Redlands, CA by Aja Vasquez

“The University of Redlands held a commencement ceremony Monday to honor its ailing mascot Thurber following his cancer diagnosis, which was made public last week… Those close to the pup, including handler Beth Doolittle, praised the dog’s contributions to the university. Thurber was then presented with a diploma representing his degrees in math and psychology, and a minor in theater and human-animal studies.”

~Kristina Hernandez, Redlands Daily Facts, November 13, 2017

The glow of Madison’s phone lit the tears that ran down her face as she sat in the dark. It was always like this with her. A mixture of biology and circumstances made for intense emotional states. But the theatrical lighting and her silence made this particular dramatic episode different. 

“What’s wrong this time?” As soon as the words escaped her mouth, Janet wanted to hit herself. They had been working on non-judgmental language in group, and she knew as soon as she said it that it was judgy. The desire to punish herself for saying the wrong thing was judgy. There she was with the wrong reaction and the wrong reaction to the reaction. 

Madison didn’t respond right away. Then she sucked in a deep, laborious breath. “Thurber died.” Her tone remained flat like a person who had simply endured too much and had gone numb.

“What’s that?” Janet fidgeted with envelopes of mail that she’d already looked through the day before and then threw the envelopes onto the side table.

Madison turned to her mother, mouth dropped open, horrorstruck, as if one of her deepest held beliefs had been blasphemed.

“No, wait, I know. It’s a… dog?” She was trying to be casual, but they were both on edge, uncomfortable in the same room together since they’d moved to the town. If Janet was being honest, she had been uncomfortable around her daughter much longer than that. A void had opened between them, and there seemed no way to cross it.

“It’s fricken Thurber, mom. How can you act like that?” She had her mother locked in a death stare, again. 

“Like what?” She dumped her hands in her cardigan pockets, hiding. 

“Like, you really don’t care? How?” She covered her face with her hoodie and tightened it until she disappeared. This meant she was exasperated with her mother and the conversation was over. It was a coping mechanism they had been working on replacing with a more positive one. 

They had moved to Redlands during the summer. It was one of those towns that had oddly kept up with midwestern traditions like a Fourth of July barbecue for the entire town, parades for every holiday, a summer reading program for kids at the library, Shakespeare in the Park, and free outdoor concerts every Thursday during the summer months at yet another park. All of the events, separately, were quite normal by some other value system.

But there were so many events. The town made Janet’s head spin. The neighbors attended every event and would stop by on their way to ask her why she wasn’t going. It was some kind of unspoken rule that no one was allowed to skip anything. The idiosyncrasies of the town folk were legion. It was tiresome, all encompassing. 

Janet grew up in the Southern California where you never met the neighbors let alone walked to the chili cookoff to support the local fire department with them. She couldn’t remember the name of a single neighbor she’d had her entire life until she moved to Redlands. 

Now, every weekend and most weekdays she found herself dragged from her home on Bungalow Row, (yes, the street had a plaque with its nickname engraved on it) down a brick-paved street towards some event or another by some kindly neighbor who invariably brought their dog with them so the dog wouldn’t feel left out. 

Then there were all the dogs. Everyone in the entire town had at least one. Then there was the university mascot, Thurber. Everyone was in love with him, and Janet couldn’t figure out why. It was just a dog, after all. She couldn’t tolerate pets of any kind, not with such a troublesome teen as Madison in the house. Madison was unhappy in the chemical sense, and the intense work she had to do to overcome the depths of her depression was tiresome. Trying to be a healthy person all the time was wearing on the child. 

But Madison, who had started school in the fall after a long summer of community activities, had fully ingested the doggie Kool-Aid. She loved Thurber, too. He’d come to the first high school pep rally of the year, and she was allowed to pet him as he sat in his burgundy wagon and panted. After that, she was at every Rah-Rah-Redlands event, basketball game, and swim meet. She wanted to see Thurber that badly. Janet suspected that Madison just wanted to be a part of the crowd—all of whom loved that dog—to be “normal,” if such a thing can be achieved.

After Thurber’s death, the fall slipped into winter. The holidays rolled by, and Madison’s mood sunk. For Halloween, she painted her face to look like a bulldog rather than wearing her customary witch costume that she’d been wearing since a toddler. On Thanksgiving, she sulked at the table and refused to eat even her most favorite dessert, chocolate silk pie. By Christmas, she refused to change out of her pajamas for anything but the Christmas parade. She was rudderless, without a will of her own. Even therapy sessions weren’t working anymore. 

