The Ruby Red Leaf
“Dad, where is he?” my six year old son whined?
“I don’t know, Tommy. But we will find him.” I glanced over at him. “We will find him,” I repeated.
We had been driving around the neighborhood for hours. My old truck was dangerously low on gas. I was exhausted and stiff. If we happened to find our missing dog, I wasn’t sure I would be able to get out of the truck to get him. But I was certain I wouldn’t have to – Tommy would be out of the truck in a flash. He and the dog would be all over each other.
I liked dogs but I had never wanted one. I never wanted the responsibility. But after my wife was killed in that horrible car crash, Tommy had begged for a dog and I didn’t have the heart to deny him. He latched onto a shaggy mutt at the Humane Society and the two of them had been inseparable ever since. Muttley wasn’t a substitute for my wife, Tommy’s mother, but his unconditional love had helped Tommy, and me, through some tough times.
Actually, Muttley was a terrific dog. He wasn’t a beautiful dog, but he was healthy and already house-broken. He didn’t chew on things. He was very playful and he minded well. I often wondered how he ended up at the Humane Society. Why would anyone want to get rid of such a well-trained animal?
Muttley had two bad habits. He wanted to lick me in the face and I couldn’t handle that. I always pushed him away. He thought I was playing and tried even harder to lick my face. I had to be stern and scold him. He never seemed to learn, though, especially since Tommy let the dog lick his face any time Muttley wanted to. I cringed when I thought about it. The germs, ugh! Once, after Muttley had slobbered all over his face, I scrubbed Tommy’s cheeks so hard that I drew blood. He didn’t cry but I counted it as one of my biggest parental failures.
Muttley’s other fault was his hatred of squirrels. The infernal rodents taunted him at every opportunity. They sat on low branches and chittered at him. They threw acorns at him. Muttley couldn’t resist their temptation. Their very existence offended him. He barked at the squirrels until I was certain the neighbors would complain. I usually had to drag him back into the house. And he chased them incessantly. He had run off a couple of times in hot pursuit of a squirrel but had always come right back. Yesterday, however, he ran off chasing a squirrel and he didn’t come back.
Tommy had called Muttley until he was hoarse. We drove around the block looking for the dog but didn’t see him. Tommy cried himself to sleep. I shed a few tears, too. It brought back memories from a couple of years earlier of the day that my wife left for work and never came home.
“Tommy, we need to go home. We’re tired and hungry and it’s getting late.”
“Noooo, we haven’t found Muttley yet,” Tommy whined.
“Tommy, we’ve been up and down every road in the neighborhood ten times and haven’t found him. Let’s go home and get something to eat. He might be sitting at the back door when we get there,” I said, knowing that probably wasn’t the case but I desperately needed the comfort of home and some food.
When we got to the house, Tommy yanked the back door open. Muttley wasn’t there.
Tommy ran to his room, crying. I couldn’t lure him out with the promise of macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets or hot dogs. He said he wasn’t hungry. I didn’t feel like eating, either, but my hunger pangs had become painful. I scarfed down some leftovers and pondered our next move.
I wasn’t a big fan of social media, but I thought it couldn’t hurt. I quickly penned a “lost dog” post and submitted it. I didn’t have that many online friends but maybe someone had seen Muttley and would comment with useful information. I didn’t know what else to do.
The memories of that day two years ago came unbidden to my mind. I remembered answering the doorbell and the state trooper was standing there, holding his hat over his heart as he gave me the news that my wife was dead. The crash made the local news that night – a ten car pileup on the expressway. My wife’s car was visible on camera – it was crushed. She died instantly.
I blinked back the tears. “I can’t do this to myself again,” I said quietly to myself. “I can’t let this happen to my son. He can’t lose his mother and his best friend.” I sat down at the kitchen table and tried to think. I don’t know why but I had a paper map of the city lying on the table. It always seemed to help in the movies when they were looking for a missing person.
I don’t know how long I sat there. It was dark when I looked up again. I had fallen asleep sitting straight up. I panicked and stood, looking for Tommy and Muttley. Tommy had cried himself to sleep in his bed. I lay beside him, hoping that my presence would comfort him; hoping that his presence would comfort me.
