It was that feeling of being watched – that shivery sensation that makes your heart cough and the fine hairs on the back of your neck rise to attention – which caused me to first spot the dog peering through the hole left by the missing board in the fence. I'd often thought about repairing the fence, something that would have been taken care of the day after The Incident had Paul been here to handle it, but somehow I'd never quite gotten around to it. I try to pretend that my neglect is because I'm too busy, but truth is a much more critical judge.
I chuckled mirthlessly. The Incident. Initial caps. That how I think of it now, almost a year later. Still sugarcoating it, refusing to use the harsher words that defy my need to soften reality and make it more palatable, less frightening, seemingly less permanent. As a freelance writer, I knew the power of words, yet I had never been afraid of them, had never hesitated to call a spade a spade, until now.
Was it really almost a year ago? That stupid cliché about time flying certainly seemed appropriate, but for me, time hadn't flown. It had crawled, a slow agonizing progression across a dry arid desert with no oasis in sight. Each day bled mindlessly into the next, one never ending Sunmontueswednesthursfrisaturday. The only divergence from that course would be when old friends, so scarce these days, would take pity on me and pry me from the confines of this too-large-for-one-person house, forcing me to attend a dinner or a movie or to go shopping.
Then there were those times, like now, when I was reminded I hadn't yet repaired the fence.
I had been in the kitchen, lifting a freshly baked apple pie from the oven when I'd heard the odd noise from the backyard. I'd looked out the window … the grille of the riding mower had been resting against the fence, one of the rotting boards split and laying across the hood. Paul had been slumped over the wheel, motionless. I'd dropped the pie, grabbed my cell phone and ran outside, but it was already too late. The words “massive heart attack” had echoed in my ears long after the emergency room doctor had squeezed my hand, long after the minister and the funeral director had been called, long after my son and his wife had driven me home and tucked me into bed in their guest room, refusing to leave me alone that night.
I really had meant to fix the board. But each time I remembered it, each time I thought to add it to my to-do list, I revisited that day, and the pain which had receded to a dull constant ache would flare anew, bringing with it a fresh flood of tears and hours of I miss you's and I love you's and I wish you were here's and It's so hard without you's whispered to the familiar gentle ghost which resided just beyond my right shoulder.
I could hear that specter teasing me now as I reached for my glass of wine, my hand shaking so that the liquid sloshed out over my fingers. It's just a dog, Dee. I thought you liked dogs. I glanced across the yard again and forced a deep breath, my posture relaxing. The dog hadn't moved and I realized that he was too large to fit through the hole. But he could smell the chicken I'd put on the grill and was no doubt salivating. His ice blue, otherworldly eyes followed my movements as I flipped the meat and his ears perked when he heard the sizzle of the marinade hitting the flame. He suddenly shifted and sat, prepared to keep a watchful vigil, his face hopeful and still squeezed between the boards of the fence.
I wondered if he was a stray.
The house on the other side of the fence had been abandoned during the financial crisis of 2009 and had remained unoccupied ever since. A landscaper came once a week to care for the lawn, and someone checked the house periodically during the winter months to make certain everything was all right, but the home remained empty. I'd never seen the landscaper with a dog and no one else on the street had a pet quite that large. From where I stood, I couldn't see if he had a collar, but I decided against getting any closer. Just because he wasn't growling and snapping didn't mean he would be friendly if approached by a stranger.
I'd never had a fondness for large breeds, although my opinion had been formed by one lone experience with a Rottweiler named Bear who had fancied himself a lapdog and no amount of shoving or cajoling could convince him otherwise. Paul and I had toyed with the idea of getting a pet many times over the years, but had never agreed on feline as opposed to canine. Paul was a cat lover, something I most definitely was not. But I had campaigned for small dogs, more cat-like dogs, unobtrusive dogs which could be stuffed in a handbag or forced to wear a sweater on chilly mornings. Paul had not conceded, arguing that small dogs would yip and yap and get underfoot, since they weren't smart enough to know better, like cats.
It was an friendly disagreement that was never reconciled.
My own curiosity piqued, I determined that, if this dog and I were going to meet, he was going to come to me. On a whim, I decided to let the chicken do the talking for me. Retrieving a bowl from the house, I placed one of the chicken breasts I'd grilled in it and set it just off the patio in the grass. Then I took the other chicken breast over to the patio table with my glass of wine and sat down to eat … and wait.
I pretended to ignore him as I dined, all the while keeping him just in my peripheral vision, so I knew the moment he made his decision and retreated from his observation post. Several long minutes passed and I could hear him rustling in the bushes along the fence as he searched for a way into my yard. I smiled to myself and continued eating. By the shaking of the shrubbery which spilled over the top of the fence, he was headed in the right direction. It was only a few minutes later when I saw his head poke around the end of the fence by the street.
He hesitated, then skirted the perimeter of the yard, pressing himself close to the inside of the fence until he drew even with the bowl. I could now see he was a beautiful mixed breed: part boxer, part something I couldn't identify. His coat was a creamy white except for some dark gray on his chest and the inside of his hind legs, and he was thin but not starving, his ribs just barely visible. He was collarless, and he watched me pretending not to watch him for a long moment before raising his nose and sniffing the air. Satisfied with his exploration, he lowered his head to the ground and snarfled his way to the bowl, his eyes periodically lifting to fix on me, as if to reassure himself that everything was as it should be.
I remained seated, seemingly oblivious to his approach.
Reaching the bowl, he hesitated again, not skittish but cautious, perhaps a bit distrustful. My overactive imagination envisioned a myriad of tragic occurrences which could have led to this poor dog's arrival in my yard, and I was determined not to add to the list. I stayed silent and still, allowing him to assess the situation and come to his own conclusions.
You big softee.
I wordlessly shushed the ghost, my attention focused on my visitor. Either he concluded that he was safe, or hunger won out over better judgment, because seconds later his head was buried in the bowl and that chunk of meat was practically inhaled. When he finished, he licked his chops, then licked the bowl again, just to be sure he'd gotten every last bit. The bowl flipped and he sat down beside it, his head cocked in disappointment, as if waiting for something unexpected to happen. When it didn't, he rose and turned his attention to me. The ice had been broken and introductions needed to be made. He loped casually toward me. I merely dropped my hand to dangle over the side of the chair. He stopped and studied me a moment, then bowed his head and walked under my hand, allowing it to skim the top of his head and slide along his back.
A potent thank you. And in that moment, I knew I was lost.
He turned and retraced his steps under my hand a second, then a third time, after which he stopped and licked my fingers, then rested his chin on my knee. Those unsettling blue eyes looked into mine, and I swear I saw the wisdom of the ages reflected in them. This was a soul like mine – old, damaged, and alone. In him I could see love and loss. In him, I'd found a kindred spirit.
My hand slid along his side. There were a few burrs and a bit of mud. A bath was in order, and a trip to the vet and the pet store in the morning. I would, of course, advertise, but I knew without a doubt that no one would claim him. I spoke softly so as not to startle him, in a voice just loud enough for him and I and the specter to hear. “You can stay here tonight, once you're clean. And we'll see if we can find your owner tomorrow.” I scratched gently behind his ear. “Until then, you'll need a name, since I don't know yours. What shall I call you? How about Casper? You look like a Casper. What do you think of that?”
The dog merely sat and cocked his head again. If dogs could shrug their shoulders indifferently, I imagined he'd be doing it.
The specter, however, never answered.
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