I lay your bulky, yellow head on my lap, your labored breaths hot against my nightdress. Your massive Labrador paws thrash against an unrelenting hardwood floor, as if you’re trying to run to a place without pain. I press my cheek into your soft fur; it cushions the fear that strikes with each violent spasm that threatens to take you from me. I pull you close, wrapping myself around you until the yelps subside to whimpers. Your body shudders. You exhale, deep and deliberate, pushing out the hurt. Your body calms. It is quiet.
I lean back against the cold wall, the chill a respite from the icy-hot adrenaline that pulled me from my dreams to your side. I pet you with long, careful strokes. Your muscles twitch beneath my fingers. A plume of your fur, like dust, hovers above my touch.
As the moon through the bay window bathes us in a ghostly light, I watch you breathe.
I will myself to linger in this moment, to relish the warmth of you.
I run my fingers over your ears and down your neck. I kiss your nose. Still wet.
You offer a single tail thump in thanks.
We huddle together until dawn. I’m grateful for another sunrise.
I can’t lose you. I won’t lose you. You’re everything to me.
We leave for town early. It’s a snowy Saturday morning and the village bustles with shoppers; their mittened hands grasp plastic bags bulging with toys and sweaters and trinkets from the Five and Dime. A couple argues as they struggle to tie a freshly cut balsam fir to the top of a red Volkswagen Beetle. A weary mother balances a crying toddler with a grocery bag as a young child skips around her, catching snowflakes on his tongue. You stop to say hello and wag as he gives you a friendly pet. The mother yanks him away, and he cries, his cheeks red with cold and tears.
It’s funny how people choose to carry their burdens. Some wear them boldly, like a red knitted scarf on an overcoat. Others bundle them deep within their layers, keeping them close to the heart as they go about their everyday lives. You and I, we blend into the wintry landscape – young woman, old dog, out for a stroll in the snow.
“Almost there, Cody.” I graze the top of your head with my fingertips as we tread gingerly across the salted sidewalk. We skirt the ice patches and slush missed in careless tosses of crystal rock. I sense your insecurity with each step. I slow my pace, our gaits parallel.
Marco’s Marvelous Pets is on the first floor of a two-story brick building that has stood on the corner of Main and Fifth for over a hundred years. Though time has dulled the structure to the color of cardboard, the window display glows with life. Across the generations, passersby have been drawn to the den of misfit puppies romping in the storefront; litters born to strays on the street, small miracles the world never intended. Children press their palms and foreheads against the glass, hoping for a closer look.
When I was really little and seen but not heard, Mother would let us stop for a minute to watch the puppies play while we ran errands. Mother called it the Canine Circus. One by one we’d name the pups – Master and Lion and Clown. She never smiled much, but I remember the way her eyes shone in the reflection of the glass, like some kind of magic trying to break through her frown. Each time, I begged her for a puppy and each time she said no, the moment lost as she tugged me away from the window.
But on my twelfth birthday, my dad brought me to Marco’s to choose my puppy. Instead, you chose me.
Barreling out of the kennel, you tripped as you galloped, knocking past Dad and sliding into a display of rawhides. You were as gangly and awkward as I was. My braces and bad perm were a perfect match for your oversized paws and lolling tongue. You wiggled out from under the mountain of bones and leapt to greet me. Bouncing off my kneecaps, you knocked me to the floor and buried me in barrage of puppy kisses.
From that moment on, I was your person.
We huddle under the awning to shield ourselves from the snow. I stomp ice cakes from my boots. You wiggle and shimmy to free yourself from the frigid wetness, too weak for a glorious full shake. I brush the snow from your back and open the icy glass door. The metal of the handle tingles my skin, sending a slight shock through my bare hands. Together, we enter the shop, and its warmth embraces us.
Francis Marco IV is the current proprietor. Shriveled and gaunt, with a complexion like paste, he may be the oldest man I have ever seen. A cloud of cottony hair encircles his scalp, and a faded grey sweater hangs from his diminutive frame as if it were intended for a more robust man. Deep wrinkles form rivulets down his cheeks and around his eyes. He looks at us through thick, horn-rimmed glasses; his deep-set blue eyes belie his age. Marco shuffles loafered feet across the worn floor, a weathered wooden cane supporting his weight in one hand; a bag of Puppy Chow in the other.