When January came, Madison sat in the living room instead of hidden under the comforter in her bed. She was reading her cell phone screen, smiling with her teeth jutting from her mouth like an animal. 

“Good news?” Janet asked, trying not to sound too excited, trying not to kill the moment.

Madison continued staring at her screen. “Very good,” she said mostly to herself. 

Janet leaned on the doorway, trying to act casual. “Well, don’t hold out on me. What is it?”

“There is a new queen.” She continued staring at her phone screen.

“Of England? I didn’t know the old one died.” She chuckled a bit into the silence that had long settled between them.

Madison’s smile closed into a tight scowl. “What are you talking about, Mother?”

She stopped, unsure how to proceed. “I’m not sure what either of us are talking about.”

“The next in the royal succession has been appointed, Queen Adelaide.” Then she turned her phone screen to Janet. The phone was open on Instagram. She was looking at a picture of a bulldog puppy. 

Janet leaned forward to see the picture more clearly. “Oh, a new mascot for the university. Cute.”

“She’s more than a mascot, Mother. She’s going to be the new queen.” Madison snatched her phone away as if her mother had been intruding, reading over her shoulder. 

“Queen of what?” She tried to maintain a serious face and tone, tried to take it seriously. She had to work on making sure she wasn’t invalidating her child. That’s what the therapist had said over and over again. 

“Queen of Redlands.” Her voice was flat.

“I didn’t realize this was a monarchy. I thought it was a regular, democratic town,” Janet said. It slipped out. She couldn’t help it. The whole dog obsession thing was going too far. Madison was sixteen—old enough for her mother to not keep up games like this. She knew Santa wasn’t real. No need to keep this charade up, too. 

“Well, you were wrong. We have to go to her coronation. It’s Saturday.” She sunk back into her chair and continued scrolling through social media. 

Madison seemed to have missed Janet’s retort. There was no ensuing argument, no self-isolation, none of the usual reaction. Janet hoped Madison was turning a corner, and suddenly believing in a dog queen of Redlands didn’t seem like such a big deal. Maybe it was what she needed, a focus, a purpose beyond herself. 

They went to the party store and bought burgundy face paint, sunglasses, hair spray, leggings, a headband with silver and burgundy pompoms that bopped back and forth on springs, and just about everything Madison could get Janet to agree to. She wanted to make an impression on the new Queen Adelaide, or Addie for short. Janet wanted her daughter to be well, even if it cost a small fortune.

Saturday morning, Madison was up early, or maybe she had never fallen asleep. The color had returned to her cheeks, and the life glowed in her eyes again. She wore every piece of burgundy and silver clothing she had, as well as every item from the party store. 

Janet dressed in her regular clothes. She didn’t want to play along, but she knew she had to go. The neighbors would come for her, and they wouldn’t leave until she left with them. 

The coronation started at 11 a.m., but Madison insisted that they leave the house at 9 a.m. even though it only took five minutes to walk to the school. 

They walked from their bungalow. Other people in the neighborhood were walking as well. They had their dogs on leashes. Whenever Janet and Madison passed a dog, the owner made the dog turn its back and sit, ignoring them. It was a training lesson from The Dog Whisperer, which Madison watched endlessly since the summer even though Janet complained during every episode that it was the same as the previous one: exercise your dog and make that little “cht, cht” sound Cesar Milan makes. 

When they arrived on the brick-lined walkways of the university, the school grounds were already full of Redlandites meandering about with their dogs in most cases. In fact, there was hardly a person there without a dog, and the dogs were variously practicing sitting with their backs to any human who walked past them. 

Madison ran to a table selling stuffed bulldogs that were meant to be miniature versions of the famed Addie. She began talking with the vendor about the many differences between each stuffed animal on the table. 

Janet decided to stretch her legs and let Madison have some space. She walked by a small Jack Russel Terrier, but it didn’t turn. The dog instead began yapping as little energetic dogs liked to do. The dog’s owner pressed his hand to the dog’s muzzled and whispered, “Love, love…shhhh…” over an over until the dog became quiet. 

Janet was taken with the strangeness of the situation. She had never seen a single person in Redlands who did not use the face-away-and-ignore method of training their dog successfully. She could hardly remember hearing a dog bark since she’d moved there over six months ago. 

