogs.
Clarissa is beautiful and bold, and has a great talent for communicating with animals and for creating knitted art. Reggie’s admiration for her soon comes to be shadowed by the realization that her friend tells lies, inflating her abilities and achievements, her social status. However, Reggie views these fabrications as harmless deceptions meant to bolster a deep insecurity behind Clarissa’s dazzling façade.
Reggie has no idea of the shocking secret the other woman is hiding until, by chance, she stumbles upon it. When she confronts her friend, Clarissa uses their former closeness to strike Reggie where it will hurt most: she tries to seduce Aidan, Reggie’s new love, and kidnaps Reggie’s beloved dog.
The novel treats difficult themes: depression and mental illness, substance abuse, and animal cruelty. All of these are issues that have affected me, either personally or in my relationships; writing about them helped me come to terms with their impact on my life and find peace. The book’s ultimate message is about the restorative power of community and the natural world, and the transformative influence of love—between humans, and between people and the animals we take to our hearts.

M. F. Jones grew up in western Massachusetts, the setting for Invented Lives, and now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before turning to writing full-time over a decade ago, she was an editor; her publishing career began at Viking Press, where she discovered Judith Guest’s bestseller Ordinary People in the slush pile and became its editor. Subsequently she held senior editorial positions at Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines. Her feature articles have appeared in national publications.

Embark, Issue 15, October 2021