Your nose twitches and you sneeze. The smell of must, wet dog, and slush clings to the wood-paneled walls. I adjust my eyes; flickering fluorescent bulbs buzz overhead. The store is crowded with pet supplies, but absent customers.
Stacks of silver dishes, walls of rawhides, a fortress of sheepskin beds pile almost to the ceiling. Despite the retail disarray, I’ve always been able to find just the item I’m looking for, as if it’s risen through the mess just for me. There’s always been something special about the things that Marco sells. With a box of his dog biscuits, even the unruliest dog behaves. Marco’s chew toys make a dog forget the temptations of wayward shoes and children’s homework. And one drop of Marco’s Special Salve heals even the ugliest of ear infections.
The magic pill we’re looking for must be hiding somewhere on these cluttered shelves.
Eyes focused intently on Marco, you attempt to sit, as if on command. Painstakingly, you lower your hind quarters to the ground. You wince as your tail approaches the floor. “Good boy,” I say, scratching the soft fur behind your ears.
“Nice old dog you have there,” Marco says.
You bark once, as if in agreement.
Marco chuckles, his throaty laugh almost too strong for someone of his stature. “Age hasn’t robbed him of his personality.” He leans in, peering from you, back to me, as if examining us. “Been a long time since I’ve seen you.”
I pause, caught under an embarrassed spotlight. I’ve been purchasing Cody’s food and toys online for years. It has been a long time since I’ve been to Marco’s.
“We haven’t been out much, other than to go to the vet.” I frown. “We’ve been to every one in the county. But no one has been able to help.”
Marco’s eyes take in your expanded girth, the hot spot growing from your right paw, your hind legs trembling with the pressure of sitting. You return his gaze, tilting your head slightly. Something about Marco amuses you.
“What makes you think we’ll have anything helpful here?”
“Well, I just thought … you always seem to have just what Cody needs, whenever he needs it.”
“Oh?” His eyes widen.
“Maybe a special kind of treatment? Something…holistic…that the vets wouldn’t consider?”
Marco chuckles. He rests his skeletal, liver spotted hand on your head. You turn to lick it as he whispers to you, “How silly. She thinks I’m some sort of old shaman for dogs.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.” I kick at the floor with the toe of my wet boot.
Why should I think this small-town pet shop owner could provide an answer that so many doctors couldn’t? Desperation is the enemy of logic, and although I learned at an early age that doctors were far from godlike, I just needed someone to help me. Even if it was an old man in a musty old shop.
“I’m sorry. It was a stupid question.”
He places the Puppy Chow on the scratched Formica counter. The bag crackles as it settles in place. The puppies tussling in the shop window halt their willy-nilly ear-biting play, whimpering at the sound of the bag.
Marco slides his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. His eyes narrow; scrutinizing us. He turns a heavy gaze toward you and back to me, where it rests uncomfortably. “I have what you need,” Marco says. “If you’re willing to trust me.”
Trust – that fog-laden bridge between promise and truth, navigated by the very young or the very foolish. I learned to avoid that path long ago. It’s like being handed a bouquet of roses and having them wilt in my palms; the last viable bloom reserved for a coffin at a gravesite. Or believing mother’s words that she’d always be there, never realizing “there” was on the dirty tile of a bathroom floor, her fingers wrapped around an empty bottle of booze. The surest way to align promise with truth was to bypass bridges, finding my own way with you by my side.
It’s impossible to trust anyone.
Your nose twitches as you sniff the air in the direction of the puppy food.
Anyone, except for you.
My father’s decline began just before he brought me to you. Not that I recognized it at the time; I was too wrapped up in my own pre-teen priorities. It wasn’t until much later, looking back on those photographs of your puppy days, that I saw what wasn’t evident to a child’s eyes. Dad’s tanned skin, bronzed from years of working in construction, had faded to an ashen pallor. His bright eyes had lost their spark, sunken in behind cheekbones that had become too prominent.
