Chester used to be a good boy. Good boy! Good boy, Chester! The pack spoke this. They were glad. Then biscuits– he could sit, he could turn around in a circle, shake with both paws, and because he had great paws he could even shake lightly. Shaking paws he could still do, but the turning, dancing and jumping had gone away– those were tricks for a younger dog. His hips hurt.
These days he slept under the elders sleep place, his big brown eyes gluing over. Fogginess meant that the world was pulling away; all important things had past already, the great days of strutting down the street gone. He could remember being so glad he’d strangle himself on the elders’ leash. Then no biscuits. The sun always looked beautiful on those days. Its rays would point to a place in the backyard where he’d buried a bone or ball. Once forgotten treasures, now found and loved again. Pretty, pretty days…
The delight those days offered vanished in the mushy mud of his old mind. Had he frolicked not so long ago? Tail wagging, tongue swinging, and the lead elder’s face inches from his, blushing with gladness. Was that even the same dog? It didn’t seem so. That young dog wanted the entire world under his paws, and this old dog, here and now, wanted only to eat, sleep and make waste in crisp, cold grass. This old dog wanted good thoughts, because many were not.
One dayChesterwould wake up in a new place– he understood, although there was one thing he fretted leaving. Outside of his napping and trips outside to eat, he never roamed the house much, but he did check the elder’s new puppy. The little one slept in a cage. It was a strange, soft looking dog. It slept even more thanChesterand smelled like milk even though the bitch elder clearly did not smell of milk-making. The little one must have made its own milk. Odd, butChesterstill loved to watch it sleep. ToChester, it was pretty. And when it didn’t yelp, its sweet breath calmed his heart, made him forget aching muscles and stinging bones.
Chesterenjoyed standing guard at the cage. The elders didn’t understand what crawled in the shadows, butChesterknew. He could smell the dry blood on their claws and hear their growling… This happened more and more, so he stood guard every day.
One day though, when the elders came into the nursery, the bitch elder jumped. She did not bark. They never did. The elders were strange like this new puppy. Instead of barking the bitch elder swattedChesteruntil he quit the room. It didn’t hurt, but the idea did. The elders thought he was there to eat the puppy. They didn’t understand. Like when he dug up a rose bush and the lead elder beat his behind with it. The lead elder had never hit him before. Later, he sat on the porch with the shredded bush in his long, scary paw, and looked confused, sad.
Chesternever understood the elders either—did they not understand the roses masked his scent? His scent had to be there to let bitches know his home and other leads to stay back.
And to keep the shadow dogs away.
The shadow dogs came at night, for the weak, for the easy meals.Chesterhad dreams about them. Sticky red claws extending from the shadows. The claws would peel his fur away, snap his bones from the joints and then bury them in the backyard. The bad dreams sometimes gotChesterwalking in his sleep. On a bad night he wet the hallway. The warmth running through his fur, down his trembling old legs, was what finally woke him.
After his accident, the elders locked him in the garage for all the next day. They forgot him there. He held for too long and then made waste in the garage. He might have hidden the waste underground, but the ground was rock in the garage.Chester didn’t like hearing the word. Garage. The elders spoke this name often when they were upset with him.
They never came for him that day, although he heard them in the house watching the moving-wall that spoke.Chesterwas okay with this. He would have been bored under the sleeping place anyway, thinking of strange and scary things. The rock floor in here was bad, and he was lonely, but he could hear the elders in the house and it made things easier.
Until night fell.
There were shadow dogs in the garage that night. Dripping jaws parted wide in the black reaches under the workbench. The silver saliva wetted the floor in spots.Chestergrowled and squinted through his old eyes. The saliva turned to vines with razor barbs slicing through flesh. An unseen presence nipped atChester’s neck and he whipped around and snapped the air. Nothing.
The shadow dogs closed in, sucking air from the garage and panting gladly at his panic. They thought him small and incapable because of old age. His hackles lifted and he lurched back, ready to jump if he had to. He would battle them all and clean his wounds after. He was content to fight. Let the shadow dogs make their move in here with him. Better in here than in the house with the sleeping puppy and the elders.
A small shadow dog wiggled out of a crack in the wall. It had thin legs and a red mark on its belly. It might not have been a shadow dog, butChesterlost no time and took it in his jaws, chewed the little monster up and reveled in its bitter taste.
Then he vomited. Many times. His bile seemed endless and with every heaving, the pain worsened and the shadow dogs howled.Chesterwas hot and cold, and then went back to being hot again, then cold once more. At last, morning came, and the cloudy world of sickness lifted. He regained some strength and could stand again. The shadow dogs had tried to kill him from the inside and he had won. But he needed water. Lots. The elders opened the door and gasped at the mess–
Then there was the look. He remembered.
The look made him feel weaker.
Why did the elders look that way? He remembered being a puppy and the old dog Jake. The elders looked at Jake the same way after he laid waste all over the house. The elders took Jake away then, probably to the cold white place, andChesternever saw the old dog after that. Jake had seen the shadow dogs once too. Hadn’t he?Chesterknew he must have. Only old dogs with foggy eyes could see and feel the shadow dogs.
