They didn't let me be with Jack in the hospital, when he needed me the most, so I was all the more excited when he came home. I turned in circles, my tail spun like a propeller. I could hardly coordinate myself, I was so happy. But I managed to run to him, slipping on the polished wood floor. He was sitting in a chair that looked like a bicycle, and I put my front paws in his lap.
His father tried to shoo me away. "Max, get down, boy", but Jack held me so tight I didn't go. He needed me. I recognized his smell the second the door opened, but he wasn't right. There was another smell, a dark, rank smell, an awful smell that made me think of rotting meat.
It didn't come from his body, it came from his thoughts. Sad thoughts, angry thoughts, hopeless thoughts. Guilty thoughts. I saw bits of memories, flashes of noise, of violence, of blood, but he would not let himself see them fully.
I walked next to him as his father pushed his chair into the living room. Then he and his mother left Jack there. I heard their voices in the kitchen, but I could not make out what they were saying. I only heard the tone. It was angry, but not at each other. They were angry at Jack.
I stayed with him, by his side. Jack was angry too, even angry at himself. He did not reach down to pet me, but knowing I was there made his bad smell less sharp, less rancid. It still almost drowned out the smell I had known of him all my life.
The only sounds came from Jack. Soft, sounds of his voice but not his real voice, and there were no words. With them a wave of desperation filled the room, covered every other smell. I buried my nose in my paws, but it was no use. There was no escaping it, not for Jack, and not for me.
The night when Jack didn't come home, almost a moon ago, I knew that something was wrong. That night the bell on the wall rang, the one that they talked into, that I could hear faint voices come from, voices that had no smell, like the ones from the TV.
His mother listened to the voice, then screamed. She buried her face and her hands and cried out in pain. Jack's father came to her, held her, and I could smell their grief. They rushed out of the house leaving me all alone, knowing that something very bad had happened.
I wondered when Jack would come home.
Now I stood in front of him, looking up at him. He needed me. I wanted to help him. He looked down at me. I had only seen his eyes like that once before, but even that was nothing like now. Water ran out of them and down his face. I knew that water would taste of salt and bitterness and hurt.
He reached a hand to my head, and his smell changed when he touched me. It didn't turn into the good smell, but it softened. I nuzzled his lap.
He wrapped his hands around my head, and his smell got better. I stood on my paws on the empty front of the seat, where I used to be able to stand on his legs. He remembered me standing on his thighs, licking his face. But I couldn't reach his face now, I couldn't lick his wet cheeks. His legs weren't there any more.
He saw that too, and his smell changed back again. That awful smell. His eyes got wetter.
I heard the sound from the kitchen that meant Jack was going to give me food, that he would be standing there, smiling, holding my food and setting it down. But Jack wasn't smiling and he wasn't standing. I wanted to stay with him, but my belly was telling me to eat. I stepped down and looked at Jack. He didn't move. I took a step toward the kitchen and looked back again. He didn't stand.
In the kitchen, Jack's father looked at me, then at the bowl of food on the floor. He was not smiling. I couldn't eat, the smell was all wrong. I laid back down next to Jack's chair.
My bed next to Jack's was my favorite place in the whole world. It smelled of me and of Jack and of all the years. Jack looked so much smaller in his father's arms when his father carried him up the stairs. The room was filling with Jack's smell again, his good smell and his bad smell. Both were his smell now, and it felt like home again.
Jack had horrible dreams. I could see them, I could smell what Jack smelled even if he didn't know he was smelling it. They were a jumble of pictures, awful pictures, awful smells.
I tried to dream nice things to him. Like when he would throw the Frisbee to me and laugh, or when he would come home and we'd wrestle in the back yard. I tried to dream the girl to him, the girl he dreamt about before he went away. Those were the happiest dreams he ever had.
But each dream I gave him made more bad dreams, smelling of loss and regret. The last one hurt him so badly that I decided I would never, ever dream her to him again.
When Jack was little, he sat on the floor and played with me. Sometimes he pulled my ear or poked me, but I didn't mind. He smelled so good then, and I knew we were best friends. I grew fast, until I was almost as big as he was, but he grew too, more slowly.
He kept growing until he was even bigger than his father. He wasn't always happy, but most of the time he was. He had more worries, more sadness, but they never lasted. Most days, he left when the sun was low and came back when it was low again, usually in a different mood than when he left. Sometimes happier, sometimes less happy.
A lot happened while he was gone, his dreams told me. He went to a big building and sat in neat rows with others his age, listening to an adult. He read books, he wrote things. He played with his friends, or got in a fight sometimes.
He played after, a game where other boys his age chased a small ball after another boy hit it with a long stick. The boys in this game all wore the same skins, the ones that went outside their real skin, and they would have another outside skin on one hand that made their hands very big.