I remember now how his hands shook during those fleeting and frustrating days when we were housetraining you, and the way his pajamas hung from his frame as he tended to your nighttime whimpers. I can still see the tiny bruises on his ankles left by your needle-teeth as you explored the world by mouthing it – I’d always thought it odd how the marks your nibbling left on me were short lived, and with Dad, how they seemed more permanent. But nothing was permanent for him, and at the same time, everything was. I suppose it’s like that when people reach the end.
Around the time you had grown into your oversized paws, Dad stopped laughing. The sound of him changed. He’s got a cold, Mother told me. Chronic bronchitis. It’ll go away. His weight loss was explained as a much-needed diet to lose that belly of his. The days and nights he spent on the couch, my mother attributed to a bad economy. No one builds houses in a recession. He spent hours in silence, just staring, the TV remote in hand. Tissues piled up and spilled from the tray table to the floor; meals were left untouched and cold.
Mother told me to leave my father alone, to keep “that dog” away from him. She took up residence in the kitchen, chain-smoking until her voice adopted the raspy timbre of a woman twice her age, gin and tonic on the rocks her constant companion.
My dad was dying, and I didn’t know.
Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I wasn’t ready.
At the very end, when machines pushed the air into my father’s chest, I spent my days doing homework in the cold antiseptic loneliness of a hospital room. Nurses came to check in, but they said little to me about my dad. They would help with the occasional math problem or pat my head and offer me some Jell-O. As if that would make me feel any better about the alarms that rang off from the machines almost hourly, or the stale, urine-tinged air that made me sneeze.
You were the only thing that made me feel better. Rolling together in the cool grass as we picked you up from the neighbor’s house, your muddy paws on my shoulders were as strong as any hug. I didn’t even flinch when the neighbor yelled at me and demanded my chore money because you’d dug through her gardenias. She called you a naughty puppy, but I knew better. Flowers could be replanted, but you, you were a good puppy.
I wished I had been able to bring you with me on those long days I spent at my Dad’s side. Your nose, working hard to find him hiding deep in his work boots or tucked away under the knitted afghan on the couch, told me how much you missed him. I pictured you on my lap, nudging my hand to be petted as I sat for all those hours on that lumpy pleather hospital chair. The nurses would have brought you cookies – the good stuff – with some extra for me. Dad would have been happy to have you there, even though those machines kept him from saying anything at all.
I thought about that a lot, and one day, I suggested to Mother that we sneak you in to see him. My backpack’s big enough, I said, stowing you inside. You whimpered and scratched at the canvas until I unzipped the bag just enough for you to poke your head out and lick my cheek.
Mother just shook her head at me. She did that often, especially when I asked her if my Dad was going to get any better. And when he’d come home. When life would go back to normal.
She refused to tell me anything. She answered every question with He’ll be fine. Trust me.
Mother sent me home from the hospital early one cloudy Saturday afternoon. You and I had run around the yard most of the day, playing soccer, until the rains came, and we huddled together on the couch. We watched movies and ate popcorn. Doing nothing special was what made it special. It felt good to snuggle with you, lay my cheek against your head, feel the familiar for just a little while.
Dad died that night, just about the time I was brushing my teeth. I was thinking about how good I would look when my braces finally came off as my dad fought against his final breath, alone. Mother called me from the local pub to tell me the news.
I never said goodbye.
Marco removes his glasses. Reaching over the countertop, he places a hand on my arm. A feather pokes out from the fabric of my down jacket, grazing his skin.
“I’d like to help you, Allison. But I need you to do something first.”
I nod, feeling my brows furrow.
“I’d like you to take a good look at your dog.”
You yawn and slide to the floor with a thud, laying your nose between your front paws. You fight the gravity and fatigue that weigh upon your eyelids. With a soft snore, you surrender to your nap.
“I’m looking at him,” I say. I wonder what point Marco is trying to make. “He’s tired. He’s an old dog.” I feign a smile. “Just like you said.”
“What is he telling you?”
