The first thing I see when I open my eyes is the dusky rose-pink patina of my dog's nose.
This is what I wake up to almost every single day, and today is no different: first he gently paws my arms, his calloused footpads rough on my skin. When that fails to get me up, he heaves his seventy-five plus pounds up on my bed and lays down by my side. His front paws are on my pillow, his snout is in my face. He gently chuffs warm dog breath on my cheeks, licks his lips and swallows noisily. Then he oh-so-tentatively licks my lips. It is at this time that I sputter awake and start to stir. His whole body wriggles with joy, his tail thumping against my leg, and as soon as I start to rise, he licks my face in earnest.
"Stop it, Boomer," I laugh, and try to push him away. Happily he jumps down, tail still waving, long golden fur like streamers on a bicycle. He waits to make sure I have both feet on the floor before bounding into the hallway.
I yawn and try to stretch out my kinks. It seems like every morning I wake up with more creaky joints, more stiff muscles, more achy bones. All part of getting old, I guess.
I shuffle into the bathroom and splash some water on my face, using just my fingertips to scrub off crusty drool and eye boogers. The chill of the water makes me shiver; this is another thing that worsened with age: my tolerance of the cold.
With a groan, I check out the digital thermometer sitting in my bathroom window. Twelve degrees?! No doubt there's a wind chill, too. Just the thought of heading outside makes me linger. I think longingly of my bed, the blankets still probably warm and toasty...
As if reading my thoughts, Boomerang barks at the door.
"I swear you're part husky," I mutter under my breath as I stomp back to the bedroom, shove my legs and arms into thermal underwear, jeans, a sweater. Wool socks, boots, puffer coat, scarf, and hat with ear flaps complete the ensemble. I look like a bag lady but I'll still feel cold. Ah well, nothing to it but to do it, I tell myself. Just one of the lesser joys of dog ownership.
I clip the leash onto Boomer's collar and open the door. A blast of frigid wind makes us both recoil. It has snowed again during the night--brittle, icy flakes that fly before the wind, cutting into my face and eyes. With my right hand I pull my scarf up over my nose, and almost immediately the yarn is wet with condensation from my breath. The sky is sherbet pink and orange where the sun struggles to rise in the east.
Boomer seems to want to make the best of it, and he leads me down the driveway to the sidewalk. Our path is clear; the snow, though eddying into dunes against houses, cars, and bushes, failed to stick to the concrete. Cold and dry: an arctic desert.
We walk as far as the neighbor's house. For whatever reason, this mailbox is the spot Boomer likes to relieve himself every day. Why the neighbor's mailbox and not our own is a mystery to all but him.
While I wait for Boomer to finish peeing and sniffing around the post, the neighbor comes out to warm up his car. I lift a mittened hand and call a muffled "Good morning!" through my scarf. When he doesn't respond, I slowly lower my hand. It is as if he didn’t see me. Oh well, I shrug, maybe he hasn't had his coffee yet.
Boomer and I meander down the road, me shivering while he checks out every shrub, tree, and fence pole along the way. After a few minutes, we reach a ballpark where folks gather for soccer games in the summer.
This is where I usually feel safe letting the dog off his leash to run out some of his energy. But today there is not a hint of green grass or blue sky. The landscape is barren and the wind howls across the expanse.
"What do you think, Boom?" I ask. "Want to go for a run?"
He shifts his weight from paw to paw in anticipation, lets out a soft, eager bark. So I unclip him and he takes off, bolting across the wide open space, tongue flapping from his mouth. When he reaches the middle of the field, he spins up on his hind legs, again and again, barking joyfully, a dance of sheer joie de vivre. The sun finally drags itself above the bare trees on the horizon, and rays of morning light cascade over him, making his golden fur glow.
I squint my eyes; the scene is suddenly too bright. Fragmented. Something feels off, and I feel the first pangs of unease in my stomach.
"Boomer!" I hastily call. "Come here!"
Ever obedient, he turns and trots back, a doggy grin still plastered on his face. I watch him return to me, and that is when I realize what's happening that seems so wrong: he is not leaving any pawprints.
Not a single flake is flung up from his huge paws as he runs; not a single indent appears on the pristine surface of the field behind him.
With a gasp, I whirl around, looking to the ground. There are no paw prints or boot prints behind me or at my side. Not a single trace of evidence of our being there.