In the outdoor amphitheater, there was a group of dogs with their owners. The dogs were practicing their sit-and-ignore, but they were sitting in a circle, facing one another. Their owners were outside the circle, backs to the dogs. None of them were talking to anybody else. 

Janet continued to walk through the university, and she saw circles of dogs throughout the campus in a circle, facing one another, their owners quietly facing away. The campus was full, but it was nearly silent. She could hear the wind rustling the leaves in the trees. 

She tried to make eye-contact with a woman accompanied by a large, curly-haired brown poodle, but the woman’s eyes were glassed over, unrecognizing. Janet walked past a man with a huge German shepherd. The man also had no recognition in his eyes; his mouth was slightly agape as if sedated, while the dog led him to a circle and sat with a group of other dogs as the man obediently turned his back and faced away. 

Finally, it was 10:45. The clock tower bells rang, and everyone moved en masse to the amphitheater where the coronation was to take place. A dog circle was centered in the quad. They were still sitting, staring at one another. Then one of the dogs let out a sharp bark, and the dogs all stood up and began walking towards the amphitheater. Their humans walked after them. 

Then Janet realized none of the dogs were wearing leashes or collars. They walked on their own, their people following close behind. She’d never seen this type of discipline in a dog, let alone large groups of dogs. She couldn’t figure how the people knew when to walk and when not to walk, or who was leading whom for that matter. 

Janet walked with the crowd towards the ceremony space. A chihuahua turned and looked at her. It growled, looked at another dog, a corgi. The corgi bobbed its head down and up, as if in agreement, but that couldn’t be right. The corgi turned and looked back at Janet, made eye contact, and growled. 

Like dominos falling, all the dogs in the general area surrounding Janet seemed to signal to each other and growled at her one by one. There was a rippling growl that spread across the crowd. Janet felt like the growls were all directed at her, but she knew that couldn’t be possible. She wasn’t sure what the first dog was growling at, but then it was clear that she was the only person at the ceremony who didn’t seem to be with a dog. 

She walked on, feeling a bit spied on, judged maybe. But no one had said anything. The only sound she had heard since they’d arrived was the dogs growling, the wind, and the far-away whooshing of cars on the distant freeway. There was just a sinking feeling. The town was nice. Every month there were multiple activities. The streets were dotted with Victorian homes, tall trees, and grassy lawns. The people said hello every morning when she went to work and in the afternoon when she came home, too. The uncanny sense that things had been flipped on their heads couldn’t be shaken. 

As Janet walked, Madison appeared by her side. 

“Oh, hi, honey! I was beginning to feel a little lonely,” she said. “The people here are a little weird,” Janet whispered as an aside. 

Madison stared at her mom, her eyes bulging. “Don’t, Mom!” she whispered. 

“What? No one can hear me,” Janet whispered back. 

“Mom, shut up,” Madison whispered sharply. 

“Madison, don’t talk to me like that,” Janet’s voice was rising, then the group’s mass migration abruptly stopped, and she stumbled over her feet trying to stop in time to not step on the person in front of her. 

Madison held her finger to her lips, shushing. Then she pointed the finger at the stage of the amphitheater. 

On the stage, a bulldog sat in a burgundy cart with the university symbol on it. A person in a black robe rang a large bell. A collective breath let out of the crowd and all the dogs howled at once. The sound was singular, loud, and piercing. Their snouts were pointed to the air, and then as if on cue the dogs were silent. 

Janet looked at the people around her, trying to see their reactions. But they were silent, staring, eyes glassed over. They weren’t looking at anything. Their faces were flaccid and empty. 

Janet searched the eyes of every person in the crowd, and every face looked the same, vacant. 

On the other hand, the dogs’ eyes were full of interest, some were slowly wagging their tails, waiting, containing their energy. 

The person in the black robe on stage lifted a crown from a velvet pillow and placed it on the bulldog’s head. The bulldog’s chin dipped as if in agreement. Then the black-robed person picked up a scepter from the velvet pillow and placed it at the feet of the bulldog, just inside her wagon. The dog again made the chin-dipping move, and Janet’s brain identified it as a nod. 

“Did that dog just nod?” She whispered to Madison.

“Shhh!” Madison whispered back sharply. 

Janet turned to her daughter to admonish her again, but she realized she had the same vacant look in her eyes as the rest of the people in the crowd. Her heart froze in her chest. She knew the people in the town were odd, but she didn’t identify her own child as one of the people in the town until that moment. All the angry outbursts when Janet hadn’t recognized the importance of town activities, especially this dog coronation, she’d brushed off as a mix of her daughter’s teenage angst, family problems, and biological long-term need for therapy. It had never occurred to her that maybe her daughter hadn’t been acting normally for her age or situation. Maybe something else had happened. 