“Telling me? I’m not sure I understand.” Awkwardly, I wriggle away from the old man’s touch. Gooseflesh fights the layers of my winter clothing, leaving my skin cold. “How can he tell me anything? He’s a dog. Last time I checked, they don’t talk.”
“He’ll tell you what he needs, if you are open to it.” Marco leans on his cane. He purses his lips and stares at me – through me – as if he’s trying to read my thoughts.
I hold my breath to fight the sigh – or is it a laugh? – that threatens to push through and wonder if Marco is just a lonely old man desperate for company. Or maybe he’s senile. It’s the only explanation for why he continues to speak nonsensically instead of doing something to help you, as he said he could. My gaze rests on the merchandise surrounding us. I need Marco to stop talking and hand me that wondrous potion, that rare salve or special bandage that we came here for.
I glance at you. Our time together is finite. I feel its tug with each passing minute.
Marco shifts his weight and appears to sink further into his sweater. “What you need, what he needs, is right here, just as it’s always been,” he says. “If you’re not afraid to find it.”
He fixes his gaze upon you; you raise your head, open your eyes, and blink. Twice.
“Why would I be afraid to help my dog?” I’m tiring of Marco’s word games. And there’s something about his countenance that burrows into me like a determined tick. Old people seem to think that wisdom is built by the number of footprints they leave on the earth. But the truth is, it’s the weight of the imprints that matters most. And how well they withstand the tide. Francis Marco IV doesn’t understand me at all.
“Fear distorts our judgment, my dear. It is the thief of faith.”
You lay quietly at my feet. Fully awake, your knowing eyes shift from me, to this frail man who speaks in riddles, and back to me again.
“I’ve been all over creation trying to find something that will help cure Cody.” The walls of useless pet goods are suddenly stifling. “What he needs has nothing to do with fear. Or faith.”
“The time for cure has passed. He needs something more.” Marco picks up the Puppy Chow and resumes his scuffing walk, turning his back to us. The patter of dry food pelts off the metal trough. The sound of the puppies’ crunching fills the silence.
Heat spreads across my cheeks. Marco’s speculative nonsense is wasting valuable moments that could be spent seeking a solution. I grab your leash with both hands, tight, to stop them from shaking. This man is no better than the veterinarian who handed me a pamphlet with that ridiculous poem about rainbows. Or that neighbor who told me, as I cried at my Dad’s casket, he was in a better place now. Unfulfilled promises of help, empty words, they leave me with nothing but hopelessness. Tears threaten as I tug on your leash, imploring you to rise on tired legs.
“I’m sorry we came here. Let’s go, Cody.”
Marco peers over his shoulder and smiles. “Please don’t leave. I’ve been expecting you for a while, now, Allison.”
I lean down and wrap my arms around your middle, desperate to pull you up and get out of this place. You won’t budge. I may have to carry you, I think.
Breathless with the fruitless effort of moving you, I stand. You look up at me apologetically. I cross my arms and glare at Marco. “Why would you expect me, when I haven’t been here in years?”
Marco turns away, ignoring my question. He dangles a smooth hand into the puppy den. A fluffy brown dog toddles toward him, sniffs Marco’s flesh and opens her tiny mouth wide. She nibbles Marco’s index finger like it’s rawhide. You bark and thump your tail, your curiosity piqued by this small creature as much as mine is by the man who feeds him.
The puppy enjoys a final taste and, abandoning Marco’s hand, wiggles her way back in through the pack, nose first, to her dinner. Marco retrieves his cane and limps toward the front door.
“They always come back, when it’s time,” he murmurs. His reflection in the glass glows an icy fluorescence as Marco turns the lock and flips the sign to Closed.
“What are you doing?” I ask, my voice quavering.
Slow-motion panic percolates within me; legs poised to run, feet rooted to the fading tile. Then adrenaline overwhelms like a winter squall. I lift you as high as I can off the floor. Feet scrambling, you writhe for freedom. I fall back, cushioning your body as we crash to the ground, trapped with this strange old man.
Marco leans in. The glasses that rest halfway down the bridge of his nose magnify his eyes; his pupils an eclipse that demands my gaze.