I jog forward a couple of steps--nothing. I can feel the snow, and hear the gritty crunch of ice beneath me...or can I? Am I imagining those things? Or maybe this is all a dream, and nothing is real.
Boomerang comes back, like he always does, and shoves his head beneath my mittened hand, looking for pats and a treat.
"Good boy," I absentmindedly murmur.
I peel off one mitten and pinch myself, hard. It hurts.
I shake my head, trying to understand, but it's as if my brain is as frozen as the world around us.
"We should go," I say. Though I feel like I’m in a trance, autopilot kicks in. I clip the leash back onto Boomer's collar, give him a treat, and we walk home.
As we approach the front door, I feel weighed down, like my boots are getting heavier, and my legs are tired. As much as I did not want to venture out into the cold, even more I dread going back inside. But Boomer pulls on the leash, eager for breakfast.
We spill inside, a tangle of leash and mittens and jacket and fur. But no puddles form on the foyer floor; we are as dry as if we never went out.
The house is warm. Too warm. I think maybe I should go lie down. It occurs to me that maybe if I go back to bed, I can start this day over and discover it really was a dream, or some bizarre hallucination. So I head down the hall, Boomer traipsing at my heels, and go into my room.
The first thing I see is Boomer, lying on his side on the floor, unmoving. I shriek in surprise. I feel Boomer's wet nose touch my palm, and hear his gentle huff of reassurance. But when I turn, he's not there. All that's left is his body, on the floor. He is dead.
Before I can even comprehend what just transpired, I see the lumpy figure of a person in my bed. Thin, silver hair on the pillow, and pale, wrinkled skin--I soon realize the person is me. But how is that possible? I am afraid. I don’t want to see any more. But I nevertheless take one step closer, and then another. I recognize my eyes, though they are closed. My face is relaxed, serene, even; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like that. Usually when I spot myself in a reflection, I’m scowling and tense. Carefully, I look to see if the me in bed is breathing, but I might as well be a mannequin.
Maybe it is a mannequin? The idea gives me a spurt of hope, and I quickly touch the other me’s hand, which is resting on my motionless stomach. I immediately pull back. It is cold.
Still wanting to prove to myself that this is real, I muster up some courage and force myself to reach out and cup my sleeping face in the palm of my hand. The cheek is soft, the flesh room temperature, and pliable like wax.
It is obvious then that I'm not sleeping. I'm dead, too.
I open my mouth in horror, unable to even scream.
Time stands still and I stand with it, unable to move, unable to process what has happened. Am I dreaming? Hallucinating? Am I really dead?
I try to remember last night. I don't remember feeling unwell. I don't remember any pain, or feeling of alarm. I also don't remember any long tunnels with a bright light at the end, visions or voices, or pearly gates or God's judgement.
If I am truly dead, then all of the things people said about death were wrong.
Because I'm still me! I cross my arms and hug myself. I can still feel. I woke up, I did all the things I normally do, I even went for a walk with Boomer…
Boomer. I look down at his body. With the life gone out of it, it's just a beautiful, tragic shell. I kneel down and thread my fingers into his silky fur. I want him to lift his head and lick the tears off my cheeks, to rest his snout on my thigh with a sigh of comfort and gaze up at me with those fathomless brown eyes. I want him back.
I weep for him...for us...for I don't know how long. What else is there to do when you're apparently dead?
Sniffling, I finally rise. Clearly, as a ghost I am not chained to this house. So I drift outside, aimless. I perk up a little when I see another neighbor coming up my walk. She is also bundled up against the cold, except she is wearing an elegant trench coat and silk scarf, with leather gloves. She is expertly made up--red lips, red cheeks, red hair. She bounces toward me with a smile.
Eagerly, I smile back. Normally I would hide from her, pretend I'm not home, her exuberance too much for me, but now I am overjoyed that she can see me.
But she marches right through me. I gasp in shock while she rings the doorbell and waits, tapping her foot.
She rings the bell again, and tries peeping through the front window. I shake my head. She always was a nosy busybody.
She pulls open the screen door and knocks loudly on the wood door. "Elaine," she calls. "I know you're in there. I won't keep you long; I've just come to collect my Tupperware."
