So I’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even some of the newbies have started looking at me funny.
I’m used to it, though.
I long ago got written off as one of the crazies, so far as the regulars are concerned. Every park has a couple—the folks who show up and stand around without a dog. You get your share of wary glances that way. Cold shoulders, too. Dogs that attempt to say “hi” get whistled back before you lay what must assuredly be a filthy, covetous hand on them.
Me, I’m tolerated because I scoop the poop. (If there’s one thing dog owners hate, it’s the clean-up). So long as I make the occasional circuit, I avoid drawing the ire of the dog park mafia (also known as that clutch of busybodies who fancy themselves the place’s executive steering committee). Every park’s got its own version of them, too.
“Which one’s yours?”
That from an obvious newbie, who’s sidled up. Some of the regulars try a wave-off, but she doesn’t notice.
“Oh, I’m just maintenance,” I assure her, with a waggle of my industrial-grade scoop.
Which isn’t actually true. I do have a dog in the park.
She can’t see him, though.
Neither can you.
Hank’s a shepherd mix. Maybe seventy, seventy-five pounds. Sleek, pale coat and gorgeous green eyes. A big softie with a fondness for belly rubs and sloppy kisses. I grew up knee-deep in dogs of all sorts, and he’s by far the most loving I’ve ever come across.
Judging by how he carries himself, he was probably five or six when he died.
Yeah, my dog’s a ghost. I adore him anyhow.
Hank and I, we’ve been joined at the hip just shy of four years. Almost from the moment I hit town.
We met in this very dog park, in fact. I was living in one of those shoebox apartments right there–shade your eyes a bit and you can make out my old window. The locale probably tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my prospects (dim), my bank account (low), and my general level of cool (nonexistent) in those days.
It was August. One of those weeks when the mercury hovers around 85, even long after the sun’s set. I was trying to master the art of sleeping without air conditioning, and I wasn’t doing so well.
Then came the howling. Low and wistful. Heartsick.
I was the only one who heard. The only one who could hear it, I think.
Back then, I had more than a passing acquaintance with heartsick and wistful, you see. Heck, I probably could’ve spun a dirge of my own without too much prompting.
In short, I spoke the language.
Anyhow, I went to the window, leaned out, and glimpsed a pale form wandering the park. And, as though he felt the weight of my gaze, Hank came to an abrupt stop and stared up at me.
Just like that, he was my dog.
The newbie points out her own precious angel, a terrier of some sort. He’s got some game (if not much grace), but he’s no Hank. Still, I nod and smile and tell her how wonderful he seems. That’s the delicate etiquette of dog moms: Your dog is the best dog ever…and so’s mine.
Meanwhile, Hank has started a rumpus.
Except for me, he goes unseen and untouched by the world. But animals can still sense him somehow. So, as he drifts among them, dogs tense and huff and growl. Finally, the boldest of them, a pug, lets out a high-pitched squeal of a war-cry and charges.
The others fall in, and it’s on.
Hank loves being chased—loves any excuse to run—so this works out fine.
The esteemed members of the dog park mafia just gape, no doubt wondering what the heck’s gotten into their mutts. Because to them, to the newbie, to everybody but me, those dogs are chasing air.
By the time Hank’s done a full lap, the hunting party’s probably doubled in size. Hank’s opened up a bit of a lead, but nothing insurmountable. He knows when to slow a step or two so the pack doesn’t lose interest. How to get them falling all over themselves to be first for a nip.
Second time around, he lets the pug close the distance. Inch by inch, until its snout dips into reach. Those stubby legs pump for all they’re worth. So close. Sooooo damn close. It does a little leap, like it’s about to bring down a gazelle… and Hank abruptly swerves and passes right through the chain link fence that encircles the park.
Like smoke. Without so much as a whisper.
The pug faceplants. The other dogs scrabble to avoid it, and that causes a pile-up of its own. The hunting party makes a brief, furious protest at this flagrant violation of the rules. But Hank just waits them out across the fence, tail wagging and tongue lolling.
What can I say? He’s always been kind of a rascal.
When he finally does slip back through the fence, though, a sliver of ice pierces my heart. Because it’s a real struggle. Locking down the smoke or mist or vapor—or whatever it is—into the familiar shape of my dog takes just about everything he’s got. A minute or so later, he remains fuzzy. Extra ghost-y.
It’s not supposed to be like that.
But it has been for a while.
“Poor baby,” murmurs the newbie, who’s still at my elbow.
I blink at her, until I realize she means the pug, who’s just taken another tumble.
I’m no mystic. My only brush with the unnatural has been my dog, and believe me, I’m fine with that. So whatever insights I have are my own, pieced together through trial and error.
Here’s where we’re at:
Hank’s shedding his essence. Each day, he’s a little less substantial. A little less there. And if he exerts himself, like that bit at the fence, then we’re talking Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change.
So the sun’s shining, the breeze is warm, and the sky’s so blue—so gorgeous—you’d swear some old master had taken a brush to it.
Oh, and my friend’s dying.
All over again.
Hank comes limping over—like an old dog; no, let’s be honest, like a very old dog—and curls up at my feet. Wisps of smoke (or vapor or mist) drift about him. Drift from him. In a second, they’ll fall away, carried off by whatever wind steals the dead.
If he doesn’t push his luck, he’ll recover some. I think he will, anyhow. He has so far. Not all the way, though; never fully. You don’t need to be a mystic to realize that. We’ve cleared the top of the bell curve, it seems, and it’s a slope from here on out.
The newbie’s chattering to me about something. I’m nodding along but not at all listening. Instead, I’m weighing things in my head. I had a plan when we left home this morning. A good one, I thought. One that made sense.