“Helping Cody. Helping you.” His voice is a whisper. “Your father came here because he knew you’d need someone very special to love after he was gone.” He bends slowly toward the floor, aged knees creaking with effort. His outstretched palm strokes your head. Your ears flutter, as if lifted by a breeze.
“Cody was his final gift to you.”
“We’ve always been together,” I whisper. “I can’t lose him, too.”
You stretch your neck and close your eyes as Marco’s hand runs over your fur, his caress so light it seems as if he’s not touching you at all. And I recall the days, months, and years after my Dad died, when you lay, warm next to me, as I sobbed into my pillow. The sunsets we watched together on the front stoop, my arm draped around you, as summer faded with the turning of leaves. How you wagged and wiggled, greeting me as I returned from school to an empty house. How your head tilted with interest, as I read you my salutatory address before graduation, knowing you’d listen when Mother would not. The way you held your head out the window, as if defying the wind, as you sat in the front seat of my car when I first got my license. Waiting for your treat outside the bank as I cashed my first paycheck. Munching on cardboard boxes as I moved us into our apartment.
Sadness and fear converge and morph to tears that threaten to fall from a precipice I’ve hidden behind years of resolve. After my Dad died, there was no knight to rescue me from the tower of bad dreams; no healer to kiss away the pain of skinned knees or broken hearts. I grew up lonely as an orphan. You were my family, my friend. My only joy.
“Your father’s love for you flows through Cody.” Marco inches upright, two hands grasping the curve of his cane to support the weight of his timeworn body. “It’s everything you know. It’s part of who you are. But it is time for understanding, now.” He taps the cane on the floor for emphasis. “It is time to listen to Cody.”
“But that’s impossible.” This is a place I am not ready to visit, an indulgence I’m unwilling to grant to this stranger who knows too much.
This stranger who has shown more interest in us than any other human has, in a very long time.
Marco removes his glasses. He stares at me with wide eyes. “We cannot see love with our eyes, Allison. But does that mean it does not exist? That it is impossible?”
I shake my head, my throat dry.
You emit a whining, yearning bark and swat a beefy paw at me, batting it against my leg. An invitation. The eagerness of puppyhood glimmers behind your old-dog eyes.
“I’ll be waiting.” Marco looks at you, laying loyal at my side. “Whenever you’re ready to listen.”
Marco turns and shuffles toward the back of the store. Together, we watch him stroll down an aisle that seems to lengthen with each labored step, his form shrinking until he vanishes into the stacks of pet supplies.
“Come on, old friend,” I say. You push forward off your hind legs. Your limbs quiver and bow, failing as gravity grasps with a cruel hand. I bend next to you; I feel your hot breath on my cheek and smell the acrid scent of illness rising from within you. You pant rhythmically; your soft brown eyes imploring my assistance in an embarrassed silence.
“It’s ok, buddy.” I crouch down and wrap my arms around your middle. Gently, I pull you upright. Your front legs flail beneath you as you scramble to regain your footing. “I have you. I won’t let you fall.” Your tail twitches in thanks.
We haven’t much time. Words alone will not heal you. Whether it’s medicine or magic or some impossible miracle cure, I need to keep searching for an answer not to be found in a small-town pet shop. Time was a steep price for this fool’s errand.
I tug your leash in the direction of the exit. “Come on, Cody. We’ve got to keep trying.” You stop, four paws planted to the linoleum. Your legs are rigid, feet dug in firmly. Your tail extends in perfect parallel to the floor. Like a chiseled marble statue, you stand immobile, unmalleable, and defiant.
“Come on, boy.” I pull again, more emphatically. You whine and sniff the air in the direction of Marco’s departure. I squat down and lay my head on yours. “We’re going to find someone who can help you.” Your ears pull pack and your nose twitches.
I stand. You sit.
You bark with a resolve I haven’t heard in a long time, with the same determination you showed on a day long ago, when you’d found a burrow of baby bunnies in our yard. You stood over them, rooted and protecting them, taking kicks from Mother’s landscaper as he tried to push you away. He’s trying to tell us something! I’d shouted.
Those bunnies lived because I listened to you. And because you didn’t give up on them.