I could see in Jack's dreams that he became better at chasing the ball, at hitting it. He ran faster, he caught the ball more quickly. He worked hard at it. It made him very happy.
When he got older, his smell changed. Slowly, he started to smell more like the adults do. It became his real smell, as real as the soft, clean smell he'd had before.
His dreams after that had girls in them sometimes. Sometimes they were almost-dreams. Not quite dreams, but not quite remembering, like he was making them up. Sometimes those almost-dreams would stop suddenly, then he would sleep, and dream other things.
In those dreams, he and the girl did not have their outside skins on. They would lay down and get very close together. Sometimes it was different girls, but sometimes one would be in his dreams night after night for a little while, then it would be different girls again.
The last girl, the one I tried to dream for him, had started a paw-full of moons ago. One night, the almost-dream didn't happen. He was remembering instead. He started remembering and almost-dreaming even during the daytime. I'd never smelled him so happy.
But now remembering and dreaming hurt him terribly whenever she was in them. He didn't almost-dream any more, of anyone.
Over the next moons, the awful smell started to fade. It did not go away. For the rest of my life, it never completely went away, but it got less.
Except one night. That day, Jack and his father and mother put on outside skins that were very black. They had all been sad and angry and confused and a lot of other things, but this day, there was one smell above all others. The smell of grief.
They came back very sad, and Jack's father carried him up to his room. Jack lay in bed quietly, except for those sounds. That night he dreamed the worst dream he'd ever had. The dream was not jumbled, it was a story. A memory dream.
He dreamed of that girl in a big room with a lot of sound, the kind of deep sounds Jack sometimes had the little box on his desk make. I heard a rhythm in those sounds, a rhythm that stirred deep things in me. There were lights that bounced and flashed in the same rhythm, and the people there moved in that rhythm.
Jack and the girl stood on a big floor, surrounded by people all moving the same way. Then the rhythm stopped, and a new, slower rhythm started. Jack and the girl got very close to each other and moved very slowly, and Jack was very, very happy when their faces touched.
One of the smells that night was a sharp smell I recognized. I had never smelled it around Jack, but sometimes Jack's father smelled of it. When people had that smell, they acted wrong, even walked wrong.
Jack's friend had a bottle that smelled like that. Jack and the girl drank from that bottle, a little. His friend and another girl drank from it a lot. Jack felt worried, but he was happy.
I love riding in the car, and Jack did too when the girl was with him. He worried about his friend and the strong smell from the bottle. It wasn't the smell, it was something else, but they argued. Jack and the girl got in the car afterward.
There was a loud noise, and the car shook. It turned upside down, then stopped very suddenly. Jack's dream stopped in that instant, but it came back again. He couldn't move, and he hurt so bad I almost had to stop sharing his dream. He looked at the girl. She was still, and her eyes were open but they didn't look at Jack. There were smells of blood and vomit and waste, but worst of all was the other smell. The smell of a person who wasn't a person any more. Would never be a person, ever again.
Jack dreamed parts of that dream a lot, and when he did, the smell in the room was awful.
Over the next moons, Jack learned to lift himself out of bed, to bring himself to the little room where the waste smells came from so his father no longer carried him there. He could sit on the stair and lift himself to the next one, then the next. I climbed the stairs next to him, nuzzling him when he stopped too long, when he wanted to give up.
The first time he made it all the way to the top was the first time he smelled happy since the terrible car ride. It didn't last. That happiness came more often, but Jack always stopped it as soon as it started.
He started to almost-dream again. Not very often, but always with a different girl. The almost-dreams never made him happy, but sometimes they made him not feel sad. Some other times, he would dream of a girl and himself without their outside skin. His body was no longer whole, and he would stop. He would make those sounds that were too familiar to me, the sounds that meant his face would be wet and salty.
He dreamed of a lot of things he used to do. He dreamed of walking through the big building full of boys and girls. He dreamed his game, but he was watching his friends play while he sat in his bicycle chair wishing he could join them.
I tried to dream happy dreams to him again. Playing Frisbee with him, going for long walks in the park, wrestling in the back yard. Anything but that girl. They didn't hurt him as much, but they brought only little flashes of happiness that didn't last.
Jack started leaving every day again. When he came home, I was so happy to see him and I could smell that he was happy to see me. Sometimes that lasted for a little while. Sometimes we even went in the back yard, like we used to, and Jack would get out of his chair and sit in grass so we could wrestle.
One night, he had a very happy dream. He was standing up. He had shiny silver legs that looked too thin to stand on, like little machines, and they had no smell. They moved in a way different than his legs used to, but he could stand.
It was just a dream, until he was gone again for many days. I missed him so much. When he came home he was not sitting in the chair. He was standing, but he looked like he might fall. I wanted to jump up, to tell him how happy I was, but I knew I shouldn't.