Only now I’m reconsidering.
“Don’t you think?” asks the newbie.
That’s the trouble, I nearly tell her. I think way too much.
Hank helps with that.
The thinking, I mean. The overthinking.
He’s got a bit of a nose for rumination. I start to fret, he goes and gets into trouble. The good kind. The kind that tends to have me flat-out laughing before I’m done untangling it. (Ask me about “Hank and the Great Granny Brunch—with the Squirrel in the Open Air Café” sometime.)
That’s what we’ve been doing since I realized what was happening.
Getting into trouble. The good kind.
We have a list, you see. Hank’s favorite places. My own. Plus, everywhere we hadn’t gotten around to. And we’ve been working our way through it, top to bottom.
We’ve raced the waves on a long, beautiful stretch of beach. We’ve hiked miles of canyons and mountains and gulches. We’ve gone deep into the forest and high into the hills. Out into the desert. Back through towns and cities and lonely stretches of highway.
Now we’re here. Where it all started.
Not because the list is done. Not because it’s anywhere near done. But time has grown short, and it just seems right to circle around to the beginning.
To let Hank run. To let him run as fast as he can, as long as he can.
We’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even the other dogs have started looking at me funny. Because, I think, they can scent what’s coming.
They can tell I’m about to turn tail.
If I whistle, Hank will follow.
Together we’ll limp out the gate and live to fight another day. Well, I’ll live. Hank will… Hank will keep going the way he has. For a bit longer. All I have to do is take him home and keep him out of trouble.
That’s my new plan. My better plan. See, I can talk a big game about running and going out in a blaze of glory and all that, but when it’s actually time to follow through…
I’m a coward.
I want my friend. Just a little longer.
Just one more day, just one more moment.
So I start to turn, start to whistle.
That’s when I hear the first of the shouts.
Like I said, Hank goes unseen and untouched by this world.
Just so long as he keeps his distance, mind you.
Ever had the feeling somebody’s tip-toed over your grave? That’s what Hank stirs when he passes through a warm body: Gooseflesh that won’t quit and a shiver that runs head to toe. I don’t let him do it to folks, as a rule. Even before it got to be difficult, it was rude and scary.
So of course he’s gone and done it now.
With the dog park mafia.
He cuts right through their midst, setting them jumping and shouting. Chairs get tipped, coffee goes flying. It’s pandemonium, it’s bedlam, it’s pure beautiful chaos.
And Hank loves every second.
He comes flying past and gives me a look.
No more fear. Now we run.
“Hold this,” I tell the newbie, and hand her my scoop.
No way can I keep pace with him. I don’t even try. It’s enough I’m in this, I figure. That I’ve cast aside caution and common sense.
I throw out a hand, and the thick smoke coming off him curls about my fingers. It’s cool and dry. Then it’s lost on the wind. I might be laughing. Hard to tell, since the baying of dogs drowns out all the other sounds. Of course Hank wasn’t going to let them sit idle, not during his last run.
His last run. Oh Christ, I let that thought loose, and it burns, stings, chokes me.
Only for a second, though. Once Hank realizes I’ve joined the rumpus, he drops back and circles me happily. Jumping, nipping at my heels, nudging me to go a bit faster, if you please. I lead him in leaps and spins with a nod here, a gesture there. Even when we’re not serving up acrobatics, my arms are in motion, my hands slicing the air. I can only imagine how this looks to the mafia, to the newbie, to the whole damn world.
I don’t care. Not a bit.
We round the park’s borders once, twice, nearly a third time.
Smoke’s thicker now. I can look at Hank and see dirt and patchy grass right through him. He’s slowing. White fur threaded with strands of oily, awful black. I want to cry out, but I haven’t the breath.
This is happening. This is happening now.
A rush of air. Like there’s a sudden vacuum, like it’s being filled in. No sound, though. No hiss, no roar. Maybe just a whimper—my own. The smoke sweeps across me, searing my eyes. When it’s gone, when there’s nothing but a few wisps, I can see once more.
There are dogs. Dogs of all shapes and sizes.
But no Hank.
I stumble then. An ugly fall, flailing, all hands and knees. Palms stinging and shirt stained. When I manage to lever myself partway up, I realize I’m weeping.
I’m sobbing too hard to make much sense out of anything. But I can hear people circling. Wary, faux-concerned, whispery voices. Call an ambulance. The police, maybe. Somebody ought to do something. The sooner they do, the sooner things can get back to normal. The sooner everybody can forget this.
A cry—red, wet, and raw—rumbles in my chest.
It’ll find its way to my lips in a moment.
Before it does, a hand touches my shoulder.
To my surprise, I don’t flinch, don’t snarl, don’t swat it aside. Instead, I blink as I squint up at the shadow that’s fallen across me. It’s the newbie. She’s still got my scoop.
She draws a breath. Her lips part. She’s going to say something comforting… and utterly stupid. I know it. Something about how everybody slips and falls, about how everything’s going to be just fine. I’ll scream then. I will. And it will be ugly and awful and —
“I saw him,” she says, and lets the scoop drop away before lifting me gently into her arms. “I saw him, and he was beautiful.”
And the wind stirs. And something brushes my cheek.
A hint of smoke.
A faint, fleeting kiss.
One last time.
© 2020 by Brian Winfrey
Brian Winfrey has written everything from ad copy to magazine articles to fortune cookie messages. When he’s away from his keyboard, he’s likely to be found somewhere along I-40, in search of yet another roadside attraction. Otherwise, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two dogs, a ferocious cat, and far too many books.