Are you trying to tell me something now?
I shake my head. That old man’s gotten to me. If I’m not careful, I’ll start speaking in riddles, too.
“I must be losing my mind. Time to go.”
Desperation is the enemy of logic, but this shop, this old man – they’ve been anything but logical. And despite the exasperating poetic conversations and odd platitudes harnessing us since we entered the store, I know we’re just about out of options.
We’ve come this far. Might as well see it through – whatever it is.
“Okay, Cody,” I say, once again helping you to stand. “Let’s go find Mr. Marco. You lead the way.”
As we work our way down the aisle in the direction of Marco, a stray red rubber ball falls from a crowded shelf, bounces, and rolls to a stop in front of us – as if the store is beckoning you to play. You push at it with your nose.
“Want this?” I ask.
You lick your chops in affirmation – in anticipation? I shake my head and retrieve the toy. We continue toward a narrow hallway at the back of the shop. Worn brown paneling buckles toward us; the walls push further inward with each step we take. My shoulder scrapes the warping wood as we reach a door at the end.
You stand stoic, watching me. “Ready?” I ask you. But for what, I’m not sure.
I crouch down until we are at eye level. I extend a hand to you, open-palmed. You take hesitant steps forward, just as you did the day we brought you home and you first walked into our kitchen, overwhelmed by the cacophony of foreign smells and sights. You lick my wrist, the warm flesh of your pink tongue easing the drumbeat of my pulse.
Woof. Your tail wags side to side, increasing its rhythmic tempo.
The door creaks open, releasing a burst of frigid air from within. I’m met with a chill I’ve never felt before as Marco waves us inside a small, windowless room the size of a storage closet. Except for two metal folding chairs, the room is empty. A lone lightbulb hangs from the ceiling, its pull-string sways gently above us. Marco shuffles toward me and places a metal dog whistle in my hand. Another of Marco’s marvelous pet supplies. My palm tingles; it’s as cold as ice.
“Please, sit.” He gestures toward a chair. As I wonder what we’re doing in this odd little room, and why I decided to stay, I obey.
He takes your leash and pets your head. Together you take a few steps toward the wall opposite me; your tail is raised, your gait peppier than I’ve seen in years. He settles you into a down position. Your descent is slow but easy. Paws forward, head erect, you stare at me, eyes wide. As you pant, you look like you’re smiling.
Marco shuffles toward the empty seat. He leans on his cane for support as he lowers himself.
“When you are ready, blow into the whistle.”
I nod at the old man and cough to stifle the laugh that bubbles in my throat. Perhaps it’s the solemnity with which Marco handed me the dog whistle, or simply the tickle of nerves in my belly, desperate for release. Either way, I feel a full-on belly laugh threatening – an urge as strong and inappropriate as a scream on a cross-country flight.
That is, until I look at you.
You lay your head down on your paws, nose twitching, tail thumping. Waiting, like you used to wait next to your supper dish, back in the days when dinner was more than just a necessity for you, it was an event.
I take a deep breath as I raise the whistle to my lips. I blow out, hard. A tinny screeching pierces my eardrums. I grab for my ears and drop the whistle. It clatters to the floor and transforms from silver to a brilliant white; bright light bursts from within it. The room dissolves around us – walls, ceiling, and floor morphing until they’re indistinguishable. I squeeze my eyes against the light as I fall. An icy tingling enshrouds me; it hurts as it soothes.
Voices vibrate above, below, and around me. I crack open my eyelids and hold my hands up, seeing only a faint outline of myself, like a child’s chalk drawing before it is brushed away by time. I am suspended in space, in non-space. I feel your presence. I sense Marco is near.
And then I see you. You’re like a hearth ember floating through the mist, feather-light, down, down, down. We hover side by side and land together in a cloud that’s as soft as your angel fur.
A voice. Cody?
Your words burst in a staccato outpouring of discovery. Your speech sets fire to logic.
“Allison! Why are you lying down?” You nudge me with your nose, slipping your head beneath my arm. “Time to get up! It’s time to play!” Your voice is gravelly, like that of an old man – poignantly misaligned with the vibrant, wiggling dog nuzzling into me.