The person in the black robe let out a loud bark, and then the dogs barked back at the hooded figure. The moment the person in the black robe barked, Janet realized the person in the black robe had no face under the large black hood. And the robe, which Janet had assumed was a graduation robe of some official from the school, was roughly tied at the waist with a woven belt that linked together with a metal clasp. Like a leash. 

“You may begin,” the hooded person said.

A line of people began moving towards the stage, towards the bulldog, Addie. Janet realized she was in this line. Madison was pushing her forward with hands on her mother’s back. 

The first person in line stopped in front of Addie. The person’s dog lowered its front half in a literal downward facing dog and closed its eyes. Addie let out a snort, and the dog moved out of the way. The dog’s person kneeled in front of Addie and screamed, “Hail the queen! Addie!”

The crowd erupted into cheering, screams, yelps, growling, and barks. The man kneeling in front of Addie lowered his head, and Addie licked his face. Addie then snorted, and the man moved on. 

The next person and dog combo stepped up to Addie. The dog bowed, eyes closed in submission. Addie snorted, and the dog moved on. The person yelled, “Hail Addie!” Addie licked their face as they knelt in submission, and then the person moved on. The line moved like this for a few more people when Janet realized she and Madison were nearing the front of it. 

“Maddie, look, I don’t want this dog to lick my face. It’s gross. I’m just gonna sit this out. If you want to do it, I’ll wait for you.” Janet started making her way to the side, trying to leave the line. 

“Mom, don’t.” Madison clamped a hand down on her mother’s arm. 

“Madison, cut it out. I’m not going to do this. It’s weird.” She struggled to free her arm.

Madison gripped her mother tight. “Mom, no. You can’t leave. Not now.” 

Janet looked at her daughter and saw that her eyes were wide, filling with tears. But the tears weren’t that of a panic attack or depressive episode. Maddie’s face was swimming in fear. “What’s wrong?” She whispered to her daughter. 

Madison looked from side to side, gesturing to the crowd around them with her eyes. Janet looked at the people around them and realized the ceremony had stopped and every person and dog was turned to face them. Their vacant faces were replaced with scowls, and some of the closest surrounding dogs were growling, low and guttural. 

She pulled her daughter close and whispered in her ear, “What the fuck is going on here, Madison? What have you gotten us into?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. There’s no going back now. We can’t leave.” Her voice shook. 

“What the hell are you talking about?” The harshness of the whisper made Janet’s voice lilt upwards. She looked up and attempted to smile at the scowling faces looking back at her. A golden retriever growled at her, so she buried her face in her daughter’s hair and said, “We are getting the hell out of here. Follow me, and I swear to God, you better not talk back right now.”

Janet faced her daughter again. “Mom, it’s too late,” Madison answered, tears falling from her eyes. She was shaking.

The golden retriever growled louder at Janet, and then snapped and snarled at her calves. Janet jumped out of the path of the dog’s bite. It snapped at Madison, and she jumped forward, too. Then a husky stepped up and began growling and barking at them. The dogs around them snapped and barked and growled until the two moved out of the line, towards the front of the stage. 

The dogs snarled until Janet and Madison were pinned at the side of the stage. Janet turned and saw Queen Addie was directly behind her, sitting in her little wagon, wearing a crown. It would have been cute if it wasn’t for the angry dogs and catatonic people. 

Addie barked, and then the entire crowd howled all at once, even the people. Madison’s face was covered in tears. Janet held her daughter’s arm, trying to comfort her, but truly she was trying to ground herself in the moment of insanity. She was trying to keep the tears in her eyes from falling down her cheeks. Dogs could sense fear, and people knew that tears were a sign of weakness. She couldn’t figure out how this ceremony would end so they could go on with their very normal life of town barbecues, art walks, and Girl Scout cookie sales. 

“Mom, it’s okay,” Madison said as she crawled onto the stage. 

“Maddie, don’t!” The words escaped her mouth far above a whisper, and Janet grabbed her daughter’s ankle. “Get down from there right now. We are leaving.”

The golden retriever lunged forward and bit Janet’s calf. Sharp, hot pain surged up her leg. A rush of bright red blood gushed through her jeans. The dog had taken a chunk from the soft round curve above her ankle. 