The elders kept looking, moving their heads from side to side. The look was odd, strange, bad. ToChester it was a dead look: he knew where they meant to send him. His heart pounded in his broad chest, love-hate thumps. All he wanted was to be a good boy– if he could hear them call him that one more time, going away wouldn’t be so bad. It would, but he could know he did right by the puppy.
The elders spoke. He listened for names he knew. He heard nothing but nonsense. Except for “Great Dane,” nothing sounded familiar. “Dangerous,” and “dementia,” and “unstable,” and then, over and over, the word “infant.” Wondering always droveChestercrazy. He knew those sounds meant something. They could be good or bad and at times, both.
He could only think to squirm through the small-door and get a drink from his bowl. Outside the sun had come up, but he could not see its glow over the houses. He went into the yard and practiced sitting and turning around, just in case his slowness was the reason behind the elders’ awful looks.
He had more bad dreams that night. He ran somewhere, to the end of a cold black tunnel, and when he got to the other side something fell on him and sent teeth into the soft part of his hind leg. He whipped around and tried to find the attacker but saw only red and he became dizzy and freezing.Chesterfelt his head slam to the ground and his jaws click together. He curled up and slowly let blood run from his hind leg until death, all the while he heard the shadow dogs lapping up his life from the ground with sharp tongues.
He jumped awake and found himself in the hallway, his leg soaked in urine. It was early morning, too dark to see, even worse with failing eyes. He yawned and looked from side to side, waiting for a trap. He saw one thing then. One really bad thing.
The big cage had been brought in from the garage and sat near the front door. The elders would put him inside and push him up a ramp into their moving house. From there they took him to the cold white place.
But he wouldn’t be coming back this time. The elders hated him like they had hated Jake. He knew. The shadow dogs would flood under the doors, up through the carpet, in through windows– did the elders not care? They must not know about the shadow dogs. The elders had lost all sense, gone slower than even he had! That could be the only reason.Chesterknew he was not a good boy anymore, but that didn’t change his job in the pack.
They were grown, so the elders could care for themselves, but what about the puppy? Just because its bitch had left, didn’t mean he should just leave it in that cage as fodder for the shadow dogs. How would the puppy defend itself? It never even seemed awake long enough to see an attacker.
Chestercouldn’t leave this as it was.
He stood up on the door and brought his paw down on the handle. Sometimes that worked. This time it did. The door popped open and he saw light from the hallway inside.Chestermoved through the emptiness and his muzzle struck the cage.
The puppy turned over and began grunting and sniffing.
One of the elders opened a door and he heard their feet on the floor.Chester’s ears perked up; his heart thumped. He looked to the hallway and thought about ducking out, real low with his tail in place. But the elders would put him in the dog cage if they caught him now. He went to the threshold and waited.
Another door closed and something snapped. The sound of running water in the walls. It was okay. One the elders made waste. The waste-room had a sound he recognized, not to mention a smell. He stepped back into the pink darkness of the puppy’s den.
Chesterwaited until he heard the elder’s sleeping place heave with the weight of a body. He stepped back carefully to the edge of the cage, stood on the end and lowered his muzzle inside. The puppy squirmed as he wrapped his jaws around its throat. If it wanted to cry out, his mouth had already trapped the little one’s sounds, thankfully enough, butChestercould not hold it long like this without hurting it.
He went through the small-door, careful not to bump the sides, and once outside, went across the yard and found a place far from the rosebushes, so not to upset the lead elder.
The puppy squirmed around in the dirt, dizzy from the trip. The little dog was ugly, there was no doubt, butChesterloved it just the same. He loved guarding the puppy. It broke his heart to leave it behind like this.
Chesterquickly dug a hole twice the size of the puppy and then gently nosed its body inside. The puppy dropped in and started to thrash and howl, red blooming in its mushy face.Chesterkicked dirt over the hole, each kick lowering the puppy’s calls.
The shadow dogs would never find the puppy here– they would never think to look somewhere this close. After the shadow dogs had been killed, his elders could track the puppy’s scent and rescue it. Then they would all be safe.
Chesterchecked the hole with a few sniffs and made sure it was filled completely. No sound came from below. Good, the little one knows not to cry out anymore. Crying would bring the shadow dogs for sure. The puppy will sleep as it always does and wait for a safer day to live and grow and frolic. It makes its own milk without a bitch, so it will never thirst or starve in its new den.
The wind through the trees reminded him of the puppy’s milky breathing and made Chestersad. There wasn’t any other way. He had to leave now. He was a good boy.
He strode near the house and gazed through the invisible door to the elders sleeping place. They were getting up for the day– he would not go to the cold white place, to where other dogs disappeared. Love the elders he may, but he would not die in a place like that.
The bitch elder stretched and yawned and the lead elder hunched over. They were strong elders and would battle the shadow dogs better than him.Chester’s time with them was over. He was leaving the pack.
Chesterwent to the other side of the house and lifted his leg on the wall. Then he went behind a bush and squeezed through an old hole that the elders had never found. His paws hit the sidewalk at a quick trot and he found that his muscles did not ache this morning. He’d never seen the sun come up from out here, in this place. Everything fled as day approached. Brave strokes of light came over the road ahead and cut through every shadow in the neighborhood.
It was pretty.
Copyright © 2013, Benjamin Kane Ethridge