I woke the next morning to hear Tommy calling the dog. I could hear the panic in his voice. I staggered onto the patio where Tommy was. He was calling Muttley as loudly as he could and I knew I needed to act fast, because tears weren’t far away.
Yesterday had been a beautiful autumn day. The warm sun highlighted the changing leaves. Today looked like rain. The wind gusted every few minutes and leaves flew everywhere. I didn’t like it. For the past two years, fall always made me think of death and dying. I hoped it wasn’t an omen.
“Let’s eat something and then we’ll go looking for Muttley again.” That satisfied Tommy enough that he was able to eat breakfast. We were both in the wrinkled clothes that we had worn the previous day, but it didn’t matter. We jumped in my old truck and went searching.
By noon, I had burned through half a tank of gas and we still hadn’t found Muttley. Tommy was sitting quietly in the truck, his head down. Clearly, he was close to giving up. When we got to the house, Tommy went quietly to his room and closed the door. I walked out to the patio.
There was a chill in the air now. The wind was still gusting. Leaves were flying everywhere. They were all shades of yellow and brown. Idly, I noticed that none of the falling leaves seemed to be any color other than yellow or brown.
I checked my social media account on my phone. A couple of friends had posted “I hope you find him” messages, but that was it.
I walked out to the dog house we had set up for Muttley. He stayed inside, so he had never used it.
A strong gust of wind shook the trees and leaves went flying. As the wind died down, a single red leaf settled near my feet. Its color was so striking against all of the yellow and brown leaves that I stooped to pick it up.
The leaf was a uniform ruby red. Something had eaten a couple of irregular holes in it. It had been crinkled up at some point in its life and one of the edges was ripped. Clearly it had seen better days, as if it had been subjected to far more during its lifetime than it was ever expected to endure.
Just like Tommy and me.
I turned it over to look at the back side and noticed something curious. There was a black X on the back of the leaf. It wasn’t damage from a hole through the leaf and there wasn’t another mark on that side of the leaf. Just the single X. The veins of the leaf and the crinkle marks made a nice geometric pattern.
I looked up at the trees around me. There wasn’t another red leaf to be seen, although there was a pair of squirrels watching me closely.
The wind gusted again and brought the first few drops of rain. I headed back into the house. I laid the ruby red leaf on the table and checked on Tommy. He was just lying on his bed. I went back to the kitchen table. Sooner or later I would have to tell Tommy that Muttley wasn’t coming back. I dreaded that conversation. No child should have to endure that. I had never been particularly spiritual, but I offered up a little prayer: “Please, Lord, don’t let my son lose his best friend.” I was angry – angry at the dog, angry at the world, angry at myself. I clenched my fist and pounded the table once.
The ruby red leaf jumped, flipped and landed on the map.
I glanced at it and something caught my attention. I stood up and looked closely. There were two irregular holes in the middle of the leaf.
The map showed two irregularly shaped ponds on the north side of town, not too far from our house. Curiously, they were almost the same shape as the holes in the leaf.
One of the leaf’s veins was a straight line below the irregular holes.
The map showed Main Street as a straight roadway, just south of the two ponds.
Crinkles in the leaf cut across that vein in a more-or-less perpendicular pattern.
The map showed several cross streets intersecting Main Street at right angles.
I blinked. “I am imagining things. I am delirious. I am creating things in my head,” I said to myself. “This is absolutely crazy.” But in spite of myself, I looked at the X on the back of the ruby red leaf. And then I searched for the corresponding location on the map. It was an old industrial area on the south side of Main Street.
I didn’t know why he might be there, but it was an area that we hadn’t driven through in our previous searches for Muttley.
“I am an adult. I am grieving. I am desperately trying to make sense of this and I am concocting things in my head to try to make sense of this so I can avoid having a difficult conversation with my son.” I closed my eyes and sighed. “But what do we have to lose?” I needed to know that I had done everything in my power to find our missing dog, for both our sakes.