I pause, not quite knowing how to engage in an impossible conversation. With my dog.
You tug my sleeve so hard I almost fall over. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen you this animated. Your nose is cold; it tickles my skin. “Okay, Cody. I’d love to play.”
It really is him. The puppy of my youth.
“Allison? Do you have that ball?”
It was an invitation.
“Yippie!” You leap straight up, pitching forward into a somersault. “Lemme have it. Lemme have it!”
I reach out and catch you; you’re light as air in my arms. I stroke your head; your tail beats against my thighs. Your panting intensifies. “Take it easy, Codybear. That was quite a flip.” I feel your chest tense as you breathe in. “How are you feeling?”
You pause. All your life, you’ve been asked what you need. Dinner? A walk? But never how you feel.
“Allison, I feel … funny. But not ha-ha funny like when you laugh. I like it when you laugh, Allison.”
Sometimes it’s the wonder of the little things we do, the things we don’t notice ourselves, that makes all the difference. Like the way my father fluffed out the morning paper while he had his coffee, insisting that the window stay open just a crack, so he could feel the new day. Or the way he’d chuckle as he read me the Sunday Funny Pages.
For all these years, you’ve watched my every move, heard every sound, perhaps memorized every gesture. Just as I did with my Dad.
“Allison, when can we play? I want to play. It’s all white in here – like snow! Let’s run!”
You wriggle in my arms and stop, wincing. I feel your low whine quaver against me.
I stroke your back to calm you. “Remember our first winter? We had so much fun.”
“You called me your little snow dog.”
I smile. “Remember I brought you a top hat, a scarf, and even a carrot for a nose?”
“I ate the carrot. It was crunchy.”
“That was a long time ago, Cody.”
You pause, contemplating. “Why don’t I run in the snow anymore, Allison?” You look up at me with sad eyes. “I don’t really run at all, do I?”
“It’s been hard for you, my friend.” I recall your tentative, hobbling steps; your nighttime restlessness. “It hurts my heart to see you in pain.”
“You hurt, Allison? Maybe you should ask Mr. Marco for a Band-Aid. I promise not to pull it off you.”
I stroke your ears and roll the tips between my fingers like I used to when you were a puppy. It was our special signal of quiet time. And now, my time to listen.
“There’s a lot we need to talk about, Cody.”
“It’s about your shoe, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I know it was your favorite. But you weren’t home, and it smelled like you. Chewing it made me feel much better.”
I exhale slowly to ease the flow of words I’d rather not speak. “Cody, we’re here now. Wherever here is. And I’ve seen you do things I’d never have thought possible.” I lower my head and look away from you, into the void. “It’s like somehow you’ve become young again.”
“Young, Allison? But I’m an old dog now.” You giggle. A dog’s giggle. “You’re silly, Allison. How can an old dog be young?”
“I don’t really know.” Silence. You lean into me. Your warmth exudes home.
Marco appears beside me, materializing through the light. His voice is a whisper, a cool, circling breeze.
“Cody, how would you like to go to a place where the sun will always shine upon you? Where you can run and frolic across endless fields, and never tire.” He strokes your head. “I can bring you to this place.”
I bite my lip and turn away, closing my eyes to squeeze away the tears before you see them fall. You deserve this life – the effortless existence I always hoped my father had found.
“Allison! That sound like fun! Like old times. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
I remember the sound of your nails tap-tap-tapping on the hardwood of my dining room, how you held your blue leash between your teeth, letting it hang down as you waited for me to grasp the end. The whole-body wiggle of joy I never thought I’d see again.
“Cody.” I sigh. “I can’t come with you.”
Your tail droops. You whimper. I’m reminded of that first night when my home became yours, the sad cries subsiding only when I invited you to snuggle in the warmth of my bed. Until that day, I never knew puppies cried.
“Allison, I don’t want to go without you. Mr. Marco can keep his sunshine and his fields.”
I shake my head and try to resist the knot twisting in my throat. The ice engulfing us does little to dull the pain. I’m watching. I’m listening. And you’ve been holding on, so hard, for me. As I know my father tried to, for as long as he could.