Janet screamed in horror. “Whose dog is this?” She demanded. 

No one answered her, but the other dogs in the crowd surged forward, leaping over benches and people alike, moving towards the stage and Janet. 

Janet was still holding Madison’s ankle. “Maddie, get out of here! Run!” She screamed, and the tears burned a path down her face. Her voice shook, and she could not control it. The pain was too much. 

“Mom, let me go,” Madison whispered, her eyes nervously searching the crowd of dogs surrounding her mother at the bottom of the stage. 

Janet gripped her daughter tight, so she knew it was serious. She locked eyes with her child. “Madison, I’m not letting you go until you agree to get up and run out of here and straight home.” She was fumbling with the phone in her pocket as she talked to Madison, trying to tap the side button five times to call 911 directly. But she couldn’t be sure which button she was tapping or what the orientation of the phone was in her pocket without looking at it. The pain in her leg was too intense and distracting to allow her to hold her daughter and the phone at the same time. 

“Mom, let go,” Madison said, no longer whispering. 

Janet took the phone out of her pocket and looked at it, her hand shaking so vigorously that it was difficult to make out whether the lock screen or the dial screen was up. Just then the golden retriever leapt up and bit her hand and shook it, as if playing with a toy, until the phone dropped. The husky lunged forward and bit Janet’s Achilles tendon, and she fell to the ground, releasing Madison to grab at her injury. 

Madison immediately kneeled in front of Queen Addie and bowed in front of her. Addie snorted, and Madison lifted her head high enough for the dog to lick her on the cheek. 

“All hail, Queen Addie!” Madison screamed in a panicked, high-pitched screech of someone who had just pledged herself to a church at a revival. 

“Madison, cut it out! Get out of here!” Janet sat on the floor, bleeding, the dogs around her growling, closing the circle around her tightly. 

Madison stood up and looked down at her mother from the stage. “Mom, this is the only way. You must bow to her. Become her subject or become her food.” She was nodding her head reassuringly, as if she didn’t notice her mother was sitting on the floor bleeding, surrounded by a pack of growling dogs. 

“Madison, what are you talking about? Call the police.” 

“Bow to her! Bow to the queen!” A woman from the crowd screamed. 

“Bow to her! Bow to her! Bow to her!” The crowd broke into a chant, still sitting calmly. 

The dogs closest to Janet looked at each other. Their mouths were moving. Janet could hear something that sounded like words, but she shook her head trying to clear it, to reset the sound to an image that made sense. It wasn’t possible the dogs were talking to each other. She tried to convince herself that she was in pain, delusional. 

The crowd kept chanting. Madison was chanting. The dogs in front of her leaned into each other, their mouths moving slightly. Janet was sure that below the din of chanting she could hear language. 

The golden retriever turned to her and said, “Bow to the queen, peasant!” 

“Bow and become her subject or be her food,” the husky snorted out in a deep grumble.

Janet was taken aback. She pulled her knees into her chest, making herself small regardless of how painful it was to move her bitten legs and hand. “Madison,” her voice wavered. She cleared her throat. “Get out of here.”

“I can’t leave, Janet. I belong to Queen Addie now. She is my mother.” 

Janet cocked her head to the side. The words fell over her, but the meaning did not. She craned her neck upwards to look at her daughter. Madison was squatting on all fours, next to Addie, panting. 

Addie barked, and the pack jumped at Janet all at once. Their teeth sunk into every part of her at the same time. Her flesh tore, hot blood poured into the dirt below the stage as Madison squatted on hands and knees, panting, her eyes vacant as if she hadn’t a care in the world. She was finally as happy and clueless as a dog. 

“On Saturday, Jan. 20, University of Redlands named Adelaide — or Addie — its first-ever live female mascot during a brief coronation celebration…she posed for photos with community members and U of R students as she walked around the event or in her own ‘kissing booth.’”

~Kristina Hernandez, Redlands Daily Facts, January 20, 2018

Aja Vasquez is a Southern California native. She received an MFA in creative writing from UCR’s Palm Desert Center. Her writing is focused on memoir and suburban horror stories. She has been teaching college writing for a few decades, specializing in curriculum development for writing programs. In her personal time, she enjoys watching horror movies, visiting local paranormal hotspots, and trying to grow plants on her balcony. She lives in the Inland Empire with, perhaps, an innumerable yet not hoarder-status amount of pets and children, as well as multiple year-round Christmas trees and Halloween decorations.