Tommy didn’t want to get up but my enthusiasm convinced him. I only hoped my enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced.
The rain beat down as we drove across town. We crossed over Main Street into the industrial area. Tommy looked at me dubiously.
“You think Muttley is here?”
“Yes… well, maybe. I don’t know. We haven’t looked here. Roll down the window and start calling him.” Tommy rolled his window down and yelled at the top of his lungs. Rain was blowing into my old truck, but I rolled my window down and began calling his name, too. We drove slowly up one street and down another. We were getting soaked.
There was no sign of Muttley.
I pulled over to the side of the road. There was an abandoned building next to us that was surrounded by a chain link fence. It was overgrown with dying weeds. The rain had subsided for the moment, so I got out to think. Tommy stayed in the truck.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. We had canvassed every street in the area. At least we had tried. I started to get back into the truck, and that’s when I noticed a single leaf lying on the side of the road.
It was the same ruby red color as the leaf on my kitchen table.
I looked around. There were only a few stunted saplings nearby, losing their yellow and brown leaves.
“Tommy, stay in the truck.” I looked at the fence. It was old and rusted and wasn’t secured well. I had no trouble pulling it loose from one of the posts. I glanced back at Tommy then slipped through the fence. Thankfully the rain was holding off for the time being.
I approached the dilapidated building. I circled it. The windows were boarded up and there was only one door. There was another ruby red leaf lying beside it.
With bravery that I didn’t know I had, I rammed the door with my shoulder. Pain exploded in my entire upper body and arm but I rammed it again and again. The door flew open. I was hurting and breathing hard. I turned around to see if anyone had seen me. Tommy was standing behind me. I hadn’t heard him follow me. He was staring into the open doorway
“I told you to stay in the truck,” I hissed. He didn’t move. I sighed and crept inside.
It was dark. The only light was coming from the open doorway, and it didn’t penetrate very far into the interior. I activated the flashlight on my phone and looked around. There were a few mounds of what might have been boxes at one time. Now they were misshapen and covered in dust that hadn’t been disturbed in years. We walked along one wall, then the next and came to what was probably an office. There was another locked door, and another ruby red leaf lying in the dust. The roof was still intact. How had the leaf gotten into the building?
“Muttley!” I called.
“Muttley!” Tommy cried.
We listened as the echoes of our voices died away, but we heard nothing.
Then we heard it – it was a very faint whine. A dog’s whine! It was coming from behind the closed door.
“Muttley!” Tommy shouted again.
I handed my phone to Tommy. In spite of the pain, I rammed this door with the same shoulder. I saw stars but I rammed it again. The door burst open and we heard the whine again.
“Muttley!” Tommy tossed my phone as he ran into the room. I grabbed it in mid-air and shined the flashlight into the corner. Muttley was lying there. He was wet and dirty and one of his front legs was badly wounded. Blood was caked into his fur and on the floor beside him. He was very weak but still managed to wag his tail.
None of that mattered to Tommy. He grabbed Muttley in a bear hug and held on for dear life. Apparently none of it bothered me, either, because I grabbed Muttley in a bear hug from the other side and I didn’t even flinch as Muttley licked my cheek.
There was a hole in the wall. Outside I could see dense weeds. That must be why I hadn’t seen it before. It was big enough that I could have crawled through it. That would have saved my aching shoulder.
Carrying Muttley to my old truck took an eternity. He was heavier than I realized and my shoulder was killing me. By the time we got to the truck, my arms and legs were killing me, too. We went to our veterinarian, who bandaged Muttley’s wounded leg and sent the three of us home. As we pulled into the driveway, Muttley wagged his tail.
Tommy insisted that Muttley would recuperate in his bed. Against my better judgement, I settled Muttley onto the bed and quietly left the room. The only time I had seen Tommy happier was the day that we had brought Muttley home from the Humane Society.
Wearily I sat down at the kitchen table. My entire body was aching. I offered up a heart-felt “thank you" and wearily closed my eyes. When I opened them a few moments later, sunlight was streaming in through the window. The map was still there, exactly where it had been when we left. But the ruby red leaf was gone.