How difficult must it have been for my dad to lift a hammer and drive each nail into your doghouse? The weight of a paintbrush like an anvil with his every brushstroke, knowing that this would be his final creation? Yet each day, we worked together until the evening sky turned pink and the cicadas serenaded us; a small, active puppy curled up at our feet to snooze in the grass. Dad and I speculated on the many adventures you and I would have together. Halloweens spent in matching human and canine superhero costumes. The excitement of Christmas morning – you, tearing through a pile of presents seeking a bone wrapped up just for you, complete with a bow. Future memories my father designed but would never build. The foundation of my life lived without him.
I look to Marco. We lock eyes. In this moment, I see. I hear. I understand. The past, present, and future converge in Marco’s gaze, and I realize that we’re standing at the foot of a bridge to a place I stopped believing in a long time ago. I grasp the peace that has eluded me for years; it’s woven like silk through my fingers as I reach out and run my hands through your fur.
And I hear my words echo before they leave my mouth.
“Cody. My dad will be there, waiting for you.”
Your ears perk up, your head tilts slightly to the right with interest. My Dad. One of your favorite phrases. And after all these years, his imprint remains strong. He’s still one of the people you cherish the most.
“Do you remember when you were a puppy, my Dad used to nap with you, outside in the sun?” I recall the image of you – wiggling as you dropped a ball at my father’s feet, nuzzling his hand, determined to play. But my dad’s hand lay limp and useless beside him. He had only the strength to brush his fingertips down your side.
“How far is this place? I’m tired, Allison. What if I fall down?”
“I will never let you fall.”
I lean down and lay my head atop yours, wrapping my arms around you. I inhale the sweetness of you – fresh snow and summertime and falling leaves and newly-cut grass – and allow the tears to wash over the precipice of my grief and into your soft fur.
“Cody, it’s okay for you to go.” I breathe in, deep staccato. For your heart to flourish, I know that mine must break. “Run free, my friend. Goodbye.”
Goodbye. A word that stops time. I wasn’t ready then. I’m not ready now. I clutch you tighter, willing the light to linger as I absorb the last vestiges of your warmth. You turn, nose pressed to my eyelids, sniffing out my sadness. A final kiss.
I’m sprawled on the floor of the dimly lit storage room. Ice crystals cling to my drenched hair and clothing. My face has lost all feeling.
You are gone.
Marco shuffles over and takes your leash from his back pocket.
“Time is finite.” Marco’s whisper is soft as cashmere. “But for just a moment, I can offer you a glimpse.
“A glimpse?” I sit up, holding my head.
Marco touches my wrist, bringing my hands down to my lap. He places your worn Nylon collar in my hands and retrieves the dog whistle from his pocket. He blows into it gently, silently, producing a small cloud. In the mist, I behold an emerald field, an azure cloudless sky and you, Cody – strong in the innocent determination of your puppyhood. You bound effortlessly, intently, despite oversized paws that threaten to trip you in a roly-poly bliss. You run free, determined to catch the rubber ball that sails like a red comet through the pristine sky.
The red rubber ball tossed effortlessly by my father.
I trudge toward the exit of Marco’s Marvelous Pets. Wiping my cheeks with the back of my hand, I wonder what the world will look like when I walk through those doors. If time will stop, if the clocks will keep ticking. If everything will be different. Or if it will all be the same, and it’s just me who will be different. Will others know what I’ve seen? What I’ve done? Will they even care?
“Wait, please,” Marco says, shuffling toward the puppy den. He lifts a fluffy brown dog and offers me the squirming bundle. “This puppy needs a home.”
He places her into my arms. Small paws bat at my long, loose hair as she wriggles in my embrace.
I observe her wide eyes staring at me, the way her brows lift in the wonder of a new human. I snuggle her close.
She will never be you, Cody.
But she needs a home. And I need a friend.
“How much does she cost?”
“What is the price of faith?” Marco smiles and turns from me, moving once again toward the back of the store.
“Faith,” I say. The puppy yaps in reply. “It’s got a nice ring to it.”