Ah, yes. She was always bringing me cookies and muffins and banana bread, her generosity a thin veil for her curiosity.
"Elaine? Elaine!" she calls louder. This woman is making a spectacle, I think, and all for some Tupperware.
"Huh," she finally admits under her breath, "maybe she's out walking the dog. I'll be back later," she calls, and finally leaves.
When she's gone I feel deeply alone. And so cold! It's not fair that you can still feel cold when you're a ghost, I think, before trudging back into the house.
I pass the time by drifting from room to room, relishing the memories of a lifetime of moments. Like in the laundry room, where I once panicked because little puppy Boomer decided to explore behind the washing machine and I was afraid he was stuck back there forever. He did manage to back out though, scooching his little roly-poly body backwards, popping out with his tail and whiskers and floppy ears covered in cobwebs. I chuckle at the recollection.
In the kitchen, I remember how Boomer would stand on his hindlegs next to me, forepaws on the counter, looking on while I cooked at the stove. He would wait until I looked away for just a moment to steal a morsel off my plate. Once, I had just finished frying a couple of eggs and he licked the still-hot pan, causing him to jump back in shock and pain, pawing at his nose and tongue. He was back the next morning, though, undeterred.
In the living room, I remember lying on the couch with him as a puppy on my stomach. He would gaze up at me, eyes heavy but fighting sleep. I would gently place my hand over his eyes. "Go to sleep," I would whisper, and when I took my hand away, his eyes would be shut, his breathing even. Always obedient. Then we would doze together for hours.
The memories kept coming. Not all were about Boomer, but usually they did circle back to him. That's why his name was Boomerang--he always came back.
After some time--hours, days, who knows?--the neighbor returns as promised. She repeats the whole bit from before: ring the doorbell--once, twice. Knock and call out, louder and louder. This time, though, she doesn't leave. She sounds worried. She goes around back and starts looking into windows back there. I see her peering through the sliding glass door of the dining room, her hands cupped around her face, nose pressed against the glass. When she gets to the back bedroom window, I know she can see Boomer's body. He doesn’t stir no matter how loudly she bangs the window and hollers. He’s a dead giveaway. She calls 911.
Time is nothing to me now; everything happens around me and through me, blurry and horrible. Police cars arrive, lights spiraling, then fire trucks come, sirens wailing. Then the ambulance arrives, screaming into the thick of it, front and center. It leaves in silence, though, slowly and somberly, my body in a bag in the back.
I don't know what they do with Boomer's body.
By the time a new morning lightens the horizon once again, everyone is gone. The firemen have packed up their equipment and are long gone. The policemen have taken their stock of the scene, and left yellow tape in an X over the door. Even my neighbor, poor thing, has given her statement and gone home. She was shell-shocked, tears rolling down her cheeks, blackened by mascara. I heard what she told the officers: that I kept to myself, but my bark was worse than my bite.
"I believe she had a good heart, but she was lonely," she said. "I was always coming over to check on her." I forgave her and even silently thanked her for her nosiness. If it weren't for her, I'd literally be rotting in there.
But now I'm alone again. And I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Do I just stay here forever? I'm horror-stricken at the idea; I'd almost rather have the fires of hell than the personal hell of my memories.
My life was so meaningless.
That fact is hammered home when I see the article about my death on page three of the local newspaper. "Woman Dies of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Home." Oh my god. Even my death was too boring for the front page.
I wallow in despair. There was so much more I wanted to do in life. I think of all the things I should have done--travel, write a book, make new friends, reconnect with family. I wasn't done living.
Eventually, though, I stop remembering as much. The memories slip away. I cease wandering, and I become weighted in place. At the same time it feels as if I have less and less substance. As if I am...dissolving.
It is when I have almost forgotten that I exist that I first feel it: a gentle tug within me. It's like when you see someone you love, and your heart skips a beat. There’s a second tug, this time stronger. Then the pull grows more constant, more forceful, lifting me from the ground where I had settled. The force, whatever it is, doesn't hurt. It pulls me up and up, and I succumb to oblivion.
The first thing I see when I open my eyes is almost nothing. My eyelids feel weak and unused. There is a bright light shining down on me from up above. There is a man silhouetted before me; he greets me with an enormous grin. For a moment he only stares down at me in wonder, then excitedly proclaims, "It's a girl!"