He smelled happy, and it didn't go away for a long time. He moved slowly, like people moved when they had that smell from the bottle. But he didn't have that smell.
He got better at walking, just like he had gotten better at his game, and at going up the stairs and going to the waste room. When he smelled sad about how hard it was, I licked the salt from his face and he would squeeze me with his arms. After a while, we started playing Frisbee again, and going to walk in the park.
Soon there was only one girl in his dreaming and almost-dreaming. When he almost-dreamed of being very close to her without their outside skins on, he dreamed of his legs, his new, shiny legs, and didn't smell sad.
I couldn't play Frisbee or walk to the park any more. It was hard for me to go up the stairs, but I did every night to be with Jack, to dream with him. I could give him happy dreams, but he only needed me to sometimes. He had his own happy dreams and they made me happy.
One day Jack stayed home all day, and we played together, even though we could not wrestle or run and jump. I knew it would be the last time we would play together. I would have to leave him soon, and Jack knew too. We were sad together, but we were happy too, because we remembered together.
A friendly woman came over. The woman played with me and pet and scratched me behind the ears. Then she reached to my side and I felt a sting, but it didn't hurt very much. Jack got a very sad smell as I lay down in the grass. He made those sounds and I knew his eyes would be wet. I tried to dream a happy dream to him, but I fell asleep before I could make him happy.
Since then, I was with Jack all his days. I was with him even when he wasn't dreaming. I don't think he ever knew I was there, but I saw what he saw, I smelled what he smelled, I dreamed what he dreamed. I even thought what he thought. I could not dream to him any more, but he was happy anyway.
I understood so much more than I ever had. I understood words. I understood what a doctor was, that Jack made people hurt less, all his life. I understood why he had such a nice house and nice car to ride in. I understood what the words "Alison Tanner Memorial Foundation" meant, and why they were so important.
I understood why dreaming of Jennifer every night made him happy. I didn't have to see him remembering laying close together with her, I was there. I understood. I understood what it meant to have children of his own, children who never got into a car with that smell from the bottle, and never let their friends get in either.
He remembered that night sometimes. It hurt as much as it did those first nights when I lay next to his bed and knew it through his dreams. But it didn't last. He felt the hurt, and remembered the terrible mistake he made. Then he let himself be happy again.
He always remembered me, and remembering me always made us both happy.
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Beautiful! Sad, yes, but this is a truth that us pet owners/caretakers live with. One day, we will outlive them, so we make the most of the love they have to give. I like the reference to our "outer skins". This is likely how a dog would see us when we put on coats, shoes...and even clothes. Thank you for this!
How could you do this to me. So good. So sad. Having a friend like this in your life is worth the pain when they leave. Thank you for this.
I agree with Kevin, this story might have even greater impact by shortening and you do overuse the word smell. Sorry to sound a bit negative, I was relieved to read the lighter bits, to offset the sadness. All in all a powerful piece of writing.
This story was so interesting I just had to keep on reading. I know dogs are empathic and you showed this so well. I think you needed to indicate a bit clearer when you started off with "The night when Jack didn't come home . . ." I initially thought something awful had happened to him. What came before portrayed Jack as being very injured, unwell and unhappy. Suddenly I thought he may have died. But you were only going back in time. Later I was worried you were writing about Jack's dog dying but you added more to the story after that. I tho...
Kaitlyn, thank you for that, It points out some things I didn't do as well as I could have. Yes, the dog did die, and after, well, "all dogs go to heaven". I could have been clearer on that, and on the flashback scene. Thank you, that's the very definition of 'constructive criticism', and I really appreciate it.
This was a wholesome story and you do a great job of showing and not telling. I also appreciated how you kept your sentences short, just as I would imagine a dog speaking. Also, your idea of having dogs be able to smell thoughts was a wonderful touch! If I were to critique one thing though, I would say that your story was a bit long. If you condensed it down a bit, I feel you could build better suspense.
Interesting. My rough draft came in at 3600 words, and I had to cut it ruthlessly to get it under the limit. The problem with telling a story entirely through implication, and by a narrator that doesn't fully understand things is that it takes a lot more little details to put it together. I thought that when I got it cut down, that there was nothing left to cut that wasn't essential, but will seriously think about how it could have flowed better. Thank you.
I feel that. Sometimes it's hard to condense a short story. What helps me during editing is that I identify the theme or concept I am trying to convey and then that helps me pick out unnecessary tangents or extraneous sentences. Slowly, yet painfully, I am able to whittle the story down that way. No two writing processes are the same but just sayin what works for me.
Kyle, you need to write more stories! This was an amazingly creative tale from the pet's POV. I can't imagine a better one for this prompt. Nicely done!
I've been nagging myself about that too. Thanks.